The Game of Everything, Part 3: Civilization and the Narrative of Progress

30 Mar

You can’t say civilization don’t advance. In every war, they kill you in a new way.

— Will Rogers

Civilization is a game for all time, but the original version of Civilization, as created by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley and published by MicroProse in 1991, is also a game thoroughly of its time. When you finish guiding your civilization’s history, whether because you’ve conquered the world, been conquered by the world, flown to Alpha Centauri, or simply retired, you’re ranked on a scale of real history’s leaders. If you’ve played really, really badly — as in, closing-your-eyes-and-clicking-randomly badly — you find yourself equated to Dan Quayle, the United States’s vice president as of 1991.

Quayle has long since slunk out of public life, meaning that younger players who try out the game today will likely fail to get the joke here. In his day, however, his vacuousness was legendary enough to make even the most hardened would-be assassin think twice before visiting ill upon President George H.W. Bush. Among Quayle’s greatest hits were the time he claimed the Holocaust had happened in the United States, the time he claimed Mars had a breathable atmosphere and canals filled with water, and the time he lost a spelling bee to a twelve-year-old by misspelling “potato.” And then there was the feud he started with the sitcom character Murphy Brown when she chose to have a child out of wedlock, raising the question of whether he knew that the little people he saw inside his television didn’t actually live there. It says much about what a universal figure of derision he had become by 1991 that Meier and Shelley, in no hurry to offend any potential customer of any political persuasion, nevertheless felt free to mock him in this way as the ne plus ultra of air-headed politicians. Everybody felt free to mock Dan Quayle.

But the spirit of the times in which Civilization was made is woven much deeper into its fabric than a joke tossed onto an end-of-game leader board. In fact, it’s inseparable from the game’s single most important identifying feature. The Advances Chart of which I’ve already made so much reflects a view of history as a well-nigh inevitable narrative of progress — a view that had rather fallen out of favor for much of the twentieth century, but which had come roaring back now at the end of it, prompted by the ending of the Cold War.

It’s very difficult to adequately convey today just how that ending felt to those of us in the West who had lived through what preceded it. Just a few years before, we had shivered in our beds after watching The Day After in the United States or Threads in Britain, while Ronald Reagan droned on obliviously about the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” A decade earlier, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had said that the Cold War would be “unending”: “We must learn to conduct foreign policy without escape and without respite. This condition will not go away.” Which was perhaps just as well, given that no one could seem to formulate an endgame for it that didn’t leave the world a heap of irradiated ashes. It was very nearly the conventional wisdom that someday, somehow, a mistake would be made by one side or the other, or one side would simply find itself backed too far into a corner. At that point, the missiles would fly, and that would be that. The logic of history seemed to be on the side of such pessimism. After all, what other weapon in the long history of warfare had humanity ever invented and then not used?

And then, with head-snapping speed, it was all simply… over. Over, for the most part, peacefully. In a series of events so improbable no novelist would ever have dared write them down, one side just decided to give up. The Berlin Wall came down, the Iron Curtain opened, and the Cold War ended in the most blessed anticlimax in the history of the world. As Meier and Shelley were finishing Civilization, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was entering its final stages. In June of 1991, Boris Yeltsin became the first democratically elected president of the nascent “Russian Federation.” In August, the world held its breath as a cabal of communist hardliners mounted a last-ditch coup in the hope of restoring the old order, only to exhale again when the coup collapsed three days later. And on December 26, 1991, a couple of weeks after Civilization had reached store shelves, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. Russia was once again just Russia.

For those of us in the West, the whole course of events was rather hard to fathom; it was hard to know how to react to suddenly not living under the dark threat of nuclear annihilation. But Americans at least, a people who seldom need much encouragement to wave their flags and play their anthem, soon got with the program and started celebrating the historical triumph of their “way of life.” If they needed any further encouragement, the country’s first post-Cold War military adventure, the pushing of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait, was being televised live every night on CNN even as the Soviet Union was still winding down. That war proved the perfect antidote to the lingering malaise of Vietnam; it was, at least from the perspective of 30,000 feet shown on CNN, swift and clean, all of the things the “police actions” of the Cold War had so seldom been. The United States was unchallenged in the world, in the ascendant as never before.

The feeling of exaltation wasn’t confined to flag-waving populists. The most-discussed book of 1992 among the chattering classes had no less grandiose a title than The End of History and the Last Man. It was the perfect book for the times, an explication of all the reasons that the United States had triumphed in the Cold War and could now look forward to a world molded in its image. Written by a heretofore obscure member of the RAND think tank named Francis Fukuyama, and based on a journal article he had first published in 1989, the book identified “a fundamental process at work that dictates a common evolutionary pattern for all human societies — in short, something like a Universal History of mankind in the direction of liberal democracy.” (“Liberal” in this context refers to classical liberalism — i.e., prioritizing the sanctity of the individual over the goals of the collective — rather than the word’s modern political connotations.) The central question of history, Fukuyama argued, had been that of how humanity should best order itself, economically and politically, in order to ensure the best possible material, social, and spiritual state of being for everyone. With the end of the Cold War, communism and totalitarianism, the last great challengers to capitalism and democracy by way of an answer to that question, had given up the ghost. From now on, liberal democracy would reign supreme, meaning that, while events would certainly continue, history had come to the fruition toward which it had been building through all the centuries past.

More discussed than actually read even in its heyday, Fukuyama’s book has since become an all-purpose punching bag, described as hopelessly naive in right-wing realpolitik circles and morally reprehensible in left-wing postmodernist and Marxist circles. Widely denounced by the latter group in particular as a purveyor of “jingoist triumphalism” in service of American hegemony, Fukuyama felt compelled to stress in a new 2003 afterword to The End of History that he actually saw the European Union as a better model for liberal democracy’s future than the government of his own country. His book is in many ways a book of its time — an example of a history book itself becoming history — but it’s neither as jingoistic nor as naive as its current reputation would suggest. Most of Fukuyama’s critics fail to address the fact that the idea of a secular historical eschatology hardly originated with him. In fact, he takes pains in the book to situate it within a long-established historiographical tradition, albeit updated to account for such an earth-shaking event as the end of the Cold War.

History as evolutionary progress is an Enlightenment ideal that ironically predates Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Without it, the American and French Revolutions, those two great attempts to bring concrete form to Enlightenment ideas about human rights and just government, would have been unimaginable. During the decades prior to those revolutions, thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Adam Smith had articulated a new way of looking at the world, based on reason, science, humanism, and, yes, progress. “With our understanding of the world advanced by science and our circle of sympathy expanded through reason and cosmopolitanism,” writes the modern-day cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker of the Enlightenment, “humanity could make intellectual and moral progress. It need not resign itself to the miseries and irrationalities of the present, nor try to turn back the clock to a lost golden age.” To be a progressive, then or now, is to believe in the actuality or at least the potentiality of human history as a narrative of progress. It implies a realistic, fact-based approach to problem-solving that prefers to look forward to the future rather than back to the past.

