Decolonizing Play: Exploring Frameworks for Game Design Free of Colonial Values

  • Roxane Blouin-Payer, Senior Game Designer – Invoke Studios
  • Daniel Cook, Chief Creative Officer – Spry Fox
  • Elaine Gómez, Senior Gameplay Designer – Worlds Untold


Modern video games often act out the values of colonialism. Browse the top selling lists on steam and you’ll spot numerous titles that encourage players to explore new lands, stripmine them of their resources and genocide the local inhabitants. 

When the topic of colonization arises, game developers state they want no part in promoting such ideas. However, for those folks who actively attempt to decolonize their games, they run into an issue; they lack game design tools to step outside the sticky web of inherited values they’ve already spent years mastering. All many developers know is how to make games about genocidal power fantasies. 

A sad state of affairs. What if there were design tools that could help teams take their first steps into a broader, richer world of non-colonial mechanics?

Limiting the scope of the discussion

Colonialism is admittedly a complicated topic. There’s so much history, so many layers of repeated misery, so many perspectives. But it is also a very simple topic: Maybe, just maybe, we could make fewer games that glorify murdering the locals and taking their stuff.

In that light, we propose the following limited scope for this paper:

  • Who this is for: Working commercial game designers
  • What they need: A pragmatic, defensible, easy to understand design process 
  • To what ends: Help them create designs that break free of implicit colonialist values.

Our point of view as commercial games designers

This paper comes from a very specific point of view. We are commercial game designers speaking to other game designers. Unlike many voices in this discussion, we have deep empathy for commercial game designers and understand that they operate in a cursed world of limited resources and limited power; a capitalist hellscape of market and economic constraints that destroy most artistic and moral inclinations. Rarely can designers afford to be idealists even when our hearts are in the right place. 

To enact change, we require boring, pragmatic design tools that frame rhetoric in terms of utility and economics. Our teams struggle to productively process emotional manifestos, well-intentioned shaming or densely alienating theory. We are not academics or revolutionaries. We are just simple farmers, people of the land.

Yet, we believe commercial game designers, even in the face of notable constraints, have the power to reach millions; leveraging vast engines of distribution and promotion that most allies can only dream about. If we, as game designers, can start interrogating and evolving the underlying values of our work, perhaps we can bring about a future abundance of innovative, decolonized video games. 

Problem Space

What is Colonialism?

Colonialism most commonly refers to a period beginning around the 1400s and ceasing officially in the early 1900s, where European nations conquered, subjugated and exploited over 80% of the world’s population. It reshaped the world, leaving hundreds of millions enslaved or murdered. Ancient cultures were pillaged and erased, their raw wealth redirected to Western coffers via religious, racial, legal and economic frameworks that still underpin current world power structures. 

How are colonialist values expressed in gameplay?

In the 1600 – 1800s, numerous board games educated European children on the joys of conquering others. Many of those boardgames still inform popular genres such as strategy, building and RPG titles. See Playing Oppression: The Legacy of Conquest and Empire in Colonialist Board Games (MIT Press) for an in depth discussion of this history. 

These common mechanics of race, resource extraction, dehumanization and violent conquest are so ingrained in the language of modern game design, we struggle to even see them. We have entire professions such strategy design, progression design or combat design that naively trade in colonialist values.

What are the mechanics of colonialism?

Here is a list of specific mechanics that exhibit strong colonialist values. 

Before we jump in, you should read this list with the following caveat: Game mechanics are like musical instruments; they can be played in many ways depending on the artist’s skill, intent and cultural context. Can a game have these colonialist mechanics and not be a celebration of colonialism? Absolutely! With effort, careful thought and context, you can make even a bongo drum sound mournful. 

However, if you blindly embrace these mechanics in an unthinking way, you’ll get their default, perhaps undesired cultural expression. Our initial goal is visibility. Do you, a smart well-informed designer, see the potential issues? 

Let’s start with 4X mechanics of eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXtermination made popular in various strategy games such as Stellar Conquest, Masters of Orion, or Civilization.


Exploration is an admittedly beloved mechanic that suggests openness and discovery. However there are some problematic variations to notice.

