Can Civilization teach us about history?
There are a thousand ways to make a game about all of civilisation – we only get to make one of them
As a scientist, my interest in history came through video games. Having played the Civilization game series for almost fifteen years, the game was a useful tool for me as a school student. Sid Meier’s Civilization (Civ) is a series of games in which you play as a historical society from the dawn of civilisation to the present day and beyond. The first game in the series was released in 1991; since then, the series has expanded to 5 main games with additional spin-offs and a major new release, Civilization VI, is out in October 2016.
The game is free form while defining some key principles and then letting the player dictate the course of history. So could this game be useful for a historian? I have immensely enjoyed playing the franchise since Civ III, however, recently it is reading the thoughts by the game makers on what they thought should be included that is most enlightening for understanding the perception of history.
Soren Johnson, lead designer on Civ IV, comments, ‘There are a thousand ways to make a game about all of civilisation – we only get to make one of them’. As a result, there are key themes that have transferred between games in the series: civilisations, science, culture, civics, religion and warfare.
The first key theme is the individual civilisations. The game defines a set of nations you can guide and a historical leader to play as. So which civilisation and leaders do you choose for your game? The original game had 15 civilisations to choose from including the Romans, Russians and Indians. The Roman leader was Julius Caesar, the Russian leader was Stalin and the Indian leader was Ghandi. Each of these leaders was given a personality which governed how the computer would play.
An interesting bug, which spawned multiple memes was the personality set for Gandhi. Gandhi was programmed as the most peaceful nation in the game, up until the adoption of democracy. At this point Gandhi became a nuclear warlord. Later game releases have played homage to this bug, often making Gandhi the most aggressive leader at the midpoint of the game. This bug highlights both how the gamemakers attempted to model actual personalities and how a simple bug could lead the game to dramatically diverge from actual historical events and personalities.
The second key theme running through the games is science. Scientific research dictates the level of progress of your civilisation and what historical era you are in. You do not need to research every technology in the game, but there are key technologies which must be researched in order to progress. These technologies are arranged in a tree, in which for each technology a prior technology must already be learnt. You can’t have chariots before you’ve created the wheel, to take an obvious example.
Technology Trees represent both the history of technology whilst also being a core game mechanism. However, technology trees risk becoming too linear and being modelled too heavily on one civilisation. Would you draw the same tree as the game makers?
It is interesting to look at how science is modelled in the game and comparing it with the real world. The game only lets you research one technology at a time and whilst the technology tree gives you decision points, there is still very limited directions of research. This may fit with the popular view of science, but misses the reality. Often regions of history are categorised by a technology, for example, the age of steam, or currently, maybe the age of cancer research. However, this often forgets that whilst this may be the main focus, other research is on-going. Something I would like to see in future Civilization games would be the ability to research multiple technologies at once with a priority system dictating speed of research. This would reflect the real history of having a primary focus, but also model in the non-primary research going on.
Another key aspect of the game is culture. Culture dictates the expansion of a nation. The game allows you to build cities, each of which develops its own culture. If the culture points in the city reach a certain level, the area controlled by the city expands. I wonder, what would a historian say gives a city culture? The game makers decided that culture points could be earned by having specialised citizens (artists) or by constructing specific buildings. Does a library or a theatre contribute more to a city’s level of culture? What about artistic achievements?
Surely the type of government should also be something a player can choose. If the Romans were around now, what form of government would they have? This has been an important theme since the original game. The game gives you a choice of civics to pick from with additional civics unlocked by certain technologies or era. Each civic comes with a set of perks and disadvantages for the nation. These would include faster build times, more happiness, more gold, more unhappiness, etcetera.
One example of a civic in Civ IV is slavery, which can be adopted early on. It was cheap to maintain and allowed you to sacrifice some of your population to speed up building construction. However, once a rival civilisation has adopted emancipation, slavery causes unhappiness and riots in your cities.
The mechanism for civics changes quite a bit between games. Civ V in particular played around with how these worked, changing the requirements for when different civics become available and what perks and disadvantages each civic brings with it.
In Civ IV, the game introduced religion. A religion would be automatically founded by the first civilisation to research a specific technology. After a religion was founded, it could be spread by priests, or slowly between neighbouring cities. Monetary bonuses would be given to the nation that founded the religion once a special religious building was built. Civics would also confer different penalties and advantages depending on how many different religions were in your cities and the spread of your national religion across the nation. The largest effect of religion was on the happiness level of your population. If a city becomes unhappy, you risk riots.
Warfare has always played a large role in civilisations, for when in history has the world been free of war? Along with warfare is diplomacy, for without diplomacy how can there be peace? The question for the game makers is what type of troops all nations should have access to and how they should look. The games define a set of units that all nations can build, often with one or two units specific to that nation. Often these unique nations would replace a default version. For instance, the Romans could have legionaries instead of standard swordsmen. The Viking nation can have axe-wielding berserkers instead of standard axe men. The Indian nation can have a faster worker (good luck trying to untangle the ethics of that one). Each of these units has a defined defense and attack value for battles. Whilst usually the more advanced unit wins, it is not unheard of for a spearman to beat a tank.
So how do you win? The games define multiple and different winning scenarios: You are the last nation standing after going to war with everyone else; you are the most cultured nation, if you are the first to pass a threshold for culture; you win if you occupy two thirds of the world’s land mass; if you win the space race; if you are voted leader of the UN and you get a certain number of resolutions passed. The choice of how you go for victory is up to you.
Throughout this article, we have looked at the core themes running through the Civilization series. So what can we now say about how history is perceived? It is important here to note that the game is the product of popular culture. As such, a feature that is not popular will be removed. The endurance of the popular themes throughout the series show that these themes fit the popular model of history.
Interestingly, the theme of espionage has been in and out of the various releases. This reflects how historical aspects can be hard to model in a way that fits popular culture. As described above, the model of science focuses on one research at a time and this is often seen in real history with research “fashions”. It is also interesting looking at what popular culture define as victory as modeled in the game. There is no prize for being the least aggressive, having the least environmental affect (global warming was modeled in Civ IV). The game and therefore popular culture only prize dominating societies. Whilst there is a diplomatic victory, eliminating rival civilisations makes this easier to achieve. The model of religion tells us that religion is only seen as a measure happiness and how well different nations get along. It is very interesting how there is no religious victory when the other themes each have a victory condition related to them.
Obviously no game can be historically accurate when it is saying the United States of America was founded in 4000BC. It is interesting to question why popular culture sees these core themes in this way. The definitions of “winning” and these themes are also very much conforming to western ideals. I would be interested to see how a non-western game maker would make the same game and how they would model history.
It has been 6 years since the release of Civ V. With Civ VI releasing next month, it will be interesting to see if the popular model of history has changed.
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