"as far as I'm concerned, Montezuma has always been a prick"
August 15, 2011 4:48 AM   Subscribe

National Characters is a long, multi-part essay about how computer games deal with the concept of nations and turns it into a game mechanic. The author, Troy Goodfellow of strategy gaming blog Flash of Steel, focuses on how the fourteen indistinguishable national factions of the original Sid Meier's Civilization have been treated by different games through the years.

The fourteen original civs:

America
Aztecs
Babylonians
Chinese
Egyptians
English
French
Germans
Greeks
Indians
Mongolians
Romans
Russians
Zulu

There are also two epilogues. The first about the also rans, Arabia, Japan and Spain, nations not featured in Civ 1 that have become mainstays in historical strategy games. In his proper epilogue Nations as Characters, Goodfellow sets out some of his conclusions.

Bonus: In 2008 Goodfellow explored how the Roman Empire has been portrayed in computer strategy games through the decades in special series.
posted by Kattullus (50 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite

 
My personal Civ bĂȘte noire is Bismarck. That nut always launched the most random attacks at the most inconvenient time. Once he declared war 30 turns into the game for no good reason, bastard didn't even have a proper army at that point (as I found out later). I hadn't found him on the map yet so I had to stomp all over my damn continent with my hastily levied army of warriors to find his damn cities. Of course, while I was doing that, my more immediate neighbors expanded like crazy.

Then there was the time he launched an amphibious assault on me in the late-game across a huge gameworld, and because of the network of defensive pacts, launching the entire planet into a huge war that essentially took the entire rest of the game to resolve. Goddamn that Bismarck.
posted by Kattullus at 5:02 AM on August 15, 2011 [10 favorites]


These posts are magnificent. They satisfy so many of my nerd obsessions.

And yeah, don't even start me on Bismarck.
posted by doublehappy at 5:12 AM on August 15, 2011


This is terrific. The posts on Zulus and Arabs are especially good, as are his final insights. Thanks!
posted by blahblahblah at 6:05 AM on August 15, 2011


Gandhi, backed by nuclear weapons and not afraid to use them.



Ah, TMoL...

posted by Eideteker at 6:13 AM on August 15, 2011


These are fantastic essays. Thank you!
posted by zarq at 6:19 AM on August 15, 2011


Gandhi adopts Slavery!
Lincoln adopts Slavery!
posted by Ironmouth at 6:25 AM on August 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


Well, of course Montezuma was a prick! No matter what you did or how you played the game, dude was ALWAYS annoyed with you when you made contact with him.
posted by Silverdragonanon at 6:42 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Number one cause of early death in Civ 4 is " sharing a border with Montezuma"
posted by The Whelk at 7:17 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


This was a fun read. I think the hardest thing to do is to not look at Civilization as any kind of historical simulator, even though all its trappings want you to do this; it's really more of a Dreamtime thing, with exaggerated, mythical entities running the show.

All I really want at this point is Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, forever.
posted by curious nu at 7:24 AM on August 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


Thanks for the link, Katullus, and kind words everyone. It's been a fun (but exhausting) series to write.

Feel free to jump into the comments fray on the blog. I also wrote a series on how games use maps and space that I'm especially proud of.

Re Civ 4 enemies, if I started a game with Alexander, Montezuma and Sitting Bull as neighbors, I quit and restarted - double offensive pressure and nowhere to expand because of Sitting Bull's defensive bonuses. Screw those guys.
posted by TroyGoodfellow at 7:25 AM on August 15, 2011 [12 favorites]


Welcome, Troy! Yeah, the maps series is indeed pretty neat. I considered making a general Flash of Steel post, but I wanted to focus on the National Characters series. A single post can't cover everything about the blog and the podcast and the multifarious goodness within. Other posts can be made later. Besides, I figure that most people who read through the National Characters series will explore the rest of Flash of Steel.
posted by Kattullus at 7:54 AM on August 15, 2011


Number one cause of early death in Civ 4 is " sharing a border with Montezuma"

I had one abandoned Civ 4 game where I had a border with Monty. We had fought three wars - the first a narrow stalemate, the second where I took a few of his cities before my army was too wounded to continue, and the third ended with him agreeing to be a vassal state. I denied him open borders, kept him isolated and tech poor, and generally treated him like a piece of shit.