  • Savages and Civilization: The game world is split by default into superior civilized areas and inferior savage frontier areas with no rule of law. Exploration only occurs in the savage portions of the world. During the colonialist era, very few ‘discovered’ areas were in reality ‘unknown to humankind’, since most had untold millennia of inhabitation. The whole fantasy of ‘discovery’ of the unknown was a self-aggrandizing invention of the colonialists.
  • Tokenized territories: The player is encouraged to explore large territory or nation-scale swaths of abstract lands. They are tokens, not actual places. There are very few details of who lives there or any meaningful details of their lives. Players get to enforce their own names and borders upon the new land. 
  • Resource hunt: The player explores specifically for the sake of future conquest. These games encourage you to seek out and judge discovered areas based on their extraction potential. Not any inherent value of what exists there.


Once a player has ‘discovered’ a location that provides value, they must acquire or occupy it.

  • Colonies: If the player’s main job is seeding new colonies in new territories, you might just be making a colonialist game. Just food for thought. 
  • Terra Nullius: This is a phrase that Europeans used to declare “Land without a master”. It was a legal and rhetorical ploy used to justify taking it from whoever actually lived there. If there’s no one there, it is totally fine to take it! You see this used as a move in video games to make future extraction or exploitation morally justified. For example a game like Masters of Orion will be set in space since empty worlds are conveniently just there for the taking. 
  • Growth at all costs: The player progresses by seeding a small foothold in a new area and then growing large no matter what the cost to those who might already be there. 


Once a location has been seeded, colonialist logic states that it must be stripped of resources, often for the benefit of some powerful empire or superior culture. 

  • Finite resources: A location has finite resources and your job is to deplete them to the point of exhaustion. There is no mechanism for renewal or preservation.  
  • Coercive economics: The player can use power differentials to force transactions of resources from the less powerful party to the more powerful party. 
  • One way flows: The game is set up to transfer resources from out of an area (often a savage frontier land) into another area (often a civilized land) 
  • Lack of externalities: Unlimited extraction has no negative cost, only positive benefits that accrue to the dominant culture.  
  • Processed vs raw goods: Low value raw goods are available in frontiers and high value, processed goods are available in civilized areas. Very little value accumulates to the frontier lands. 
  • Locals represented as resources: Any local people in an area are treated as a worker resource to use in operating the extractive economic machinery.  


And finally we get to the destruction of Others or their culture. A video game staple. 

  • Dehumanization and Othering: Anyone who is ‘against’ the plans of the imperial side is framed as less than human. Maybe they are called an orc. Or an evil monster. The goal here is to remove any moral concerns with regards to fairness, kindness or equity. Othering is a critical first step in most extermination-focused mechanics. 
  • Violence, coercion and subjugation are the only real options to deal with resistance: If a group pushes back against the player’s imperialistic actions, they become an obstacle to be removed. Only rarely is there a means of creating a win-win solution for both parties. Instead most of the options just so happen to involve bloodshed or subjugation. 
  • Power differentials: The player has the ability to eradicate others with very few repercussions. More broadly, mechanics of control based on unbalanced power dynamics are incredibly common in colonialist games. 
  • Celebration of mass murder or genocide: The players is performing a great service by massacre thousands of intelligent beings. It is often framed as a righteous act. 

Other mechanics

There are numerous other patterns we see that have their roots in colonialism. For example:

  • Exoticization: Indigenous representation used as decoration. In Lara Croft, the player spends time exploring exotic South American ruins that are almost entirely detached from any actual culture. They are just vague gestures at the exotic nature of an Othered culture. A related concept is Orientalism, which is the patronizing imitation of Asian aesthetics by European cultures. 
  • Erasure through abstraction: The game operates at the level of nations, races, imports, experts, labor. This is a traditional colonialist reduction that helps people ignore the implications of the horrors they are enacting. 


  • Pick a game. Either your current project or a favorite game. 
  • Score 1 point for every instance of a mechanic listed above. Use your best judgment. 
  • Now sum up all the points. What is the colonialist score of the game? 

A game like Civilization might score around 12 or more depending on how you count various systems. Decolonized games like a Bejeweled or Mario Party often have scores of 3 or less. It is an inexact rubric intended to generate insight, not direct comparisons.

Challenges for designers

You may look at this list of colonial adjacent mechanics and think, “Goodness! That covers almost every game mechanics I know how to design or enjoy playing.” Watch any expensive AAA media event and it is quickly apparent that there are a vast number of games out there that are essentially power fantasies about dominating and destroying others. 

