'Iceborne' is Monster Hunter at its Peak, Colonialist Fantasy Included

In its opening moments, Monster Hunter World: Iceborne hits many of the same narrative notes as the original game. You, the Fifth Fleet’s foremost A-Rank hunter, are here to “study” the ecology of the New World. In the pursuit of this knowledge, you’re sent out to follow a pack of Legiana that are behaving oddly. What you end up finding is a vividly detailed new snowbound continent, full of fascinating and surprising new monsters, and a story that openly embraces the settler-colonialism that the core game tried to keep at arm’s length.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bjwv85/iceborne-review-monster-hunter-at-its-peak-colonialist-fantasy-included
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Excellently written review.
What was touched on in the original review, the issue with its colonialist narrative, is amplified, much of how it sounds like it is in the new expansion.
I’m sure most reviews won’t even give it a second glance so I’m glad it’s highlighted more here.

Haven’t played it much yet, just dipped my toes in the new content, Beotodous and Banbaro, made some new rank appropriate gear and fell back in love with charge-blade.

It felt refreshing because my Ps4 save is so barren compared to my PC character, didn’t have a refined build or anything I felt bad about leaving behind.
Very excited to see all the new monsters, and returning favourites and try on all the new fits.

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I don’t actually think the “colonialist narrative” is amplified.

I think it’s fair to criticize Iceborne for not containing any actual commentary about colonialism given the nature of its setting and its focus on hunting, but I don’t agree with how the story is being represented as a “colonialist fantasy”.

I don’t know if people care about storyline spoilers, but just in case:

Isn’t the entire premise for going to Hoarfrost Reach because Velkhana has caused big changes that end up threatening the Ancient Forest and Wildspire Waste?

The whole “we’re part of this ecosystem too” speech is about how Velkhana is literally freezing places (and monsters and entire ecosystems) to death and that’s their justification for staying in Hoarfrost and hunting Velkhana specifically.

I think there are elements of colonialism inherent to the way they designed it. But I also do not think it is glorifying colonialism–there isn’t a series of quests where subjugation of a native people is featured, there isn’t any concept of concerted continual expansion, and there is no indication that limited resources are being fleeced for export back to some foreign home nation. (Just to briefly expand on that, I think it’s hard to make the argument that they established Seliana in order to benefit Astera at the expense of Hoarfrost Reach.)

I understand there’s some nuance here that might not be important to some people, but I do feel that subjugation of native peoples and exploitation of new lands by non-native peoples to benefit a foreign country are key elements of “colonialism” that are not present in Iceborne.

It’s worth thinking about if you do end up playing the game, especially when you encounter the native Boaboa and do the quests related to befriending them.

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When I consider what colonialism is, I think of the genocide of indigenous peoples, the forced indoctrination masked as “education” of children stolen from their parents, the loss and erasure of history and culture, the imposition of an alien rule of law…these are all very human challenges and atrocities, and I think require a direct approach to be understood. I acknowledge the colonialist legacy left on the environment itself (animal populations, the ecosystem), but it’s essential to understand how this ecological impact hurts human beings - in my own country, the decimation of wildlife and displacement of people led to the deprivation of food sovereignty and security and an exploitative dependence on corporate-controlled markets with unaffordable food, which in turn lead to high rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in affected communities which fuels greater dependence on the very system that exploited them, and so on it goes in a twisted cycle of systemic violence…

Which is to say, if we look at the history of (for argument’s sake) North America, what are we left with if we divorce the human element from this narrative and are left almost entirely with a story of hunting bison? Is a story that’s only about hunting bison a useful story about or a meaningful metaphor for colonialism? At what point is it just about hunting bison? And what, exactly, does a video game about hunting monsters for their loot have to say about the very real human issues I mentioned earlier?

The culling of animal populations occurs in contexts outside of colonialism, after all. Is every story about hunting animals in another land a story about colonialism? Even if we grant that it is and say they’re inextricably linked, what does it functionally mean to apply this framework in a critique if a depiction of the impact on human beings is mostly missing?

I understand it’s argued that the game is uncritical of colonialist practices, but does that mean the player is going to leave the game with colonialist values reinforced? Without a story or gameplay experience that directly addresses the human impact of colonialism (whether challenging it by exploring what was lost, or reinforcing it through a propagandistic notion of “civilizing” people), is there not a very hard limit on how colonialist values can be challenged or reinforced via power fantasy monster-hunting metaphor?

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@DrM2theJ @cervanky

I think the keyword here is “fantasy”.

A lot of US settler-colonists have a fantasy about the origins of the USA. That the arrival of Europeans was peaceful, and that the continents of the “New World” were “wild, untamed, and ripe for growth”, that the land was mostly uninhabited, and that contact was mostly amicable. This is a myth, and the actual history is laden with bloodshed, disease, and oppression.

What Monster Hunter World: Iceborn is producing, as I think Cado is trying to get at, is that fantasy of a wide-open wilderness. Monster Hunter isn’t made in the US, but whatever it’s made has a similar flavor. It’s a fantasy of the untamed wilderness, barely populated, and ready to be molded by the hands of colonists. This is just a fantasy, one that doesn’t reflect the actual history of colonization but has a deep appeal to many, and it reinforces the mythic vision of colonial history.

