The following essay was published by Kill Screen, the video game arts and culture magazine, and co-funded by Longreads Members.
The pleasure of Sid Meier’s Civilization series is that it is at once tantalizingly grand and endearingly granular. The game’s approach to the past has always been playful. Abe Lincoln can lead war-bands against Mahatma Gandhi’s phalanxes. The Aztecs can build the first nuclear bomb. Every version of the game begins with the same wide-open promise: a settler, a worker, a few tiles of visible land, and an ocean of darkness—all the ingredients of a world ready to be discovered and made anew.
Few gaming experiences take you on such a sweeping journey while demanding nit-picking, almost fussy attention to detail. Surveying the arc of human history, you trundle your armies over cities, settle continents, and shape the destiny of a people. And yet the work of the game is more managerial than magisterial. You learn “technologies” like Ceremonial Burial, tweak tax rates, build sanitation infrastructure, feed and placate a fickle citizenry. The alchemy of the Civilization series has always been found in this balance of scales, embedding the smallest decisions in the largest accomplishments.
That balance has remained as the series evolved from its ancient 2D tiles to its bold present of hexagons and 3D graphics. It’s why Civilization has been more successful and abidingly popular than the host of competitors it spawned. More action-packed RTS versions of the Civilization concept lack the depth that makes it so engrossing. On the other hand, a game like Europa Universalis, which boasts many more variables than Civilization, has remained even more niche because it is too realistic. It is too constrained by history (or at least history as imagined by the game’s designers) and the innumerable details needed to render such an exhaustive vision of the past.
But even if the game isn’t aiming for historical realism, it conjures the impression of the real. The first Civilization shipped with a hefty manual, the “Civilopedia,” that not only catalogued the elements of the game, but seemed to sketch the contours of human history. Sid Meier, the architect of the series, told me with a laugh that the manual “made the game feel more substantial, it made the box heavier.” There’s something of a paradox here: the game builds upon a vision of the real past while offering players the sense that they are remaking the past altogether.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Civilization, and this week, the release of Civilization VI. Since its launch in 1991, the series has sold 33 million copies worldwide. It’s safe to say that the game is now embedded rather broadly in our popular culture. On the strength of its success and ubiquity, it’s worth considering what Civilization suggests to its consumers about the world, about the past, and about human societies. Meier insists that his priority in shaping the world of Civilization was simply creating an enjoyable experience for the player. The parameters of the game had to be nimble and not tailored to a narrow understanding of history. “One of our fundamental goals was not to project our own philosophy or politics onto things,” Meier said. “Playing out somebody else’s political philosophy is not fun for the player. We strove to make all types of play viable.”
But few forms of cultural production about the world are ideology-free. The Civilization series is not devoid of political philosophy, nor are all types of play truly viable. Meier may insist that the game’s designers only wanted to make a fun experience for the player, but they’ve made much more.
Meier has no formal training as a historian. He was more interested in physics and chemistry until he reached his undergrad years, when he “was blown away by computers.” But in his childhood, his family maintained a subscription to American Heritage, which sent him a different book about history every month. He remembers reading about the Battle of Gettysburg and delving into the world of Caribbean pirates (the subject of another one of his successful games). “Every month a new book would come and I would be taken to a new exotic place.” This reading “laid the seed for my interest in history. All this richness came back to Civilization.”
In devising the game, Meier and his collaborator Bruce Shelley procured various atlases of world history, compendiums replete with timelines that tracked significant events or transformations over the millennia. “We highlighted in yellow certain sections—the founding of the first cities, the discovery of bronze-making, the first use of guns—that went directly into the game,” Meier said. “We also did research after game design was over, not about obscure facts, but about common knowledge.” Meier and his team were committed to building a user-friendly historical backdrop to the game. When putting together the Civilopedia, Shelley would visit his local library to consult books in the children’s section.
Fidelity to history is not the aim of Civilization. “The history that we know is only one possible path,” Meier said. “There are so many other possibilities.” He referred to the surprise of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a new world was emerging. “The end of the Cold War is a great example of the unpredictability of history. Everything changed.” He argued that this great flux—the possibility that something wholly new might be around the corner—is represented in Civilization’s openness.
I asked him if the Cold War had in any way shaded his development as a game designer. “To an extent it did,” he said. “Russians were always the bad guys in the military games we made through the 1980s.” He made his name, and the reputation of his development company Microprose, with flight simulators like Hellcat Ace and F-15 Strike Eagle. In Civilization I, the Russians are described as innately “aggressive” and “militaristic,” while the Americans are “friendly” and “civilized” (more distressingly, the Zulus are simply “aggressive”).
But Meier insisted that the Cold War hadn’t fundamentally shaped the Civilization series. “That perspective doesn’t inhabit Civilization, which is more global.” He returned consistently to this theme, the fundamental neutrality of his game. After making the industrial-age sim Railroad Tycoon, Meier was simply looking for the next “epic” conceit when he latched upon the idea of Civilization. “And what was more epic than 6,000 years of history?”
