Grand Theft Terra Firma turns Canada's brutal history into a video game

According to the game's creators, it's "time to flip the narrative" of history. Ready for decolonization player one?

According to the creators, it's 'time to flip the narrative' of history. Ready for decolonization player one?

David Campion and Sandra Shields. Screen play shot from Grand Theft Terra Firma, 2017. (Courtesy of the artists)

Forget Oregon Trail. What if there was a video game about the settlement of British Columbia — one that was as brutal and "rated A" as the province's actual history?

Grand Theft Terra Firma, on to May 7 at The Reach Gallery in Abbotsford, B.C., imagines just that. Among the offerings in this year's Capture Photo Festival, it's a text and photo-based installation by artists David Campion and Sandra Shields that places visitors inside a larger-than-life strategy guide for this imaginary video game. But its narrative doesn't use words as vague and tidy as "colonization" to describe how history played out 150 odd years ago. Your mission? Steal the land by any means necessary. Playing as one of eight "badass bigots," per the game's official rulebook, you're part of "a complex heist masterminded by criminals in London, and played out on the ground by a gang of greedy thieves."

"I think it's time to flip the narrative that the Canadian myth speaks to," Campion tells CBC Arts. "Over the last 150 years, [we've] celebrated settlement."

"It's been seen as virtuous, right?" adds Shields. "We were looking to be provocative; we were looking to re-frame the founding story of the country in a really strong way."

Rules for "a game for scoundrels." One of the game-play panels from David Campion and Sandra Shields's Grand Theft Terra Firma. (Courtesy of the artists)
David Campion and Sandra Shields. Grand Theft Terra Firma Wild Card, 2017. (Courtesy of the artists)

Campion and Shields, both 51, live on the Leq'á:mel First Nation reserve with their eight-year-old son, and they've been based in the Fraser Valley area for 14 years. Neither is Indigenous; Shields's family were early Alberta settlers, while Campion was born in England and raised in Zimbabwe and South Africa. But the duo has been studying Indigenous land rights for 20 years, Campion explains, a subject that's been the focus of both their artistic and documentary collaborations. (Their book about the life of the Himba people in northern Namibia, Where Fire Speaks, won the 2003 B.C. Book Prize for Nonfiction.) "When we moved to the valley, we knew we wanted to explore colonization happening outside our backdoor, recognizing it's everybody's backdoor," says Campion.

We were looking to be provocative; we were looking to re-frame the founding story of the country in a really strong way.- Sandra Shields, artist

Grand Theft Terra Firma is the result of five years of focused research, they explain. The duo's been studying how the land that would become British Columbia was taken from First Nations, consulting archives, academics, cultural knowledge keepers from Stó:lō Nation — investigating not just "the process and mechanics" of how it happened, but also, Campion explains, "the racism that really stoked it."

That's why the "game" they've created isn't actually playable. "It should never be played," Campion says. "I think it would allow people to act out their prejudices." So instead, visitors to the gallery are asked to follow a narrative that might play out in a game like GTTF.

In the "game," players have the the option of choosing one of eight characters whose large-scale portraits hang on the walls. There's a governor, a royal engineer, a pioneer, a priest, a whiskey trader — and they're all composites of real-life historical figures. "Each of the bios give you a picture of the British Empire at the time, and they each have specific missions they play in the game of thieves," Campion explains.

"Mission: Playing the Governor, you must set up a protection racket making your play when the miners rampage through. The mastermind back in London wants the job done in record time. As the local crime boss, you must coordinate the heist and move quickly to convince the Indians that resistance is futile." (Courtesy of the artists)
"Mission: Playing the Royal Engineer, you are the specialist who cracks the safe and opens up the land for profit. The invisible lines that you mark on the land are key to the imperial sleight of hand." (Courtesy of the artists)
"Mission: Playing the Whiskey Trader makes you the drug dealer in the game. Your character traffics in addictions that unleash mayhem among the natives. Your contribution to the heist is to take resistance out at the knees." (Courtesy of the artists)

To situate viewers in the GTTF universe, there are a few 3D installation elements, too. The first map of B.C. ("the new El Dorado") is spread out on the colonial secretary's desk — a.k.a. "the mastermind back in London." There's a cedar outhouse you can use — for reading only, thanks. "So far, everyone's been very respectful," Shields laughs. It's stocked with reprints of 1860s newspapers.

