Civilization, colonialism, and the misunderstanding of history
The history of the world is a complex system. It is difficult to explain to a layman the nuances of world politics today, but it has to be almost impossible to explain the political system of ancient or medieval countries to someone without any knowledge about the countries themselves and politics in general. A lot of historical games face that problem, but none more than those that claim to represent some kind of possible or at least alternative history.
They have no other choice than to break those delicate, complex systems down to their basics. They have to generalize – to dumb down, if one wants – in order to fit such a system into the tight girdle of a working gameplay mechanic, or just to be more fun. While occasionally, like Europa Universalis, games stay relatively true to their origin in human history, they risk losing a greater target audience in favor of a smaller, highly dedicated crowd. The broad audience is served by other games, those that sacrifice accuracy for accessibility. The ones that have a big name in front and a big name behind them, like Sid Meier’s Civilization VI. That is perfectly fine for building up interest or just for the fun of it. What’s not so fine however is that generalization always leaves people behind; those that aren’t presentable, those that seem negligible or simply those that cannot speak for themselves. With Civilization VI, representation is an issue. An issue that has to be broken down to be fixed in the future.
What do you know about colonialism? If you are white and live in the United States of America, you probably know that you would not be there if not for colonialist English people taking the land from indigenous people. South America and Africa were taken as well, by different European States to different extents. That’s the colonialism we learn about in school. You probably don’t know about the Japanese colonial expansions into Korea, Taiwan and unto various Asian island states in the early 20th century. You know that the Aztecs were extinct in the course of Spanish colonialism in South America, but did you know that the Aztecs themselves among other native tribes expanded their territory through colonization? Maybe, maybe not. Civilization is, in that regard, like that textbook from school: It shows the European conquest for colonies as we know and love it as a setting for pirate games and action archaeologist flicks. Nuances and different orientations of similar systems are left out, for the sake of a huge Euro-American target audience.
And yet, colonialism has always been a big thing in the Civilization series. The 1994 spin off Colonization dealt with the struggle of different factions settling in the newly discovered Americas while the Civ IV addon of the same name ported the refined mechanics of its base game into much the same scenario. Both at least featured the exploitation of native workers in some ways. Civilization V provides a dedicated scenario about the conquering of the “New World”, complete with customized nations that have to work towards different victory conditions. While the native peoples have to defend their land and accumulate as much faith points as possible, the European intruders win by shipping enough treasure back to their monarch, whether by trade or by sword.
Interestingly, Civilization VI does not feature such a scenario (for now; expansions and additional maps are a staple in the DLC policy of Firaxis). Still, the underlying structure as well as the choice of playable nations feature many strong references to Western colonialism – much to the disadvantage of that movement’s victims. Let me show you why.
I do struggle with the denomination of “country” and “nation” here; that is because Civilization uses them exchangeably, together with “state”, to designate every playable party in the game. Whether ancient Greece, medieval Germany or 16th century Aztec empire, they all function the same way, with centralized governments much like modern day France and armies of identical types. The assumption that every state system works kind of in the same way makes sense today, but is wrong from a historical perspective. It’s a very modern view, one that is coined by actually having the possibility of something like central government or static borders. Before effective communication was invented, mostly before the industrialization took place, it was hard to rule from one place because the folks on the other end of the territory might not even have known who the current lord was. Some German rulers, before there was such a thing as a united Germany, traveled through their territory all year to exert state authority everywhere. Some peoples that are depicted as uniform nations in the game, like Norway, actually consisted of individually governed tribes, sometimes loosely bound together by a common overlord. Indigenous tribes with theocratic governing structures like the Aztecs will have had a different balance of power between secular and religious governing structures than Rome would have had. Yet it does not matter in the game, because they all have a capital and they all gather culture from (mostly Western) pieces of art. So if I use terms like nation, country or state, I use them as the game does, to denote playable parties.
First of all, there are currently 23 of those nations in the game, including all paid DLC packs so far. Of those 23, eleven are Western industrial nations, while only four are countries that were directly hit by colonialism: the Aztecs, India, Brasil and the Kongo. A lot of those Western nations feature traits essential to their colonial conquest as advantageous for the player. British colony cities receive a complimentary Redcoat unit to repel barbarians and wage war. Spanish missions receive a bonus in faith production when not built on Spain’s home continent, and Spain’s need for a treasure fleet makes them an early naval force compared to other countries. There is only one bonus for opposing colonialism in the entire game. Fighting India makes attackers suffer from increased war weariness, meaning fewer amenities and growth in cities. This bonus stems from Mahatma Gandhi’s leader ability “Satyagraha”, making it a direct defense mechanism against colonialist forces (in reality, the British Empire).
