'Civilization' and Strategy Games' Progress Delusion

How strategy games have held on to one of colonialism's most toxic narratives, and how they might finally be letting it go.

Dec 17 2019, 4:23pmSnap

So here’s a question: what author springs to mind when you read the word “evolution”?

Chances are, you thought of Charles Darwin. Problem is, the word evolution was never used in the first edition of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin only began employing the term in the sixth edition, published thirteen years after the original (in 1859), precisely because it was already commonly known. And the person most responsible for the popularity of the term was a British philosopher named Herbert Spencer.


Spencer believed that progress was a cosmic phenomenon where all things advanced from simplicity to complexity. From geology to society, the entire universe was on a single trajectory of ever greater differentiation. And so evolution emerged as two different concepts under the same name: for Darwin it was adaptation, how species changed to suit their environment through the process of natural selection. For Spencer it was progress.

“Evolution as progress” became the bedrock of early social anthropology. The eighteenth century “savage” became the nineteenth century “primitive”, no longer something altogether different but instead just backward. “We” (whoever that is) were once like them, but “we” had evolved, whereas “they” had not. Or to put it another way, social evolutionism transformed a spatial difference (people who live in different parts of the globe do things differently) into a temporal difference (“they” do as “we” once did, but “we” have progressed and they have not).

'Crusader Kings 2' screenshot courtesy of Paradox Interactive

But let’s talk about videogames.

Now you don’t need me to tell you that the 4X genre is problematic (the four Xs stand for explore, expand, exploit, exterminate, after all). And I’d hazard to guess that most 4X developers take a systemic approach to game design which treats theme as a largely secondary issue (Sid Meier has repeated Bruce Shelley’s joke that they do their research in the kid’s section of the library [48 minutes into the linked recording]). But games are an artifact produced within a given social context and as such reproduce aspects of their worldview, particularly those aspects that are seen as being natural.


And what do we find in most historical 4X games? A largely uniform tech tree that all factions will progress through in a unilateral direction. Even non-historical 4X games feature uniform tech trees, they just use the present as a starting point and not an endpoint. But what is progress in an historical 4X game? To be blunt, it’s the elimination of difference. The closer you are to “us”, the more you have progressed. All Civ games begin with a settler unit, and your first choice is where to settle, to become sedentary. The first city being built you start transforming the surrounding environment, researching technologies and expanding until, by the end, you achieve hegemony over the world. Or rather, until you quit the game because you’re bored.

As Civ 5 dev Jon Shafer has noted, nobody finishes Civ games. Now I don’t believe there is one single reason for this, but I would argue that this evolutionary worldview is a reason. Games are supposedly a series of interesting decisions, but one of the dirty tricks of social evolution is to obfuscate political decisions under the guise of progress. Effectively your only decisions are how to advance through a predetermined trajectory culminating with “us”, "the US”. This is easier to perceive in tech trees, but it’s also true of those two other Xs: expand, exterminate. Make the world homogenous, make the world boring. Those early turns players like put them into contact with difference. The rest of the game sees them destroy it.

So hopefully it’s clear why it’s so heinously offensive to present day indigenous populations such as the Poundmaker Cree to be featured in games like Civilization. The implicit argument, even if unintentional, is that “we” are all playing the same game, you just sucked at it. Or look at Crusader Kings II that had a whole expansion (Sunset invasion) premised on the notion of the Aztec Empire invading and colonizing Europe.

But, you might argue, even if social evolutionism is offensive it might nonetheless be right, a harsh truth we need to come to terms with about “human nature”. After all wasn’t anthropology founded in accordance with this idea? But therein lies the problem, the idea of a single evolutionary ladder was the founding assumption of the discipline, an assumption that quickly ran into all sorts of problems. Here are some examples: horses are a new addition to the Americas, having arrived with European settlers and then gradually permeated throughout the continent. Before this, what are now known as the Indigenous people of the Great Plains seem to have been largely sedentary, becoming increasingly nomadic as they gradually developed an incredibly intricate and intense relationship with these animals. Similarly, there is significant archaeological evidence that many densely populated and interconnected centers began emerging in the Amazon (particularly in the Black and Xingu river valleys) from about 0 AD until roughly the thirteenth century, where the trend begins to reverse and habitation becomes increasingly decentralized and nomadic (needless to say, the arrival of Europeans greatly accelerated this process). This illustrates one of the problems with evolutionary views: They create rigid typologies (the rungs of the ladder) that break down very quickly given the incredible diversity of human populations. Even in Europe this should already have been clear: one of the oldest sites of sedentary habitation on the continent is the Iron Gates region of the Danube, where the Lepenski Vir I and II archaeological sites are located. Problem is, those populations don’t seem to have ever developed agriculture, which is what is “supposed” to happen.

But even if the idea of a single evolutionary ladder is discarded, there are still many problems with these conceptions of progress. If we go back to Spencer, we clearly see the idea that more advanced societies are more complex societies. This actually was one of the justifications that was given for studying Australian aboriginal religion by French sociologist Emile Durkheim: Since they supposedly had the simplest religion, it would be easier to derive the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (the title of his book) by observing them. Problem is, if you’re going to grade different peoples on their relative simplicity like some kind of Olympic judge, you first need to decide what the sport is. Nobody disputes that Indo-Europeans are great at making products, matter of fact “providers of merchandise” or “people of merchandise” is one of the most common names for the “white man” among Amazonian peoples. But what about everything else?

Because those very same Australian aboriginal populations who have been so continuously discriminated against by generations of academics have also developed the most complex kinship systems on the planet. There is, of course, much diversity between different populations, but many defy the limits of what can be modelled, and almost all require at least a three-dimensional diagram. Here, for example, is an attempt to model Murngin/Yolngu patricycles/matricyles using a five-dimensional hypercube:

Barbara Glowcezewski's kinship hypercube (Mankind, December 1989, vol. 19, no. 3)

By comparison most current day European kinship systems are among the simplest ever observed, and that’s the point: complexity and simplicity is very much in the eye of the beholder. Unsurprisingly, strategy games tend to only engage with complexity when it can be converted into a military or economic trait, the rest is treated as irrelevant or merely aesthetic. The tendency, when looking at different populations, is to fixate on familiarities, either because something appears similar or because something supposedly essential is missing. Much of anthropology up until the midpoint of the last century could be crassly summarized in the question “how come all these people don’t have a State?”

There are some signs of change (dare I say progress? Delete this stupid joke) in the genre though. The upcoming Humankind by Amplitude is aggressively signaling a break with 4x conventions, the stated goal being to write, not “win”, history. Among its most interesting ideas is that every age will afford the player an opportunity to play as a new culture, so one may select Babylonians during the Bronze Age and then Germans in the Iron Age. While the idea that societies progressed along set technological ages has by and large been discredited, the notion of changing cultures (rather than a continual atemporal people) is an important break with tradition.

Humankind screenshot courtesy of Sega

For now, strategy games by and large continue to reproduce notions of progress (particularly technological progress) in an uncritical fashion. Take efficiency, for example: It is common for new technologies in games to increase efficiency, which is almost always presented as unambiguously good. But while increased efficiency tends to either increase production or require less work, the practical downside is rarely modelled in games: the former increases the consumption of resources, the latter depresses wages. Being more advanced doesn’t make either inherently beneficial, or as famed science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote “it seems fairly clear to me that to count upon technological advance for anything but technological advance is a mistake”.

These vague notions of progress perform a sort of magic trick, hiding political choices under a curtain of assumptions which continue to linger. Eventually anthropology moved on from social evolutionism, but the ideas stayed. Most people have never heard of Spencer, or the early anthropologists like Morgan, Tylor and Frazer, but their theories permeate the "common sense" that is reproduced in games, television, books etc. One explanation would be to credit these authors with having shaped the public consciousness, and that’s probably true to some extent, after all they got Darwin to start using the term "evolution". But we can also look at evolutionism another way: Not as some tenacious intellectual weed, but as a story people like to hear. “The west” played the universal game better than anyone else, “we” are the apex, “our” way is the only way. There will always be a market for reconfirming peoples’ beliefs, and games, being a product that is sold in a capitalist context, are particularly susceptible to this. Ideas never really die, they just find a new way to express themselves. While current anthropologists no longer entertain notions of human progress, games sure do .

The original Civilization was released September 1991, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the triumph of liberal democracy in “The end of history and the last man” in 1992. Now, in 2019, it’s hard to find such a narrative outside of games. It is certainly possible that upcoming releases like Humankind and Ten Crowns may herald the end of this era for grand-strategy. Arguably Paradox saw much of its success by making games that are enjoyable as a collection of partial experiences rather than systems to be mastered in pursuit of victory. And while this can be interpreted exclusively as a question of game design, it contains an inherently political decision. Because if the 4x genre abandons the idea that history has (or will have) a victor, it also abandons a view of history that sees it as a competition between nations and/or races. And that would be no great loss.


Strategy Games, Civilization, Firaxis, Humankind, 4X games

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