Civilization! Script below the cut.
I love Civilization. It’s right up there with Doom and Mario 64 and Deus Ex as a foundational game for me; one of the titles that made me the sort of player and critic I am today. A strategic simulator that stretches across of all of recorded time, bringing us the story of man from agriculture to the internet in an attempt to recreate not actual history -the events and people that shaped the world as it is- but the pattern of history -the progress and the expansion and the overall direction of all of mankind. It’s a massive undertaking and even as a kid I saw the profundity in a game interested in looking at systemizing something that grand.
And all of that – the admiration, the love of playing it, the awe of the sheer scope of the game – still holds true for me today. But as I’ve grown older and more learned my view on what the game is has shifted. As a kid I felt I was learning something – from key scientific breakthroughs to which leaders went with which civilization. But as an adult I see the underlying rhetoric at play here, the assumptions baked into its metaphors and the arguments being put forth by its mechanics. And while I still absolutely adore the game, I do so now with the understanding that it’s not showing the actual patterns of history but patterns of a specific lens through which it views history.
Let’s start with the title – Civilization. That’s sort of a troubling word in and of itself, right? It’s hard to call something civilized without making a value judgement against peoples that don’t normally get considered a proper civilization. Like you’re a member of a civilization or you’re a savage. And maybe I could ignore that if it were just the name of the game that brought up this idea. But the Civilization franchise also uses game mechanics to reinforce the validity and primacy of traditional civilizations with the addition of barbarian hordes. The mechanical point of barbarians is to spice up early gameplay and force players to keep at least a small military available since barbarians could attack at any moment whether or not you’re at war with anyone. But that’s sort of the problem here – unlike other quote-unquote civilized societies Barbarians don’t obey territory boundaries and can’t be reasoned with. The game paints them basically as monsters. Actually in Alpha Centauri the Barbarian stand-ins literally are monsters in the form of terror inducing mind worms, which provide pretty much the same purpose and underscore how dehumanized the barbarians really are. Civilization IV even goes so far as to have the barbarians share a banner with wildlife as if to imply they’re on the same side, as if they were destructive forces of nature and not really people at all.
With the barbarian mechanic Civilization effectively comes out and says that while there are many civilizations of all colors and creeds, there are still some groups of people too small or too mobile or too primitive to warrant any response but the swing of the sword or the loosing of an arrow. But this idea that there are some peoples or social constructs below consideration as equals – or worse, the idea that some people are just quote-unquote savages incapable of anything other than conquest and destruction – doesn’t really gel with the rest of the game’s self-image as a celebration of all of mankind’s shared history. You know, where we’ve been and where we’re going and all that feel good jazz the game insists it’s about. So what’s up with the canon fodder? Well, the barbarians’ crime isn’t savagery or pillaging or violence. God knows, the real civilizations engage in plenty of that. No, their crime is not picking up agriculture, settling down, and joining the race for territory, resources, and power. Their real crime, and the reason the game considers them beneath you, is simply that they don’t belonging to a proper nation.
Because really, that’s what Civilization is. It’s an ode to nationalism. A paean to self-perpetuating empire; a love letter not to the peoples of the world but the arbitrary banners and borders they fight for. You may choose a leader when starting a game, but that’s just a figurehead, an icon. In Civilization you don’t play as Ghandi or George Washington or Catherine the Great. You are playing as the state – an ageless construct interested only in its own growth, power, and self preservation that’s as divorced from the people that make it up as you are from the cells that make you up. Compare Civ’s approach to Crusader Kings, where you play a series of characters in succession. The emphasis isn’t on government itself, but government as a reflection on a dynasty of individuals placed in its charge. Crusader Kings insists that governments are a process by which individuals organize their fight for power and glory. It suggests that conquest and empire is a result of simpler, baser human desires. In contrast, Civilization posits that the state is all that is or ever was. The humans themselves are incidental. And that, I think, is the key problem I have with the game as an adult. It frames the entire history of mankind as the history of nations, not the history of people.