Throughout the space, there are also large photographs of "Power Objects" that you'd need to pick up to complete a mission, items like the Union Jack ("Power: Sends the message that you are the new game in town") or a surveyor's chain ("Power: Turns forests and meadows into real estate that can be bought and sold.").

"Union Jack: These are your gang colors. The overlay of crosses celebrates previous turf wars. When you fly them, they stoke your pride and prejudice." (Courtesy of the artist)
"Home Decoration: This glass parlor dome encloses flowers that never fade. It sings an ode to an idealized nature created by human hand that knows no seasons. Power: Aligns with the mission of shaping the land to your will." (Courtesy of the artists)

And, most illustratively, there are 10 "Screen Play Shots," or scenes from the game, that include descriptions of what's happening to the players. The models are a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous actors and neighbours, and Shields explains that the images were created collaboratively with the subjects — from their wardrobe choices to the poses.

"As the Whiskey Trader, you are constantly harassed by Homeland Security working to wipe you out. To survive their wrath and make your cash, you need adequate protection. One shotgun is not enough. Find five and you can stay alive." (Courtesy of the artists)
"As the Priest, you must start a residential school. You know that the children are the future. As you begin to indoctrinate them, denounce their elder's beliefs as false. Take them on a school trip to the top of a forbidden mountain and tell them this proves that your God is the best." (Courtesy of the artists)
"The mosquitos are so bad they can bring your mission to a standstill. You need this woman's medicine to carry on with the job. DANGER: If your prejudice is running low, the caring ways of this family will make you reconsider your notions about their inferiority. Recognizing their humanity brings on an existential crisis, causing you to abandon your life of crime." (Courtesy of the artists)

In one, the settler gets a bonus for kicking a First Nations family off their land. Points are awarded for brutal, immoral acts, but it's game over if you develop empathy towards Indigenous characters. There's one scene, for example, where the ailing land surveyor accepts medicine from an Indigenous family — an act of compassion that brings on "an existential crisis." As a result, it's back to England for him.

It should never be played. I think it would allow people to act out their prejudices.- David Campion, artist

The whole video game concept came about as a fluke. "When we first started thinking about this project, we had a totally different approach, which was documentary in nature and of course, trying to deal with something that happened 150 years ago, without a time machine, is sort of impossible," says Campion.

"David had been watching a friend play Grand Theft Auto," Shields explains. When the friend asked him what the project was going to be about, he answered: "Well, it's really just Grand Theft Terra Firma."

"As we opened it up — the game as a metaphor — it's just such a powerful vehicle," says Shields.

Even if you never memorized the Konami Code, everyone knows the basic conventions of video games. Talking about decolonization like it's a video game — a satirical one, at that — just makes the concept more accessible.

"As a settler colonial society, it is a very difficult process to move from a place where you celebrate the pioneer years to a place where you have to consider that maybe they acted immorally and unethically and that it was wrong. It's a very tricky space," says Campion.

Adds Shields: "I think [our role as artists] is to help other settler Canadians travel down a different path, recognize a different perspective — and do some difficult truth telling."

"When you are on the job, use the outhouse at Old MacDonald's farm to power up your prejudice. It is well stocked with the latest news. The paper fires up your head of steam and comes in handy for taking care of business." (Courtesy of the artists)

Grand Theft Terra Firma. David Campion and Sandra Shields. To May 7 at The Reach Gallery, Abbotsford, B.C.

Capture Photography Festival. To April 28. Various locations, Vancouver.