Meier has an avuncular and curiously wholesome voice. He spoke earnestly about the making of the Civilization series and his intellectual formation, including his love for the board-game Risk (“the idea of conquering the world is built into our genes”). His tone took on a kind of innocent wonder at the thought that his game was anything but innocent and wondrous.
“It’s fascinating what people take away from the game. People have always read a lot into the game, it’s a mirror of your philosophy and interests.” Bemused, he added, “A financial magazine once even asked me about its use of tax policy!”
What can be fairly read into the game? Civilization players have noted certain telling omissions in its historical arc. Slavery, the single-most important economic institution of recent millennia, is entirely absent in the series. There are no Dark Ages and no Black Deaths.
Though Meier claims that history as we know it is only “one path,” the only path in the Civilization series is forward. Each civilization charts a course ahead by leaping from one scientific discovery to the next. “The tech tree represents a certain kind of optimism, the idea that we are constantly progressing,” Meier said. “It’s true, we don’t represent the Dark Ages in the game. It’s an optimist, progress-based view.”
The game unfolds in a manner that echoes the Enlightenment-era belief in progress as a universal rule, as well as the Darwinian notion that societies, like species, evolved from states of simplicity to greater levels of complexity and sophistication. But the idea that history is the story of progress is not the only or even the most natural way of conceiving time. That optimistic view is on the wane now, with climate change increasingly changing the way we think about our present and future. Elsewhere and in other periods, people have understood time as a descent (a decline from a prior period of grandeur), a wave (the rise and fall of dynasties), as cyclical (a sequence of ages), and as a spiral (Hegelian dialectics). Civilization assumes that time is simply an arrow, pushing ever onwards.
Academic critics (the game has quite a few) have pounced on Civilization’s adherence to Darwinian understandings of history. According to the Polish anthropologist Kacper Poblocki, grounding the mechanics of the game in “nineteenth-century models of natural history is not adequate to explore contingencies of human history.” In other words, how can the game truly allow us to “rewrite history” if it so firmly reproduces a particular vision of the past?
In fairness to Meier, this principle may be less ideological than practical. “We toyed with a ‘rise and fall’ model in which players deal with a calamity that sets their civilization back,” he said. “But we found that players often just reloaded the saved game, and so the option was scrapped. Being able to observe and enjoy your progress is fundamental to gameplay.”
What does all that progress lead to? Here, the game is constrained by what its makers know. In ploughing their own course forward, every civilization can only arrive at the same destination, the same sequence of discoveries: the forging of Western modernity. No other routes are possible. Later versions of the game have tried to flesh out non-western “civilizations,” their special traits and units, but it remains the case that the only path that a civilization can chart into our present is a Western one. You may start off as a Viking marauder or an Aztec king or a Mongol warlord, but as you develop your civilization into the proliferating complexities of the modern era, the more it begins to resemble contemporary America.
“It had to do with the books we read,” Meier admitted. “But I can also blame the internet now. The world has become flat, we are more aware and sensitive to the globalness of the world. The early 1990s world was reflective of our thinking. China was still this mysterious hidden kingdom, Russia was the evil empire.”
I asked Meier why he had chosen to refer to the game’s factions as “civilizations.” It would be more precise to speak of each of the playable sides as nations or tribes. After all, there is something incongruous in talking about “the Danish civilization,” whatever the accomplishments of Hans Christian Andersen and Copenhagen’s modern-day restaurateurs. Meier agreed, but insisted that for the purposes of the game “civilization” was the right choice. “It has a grander feeling to it than other words,” he said. “It hangs this shining light out there into the future. It’s a stronger, more evocative word than ‘race’ or ‘tribe’.”
Few words can suggest so much. What Civilization tries to achieve is the mingling of the two quite separate meanings of its title. On the one hand, “civilization” describes a universal, unbounded field of human accomplishment. In its plural “civilizations,” however, it denotes separate peoples culturally distinct from one another. The series is very much an offspring of this double-entendre.
The quality of “civilization” can also mark one people against another. We talk casually of “civilized” and “uncivilized” behaviour. In Meier’s view, there is a project implicit in the word, a mission of self-improvement. “You’re trying to be different than the barbarians. You’re trying to learn, to become smarter, better people.” To be civilized is not to be savage or, as the game depicts it, the timeless, unchanging, red-coloured barbarian raiders that spawn seemingly at random to harass your cities. In earlier incarnations of the game, barbarians didn’t have cities. They materialized out of the wild and dispersed into the wild, like the monster Grendel in the Beowulf epic, who, envious of the bright revelry of the human world, came out of the darkness only to destroy. What separated barbarians from you was that while you built cities, roads, and irrigation, they only pillaged your cities, roads, and irrigation. The barbarians in Civilization throw an element of delicious chaos into the game, but they’re also a necessary foil, a reminder of the precariousness of your civilization’s achievements and of the forces working at all times to stop progress.