There are three main issues that designers describe when they first attempt to decolonize their game designs

1. If we remove common mechanics, we lose our familiar design toolbox

A typical game design is not created from whole cloth. Most professional game designers perform craft-like creation within heavily defined constraints of existing well established forms. We consistently borrow old systems or tropes from existing genres. Much of our work is only culturally meaningful in the context of a trained audience who values a long history of highly derivative creations. 

This is not easy work to create! It takes a designer many years to learn these design spaces and immense mastery to execute within them at a professional level. The result is that some of the most skilled designers in our industry have spent their careers passionately perfecting out how to craft games about killing natives in foreign lands. 

When the project of ‘decolonizing play’ prevents a designer from using their trusty design tools, they are lost. For perhaps the first time in their career, they are faced with a blank canvas and they panic. 

2. It takes time to relearn how to think about games in a non-colonial manner

There exist immense (and profitable!) design opportunities out there for folks interested in creating decolonized gameplay. However, just as it took immense effort to master colonial mechanics, it takes time and practice learning new ways of seeing and making. 

Many designers will need to go back to the basics and apply design fundamentals to these new design spaces. They’ll need to get to know and understand audiences who may not be like themselves. It helps to approach the problem with a certain sense of grit and determination. Creating decolonized gameplay will be a new long term journey towards excellence, not a switch you can just instantly flip. 

3. Established IPs and genres add major constraints on change

Complicating all this is the reality that most professional game designers operate with the constraints of existing successes. No matter what our personal beliefs, we can find forward looking designs hamstrung by IP requirements, conservative team members and existing player genre expectations.  

This is not insurmountable given strong creative leadership and buy-in across the team. However it adds a deep friction to most efforts. 

Frameworks for Decolonizing Design

These are substantial challenges, but luckily there’s some relatively straightforward options available to teams interested in decolonizing their gameplay. 

We’ve put together a set of steps and tools that can be used to identify risks, assess available design flexibility, and provide design exercises to identify alternatives to major colonialist game verbs. It is a simple but impactful framework that will help you create games using core values that fit your design intention while stepping away from negative and problematic standards.

Risk Spectrum: Is Your Game at Risk?

Most commercial designers work within well established genres or product categories. There are a considerable amount of genres that have little overlap with colonialist values. Yet, there are some genres that share a direct lineage with colonialist themes. The first framework we put together is the Risk Spectrum, a breakdown of game genres categorized by their risk factor in leaning towards colonialist values. We divided these genres and assigned them into a risk category based on their overall mechanics and player experience. Below is the listed breakdown and graphic that can be used to assess where your game falls.

The Risk Spectrum is a visual representation of game genres categorized by the level of risk towards colonial values

Low Risk Genres

This is not an extensive list, but the following genres tend to be less problematic. There are exceptions, but they are rare. Some genres with low risks include: 

  • Abstract Casual: Match-3, puzzle, solitaire, hidden object, and rhythm. Abstract titles tend to mostly focus on personal mastery.
  • Life Sim: Focus on tending and growth. 
  • Party: Games like Mario Party, Trivia, and Social Deduction. These are often more about interpersonal experiences that are meant to be fun with friends. 
  • Stealth: Games like Stray or Thief, where an individual wants to lay low and confront a powerful system.
  • 1 vs 1 Fighting: Skill based competition. Many popular titles are full of exoticism and cultural stereotypes but these are fixable issues with proper research and authentic representation.
  • Horror: Players are low power and fighting against the unknown. 
  • Vehicle Simulation: Games like racing games, flight simulators, and trucking simulators. 

Medium Risk Genres

The following genres include examples of both colonized and decolonized play. These titles are perhaps the biggest opportunities to shift existing games and franchises away from colonialist values while still preserving popular mechanics. 

