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May 22, 2019 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Everything I Needed to Unlearn I Learned from Sid Meier’s Civilization

I’ve been playing Sid Meier’s Civilization my whole video-game-playing life. If you don’t know it, it’s a slow strategy game that models the origins of “civilization” through the near future. Players choose a “civilization” to play (what anthropologists of an earlier era might refer to as a “culture group”) and take turns conducting research, moving units around to explore the randomly-generated board, engaging in diplomacy, waging war, and modifying the landscape to extract strategic resources. Players start by placing a settlement that will grow into a dynamic, urban, capital city over the next 6000+ years of gameplay. If that sounds boring, somehow the designers of the game have managed to overcome the implicit boringness of the premise, and made a game that can half-joking ask players when they’ve finished the game if they want to play “just one more turn” and know that many will. Which is all to say that Civilization is slightly compulsive, and I have lost many nights to playing the game into the wee hours.

The cover of the original version of Sid Meier’s Civilization from 1991. Somehow it perfectly captures a lot of what’s wrong with the game…

Civilization is almost educational. Or it would be if it didn’t fly in the face of a century of research in the social sciences (which I’ll get to briefly). I often think about having my undergraduate students play it, largely because it relies on a set of presumptions about how “civilizations” work, and what differentiates “successful” ones from those that “collapse.” As a game, it attempts to model how societies move from being small-scale, early agricultural communities with a small government to a much larger, continent-spanning, industrialized nation with a “modern” form of government (i.e. democracy, communism, or fascism). All of these are based on a player’s progress through the “tech tree,” a set of unfurling technologies that move from pottery, agriculture, and the wheel, to sanitation, nuclear power, and space flight. If that sounds like unilineal evolution, that’s because it basically is; if it doesn’t sound like unilineal evolution, it might be because that’s an unfamiliar term, which might be familiar in its assumptions.

Unilineal evolution is the idea that there are stages to social development, and societies move from a state of savagery, to barbarism, to being truly civilized. Popular in the US and Western Europe in the late 1800s, unilineal evolution was one of the underlying justifications for imperialism (the “white man’s burden” was to help all of those “half-devil half-child” “savages” move up the tech tree). As a theory, social scientists threw unilineal evolution out decades ago, pointing to the racist, colonial biases in a theory developed by a bunch of white men in the global north that posited that the features of societies in Western Europe (and, begrudgingly, the northeastern US) represented the pinnacle of civilization (secularism, representative politics, industrial capitalism, heteronormative kinship, etc.).

Over time, anthropologists and historians did a pretty good job of showing how wrong that kind of thinking is, beyond its implicit colonial racism. First, civilizations like China and Japan made it fairly clear that a society can have some of these civilizational features without having all of them, and that the development of any one of them doesn’t necessarily depend on the development of a specific preceding stage or technology (e.g. you don’t have to have polytheism before monotheism, or monotheism before secularism; or or the germ theory of disease before sanitation). And second, it became increasingly clear that the idea that societies move from “simple” to “complex” forms of institutions ignored just how complex “simple” institutions can be. What looks to be “simple” from the outside can be exceedingly complex from the inside (e.g. kinship systems in Papua New Guinea). But some form of unilineal evolution persists in Civilization, and it’s very apparent in the biases baked into the game.

Early versions of Civilization were pretty straightforward in their biases. It was difficult to win the game with anything other than a market-driven democracy, even if you were a warmonger (you’ve got to have a market system to pay for all that military R&D and unit support, after all). Over time, Civilization has become a more modular game. It used to be that adopting a government like Democracy came with a set of predetermined features, but now Democracy has a base set of rules, and players can choose from a set of “policies” that offer a variety of bonuses. In that way, you can play a Democracy that depends upon an isolationist, surveillance state or a peaceful Communist state that provides its citizens with amenities to keep them happy. Better yet, the designers chose to separate the technological and “civic” trees, so one needn’t research the wheel before democracy (which can also allow for a civilization that is scientifically invested, but ignores “civic” achievements). But one of the biases that persists is technological determinism.

It might seem silly to suggest that a society needn’t invent the wheel before inventing gunpowder, but the wheel is not a precondition for chemistry. Similarly, one needn’t understand shipbuilding to develop atomic theory. Yes, we live in a world where the wheel preceded gunpowder and shipbuilding preceded atomic theory, but on a planet with a Pangea-like mega-continent, shipbuilding would be unnecessary. Access to some bat guano, sulfur, and charcoal resulting in gunpowder isn’t so hard to imagine preceding the development of the wheel. In all cases, what actually makes a technology possible are the social demands that compel research and encourage individuals and communities to harness a technology’s usage. Hence, gunpowder’s early discovery and widespread abandonment in China or how the refrigerator got its hum. I understand why, for the sake of the game, some kind of tech tree is important, but what continues to confound me is why there are technological bottlenecks where you have to have a specific technology before you can research further technologies (and the same goes for “civics”).

A persistent feature of the game is that each of the civilizations has some set of basic benefits, which can include special units and buildings, and, in some cases, suggest that there is something intrinsic about a civilization’s relationship with geography. Canada and Russia get a bonus for being near tundra tiles; Japan gets a bonus for fighting along water tiles; etc. At its best, these kinds of rules make the game dynamic. At its worst, it fosters a kind of Jared Diamond-esque environmental determinism. (Which, again, historians and anthropologists discredited long before his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel — but, institutional racism is hard to overcome!) A more nuanced game might allow players to mix and match these bonuses to reflect the complex relationship between what societies value and the landscapes they have to make do with.

One other enduring problem in the game is that the designers really want to focus on the positive side of civilization. These days, Great People can be recruited to join your civilization, each of which has a positive effect (e.g. Albert Einstein gives a boost to your scientific output). But what about all the terrible “Great People” in history? What about the slave trade, on which contemporary capitalism was built? When Civilization 6 was initially released, environmental change (i.e. the Anthropocene, which is what the game is all about) wasn’t included in the game, inspiring the rumor that it was too controversial to include. Maybe including things like racism and ethnonationalism would make the game too grim; maybe the designers simply want players to provide those narratives to the game as they play it. But if any of the criticisms of my above concerns amount to “but that just isn’t realistic,” so too is the history of human civilizations without the ugly side of the nation-state and everyday politics. (As I write this, I kind of wish there was a “utopia mode” that would allow players to avoid things like fossil fuel combustion, factory farms, and the gendered division of labor, to name just three.)

This is clearly not an exhaustive list of all of the problems with Civilization. Whatever its problems, it provides a basis to rethink some of the biases in history and social science — and popular culture more generally. Working through what’s wrong with Civilization helps open up what anthropology and history have done over the 20th century to change the way that social scientists think about “civilization” and what it’s composed of and how it changes over time.

It would be amazing if Civilization 7 was more of an open sandbox, allowing players more flexibility in how they play. It would also be great if there was more of a dark side to Civilization. I don’t think Civilization drove me to become an anthropologist, but it does continue to remind me — each time I play a game — of what has gone wrong with social theory over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, and how we might work against implicit and explicit biases in the narratives that get told in video games and elsewhere. I hope the next version of Civilization gets up to date with contemporary social science, but, in any case, I’m not going to stop playing it…

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