Before I start this, I want to make something very clear: I like Anno 1800. I like it a lot. But being locked up at home for over a year has given me a lot of time to think about games and what they make me feel and I noticed that I was feeling uneasy while playing Anno 1800, so I went digging to see why.
Welcome to the Industrial Revolution
I think I have narrowed it down to two main things in the game that remove me from the peaceful but busy state of mind that I want from these building and management games. The first one is born from the game’s split of workers into categories. Having them organised into different groups and knowing who works in what industry is very useful for anyone who likes peeking under the hood and seeing the mechanics for themselves.
Because islands get built up very quickly, space becomes a premium as you attempt to make the best cities. One way around this is to have other islands produce the goods you need and ship them off, so you can do more advanced industry and work on your main island. This is fine, it is part of the puzzle element of Anno, balancing the requirements of your people and trying to maximise limited space.
Then the commuter pier gets unlocked.
Commuter piers allow you to treat the workforce of a connected island as the workforce of the main island. Suddenly you have access to much more land for living space, and oh yeah, you already have some people established on another island to send goods over to your primary island to help them out. So you build loads and loads of cheap housing for the first tier of workers on another island. You meet their needs so that more people live in the small houses and congratulations, you have just created a slum full of low-earning workers that need to commute a far distance every day!
The problem here is one of efficiency, something that creeps into any game where the management of something finite or controlled can result in better output. It happens in my factory building games, and it happens when I build cities too. My main island is full of tourist attractions, everyone there lives in beautiful apartments or skyscrapers and their every need and want is catered for. But my satellite islands? They get what they need and almost nothing else, because I don’t need extra tax money from them, I get loads of money from the happy rich people (I feel like society could learn something from this, you know), so their settlement is pretty sparse. The unlucky saps that live on satellite islands get fed and clothed, and there is just enough medical and fire coverage to make sure that they keep working. Yes not healthy or safe or happy… just working. The game happily helped me recreate the same horrible living conditions that too many people have, with no penalty for doing so. All because it lets me have more of the higher tier workforce and other industry.
The problem here isn’t that I am playing the game in such a way that the developers never intended. Not only does the dock allow this behaviour, but the game’s multiple world regions encourage it too. No one island or even region can produce all of the goods or materials you require for a bustling city. So you head off to the New World for gold, coffee and other resources. While the game’s story does a serviceable job of showing you as arriving and helping the people of these lands with their pirate troubles and other concerns, there are many resources that you acquire here that the locals never get to use in any form. They just get shipped wholesale back to the Old World. Again, this isn’t me pointing a finger at the developers. This is exactly what happened, and is still happening to this day, with poorer countries being mined and farmed with impunity, so that richer countries have the resources they need for whatever it is they want to build, before selling it back to those countries. Just look at how South Africa sells off its gold, or our higher grade coal, leaving our power plants with only the lower grade, high ash content coal to burn.
So that is the first area of discomfort I have. Exploitation of workers and people. Is it the game’s fault? I don’t think so. They are trying to create a management game using a particular time period and travelling to the New World for resources was very much a big thing in the history of that time. Maybe what makes me uneasy is how easy it was for me to find the most efficient solution to a problem being the creation of islands that were completely slums, with people being given exactly what they need to live there, but nothing to make them happy, because that would take away from my bottom line or reduce the number of workers that commute to make my wealthier islands work. You know, the islands where people’s every whim and fancy is met, with no expense spared on making things beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. The place with no poor people around.
This one took a lot more tackling for me to get through and I only realised part of it when I was on a holiday. Have you ever thought about the foods you eat and how they are made? Not long ago, I went to a crocodile farm, thinking it was a place to see crocodiles and learn more about these big, beautiful creatures. Instead, the place was selling crocodile skin handbags, wallets, skulls and all sorts of pies and dishes with crocodile meat. Yes there was a learning experience with a tour to discuss the creatures, but it was a window into a side of life that I don’t really think too much about as someone who calls a city home.
At this farm, crocodiles are raised in the thousands for their leather and meat. The place is clean and seeing so many crocs in one place is quite something. But knowing that just 50 meters away was a place to kill and skin and slaughter the animals gave the entire journey a pretty different tone after our last stop, which was a zoo slash rehabilitation area for injured wildlife.
It got me to thinking about how I found the whole thing repulsive, but surely the same or worse is happening wherever the other meats I eat were coming from? Why was I fine with cows and chickens being killed for me to eat them, but I was drawing a line at crocodiles?
If you are wondering what this has to do with Anno 1800, there was an area added to the game a while back that I hardly spend time in. You see, one DLC sends you to the arctic to hunt down and hopefully rescue an expedition to the area. In the bitter cold there, your workers turn to local resources to beat the temperatures. Which means you have to start killing seals and whales. I feel like the developers have an idea of how the killing of these animals is a delicate topic to some players. The seal building, which gives you skins to make warmer clothes has one line that the NPC can say when you click on the building. The NPC says something along the lines of “you might want to look away”, presumably as a seal gets clubbed to death to take its pelt.
Whaling and seal killing have never sat well with me, despite how nice sea shanties are right now. Having to build these in the game to proceed in the area and develop better workers made me stop playing Anno 1800 at one point, and eventually I went back, tried to convince myself they were all virtual animals… and build a small island to get exactly how many resources I needed for to keep my people in the icy climes working and happy.
Considering I play the game to stop thinking about the real world and its problems, Anno 2070 lets me build on the moon; get everyone free, clean energy and work to stop the polar ice caps from disappearing is quite a lot more soothing. Its empowering, without me thinking of the exploitation of people and resources… or how easy it is to recreate the same systems. I’m not even sure what the answer is for these games, but at least I know now why I get an unpleasant twinge at times.