Sid Meier’s Civilization as Commentary

Civilization V screenshot

I am a lifelong fan of Sid Meier’s Civilization computer games, all the way back to the original from 1991. The series is in its fifth incarnation now, and has had numerous spinoffs and imitators. But what interests me here is analyzing it as commentary on what it says it’s about: civilization.

What does this series say about humanity, about our societies?

To be clear, nothing I am suggesting here is meant to indicate the personal beliefs of Sid Meier himself or anyone who worked on the games. Instead, these are my interpretations of the mechanics and presentation, including what are probably unintended (and perhaps unfortunate) implications.

A good example, to me, is the importance of military units throughout the series. In the original game, it was virtually impossible to get by without at least stacking a couple military units in each of your cities. A city without a military unit could be seized by an enemy (or raided by barbarians–more on that later!) without a fuss. You just move your army into an opponent’s undefended city, and voila! It’s yours! Wars in the original game were often won by stacking many units on top of one another, spamming them against enemy units and cities. Hilariously, the technological level of a given unit didn’t matter as much as it should have: primitive units could, under the right circumstances, give modern war machines a run for their money, or at least a headache.

Each game in the series revised the use and importance of military units. In the latest entry, they can no longer be stacked–one map tile, one military unit, period. Gone, too, are the absurd encounters in which spearmen take down modern tanks. Even more interestingly, cities are now capable of defending themselves, without the presence of any military units at all! No longer are cities gatherings of defenseless, terrified civilians who roll over the moment enemies approach–instead, each city is a force to be reckoned with, all on its own. The change at once both makes sense and signals the shifting sensibilities of the series, in which cities have become more versatile, more interesting components of the game.

Consider what cities generate as of Civilization V: food, money, culture, faith, science, units (both civilian and military), buildings, tourism, resources (various types, both strategic and luxury), and Wonders (specialized buildings that confer unique effects and/or generate one or more of the aforementioned items). Some of these are self-explanatory, though the way they function may be peculiar to the game. Food, for instance, influences population growth in a very direct way: more food means more people, but growth eventually slows down unless and until you build hygiene-related buildings (aqueducts and hospitals). Historically speaking, this isn’t the worst generalization possible. Famines have been one of humanity’s greatest killers. On the other hand, the series has typically not modeled disease at all–for instance, it is not possible to experience something on the scale of a global flu pandemic. This is because, as one of the core design principles, you as the player are not to be made the victim of circumstance. If you fail, it’s because you managed your civilization poorly, not because an outbreak of disease or an unexpected famine wiped out your population.

The major exception to this is the presence of barbarians. They’ve been around for the entire series, existing as a thorn in your side, especially in the early game. They’re spawned in unexplored/unowned territory, and simply lay waste to anything they can get their hands on. The historical elements of this are laughable, to say the least. Warlike nomadic cultures existed, but historically they were rare exceptions. Hordes did not rampage through nice, peaceful civilizations on a regular basis. These were things that happened in specific places at specific times, and the attackers usually settled down into cities themselves after a while. It should also be kept in mind that the word “barbarian” itself originates from a Greek epithet for foreigners. In other words, sustained barbarianism as portrayed in these games has little historical basis. And unfortunately, the main solution in Civilization to a barbarian problem is to wipe them out through the use of force. (As it happens, you can disable them entirely if you just don’t want to deal with the problems they present.) Finally, even the term itself is embarrassing: it’s an ancient slur, and given its historical baggage it probably doesn’t belong in a video game, especially not one that fails to examine the concept at all. “Raiders” would be a less loaded term that signifies what the units do and avoids unfortunate historical references.