But of course, any rousing narrative of progress worth its salt needs to have a proper bang-up climax. It was the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the early 1800s who first proposed the notion of a point of fruition toward which the history of humanity was leading. Indeed, he went so far as to claim that history may have reached this goal already in his own time, with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s victory over Prussia at the Battle of Jena in 1806 having proved the superiority of his time’s version of the modern liberal state. (Francis Fukuyama had nothing on this guy when it came to premature declarations of mission accomplished.) Hegel connected his notions of historical progress with a Greek word from classical theology: thymos. It’s difficult to concisely translate, but it connotes the social worth of an individual, the sum total of her competencies and predilections. The ideal society, according to Hegel, is one where each person has the opportunity to become this best self — or, we might say today, to use another word that smacks dreadfully of pop psychology, to “self-actualize.”

This, then, was the natural end point toward which all of history to date had been struggling. As befits a philosopher of the idealist school, Hegel gave the narrative of progress an idealistic tinge which still clings to its alleged rationality even today, whether it takes as its climax Hegel’s universal thymos, Fukuyama’s stable democratic world order, or for that matter Civilization‘s trip to Alpha Centauri.

Narratives of progress had a natural appeal during the nineteenth century, a relatively peaceful era once Napoleon had been dispensed with, and one in which real, tangible signs of progress were appearing at an unprecedented pace, in the form of new ideas and new inventions. In this time before nuclear Armageddon or global warming had crossed anyone’s most remote imaginings, the wonders of technological progress in particular — the railroad, the telegraph, the light bulb — were regarded as an unalloyed positive force in the world. By the latter half of the century, almost everyone seemed to be a techno-progressive. “Upon the whole,” wrote the British statesman William Ewart Gladstone in 1887, “we who lived fifty, sixty, seventy years back have lived into a gentler time.”

Even the less sanguine thinkers couldn’t resist the allure of the narrative of progress. On the contrary: it was Karl Marx among all nineteenth-century thinkers who devoted the most energy to a cherished historical eschatology. With Enlightened scientific precision, he laid out six “phases of history” through which the world must inevitably pass: primitive communism, the slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and finally true communism. He disagreed with Hegel that liberalism — i.e., capitalism — could mark the end of history by noting, by no means without justification, that the thymos-fulfilling nations the latter praised actually empowered only a tiny portion of their populations, that being white men of the moneyed classes; these were the only people Hegel tended to think of when he talked about “the people.”

But even in the nineteenth century the narrative of progress had its critics. The most vocal among them was yet another German philosopher, Wilhelm Friedrich Nietzsche. Whereas Hegel spoke of the thymos, Nietzsche preferred megalothymia: the need of the superior man to assert his superiority. To Nietzsche, nobility was found only in conflict. All of these so-called “progressive” institutions — such as democracy and human rights — were creating a world of “hollow-chested” men, alienated from the real essence of life; the modern nation-state was “the coldest of all cold monsters.” Hegel had imagined a world where slaves would be freed from their shackles. Maybe so, said Nietzsche — but they will still be slaves. Instead of history as a ladder, Nietzsche preferred to see it as a loop — an “eternal recurrence.” Whether progress was defined in terms of railroads, telegraphs, and light bulbs or social contracts, human rights, and democracies, it was all nonsense, merely the window dressing for the eternal human cycle of strife and striving.

While Nietzsche’s views were decidedly idiosyncratic in his own century, the narrative of progress’s critics grew enormously in number in the century which followed. In contrast to the peace and prosperity that marked the last few decades of the nineteenth century in particular, the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by a devastating one-two punch: the two bloodiest wars in the whole bloody history of human warfare, the second of them accompanied by one of the most concerted attempts at genocide in man’s whole history of inhumanity to man. It wasn’t lost on anyone that the country which had conceived this last, and then proceeded to carry it out with such remorseless Teutonic efficiency, was the very place where Hegel had lived and written about his ideals of ethical progress. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin was turning Marx’s dreams of a communist utopia into another brutal farce. In the face of all this, the narrative of progress seemed at best a quaint notion, at worst a cruel joke. After all, it was only the supposedly civilizing fruits of progress — technology, bureaucracy, a rules-based system of order — that allowed Hitler and Stalin’s reigns of terror to be so tragically effective.

Even when World War II ended with the good guys victorious, any sense that the narrative of progress could now be considered firmly back on track was undone by the specter of the atomic bomb. Maybe, thought many, the end goal toward which the narrative was leading wasn’t an Enlightened world but rather nuclear apocalypse. In his 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr., introduced a grotesque new spin on Nietzsche’s old idea of the eternal recurrence. He proposed that human civilization might progress from the hunter-gatherer phase to the point of developing nuclear weapons, and then proceed to destroy itself — again and again and again for all eternity. In 1980, the astronomer Carl Sagan upped the ante even further in his television miniseries Cosmos. Maybe, he proposed, the reason we had failed to find any evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life was because any species which reached roughly humanity’s current level of technological development was doomed to annihilate itself within a handful of years — the eternal recurrence on a cosmic scale.

But then came that wonderful day in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. What followed was the most ebullient few years of the twentieth century. The peace treaty which had concluded World War I had felt like something of a hollow sham even at the time, while the ending of World War II had been sobered by the creeping shadows of the atomic bomb and the Cold War. But now, at the end of the twentieth century’s third great global conflict of ideologies, there was seemingly no reason not to feel thoroughly positive about the world’s future. The only problems remaining in the world were small in comparison to the prospect of nuclear annihilation, and they could be dealt with by a united world community of democratic nations, as was demonstrated by the clean, quick, and painless First Gulf War. From the perspective of the early 1990s, even much of the century’s darkest history could be seen in a decidedly different light. Amidst all of the wars and genocides, the century had produced agents for peace like the United Nations, along with extraordinary scientific, medical, and technological progress that had made the lives of countless people better on countless fronts. And, to cap it all off, the fact remained that we hadn’t annihilated each other. Maybe the narrative of progress was as vital as ever. Maybe it just worked in more roundabout and mysterious ways than anticipated. Maybe it was sometimes just hard to see the forest of overall progress amidst all the trees of current events.

As we all know, progress’s moment of triumph would prove even more short-lived than most of history’s golden ages. Within a few years of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an unspeakably brutal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was showing that age-old ethnic and religious animus could still be more powerful than idealistic talk about democracy and human rights. Well before the end of the 1990s, it was becoming clear that Russia, rather than striding forward to join the international community of liberal democracies, was sliding backward into economic chaos and political corruption, priming the pump for a return to authoritarian rule. And then came September 11, 2001, the definitive ending of the era that would come to be regarded not as the beginning of humanity’s permanently peaceful and prosperous post-history but as the briefly tranquil internecine between the Cold War and a seemingly eternal War on Terror. In a future article, we’ll try to reckon with the changes that have come to the world since those ebullient days of the early 1990s.

Right now, however, let’s turn back to Civilization. Even as I continue to emphasize that Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley weren’t out to make a political statement with their game of everything, I must also note that its embrace of the narrative of progress as its core mechanic, combined with its spirit of rational practicality and a certain idealism, wind up making it a very progressive work indeed. Loathe though he has always been to talk about politics, Meier has admitted to a measure of pride at having included global warming in the game; if you don’t control your modern civilization’s pollution levels, your coastal cities will literally get swallowed up by the encroaching ocean.

