Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Historiography of Civilization

Civilization is one of very few games to attempt to simulate aspects of human history on a global scale, and it is by far the most important to attempt to depict the entirety of human history. This is a massive subject matter, and the Civilization series attempts to deal using various abstractions of aspects of history. The process of this simplification, however, accents what Civilization considers important. An examination of the historiography of Civilization reveals a generally, but not exclusively, historiographically conservative* view of the workings of human history.

*By conservative I don’t necessarily mean “voted for George W. Bush” but rather is the sort of history found in old (pre-1960’s would probably be a fair date to set) history books, or modern school textbooks. What this entails should become obvious.

The most important and obviously historically conservative aspect of Civilization is its focus on the military. To a player of Civilization, the claim that Civ is overtly militaristic may seem odd. After all, there are several things to concentrate on: military, science, happiness, culture (in Civ3), diplomacy, and economy. There’s also alternate method of victory than conquest, the traditional space race, as well as several other alternatives added in Civ3 and its expansions. But, to a non-player, Civilization is quite clearly a militaristic game. The simple reason for this is that the player’s time is consumed by militarism. Everything else, save for worker jobs, is a simple click or two to build a Library or Temple. A civilization of 10 cities could have nine of them building improvements and one building military units, but the time the player spends on those military units could easily equal the time spent on the rest of the cities. Also, these improvements do their work off the screen, where the military action occurs on-screen. In fact, if one looks at the map screen of Civilization, the world map, one will see almost exclusively military units and cities. Happiness, economy, science, and so forth, are all almost exclusively under the hood. Finally, the military aspect of the game is clearly the most important because it is the one aspect that cannot be ignored. Ignoring anything else will create annoyances, but ignoring the military will mean almost-certain defeat.

This is a simple game design decision, of course, but it does not have to be this way. The Imperialism games, for example, focused the player’s mental energy and time on economic priorities. (Ironically, Imperialism’s ad campaign ran with the slogan “Other strategy games too civilized for you?”) The militaristic nature of the Civilization games is clearly a design decision, and one with obvious consequences for interpretation of the nature of human history.

A second important historically conservative aspect of the Civilization series is that it views human history as universally progressing to a steadily better future. This is a view usually found in mainstream Western societies, especially before World War One. One cannot go backwards in Civilization. Technology always creates a continuous improvement. Improvements in a city are entirely good (unless they break your economy, which is extraordinarily rare). Newer military units are always better than older units. It is possible to speak of “falling behind” in Civilization, as though human history is a footrace. This has the effect of making some civilizations appear “better” for how much “faster” they have run the race.

Even more importantly, the progress is considered universal. The technologies of Democracy and Communism are equally useful to the Americans and the French, as well as the Zulu and the Japanese. The discovery of Gunpowder has the same effects for the Chinese as it does the Germans. These technologies are essential to progress. This view of history is widespread – and dangerous. One can quite easily imagine George W. Bush playing Civilization and landing tanks on the Iraqi border to offer them Democracy in exchange for a Mutual Protection Pact…”Be warned, Iraqis, our words are backed up by NUCLEAR WEAPONS.” But, as America didn’t learn in Vietnam and is currently not learning in Iraq, the rest of the world doesn’t always view things on the universal progress scale. Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, are enamored with the universal progress viewpoint probably because it means that they’re winning the footrace. Civilization reinforces this viewpoint.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to comprehend how Civilization could remain a competitive game with winners and losers without operating on a progress model. I like to think that I can think creatively about such things, but I can’t think of how a winner or loser could be chosen in Civilization without “progress” being made. I suppose something to make it possible for progress to be lost? The concept of universal progress, however, can be worked around. The Rhye’s of Civilization Expansion, for example, demonstrates how the Civ3 engine can be manipulated to slightly alter the concept of universal progress of human societies, with more different unique units and religions. Even the official Civ3 Conquests expansion demonstrates the possibility of different tech paths in its Age of Discovery scenario, albeit halfheartedly.

