Last week, Ben Abraham posted an article calling for more persuasive games writing. In his post, Ben cited my recent article on Barbarians in Civilization V as an example of a piece that doesn’t quite achieve his desired goal. He states:
“Albor assembles the facts like a curios botanist might overturn a moss covered rock to see what grows underneath, and the facts are indeed worth assembling and investigating, however, Albor closes out the post before taking down any notes on what he finds under there. It finishes before reaching anything like its full potential.”
Looking back on my post, I could not agree more. While I both agree and disagree with Ben’s far more comprehensive article, I’ll be setting his many points aside (although for more, see David Carlton’s response and their brief conversation in his comments section.) Previously, I looked at one aspect of Civilization V’s procedural rhetoric and the game deserves much more. This post seeks to amend that error.
There are a few important aspects of Civilization V that are very important to recognize, but that I do not want to belabor entirely. Civilization V is dangerously simplistic of identity groups at best, if not flat-out racist. India’s unique trait, for example, is “Population Growth,” which doubles unhappiness from the number of cities and halves unhappiness from total population. This feature is most suitable for cultural victories. Firaxis mechanically constructed the Indian civilization, and cultural expansion in general, to conform to the notion of culture as a calculable attribute of groups of people, a notion that suggests the crowded streets and slums of Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata compose the necessary features of a cultural Mecca. Meanwhile, these densely packed cultural oddities, the game suggests, are relegated to fanciful dreams of utopia. India is just one example of vagrant stereotyping among many.
Diplomatic victories are equally shallow. In order to win such a victory, players must build the United Nations and win an election for world leader. The UN in Civilization V is a mockery of the actual international body. Players construct the UN independently. No general assembly exists, therefore there can be no international agreements, no peace settlements through UN channels, and certainly no human rights declaration. The UN functions as a narrative facade, obscuring one method to declare a single individual the winner. An election does take place in which city-states vote and play a deciding role. However, city-states can be bribed with gold or permanently influenced by liberating their city from other civilizations. A diplomatic victory announcement frames it as a competitive event, stating “you have triumphed over your foes” and your cunning has “divided and sown confusion among your enemies.” In Civilization V, enough riches can buy peace, and peace is just another form of selfish control.
Civilization V peddles modernist myths of linear and irreversible progress and characterizes political relations as neatly organized and legible. In fact, the hexagonal tiles of Civilization V mirror what Political Scientist James C. Scott calls the “imperialism of high modernist, planned social order.” Like the grid logic that allows states to impose order upon a people, and thus exert control, the tiles of Civilization V allow the player to quickly understand, order, and control their civilization. The games does more than depict a legible world, it calls on players to procedurally create such order. The barbarian encampments, the nomadic tribes, are eliminated only when the entire world is within line of sight of a civilization’s units. Illuminated by the presence of the state, the tiles are free of risk and can be purchased and exploited at will.
A civilization’s expanding borders are a visible depiction of control over an increasingly legible landscape. Scott’s discussion of rural settlements could easily be attributed to the creation of new digital civilizations when he states, “A new community is thus, also by definition, a community demobilized, and hence a community more amenable to control from above and outside.” Whereas Scott criticizes states with “an authoritarian disregard for the values, desires, and objections of their subjects,” Civilization V retains no such claim. The subjects of Civilization V have no values, desires, or objections to speak of. The game recreates the high-modernist discourse of ordered and legible civilizations as a digital playground.
Civilization V procedurally renders a vapid conception of social relations marked by blanket uniformity. Although players can unlock globalization as a technology, the game does not model a complex economic system of globalized production and consumption across borders. Civilizations are neatly confined and controlled. Poverty and inequality are not an issue, and class holds no explanatory relevance for historical processes or civilizational growth.
The game sure is fun though, isn’t it. To be fair, there is a lot of value in Civilization. For one thing, it can give unique insight into the process by which paradigms and practices shape the reality they seek to describe. Players can even challenge dominant narratives of history. However, all this demands a critical perspective. Games that depict real world processes and systems should not be played lightly, at least not at first. While Civilization V alone may not be all that persuasive, particularly for gamers who seem so damn good at ignoring a game’s fictions, it functions within a greater discourse about civilization and progress that does, in fact, sway popular perceptions and global policies. Designers and players should first and foremost navigate the intersection of digital systems and global systems critically, before we become enraptured by fun alone.