I want to stress that “progressive” as I use it here is not a synonym for (non-classically) “liberal”; it’s perfectly possible to be a progressive who believes in smaller government, possible even to be a progressive libertarian. Still, even at the time of the game’s release, when the American right tended to be more trusting of science and objective truth than they’ve become today, its pragmatism about our fragile planet didn’t always sit well with MicroProse’s traditional customer base of largely conservative military-simulation and wargame fans. Computer Gaming World‘s Alan Emrich, who was more than largely conservative, penned the hilarious passage below in his otherwise extremely positive review of the game. It can probably stand in for many a crusty old grognard’s reaction to some of the game’s most interesting aspects (“politically correct,” it seems, was 1991’s version of “social-justice warrior”):

Civilization strives to be a “hip” game, and deals with popular social issues from the standpoint of “political correctness.” Thus, global warming is a tremendous threat. Odd, for such a recent, unproven theory. Evolution is expressed in the game’s introduction, but at least that debate has been around a while. Pollution, therefore, becomes a society’s primary focus after industrialization takes place, with players being channeled toward more politically-correct power plants, recycling centers, and mass transit to address the problem. Even the beta-test “super-highway” Wonder of the World gave way to “women’s suffrage.” While women’s suffrage is a novel concept for its effect during gameplay, it is also another brick in the wall of political correctness.

One hardly knows where to start with this. Should we begin with the bizarre idea that any designer of a massive computer strategy game, about the most unhip thing in the world, would ever have striven to be “hip?” Or with the idea that evolution might still be up for “debate?” Or with the idea that recycling centers and mass transit, and letting women vote, for God’s sake, are dubious notions born of political correctness, that apparent source of all the world’s evils? Or with the last mangled metaphor, which seems to be saying the opposite of what it wants to say? (Was Emrich listening to too much Pink Floyd at the time?)  Instead of snarking further, I’m just going to move on.

A more useful subject to examine right now might be just what kind of progress it is that Civilization‘s Advances Chart represents. The belief to which the game seems to subscribe, that progress in technology and hard science will inevitably drive the broader culture forward, is sometimes referred to as technological determinism. It can be contrasted with the more metaphysical narrative of progress favored by the likes of Hegel, as it can with the social-collective narrative of progress favored by Marx. Unsurprisingly, it tends to find its most enthusiastic fans among scientists, engineers, and science-fiction writers.

Given the sort of work it is, it makes a lot of practical sense for Civilization to cast its lot with the technologists’ camp; it is, after all, much easier to build into a strategy game the results of the development of the musket than it is to chart the impact of a William Shakespeare. Even outside the rules of a strategy game, for that matter, it’s far more difficult to map great art onto a narrative of progress than it is other great human achievements. While scientists, engineers, and even philosophers build upon one another’s work in fairly obvious way, great artists often stand alone; Shakespeare continues to be widely acknowledged today as the greatest writer of English ever to have lived, even as progress has long since swept all other aspects of his century aside.

Still, importantly, Shakespeare is in the game, as are Michelangelo and Bach, and as are markers of social progress like women’s suffrage and labor unions. (By way of confirming all of Alan Emrich’s deepest suspicions, the game makes communism a prerequisite for the last.) It is, in other words, not remarkable that Civilization on the whole favors a “hard” form of progress; what is remarkable is the degree to which it manages to depart from such a bias from time to time. If the game sometimes strains to find a concrete advantage to confer upon the softer forms of progress — women’s suffrage makes your population less prone to unhappiness, which makes at least a modicum of sense; labor unions give you access to “mechanized infantry” units, which makes pretty much no sense whatsoever — its heart is nevertheless in the right place.

The first people ever to pen a study of Civilization‘s assumptions about history were none other than our old friend Alan Emrich and his fellow Computer Gaming World scribe Johnny L. Wilson, who did so together in the context of a strategy guide called Civilization: or Rome on 640K a Day. It has to be one of the most interesting books ever written about a computer game; it’s actually fairly useless as a practical strategy guide, but is full of fascinating observations about the deeper implications of Civilization as a simulation of history. Wilson writes from a forthrightly liberal point of view, while Emrich is, as we’ve already seen, deeply conservative, and the frisson between the two gives the book additional zest. Here’s what it has to say about Civilization‘s implementation of the narrative of progress:

To be civilized in terms of Sid Meier’s Civilization means to be making material progress in terms of economic well-being and scientific advancement. The game has an underlying belief in such progress. In fact, this dogma is so strong that there is actually no problem in Sid Meier’s Civilization that cannot be solved by human effort (using settler units) or more technology. There are, as a correspondent named Gary Boone wrote to us shortly after the game’s release, no Luddites (reactionary anti-technological activists during the Industrial Revolution) in this game’s universe. It is, to paraphrase Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, the best of all progressing worlds.

Many an earnest progressive in the real world has doubtless wished for such an alternate universe. Galileo wished he could write about heliocentrism without being hauled before an ecclesiastical court; Einstein wished he could pursue his Theory of Relativity without contending with a pitchfork-wielding mob of Isaac Newton disciples; modern researchers wish they could explore gene therapy without people forever trying to take their stem cells away. All of these wishes come true in Civilization, that best of all progressing worlds.

Of course, even those of us who proudly call ourselves progressives need to recognize that the narrative of progress has its caveats. Many of the narrative’s adherents, not least among them Civilization, have tended to see it as an historical inevitability. Notably, Civilization has no mechanisms by which advances, once acquired, can be lost again. Yet clearly this has happened in real human history, most famously during the thousand-year interregnum between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, during the early centuries of which humanity in the West was actively regressing by countless measures; much knowledge, along with much art and literature, was lost forever during the so-called Dark Ages. (Far more would have been lost had not the Muslim world saved much of Europe’s heritage from the neglect and depredations of the European peoples — much as is done, come to think of it, by a small society of monks after each successive Apocalypse in Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.)

We should thus remember as we construct our narratives of progress for our own world that the data in favor of progress as an inevitability is thin on the ground indeed. We have only one history we can look back upon, making it very questionable to gather too many hard-and-fast rules therefrom. All but the most committed Luddite would agree that progress has occurred over the last several centuries, and at an ever-increasing rate at that, but we have no form of cosmic assurance that it will continue. “The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness,” wrote Norbert Wiener in 1950, going on to note that the sheer pace of progress in recent times had given those times a character unique in human history:

There is no use in looking anywhere in earlier history for parallels to the successful inventions of the steam engine, the steamboat, the locomotive, the modern smelting of metals, the telegraph, the transoceanic cable, the introduction of electric power, dynamite and the high-explosive missile, the airplane, the electric valve, and the atomic bomb. The inventions in metallurgy which heralded the origin of the Bronze Age are neither so concentrated in time nor so manifold as to offer a good counterexample. It is very well for the classical economist to assure us suavely that these changes are purely changes in degree, and that changes in degree do not vitiate historic parallels. The difference between a medicinal dose of strychnine and a fatal one is also only one of degree.