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Fantasy exists in the realm of metaphor, which is both a strength and a weakness. People will breathe their own experiences and context into the abstract space and engage with fantasy in ways that are meaningful to them personally. This can make it very powerful on a personal level, but it also means that people have a great deal of power to see what they choose to see.

It’s hard to imagine stories of exploration and conquest free from the context of colonialism because we live in a world so thoroughly shaped by colonialism and art ultimately can’t escape the culture that produces it. After all, lot of ancient stories have themes and plots that could be considered deeply colonialist if they were written in a modern context. The taming and civilizing of “wild” people certainly isn’t a new concept; nor is travelling into foreign lands to beat up monsters and take their stuff in the name of glory.

So on one hand, it’s absolutely fair to consider games in a colonialist context, even games whose themes only gesture towards the broad strokes of colonial history. On the other, self-flagellation over engaging with art that can be interpreted as colonialist is largely an act of personal catharsis that doesn’t contribute to decolonization efforts.

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there is no indication that limited resources are being fleeced for export back to some foreign home nation

I believe there is a bit in the story where the handler realizes that something she got from her grandfather back in the old world was from the new one and everyone is shocked because there’s an established rule of “taking nothing back”.

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@MyCoolYoungHistory That’s correct.

@Noelle808, really wonderful post that I completely agree with.

I feel “colonialist fantasy” is a very strong condemnation of a piece of fiction that implies positive representations of the subjugation of native peoples or genocide, that’s why I push back on the term being used on Iceborne, which does not have any representation of such things.

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“Colonialist Fantasy” refers to much more than subjugation of indigenous people in an area. In fact many colonialist fantasies intentionally don’t involve that. As vehemently mentions in their post, the colonialist fantasy often manifests as a group settling and exploiting an area that isn’t settled by indigenous people, but in doing so reinforces the idea that colonialism is less harmful than it actually is, and has been throughout history.

The key word here is “fantasy”, games and other forms of media so often try to ignore the realities of what it means to explore and settle a “new” area in favor of making it easier to engage with these ideas on an uncritical level.

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The relevant term in the history of colonialism is “terra nullius”. The age of the term itself is debated, but the idea it refers to was used extensively to justify conquest and settlement throughout the height of European colonialism. Most of the historical examples involve arbitrary decisions that indigenous peoples don’t “count” for one reason or another, which ties into the “colonialist fantasy” idea. When real-world colonists met a reality that contradicted their fantasy, they’d come up with an excuse to ignore the reality and continuing to behave as if their fantasy scenario was real after all.

Monster Hunter is far from the worst colonialist fantasy out there, but I think it’s important to discuss how these ideas have proliferated in the core concept of a lot of the games we play.

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And I should clarify that the point of bringing this up isn’t to shame anybody who likes MHW. I mean, both Austin and Cado have made it pretty clear that they enjoy the game. But we’re never going to get past the point where people have to enjoy a game despite the colonialism, sexism, etc., etc. instead of just full-stop enjoying a game unless we talk about it.

You see, this post is more in line with a fair criticism than a claim that it is an amplified colonialist fantasy, in my opinion. I’m so glad you used the term terra nullius because that is precisely what Monster Hunter World in general tries to represent.

A discussion of how a representation of an actual terra nullius in a game is problematic because it pretends there are no negative consequences of establishing a settlement and hunting is completely appropriate.

This is what I was trying to get at earlier when I said, “I think it’s fair to criticize Iceborne for not containing any actual commentary about colonialism given the nature of its setting and its focus on hunting.”

I’d love if anyone here would be able to point to a resource for learning what “colonialist fantasy” actually means because honestly I’m getting told by moderators here that it means something different from what I would have thought it meant. I’m being told it does not imply justification for subjugation, genocide, and pillaging.

Yet @tobascodagama is rightfully pointing out that terra nullius was a justification for colonialism in the real world—one that papered over genocide and pillaging.

Thing is, Iceborne isn’t using terra nullius to do that. So in order to level a criticism of colonialism at Iceborne, we are essentially taking the stance that by even representing an environment of this type, it is being “colonialist” despite not having any other elements of actual colonialism nor any other elements of justifications for colonialism that would qualify as “colonialist fantasy”.

I think maybe I’ve been unclear. I am not saying there are zero elements that could be seen as problematic through a colonialist context. I’m merely saying for it to be part of the headline here, for it to be the major criticism seems, well… once again, @Noelle808 said it better than I ever could:

So on one hand, it’s absolutely fair to consider games in a colonialist context, even games whose themes only gesture towards the broad strokes of colonial history. On the other, self-flagellation over engaging with art that can be interpreted as colonialist is largely an act of personal catharsis that doesn’t contribute to decolonization efforts.

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I mean, I actually think about it from the perspective of criticizing hunting far more, personally. Monster Hunter in general is completely about gluttonous, amoral slaughter of huge fauna in order to turn them into clothing. It’s a hunting game. Hunting is literally in the title.

I love it, but I’m not going to pretend like that’s not problematic and we should definitely discuss how hunting in Monster Hunter doesn’t justify big game trophy hunting in the real world even though that’s essentially what it boils down to. We all probably enjoy various “problematic” things and discussing the problematic elements and preventing their representation from leading to real world negative consequences is certainly important.

That’s why I’m here discussing it!

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