The final major aspect in which Civilization is historiographically conservative is in its portrayal of its human history as the interaction of separate nation-states. All of the civilizations in the games play similarly, and all are under complete control of the player. This can lead to obvious absurdities – the first two Greek cities are Athens and Sparta – and has the effect of negating internal conflicts in a civilization. To carry on the Greek example, much of what is referred to as “Greek culture” in history is really Athenian culture, and Sparta is always held up as diametrically opposed to Athens. The extraordinarily important internal-driven change in Civilization is so abstracted as to be nothing more than an occasional annoyance. The French Revolution and the American Civil War would, in Civilization, be modeled as exactly equivalent player-induced changes in government.

On the other hand, interactions between the nation-states is held up as critically important. Wars, technological exchanges, border clashes, and the like all occur and demand great amounts of player attention. Modeling the American Civil War would take only a few clicks to, say, switch the government from Republic to Democracy, while the Spanish-American War would be modeled in excruciating detail, from loading the troops onto the ships to having to entertain the Philippinos to prevent them from rebelling. This conforms to the conservative historical view that human history is little more than the creation of empires or nation-states and their struggles with one another, a viewpoint which every year manages to bore more and more high school students forced to remember the dates 1066, 1492, 1588, and 1914 (the conquest of England, opening of America by Columbus, failure of the Spanish Armada, and the start of World War One). This pushes Civilization firmly into the category of political and military history, while ignoring the extremely vibrant fields of social and intellectual history. The nation-based concept of civilizations is also based around European experience**, which manifests itself in Civilizations lone choice for a sub-Saharan African civilization, the Zulu, whose primary claim to fame was their banding together, European-style, in order to conflict with the European British. (Ironically, given its title, Rise of Nations is more fair to Africa, with its Bantu and Nubians being far worthier claimants to the concept of a ‘civilization.’)

**The argument that Civilization is Eurocentric is another form in which it is historiographically conservative, however, it seems so obvious that I have not yet written a demonstration of it.

For any epic strategy 4X*** game to move away from this model would require a complete change in thinking, moving towards a macromanagement model. That is, the player’s abilities to influence the game world are more limited, and as the civilization expands, the player has less control over the farther regions, creating true border zones and the potential for places within the civilization act on their own and drive internal change. Master of Orion III was originally designed to do something like this, but the designers panicked at the ambition, and instead opted for the “complete crap” style of gameplay. That disaster will almost certainly frighten away designers trying to create to this more historical, potentially more fun model of strategic gameplay.

*** eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate – the general category in which most strategy games fall, with Civilization as the Platonic ideal of the genre.

There is one aspect of Civilization, however, which is decidedly not in the conservative historiography, and that is the “Great Man” theory of history. This is the idea that leaders determine the course of events, that the most important people in history all have big important titles in front of their names. Political and especially military history naturally focus on this, where social history is a blatant rejection of the concept. Civilization’s only offering to this theory is that the leaders of each civ are important historical figures, but they exist only to add color to the game. Civ3 makes a slight attempt at the Great Man theory, but its military and scientific leaders are so generic that their names are irrelevant.

Excessive use of the Great Man theory of history has had some very negative effects. For example, it has lead to a simplification of the Civil Rights Movement as the personal story of Martin Luther King and maybe Malcolm X, while ignoring the struggles of those not directly connected to King, such as the volunteers who risked their lives in the South. In terms of Civilization, a player would see, for example, American foreign policy since World War II as a continuous evolution attempting to achieve similar goals, a far more healthy view than partisan bickering over differences in personality between Johnson and Nixon, or Bush and Clinton.

This is certainly not a necessary design decision. Many strategy games, including virtually all fantasy strategy games, have Great Men. The fantasy games have superpowered heroes worth a dozen army units. KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms game are based entirely around the strengths and weaknesses of its hundreds of individuals.

The Civilization series demonstrates outdated and simplistic views of human history. As a popular game series, it must be acknowledged as both a relic and a reinforcer of the culture that created it. Despite its obvious merits as a game, it shows the student of history that more work is required for the general society that there are different forms of history than those which are traditionally taught to young people.

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