Civilization rather cleverly disguises this “difference of degree” by making each turn represent less and less time as you move through history. Nevertheless, progress at anything but the most glacial pace remains a fairly recent development that may be more of an historical anomaly than an inevitability.

Whatever else it is, the narrative of progress is also a deeply American view of history. The United States is young enough to have been born after progress in the abstract had become an idea in philosophy. Indeed, its origin story is inextricably bound up in Enlightenment idealism. That fact, combined with the fact that the United States has been fortunate enough to suffer very few major tragedies in its existence, has caused a version of the narrative of progress to become the default way of teaching American history at the pre-university level. One could thus say that every American citizen, this one included, is indoctrinated in the narrative of progress before reaching adulthood. This indoctrination can make it difficult to even notice the existence of other views of history.

Civilization, for its part, is a deeply American game, and much about the narrative of progress must have seemed self-evident to its designers, to the point that they never even thought about it. The game has garnered plenty of criticism in academia for its Americanisms. Matthew Kapell, for instance, in indelible academic fashion labels Civilization a “simulacrum” of the “American monomythic structure.” Such essays often have more of an ideological axe to grind than does the game itself, and strike me as rather unfair to a couple of designers who at the end of the day were just making a good-faith attempt to portray history as it looked to them. Still, we Americans would do well to keep in mind that our country’s view of history isn’t a universal one.

But if we shouldn’t trust in progress as inevitable, how should we think about it? To begin with, we might acknowledge that the narrative of progress has always been as much an ethical position, a description of the way things ought to be, as it has been a description of the way they necessarily are. This has been the real American dream of progress, one always bigger than the country’s profoundly imperfect reality, one in which much of the world outside its borders has been able to find inspiration. Call me a product of my upbringing if you will, but it’s a dream to which I still wholeheartedly subscribe. To be a progressive is to recognize that the world is a better place than it used to be — that, by almost any measurement we care to take, human life is better than it’s ever been on this little planet of ours — thanks to those Enlightenment virtues of reason, science, humanism, and progress. And it is to assert that we have the capacity to make things yet much, much better for all of our planet’s people.

Progress will continue to be the binding theme of this series of articles, as it is the central theme of Civilization. We’ll continue to turn it around, to peer at it, to poke and prod it from various perspectives. Because ultimately, responsibility for our future doesn’t lie with some dead hand of historical or technological determinism. It lies with us, the strategizers sitting behind the screen, pulling the levers of our real world’s civilizations.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal, The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics by Christopher Lasch, History of the Idea of Progress by Ribert Nisbet, The Idea of Progress by J.B. Bury, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Ulysses by James Joyce, Lectures on the Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; Computer Gaming World of September 1991 and December 1991; Popular Culture Review of Summer 2002.)


Tags: , , ,

53 Responses to The Game of Everything, Part 3: Civilization and the Narrative of Progress

  1. tedder

    March 30, 2018 at 6:36 pm

    Wow, Jimmy, thanks for the look at politics and history through the lens of Civ. I really appreciate the contextualization. I’d certainly noticed the America-centrism in the choice of rulers and their attributes, but missed some of the more subtle points.

    Super-minor copyedit nits: leader board -> leaderboard; “on the ascendant as never before.” -> ascent?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 30, 2018 at 9:15 pm

      It’s quite commonly written as “leader board” in American English. “Ascendant” was the word I was looking for, but looks like I should have used the preposition “in” instead of “on.” Thanks!

      • daev3000

        March 31, 2018 at 12:34 pm

        Another minor correction: “sit will” should read “sit well”. Also, great article!

        • Jimmy Maher

          March 31, 2018 at 12:41 pm


  2. Matt

    March 30, 2018 at 7:28 pm

    Wonderful article. I firmly believe that this chain of pieces is by far your best yet, though I might be biased due to my extreme affection for Civilization. I was lucky enough to have the original Macintosh version be a large part of a lesson plan during one of my years of electrical school, and I’ve played it at least every year since then. Still slowly getting better at it, even if I don’t always finish a game.

  3. Jacen

    March 30, 2018 at 7:44 pm

    I’m a little confused by your line “the bizarre idea that any designer of a massive computer strategy game, about the most unhip thing in the world, would ever have striven to be “hip?” ”

    You’ve written several articles referencing many people attempting to make game designers hip, perhaps even glamorous… Trip Hawkins being the most notable, of course.

    And our own Sid Meyers has a tendency to (deservedly) self-aggrandize by labeling many of his video games with his own name, presumably because his name has catchet among the shoppers.

    If you can’t be an actual rock star, why not strive to be a game designer superstar?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 30, 2018 at 9:18 pm

      It’s notable that those campaigns weren’t terribly successful, nor were they for designers of massive strategy games. ;) Sid Meier is a well-known name, thanks largely to a promotional strategy hit upon by Wild Bill Stealey, but he doesn’t strike me as anyone who’s ever been interested in being hip.

  4. hcs

    March 30, 2018 at 8:26 pm

    Thanks Jimmy, interested to see where you go with this. Not sure what this is supposed to be: “All of things of these wish come true”

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 30, 2018 at 9:21 pm

      Took me a minute to figure that one out myself. ;) Thanks!

  5. Joachim

    March 30, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    Excellent stuff, I can’t understand how you are capable of cranking these fascinating, well-researched pieces out on a weekly basis.

  6. Spike

    March 30, 2018 at 9:15 pm

    I’m wondering how the fact that large, advanced cities in Civilization automatically produce unhappy citizens fits into all of this. Maybe they could be viewed as protesters against the vision of progress inherent in the game?

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 31, 2018 at 7:53 am

      It’s an interesting notion, but I tend to see it as a reflection of the way that an expanding economy tends to foster in the citizenry greater expectations for their personal lives and less commitment to the body politic as a whole. The “luxuries” component of the Civilization financial model obviously plays into this, reflecting the emergence of a consumer economy. We can see the scenario playing out right now in places like China and India, with their emerging middle classes.

    • Simon_Jester

      September 19, 2022 at 9:08 am

      Coming back to this much later, it seems to me that another thing that the “large cities automatically produce unhappy citizens” dynamic reflects is the role of infrastructure. Life in large, densely populated communities becomes increasingly unlivable without social and physical infrastructure to make it livable.

      Once your cities start producing unhappy citizens, you rapidly push up against a “soft cap” on their population, because the unproductive and disruptive extra citizens still have to be fed. So you have to create art and culture and things that make people happy and comfortable and, importantly, give them socially constructed reasons not to be at each other’s throats. That includes temples, civic spaces such as parks and ‘colosseums,’ inspirational projects such as wonders, luxury goods, and so on.

      Whether the default-unhappy citizens are protesting against progress, or simply disaffected and made miserable by the natural consequences of being overcrowded into slums that are forgotten by their civilization’s economy and culture, is hard to say.

  7. Keith Palmer

    March 31, 2018 at 12:35 am

    I’d had an uneasy anticipation that “looking back at the worldview that produced Civilization” would mean heavy, gloomy stuff, as much as anticipating it means I can’t deny critiques of “we don’t really have to do anything special to succeed” have teeth to them; I’m cautiously glad at this first instalment, anyway.

