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At the 2015 IndieCade East hosted last month by the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, Seth Alter of Subaltern Games said in a talk that he sets out to examine the problem of a genre and then tries “to subvert it and make something new with its existing systems.” Neocolonialism: Ruin Everything is his warping of a world domination strategy game, where instead of the usual political or military leader battling to conquer as much territory as you can, you’re a banker buying votes and manipulating competitors to sap as much wealth from the planet as possible. The player with the most funds in his or her Swiss bank account is the winner.
The strategy game was made available on Steam in November for Windows and Mac OS X, following an initial version released in 2013. It takes the fundamental mechanics of a 4X game — “explore, expand, exploit, exterminate” — like Civilization, Age of Empires, or even the classic board game Risk, wherein you are the protagonist in developing the world and ruling its terrain. However, you are very clearly the villain in Alter’s inverted version, which is played over a world map whose poles have been inverted — the Gall-Peters projection map, to be exact, whose landmasses are more proportionately accurate. In 12 turns, with up to six players, you parse through the world like it’s only there for your benefit, buying government votes, building mines and factories, and using your power to control regional parliaments. It always ends with the same message: “The world has been ruined. Game over.”
I played Neocolonialism against AI opponents not-so-subtly named Romney and Strauss-Kahn. The game is unabashedly leftist in its politics and reflects a Marxist critique of neocolonialism, where monetary control wrecks the lower classes for the betterment of the one percent. I’ll admit I don’t play many 4X games, and it’s even been a few years since I took at turn at Risk, so please forgive the pitifully poor scores of “Nosilla” in these screenshots. However, as I got the hang of the game through the helpful tutorials it became irresistible to maneuver the board with carefully plotted political pressure, even as coups, mine failures, and rotating prime ministers signaled a coming economic collapse.
Alter noted in the talk that one game he never got around to making was Bloomberg!, where you could only do two things: fire all the teachers or sell public buildings. The next Subaltern Games project is No Pineapple Left Behind, which uses the mechanics of management simulator games (think Railroad Tycoon or even the 1970s’ Lemonade Stand) to critique the public school system in the United States. A wizard has transformed all the students at a middle school into pineapples, and as the principal you choose between keeping them in pineapple form — docile, but with lower grades — or letting them turn back into unmanageable, but sharper, humans. And just like a real principal, your school’s funding depends on test grades. Like Neocolonialism, it promises to take a familiar gaming genre and make players think about its inherent mechanics, and how distorting them can shed new light on real-world problems.