I enjoy playing sandbox MMO New World. This open-world adventure game teems with personality, teamwork, crafting, and combat. But New World is also perplexing and, worse, problematic.
It’s a team-based player-vs-player survival game with elements of exploration, resource exploitation, and expansion. I become part of a guild that creates our own culture, which can range from murderous warmongering to utopian idealism.
But New World is also a sanitized re-enactment of the European colonization of the Americas and elsewhere. It’s a manifestation of the great white fantasy of virgin territory and new beginnings. The game treads unwarily into a Heart of Darkness-like country of racist imperialism.
Here’s the setup: I am a settler, who’s landed on the pristine shores of a “new world.” I own nothing. So, I scavenge and craft. I team up with others and build a settlement. I specialize in warfare or building or farming or manufacturing. With my people, I defend our settlement from rivals. Perhaps I wage war, killing them to take their homes and their resources.
The game is set in a fictional landmass in the Atlantic, located near Bermuda. The timeframe is the mid-1600s, which is the same period as the first settlements by English colonists in North America.
New World’s colonists wear the sort of clothes and armor you might expect to see in a fictional account of 17th-century Europe, around the time of the Plymouth Colony. That said, the colonists are not explicitly Europeans. In the player-character creation tool — which I have not seen — I’m told I can select from two genders and a variety of races.
The geography feels like an imagined, pre-colonized British America, with woodlands, lush meadows, swamps and mountain ridges. The world includes ancient artifacts from a lost civilization. Supernatural strangeness abounds. Players can use magic, for healing and such, as well as technologies like gunpowder and flintlock rifles.
There are no indigenous peoples. And according to developer Amazon Game Studios, it’s not really about invasion or America.
Except … except there are human-like creatures on this Atlantic shoreline. They are shuffling zombies, variously called “Corrupted,” or “Withered.” They don’t have identifiable cultures, but they are extremely hostile to settlers. They aren’t portrayed like, say, the Wampanoag peoples that the Pilgrims encountered, or the Algonquian-speaking civilizations of pre-invasion Virginia.
The game’s lore says they are “former settlers,” who have been corrupted by the island. But I’m struck by how closely these semi-humans cleave to the exterminative view that most 17th-century colonists held of the people they found in newly discovered lands.
Old World pathogens
European settlers generally believed that newly discovered lands were forfeit, because the indigenous peoples did not display Eurasian-style ownership and development. The settlers came to believe that these lives were worth less than their own, because the indigenous peoples did not engage in monotheism or (in North America) the building of cities, or the printing of books or the forging of steel weapons.
The indigenous peoples were susceptible to common Old World pathogens. When first encountered by white explorers, they were often found to be in the grip of plague. To the white men, here was evidence that these wretched men, women, and children had been abandoned by God, marked by providence for extinction. They were the walking dead. And this is a video game that seems to literalize that disturbing metaphor.
During an interview with studio head Patrick Gilmore, I put a version of this notion to him. He looked genuinely shocked. “That’s not really been a focus at all,” he said. “The lore of the game is that there’s a tainted aspect to this world, that it’s a garden of Eden that has fallen from grace.”
You could argue that this is precisely how 17th-century Europeans viewed the new world.
This game is undoubtedly a violent expression of 17th-century Atlantic colonization and ought to be treated as such. It is made, and will be played, by the heirs to that colonization.
It’s interesting, too, that New World is developed by a company as controversial as Amazon. From its treatment of workers to its tax avoidance and environmental record, the conglomerate is arguably one of the most exploitative organizations in the world, an aggressive colonizer in its own right.
My own hypocrisy is at play here too. Despite its grisly undertones, I find myself enjoying New World. I thrill at landing on terra incognita, surviving and then prospering. I slay the locals and rid the new world of wild beasts.
But then, I’ve been raised to love tales of imperialist violence, from Stagecoach to Blood Meridian, from Zulu to Sacred Hunger. I’ve never escaped this taste for the mythology of mastering someone else’s country.
New World is an addition to a lifetime of really liking stories of how the West was won, and how the colonists from my own country, Britain, marshaled and defended a global empire through capital, force, and exploitation.
When Amazon talks about a gaming sandbox, what it really means, I suspect, is that it’s a platform for discovering new ways to have fun; to build and co-operate and invade and organize.
From playing New World for an hour or so, I can say that it does a lot of the basic game stuff right, that Gilmore and his team have clearly played a lot of other MMOs and focused on the things that work.
Gathering and crafting is simple and fun. There are no classes, so shaping my character is an unrestricted question of just doing the things that I enjoy, such as building walls, or making clothes, or setting out into the great unknown and living off the land.
But the real test is going to be in how the game plays out there in the real world, where many a PvP experiment has been ground to dust.
I hope this game finds a way to properly confront the complexities of its historical inspirations. I think it will give the world a good measure of enjoyment, and maybe introspection too.
A beta is planned “soon.” No word yet on release date, or if the game will be free-to-play or a standard purchase. We’ll have more in the weeks ahead.
Read more: Polygon