This imbalance is a problem, because it gives even more power to the colonialist states in the game. Civilization VI is a game that incorporates a lot of historical facts and persons into its concept; yet it is not a game >about< history. It is a game about creating our own story with tools that are familiar to us from history and which, in the best possible scenario, let us recreate some tiny part of history all by ourselves. In this, it is much more an ahistorical game than it would ever confess itself. It gives countless possibilities to rewrite history, yet impedes those possibilities by limitations that >seem< to be historical. There are some things you are just not supposed to do with certain nations; say, win a domination victory with Gandhi or go to space with Montezuma. You can still do it, of course. It is just way more convenient to use their national traits and abilities for something else.
For most military potent nations, it is convenient to make use of colonialism. That goes down to the simple decision after conquering a city: should you raze it to neutralize the possible danger of a reconquest or assimilate it into your empire, adjusting it to your playstyle with buildings only provided by your nation? Most of the time, the latter will be the sensible choice. Why burn a city if its inhabitants can work for you? There is no indicator in game to something like slavery, much as there is no unrest or rebellion if you choose to make the conquered city work for you. People in Civilization VI are not even a resource like they are in some earlier games of the series, where they could be sacrificed for production (through slavery, even in name) or revolt against an unloved monarch. With no need to look out for your citizens, there is no need to think about them, no need to acknowledge them. Cities in Civilization VI are grown by numbers, not by humans.
And without humans present, no one can be hurt. There are several policies in the game that are directly derived from Western colonialism. ‘Colonization’ makes settlers easier to procure, while ‘Raj’ gives bonus ressources for every city state under the player’s rule. There are more, and all of them are bonuses for the leader that chooses them. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that there are no drawbacks. There is no option for land to go barren if overused. There is no rebellion mechanism in city states if they are drained for resources. Declaring a war for conquest of land is actually something that makes other leaders hate the player less in comparison to declaring a war without giving a reason (What other reason would there be for an unprovoked war?).
What Civilization VI does not understand – or refuses to acknowledge – is that history is dialectic. All the great inventions, the Heurekas and Inspirations the game tells us to be the driving factor behind the thriving of nations are inherently and exclusively good in the game, when they were not in reality. The Enlightenment gave rise to movements for equality, for scientific wisdom, yet scientific pseudo-facts were manufactured for enlightened people to justify holding slaves and segregating people of color. The industrialization made living in Europe and America as comfortable as never before – in the long run. Before that, it drove millions of workers into unemployment and starvation. Obviously, Civilization VI only tells one half of the story.
First of all because it is able to do so without breaking its own narrative, its approach to fun. Since there are no people to be hurt, there is no harm in not mentioning the darker side of progress. And since drawbacks aren’t fun, from a gameplay perspective there is no sense in including them. The first Colonization took a very similar route in not including slavery as a mechanic. Interestingly though, the last two games before VI, Civilization V and Beyond Earth, featured some small instances to improve on this duality. Building oil rigs for example decreased local health and happiness in both games. In Civilization VI, they only provide bonus resources, no strings attached. Is it more fun to be able to plaster the map with tile improvements than to watch out for tactical factors? I don’t believe so, but it seems Firaxis says otherwise.
Secondly, the thought that progress at any cost might not be the epitome of human achievement is very far off from the worldview the Civilization series provides. In Civ, great nations lead by great men (and some women) rise to rule. More specifically, they rise to reach our era, the information era. Of the five ways to win the game, two are exclusively won in our time and age. Barbaric domination victories are possible with medieval weapons, but conquering space requires technology. ‘Prospering’ (as the game calls the process of winning through score on the last day of the match) means being the greatest nation by the time everything up until today is played and done. We are the epitome of greatness in Civ VI, and after us there is probably more greatness, but still done by people like us. Basically, the ultimate goal of Trajan and Mvemba a Nzinga is to become games journalists bent over a tiny screen.
Such a view is certainly not uncommon. Every era’s inhabitants tended to think they were at the summit of human success and that it could only go down from then on. The important thing is: Sometimes it did. How much wisdom was lost when a great empire broke down, its language almost lost, its libraries plundered? The middle ages lacked technology that was present more than a millennium earlier. Aquaducts and roads built by the Romans were used for centuries, but no one cared how they could be maintained. In Civilization, progress can never be lost, much like it can never be negative. From ancient times onward the player’s nation rises until it achieves its peak.
Take wonders, for example. A world wonder, once built, can never be destroyed by anyone, except if it is hit by a direct nuclear strike or the city that built it gets eradicated. Both cases are incredibly rare, almost non-existent, in an average match of Civ; colonizing, as said before, just makes much more sense. The Oracle of Delphi and the great Lighthouse at Alexandria, if built early on, will survive for 4000 years. No army can be brought to grind them down. Lead producer Dennis Shirk gave a reason for this when asked in an interview with PC Games N, foreseeing possible moral qualms players could have:
Wonders are the one thing that we never wanted to damage or destroy. I know horrible things can happen to a wonder in the real world, but it’s one thing we wanted to shield people from: having smoking ruins of the Pyramids. We imagine that everyone in the world has such respect for a wonder that they wouldn’t destroy one.