  8. Martin

    March 31, 2018 at 1:12 am

    I think when you think about loops you have to split the technological from the social. I don’t claim to an expert in either but I see that social side, the Nietzsche side of human progress can loop though we can argue about how large chronologically these loops are. But on the technological side, we have reached a point where it would be very difficult.

    While you pointed out the steps that started the technology acceleration in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, what you missed out was the easy access to high energy fuels such as shallow coal seams and shallow oil supplies. Clearly these “easy” sources have been exploited and we now have only the difficult ones left – fracking, and deep sea drilling. While no one can say that we couldn’t do it again, I haven’t heard of anyone that create a viable path to do it all again if we had to start again tomorrow. The monks of Leibowitz may have preserved the “what” of doing it again but not the “how” in an energy depleted world.

    Generally people do not realize that we live in a meta-stable state at the moment. We can live with social change in any of the progressive, conservative or a looping around from one to the other direction but if we loose too much of our technological standing, we will not have a viable way to gain it back – unless we can think of something beyond our current understanding.

    Great article BTW. Much to think about.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 31, 2018 at 7:40 am

      This is a very interesting perspective that I hadn’t thought about. It would indeed be much harder, perhaps impossible, to restart civilization from scratch on our resource-depleted planet. (Also another nail in the coffin of any Chariots of the Gods-type scenario about an advanced civilization existing in the distant past — not that it needed another one.)

      A key question is whether technological and social progress necessarily go hand-in-hand. Civilization implicitly argues that they do. There are strong reasons to support that view: a technologically advanced economy requires an educated population able to think for themselves, technology in general tends to make information more accessible, technology fosters travel and communication which in turn foster understanding and empathy, etc. On the other hand, technology also enables all sorts of surveillance and control — and, as we’ve seen with the recent Facebook scandals, propaganda. I’m generally optimistic about the future — an unfashionable view to take these days, I know — but am not unaware of the risks.

  9. Jonathan Badger

    March 31, 2018 at 2:30 am

    While Fukuyama’s “End of History” is indeed a punching bag these days, there’s a lot of sense to his predictions even now. I recently visited Vietnam. You’d think a country under the leadership of an actual Communist Party would be filled with drones fanatically chanting from the works of Marx, but if anything he’s less popular than he is in the West. All the government-employed guides seemed to be starting out something on the side — mobile phone repair services, their own private tour companies, etc., and the breakup of the collective farms in favor of letting farmers work for themselves and profit from their crops has meant that Vietnam has gone from a net importer of rice to being a net exporter.

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 31, 2018 at 7:35 am

      Yes. I initially approached The End of History intending basically to use it as a punching bag myself, as an almost kitschy artifact of those ebullient early 1990s. What I found was something far more thoughtful and reasonable than I’d ever imagined, so much so that it’s become a touchstone of this series as a whole. I’m not sure I’d go around making pronouncements about an end of history under any circumstances, but I do think the core ideas in the book have plenty of validity even today. It may very well turn out that the travails of the last few years have been a blip on the radar, a last reactionary gasp of the old order, and Fukuyama will get the last laugh in the end.

      • Petter Sjölund

        April 2, 2018 at 4:04 pm

        A tenet of the modern pro-capitalism worldview is that markets and private enterprise will inevitably lead to democracy. I don’t think this is necessarily the case, and the way things have turned out since the nineties, in particular in China (which is the model for the new economic direction of Vietnam), seems to give support to my view.

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 3, 2018 at 7:05 am

          Yes. One of Fukayama’s core arguments is that freedom of speech and thought are necessary for a country to be competitive as a highly developed knowledge-based economy (a manufacturing economy is of course another ball of wax). China has obviously been investing a lot into disproving this thesis in recent years, provoking plenty of alarmed commentary. Personally, though, I’d say the jury is still out. I think the Chinese model can be very effective at large national prestige projects like a mission to Mars. Here the ability to stick to a consistent plan for decades if need be gives China a huge advantage over a country like the United States, which switches directions radically every four or eight years as administrations come and go. But can the Chinese model yield breakthrough innovations for the consumer economy that come completely out of left field, like the iPhone and iPad, Facebook, the personal computer, or the consumer-focused Internet? It’s not yet clear to me that it can; certainly we’ve yet to see any real examples of same. At best, we’ve only seen competent copies of innovations from other countries.

          • Kevin R McHugh

            April 17, 2018 at 4:28 pm

            The AK-47 is probably the best example of central planning producing a product both novel and globally successful.

      • Moschops

        April 4, 2018 at 11:38 am

        “What I found was…”

        Might I just take a moment to congratulate you on actually reading it yourself, rather than projecting your own beliefs onto it as so many do. Part of the pleasure of reading your posts is the rich material you present and the range of physically published material you mine for information, and the bibliographies for further reading; I wonder how much more enthusiastic you become about what you’re writing as you not only refresh your memories, but also learn anew from those sources?

        I don’t know what your plans are in the longer run, but should you ever produce a printed version of your posts, I’ll be looking to add it to my own collection of printed material.

  10. Tom

    March 31, 2018 at 4:53 am

    As a side note, it’s starting to come out that the Dark Ages were…rather less Dark than the Renaissance and Enlightenment historians made them out to be, and that a lot of the societal regression had to do with some rather devastating plagues (although the barbarian invasions certainly helped.)
    Also worth noting is that Reagan turned out to be one of the more successful Presidents when it came to negotiating with the Soviet Union. He was certainly better at it than his immediate predecessor.

    Aside from that, Civilization’s emphasis on the never-ending march of progress is a bit at odds with how history actually seems to work, but part of that is just because, playability-wise, societal regression just isn’t very much fun.

    • Gnoman

      April 1, 2018 at 3:46 am

      Most historians no longer even use the term “Dark Ages”. The commonly accepted term for the era is now the “Early Middle Ages”.

      This is largely because the notion of massive social regression didn’t hold up to scrutiny as period sources were unearthed, and those regressions that were provable were long-standing trends from the last few centuries of the Roman era.

      In addition, most of the worst examples of “medieval” abuses are more accurately dated to the Renaissance era, even before you get into the degree to which they’ve been misreported or downright fabricated in popular history.

    • Pedro Timóteo

      April 2, 2018 at 10:57 am

      Aside from that, Civilization’s emphasis on the never-ending march of progress is a bit at odds with how history actually seems to work, but part of that is just because, playability-wise, societal regression just isn’t very much fun.

      The new Civ 6 expansion (haven’t played it yet) adds Dark Ages as a feature. :)

  11. xxx

    March 31, 2018 at 6:01 am

    Dan Quayle! Now there’s a name I haven’t thought about in years. Really looking forward to the rest of the series now.

    (Typo: You spell Fukuyama’s name “Fukuyuma” at one point.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      March 31, 2018 at 7:29 am

      Afraid Dan Quayle won’t be a featured player from here on. ;) Thanks!

      • Martin

        March 31, 2018 at 2:19 pm

        One thing I did notice is that you may be guilty in your article of using another of those maybe soon almost forgotten punching bags. What I’m referring to is you saying “premature declarations of mission accomplished”. We all, I presume know who and what you are referring to now, but in 20 years time?

