Research - On Being Stuck in Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Promise of Freedom in Historical Games

The_J

Say No 2 Net Validations
Administrator
Supporter
Joined
Oct 22, 2008
Messages
39,540
Location
DE/NL/FR
The Value Foundation, an academic foundation focusing on research about gaming, has posted on Twitter that 2 researchers from Leiden University have published a new research manuscript about Civilization! The research is featured in the journal of digital games and associated phenomena (DIGRA), and is titled "On Being Stuck in Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Promise of Freedom in Historical Games". In this manuscript they explore a question, which many of us civ-fanatics have probably pondered about multiple times, and that is Civ as a game where you shape history, versus Civ as a history simulator, and how much you can or actually cannot do to achieve this.

An excerpt from the manuscript:
You are never given, for example, the option to create your own mode of government. In Civ6 you can swap between a small pool of government structures, but these are euphemistic versions of governments from western history: autocracy, oligarchy, classical republic, monarchy, merchant republic, theocracy, democracy, fascism, and communism. You can make minute changes by prioritising certain policies over others, make your fascist government even more aggressive, or your merchant republic to work like a financial clockwork, but you have no option to fundamentally design your own government or mode of governance. If you are like us, this stuckness can initially be countered by coming up with all sorts of ‘wild’ political pairings for your game: Communist Americans, Democratic Aztec, the Zulu Republic! Still, this counterfactual trick gets old fast. The Zulu Republic in Civ does not meaningfully play or even look different from, for example, the Dutch Republic.

Contrary to Graeber and Wengrow’s ideas of play-kings discussed earlier, the ability to jump in and out of political structures, in Civ you are actively punished for doing so. Once, for example you move into the modern era and choose Democracy you can include 8 policy cards in the structure of your government, clearly making it a more powerful form of government. If, however, you decide to revert back to an oligarchy or to classical republic, both from the ancient era, you will only have 4 policy slots available. Such an action would place you at such a disadvantage compared to your adversaries that you might as well stop playing the game altogether. Wanting and growing power is central to the way the game forces you to play. The reason for this is that Sid Meier’s enterprise promotes the view that most fun is had by the player when they have the most power. In particular, when he looked at history to design Civ, he felt it were the kings who had the most power and as such would have had the most fun historically (Meier 2020: 204). If you concede your power in Civ, you concede your ability to have fun. In short, you don’t get to be a play-king, and jump in and out of power. Instead, you are to be a real king for the sake of fun.

You can download the whole manuscript here.
 
Last edited:
WTF? "Western History" sounds like a knee-jerk politically correct "we all know it's true" dogma. I guess the author(s) didn't know about feudalism in China, Japan, India, Java, numerous African kingdoms, Aztecs, Incas, etc. Were any of them NOT autocracy?

Also they have a bizarre naivete about "penalty" for switching governments. Do these Dutch writers seriously think that transitions are smooth in the real world? French Revolution transitioning to Napoleonic empire and then republics that have to be numbered because each was a disruption in itself. If anything the government of Holland during its early days as a confederation is a great example of something innovative that's not one of the Civ "types" -- and it was western, wasn't it?

The best rebuttal of the "it's not really history" argument is "just make an outer space version like BE and then you can have total fantasy and the game play is similar". Maybe the descent into cartoonish Leaders in Civ 6 undermined its credibility?
 
WTF? "Western History" sounds like a knee-jerk politically correct "we all know it's true" dogma. I guess the author(s) didn't know about feudalism in China, Japan, India, Java, numerous African kingdoms, Aztecs, Incas, etc. Were any of them NOT autocracy?

Also they have a bizarre naivete about "penalty" for switching governments. Do these Dutch writers seriously think that transitions are smooth in the real world? French Revolution transitioning to Napoleonic empire and then republics that have to be numbered because each was a disruption in itself. If anything the government of Holland during its early days as a confederation is a great example of something innovative that's not one of the Civ "types" -- and it was western, wasn't it?

The best rebuttal of the "it's not really history" argument is "just make an outer space version like BE and then you can have total fantasy and the game play is similar". Maybe the descent into cartoonish Leaders in Civ 6 undermined its credibility?

As I read it, the point of the article is that Civ has always modeled the 'Western Way' of Civilization-Building: western-style governments, politics, and even Tech Tree (ignoring things like the early Chinese use of cast iron or Austronesian open-ocean sailing and navigation, except as rare Unique Abilities) and Units (again, except for Uniques). They also make the point, very familiar in these Threads, of the increasing 'dullness' of the Late Game, and pinpoint the cause as increasing lack of meaningful decisions to be made as the game prods you into a single path to victory based on everything you've done before. Tellingly, they focus on the fact that any change made by your decisions usually sets you back once you've started down one path, and the linear nature of trhe game penalizes any such set back.