  • Interactive Fiction: Visual novels, adventure games, and romance titles. Content boils down to theme and context. You can easily tell a colonialist story, or not. 
  • Platformer: The core mechanics of jumping and exploring. But there are also a large number of these games about pith helmeted explorers stealing jewels from masked tribal minions. 
  • Tower Defense: Defending your village is not specifically colonialist. However, some titles use the frame of advancing based on a frontier and fighting back against waves of dehumanized attackers. Squint and it looks very British. 
  • Monster Collection: Games like Pokemon, Monster Hunter or PalWorld. Again, context matters. Are you the monster’s best friend? Or are you entering unknown territories and stripping them of resources through routine murder? See case studies below for more discussion of games like Pokemon. 
  • Multiplayer Shooter: Within this genre fall battle royales, MOBAs, arena shooter and deathmatch. Despite being hyper violent, they often have equitable power balance and elements of cooperative gameplay. However, more military themed versions often include nationalist elements and cultural stereotypes. 
  • City Builder: When set in modern, abstract, peaceful settings, they can be about balancing complex urban systems. When they include warfare and settlement of hostile areas, they start exhibiting colonialist values. 
  • Idle: Games like Cookie Clicker or Idle Heroes. These represent growth at a cost with few meaningful externalities. 

High Risk Genres

The following genres tend to be greatly rooted in colonialist values. You will tend to encounter the slippery slope of ‘accidentally’ keeping up with colonist values as you pull in design patterns and themes that are inherent to these genres’ player experiences.

  • Strategy: Games like 4X, wargames, real time strategy (RTS). Usually these are games about nationalism and territorial conquest.
  • Tactical War: These games are less focused on nation building, but often hyper focus on exterminating ‘Others’. 
  • Survival: Games like Rust, Minecraft, and Valheim. These titles deliver a strong power fantasy around starting out from nothing and extracting resources to create a dominant base/settlement/colony. 
  • Single Player Shooter: Slaughter hordes of dehumanized ‘Others’ for personal pleasure. Often with strong nationalist theming and fetishizing weapons of war.
  • Action Adventure: Games like Uncharted and Tomb Raider. There’s a strong emphasis on discovering a past civilization and stealing its artifacts while wrecking irreplaceable sites in the process.
  • Role Playing (RPG)/ Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO): Many digital role playing games are power fantasies about a small group delving into ruins (that are not from their culture) and exterminating the locals in vast numbers, often for an imperialistic or extractive goal.
  • Factory / Automation: Games like Factorio or Infinifactory. Strong focus on efficient extraction and conquest of a territory without a master. 

It is possible for your game to fall in one or more risk factor categories. The important takeaway within this tool is to understand how much your mechanics and core experience is at risk of perpetuating colonialist values. 

The good news is that beloved but problematic genres are not immutable.  A genre is a composite bundle of existing human systems, values and culture. Consider what parts you want to keep and what parts you want to replace: 

  1. Identify values: Name and understand the values that design patterns include. Find players who enjoy those design patterns. What emotions and fantasies do they express? Both good and bad. Look up the history of the design so you can understand what big ideas it rests upon. 
  2. Map supporting mechanics: Next, map out the ecosystem of secondary mechanics that support this design pattern. Ask which secondary elements are load bearing (key aspects of the player experience depend on this feature)? What values do those elements bring with them?
  3. List areas to replace: If you see problematic areas, search out alternatives that replace those load bearing elements. This way you can still surgically build within a risky genre. 

Once you know where your game fits in the Risk Spectrum, it should open you up to ask questions like:

  • What kind of mechanics would fit in a decolonized strategy game?
  • Is exterminating ‘others’ the core value of my game? If it isn’t, then what are my core values?
  • My game is problematic but how do I fix it and still make it fun?

The tool that follows will aid you in answering questions like the ones listed above. It’s meant to provide you with tangible solutions to address concerns by changing the perspective of the problem.

Brainstorm Alternative Values

Your game’s values inform the creative pillars that flow across all the game’s features and systems. They drive the player fantasy and are supported by player verbs and game mechanics. They are reflected by the game’s narrative and world building. At the heart of most modern colonialist games are a set of naively inherited values. By thoughtfully replacing those values with alternative values and then building your game upon these new values, you can avoid creating problematic themes and experiences. 

The question now is: How do you come up with alternative values? What better way to find alternatives than by using antonyms.

Gameplay Verb and Antonym Framework

Our suggested approach is to take your gameplay verbs and pair them with respective antonyms, verbs that would be the opposite in meaning. These new verbs would represent the opposite values and give you the push to brainstorm ideas in a new direction. 

