COMMENTARY: When a painful controversy comes for your favourite computer game

Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, better known as Chief Poundmaker, in an undated photo.
Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, better known as Chief Poundmaker, in an undated photo. Supplied

I may be through with 2017, but it’s not through with my favourite computer game. The upcoming edition of Civilization is now at the centre of another PR mess because of what’s known as “cultural appropriation.”

Readers may recall the cultural appropriation controversy that last year briefly consumed Canada’s media (and those who closely watch it). If you don’t, I envy you, but for the purposes of this column, a brief recap is helpful: a series of prominent Canadian journalists pledged money to a so-called “cultural appropriation prize” after an editor of a small literary magazine lost his job over a controversy regarding the use of Indigenous culture in works of art prepared by non-Indigenous Canadians. After a major social media backlash, many of the journalists in question (disclosure: including many of my friends) mostly backed down and apologized. Some resigned or were reassigned.

That’s a massively simplified summary of a pretty complex and very emotional episode, but it covers the bases. Now, cultural appropriation is back, in an unexpected way.

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READ MORE: What you need to know about the cultural appropriation debate

I am a long-time, unapologetic Civilization fanatic. (This isn’t even the first column I’ve written about it.) I’ve been playing it since I was 12, when a neighbour gave me a copy of the first version of the game, which ran on DOS and came on a handful of floppy disks. It’s still one of my go-to recreational activities, though, alas, I rarely have the time to sit down and play a full, proper game.

The point of the game is simple in theory, but complex in practice: the player is tasked with building a civilization from the ground up. You start with a single “settler” unit that can found cities, and a single military unit to protect it. Once you found a city, you can make more military units to explore the world map, which is hidden at the start, or you can build more settlers to found more cities (but you can’t do both at the same time, so it’s a tricky balance). You can also devote resources to improving existing cities, as well as developing your economy, researching new technologies, establishing diplomatic and economic relations with other civilizations, waging war, and many other things.

Here’s the problem, though: in the game, the civilizations are loosely modelled after real civilizations. There’s the English, the Russians, the Aztec, the Chinese, the Romans, the Americans, and so on. The civilizations all play roughly the same, but each is tweaked slightly to reflect the traditional strengths of the civilization in question. When you encounter another civilization, you interact with it via an animated representation of one of its famous leaders (Teddy Roosevelt, in the case of the Americans, Gandhi for India, etc.).

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Next month, a new Civilization game will be released. It will include the Cree civilization, lead by Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, known more widely in English as Chief Poundmaker. The Cree will be good at exploration, trade and expanding their borders. For fans of Canadian history, seeing the Cree included in a Civilization game is pretty cool.

Except it seems no one actually asked the Cree how they feel about this. Not so great, it turns out.

READ MORE: Poundmaker Cree Nation concerned about being featured in popular video game

The game “continues to promote some of these ideologies that are connected to concepts of colonialism and imperialism … which are totally contrary to the beliefs and values of Chief Poundmaker, and many other Indigenous leaders around the world for that matter,” Poundmaker Cree headman Milton Tootoosis told the CBC. He also told the Canadian Press, “We are challenging any individuals or groups that have taken into their possession artifacts — or stories in this case — for commercial purposes and for profit without consulting our community.”

I doubt any offence was intended by the game designers. Having known a few in my time, I have no doubt they were utterly oblivious to the possibility that including Chief Poundmaker would cause offence. (The company that owns the Civilization franchise has not commented on the controversy.) But this is indeed a textbook example of cultural appropriation, as we’ve come to understand it.

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COMMENTARY: Let’s start with what cultural appropriation is not

I’m conflicted on the issue, and not just as a fan of the game. I can appreciate, at least in the abstract, the pain of Indigenous communities, but I also believe that artistic creators (including game designers) need the maximum freedom possible, even at the cost of causing offence and hurt (though that’s obviously better avoided, if possible). I don’t know how we reconcile conflicts here. While I’d default to the freedom of speech and artistic creation side of the equation, the game designers could have saved everyone a headache by talking to the Cree before making the new version of the game (if it’s indeed the case that none of them did). A bit of common sense and common courtesy can avoid a lot of these problems before they start.

WATCH BELOW: Group seeks pardon for Chief Poundmaker

Group pushes to have Chief Poundmaker exonerated for treason conviction
Group pushes to have Chief Poundmaker exonerated for treason conviction

I’ll simply add my two cents as a long-time fan of the game: a much younger me had his lifelong love of history shaped, at least in part, through playing Civilization. The game is loaded with real-life factual information. Teenage me learned a ton about ancient civilizations and technologies without even realizing I was learning. It was a way into subject matter I might never have taken an interest in otherwise. I probably would have learned a lot more about the Indigenous peoples of Canada and their often tragic history if the Cree had been part of the earlier iterations of the game than I did by paying attention to what little was taught about them in the public school system.

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And, full credit where it’s due, headman Tootoosis seems to grasp that, as well. “I was quite impressed that they would make reference to Chief Poundmaker as a diplomat and as an individual who played a key role in the development of this new nation called Canada,” he told the Canadian Press. He also said he hoped that the inclusion of the Cree and Poundmaker in the game would help raise awareness of Indigenous history.

Tootoosis seems like a reasonable man. Let’s hope we have more like him as we continue to figure out how best to balance historic sensitivities with artistic creation.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News