All of which should be Old News to anyone who has been reading these Forums for any length of time at all, just wrapped up in Academic Jargon with lots of references to other academic studies of the games, frequently by the same authors (which tells us simply that the total number of academic studies and studiers of modern [video] gaming is Not Large).

BUT it's easy for anybody who has played for any length of time to point out the deficiencies of the game. The point, I would think, is to find ways to address/correct these failures, within the context of the game elements common to Civ - immortal individualized Leaders, a Tech Tree, specific Unit Types, etc. Note though, that except for naming everybody they can legitimately put a name to, there are not a lot of continuous mechanics not subject to modification in the Civ franchise: Tech Tree, politics, government types, changes in social
and economic policies and conditions, combat resolution - all have seen major modifications from Civ 2 to Civ 6 (the games I have personally played and so can comment on).

That means that the problems the article (and these Forums!) have identified are subject to correction, with a fairly wide range of potential techniques for correcting them. We just have to find the ones that fit the problems without creating more and more egregious problems in the process.
 
Yeah, off the top of my head, most of what they point at, at least in the excerpts, seems to be commonly identified problems.

Having only three valid governments in each era because the governments are designed so newer governments completely obsolete older ones was just plain bad design, and something largely new to the CIV series - IV had fully custom governments where few or no civics ever became obsolete, V was essentially that as well (but imo less well done), and II and III were both notable in that while new government offered powerful abilities, all government had their own advantages and drawbacks and none of them had major power dealbreakers like additional policy cards.

Really in most way, Civ VI's government system may well be the worst the series has done to date, as if they started from a (very narrow) view of the twentieth century reduced to a democracy/fascism/communism contest and tried to back-trace that over the entire history of mankind as always pitting three different power systems against each other.

A better way to do it would be to separate policy cards growth (tied with government infrastructure, buildings, research, etc), from government types which can exist with their own bonuses. Later governments may have bonuses usually better suited to situations you're more likely to find later in the game, but without invalidating earlier governments.
 
Really in most way, Civ VI's government system may well be the worst the series has done to date, as if they started from a (very narrow) view of the twentieth century reduced to a democracy/fascism/communism contest and tried to back-trace that over the entire history of mankind as always pitting three different power systems against each other.
I think this is an overanalysis. I don't think there's entirely much to be gleaned trying to retroactively assign some historiography ideology or dogma or something to this videogame. Put another way, I don't think Firaxis is actively trying to say anything specific about anything.

In your example of the governments, it's not some intentional "back-trace...over the entire history of mankind" that is pregnant with historical commentary. It's just a convenient and sensible gameplay approach to have break them into triads with a sort of rock-paper-scissors approach (which is one of the most common and fundamental approaches to gameplay). And I don't think there's anything wrong with that idea.
 
As I read it, the point of the article is that Civ has always modeled the 'Western Way' of Civilization-Building: western-style governments, politics, and even Tech Tree (ignoring things like the early Chinese use of cast iron or Austronesian open-ocean sailing and navigation, except as rare Unique Abilities) and Units (again, except for Uniques). They also make the point, very familiar in these Threads, of the increasing 'dullness' of the Late Game, and pinpoint the cause as increasing lack of meaningful decisions to be made as the game prods you into a single path to victory based on everything you've done before. Tellingly, they focus on the fact that any change made by your decisions usually sets you back once you've started down one path, and the linear nature of trhe game penalizes any such set back.
How would one design a non Western style Tech Tree? I've always found that quite puzzling especially when you get late game starting with the Industrial Revolution.
I understand what you mean about things such as China having early gunpowder units, Polynesian wayfinding, but those also make it easy as uniques for those particular civs.
I think this is an overanalysis. I don't think there's entirely much to be gleaned trying to retroactively assign some historiography ideology or dogma or something to this videogame. Put another way, I don't think Firaxis is actively trying to say anything specific about anything.
I looked at it more like the fact that in the 20th century, and even today, monarchies and religious institutions/government were seen as becoming outdated which is why newer governments are more exciting.
 
If there was any sort of rock-paper-scissor matchup to governments I might agree, but there's really no "A beat B beat C beat A" mechanism to governments, which makes three governments feel like a profoundly arbitrary choice, particularly when contrasted against the much more diverse options offered by pretty much all previous Civ games.

(And even within the scope of Civ units, where rock/paper/scissors dynamic would be more relevant, the game is far more expansive than a three-way dynamic).