Why gameplay verbs? We chose verbs because they directly translate to player actions and are the foundational concepts of systems. When you can strip a mechanic to its most basic action verb, you can easily deconstruct the role that it plays in the gameplay and find verbs that are similar or opposing to ideate further. Once you have an antonym for a gameplay verb, you can continue extracting more values by finding more synonyms, words that have similar meaning. Before you know it, you’ll have a list of new possibilities that will provide fodder for conversations. 

Below is a short breakdown of the gameplay verb, antonym, and synonym process:


  1. Select a problematic verb or theme you see in your game, for example “Exploitation” 
  2. Find an appropriate antonym for that verb or theme. For exploitation, we may use “Regeneration”
  3. Continue exploring synonyms that are similar in meaning to your antonym. For regeneration, we may list “Nurturing, Growth, Gifting, Empowerment, Encouragement, Befriending” 
  4. Assess whether or not these fits in your player fantasy. Do these new values make sense to your game? Do you have the flexibility to bring them into your game via mechanics, world building, narrative, etc.?

Sample brainstorming

There are lots of ways this exercise can go but it should be fun to come up with options and think outside the box. When using this tool on your own or with a team, we recommend incorporating a visual element and to color code your verbs. Whether it be through a digital or physical format, use shapes and colors to aid you in the process.

Below are some verb brainstorms we did as a group and a visual format we used to categorize them: 

  • Explore: Cultivate, Inspect, Research
  • Expand: Preserve, Optimize, Co-exist, Populated Land
  • Exploit: Empower, Support, Encourage, Delegate, Invest
  • Extract: Regenerate, Nurture, Grow, Gift, Empower, Encourage, Befriend
  • Control: Unrestrict, Guide, Free, Inspire
  • Exterminate: Humanize, Aid, Build, Avoid, Cooperate, Love

A visual representation of the Gameplay Verbs and Antonyms Framework in use

  • Green: Antonyms
  • Yellow: Low Risk Verb
  • Orange: Medium Risk Verb
  • Red: High Risk Verb

Identify Design Flexibility

Now that you know where your game falls in the Risk Spectrum and have an understanding of alternative values to possibly implement, it’s time to figure out what areas of your game can and cannot be modified. The goal here is to help you answer the following questions.

  • What elements can you change if you want to decolonize values in your game? 
  • Given your current stage of production, what elements are still easy to change?
  • What are specific decolonizing moves you can make for different elements of your game?

Design Flexibility Framework

Not all elements of a game are easily changed once development begins. The following elements of a game are listed in order from mostly flexible to least flexible. 

Ordering of game elements in terms of flexibility. Credit: Jason Vandenberge

Within reason, a team can more easily tweak their story and world elements, even relatively late in development. It is much harder to alter Player Fantasy and Verbs, unless you do early in the game’s development process, like concepting or pre-production.

As you dissect what features and systems have the most flexibility in design modifications, we’d like to suggest questions that you can use to further evaluate important aspects of your game. We broke them down by the categories used in the Design Flexibility Framework.

Player Fantasies

  • Non-colonialist values: What gameplay verbs are problematic in my game? See Brainstorm Alternative Values section. If you’ve used the Gameplay Verbs and Antonyms Framework, you’ve made the first critical step towards decolonizing your gameplay. 
  • Non-colonialist fantasies: Are there player fantasies that don’t involve conquest, subjugation and eradication of others? What story do I want to tell? What are my player goals?


  • Mechanics that arise from values: What are verbs that build off your non-colonialist values? Are there opportunities for growth and collaboration? See Brainstorm Alternative Values section
  • Player mythology: Player mythology is Designer Alex Jaffe’s idea that player actions embody player values in ways that are impossible to merely reskin. If you use game mechanics like those found in Diplomacy about player competition betrayal, no amount of saying “actually it is a game about friendly unicorns” is going to change the player’s experience. 

Game Economy

  • Power disparities: Are there extreme player-centric power fantasies? Can you reduce them? Or reverse them?
  • Value extraction: Are all actions extractive? How can you introduce externalities as meaningful inputs into player decisions? How can you create cyclical economies that depend on renewals as much as removal?
  • Agency: Do the people or locations that act as resource sources have any say in the player’s extractive actions? If not, how can you add impactful value to them?
  • Consequences: Are there any consequences for acting as a colonizer? How can you include cause and effect to shift the dominant strategy towards your values?


