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How Amazon's New World MMO Can Avoid Narratively Erasing Native Culture

The newest video game from Amazon Game Studios, an MMO called New World, is set to be released in full on August 31, 2021; the game's premise of 17th century pioneers settling a magical island tries to invoke the "musket and plate armor" aesthetic of the Age of Exploration without glamorizing the destruction and displacement of Native American cultures during that period of history. By making the game's island setting empty of any native civilization, the developers of New World have created an alternate history narrative where players can explore and settle new lands without trampling over indigenous populations. This approach, however, does threaten to erase the Native American experience entirely from the historical narrative of New World unless developers introduce game content representative of First Nations peoples and their own stories.

The setting of the New World MMO is an alternate version of 17th Century Earth where a magical island called Aeternum exists in the middle of the Atlantic ocean between the "old" and "new" worlds. Aeternum is filled with ancient ruins from a long-lost civilization, strange forms of life, and a magical substance called Azoth. The players of New World portray mostly European-coded settlers of this deserted island, who build up towns and communities, complete quests for various factions, and fend off hordes of "Corrupted," undead creatures and elemental beings animated by a dark force at the heart of Aeternum.

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New World distinguishes itself from other MMOs on the market in several ways. First, it has a classless character creation system that lets players create unique character builds capable of wielding melee weapons, bows, armor sets, muskets, magic spells, and firearms. New World's 17th century fantasy setting also sets it apart from fantasy MMOs like World of Warcraft - worlds frequently stuck at a medieval level of technology and culture. With the novel historical fantasy Amazon Game Studios has set for New World, however, comes the burden of addressing the awful things European settlers and colonists did to Pre-Columbian cultures who stood in the way of their colonization - and not simply pretending these events never took place.

Developers at Amazon Game Studios quite rightly didn't want to create a "colonial genocide simulator" or a paternalistic game about European-coded heroes "civilizing the natives." Instead, they chose to make their vision for the "New World" a deserted island with ruins, zombies, and elemental creatures, citing myths like Atlantis as a basis in an interview with Eurogamer. That being said, the developers of New World are still invoking the tropes and visuals of European colonial conquest (the conquistador "morion" helmet, tall Pilgrim hats, etc). Furthermore, an MMO where colonial "hero" archetypes explore and settle an "empty" island is uncomfortably similar to the harmful practice of erasure - the tendency in works of history to pretend the native cultures and civilizations displaced by European settlers never existed, or "vanished" long before colonization of the Americas began.

To the credit of developers at Amazon Game Studios, their approach to world-building in New World, though not free of problematic implications, avoids a lot of the problems and stereotypes seen in similar works of historical media. At this pre-release point of time, there are also many unanswered lore questions about New World's expeditions and setting such as: who were the builders of the massive ruins criss-crossing the isle of Aeternum? What caused their civilization to collapse? Are there still surviving, uncorrupted enclaves of this civilization, and how do they feel about the people who sailed across the sea to settle their lands? By answering these questions thoughtfully in new quests and updates to their MMO, the makers of New World have the chance to make sure their game tells a nuanced story from multiple perspectives, not just the those of the "Old World" explorers where the victors have written the history books.

Developers of New World, to avoid promoting harmful stereotypes, chose to create a "New World" island setting with no living indigenous cultures. Under different circumstances, New World developers could have instead hired Native writers, asset designers, and sensitivity readers to help build the setting of their MMO and add nuanced representations of Native American cultures. A New World MMO developed this way could have directly examined the greed and imperialism at the heart of the Age of Exploration, given narrative weight to the many cultures pushed to the sidelines of Western history, and created a more detailed alternate historical timeline where the contact between the peoples of the the "new" and "old" worlds wasn't dominated by slaughter and conquest.

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The core narrative of New World is firmly set at this point, but there's still space in the MMO's setting for developers to add more multicultural representation in their setting. The trailers for New World primarily focus on player characters and factions from European backgrounds, but there are references in-game to non-European countries trying to stake their own claim on the riches of Aeternum (such as the March 16 "The Empress of Ebonscale" update to the New World beta, which takes place in a region first settled by exiles from a dynastic civil war in China). This sets a precedent where future expansions for New World could introduce NPCs, settlements, equipment and storylines centered around Aeternum settlers from non-European countries – China, Africa, the Middle East, or, in a twist of fate, Native American civilizations like the Cherokee or Haudenosaunee.

By hiring game designers from First Nations cultures to work on expansions and provide feedback for New World updates, Amazon Game Studios has the chance to create an MMO that embraces the visual aesthetic and technology of the Age Of Exploration, doesn't inadvertently whitewash the atrocities of European colonialism, and gives people and cultures native to the historical "New World" a chance to tell stories reflective of their own experiences and personal histories. This inclusive design approach to future updates would also make New World a richer game on the whole; hackneyed stereotypes such as the concepts of the "noble savage" or "white savior" would be less likely to show up in updates to the final version of the MMO. In fact, a design approach like this might just be the best of both worlds.

Next: Fantasy RPGs That Let You Use Magic AND Guns

Source: New World, Eurogamer

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