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…

We’re Having a Generational Transition Problem…

That’s Luke and Yoda, from “The Last Jedi,” watching the original Jedi temple burn to the ground. My apologies if that’s a spoiler in any way.

There was a moment when a senior faculty member and I were talking in a shared departmental office — just catching up really. The faculty member was talking about their daughter, who recently had a child, started a career, got married, and bought a home. The senior faculty member said she was “finally getting it together” in her early 30s. And it dawned on me that my senior colleague was basically talking about me. I was the same age as their daughter, in a similar place in my career trajectory and personal life. It made me suddenly realize that part of the generational transition problem I was seeing in our institution and the academy more generally, was that Baby Boomers were in the position of handing things over to people that were basically their children’s age (thanks to a series of hiring freezes in the 1990s and early 2000s). When my senior colleagues looked at me, I realized that they were seeing their children or their children’s friends, with all of their career and personal foibles. Why would they hand off to those children, especially something precious like their career’s work of institution- and discipline-building?

I’ve watched senior faculty — nearing retirement — at several institutions basically sabotage departments, programs, and centers that they’ve built rather than anoint and mentor younger faculty to take the reins. For the last several years, I’ve been trying to think through what I’ve seen in the university, particularly around the transition from an older generation of scholars (mostly Baby Boomers) to people of my generation (Gen Xers, although I think I’m on the tail end of the spread). Why not hand off rather than let things fall apart?

It comes in many forms. The benign neglect of not having faculty meetings to talk about necessary changes to the curriculum as faculty retire. The secrecy — if not outright denial — about faculty retirements and when they’ll happen. The gatekeeping that insists on junior faculty consulting senior faculty with the classes they want to teach or improvements they seek to make. The lack of actual mentoring on the part of senior faculty toward their juniors. The deliberate ambiguity about institutional expectations and opportunities, spanning everything from tenure requirements to the availability of resources. And then there’s the more aggressive and deliberate actions that some faculty take: spiking junior faculty’s tenure cases, arguing against diversity hires as unmerited, withholding access to resources, and running centers, programs, and departments aground rather than help steer them in a new direction.

It’s hard not to see some of this behavior as a function of the changing demographics of faculty hires, including shifts in representation of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, disability, but also a greater diversity in the institutions that are producing Ph.D.s. Visions of what the discipline of Anthropology (and probably every discipline) are and will be are changing, sometimes radically. I can imagine that for many senior faculty, seeing these changes occur is alienating, and, for some, deeply distressing. Which all has me thinking that part of the generational transfer has to be some collective ego work: labor to help make evident to senior faculty that their lifetime of contributions to the field are vital, and also work on the part of younger faculty to articulate visions of Anthropology (and other disciplines) that redevelop the canon to acknowledge the generations before us while developing supple visions of the disciplines that build upon their pasts, address present needs, and develop livable futures.

Taken from the Louvre’s archives, that’s the image from an ancient Greek vase depicting a relay race (between naked Greek men, to be specific about it).

Years ago, a senior faculty member I knew well retired as soon as he could. His rationale was that he had spent the last 30+ years trying to build a specific vision of anthropology, and after decades of frustration with the institutions he was a part of and the colleagues he had, he was just done. He could have coasted for several years, teaching a set of courses he cared about, but he preferred to cut himself loose from the institution, travel, and write. I really admired his graceful exit.

Before that, a group of senior faculty I knew (different institution, different time) were dealing with the demographic and institutional shift among the faculty by thwarting junior faculty efforts to hire even more diverse faculty. It was only when a couple of the senior faculty broke ranks — acknowledging that the department wasn’t really theirs to build any longer — that the junior faculty had enough of a quorum to make the hires they wanted to. One of the junior faculty described it all as a problem of grace — that some people couldn’t manage the intergenerational transfer gracefully.

I’ve recently become aware of way more younger faculty quitting their academic jobs. Maybe this always happened, and I didn’t see it. But I know personally of several faculty in tenure track jobs (some tenured) who have either quit without a job lined up or have made a calculated exit from academia. And the internet is littered with additional examples. It’s hard for me not to see people driven to quit as responses to institutions that they don’t see futures in — and feel like they don’t have the mentoring or support to make a livable institutional future. Somehow I have a hard time seeing quitting as a form of grace.

