An exclusive interview with the developer behind Neocolonialism.
Players of Subaltern Games’ new PC title Neocolonialism will use strategy against their friends or the AI, and fight to take control of the world. But don’t start raising your army just yet, because this serious game asks players to conquer the world though financial soft power and economic control.In Neocolonialism, players will find themselves funding puppet governments, manipulating votes and exploiting workers, while skimming money into a slush fund. It's a thoughtful, serious twist on the typical strategy game.
Oh, and the map’s upside-down.
We talked to Seth Alter, the designer and developer behind Neocolonialism, about this new serious strategy game.
What was your main goal in developing and releasing Neocolonialism?
I had three main goals. The first is that the game didn't exist yet—in fact, there's nothing quite like it out there—and I wanted it in my world. Second, Neocolonialism is, as you have written about in the past, a new sort of educational game, and it's meant to herald a totally new approach to serious game design. Third, I love making games, and I've had fun with the process itself.
It’s hard for me to describe Neocolonialism without mentioning Sid Meier’s Civilization. What other games influenced you in developing this game?
Neocolonialism was heavily influenced by Euro-style board games like the 18xx series or Imperial. Board games have this whole genre of “economic” games that just don't really exist in the digital world. I hate economic games, and the initial genesis of this project was a response to that—Neocolonialism may look and feel a bit like its relatives at first, but in the end, it's an economic game that is not an “Economic Game”.
Relatedly, I've been playing Civ since I was eight, and while it is in the end my go-to for design principles to emulate, it has really troubling social implications—namely, that you do all of these terrible things to other people but the game makes you feel good about your actions. Neocolonialism is partially meant to be anti-Civ: ultimately, you pretty much do what you do in Civ, except that my game makes it clear that you are a terrible person.
Neocolonialism aligns the player’s gameplay goals with economic exploitation, and in-game success is moral failure. This puts the player in the role of the villain, a mechanic which was done successfully in iconic serious games like Brenda Brathwaite Romero’s Train and Molleindustria’s McVideogame.
Right, you don't play as the Good Guy in the game, because the idea of a superhero-esque protagonist in this context is inherently imperialistic and also wishful thinking.
(As a game writer, I can't help seeing some of Neocolonialism’s evil goals as a bit of a play on a common gamer’s desire to view the game setting as secondary to winning.)
The Neocolonialism game map reverses our expectations by putting north on the bottom, and south on top. Instead of a tabletop inconvenience, this is a thoughtful decision in Neocolonialism. Why did you chose to turn the world upside-down?
The map is upside-down in order to make people feel uncomfortable. You're a villain, after all.
Since “winning” the game requires very flexible morals, are you encouraging your players to lose the game?
I'm encouraging people to win! Players should ruin the whole world and then feel really, really bad afterwards. And since winning the game means that you've ruin more of the world than other players, losing just means you're slightly less culpable.
Often, serious games can suffer from being so focused on the message that the gameplay suffers. What did you do to keep Neocolonialism balanced and engaging as a strategy game?
Neocolonialism treats its educational and strategy aspects as synonymous. At some point, for example, many players realize that keeping the world poor is a really effective winning strategy. This is unusual for games, since it's established convention that if you can build, it basically comes down to whether you build x or y or you wait until you can build z; not so in my game, and it's a weird system that keeps people engaged. And once you've realized this, once you are winning the game consistently, you are also demonstrating mastery of the basics of dependency theory.
I think games are far better vehicles for conveying moods than they are for facts. Neocolonialism won't teach you blocks of economic stats, but it will make you feel dirty.
What’s next for Subaltern Games?
Pineapples and intercity schools. More news forthcoming.
Thanks so much for your time, Seth!