I've been thinking a lot about colonialism, both in and out of video games, for my work on Syphilisation, my upcoming 4X game in which you play one of a group of students writing a report on Winston Churchill. You can read the manifesto here and join the mailing list here.
Complexity of Colonialism
First of all, colonialism is a vast and complex topic. I'm naturally coming to this from an Indian perspective, which is quite different from others, such as the Native American one, the African one or the Chinese one. Breaking down the full difference is more than I'm capable of, but I feel the difference is worth highlighting.
There are a lot of things that get rolled up in colonialism, such as industrialization, capitalism and modernization. While the history of colonialism is deeply intertwined with all three of these, I feel quite strongly that they are different concepts. Fundamental to actual colonialism was deep seated racism and the exploitation of native peoples and skating over those parts cheapens any discussion of colonialism. I even think that there is a nuanced distinction between imperialism and colonialism, but that may just be splitting straws and is in any case outside the scope of this article.
The intertwining of all of these concepts though is key to any reading of history. Neither the Meiji Restoration nor the Industrial Revolution were in themselves fundamentally colonial, but they enabled and were enabled by colonialism and cannot cleanly be extricated from colonialism.
So, we're going to consider things like warfare, expansionism and unbridled consumption as game mechanics that have adopted a colonial mindset. The categorization isn't perfect, but it still makes for an interesting thinking point.
A side-effect of this wide ambit is that you can't paint all of these activities with the exact same brush. The colonization of Mars and the colonization of the Americas are very different ethically and to lose that nuance would be a mistake.
You and the Environment
I see the fundamental difference between a colonial and non-colonial mindset is in changing the world around you versus changing yourself. Essentially, adapting the environment to better support you or adapting yourself to make use of what you are given. Additionally, inaction is obviously non-colonial.
It's worth noting here how important scale is when it comes to discussions about the colonial. Pre-colonial people took a lot of actions of the same flavor as later colonizers, but to a much smaller scale. This distinction drastically changes the nature of the action. There is a big difference between small scale farming and industrial agriculture, even if they both involve the adaptation of the land to better producing food.
Religion and Colonialism
Spirituality was often seen as a counter to the colonial mindset. By the earlier definition, you can easily see how it would be non-colonial. Spirituality is fundamentally internal and focused on the improvement of the self as opposed to changing your environment to better suit yourself. Gandhi, Tagore and Tolstoy were all strong believers in the need for spirituality to counter the imperialistic, industrial mindset of their time.
However, religion has been often used as a support for all sorts of colonial actions. For instance, there are plenty of instances of Christianity being used to justify colonization in Asia, Africa and the Americas as well as slavery. Avoiding the colonial is not as simple as just instilling a fear of God in a people.
Decolonization and Decolonial Mechanics
By the definition above, it follows that decolonization is not non-colonial. A non-colonial approach to a post-colonial world is to adapt to it. Fixing the world to cure its colonialist leanings is to change it. This obviously does not make decolonization equal to colonization though. There is more to a mechanic than simply whether it changes the environment. The context is crucial.
From this, it follows that decolonial mechanics and colonial mechanics derive their difference from their semantic values. You can make a game with a lot of the same systems as a colonial game and make it decolonial in a fairly straightforward manner by changing the surface.
There will naturally be some differences in the way the two games would play. The accumulation of power that's so common in games is harder to fit cleanly in a game that abjures colonialism. However, even this is easy enough to make fit. A game about people getting freedom from an existing colonizer is decolonial, but will be very similar mechanically to a game where you colonize an existing empire.
The setting is, of course, of tremendous importance to the actual experience of the player however. Actually playing a game about decolonization will feel very different to the player than one that has them colonize. Context is incredibly important for these statements and just because a game has mechanics that can be mechanically equated to colonial mechanics, that does not in any way mean that it is colonial itself. There's a big difference between looting a native culture for artifacts and reclaiming those same artifacts from a museum that obtained them through colonialism. To consider those two equivalent would miss the whole point.
By the above definition, it can be said that leather-working is non-colonial as it is a skill that you develop in yourself. A leather-working hut on the other hand would be colonial as a stamp on the environment. Additionally, leather-working huts, such as the Tailor in Banished are industrial and the coupling of industrialization with colonialism colors the hut.
The two hypothetical features are largely mechanically equivalent as they are both straightforward currency conversion mechanics. Theming is very important though. A step function is just a mathematical function, but when it represents your wealth while plundering South America, then it picks up colonial overtones.
Figuring out mechanics that do not have a mechanical equivalent that is colonial makes for a very interesting problem though. Warfare is out of the question as is currency conversion and crafting. Gardening, such as in Stardew Valley or Viva Pinata, is also clearly colonial as are the growth mechanics of Starseed Pilgrim.
Search and gather for renewable resources seems like fair game though, both for survival games and for something like Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. I really like that game as an example of the non-colonial. As you play the game, you learn more about the titular spaceport that you clean and you start learning the best places to sell the stuff that you pick up and get an idea of how much each thing is worth as well as just learning about and being better able to navigate the environment.
Additionally, there are plenty of games where the question of colonialism doesn't really come up. FedEx quests, conversation mechanics and walking in Proteus are all mechanics that are orthogonal to this fundamental question.
Interesting Further Thinking Points
Tycoon games: I would hesitate to call a tycoon game colonial. Building an amusement park or a hospital or a drug manufacturing plant in land that you have fairly purchased is not actually colonial. Especially in the latter two cases, it stretches the term to call filling up a building that you own colonialism. It does unquestionably hold the colonial mindset in how it's about modifying an environment, but that's a very different thing than actual colonialism.
Tropico: This game is fun to think about because of how it combines clearly colonial gameplay with the setting of a small, island republic of the type that typically suffered from colonialism. This dissonance shows up very little in the actual experience of the game though, possibly because the theming is very shallow. It's still interesting to note.
RPG Mechanics: By my definition, RPG mechanics are clearly non-colonial. They are about the internal growth of the player. However, I don't feel they hold to the spirit of the definition due to how they typically only develop your ability to affect the environment. A non-colonial mechanic that only strengthens colonial systems feels colonial to me.