Fast forward several years; I am slightly behind in a tough tech race with the Babylonians and the Mongols, both of whom are on my borders. Relations are deteriorating, and I am looking for all the military advantage I can get...Oil is revealed on the map. I have none. Monty has two. Because he is my vassal, I can't go to war with him to get it (and I tried - I demanded everything I had in the hopes of getting him to fight me, but he wouldn't). My choices are to tech him up to a level where he can share it with me (i.e., tech parity), creating a 3rd rival civ right on my borders (with a crazy ass leader who would likely go to war with me to break his vassalage) or go into balls out war with the Mongol/Babylon alliance, both of whom have technologically & numerically superior forces. In all likelihood, taking the first choice means I'm fighting all three...

Even when you think you've got Monty whipped, he comes back to haunt you. Learn from my mistake - if you have him down, crush him.
posted by never used baby shoes at 8:26 AM on August 15, 2011 [8 favorites]


Having just emerged from a quickie "King of the Mountain" scenario on Age of Empire, playing as a Teuton (and not having played Civ in some time) how different would you say are the concept of races in Civ vs AoE? In terms of behaviours, tech trees and attitudes?
posted by infini at 9:34 AM on August 15, 2011


Wait, its not races right, but nations/teams whatever (just making sure haven't stepped wrong)
posted by infini at 9:36 AM on August 15, 2011


All the images are the "domain unregistered" frog for me. But excellent series, just getting started!
posted by Meatbomb at 9:56 AM on August 15, 2011


It's the Greens I alway have trouble with. And don't even get me started on those damn Pinks, just sitting there in Austraila collecting 2 bonus armies each turn and waiting and waiting until they --

What. . . wrong game?
posted by Herodios at 10:10 AM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


infini: the essays cover how each of the 15 races is treated in various games, including (in many cases) AoE. He doesn't, however, cover the general question of how AoE might take a different approach from Civ--at least that I can recall.
posted by col_pogo at 10:21 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think you could probably write a similarly long essay on how fighting games portrays people from various countries. Guile, Chun-Li, Zangief, Dee-Jay...
posted by FJT at 10:42 AM on August 15, 2011


Fascinating article Troy. I gotta say I love the Crusader Kings mention. It was a great game, though apparently like all Paradox games, flawed. Truthfully the Mongols are defeated mainly by knowing that they're going to show up. If the player gets any consolodation at all going, they can stop them pretty easily.

I was curious which games you felt brought the truest sense of historical character to their games. Do you think there's a developer who approaches the concept of 'advantage' the best?
posted by Carillon at 11:39 AM on August 15, 2011


Reading through some, it makes me wonder whether we'd ever get a chance to "Build your own civ nation" and set its attributes from scratch? Perhaps its already out there and I'm just a lazy over 40 girl player? ;p
posted by infini at 12:36 PM on August 15, 2011


Wait, its not races right, but nations/teams whatever (just making sure haven't stepped wrong)

Well, that's a valid angle for criticism, because most games treat factions (which might be the generic term you're looking for) much as fantasy or science fiction games treat "races"/species; a homogeneous group fundamentally set apart by the ability to do something better and/or do something worse than a baseline.

. . .it makes me wonder whether we'd ever get a chance to "Build your own civ nation" and set its attributes from scratch? Perhaps its already out there . . .

Hopefully Troy will come back and talk about this one to confirm, but no, not to my knowledge. Nothing historical-y Earth-based, anyway. You CAN make your own factions by editing text files and such, at least for the Civilization games, but there's no in-game editor for doing that. The only games that spring to mind with that kind of functionality built in are the Master of Orion games, which are science fiction/fantasy galaxy-spanning 4X games (and I'm sure there are some others along the SF lines).
posted by curious nu at 12:43 PM on August 15, 2011


Carillon:

I don't think any developer does it best, and with historical strategy games still being a one or two game a year deal, it's hard to get a sense of where the differences are. The cross-pollination is insane, after all. At Firaxis, Sid Meier worked with Bruce Shelley (Age of Empires) and Brian Reynolds (Rise of Nations). Shelley worked Rick Goodman (Empire Earth, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World). Master of Orion was published by Microprose, which was Meier's studio at the time.