        • Jimmy Maher

          March 31, 2018 at 2:46 pm

          The contextual irony might be lost, but the core meaning of the actual words “premature declarations of mission accomplished” will still presumably endure, so I think it’s acceptable.

  12. Verrucosus

    March 31, 2018 at 6:42 pm

    Civilization is rather explicit about its optimistic view of progress. The broadest description of how history works can be found on page 93 of the manual. Its last paragraph reads:

    “The advance of knowledge has been a continually evolving process, with each new idea leading to new possibilities. We can examine the progress of human societies as a series of changes and adjustments brought about by the never-ending search for improvement. The result of this dynamic process has been ever-expanding human populations, a generally improved standard of living, and a greater understanding of the world around us.”

    This if followed by a highly condensed history of scientific progress and culminates in another sweeping statement on page 109:

    “In retrospect, the advance of knowledge seems to have been inevitable. Although at various times and places this advance has been halted, or even went backwards, somewhere in the world progress continued. A more detailed examination of history can better explain why the process speeded up or slowed down, why certain civilizations advanced rapidly for a time and then declined. But it seems clear that the acquisition of knowledge was the major dynamic of force of history.”

    Maybe it’s worth paying attention to the few cautious notes in this generally optimistic tune. The expression “seems to have been inevitable” reveals an uneasy feeling that perhaps progress wasn’t as inevitable as the retrospective view suggests. More importantly, the text is discussing only the inevitability of advancing knowledge “somewhere in the world”. There is no suggestion at all that any given civilization (including Western civilization) will join and benefit from progress. (This fits with the view that being around after 6000 years of history counts as “winning”.) There is also no suggestion that any given advance has no downsides. In fact, one of the key claim of this view of progress is that every new advance creates new problems: More than anything else, it is the need for solutions to those problems that keeps the search for knowledge going.

    The idea that progress isn’t necessarily beneficial can even be found in the game mechanics. All of the ancient and some of the medieval wonders can lose their effects through a new civilization advance. Depending on how a player has set up his civilization, certain routes of progress don’t seem attractive at all. For example, if you put in the effort to build the Oracle and your cities’ stability depends on its happiness effects, you might not be in a rush to get the Religion advance that obsoletes the Oracle. You might want to wait until another civilization is about to get the advance … or until you have enough caravans to quickly build Bach’s Cathedral as a replacement for the Oracle. This might be only a small feature in a game that generally sees the advance of knowledge in positive terms and even as a race to be won, but it’s there.

    • Glorkvorn

      April 1, 2018 at 4:10 am

      “Civilization is rather explicit about its optimistic view of progress.”

      That might have been the designers’ view, but I’m not sure how well it comes across in the game mechanics. My sense of Civilization is that it’s aggressively survival-of-the-fittest. The end goal of most technology is more power, whether through larger populations, more industrial production, or better military units.

      There’s a few ways to make people happier, but they tend to be used just so you can grow your cities larger, which then balances it out with more unhappy people. There’s a lot of fiddly game strategies with this balance, and you can somewhat choose the balance as a player, but overall it doesn’t seem like people in the world of Civilization are any happier at the end of the tech tree than they are at the beginning.

      I can’t remember if life expectancy and disease improved over the course of the game- maybe they did- but then pollution got worse in the later parts of the game. The later games in the series have a “health” mechanic which made this more explicit, and like happiness, any improvements you make in health are only really so you can make the cities larger.

      Even worse, there’s a “winner take all” element in happiness. The best way to keep people happy was building the Wonders of the World that make people happy (or at least content), but only one civilization can build those. It’s a strange view of progress that only one group on Earth can ever be happy, and the rest are doomed to either perpetual unhappiness and disorder, or spending their entire economy on “luxuries” to keep the people from revolting.

      • doctorcasino

        April 6, 2018 at 1:51 pm

        Great points. I wonder how this would read if “luxuries” were replaced with “services” or “amenities” so that we can imagine our civilians, over time, not growing more cosseted with jacuzzis and candy, but more secured against the misery of Hobbes’s state of nature. Calling them “luxuries” suggests a hidden conservative resistance to state spending – the trope of the poor getting needless “goodies” from the state, when what’s actually at stake is health care and reliable shelter, or what have you.

  13. Bernie

    March 31, 2018 at 11:12 pm

    As always Jimmy, great article. Your style and analysis keep becoming more refined with practice. This also shows in the quality of the comments, which also keep getting more interesting and thoughtful.

    As for the subject at hand, I’m surprised that Isaac Asimov hasn’t been mentioned. His Foundation saga deals expressly with the development of human civilization. His argument is unique in that even though he starts with the basic notion that civilization’s collapse is inevitable to the point of mathematical certainty, as its main protagonist Hari Seldon (a ‘progressive’) demonstrates through the new science of “psychohistory”, the fall can be dampened and the recovery period shortened by deliberate action on the part of organized progressive forces, symbolized by the titular ‘Foundation’ started by Seldon. The interesting thing about Asimov’s view of history is how this progressive Foundation’s biggest obstacle lies not in the wars, anarchy and general disorder caused by the collapse, but in “un-progressive” forces as deliberate as itself symbolized by a mutant known as “The Mule”, who has mental powers that enable him to change people’s wills and is a devout student of human weaknesses. The danger to the Foundation’s plans lies in that, unlike every other historical event, his actions and their outcomes couldn’t be scientifically predicted by Seldon’s “Psychohistory”.

    Thus, Asimov clearly argued that although a total collapse caused by civilization’s inherent entropy isn’t inevitable, progress isn’t guaranteed at all. Progress must be fought for, and those able to bring it about must band together in opposition to those able to ignite “un-progressive” processes.

  14. doctorcasino

    April 5, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    A fantastic read. Your site overall has been giving me a lot of really enjoyable deep dives lately, but this one is particularly useful and sorely needed.

    Will the technological tree and its assumptions/logic be subjects in their own right at some point? Over in the historiography of science and of technology, the “stirrups lead to feudalism, and tech x leads to tech y” narrative was undergoing relentless critique, revision, and complication in these same years (see: STS but also its earlier forbears – Bijker on the bicycle and so on). It seems to me that one wholly unintentional legacy of this marvelous game has been to help preserve the technological-determinist model of history in the minds of techie types, which may in turn have contributed in some small way to our often clumsy and retrograde conversation around Silicon Valley today (with “genies out of the bottle,” “inevitability,” etc.).

    One quibble: Hegel’s “universal” narrative… wasn’t. See e.g. Denise Ferrera da Silva (dense and not for the academically faint of heart, I fear), on how the “universal” subject is actually constructed as European – other cultures are explicitly detailed as frozen in time, non-progressing – being there *so that Europe will have something to encounter* in its own narrative of civilization and progress. A game really based on Hegel would have only let the non-European civilizations be NPCs; thankfully Meier and Shelley avoided that pitfall at least!
    (Buck-Morss on Hegel and Haiti is also worth a look-see.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 5, 2018 at 3:28 pm

      I don’t plan to write any articles specifically on the tech tree’s interconnections, as it’d be a little hard to structure such a thing and still keep it readable. There’s also a danger there of over-analysis; clearly, much in Civilization is there to fill the needs of the game as a game rather than as an attempt to reflect an understanding if history. This series will rather look at the game of Civilization and real civilization through different thematic lenses from a bit higher altitude. That said, the tech tree’s assumption will be popping up from time to time in the context of that approach. And I may still have much more to say about the tech tree later on. Still mulling over what to do there.