This is an interesting mechanic to exclude from the player’s grasp, especially in light of the many other morally questionable decisions one can make. Holy wars, much like colonial wars, are not only possible, but give bonuses to the player who leads them. Forcing people into one’s own belief system is a victory condition, much like killing every human on the map is. Yet destroying artworks is taboo, even when Civilization claims to be a historical game in a world where some wondrous constructions frankly were – or are still being – destroyed, or crumbled all by themselves. It is a restriction that does not tie into what the game actually wants: to give the player freedom to reshape history. It does however tie into the overall preoccupation of the game towards what players might want. Sid Meier once said that what’s not fun has no place in his games, but what is fun and what is not for different kinds of people is something that should not be generalized. I, for one, find it fun to learn about history while I play. Many people do, I imagine, and it is not a far off thought when playing a game that is about history, albeit loosely. But how can they when history is so misrepresented? More importantly, if someone does not know that Civ tailors history to its liking, would they notice? Most likely not. Civilization VI, like former titles of the series, goes great lenghts to be taken seriously, to provide ingame information about the world we live in. The entire ingame encyclopedia, titled Civilopedia, is full of biographies or history book excerpts. Much like I learned about William Wallace when I was playing Age of Empires II as a child, someone might hear about Persia or Harald Hardrada or the colonization of the “New World” the first time by playing Civilization. The developers had to be aware of that, or there would be no reason to include such biographical information. And yet this information is not unbiased; the seemingly neutral Civilopedia is filled with influencing phrasing and left-out facts. Again colonialism is a prime example with its perk-filled mechanics; but it pays to have a look at another misrepresented group in the game that so much wants to be for everyone. It pays to take a look at how women are represented ingame.
Do you know who invented the computer? Alan Turing and his colleagues maybe, with his enigma-deciphering machine in the early 1940s? Maybe you even heard of Charles Babbage, whose “Difference Engine” made in the 1830s actually was the first mechanical computing machine. But do you know people that were part of both inventions alongside them? Most people that know Alan Turing probably have never heard of cryptographer Joan Clarke or anyone else on the cryptography team Turing was part of. More people know of Ada Lovelace, sometimes considered the first programer ever, but few know that her code was integral to Babbage’s inventions. Neither Clarke nor Lovelace would ever have a chance in the race for the title of ‘parent of the computer’ for most people, and neither do they in Civilization VI.
There is a system in Civ VI that lets players and opponents recruit so-called Great Persons to further enhance their empires. There are Great Scientists, Merchants, Engineers, Prophets, Admirals and Generals alongside an especially large roster of Artists in the form of painters, musicians and writers. The system goes back to the 1994 title Sid Meier’s Colonization – a spin-off to the original Civilization. In there, founding fathers could be recruited by all four included European nations that brought special traits if they were given a seat in congress. Not being a really fleshed-out system, those people could all be hired several times by different factions, so in extreme cases there were four George Washingtons in play. Almost all of those founding fathers were – hence the title – male, with some strange inclusions like Pocahontas sprinkling the selection. The standalone add-on to Civilization IV in 2008 dealt with the same colonialist scenario and was titled with the same name as the game just mentioned. In it, the founding father system was refined, making each FF unique.
The term ‘Great People’ was coined by the fifth part of the main Civilization line. Civ V introduced great personalities of history as bonus units to be earned through proficiency in their respective fields. Oddly enough, the game went back on the uniqueness of the persons. Every Great Scientist did exactly the same thing, as did every Great Merchant, and so forth.
Civilization VI now gives Great People back their unique abilities. Everyone has perks that are loosely based on their real-life field of work, with Carl Sagan helping the space technology forward and Levi Strauss bringing special trousers to the population, increasing amenities. But this focus on representation and unique achievements is undermined when taking a look at the presentation of female Great People. Think back to the computer case. In regard to computing technology, two researchers made it into Civilization VI: Alan Turing and Ada Lovelace, both giving the same boost to the tech tree. Appropriate selection, correct? Yet, Turing is classified as a scientist, while Lovelace is depicted as an engineer, hinting at a less academic, more mechanic field of work. Further, the representation in their respective Civilopedia entry could not differ more. Alan Turing, praised for his advances in computing technology, receives a pointed and laudable introduction in a single, short sentence.
Alan Mathison Turing is today considered the “father” of both theoretical computer science and of artificial intelligence.
Ada Lovelace however lacks praise all together. Her full biographical entry mostly mentions her relation to the different men in her live – father, husband, friend – without even including her actual fields of work, save for a diminishing statement about her achievement in computer sciences, calling it her only other “achievement to civilization” apart from having children.
