Europe's Sandbox Mentality 4/4/06

Joey Roth

Tracing the roots of certain aspects of the European world-view to ancient Rome, an association of civilized society with conquest, land ownership, and, to some degree, land transformation becomes clear. The consideration of permanent architecture as a prerequisite for and marker of culture was also carried from Rome to later European nations. As late as the 1950's, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, an architectural critic, commented that “A people without architecture transmits little of its culture.” If “architecture” in this quote refers to permanent architecture, Monholy-Nagy’s observation may explain the importance and symbolic consistency attributed to architecture, and as an extension to land ownership, in cultures that make a distinction between “civilized” and “uncivilized”, almost always viewing themselves as civilized. This is expressed on a large scale in the form of empire, on a small scale through the development of formal gardens, estates, and plantations. Land is the quintessential excludable resource in cultures that allow, indeed can conceive of, its ownership; ownership is most clearly demonstrated by changing that which you own.

When applied to America however, a country founded by Europeans and a major purveyor of quasi-imperialism (depending on who you ask), the comparison with Rome does not hold up. It seems like we might have trouble with full-fledged Roman-style imperialism because we as a country are so culturally fractured. What model of America would we build in our conquered territories? The Romans basically tried to re-create Rome wherever they went, building similar, if smaller cities and granting Roman citizenship to conquered people. This was possible largely because they had one city and a relatively tight culture as a model. Would we build McMansions and big-box retailers strung together by obscenely wide highways? Although this is currently the middle-America “schema”, most of what I saw on a recent cross-country trip was nothing like this. In fact I'd have a hard time pinning down what America looks like, and perhaps this does something to explain our half-there-half-not imperialism and our difficulties in figuring out how to rebuild conquered countries in the Middle East. Most scholars would attribute the success of the American occupation of Japan to characteristics of the Japanese people and culture. While this is certainly valid, the success may have had something to do with the relatively clearer and stronger concept of America that Americans held at the end of WWII than is held now.

“Sandbox” refers to a type of video game that is designed to facilitate for the player freedom of action, exploration, and experimentation, and provides a useful framework for understanding the mindset that fostered European travel and expansion. In sandbox games plot, goals, and score are secondary or non-existent sources of entertainment for the player, discovery and world-building being the primary reasons to play. Famous examples from this genre include the Sim City series and, not surprisingly Civilization. While European exploration and colonization was certainly motivated by material goals, and so may not be completely analogous to sandbox games, the view of the world and its inhabitants as a field for experimentation, or a canvas for empire construction that could be changed by human will is similar to the mindset that the player of a sandbox game is made to adopt. Particularly salient examples of this mindset as enacted by European explorers include the naming of already-inhabited and named places, the deliberate transplantation of foreign flora and fauna to newly discovered ecosystems, and even mundane and seemingly innocuous tasks like surveying land and drawing maps.

A number of environmental factors led European culture to construe the world as a “sandbox”. As mentioned previously, Roman cultural heritage, particularly its focus on independence and the power of individual action, played a role. Additionally, the European continent was geographically isolated from the far east over land, and the south was in constant danger of conquest by Muslim armies. This, combined with the relative weakness of European land armies and access to resources like forests of large trees and iron, along with the technology and facilities to work with these materials allowed, and perhaps led to, Europe's development of naval technology and eventual dominance of the seas. Europe began to rely so much on sea power that most overseas colonial possessions extended just a few miles inland and would have been overrun by the native populations in a matter of days were it not for the tactical advantage afforded to large ships with long-ranged artillery. By using a single piece of technology to accomplish both long-distance travel and military dominance, Europeans were able to overcome their weakness on land and enact the desire to explore and conquer that was informed by their sandbox-like view of the world.