  • Time period: Is your game set during a colonialist era? Does it need to be? If so, what can you do to showcase various perspectives?
  • Protagonists / antagonists: Are your heroes and villains reminiscent of any stereotypical colonialist roles? How can you reverse these or remove them?
  • Nation building: Is the acquisition of territory for nation building a big part of your world? Does the scale of your world reduce cultures to names on a map? If so, what can provide positive and negative pushes or pulls to make the experience intentional and purposeful?


  • Contextualization: Can you replace obvious colonialist symbols with something better? For example, does your game need to be about a white hero saving or killing poor brown people? Maybe there’s an alternative framing?
  • Authenticity: Can you replace stereotypes with authentic details based on lived experience? Often complicated reality ends up being more interesting than the inherited cartoons we fall back upon. 

Get Feedback from Real Humans

Even when using all the steps, frameworks, and tools listed above, it is surprisingly easy to get close to shipping a project and discovering that our game contains a handful of mechanics and symbols that accidentally tell a colonialist story. Solicit feedback to see how actual players (who are blind to your intentions!) might mischaracterize inopportune combinations. 

Here are some tips.

  • Listen for lived experience: When you hear that a player has personal experience with an issue in your games, listen! Don’t dismiss them as incorrect because their response does not match your intent. 
  • Use sensitivity readers and cultural consultants: Consultants can help highlight problematic issues before release. This is a cooperative relationship; they want to help you make a great game.  
  • Flag feedback from concern trolls: Some strong feedback consists of preemptive worries that someone else might be harmed. In practice, these concerns may or may not be an issue! We’ve found that second or third hand concerns can arise from a cartoon understanding of complex topics. We recommend grounding your responses in feedback from those who have direct experience, instead of reflexively gutting your game. 
  • Be willing to change: Dig in and see if it is really important to your values to keep a problematic topic in your game. Many times, we can trivially change a frame for a system in ways that improve the game and do no harm to our game’s vision. 

Examples of Decolonized Play Using Pokémon

So how does decolonizing play work in practice? The widely known game Pokémon contains numerous colonialist themes of exploitation and extraction. Over the years, other teams built some variations that are more colonialist, while other teams have focused on decolonizing Pokémon. Let’s explore the following Monster Collection titles to see how they handle the challenge:

  • Pokémon
  • Palworld
  • Cassette Beasts
  • Pokémon Snap


In Pokémon games, the player fantasy sets you as a kid in a fictional world where animals are captured, domesticated and used for different purposes, such as fighting each other. You, as a pokemon trainer, are expected to collect the rarest and most powerful breeds of pokemons and compete in the highest fighting arenas with your captured animals. 

It’s easy to see what are the exploiting themes here. Training animals to fight each other is not exactly legal in the real world and is mostly considered animal cruelty. Given that some Pokemon have human-like features, it also can be interpreted as a reference to slavery. There’s also a domination fantasy with the concept of gaining rank and status through collecting badges when you defeat a trainer gym and ultimately become the best trainer. 

Sprites of Pokémon trainers featuring whips. Source

Of course, the world of Pokémon is not the real world and the developers sugar coated their concept to be more kid-friendly. The player is making friends with the pokemons they train, the defeated pokémons are only fainting and quickly heal with the care of nurse Joy. The fights between pokemons are presented as friendly sportsmanship similar to martial arts. All of these efforts make Pokémon an acceptable and enjoyable family-oriented game despite the problematic sides.


Palworld is a game that can be described with the following question: “What if we could arm pokemons with guns and hunt other giant pokemons, like in the Monster Hunter franchise?” It also mixes in elements of popular survival and automation genres. This game is obviously a satire of Pokemon, pushing all its problematic aspects to an extreme. 

In Palworld, you can enslave cute pokemons to craft weapons for you. Source.

However, the game is presented with cute and kid-friendly graphics that are strikingly similar to Pokémon and the developers don’t seem to make an effort to nuance their statement. In the trailers, the player fantasy seems to be catching, exploiting and killing cute critters for fun. Is this satire? Since these values are ingrained in western societies and gamer culture, it is quite possible that few players understand or care about the fact that this game might be satire. Instead, they fully enjoy and embrace its system of values. All in good fun.

Cassette Beast

Cassette Beast is an independent game that tried to make a very similar game to Pokemon, but by turning all the problematic and exploitive themes around. 

