What Does ‘Civilization’ Say About Civilisation?

[Authors Note: Throughout this piece, when referring to the game series Civilization, I will use the American English spelling because that’s where the game originated and thus what it’s called. When referring to the concept of civilisation I will be using the British English spelling]


So, you may or may not be familiar with the Civilization series of games. In simple terms, the Civ series is a strategy game series wherein you take control of a civilisation and lead it to victory. There are a few things that happen when you game-ify history and I’m going to use that lens to see what the choices made in designing the series say about how its creator’s ideologies. Whether they uphold unexamined ideologies or use the game to delve deeper into these ideas.

The first thing I want to look at is some of the first choices you have as a player. In Civilization, you must pick a civilisation. That leads to an interesting question. What does Civilization judge to be a civilisation? Words like civilisation and barbarism come with connotations. The first game comprises fifteen civilisations, from across Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa. So, we can at least heave a sigh of relief that Civ avoids a Eurocentric viewpoint of civilisation, which is a viewpoint that unfavourable types have held for some time. Civ V holds the widest definition of a civilisation with forty-three civilisations from across the world that are able to be picked.

Notably, my home country Australia wasn’t represented until Civilization VI’s release last year, and even then as DLC. Anyway, Civ certainly attempts a diverse picking of civilisations across the series. I haven’t delved deep enough to discover whether there’s some been some section of the world untouched by the many overlapping empires of Civ’s civilisation choices.


The next concept I want to examine in Civilization is the choice of leaders. See, this is a bugbear with the series and I’m not sure how to fix it. It’s rather effective within gameplay, but has some unfortunate connotations. In Civilization, you can pick civilisations that have a designated leader (in some games multiple leaders are offered). This leads to some unfortunate ideas. There is a concept from the nineteenth century known as the ‘Great Man theory’. The theory posits that particularly magnanimous individuals throughout history shape history through their actions. A powerful idea for gameplay where agency is one of the main draws for video games, but not so great for history. Indeed, the idea was largely debunked following the alternate idea posited that ‘Great Men’ are products of their time and their singularness is not so singular. Civ plucks their leaders from their historical context as avatars for the player and thus gives rise to this unfortunate idea.


Related to this idea is the core conceit of the series. It plucks civilisations from their context and throws them in a mix on a globe that might resemble Earth or be utterly different. Caesar and Lincoln can exist simultaneously and have a spot at the UN. This does lead to the interesting dynamic of the series wherein ‘civilisations’ clash in a strange new world and eventually one emerges ‘victorious’. The thematic idea we can draw from this gameplay scenario is interesting. It suggests that history need not follow the paths that it has followed. It suggests that history is incredibly malleable. Ethiopia or Australia might emerge as the premier superpower of the world with the right circumstances. This does undermine ideas that some have that suggest that European powers were destined to subjugate the world. It undermines the very concept of Manifest Destiny, or supports it on a global scale.


The last point I want to make is about victory conditions. However, before that, I want to mention an unusual element of the Civ games since the start. During the early game, when you haven’t met other civilisations yet, the game throws barbarians at you to make sure you keep on top of defence. Barbarians are nomadic people, unconnected to each other who plunder indiscriminately and possess only the most basic of tools. Certainly, there are complications in wiping out a people you know nothing about and if one wanted to draw a parallel to the imperialistic ‘colonisation’ of America and Australia, one could certainly make that argument. Admittedly, that connection is averted slightly by the appearance of Native American civilisations in Civ V.

However, there’s another aspect of the barbarians that bothers me. Barbarians are so named because the Greeks used the words ‘bar bar’ to refer to the sound that foreigners made when trying to speak their language, and since the ancient Greeks equated language with intellect, the implication was ‘Foreigners are stupid because they can’t speak the language.’ I guess some prejudices never die. Related to this idea, the Romans adopted the word barbarian to refer to nearly every foreign power outside the Roman empire including the Germanics, the Celts, the Gauls, the Iberians, the Thracians, the Parthians, and the Sarmatians. A whole grab bag of people on the edges of every corner of the empire. So, the word barbarian is complicated, especially when you can play as Greek and Roman civilisations fairly often within the Civ series.


So, victory. A comprehensive examination of the victory conditions of the whole series can be found here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zu3kFQGyocc&t=449s). However, I’m just going to focus on the fifth instalment which is the one I’m most familiar with. That, and looking at every win condition from every game would soon get out of hand. First is the domination victory. Fairly simple. If you destroy everyone else, no one can question your absolute power. So, this is a victory in the sense that you become the leader of the world through force. It’s a rather bleak, totalitarian view of things if you think about it.

The second victory is a science victory which is achieved through building a spaceship, which can be achieved through researching technologies on a linear tree. There is a poetic quality to the idea that history ended when we left our planet. A widening of the lens as such. Either that or history ended in 1969 when America won the Space Race. Does this mean that America won history?

The third victory is a cultural victory. The influence of your art, pop culture, architecture and all those trappings of culture have influenced the world to such a large degree that everyone is watching American movies and eating American hamburgers. Did … did America win history twice? One could certainly draw that conclusion from the provided win conditions. This could be seen as the creators applying the lens of their current cultural domination as stretching back into the past as the natural state of how to win history.

The fourth win condition is a diplomatic victory wherein you get the UN to vote you as World Leader. This feels the most democratic of the victory options. You won because somehow every nation agreed that your civilisation was clearly the best example of a good civilisation. This even suggests a potential utopian (or dystopian, depending on your viewpoint) idea of one united Earth government as a logical extension of the EU or the UN. Can you imagine the red tape involved in a global government?

The final victory is time. Naturally. This victory suggests that history has a finite time and that when that time comes, the individual civilisation with the highest score is the winner. History essentially judges which civilisation is the most impressive after a certain point. It’s a sort of nebulous view of winning history.


So, what does it mean? What does any of this mean? Looking back, it seems that the Civilization is a real grab bag of historical ideas thrown into a blender and mixed together. Some ideas that come out of the mix are unpleasant, and others suggest a more utopian ideal of civilisation and history. Civ holds imperialist trappings, but also doesn’t fall into terrible simplifications of history as being majoritively the domain of one continent, but all continents. Perhaps, like all modern media, it’s a complicated mess of being somewhat progressive but also holding slightly problematic ideas. Civilization doesn’t exist in a vacuum and is just one grab bag of ideas. Perhaps there’s room for a game that examines aspects of the series that Civilization glosses over to make a cohesive and enjoyable game. Even so, looking at Civ in a vacuum does start a conversation worth having.


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