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Mexicolore contributor Ann de Leon

The Aztec-Spanish Encounter in Empire-Building Video Games

We are most grateful to Ann de León, Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada, for this intriguing study of how the Mexica (Aztecs) are represented in popular modern media such as video games...

Pic 1: Moctezuma faces Cortés at Tenochtitlan. (Detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Pic 1: Moctezuma faces Cortés at Tenochtitlan. (Detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The representation of the Aztec-Spanish encounter has fascinated historians for a long time. Recently, there has been an interest in looking at how popular culture has been inspired by these events in the production of different cultural artefacts such as video games, movies, and comic books. How are the Aztecs represented in these different media? Are they inspired by actual historical outcomes or do they envision fictional alternative outcomes for the Aztecs? Is Aztec warfare represented accurately? What would happen if the Aztecs had won? These are some of the questions that recent scholars of popular culture are asking.

Pic 2: Screenshot of the Aztec ‘Home City’ of Tenochtitlan
Pic 2: Screenshot of the Aztec ‘Home City’ of Tenochtitlan (Click on image to enlarge)

First, let us look at the representation of the Aztec-Spanish encounter in empire-building video games. Why? Video games are very popular in contemporary culture and their sales have surpassed that of movies, music and books! Many video games are also interested in re-creating historical battles and empire-building simulations. Some video games that represent the Aztec-Spanish encounter include the Age of Empires, Civilization, Medieval II: Total War, and Theocracy. These types of empire-building video games include maps, playing pieces that represent military units, and incorporate some historical personages and narratives into their game play. The narration is often divided into “campaigns” that “recreate” military events in historical settings, but some create alternative science fiction or fantasy worlds.

Pic 3: Culture clash: illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 3: Culture clash: illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

Not surprisingly, the Spanish Empire is represented as one of the playable factions in these game given Columbus’s renowned voyage to the Indies in 1492 and unknowingly, to the New World. At its greatest, Spain created the largest global empire comprised of territories in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. In the case of conquistadors such as Cortez in Mexico, any action of war against a “civilized” Other - such as the Aztecs who possessed advanced cities and government - had to be justified. Just war could be declared if the “Other” refused to convert to Christianity. The requerimiento (a juridical process) was first read upon encountering the “Other”. This process consisted of reading a long document that the Native American people could not even understand because of the language barrier, which outlined why the Kings of Spain had divine right over the new lands.

Pic 4: Screenshot of Native American villagers selected to perform a fertility Dance to speed unit production
Pic 4: Screenshot of Native American villagers selected to perform a fertility Dance to speed unit production (Click on image to enlarge)

The flora, fauna, natural resources, and cities of the new territories had to be mapped and documented. Alliances with indigenous tribes could be made in order to gain interpreters as sources of intelligence gathering and manpower. Settlements had to be established to provide a home base for operations. The Spanish conquistadors and missionaries were tasked to take care of the spiritual welfare of the Native Americans they conquered, as well as their lands and natural resources.

Pic 5: Native American characters can increase attributes by dancing around a fire pit. (Artwork created to promote the game)
Pic 5: Native American characters can increase attributes by dancing around a fire pit. (Artwork created to promote the game) (Click on image to enlarge)

For example, in the video game the Age of Empires III, the player can select the group they would like to play and maps of New World territories are provided for the location one would like to conquer. The aim is to establish a settlement, obtain natural resources, and produce and train soldiers/warriors in order to engage in war with the enemy. A powerful settlement is achieved through the exploitation of natural resources, which enable one to increase population size, the production of soldiers and the creation of structures. Having accumulated enough resources, structures and manpower, each faction competes to upgrade to a more “Advanced Age”.

Pic 6: Age of Empires III: Heads-Up Display
Pic 6: Age of Empires III: Heads-Up Display (Click on image to enlarge)

Surprisingly in these games, the player spends most of their time behind the scenes like a play director engaging in an inventory of icons, controls and menus found in the Heads-Up-Display. This display, which is superimposed over the battle-space with a bird’s-eye view allows you to watch what is going on in the battlefield and allows you to direct your characters to perform certain actions.