Notions of civilization have always bordered on the inverse, a real or moral wilderness. In the late 1960s, Kenneth Clark’s landmark BBC television documentary series “Civilization” became an international phenomenon at a time when Europe was still recovering from the physical and spiritual devastation of World War II. Clark took viewers on an elegant tour of Western European art history from the Vikings to the skyscrapers of New York. His show offered a traditionalist and triumphant view of the cultural accomplishments of the west, a balm to the lingering wounds of the war that had flared from Europe’s divisions. Though at the time this wasn’t much critiqued, Clark took little interest in the achievements of the non-western world, no matter their connections to the European story he strove to tell. “Civilization” was very much the custody of Western Europe and its outposts in the Americas and the Antipodes.
People tend to be a bit more careful these days in so grandly invoking the word civilization, though unseemly political rhetoric about “civilized” people and “barbarians” remains common. (The pro-empire historian Niall Ferguson recently remade Clark’s series with the title “Civilization: Is the West History?” to a muted reception.) More common is the use of “civilizations” in the plural, especially when it comes to describing the threat posed by radical Islamist groups like the so-called Islamic State and the supposed confrontation between “the west” and “the Islamic world.”
The crystallization of the idea of humanity being split into discrete civilizations can be traced at least as far back as the British historian Arnold Toynbee. In his gargantuan mega-opus A Study of History (published between 1934 and 1961), Toynbee sifted through millennia of human life and isolated 23 civilizations, ranging from the ancient (“Minoan,” “Sumeric”) to the more contemporary (“Western,” “Islamic,” “Hindu,” and so on). This taxonomy went beyond the normal political boundaries of empires or nation-states in grouping people in large cultural categories. “Civilizations”—rather than individuals, social classes, cities, and states—were the great agents of historical change.
That view was reprised most famously by the political scientist Samuel Huntington at the end of the Cold War in his influential and controversial “The Clash of Civilizations.” His thesis was fairly simple: now that the United States had vanquished the Soviet Union, the great conflicts in the world would not be ideological (between capitalism and communism), but rather cultural, across the more fundamental fault-lines of civilizations. Huntington divided the world into nine broad civilizations: Western, Orthodox (comprising Russia and much of eastern Europe), Islamic, Sub-Saharan African, Latin American, Hindu, Sinic (Chinese), Buddhist, and Japanese. The friction of these great blocks, he claimed, would shape the world in the years to come.
Contemporary supporters of the Huntington thesis argue that at least two recent examples prove his point: the ongoing conflict over Ukraine (a flashpoint he identified in the 1990s) that pits the “Orthodox” east against Europe-inclined “west”; and the threat posed to the west by Islamist terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, who frame their actions in cosmic, “civilizational” terms.
His critics, who are legion, have long found his mode of analysis dangerously simplistic. They question the very existence of coherent civilizations (are civilizational identities like “Buddhist” or “Sub-Saharan African” or indeed “Western” and “Islamic” really meaningful in political terms?), they emphasize the interdependence of peoples over hostilities, they stress that most conflict takes place within (rather than between) cultural groups, and they reject the bludgeoning way Huntington imagines identity.
No matter the merits or failures of “the clash of civilizations,” what’s striking about the theory is its timing. Huntington first presented his thesis in a lecture to the right-wing American Enterprise Institute in 1992 (it was later published as a monumental article in Foreign Affairs and then as a book), just a year after the launch of Sid Meier’s Civilization in September 1991. “Although praise or criticism of the clash of civilizations thesis has usually been mailed to Huntington,” writes the anthropologist Poblocki, “it is Meier who was first, has more to say, and… seems more convincing.”
It is hardly fair to tag Meier with the sins of Huntington, but both the game and the political theory emerged during an epochal political moment. The Cold War was over, the Soviet Union defeated, and the United States crowned the world’s unrivalled superpower. The assumptions and priorities that had shaped the general understanding of the world for half a century no longer seemed applicable. What forces would shape the future? Francis Fukuyama prophesised optimistically that the conclusion of the Cold War would signal the “end of history,” the ultimate triumph of capitalism and liberalism. Huntington refuted Fukuyama by proposing a darker vision with the “clash of civilizations.”
Meier’s Civilization tapped into the uncertainty and promise that followed from the America’s Cold War triumph. The first iteration of the game did suggest that American liberalism was “the end of history,” that the accomplishments of civilization (and all civilizations) led inexorably to late 20th century American liberalism. When culture entered the game as a significant variable in its later versions, we find its view of the world turning more Huntingtonian. Writing about Huntington in 2001, the cultural critic Edward Said might have been inveighing against Civilization III (which came out that year) and how the game fixed cultures and gave values passports, “as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly.”
The series imagines the history and future of humanity as one defined by the contest of discrete civilizations. Ideologies (including capitalism and communism) come and go, but the rise and fall of competing civilizations is eternal.
Civilization would not be nearly as appealing to its millions of players if it wasn’t promoting that competition. Nor do its players take the game’s rendition of the world literally. But a serious game deserves to be taken seriously. Meier’s series is a reflection of the political context in which it was made. To suggest otherwise is not only naïve, but disrespectful to the power of video games to represent the world in the way that cinema, literature and other art forms do. Though Civilization may not teach players about global history, it does teach us about who we think we are in the present.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars, a forthcoming collection of short fiction from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the presenter of the BBC radio series “Museum of Lost Objects.” Find him on Twitter: @kanishktharoor.
Editor: Clayton Purdom