      Yes, Silicon Valley provides endless great examples of technological determinism as a philosophy of history, albeit shallowly applied, with its ethos that “disruption” is always good. It’s all ripe for mockery even for people like me who are very sympathetic to the narrative of progress; the television show Silicon Valley does a pretty good job of that.

      I understand what you’re saying about Hegel, but I’d prefer not to get quite that far down in the weeds in the article proper. The point is well-taken, however, that Hegel’s beneficiaries of the end of history are really only white European men of a certain social class — definitely a sign of the times. Then again, the game of Civilization is also overwhelmingly West-focused; I think the only non-Western Wonder of the World out of 21 in the original game is The Great Wall of China.

      • doctorcasino

        April 5, 2018 at 10:30 pm

        Fair enough!

        To clarify, I’m not so interested in this or that technological connection as in the metahistorical problem, roughly at the same “zoom” level at which you’ve tackled the progressive narrative of history. That is, what I find interesting and a bit outmoded/Silicon-Valley-esque about Civ’s game logic isn’t that, say, electronics plus the corporation leads to armored carriers (or whatever – it’s been a while), but rather the idea that this is how technology interacts with history in general. The state of the humanities literature by roughly the time this game debuted saw technology as a part of history, not off to one side following its own progressive unfolding. At the least, technology was influenced by other historical factors (culture, policy, economics, literature…) as much as the other way around, and it was clear that individual technologies don’t so much get “invented” as they are pushed and pulled into their particular shape by countless other forces. To take one famous example, Edison’s light bulb was not arrived at based on a search for the perfect way to turn electricity into light, but on a search for the most profitable way to mimic and compete with the existing distribution of gas light, in the particular conditions of American east coast cities under the particular economic conditions of the late 19th century. Or, a later one: the electric refrigerator won out over gas-powered ones, not because it was better (in many respects it was worse) but because the electrical-appliance duopoly was coterminous with the electric-power duopoly and had incredible resources with which to push the electric fridge onto the market (as a way of generating demand for electricity).

        Civ is of course an abstraction, and one that’s very fun to play, but it’s interesting how it splits the difference between the historical models here. The printed technology tree imagines a one-way and inevitable progression that all civilizations in the game eventually go through – there’s nothing about a monarchic or communist society’s way of life that pushes some technologies forward and leaves others as ungerminated seeds. On the other hand, though, the choice of “what to develop next” can be imagined as a very abstracted version of the newer historical model, where societies knowingly or unknowingly choose the technologies they have. If you like, you can pretend that what this choice is modeling is a whole host of qualitative factors specific to your civ and its values, rather than some commandment from the government. But still: you’re never compelled to use a more expensive, crappier military unit because its manufacturer has better lobbyists, and you never find your citizens refusing to use a certain technology that went over gangbusters in a neighboring empire because it doesnt mesh with their way of life.

        Maybe some of this seems like it’d be a lot to model in a game, but I just think it’s interesting to note that the tech tree is itself an invention, and not without its own implied and probably unconscious claims about human history and what drives what. It’s possible to imagine a system where the inventions “just happen” (which would be more deterministic and old school) or one in which they happen in response to other things you’re doing (civs spending a lot on military units end up “discovering” other military techs – which might better model the idea that technology responds to culture). Either, of course, would rob the player of a whole layer of decisions to make, and thus probably yield a less fun game……. just something I’ve been musing on, don’t mind me. :)

        • doctorcasino

          April 5, 2018 at 10:51 pm

          (and, viewed strictly from a gamey sort of viewpoint, what all of this flags up is how bizarrely the player’s identity is conceptualized in Civ, and how little that matters to the game being fun or not… you clearly aren’t playing a person, but it’s not like Populous where you play a force operating upon people at a distance.)

          • Jimmy Maher

            April 6, 2018 at 7:54 am

            If you take the game at its word, you are actually playing a single person. You name yourself at the beginning, and get to add onto your palace as you progress. The other civilizations as well are guided by unchanging leaders down through the millennia. This is really weird conceptually — a bunch of civilizations being controlled by immortal gods? And then of course it’s problematic when you change your government to democracy. Just what are the people actually deciding?

            As far as the tech tree goes, I agree that it’s content to duplicate the road taken rather than attempting to imagine roads untaken. I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention VHS vs. Beta, which has been kind of the classic example in recent years of a better technology losing out to a worse thanks to external factors. In the game’s defense, details like videotape formats and refrigerator designs are sufficiently granular that one can assume they’re subsumed within the very broad generalizations of the tech tree. A more interesting question might be how those broader categories might have diverged. But to expect the game to model that is asking a little too much of it.

            • doctorcasino

              April 6, 2018 at 1:45 pm

              The identity/role of the player was ambiguous and weird even to me as a ten-year-old — and yet it fit like a glove. One of those inspired bits of gaming abstraction I think – realizing that you don’t have to be playing as a specific pirate or railroad tycoon for the game to feel “right” at both the micro-scale of the turn-based decision (plausibly the policy decisions of a single leader or government) and the centuries-long arc of filling a continent with thriving cities (clearly only sensible as a kind of boiled-down description of the accumulated choices of a “civilization” ). The singular faces and names of the leader characters struggle with this – but frankly the face-to-face stuff is the least-necessary and least-developed aspect of the entire game IMHO. They might as well have punted that and replaced the diplomacy screens with “Greetings! I am the ambassador from the mighty ROMANS!”

              Regarding other ways to model tech – – – one way to boil it down that would still be manageable (I think) would be if the game had a smaller number of technologies (perhaps grouped as technological regimes/systems) which were chained or overlapping with a type-of-society model (itself developed further from the kind of limited despotism-monarchy-etc. model seen here). That is, suppose rather than the “government” you’re choosing from a larger number of “societies” and these fold together economic and governmental concepts into pithily-named things that carry with them access to certain techs and not others. Ancient slave societies like Rome don’t develop the water wheel and the other great labor-saving devices of the early middle ages; ancient imperial-bureaucratic societies like China do develop paper-making and civil service exams… I don’t know, it probably sounds like a mess since I’m just spitballing it but if we imagine the designers spending six months working out the kinks I think it’s plausible that they might have ended up with an equally fun game! Might also help us get around the Fukuyama triumphalism where Communism is equated to the problematics of a stagnating Iron Curtain and Democracy (unspoken: postwar-decades US-style capitalism) is the obvious winner…

              (By the by – I think overall your blog does a fantastic job of considering technological developments in a fine-grained, locally-situated context: there’s a new computer, okay, but this particular company isn’t going to develop for it because x and y. If you haven’t read Latour’s ‘Aramis’ I think you might REALLY like it – tech history and actor-network theory rewritten as a detective story where there is no general “context” – only the immediate network of characters who shepherd, reshape, or spike the unfolding design of an experimental train project.)