So the ideas of faction creation are a long history with only a few strong schools through the industry: perfect symmetry (Warcraft, early Civs), near perfect symmetry with some small unique bonuses (EU, Total War), unit symmetry with strong thematic differences (recent Civs, Rise of Nations) and total asymmetry (Starcraft, Age of Mythology).

You also have to separate accuracy from truth, feel from fact...it's something I'll think about.

Infini:

Not really. Curious nu is right that this is more a scifi thing than a history thing. Call to Power would let you be whatever Civ you wanted, but it didn't matter. The recent Europa Universalis games have an element of this in the way you choose national ideas and adjust policy sliders to model the kind of country you want to be. But it feels more like government and less like personality.
posted by TroyGoodfellow at 1:02 PM on August 15, 2011


Slight derail, but does anyone know if I can get/run CIV II on a mac powerbook? I have serious nostalgia for that game (and thanks, Troy, for stoking that) and it would be fun to give it a whirl. CIV 4 just looks (not having tried it) like way too much work and I liked the sort of ersatz graphic quality of II on my old 386, back in ye olde days of yore.
posted by Rumple at 1:13 PM on August 15, 2011


Thanks for the answer, Troy, much appreciated from the source.

Rumple, I found Civ3 better balanced than Civ4 (haven't tried 5 yet, is it worth the upgrade?) as you still get the issues of cities revolting and pollution which seem to have been cleaned out of 4, making it less Civ and more directed action oriented (i.e. less management overall)
posted by infini at 1:23 PM on August 15, 2011


Rumple: web surfing tells me there might be some problems with Civ II; it doesn't play well with WINE and there doesn't appear to be a DOS version, either.. it MIGHT work under 3.11, which you can emulate with DOSbox, but I can't say for certain. There is also always Freeciv which I haven't played but I think is more Civ I-inspired than II (but I could be wrong on that).

All of the OSX ports of later Civ games are done by Aspyr, who are a plague upon the Earth, yea. Avoid 'em if you can.
posted by curious nu at 1:39 PM on August 15, 2011


CIV 4 got really, supernaturally balanaced after Beyond The Sword. Civ V just isn't doing it for me, maybe cause it introduces a lot of changes and it's not Civ IV but-wit-super-pretty-graphics.
posted by The Whelk at 1:42 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the hardest thing to do is to not look at Civilization as any kind of historical simulator, even though all its trappings want you to do this; it's really more of a Dreamtime thing, with exaggerated, mythical entities running the show.

Agreed. I think that's why I always had such a hard time getting into it. It's too... "meta." (Whereas the original boardgame, if anyone remembers it, was much less so.)
posted by Urban Hermit at 1:44 PM on August 15, 2011


Ditto. Civs II and IV to me are the high points of the series, certainly the two I've played the most. I found III, in particular almost unplayable, certainly unfunable.

Though, I must admit, I find myself playing more Fall from Heaven than straight Civ IV these days.
posted by bonehead at 1:45 PM on August 15, 2011


Man, Fall from Heaven irritated the hell out of me and I cannot remember why. The co-opted civ portraits were part of it (as silly as that may seem), but I think part of it was it felt weird as a civ-builder. No sense of time, maybe.
posted by curious nu at 2:12 PM on August 15, 2011


The maps series deserves a post of its own. I do NOT have time to be discovering a new and awesome strategy blog.
posted by doublehappy at 2:29 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, here is a post on CivFanatics with the breakdown of civ leader tendencies for Civ 5.
posted by curious nu at 2:30 PM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


In [Crusader Kings], the Mongol nations just show up and proceed to wreck everything. The clock strikes midnight, thousands and thousands of horsemen arrive from the east, provinces begin to fall and, if you are anywhere nearby, you begin to panic...Since you as the monarch have this basic historical knowledge, there comes a point in the game where your strategy and planning takes a turn and is no longer about doing what is best for your empire at the moment, but how you will prepare for the storm that is two decades away.