Going back to what I said about failure generally being on your own head, your own citizens are seen as tools to accomplish your objectives. What do you want your city to generate? In other words, what do you want your people to do all day? You can micromanage your cities down to dividing up your population into different areas of production–science, food, production of units/buildings, etc. You just have to do two things: keep your people fed (so population will hold steady or increase) and happy (so they will actually be productive). Happiness is easily gamed by throwing circuses, coliseums, luxuries, and other distractions at your population. This is rather cynical, but I’ll leave it aside to note that there are plenty of things that make your people unhappy. Number one, citizens generate unhappiness just by existing–speaking of cynicism! Population growth, annexing other civilizations’ cities, and just building more cities at all makes your citizens unhappy. Additionally, civilizations with powerful cultures will make your people unhappy. Nevertheless, managing that unhappiness isn’t difficult so long as you invest in the appropriate happiness-boosting buildings, Wonders, and social policies. I will include religious beliefs and ideological tenets among social policies, too, because they all serve essentially the same purpose: they influence critical statistics for your civilization, and their effects stack in interesting ways. You can use them go boost your population growth, send your people’s happiness sky high, strengthen your military units, increase generation of production, science, culture, and so on. But the way these are all represented don’t give you the feeling that you’re producing an actual culture. The social policies themselves tend to be generic, only vaguely ideological at best, described in terms of how they affect the game rather than (for instance) what cultural traits they might develop (or utilize) in your people. Culture itself is generated as a quantity. From time to time, Great People appear–artists, scientists, writers, engineers, etc.–who can perform significant actions, but they themselves are subsumed into the grinding machinery of your civilization.

Ultimately, that’s what you are running: a machine that produces people for the sole purpose of making them produce things that raise your score. The varieties of Great People that can produce Great Works (paintings, songs, etc.) have such works plucked randomly from a list of great works of art from our own world. They produce tourism and help increase your score. That is all they do.

This is not to be overly critical–the mechanics involved work to produce some complex, interesting effects, and there are many paths to victory. It is entirely feasible to win the game without building more than a handful of defensive military units, focusing primarily on culture and research. This is a good thing, but unfortunately the culture you produce is generic and has no character. Likewise, the technology tree is the same every time. While you can prioritize which technologies to pursue first, in the end all civilizations are engaged in the same race for the best technologies to increase production, military power, science, and culture. This is straight out of modernization theory, which has been critiqued as an overly Eurocentric philosophy designed to rationalize the presumed inevitability of modern technological and social development. In reality, cultures can and have followed very different developmental trajectories that would be very difficult to wedge into Civilization‘s one-size-fits-all tech tree. Again, we have a generalization that promotes a very specific (and rather outdated) perspective on Western culture as some kind of universal, ideal culture.

The notion of cultural imperialism–itself a complex, difficult beast to discuss, much less represent in a video game–is reduced to the leaders of other civilizations occasionally whining about your influence over them, as well as providing yet one more path to victory, by having a culture so pervasive no one can escape its grasp. Of course, you can also win the game by literally annihilating the entire populations of other civilizations, so throwing moralizations at such a (relatively) tame mechanic for conquest is trite at best!

Finally, the mechanics of the series relate a Great Man slant on human history. Each civilization, including whichever one you choose to play is, is represented by a single individual–always a significant political figure or thought leader from that culture’s history. The generic nature of your culture and the ease by which your people are manipulated contribute to a sense that you have absolute power over these people. After all, they don’t choose what social policies will direct their future development–you do. You can’t be overthrown, voted out of office, or anything of that sort. You can lose the game by being conquered militarily, or by another civilization reaching a victory condition before you do, but that’s it. Interestingly, the first game in the series made citizens much more powerful. “Civil Disorder” cropped up routinely in the original Civilization, and a rash of this happening across your nation could be devastating. It halted production and could even result in your form of government being overthrown, forcing you to choose a different one–and these could have radical effects on your future choices. If you chose an accountable form of government, you also couldn’t make war freely–you could be overridden if there wasn’t political support from your government. Such mechanics no longer exist, perhaps because they represented an unwanted restraint on player control. That seems to be one of the evolving themes of the series: your degree of control is increased with each iteration, and you are given more tools with which to manage your civilization, while at the same time being less and less at the mercy of random events. This perhaps makes for a more satisfying game experience–success or failure is yours, and yours alone–but it leaves little room for historical contingency. Read in the least charitable way possible, it suggests that cultures which have been wiped out had it coming, by being less advanced, and not ticking enough “advanced civilization” boxes on their way to global domination (which is, after all, everyone’s end goal here). It seems unlikely the series is going to change anytime soon to present a more nuanced, current view of human history and cultural development, but it’s interesting to contrast the two. I obviously don’t believe people are expecting to learn history from a strategic computer game, either, but examining such works with a critical eye can be helpful to developing one’s own understanding of the world.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to generate another world to conquer… with my amazing culture, of course.

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James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Sid Meier’s Civilization as Commentary

by James time to read: 7 min
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