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4 October 2007

Anno 1701 - Dawn of Discovery

(Nintendo DS) Video game review

FANCY GOVERNING an 18th century New World colony for the queen of a fictional European country? Perhaps not, but it can be interesting to use a simulator to look at historical periods. Fans of the city-building genre may forgive a number of technical flaws and enjoy this game, but what of its depiction of history?

Lindsay Wheatcroft, Mansfield

It's common in simulators such as this for the player to be given the option to be a pacifist or a warmonger. In reality, it is not the personality of the governor which determines foreign and domestic policy so much as the demands of the ruling class whose interests they serve and sure enough, as rich merchants emerge they positively demand that the player conquers new territory to secure more resources for consumption and export. This class-based virtual economy, missing from many such games, provides an explanation of the causes of imperialist conflict; sadly, it is not without fault.

Rich merchants simply become aristocrats when given enough wealth by the player, which is a far cry from the conflict between early capitalists and the feudal ruling class. Indeed, the whole colony is a command economy with all decisions being made by the player, right down to population growth - which ignores the difficulty governments have in regulating the activities of the capitalists they represent.

The movement of goods and people is massively over simplified unhappy residents simply leave the colony without protest, and islands can instantly import goods or access any allied warehouse without waiting for a ship, meaning naval blockades cannot occur; indeed, combat between ships is totally omitted.

The only threats faced by the player are invasion, natural disasters, and bankruptcy; there is no risk of any sort of rebellion. Anybody familiar with the American War of Independence will know that it is a major omission to ignore revolutionary movements against colonial rule!

The issue of the slave trade is never acknowledged during nothing less than the 200th anniversary of its abolition. The grim reality of the displacement, disease and slavery suffered by the Native American people is also sanitised, replaced with a peaceful trading partnership.

Given recent scare stories about violent games, one can understand why developers would be reluctant to make a title which requires the player to kill natives, buy slaves and crush rebellions.

But the inclusion of the slave trade would have raised the possibility of casting the player as a leader of a slave uprising, which would have been most enlightening at a time when slavery's abolition is attributed mostly to politicians such as Tory MP William Wilberforce. As it is, the player's only choice is to be a governor, desperately trying to balance capitalist and feudal interests.

As long as the purpose of the video game industry is to make profit, developers will continue to either sensationalise violent and sexual content to grab media attention, or dumb down to avoid restricting the size of a game's customer base.

Historical games which honestly and soberly depict the violence inherent in the class system are thin on the ground, and whilst Anno 1701 goes farther than most it still falls far short.

Socialist Party pamphlet:

Who abolished slavery
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http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/3216