Heh. Before starting my last game, I told myself I would play it blind, letting the Horde take my king by surprise. But after hours spent painstakingly guiding Georgia to transcontinental greatness, I lost my resolution; it would break my heart to lose the Crown Prince's lovely new Persian winter palace to a stack of damned horse floggers. That's why Bagrat V, King of Georgia and Emperor of the East, spent his entire reign building spear armies and castles on the barren edge of the map.
posted by Iridic at 2:35 PM on August 15, 2011


This is interesting. however I would be more interested in some academic critique from a sociologist or historian of what it all means and how it reflects game designers inherent prejudices and biases.
posted by wilful at 5:20 PM on August 15, 2011


Wilful:

There is some of that in some of the essays, and of course these designs reflect some biases - not necessarily racism, but cultural privileging of some stories and values; there are always many more European civs, for example. Every cultural product will have some of these, and history is a greater minefield for it than any other subject.

Many of the archetypes are negative, and are always imposed on "uncivilized" races. There isn't a generous civ, or a heroic civ, though you sometimes get diplomatic civs - and these will not be the Sioux or Hutu. The bias, as I refer to many times in the series, is that of reading history from a Western perspective. What we think is important or interesting about our history and how we encountered various nations is what is translated into game terms.

(I have a PhD, btw, but this was not something I could write a serious academic study on with only the resources in my study. Would need comparative examples from non-Western societies, a better sense of the overlap of devs, pinpoint the cultural currents at the time that would mark why some things become "important" and other don't, etc.)
posted by TroyGoodfellow at 5:40 PM on August 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm sure someone is at this very moment producing an academic study to prove that an unprejudiced, historically accurate Civ game would produce a single scenario of all nations living in peace, democracy and ecological harmony until the Americans show up in about 1963, or perhaps 2000, and ruin everything. I wish there was a way to play Civ 2 on Windows 7 though, it's the only computer game I've ever played and I never got quite as far as launching the rocket.
posted by joannemullen at 6:37 PM on August 15, 2011


infini, Civ V totally sucks, it seems a lot more "accessible" and dumbed down, like it was designed for a console rather than PC. I would stay well away.

For Civ IV you need to get the newest / fullest version (Beyond the Sword and latest patch) and then browse some of the excellent mods available. Here are two I have really enjoyed:

Legends of Revolution
Rise of Mankind

Both of these mods play like a professionally released expansion pack.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:45 PM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


cool! *mwah*
posted by infini at 12:14 AM on August 16, 2011


On a side note, what is this peculiar True Meaning of Life thing you've posted, Eideteker?
posted by malapropist at 2:22 AM on August 16, 2011


Hm... I have an unopened copy of Civ IV Complete on my shelf awaiting the end of my second run through the moronic failure galaxy of Mass Effect 2, but right next to it I have a copy of Earth Defense Force 2017. Which will win: complex quasi-historical strategy capable of inspiring millions of words of intricate analysis, or mowing down waves of giant alien ants with a series of increasingly ridiculous videogame weapons?

Now if it was SMAC II the ants wouldn't have a chance.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:53 AM on August 16, 2011


Fall from Heaven irritated the hell out of me

That's what Lucifer said, on level one in Paradise Lost.
 
posted by Herodios at 5:36 AM on August 16, 2011


That's what Lucifer said, on level one in Paradise Lost.

Better to win on Prince than lose on Deity.
posted by curious nu at 5:39 AM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


This is interesting. however I would be more interested in some academic critique from a sociologist or historian of what it all means and how it reflects game designers inherent prejudices and biases.
posted by wilful at 5:20 PM on August 15 [+] [!]