The problem with both my impulse to interpret my senior colleague’s actions as one of gracefulness and that junior faculty’s similar impulse to interpret a lack of grace on the part of senior faculty is that it places the onus on specific faculty to behave in particular ways. If we’re going to navigate this intergenerational moment generatively, it’s going to be through collaboration, not individual choices.

That all said, I’m not sure what the right way forward is. I do know that universities are decidedly conservative institutions, and that incrementalism is probably the only sustainable way forward. What might that look like?

Develop sustained dialogues between junior and senior faculty. That might be through workshops or conference panels, or, locally, by having faculty give guest lectures in each other’s courses or discuss their work in seminars. Having a regular space to come talk about ideas, one’s scholarship, and one’s place in the field keeps lines of dialogue open. It also makes it clear that whatever else is happening, there’s a relationship that’s being maintained between people who recognize one another as scholars (even if they might disagree as respected experts).

Collaborate intergenerationally whether in writing or funds-seeking or conference planning. I don’t doubt the first two of these can be hard, but it might be a site where very deliberate mentorship can happen. Working on panels for conferences together (or local workshops) can serve as a way to introduce each other to networks of scholars with shared interests.

Share writing. Writing is so central to the profession, and, for better and worse, people’s relationships with their work. Sharing writing, often without the pretense of needing anything like feedback, is helpful to keep lines of communication open, but also to help develop expanding networks of connection between scholars across generations.

Create structures of care, which can range from the occasional check-in email, a meal or drinks, or even home visits if you’re familiar enough. Some of the best, most humane interactions I’ve had with other faculty have been in one-on-one meals or drinks — not dinner or department parties — and they’ve produced some of the most lasting scholarly friendships I have with people more senior than me.

I’ve been very deliberate to pitch these suggestions without presuming that invitations need to come from juniors to seniors or vice versa. Kindness is the rule, and building a sustainable future depends on actors across generations working together to have something to hand off to the generations to come.

Other ideas? Other good experiences? Please post them in the comments.

The Mentoring Compact

Faculty mentoring of graduate students is one of those things that is rightly the subject of recurrent conversation; there are good mentors and bad, lack of clarity in faculty expectations and student responses, sustainable and deeply-broken models of graduate student training, all of which seem to perpetuate themselves (often unreflexively). The faculty who are best at mentoring recognize that it is a dynamic process, and that not one model works for all students, and, moreover, that the process of mentoring students leads to new techniques and understandings of the process. Sometimes it takes graduate students to precipitate some faculty growth. That all said, this is what I’ve learned in my eight years of graduate study and eleven years of working with graduate students, which I offer as a two-sided compact, what students should do, and what faculty should provide:

That’s Yoda on Luke’s back — maybe as a metaphor of the interdependency of mentor and mentee?

Students: Keep lines of communication open with your adviser and committee. If you’re a graduate student, don’t wait for your adviser or committee to contact you. Instead, make a regular practice of keeping people up to date about what you’re doing and how things are going. I make this suggestion because I’ve found that when things start to go poorly for graduate students (during grant writing, dissertation research, dissertation writing, job seeking, etc.), many students take to not communicating with their committee, often, it seems, out of fear of communicating that things are going poorly. If you send your adviser a monthly email keeping them abreast of what’s happening, it keeps lines of communication open and ensures that when difficulties arise, there’s already a channel open. (Other committee members might receive email every four or six months.) Just answer these three questions: 1) what have you been working on?, 2) what problems have you faced?, 3) how have you addressed those problems? (#3 is a good place to ask for help, if needed.)

Students might worry that sending advisers and committee members emails obliges them to respond, thereby creating unnecessary work for faculty, but it’s okay to preface emails like this with something along the lines of “There’s no need to respond to this email; I’m just writing to keep you in the loop.” Most faculty, I’m sure, will take the opportunity to not respond, but know that faculty are keeping students in mind when they receive emails like this.

(I’ve thought about writing a contract with graduate students, part of which would give them an automatic out of the advising relationship. For example, if you’re my advisee and I don’t hear from you for six months, then I assume I’m no long your adviser. I’ve watched students struggle with taking faculty off their committees, often because the lines of communication between faculty and student are troubled. But I’ve not gotten to an actual contract yet…)

Faculty: Have guidelines for responding to student emails. I tell my advisees that I’ll always respond to an email within 24 hours (unless it’s the weekend or I’m traveling); if I’m a committee member, it’s no more than 72 hours; if I’m just some random faculty member, it can be up to a week. If it’s an actual emergency — and I can do something about it — I’ll break these guidelines. If I’m going to be running late because I want to be thorough in my response, I always make sure to send an email to that effect. That said, I try and abide by a minimalist email policy and send as few emails as possible (if only to have a very clear and direct chain of communication). Only when students start working on their dissertations do I give them my phone number, since I assume that before that the kind of help I can provide is largely bureaucratic (i.e. email and meeting based).

