Thinking about Civilization (the computer game) and what it says about Civilization (the human phenomena)

Every time I play Sid Meyer’s Civilization, a moment arrives when I stop playing, look at the map, and think about what the game is saying about nature and essence of civilization as a human phenomenon. The game was thus one of the inspirations for my book on the philosophy of civilization. Here are some of the notes I made about the game which I didn’t include in the final text of the book.

The game as a model of human life.

I understand that the game designers regularly grapple with the question of how closely the game should act as such a model. Even when the answer to that question is ‘only distantly’ (after all, this is a model of the world where the Aztecs can conquer Japan, and where Mohandas Ghandi can launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on his allies), the game designers must pick and choose which aspects of real-world history they will represent in the game, and which aspects they will omit. Those choices can be treated as propositions about the nature and essence of civilization-the-human-phenomenon. So we can ask, what do those propositions say about civilization? Why these propositions, instead of others? And where does their logic lead us?

Screen shot of the last game I played. I am Queen Gorgo of Sparta!

Proposition 1: Civilization is chess with more complicated rules.

Both games are about how a variety of pieces can occupy space on a board. And both games treat territorial empire as a path to victory, with the capture of key pieces (the king; the capital city) as game-winning actions. Civ is distinguished here by having a larger variety of pieces, some of which move (military units) and some of which don’t (cities), as well as a larger variety of spaces, each having properties that affect what can be done with a piece sitting on it or near it. Civ also differs from chess in that it offers territories beyond the board which the player may attempt to conquer—territories like other planets (the space race victory) or the hearts and minds of the world’s population (the cultural, religious, and diplomatic victories). But the more I think about those differences, the more superficial they appear. The core principle, territorial conquest, is common to both. But must territorial conquest be the core purpose of civilization? Are there no other purposes to which we human beings could aspire, in our largest social groupings?

Proposition 2: Civilization is driven forward by great men, not by social movements.

I think that a video game could have no other way of looking at civilization: it has to treat the player as a “great man”, lest the player become irrelevant to the events. Yet this proposition also appears in the fact that the AI opponents are represented by historical ‘great men’ who never change. Queen Elizabeth remains the leader of England from the stone age to the space age, no matter how many changes in government England undergoes. I think it started in Civ IV, that ‘great men’ would emerge from one’s civilization, giving various advantages to the player in whose territory it appears, which further solidifies this proposition. The player never has to deal with refugees or immigrants, nor homeless people, nor the rights of aboriginal people living in conquered territory, nor the danger of non-state militias (aside from barbarians in the early game), nor populist demagogues who could unseat him from his throne. The people are nowhere to be seen in this game, and the player almost never has to meet their approval. Maybe a city with too few amenities will produce a few rebel army units. But the people take no initiative, offer no challenge, do the work they’re assigned, and don’t matter.

Proposition 3: Civilization is intrinsically progressive.

Tech advances, once acquired, are never lost. Populations rarely decline. Cities never disappear unless they are conquered by other nations. No nation ever undergoes a loss of knowledge; economic depressions are rare. Earlier versions of the game included a period of anarchy when changing governments, but that’s gone in Civ VI. But those seven rounds of anarchy are only a holdup in the march of progress; the game admits of no ‘dark ages’, no steps backwards.

Proposition 4: The landscape is the first object of colonization.

I have always found that rapidly expanding my territory in the early game is a necessary condition of winning. If my civ was not the largest or second largest territory on the board, I always lost (well, if I played at Warlord level or higher). In this way, it seems to me that the game presupposes a lord-and-master model of humanity’s relation to the earth. There’s no way to adopt a stewardship model, except perhaps to build recycling centres and national parks. In Civ II and III your landscape might change due to global warming (I haven’t seen that happen in later editions). I realise the game designers are probably trying to avoid making political statements. Still, the advent of climate change in the endgame made for an interesting challenge. Player choices had long-term, non-obvious consequences. But in Civ VI, when the land is conquered it stays conquered. No wild animals attack from forests anymore; no diseases attack cities or crops; no bad weather stops the army, no land-tiles will change due to global warming. Once, while playing Civ II– and only once– I saw an army unit who I had stationed in a jungle die of disease. But that’s the exception that proves the rule.

Don’t get me wrong here– I really like this game. I’ve been playing it since my undergrad days, when a friend introduced me to Civ II. (I’m actually not very good at it. When I play at Prince difficulty or higher, I lose. Every time.) But I also think it’s okay to be critical of the things that you love. And so, whenever I play this game, as well as other games I enjoy (Skyrim, Mass Effect, etc) I end up fantasizing about creating my own, better games. And then, I do create my own games, using low-tech tools like dice, pencil and paper, index cards, and playing pieces on boards. (Who knows if they’re better). But I know nearly nothing about how to publish and market them. I’m open to suggestions here.

Some flotsam about the current edition of the game (version 6)

I like the districts, spreading my cities over the map. It made for some interesting choices about land use, and about how to specialize my cities.

In my day job I’m a philosophy professor, so as a point of pride I always try to build the Great Library wonder. In Civ VI, it doesn’t seem to do much. It gives the Eureka moment for all the ancient techs, but by the time I build it I already possess almost all of them.

Potash should be a strategic resource. A civ who possesses it could make their farms more productive.

No philosophers among the Great People. No philosophical books among the Great Works of Writing. Why not?

In Civ VI, all cities produce their own food. Previous versions of the game allowed a trade caravan to send food from a city with a surplus to a city with a deficit. I’d like to bring that back. Direct-transfer of production shields, too. So that it’s possible to build productive new cities at places that are geo-politically important but where there are few resources (such as on islands, or beside arctic sea routes, etc.)

There should be an option, in the pre-game setup, where the player can create a completely original nation, with its own name, its own cities, and its own unique advantages (unique units, etc.) mixed-and-matched from the pre-loaded civs. I’d like to play the game using the fictitious nations from my (as yet unpublished) science fiction novel. Civ-the-game has always been open to player modification, but the current version requires a download from Steam that I can’t use because I bought the game from the Apple store.

Baba Yetu, the title-screen song from Civ IV, is still my favourite title-screen song.

It’s interesting to be the suzerain of the city-states. I’d love to see an option in the diplomacy dialogue screen for “Unconditional surrender!”, which allows me to become suzerain of another entire civ, or to annex a city-state into my civ without warfare.

Civ V had a better graphic design, especially of the leader interactions. But I like the wonder movies in Civ VI better.

The game could use more kinds of non-combat units. Some suggestions: Doctors (to stop the spread of diseases in a city), Engineers (to help with a city’s production) Farmers (to boost crop yields on the tile he’s standing on), Entertainers (improve a city’s cultural output and its morale; the name could change by era), Professors (add to science output), and so on. A civ could have only a limited number of each, much like the limits on spies and traders. They could also be captured from rival civs during war, or the spies could persuade them to defect, or as a sign of the player’s “approval rating” they could come to the player’s civ on their own– or leave the player’s civ to join another.

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