As for religious institutions being seen as becoming outdated, it's becoming increasingly apparent that this is far from a universal view. And it is, in fact, as the article alleges, a very western-centric view.

Tying number of policies to government types to create a situation where government constantly obsoleted one another and you only have a tiny pool of relevant governments just plain made VI a lesser game on that particular front than any of its predecessors.
 
As for religious institutions being seen as becoming outdated, it's becoming increasingly apparent that this is far from a universal view. And it is, in fact, as the article alleges, a very western-centric view.

Tying number of policies to government types to create a situation where government constantly obsoleted one another and you only have a tiny pool of relevant governments just plain made VI a lesser game on that particular front than any of its predecessors.
I'm not saying that I agree with the idea that things like religion and religious governments are outdated, I'm just theorizing a possible idea that could have been in the game design.

That being said, I'm all for the idea that governments could be equal in terms of number of policies and would be differentiated by other things such as access to unique units, infrastructure, projects etc. Especially when my idea is to not make a linear progression when it comes to cultural/social/political advancements, but branching out to develop your culture how you want. Ideally it would be a combination of Civ 6 governments and policies, but being unlocked in a social policy tree similar to Civ 5.

In regard to this iteration being the worst, I still prefer this system over Civ 5 social policies though.
 
I'll allow I may be misjudging V. It seems interesting on paper, but I lack familiarity with it.

But in terms of flexible government IV did better, and in terms of having well-defined in game government, II and III (I I'm too unfamiliar with) did better.

I suppose the increasing number of policy cards could be seen as a counterpart to early game government having very high corruption and the later game ones much less in Civ II-III, but if so, I think they badly miscalculated, because the high-corruption/high-waste governments would still be situationally usable in larger empires (particularly one-to-two cities challenges, thanks to Palace/Forbidden Palace) later in the game, rather than being obsoleted completely.

And that's the way it should in my opinion be. Early-game governments should rarely become completely obsolete, but simply become much more situational as the game progress, and newer governments become the better "general use" governments. Something that' simply impossible with the multiplication of policy cards.
 
I read throught the article/manuscript and enjoyed it. By training, I'm an engineer and system administrator, not a political scientist. I found it very revealing, both that Rousseau's view on political theory was so dominant *and* that this newer book deconstructed that view, proposing new ideas. They summarized their reframing of what "freedom" means, in their suggested book, and then applied those ideas to Civ6.

Some thoughts:
1. Although they showed images from both Civ1 and Civ6, I found their central points about "freedom to disobey" and choose an alternate path most relevant to Civ4. As the player unlocks civics, one is free to switch back and forth. Even the early game civics may be chosen, with no more penalty to switch than switching into a late game civic. Civ5 is the polar opposite, of course; once social policies are adopted, they can never be undone. One of the recommended ways to play Civ4 is to switch civics while in a Golden Age (cost is minimized) and switch back just before it ends.

2. Because each game in the franchise has a victory condition -- unlike say SimCity, Zoo Tycoon or Minecraft -- the game will progress towards a resolution. The authors touch on that in their comparisons of historical games built on contrafactual situations (like Civ) and those other types of games. We've had those discussions here, about what should the victory conditions be, which ones are fun, which ones are cheesy. If one turned off all VC's except score, and just played for 500 turns, I wonder if the authors would find the game had more of what they define as freedom.

3. I disagree with the authors a bit, when they argue that a Zulu Republic does not play or look much different than a Dutch Republic. Given the strengths of different unique buildings and leader abilities. the relative balance of trading vs. warring, acquiring science from pillaging vs. buildings, will be different. These differences were especially true in Civ3, where Babylon or the Ottmans would easily outdistance the Aztecs or Mongols scientifically, even when running the same government.

Since I play all the games in the series as an empire builder -- embrace the snowball, LOL -- I never thought to look for freedom in the sense that the authors defined it. A horizon-expanding read, to be sure.
 
How would one design a non Western style Tech Tree? I've always found that quite puzzling especially when you get late game starting with the Industrial Revolution.
I understand what you mean about things such as China having early gunpowder units, Polynesian wayfinding, but those also make it easy as uniques for those particular civs.

I looked at it more like the fact that in the 20th century, and even today, monarchies and religious institutions/government were seen as becoming outdated which is why newer governments are more exciting.
Well, for a start, by not assuming that the 'western' sequence of technological development was the base and everything else an aberration to be addressed by 'Uniques'.

ALL technological development is replete with 'missed opportunities' or technologies that were not developed and followed up by one group or the other. Examples:

The Hellenistic development of hydraulic mechanisms and intricate geared machinery, much of it apparently based on developments in Alexandria, which laid out the basis for fairly complex machinery and even steam power. It was virtually forgotten except as a source of 'parlor tricks'.