I was on my way down to the comment box to post a link to this conference paper that I saw delivered at DiGRA07 (Digital Games Research Association). Full Text (pdf). Obviously it's been a few years so not exactly sure what it covers in content specifically, but I remember generally that it looked at controversial coverage/depiction of historical events and issues (Colonisation might get a mention).

I'm pretty sure I've come across critical studies of the treatment of gender and race more generally by the videogame industry, but nothing specific to historical contexts comes to mind. You can have a browse through DiGRAs Digital Library which has a few hundred odd conference papers, or have a look at the online journal Game Studies.

It's quite possible that there is research along the lines you want that isn't known to the field of game studies, a lot of sociologists and historians don't even know that there is such a field and publish in their own disciplinary journals.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 7:18 AM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also, thanks for the link Kattullus, and thanks for the writing Troy - out of personal interest do you study games academically?
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 7:20 AM on August 16, 2011


David:

No. I am actually a PR person, and until recently a games journalist. But I read a lot of the ludology stuff, and tend to take game design as a craft pretty seriously; it's interesting stuff once you poke at some of the things we take for granted.
posted by TroyGoodfellow at 9:41 AM on August 16, 2011


Civ V totally sucks, it seems a lot more "accessible" and dumbed down, like it was designed for a console rather than PC. I would stay well away.

Meatbomb: can you point to specifics? The A.I. is shit, ok, but stacks of doom are gone (hardly a dumbing down) and I'm not sure I've heard a cogent summary of V's flaws yet. And I've never heard anything that could be construed as console-vs-pc criticism. I did find Civ IV (BTS) more addictive, but that may have been an issue of time and interest differences across the years. Were I to fire up a Civ-based game this week, it would probably be either Civ V or Alpha Centauri. I hate stacks of doom.

Mind, I recently had a look at Civ Revolution on the Xbox 360, and it was such a mindboggingly terrible experience that I'm potentially incapable of conceiving of Civ V as even approaching console-simplified gaming.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:56 AM on August 16, 2011


"On a side note, what is this peculiar True Meaning of Life thing you've posted, Eideteker?"

Hooboy, how to explain it? Uh, wikipedia, take it away!

(Basically, users could ask questions of pop culture avatars (TMoL was video game-related, Conversatron was general pop culture, and the original Forum 2k was somewhat Ayn Rand-themed). The avatars each had personalities, often divergent from what you would expect or the popular depiction. The answers were often hilarious. Disclosure: I wrote for the Conversatron (and the Conspiratron) towards the end.)
posted by Eideteker at 12:48 PM on August 16, 2011


David:

No. I am actually a PR person, and until recently a games journalist. But I read a lot of the ludology stuff, and tend to take game design as a craft pretty seriously; it's interesting stuff once you poke at some of the things we take for granted.
posted by TroyGoodfellow at 9:41 AM on August 16 [+] [!]


Ah yes on closer inspection I see this is actually mentioned in the blog post itself (in my defence it's only Wednesday morning and it's already been a long week).

Anyway I hope you stick around MetaFilter and will be reading through some more of your articles when I get a chance.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:12 PM on August 16, 2011


I love LOVE Civ Revolution on the Xbox. Yeah it's dumbed down from Civ 4 but IMO in a good way--you can knock out a whole game in 2-4 hours. I cannot even estimate how many times I have played that game, but I have won with every civ in every possible fashion on deity if that gives any sort of indication. :/
posted by fusinski at 6:52 AM on August 18, 2011


Meatbomb: can you point to specifics?.

Apologies, but no... don't have it installed, and don't want to go back to it after the three or four hours I spent with it when it first came out. So totally possible I am full of shit - just my subjective opinion.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:19 AM on August 18, 2011


Troy Goodfellow and Rob Zacny talk about the National Character series in the latest episode of the Three Moves Ahead podcast. It's long but well worth listening to as it summarizes the arc of the whole series and delves into some specific issues.
posted by Kattullus at 6:15 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older Snow on Cuba Mall in central Wellington...  |  Stop coddling the super-rich,... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments