Civilization: A Historian’s Problem

The first band of barbarians wiped out my scouting party. The second scorched my settlement and carried off my undefended workers. Frustrated, I vowed to hunt barbarians until the end of time.


Civilization 5 is the latest in the extremely popular Civilization franchise. Photo: civilisation.wikia

For those who don’t know, Civilization is a series of games, where players pick a ‘Civ’ and guide it from the Stone Age to the year 2050. Wannabe-Napoleons must build cities, research technologies, and outsmart their rivals either through nifty diplomacy or military might. Essentially, it’s Risk on steroids.

Back in the fledgling settlement of London, I dispatched a force of cavemen and destroyed the barbarians at their encampment. Over the next 4000 years, I expanded England, warred with France, traded with India, and after a brief dispute over imposing ‘American culture’ (whatever that is) became best allies with Washington. The game ended as English scientists launched a rocket to colonise space, and thus I was deemed the victor of history.

But throughout, omnipresent Barbarians always lurked on the fringes of my borders. My inner history undergraduate pondered this peculiarity. Who were these barbarians that I was slaughtering? Why were they incapable of organising themselves beyond a rabble of half-dressed men wielding clubs? Am I enjoying imperialism?

After a pedantic identity crisis over virtual cave-dwellers I found the answer. The clue is in the name: ‘Civilization’. It is impossible to play as anything other than a nation state, and there’s little point playing it like Switzerland either, as your goal is to be the best nation state. If you know anything about Nazi Germany, you’ll realise how very problematic this view of history proves.

It’s important to note, in the grand scheme of things, how new the idea of nationalism is. The French Revolution is really when things kick off, and it’s taken Ubisoft eight Assassin’s Creed games to get up to this epoch, so it must be recent history. Yet back in Civ, thousands of years prior to all that, English cavemen have not only decided the extent of their realm, but also the lovely shade of red that it should be depicted in.


Sure, I’d selected liberty and democracy as national traits, but these had no impact on my capacity to control every aspect of my people’s lives…

My people all agreed, before they had the wheel or written language, that they were a united people, who shared a flag, and a supreme leader. For the entirety of history, the English submitted themselves to a centralised totalitarian government bent on world domination, without a qualm.

Sure, I’d selected liberty and democracy as national traits, but these had no impact on my capacity to control every aspect of my people’s lives, from where they should build more coliseums, to whose borders they should march on next.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, in the virtual North Korea I had created, only two things were certain: death and taxes.

Civilization, unlike history, depicts the world as an unending struggle between nations, all the game’s mechanics feed into this. You research pottery to expand your economy. You discover flying to build an airforce. You hire Shakespeare to boost morale. Even tourism is a tool, used to win over other cultures. You can tell this game was made by Americans.

I’m sure scientist and mathematicians love Civilization, as a perfectly designed puzzle: a clever numbers game with a historical theme. As a historian though, it just lands me with a philosophical headache over the people behind the systems in play, and crucially, their feelings.

Maybe I’ll go play a harmless game of chess instead…

Hmm, but then do the pawns deserve at least a constitutional monarch? [divider_top]

Header Image: Last image: civilisation.wikia

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