“In a world without gold, we might have been heroes!” Cultural Imaginations of Piracy in Video Games

Eugen Pfister (Hochschule der Künste Bern)

From its beginning, colonialism had to be legitimized in Western Europe through cultural and political narratives and imagery, for example in early modern travel reports and engravings. Images and tales of the exotic Caribbean, of beautiful but dangerous „natives“, of unbelievable fortunes and adventures inspired numerous generations of young men to leave for the „new worlds“ and those left behind to support the project. An interesting figure in this set of imaginations in North-Western Europe was the “pirate”: poems, plays, novels and illustrations of dashing young rogues, helping their nation to claim their rightful share of the „Seven Seas“ achieved major successes in France, Britain the Netherlands and beyond. These images – regardless of how far they might have been from their historical inspiration – were immensely successful and are still an integral and popular part of our narrative repertoire: from novels to movies to video games. It is important to note that the “story” was – from the 18th century onwards –almost always the same: a young (often aristocratic) man, unfairly convicted for a crime he didn’t commit became an hors-la-loi against his will but still adhered to his own strict code of conduct and honour. By rescuing a city/colony/princess he redeemed himself and could be reintegrated into society. Here lies the morale of the story: these imaginations functioned also as acts of political communication, teaching “social discipline”. But does this narrative still function in open world video games like Assassin’s Creed IV and Pirates!? This article examines “modern” iterations of these ahistorical imaginations in video games to see if and how the cultural image of “piracy” has changed through the media of video games.

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