The Heads-Up-Display (pic 6), which includes an inventory of icons, enables you to visualize your Empire (territory, weapons, soldiers, settlers, etc.). It also recalls the Codex Mendoza made by Aztec tlacuilos after the conquest of their capital. Through the use of pictographs and Spanish alphabetic intervention, the Aztec tlacuilos, or painter-scribes documented their history. This pictorial manuscript commissioned by Viceroy Mendoza (1542), was meant for King Charles V so that he could visualize his new possessions and riches. The Codex Mendoza (pic 7) includes a visual historical narrative of the foundation of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which was obtained through warfare and the subjugation of neighbouring tribes. The codice also includes an extensive inventory of possessions (tribute) obtained from the towns the Aztecs conquered.

Pic 7: The Codex Mendoza
Pic 7: The Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

In the game a player can also click on individual characters and buildings in the game to obtain what appears to be historically accurate narrative about the life of certain historical personages such as an important Spanish conquistador or Aztec military leaders. For example, in the “Histories” section of the Main Menu of the game, one can access text on the different civilizations’ ‘Home Cities’. One of these is the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan which when compared to the architectural and historical archive appears to be rendered in an accurate fashion as shown in Picture 2.

Pic 8: Eagle and Jaguar Warriors, Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 8: Eagle and Jaguar Warriors, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

The representation of Aztec warriors visually and in the accompanying “Histories” textual narrative makes an attempt to use the known historical record. For example Aztec commoner soldiers or macehualtin are represented wearing simple cotton armour and armed with slings and shields. The narrative discusses how the macehualtin “served together in battle and on the numerous public works projects. Their soldiers wielded weapons of wood and stone, and they often sought prisoners to be sacrificed in religious ceremonies. The macehualtin laboured as farmers, tradesmen, and merchants.”

Aztec Eagle Runner Knights and Jaguar Prowl Knights are depicted as an elite class of warriors. These warriors seem to accurately represent the elite Aztec Eagle and Jaguar warrior ranks in Aztec society. The Jaguar Prowl Knight wore jaguar skins and carried shields and obsidian swords. The game though does not represent their historical participation in Gladiatorial sacrifice. The Eagle Runner Knights were also elite warriors who captured enemies for ritual sacrifice and their dress “incorporated feathers and a helmet resembling an eagle’s head. The eagle was a symbol of the sun, the focus of Aztec worship and sacrifice. Eagle runner knights are usually depicted carrying shields and spears” (see below for further links on Aztec warfare).

Pic 9: Cipactli worship icon
Pic 9: Cipactli worship icon

In this game, one of the ways that Native American tribes differ from European military units is in the production of soldiers or warriors, by using what are called “Big Button Technologies.” These have been inspired by Aztec religion, culture, and society. For example some of these include: Coatlicue, Tezcatlipoca, Cipactli and Cinteotl Worship. For example, a “Big Button Technology “ called “Cipactli Worship” enables the Aztecs (during the ‘Fortress Age’), to produce four “Tlaloc canoes.” This is achieved by having your villagers first build a dock near a waterway and then by clicking on the ‘Hot Button Technology’ (or icon) of the Cipactli Sign (Picture 9).

Pic 10: Lienzo de Tlaxcala showing Cortez and Tlaxcalan allies preparing to attack the Aztecs (left). Age of Empires III Tlaloc canoe (right)
Pic 10: Lienzo de Tlaxcala showing Cortez and Tlaxcalan allies preparing to attack the Aztecs (left). Age of Empires III Tlaloc canoe (right) (Click on image to enlarge)

Cipactli is known as the first day in the Aztec divinatory calendar and symbolized the earth floating in the primeval waters. As noted by Alexanda Biar [Mexicolore website] the Aztecs learned to dominate their aquatic environment on the lake of Texcoco by building canoes for religious, commercial, and transportation purposes, and possibly also as military vessels in the Spanish-Aztec encounter as has been documented in some codices and Spanish historical accounts (see Picture 10). While we do not know if the Aztecs indeed had war canoes called “Tlaloc canoes” as they are called in the video game, as Ian Mursell notes “the Aztecs attributed the invention of the pole for propelling boats to the god Opochtli, an aspect of Tlaloc, the rain god.” [“King Canoe,” Mexicolore] Thus, the representation of “Tlaloc canoes” inspired by the deity Tlaloc, associated with water and agriculture, seems like an interesting appropriation of Aztec culture.