Students: Do what faculty ask you to do. One of the recurrent sources of frustration voiced by faculty who work with graduate students is that students come seeking advice, faculty do a lot of work in making suggestions and providing feedback and resources, and then students don’t follow through by doing what faculty ask them to do. Even if you think the suggestion is off base, it’s better to do the work than to avoid it; showing a faculty member that you did the work and proving that the suggestion was insufficient or off base is a clearer demonstration of the paucity of a suggestion than not taking the suggestion seriously. If you can’t do something, it’s so much better to explain why you can’t than to just not do it (which open lines of communication can facilitate). If an assignment (or job task, like grading) has a clear set of instructions, follow the instructions as provided. Again, it’s better to show the paucity of the instructions by following them than to let faculty think you’re just lazy and trying to find workarounds.

Faculty: Be clear in your expectations and provide instructive guidelines. When I have teaching assistants grading for me, I provide them with very clear rubrics to use; when I am helping students generate reading lists, I’m very clear about how many items should be on it, and what kinds of things those readings should be (e.g. books, chapters, articles, etc.). I find that being very clear in my expectations helps students immensely, and that when they don’t follow the instructions I’ve provided, I can point to the instructions as the basis of our next interaction (see below). I try and take notes of my conversations with students and provide them with a copy of those notes after the meeting (either in writing or via email) so that I know we’re on the same page.

Students: Give faculty lead time to prepare themselves for what you need. There’s very little I find as frustrating as someone else’s deadline being imposed on my work schedule. Having students give me something they’re seeking feedback on shortly before the due date is a case in point: if you want careful reading and generative feedback, I probably need a week to fit it into my schedule and make sure I give it the time it needs. Preparing faculty for upcoming deadlines and the prospect that you’re going to send them something ensures that you get the attention you want. This might be something to communicate in a monthly email (e.g. “I have a fellowship deadline at the end of the month and plan to send you the application in two weeks.”), and is definitely something to give people at least a week or more to prepare for. If it’s big — like a dissertation draft — give them a month or more to prepare for it.

Faculty: Tell students what their windows of opportunity are. I’m pretty regimented in my work planning, and I imagine most faculty are. Because of that, I know — roughly — when I’m going to have more or less time to give students feedback, set up meetings, etc. At the beginning of the semester, I try and give my students a sense of when these windows will be, and try and set up deadlines around them. For example, when I know a student is going to be sending me a dissertation draft, I let that student know when I’ll have a week to dedicate to reading it and commenting on it. If they miss the window, I’ll still get the work done, but I’m clear that it will take me a little longer than if I have it in the window.

Students: Plan to educate faculty on standards and policies. This is especially true for faculty new to your institution or in other departments than your own: faculty tend to not know what the policies are that dictate student lives. If you can provide them with written documentation (i.e. from a graduate student handbook), it can go a long way to clarifying faculty expectations of your work. If standards vary from policies, then you also want proof of that (e.g. if the graduate handbook says comprehensive exams comprise 100 texts but everyone actually does 75, bring some recently defended comprehensive exam reading lists to talk through). Faculty may not vary from the policy as written, but if there is an emerging norm, you’ll want them to know about it and have proof that it exists.

Faculty: Provide a prompt for the material basis for meetings. I find that having some kind of written product to talk through with students makes meetings feel much more productive than not having something to focus on. This can be a dissertation proposal, a grant application, a reading list, an annotated bibliography, an article manuscript, something you’ve both read recently, etc. Having something to focus on ensures that the conversation is well focused and there’s a direct outcome of the meeting. There can be small talk too, but having a clear work plan for you and the student helps to make sure that there are deliverables and that the student has the feeling of being materially supported.

Elsewhere, I’ve provided some guidelines for thinking about how to compose a dissertation committee, and what the overall professionalization timeline might look like given today’s academic job market. The latter might be especially helpful in thinking about the material basis of meetings and to provide a trajectory for the mentoring relationship (at least during grad school). Other tips? Insight? Post them in the comments.