Historical rationality: some thoughts on Civilisation 5

During a short trip to Tasmania last week for my grandmother’s fabulous 90th birthday celebrations, I managed to cram in two activities – reading a little of Raymond Williams (1977) Marxism and Literature, and playing quite a bit of Civilization 5 (Civ5) – about 15 hours worth. Civ5 is the latest in the turn-based strategy series created by Sid Meir back in the early 1990s. Like many PC gamers, I’ve spent hundreds of hours over the years training settlers, exploring territory, waging war and researching new technologies, all in the name of empire building. For those unfamiliar with the series take a quick look here for more of the basics. Some good ‘reviews’ of the game are here, here and here. I mention the Williams text because I was intrigued by the parallels between Williams’ account of the term ‘civilization’ and my experiences with the new version of the game.

Civilization, according to Williams (p.13), is an expression with two senses that are historically linked: the achieved state (that is the state  opposed to barbarism) and a sense of development that implies historical progress. Both senses are represented in the game – early on your budding Civilization is beset on all sides, by ruthless Barbarian raiders, and competing nations (these nations are led by famous political figures and I seem to be up against the German leader, Otto Von Bismarck and the Iroquois Hiawatha quite a lot) – and the new addition of city states (fortified and independent one city regions with which you can ally, trade or conquer). Historical progress, as always in Civ games, is positioned as a marker of success (inversely an indication of a ‘bad‘ player is stagnation). Progress occurs as you settle (or conquer) cities and research new technologies, which unlock further military units to produce and buildings to construct. As Williams says of the Enlightenment, Civ5 combines historical rationality with self-referential celebration of an achieve condition of refinement: as each turn your cities contribute research points and each successfully researched technology is announced with celebration of an achieved condition. There is a great sense of inevitability about the conclusion of the game – right from the start and despite the hundreds of turns it requires to finish, that although the goal is to build something, what you will produce is something that has already been built before – it’s a game of turn based emulation. This can have great entertainment and pleasure attached to it, but it can also be hard to shake off the ennui of déjà vu. Although this is tempered slightly by the small differences between the different ‘races’ or ‘Civs’ that you can play in the game – each time you found a new city it will be named accordingly – choose England and your cities will be named London, Yorke, etc, and each Civ has ‘unique’ units and traits – Englands gets +1 movement for naval units and the Longbowmen archers to play with.  But whether you play the Americans, the Chinese, or the Egyptians, your Civ’s real identity is generated through the technologies you research and the path to victory that you choose to pursue: annihilating others for the World Domination victory, researching technology for the science ‘Space Race victory, producing culture and civic policies for the Utopia Project victory. It is very much a systematized triumph of rational values.

This version of the game is wonderful to look at, and the streamlined interface makes it much easier to play and balance out the improvements in the cities. The introduction of hexes rather than squares for unit movement, and the limitation of one unit-per-hex, makes combat highly rewarding and over comes much of the boredom of the late game found in earlier versions. Game play is always centered around the success of the metropolitan – keeping the citizens of your cities happy with culture, food and wealth, while the regional areas purely exist to be cultivated, tamed and provide raw mineral and agricultural resources. For me greater connection between my ‘workers’ who ‘improve’ the environment by building farms, chopping down forests, mining resources and the improvements in my cities – building theaters, schools, or gardens for example, would make the game more rewarding to play (or at least make managing these units more interesting).

Some of the less successful changes to the game are the civics and cultural research elements and gone is the ability to take over other civilizations through religious indoctrination and cultural export: one of my favorite tactics in Civ 4 was world domination by cultural imperialism. Civilization has become much more secular and liberalised – choosing a Marxist inspired civic policy for your civilization no longer results in a period of instability in your governance but happier workers in your cities (?!). The diplomacy victory is very elusive, and its near impossible to please all the AI Civs and City States simultaneously without generating massive income to bribe them all.

In most Civ games culture is conflated with cultivation and scientific progress, these are are just processes of accumulation and refinement: even once you have completed the research tree your scientists continue to generate generic ‘future tech’ to increase your game score. All this makes me wonder about a very different turn based civilisation-building strategy game, one that generates a narrative based on your actions, where your choices in what you build, where you explore, what technologies you develop and how you treat those you find in the game. A game where the civilization is a result of your decisions, actions and the outcomes of your negotiations and battles, one that isn’t purely based on historical rationality and is connected more closely to the ties between the state and the citizen: through art, literature, religion, entertainment, and the institutions of the state and practices, meaning and values of the population but perhaps this would be too complex.  Civ5 does a good job of being complex in the menu structure without being too obviously complex for new players but I want more emergent narrative – I want my workers to mean something, my military success and losses to mean something for the virtual people in my virtual cities and a story that builds rather than an inevitable conclusion that occurs from jumping through predefined hoops. Williams account of the term civilization, as it became linked to  then separated from and again reunited with – culture and industrial society, and then eventually linked to past glories as a received state rather than continuing process that face challenges from socialism, democracy and consumerism, for me, hints at the much more exciting experience that a Civ game could be.

The interactions with the AI Generals are far too simplistic and erratic – why do leaders that convince me to attack their enemies refer to me as bloodthirsty? For my mind the best version of the series is still Alpha Centauri – which allowed you to terraform the environment to suit your civilization and create units by researching various parts and assembling them in weird ways. This version of CIv5 looks to be modding friendly so I still have my hopes, and I’m sure there will be a series of (expensive) content to download keep me playing, which brings me to two serious gripes about this Civilization version: cost and buggy game launch.

Australian gamers are penalized for buying the game through Steam – the digital distribution service run by the Valve Corporation. The game’s publisher 2K are selling the game for $US50 in the States, while I can understand this equates to a AU$70 for physical retail copies it doesn’t explain why the digital version at launch was $79.99, especially give the new parity of the AU and US dollar. The launch was also one of the worst experiences I’ve had with games through Steam, and after installing the game through Steam it corrupted by Steam folder, refused to operate and I had to trawl through hundreds of – how to fix CIV5 game crash blog and forum posts from irate gamers struggling to get their game to work. Strangely enough while the game wouldn’t run on Direct X version 10 and 11 on the the desktop PC with Win 7 – yet it would run on the laptop with Direct x version 9 and Vista. however, from this experience I’ve learned two important lessons – not to buy games like Civ (which are mostly single player experiences) at launch (Fallout: New Vegas – you are going to have to wait until after Christmas and your price comes down) and hold off at least until the first patch is released.

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