The only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron (who abandoned his wife a month after the birth), Ada Lovelace began a lifelong friendship with Charles Babbage, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge, in 1833 AD, when she was but 17 years old. Their relationship seems to have been a platonic one, for they soon commenced a voluminous correspondence on mathematics, logic, and all manner of scholarly topics. In 1835 Ada married William King, ten years her senior and soon Earl of Lovelace. She would bear three children.
Her only other significant contribution to civilization resulted from her efforts as a translator for Babbage.
Why does Lovelace’s entry hit such a negative tune? If the developers looked down on her achievements, but still included her into the game, does that leave any other interpretation than to appease to a wider audience by just putting in ‘some’ women?
The selection of recruitable women is small in the first place, of course, compared to the men. Of the 18 Great Engineers in Civ VI, 16 are male. And it is not that there aren’t any more women in human history that could have been included. We know today that a lot of genius female minds were suppressed or ignored, forgotten by history because the men of their time wanted them to be forgotten. Have you heard of Marie Tharp for example, who was crucial to Alfred Wegener’s success in proving his theory about plate tectonics? Cases like Tharp are common, female minds forgotten behind male colleagues who may or may not have deserved to take the lion’s share of fame. And even actually famous women of history can have a hard time in Civilization VI. Blatantly missing from the selection of Great Scientists for example is Marie Curie, who basically discovered radiation with her colleagues.
Maybe there was not enough room in the game after carefully choosing the most important scientist there are, who happen to be mostly male, one might say. But why then is Marie Curie, holder of multiple Nobel Prizes, missing from the roster of Great Scientists, while someone like Hildegard of Bingen made it into the game? Hildegard’s advances in blending mysticism with science did nothing to further the understanding of scientific fields from today’s perspective, betraying the underlying message of every other advancement found in Civilization VI. Without doubt Hildegard was seen as an important researcher in her time, when science and religious mysticism did not exclude each other and were sometimes even the same thing. And from the viewpoint of historians, looking at events and advancements not from our perspective but in their respective time period is how it should be done. It is how those events have to be evaluated, not by today’s moral standards and knowledge foundations, but by those of their own time. Yet this is not what Civilization VI does, what it preaches. As I said, whatever happens in the course of Civilization VI‘s timeline inevitably leads up to today’s glory, everything I do as a player makes sense when I look back from my ignited moon rocket. By the game’s own definition, Hildegard of Bingen should be part of a historical cul-de-sac, a religious figure leading to cultic developments, not to the space age. But that’s what she does. And with glaring white spots in places where important historical, especially female, figures should be, the inclusion of pseudo-sciences into the scientific system of the game does more harm than it adds to the mechanical finesse its subsystems.
It is almost not surprising anymore that this underrepresentation of the importance of women in history also found its way into the technical aspect of the game. While the character model of Great People differs to a certain extent and even includes female characters and people of colour, the portrait in the games user interface is always the same, and more importantly: always male. While variations in the model are a very nice touch and are to be praised, most players might not even notice them. Since Civilization VI is something of a “Grand Strategy” game, the standard way to play is normally to put the camera as high as possible to get the best overview. It’s almost impossible to make out single unit’s models from that perspective. The user interface however stays ever visible, and with it the static model of a bearded man holding a beaker. In politics and economics, one might call it Tokenism – including a few diverse people for the sake of not being accused of racism, sexism or simply not caring.
And even if that was never the intent of Firaxis, it’s important to call it out. Civilization VI still has all the chances in the future, with at least one big game-changing add-on on the horizon. By calling out their failings to the developers, players and press might have a chance to make games more diverse, more open to everyone. I urge Firaxis to not make colonialism great again. Their approach to strong female leaders like Cleopatra of Egypt and Tomyris of Scythia is commendable, and by developing it into more subsystems of the game Civilization VI can become so much more than a time-devouring, ahistorical behemoth.
This article was written for and published on The Ontological Geek as “Civilization, colonialism, and the misunderstanding of history”. It is based on my two German articles about Civilization VI‘s inherent colonialism and depiction of women. You can follow Ontological Geek on Twitter @OntologicalGeek or take a look at all the other awesome articles on their site!
Sid Meier’s Civilization, 1991, Developer: MicroProse, Publisher: MicroProse, MS-DOS/PC
Sid Meier’s Colonization, 1994, Developer: MicroProse, Publisher: MicroProse, MS-DOS/PC/Amiga/Mac/iOS
Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, 2005, Developer: Firaxis, Publisher: 2K Games, PC/Mac
Sid Meier’s Civilization V, 2010, Developer: Firaxis, Publisher: 2K Games, PC/Mac/Linux
Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, 2014, Developer: Firaxis, Publisher: 2K Games, PC/Mac/Linux
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, 2016, Developer: Firaxis, Publisher: 2K Games, PC/Mac/Linux