              • Jimmy Maher

                April 7, 2018 at 8:40 am

                I tend to see the question of bias in Civilization as a glass-half-empty-or-half-full scenario. Heaps of academic critiques have piled on the biases in the simulation, which clearly do guide you toward democratic capitalism of the American stripe as the most viable model for a mature, healthy civilization. At the same time, though, the manual and the Civilpedia do at least try to present alternatives like communism in a non-judgmental light. Given that Civilization was published by an American company known for hardcore military simulations, run by a flamboyantly jingoistic ex-fighter jock, and at an unusually triumphalist moment in American history, this level of even-handedness was by no means a given. I’m more impressed, in other words, by the explicit biases Civilization lacks than I am disappointed by the implicit biases it has.

          • doctorcasino

            April 8, 2018 at 5:27 pm

            Yes – it’s definitely not a matter of disappointment for me, just interest. The game can be unpacked and prodded and found to reveal all kinds of things, without it taking away from how much fun I’ve had with it over the years. For me much of this is a prompt for my own mental exercises of, “what kind of mechanics need to have to embody these other different narratives?” Or, if we took this game as a template, which existing mechanics would expand and change their position in the gear-works and which might fall away?

            I do think the rendition of Communism here as the graying and stagnating downward slide of the already monumentally brutal and repressive Stalinist state is a missed opportunity, but only in a sense that supports what I see as your larger thesis here: the game lets you act out the history of civilization in what appears to be an open-ended way, but actually you’re on a track called “progress” and you can’t really explore what it would look like with qualitatively *different* kinds of civilizations, beyond the admittedly broad-minded and impressive option to win via conquest, via space travel, and via mass happiness (am I remembering that right)?

            One can imagine a game where there are fifteen socioeconomic systems (taking up the choice space here devoted to the different nations) and Soviet-style Communism is only one of several Communisms on offer, along with different capitalist democracies, capitalist autocracies, collectives of worker-operated anarchist syndicates…… ????? I’m reminded here of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1992-1996) where the issue of what KIND of civilization could be built on another planet is the explicit subject of discussion among the characters and the source of most of the conflicts. A very different approach to the material than, say, Ray Bradbury’s and it trades off being able to deal with other kinds of things in as much subtlety or detail as one might like, but fascinating and mind-expanding in itself. It could be a model for a fascinating game, though if memory serves it is not the route Meier goes with Alpha Centauri (but it’s been a while and I never played that one much).

            • Jimmy Maher

              April 8, 2018 at 8:20 pm

              No happiness victory in the original Civilization, just conquest or Alpha Centauri. ;)

              The game of Alpha Centuari features a slate of competing factions/civilizations who are already predisposed toward a certain brand of politics, economy, and lifestyle. So, you’ve got an autocratic militaristic group, an extremely peaceful environmentalist group, etc. It’s an interesting model for exploring different approaches to civilization that ironically wouldn’t have worked very well in the game of Civilization. The key difference is that the factions in Alpha Centuari are all fictional, which allows the game to use them in this way without running into charges of stereotyping existing historical civilizations (or, worse, different races).

          • doctorcasino

            April 8, 2018 at 9:22 pm

            Ha, weird that I imagined the happiness victory! Was such a thing added in the sequels or am I just mixing this up with a different game/series entirely?

            And aha, yes, I do remember that theming concept with Alpha Centauri. Maybe I should give it another look. I remember it coming across as a bit schematic and simplistic, but maybe it has some of what I’m speculating wildly upon here.

            Agreed totally that this kind of “typing” works better in a fictional world than with real civilizations… though actually this leads me back to the question of how much Civilization *needs* to have the real civilizations of “The Americans” with “Abe Lincoln” and so on. As you point out, nobody really wants to play the game on “real world Earth” mode, so do we really need the names of “Babylon” and “Hammurabi” to be interested in those alarming purple units that have started appearing to the south? On the other hand, would the game feel TOO abstract without them? Would it fail to grab players if you could only look forward to building Shmarwin’s Voyage and Shmach’s Cathedral?

            I’m reminded of’s gripe about Alpha Centauri: “when offered the choice between trying to develop either Singularity Mechanics, Organic Superlubricant, or SuperString Theory, I just don’t care. I dare you to tell me how these three items rank.” (Sadly, they then go on to tag that with stereotypes about the Indians and Mongols.)

            • Jimmy Maher

              April 9, 2018 at 8:05 am

              I want to say the possible victory conditions were at least expanded upon in sequels, but I don’t know the details offhand.

              For this player, anyway, Civilization wouldn’t work as well without the elements of real history, which add heaps of texture and interest; the game would become too dry without them. I enjoy the game as a big old mash-up of all of human history. Even if you just got rid of the real-world cultures, it would be weird to have, say, the Pyramids in the game without the Egyptians who built them.

  15. Kevin R McHugh

    April 17, 2018 at 4:13 pm

    Johnny Wilson is an interesting figure in his own right. I was lucky enough to take a course he taught in Games History in 2011. Appropriately for an article about Civilization, the course covered the entire history of games from Senet to Dungeons and Dragons, picking out a handful of games from between that time to focus on as major advances.

  16. Mike Taylor

    November 10, 2018 at 8:37 am

    Are you sure “men without chests” is from Nietsche? I know that phrase from C. S. Lewis’s rather difficult book The Abolition of Man.

    I think a typo has survived: “simulacram” — unless it’s in the original quote.

    • Jimmy Maher

      November 11, 2018 at 9:39 am

      Yes, definitely from Nietzsche. It’s one of his more famous neologisms. I haven’t read the C.S. Lewis you mention. As what I assume to be a Christian apologetic, it may very well have been responding to the atheistic writings of Nietzsche.

      Thanks for the correction!

      • Mike Taylor

        November 11, 2018 at 2:07 pm

        That’s very strange. I can’t find any online reference to Nietzsche’s use of the phrase more specific than “… what Nietzsche called ‘men without chests'” and the like. The Wikiquote page, which runs to 33,000 words, doesn’t mention it. See

        • Jimmy Maher

          November 11, 2018 at 2:38 pm

          Whoops, looks like you’re right. Nietzsche’s turn of phrase, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is “hollow-chested” men: “For thus you speak: ‘Real are we entirely, and without belief or superstition.’ Thus you stick out your chests— but alas, they are hollow!” “Men without chests” does indeed originate with C.S. Lewis. Thanks so much!

          • Mike Taylor

            November 12, 2018 at 7:48 pm

            Well, how interesting! I think we can both claim to be right here: I’d bet good money that Lewis’s use of the phrase as an allusion to Nietzsche.

  17. Matt Krzesniak

    October 27, 2022 at 8:27 pm

    Not sure if you still care since this is an old article but, is “technnological determinism” supposed to only have one “n”?

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 28, 2022 at 8:20 am

      Of course I do. Thanks!

      • Matt Krzesniak

        October 30, 2022 at 7:04 pm

        No problem!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.