In Cassette Beast, the player uses recordings of the beasts they encounter to transform themselves into them and fight other beasts. Source.

In this game, the main character washes out in this weird land that seems to be out of time. That place is populated by incredible beasts that block your way in your quest to return home. However, in order to fight them, you can record their essence on cassettes and then turn yourself into these beasts with these recordings and inherit their abilities. 

Cassette Beast changes the exploitive aspects of Pokémon in significant ways:

  • Your goal is not to collect all beasts and become the best by dominating others, it’s simply to survive and return home.
  • You don’t capture the beasts and make them fight, you record them and then transform into them.

There are no zero-sum situations in that game because there is no one that has a net benefit or a net loss based on the game’s player fantasy. Beasts attack you because it’s in their nature, and you defend yourself with abilities that you virtually collected on them. Defeated beasts flee, while defeated “rangers” (equivalent of Pokémon’s other trainers), transform back to their human form. 

While also being a parody on Pokémon, Cassette Beasts make some comments on capitalism and colonialistic values using a mature and thoughtful narrative and relationship you develop with your new neighbors that are as trapped as you are in this weird world.

Pokémon Snap

In Pokémon Snap, the player is a wild-life photographer that strives to take the best photos of pokémons in  their natural habitat. 

In Pokemon Snap, you gain points when you succeed at taking good shots of Pokemon in special poses. Source.

As a safari visitor, you are not catching or disturbing pokemons in their everyday life, but rather patiently trying to photo shoot them in their best pose and light. Even more than in Cassette Beasts, Pokémon Snap is a non-zero sum game as no combat is part of the gameplay. You have limited control on the pokémons, except for some treats you can throw at them to get better pictures. It even teaches good environmental preservation values to the player, which are at the opposite of exploitation. 

Invitation / Conclusion

Colonization is a complex topic that is easy for game designers to latch onto thematically and mechanically. It is the game equivalent of the press’ worst predilection “If it bleeds, it leads.” Want some cheap design wins? Toss in a little murder of the less powerful. Afterall, humans have been expanding, exploiting and exterminating one another since the dawn of time. Pick any spot populated by humans and you’ll see that its culture is built on layers of bones, blood and borrowed beauty. 

At the same time, we believe that humans are more than our worst instincts. Games need not be limited to the glorification of past horrors. We can move beyond fellating imperialism as the central focus of our joyfully broad and vibrant artform. 

What if games enriched our modern culture? 

In part we were motivated to write this paper because we want to see fresh, new game designs that help society to move forward in a positive way. 

  • Identify values of culture you want to propagate: We believe there are positive values worth preserving. We should be conscious of the value expressed by our games. 
  • Be open to mixing, blending and reinvention. For culture to truly live, it must be enacted by people in ways that are relevant to their current lives. How can we adapt old values to the modern world and needs of a modern audience?


What if you made a game that doesn’t involve moving into someone else’s space and killing everyone who lives there and then taking their stuff? It is certainly possible. We just need to understand the failings of the past, see the opportunity for promoting positive values. We can choose to devote our limited and precious lives towards creating a better world. 


Colonialism in board games: Flanagan, Mary; Jakobsson, Mikael. Playing Oppression: The Legacy of Conquest and Empire in Colonialist Board Games (p. 173). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

4X games:  “The term is a loose acronym of ‘explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate’, coined in 1993 to describe the gameplay of Master of Orion.” 

Load bearing design: “A game has pillars made of key experiences that it needs to deliver in order for it to be successful. This is the heavy weight of player, publisher and market expectations. Various mechanical systems and content support those pillars. Those that bear the most weight and would hurt the game most if they failed are considered ‘load bearing’.” 

New World: “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.”

Postcolonialist design themes: “From the series of hypothetical postcolonial interventions posted above (Monster HunterStardew ValleyBreath of the Wild) and the design of Syphilisation, we can isolate some approaches that you can adopt if you want to try this lens.”

Notes on Polaris

This paper was produced by a workgroup of senior game designers at the 2023 Polaris conference. The non-profit Polaris Game Design conference seeks to gather the industry’s top designers in order to first, discuss our toughest problems and second, share this deep wellspring for the benefit of game teams everywhere.

In 2023, this work was made possible in part by our sponsor Xsolla and others.