For example, before you even have wheels, calendars, or written language your people have decided that they are, in fact, a unified people. Which… I mean, that’s kind of a new concept historically speaking and it sort of sticks out that a game that starts in 50,000 BC presupposes it. Here’s a picture of what we might now refer to collectively as “Ancient Greece.” Notice that it’s composed of an area of city-states and “tribal areas” that make up what we traditionally think of simply as a unified people, makin’ marble busts and wearin’ togas. But they weren’t really unified – at least not in the way Civilization tries to pretend they were. Sparta tried to invade Athens during the Peloponnesian War while Athens had its own little empire going on. They may have been united in empire under Alexander the Great and others, but they had separate laws and cultures and armies. Yet when playing Civilization Athens and Sparta are default city names for the Greek Civilization, as if they had always belonged to some formally unified entity. Your civilization in the game can’t be a loose confederation of City States and tribes. And your civilization also can’t really be a proper empire with subservient but autonomous governments reporting back to you or colonies abroad. In fact we had to make a whole other game to deal with colonies. These are some major ways of organizing cultures that have been around for millennia and we sort of skip straight from agriculture to our modern concept of a country. Now, some of this might just be developers being biased by the times they live in – we don’t exactly have a ton of independent city-states, for example. But I think a lot of this stems from the games that Meiers cites as inspiration for Civilization – games like Risk and Empire. There’s no real timeframe for Risk, but artillery and cavalry units place it somewhere between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the concept of nationalism was taking off. More importantly, it was released in 1957, right in the middle of the Cold War. Empire’s more abstract and Civilization mostly took the city micromanaging from it, but it’s clearly influenced by World War II and was also released during the Cold War. The game’s roots are in games where states fight states; MicroProse and Firaxis just take that pattern and extrapolate it backwards into all of history whether it makes sense or not. This is why you have a centralized government with a single treasury, a research agenda, major public works projects, and all cities working towards a common goal often before you’ve discovered writing. From turn 1 you’re playing as a unified, modern nation.
And in the context of a game that’s about being a country we start taking on the views of a country. Everything suddenly becomes a weapon for the expansion of state power and influence. Cities build units for battle. Science unlocks better units and tools. Religion can influence opinion in other countries. Money can buy friends or pay off enemies or rush production. Happiness keeps productivity and growth high. Culture can spread your borders or religion or let you establish social orders that give other advantages. No part of your Civilization exists for its own sake; everything exists as a means of harming, manipulating, or defending yourself from the other civilizations. That’s elegant and beautiful from the perspective of designing a game that plays really well. But it utterly dehumanizes the country you’re playing as. You adopt Liberty in Civ V because you had to pick a cultural perk and you figured a science bonus would fit your play style. You build the colosseum to generate more happiness not because you worry about the contentment of your citizens but because you see a war coming in 20 turns and you need production operating at full capacity.
What’s odd is that this problem is actually getting worse with time. It didn’t use to be quite this bad. In Civ II you could customize the building types your cities would use throughout the game, which had no direct mechanical impact but gave you a sense of directing this society. You got to expand your throne room if people loved you, giving happiness a reward structure divorced from simply keeping production up. And social orders weren’t exclusively about progress, but shifting needs and cultural norms. The game asks players to make a decision about whether slavery was worth the production bonuses or if Democracy was worth giving up some of their unilateral power as leader. You got to change the way your civ looked. If your people cared about you, you got rewarded. If you stuck to your ideals it might meant the game would handicap you, but that made those ideals matter. All of that fed into an idea that the game was as much role playing as strategy, that your choices influenced whether you’d win but whether you’d win wasn’t all that mattered.
Speaking of winning… I already mentioned that the selection of winstates in Civilization reflect a certain bias in my “Keep Your Politics out of My Game” video. So I won’t go over that again. I will say, however, that the universality and finality of the win states reinforces a sort of fatalist “one civ to rule them all” philosophy. It presents history as a sort of Hunger Games for countries – only one gets to take the prize as The Most Important Civilization Ever. Which, again, makes sense given the game’s board and strategy game roots, but reframes every decision in history as a zero-sum game leading up to a single nation achieving some sort of insurmountable achievement that proves their inherent superiority. And first of all, proving the inherent superiority of specific nations is really troubling for a lot of obvious reasons.
But it also frames civilizations in direct competition in a way they aren’t, really. Compare the win states in Civilization with, say, the Lifetime Wish system of The Sims 3. Each Sim has their own life-long ambition, combined with smaller short-term tasks that help them along that path. These goals can be anything from getting super rich to having a lot of friends to becoming a master thief. But the Sims aren’t competing; it’s not like if Mortimer Goth achieves his dream first then the game ends, all other dreams are rendered irrelevant, and Mortimer Goth is declared the best Sim to ever live. They each have their own goals and have to work with or against each other to achieve them – sometimes friends are made, sometimes enemies, and that’s what drives an interesting emergent narrative. And this seems more in line with what real civilizations are like – they each have their own goals, and sometimes those are in conflict with one another and that leads to strife. Instead Civilization presents us all as being in a mad dash to be the first to be the bestest nation ever in one of a few areas. It suggests that if there is a human emotion experienced by these primal state-entities, it’s pride; that the only time these nations look above their current need for more power it’s to build up and reinforce their legacy. You don’t build the most culturally important city or the first trip to Alpha Centauri for the reasons humans would do those things, you do it because it legitimizes your civilization in the eyes of other civilizations.
The win states also undercut what could have been a simulationist view of history. Which the whole game is designed to do, really. Civilization isn’t a mechanical playground where you can experiment with history, it’s got a very intentionally designed arc to the whole thing. There are clear early, mid, and late game stages. You explore and expand, then skirmish over the remaining resources and empty tiles, and finally settle in and choose which way you think you can win the game. You can futz with this a bit, but only so much – even the one city civilizations or those that delay researching medieval stuff until the 20th century still mostly follow the game’s plotted arcs. Much like how the new SimCity doesn’t allow for agrarian cities – the idea being that no one would want to build those, I guess – Civilization doesn’t allow for any civs other than those in it to win it. You can’t be a small and industrious peoples, you can’t aim for happiness and quality of life as a goal. You’re forced to aspire to greatness.
Which is the other weird thing – Civilization takes the oft-problematic “Great Man” view of history, where specific important individuals (almost always men) are shown as the drivers of history itself instead of the confluence of, you know, everyone in history, and steps back even further. This isn’t “Great Man” history, it’s “Great Thing History,” where world wonders, civic improvements, revolutionary technologies, and battle-turning combat units of centuries past are celebrated. Don’t worry, Great Men are there too as Great Engineers and Great Prophets and Great Generals, but in this statist view of history, even great men don’t matter as much as their accomplishments in the name of national power, glory, and expansion. I suppose in playing as a thing rather than as a person you recognize things rather than people.
All of this sounds really negative, and I want to emphasize that I’m not hating on the game. I’m just trying to get to the core of what its mechanics and metaphor really add up to, what they really say about the civilizations we live in. And what it presents, at least to me, is a peek into the mind of the state as an entity. And that view suggests that state governments are inherently dehumanizing and indifferent to suffering unless it harms them directly, narcissistic almost to the point of solipsism, and motivated by base desires like survival, expansion, and power. And that’s curious to me because Civilization always billed itself as celebratory, a proud look back at all things the collective we have accomplished across fifty thousand years – from hunting mammoths to space shuttles, from cave paintings made of ash to complex symphonies. But to the civilizations in the game a space shuttle is just a win state, a symphony is just a means of generating more culture or tourism. Civilization wraps its cold, detached, reptilian AI in a cute cartoon of Harald Bluetooth or Ghandi; it takes awe-inspiring feats of engineering or art that have moved people to tears and hands them a simple stat bonus. It asks you to buy into a shiny fable of a shared human history while trying to get you to engage in violent and competitive empire building. And perhaps it’s that odd duality at the core of Civilization that sticks out in my head when playing it as an adult. I want to believe in the optimistic, human focused tale about culture, art, and science, and how the world we know is the culmination of of everything anyone has ever done. But the history of Civilization isn’t the history of people, it’s the history of things from the view of the state. And I think we confuse those two things at our peril.