The Chinese development of 'gunpowder' for centuries as a flammable, rather than an explosive. The European and Chinese developments of the powder as an explosive propellant were, despite China's massive headstart, almost contemporary, and the 'West' quickly sped past China in the development of large caliber artillery.

China developed the crossbow at least a hundred years before the west, but both had it by just after 400 BCE. Yet it never became a battlefield weapon in the west in Greek, Macedonian, Roman or Hellenistic armies or the armies of any of their enemies until 1500 years later and by an entirely different group of 'westerners'!

The answer to Why in every case is Conditions. Lack of a pressing Need for steam power, crossbows, explosive propellant to smash stone walls because all your walls are Rammed Earth - when they say Necessity is the mother of Invention, they mean you have to have a Need or Necessity for the invention or Why Bother?

Civ VI, I have to say now, got Eurekas backwards. They should not be Bonuses to researching some technology, but Requirements. If you have no cities on the coast, why bother researching Seafaring or Sailing or any other nautical tech? Without a pressing Need/Requirement, the Tech should be invisible to you - and in some cases, once the Need is identified, possibly several potential technological or other Solutions might become available. Steam Power wasn't worth the bother when the Mediterranean World had a large slave population to do all the dirty work. Free all the slaves, and the cost of free labor might make Steam Power look very attractive - or unequal distribution of wealth might result in a new class of Free Poor that take the place of slaves and so make labor still cheaper than Machinery.
Want to travel on water? Possible 'starting' (or at least Very Early) technologies are oars, simple sails, lug/lateen sails, and depending on how much water you have to cross, various forms of woodworking to produce hulls, - with or without catamaran structures or outriggers. The Western simple paddling to rowing to sailing in dug out or plank-built progression has variations from other parts of the world for every step of the way, and some of them resulted it much more capable long distance sailing and navigation and much sturdier construction than that required to sail the relatively calm waters of the enclosed Aegean Sea.
 
Last edited:
Talking about the issue of government types and the freedom to personalize them, reconcile a more flexible alt-history with a recognizable and accesible number of categories is easier to say than to do.
Right now I am struggling with the many specific aspects that could be represented as variables like legitimacy, administration, sovereignty, property, jurisprudence, membership, authority, trade, representation, diplomacy, etc. At some point is evident that even the concept of government is questionable when players can control their civs in a way that society customization could fit better. I mean, government (like society) are about people, their needs and ideologies. To have govenment systems you need something to govern.

Now, not misunderstand me, I dont expect CIV to turn into an "historical simulator" neither a "population management" game. On the contrary, I am traying to figure a CIV-friendly way to abstract mechanics with significative and concise options, taking some elements from CIV4, CIV5 and CIV6 systems. Ironically CIV6's tripartite selection mix well with CIV4's categories system, justifying these options as less numerous but more significative being their own mechanics rather than mere bonuses.
 
The article, it seems to me, is based on a false premise. Civ is a game. Games have rules. By definition, they restrict your freedom within certain bounds. Life does too. The Minecraft example (if you don't eat, you die) is illuminating in this regard.

On the other hand, the critique of Civ's slant towards western history and technological achievements is nothing new. It's a 30-year-old affair. And Civ is indeed very eurocentric. But I don't really think that's the result of cultural or political bias. I think there's a much more practical, commercial reason for it: when the first Civ games were released, the vast majority of potential buyers were in the USA, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, maybe some in Japan. The distribution is probably still very similar. So I believe it's not a case of the designers deliberately restricting players' freedoms in order to force a particular narrative, but rather an attempt to appeal to the biggest group of potential buyers. I mean, in 1991, there probably were some kids in California fascinated by Polynesian katamarans and such, but how many? The authors were certainly 'free' to investigate this also... but chose not to. And let's not forget Sid and friends are game designers, not academics, and they still did a pretty good job at cramming all the history they knew and had ready access to in the Civilopedia.

The real freedom Civ gives players is in the different ways to play and win, the random worlds, and the replay value these amount to. I've been playing Civ 1 for almost 30 years. For me, it's main strenght lies in the way it simplifies the world, making it playable. It reduces very complex concepts and interactions to very basic gameplay elements, freeing players to interpret them as they please (historically and politically). In fact, later installments only seem to overcomplicate things. More rules + more realism = less freedom.
 