Pic 11: Aztec broadsword alongside Spanish sword, exhibition on Moctezuma II, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 11: Aztec broadsword alongside Spanish sword, exhibition on Moctezuma II, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

So are these empire-building video games showing an accurate representation of Aztec warfare? Not necessarily. While certainly inspired by Aztec history and warfare, as Latin American video games expert Penix-Tadsen has noted, these empire-building games “tend to simplify the complex cultural backdrops against which their action takes place, using the familiar symbols of ancient Latin American cultures.”

Pic 12: Screenshot of a player selecting a council member upon reaching the ‘Colonial Age’
Pic 12: Screenshot of a player selecting a council member upon reaching the ‘Colonial Age’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Furthermore, while some empire-building video games present a linear and positivistic progression of five “Ages” where a player using any faction can advance to a new and by implication, a more “civilized” Age; this is achieved if they acquire enough territory, material wealth, soldiers, libraries and technologies. While this observation may seem trivial, it might be worth remembering that domination over Native American cultures by European Empires was often justified because of the Native American’s perceived lack of civilization or “humanity” as evidenced by their nakedness/lack of clothes or the perceived absence of historical memory because of their lack of ‘books’ or European alphabetic writing systems. These views failed to recognized other Native American cosmologies or alternative material culture used to encode knowledge. In this respect such games re-enact western views of empire, in that acquiring a greater economic base and new technologies implies a progression of “Ages” and becoming more ‘modern’.

Pic 13: What if...?
Pic 13: What if...? (Click on image to enlarge)

A notable exception worth further analysis may be found in the video game Theocracy (2000) in which a fictional Aztec-like tribe has the ability to expand its empire successfully before and after the arrival of the Spanish. The game ending video presents an alternative fictional world for the successful Aztec-like civilization in present times. It imagines the Aztec empire looking like a futuristic city, which blends ancient Aztec architecture with flying cars. In the game ending video the fictional Aztec tribe leader dressed in Native American costume answers his cell-phone and then rides back home to his pyramid in his futuristic flying car. [See link to game ending below]. If you could design a video game where the Aztecs won, what do you think the world would look like today? [See Mexicolore “How would the world be different today if the Aztecs had defeated the Conquistadors?”] Do you feel that these empire-building video games represent Aztec warfare accurately?

Suggested guide to further reading:-
• Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988
• Pohl, John. Aztec Warrior AD 1325-1521: Weapons, Armor. Osprey Publishing, 2001
• Penix-Tadsen, Phillip. “Latin American Ludology: Why We Should Take Video Games Seriously and When We Shouldn’t,” Latin American Research Review 48 (1): (2013) pp. 174-190.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Photo by Evita Sánchez Fernández/Mexicolore
• Pix 2, 4, 5, 5, 9 & 12: Screenshot mages downloaded from Age of Empires III User’s Manual: Source: Microsoft Game Studios / Ensemble Studios (2005), available at:-
• Pic 3: Illustration by and courtesy of Felipe Dávalos
• Pic 7: Images from Wikipedia
• Pic 8: Image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 10(l): Image from:-
• Pic 10(r): Image from:-
• Pix 11 & 13: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 10th 2014

‘When the Aztecs went to war, did they use any [special] tactics?’

‘How big was the Aztec army?’

‘The Aztecs and Lake Navigation’ by Alexandra Biar

‘King Canoe’

‘What if the Aztecs had defeated the Spanish?’

Theocracy (2000) video game ending
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