I agree with Mize that the orientation is a marketing issue. FFS, most of the leaders historically were male, so they were men in the game, and most players were male. Only Civ 6 started the uber-PC "no stone unturned" crusade to find more historical women. For Indonesia, they chose a puppet queen (whose Chief Minister is the leader in Civ 5) while missing the two women rebel leaders in Aceh who fought the Dutch a little over a century ago. So, there is something bizarre in trying to bend history too much to fit what the game should be ("otherwise, I won't buy it, nyah nyah"). Read more history, and be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

I guess that would fit what Mize calls "more rules = less freedom" but I prefer to see the game's evolution (I started with Civ 2) as "more rules = more subtlety" -- along the lines of why we need lawyers nowadays instead of acting as our own attorney in court.
 
The Chinese development of 'gunpowder' for centuries as a flammable, rather than an explosive. The European and Chinese developments of the powder as an explosive propellant were, despite China's massive headstart, almost contemporary, and the 'West' quickly sped past China in the development of large caliber artillery.

China developed the crossbow at least a hundred years before the west, but both had it by just after 400 BCE. Yet it never became a battlefield weapon in the west in Greek, Macedonian, Roman or Hellenistic armies or the armies of any of their enemies until 1500 years later and by an entirely different group of 'westerners'!

The answer to Why in every case is Conditions. Lack of a pressing Need for steam power, crossbows, explosive propellant to smash stone walls because all your walls are Rammed Earth - when they say Necessity is the mother of Invention, they mean you have to have a Need or Necessity for the invention or Why Bother?
I agree mostly with Boris about conditions: "necessity is the mother (not father) of invention". It strikes me as weird that someone would refer to these developments as "western technology" simply because the most recent game eras had techs invented in western countries. Drawbridge was another Chinese invention, centuries before Europe had them. You can find a summary made by an engineer around 50 years ago in Encycl Brittanica (and later repeated online I think): he lists something like a dozen inventions from China and how many *centuries* they occurred before Europe had them. In terms of the application of tech, some historians say Tokugawa had more muskets than any European country in his day.

The point is that tech evolves in pathways that are discovered by different cultures, often independently but more often building on each other. We don't need to fantasize about someone on a little boat sailing from Egypt to Mexico to "teach" the Mayans that a pyramid is a structure innate to the human mind. Sailing tech evolves, though forms will vary, some more advantageous than others for the given conditions, as Boris noted. Stirrup was a key invention that enabled horseman to fight better, esp with bow & arrow. Spiral bore in a gun barrel led from musket to rifle, greatly increasing range and accuracy while also prompting a host of non-military inventions related to the need for more precise machining.
 
I still get that feeling that civilization is reality but it's not. One of the truths that I agree with is that playing civilization and learning things through it is not as fun as traditional studying like Sid Meier had said in an interview in 2016. Yeah sure, civilization does have its educational points, but it shouldn't be mixed with politics and it's not real it is just a game. However, myself, I feel like I'm still in civilization 1 with that 1 more turn in the future while the song plays in the background. It's really ironic that a game that is made to entertain is not as entertaining as educating and learning about things by yourself.
 
Speaking of Minecraft, I'm wondering whether it would be plausible to have procedurally generated worlds in Civ where not every tile or player is known from the start (masked by fog-of-war). The game would essentially perform a dice roll at the end of each player turn to calculate what would appear next (up to whatever the map limit is).

Say if you're winning the game, continually more aggressive civs would appear to try and stop you.
 
I don't understand this research article. Glad for Firaxis to be recognized, but still, silly article.

Civ games have as much to do with history, as LEGO Pirate Ship has to do with real pirates: it's made of abstract "lookalike" entities named after their actual (RL) counterparts.

A piece of green plastic with jagged edges and two holes is "a LEGO palm tree leaf". A policy card with that boosts unit production is called "Agoge". Neither is the first a proper representation of aa palm leaf, nor is the other how Agoge worked.

I guess next stop is a research article that concludes that real jails are not actually on the way to Park Lane, as is the case in Monopoly.
 
Speaking of Minecraft, I'm wondering whether it would be plausible to have procedurally generated worlds in Civ where not every tile or player is known from the start (masked by fog-of-war). The game would essentially perform a dice roll at the end of each player turn to calculate what would appear next (up to whatever the map limit is).

Say if you're winning the game, continually more aggressive civs would appear to try and stop you.
The AI do suddenly turn aggressive when you're close to winning, at least through Civ 5. I think it was Civ 4 where they might refuse a Tech swap by saying "no, because we want to win". Even an AI that is the first to build spaceships, like Korea in my current Emperor level Civ 5 can get "ganged up" against late in the game. So the increase in aggression is present.

As for tiles changing, I think it was Civ 4 (or maybe Civ 3) where mining a hill increased the probably that a resource like coal would appear there when you reached the appropriate tech to "find" it.
 
Top Bottom