Let's play "Global Thermonuclear War"
March 16, 2018 12:45 PM   Subscribe

All rise and no fall: how "Civilization" reinforces a dangerous myth. Whether your aim is world conquest or cultural hegemony, victory in Civilization and many of its cohorts depends on domination. However peacefully you try to play, you’re often straight-jacketed into a utilitarian-psychotic view where all resources and people are just raw material to be assimilated, Borg-like, until the whole map is monochrome.

More on the ideology of strategy PC games: "SimCity represents our cities not as they are but as they could be: calculated, optimized, controlled."

Previously on the 2018 release of Civilization VI: Rise and Fall
posted by joechip (33 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
This article brings up an interesting point, about a lack of planetary feedback from things you do in the world. I liked in one of the previous iterations that building things like factories created pollution. Covering your map in coal power plants would reduce the output of cities due to sickness. I'd like to see a similar mechanic reintroduced into Civ VI.

I don't think you could tackle the concept of over farming without disrupting a core mechanism of gameplay. Perhaps farms could have a certain amount of allowed food (and production for mines) and then they could collapse (until you researched fertilizer or some technology that extended their lifespan). Although I could see that creating a really tedious case of micromanaging your resources too. It's a hard balance. I definitely don't play Civ to reanimate the literal steps of mankind on the face of the earth. When you're the Aztec launching rockets to Mars, some realism needs to be suspended and perhaps the fiddly things like never rotating crops and bottomless mines fall aside.
posted by msbutah at 1:03 PM on March 16, 2018 [2 favorites]


The goal isn't to make the whole map monochrome, duh.

You always leave the last remaining enemy city surrounded by howitzers on every square of its production radius so it starves itself down to size 1 while you try to get Future Tech exceeding MAXINT.

Note: this was the goal at least in Civ II, which is the last one I played. May or may not hold for versions of the game released this century.
posted by 7segment at 1:05 PM on March 16, 2018 [6 favorites]


all resources and people are just raw material to be assimilated, Borg-like, until the whole map is monochrome paper clips.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:05 PM on March 16, 2018 [20 favorites]


Somewhat related, Rob Zacny's Surviving Mars review.

Very much related, the Three Moves Ahead episode on Rise and Fall, which spends a considerable portion of its two hour runtime on the Civ series' (and 4X in general's) reliance on "whig history" as an organising principle.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:05 PM on March 16, 2018 [7 favorites]


All of this about how the game doesn't challenge you for degrading soil or overfishing reminds me of the quote from Back to the Future II -- "You have to use your HANDS?! That's like a baby's toy!"

This kind of game just seems like it would have been more relevant 20 years ago, but today without incorporating what we know? Meh.
posted by knownassociate at 1:06 PM on March 16, 2018 [2 favorites]


Agricultural productivity can be greatly extended by fertilizer, but historically that's been achieved by colonialism (e.g. stripping Pacific island guano deposits) and reliance on essentially non-renewable resources (those finite guano deposits; making fertilizer from the Haber process using natural gas). Same thing with mining and other resource extractive industries: colonialism has been the usual approach. And unfortunately it's worked out pretty well for the colonial powers so far, which makes it an attractive strategy in Civilization.

What I'd like to see is a version of Civilization where colonial tactics lead to independence movements and (if maintained long enough) becoming a pariah state.

I'd also like to see some notion of ethics brought into Civilization. All well and good if you launch a mission to Alpha Centauri by 1950, but if you got there by being a brutal, polluting colonial power then your score should have several asterisks after it.

As long as I'm dreaming, I'd also like to see an end to the terra nullius assumption Civilization makes about the world. When the game starts, just about every square of habitable land should be controlled by somebody. The idea that there are large swathes of uninhabited-but-habitable land just waiting to come under some monarch's dominion in 4000BC is ludicrous.
posted by jedicus at 1:20 PM on March 16, 2018 [7 favorites]


It's probably that when you start adding so many layers of complexity you get away from a 4x and start becoming a dwarf fortress-like.
posted by Ferreous at 1:20 PM on March 16, 2018 [9 favorites]


msbutah: This article brings up an interesting point, about a lack of planetary feedback from things you do in the world. SMAC nailed this, as if you over-industrialized, over-terraformed, and polluted, you'd anger the Mind Worms, and risk getting overwhelmed by stronger and stronger colonies of Mind Worms. A huge concern if you're playing as, say, Morgan.
posted by SansPoint at 1:23 PM on March 16, 2018 [6 favorites]


I always set things up so that "global domination" isn't even an option for victory.

....I also am on super-easy setting and I reduce the number of AI opponents as well so I have more of a fighting chance. In my current game I still just had Japan and the Aztecs declare war on me (but I'm about 2 turns away from discovering flight so Japan may give up quick).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:28 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


I don't think you could tackle the concept of over farming without disrupting a core mechanism of gameplay. Perhaps farms could have a certain amount of allowed food (and production for mines) and then they could collapse (until you researched fertilizer or some technology that extended their lifespan). Although I could see that creating a really tedious case of micromanaging your resources too. It's a hard balance.

There are the 4X games, which are more about playing on a societal/global/galactic scale, and then there are the base building games, which are more about keeping a small population alive (Dwarf Fortress, Banished, Rimworld, etc). In my experience, the 4X games struggle to implement good resource depletion mechanics, instead using things like limiting the value of resource deposits (i.e., this coal mine only gives you enough coal to do two things than require coal to run/build) or implementing things like health metrics in Civ IV that try to limit growth. Pollution and global warming have both been parts of previous iterations of Civ games. But in general, in a 4X game, there is enough stuff to micromanage by the mid-game that adding more would be rough on both player and processor - the focus of the game is supposed to be on your empire, not your fields. You acquire your resources and use them. There's a point at which having realistic complexity on the scale of the game tips into being unwieldy and unfun, is my point.

The base builders are far more about resource management - gathering enough food to stay alive, materials to build homes, tools, weapons, etc. The scale is individual, or close to it. Expand your population too fast, people may starve - but a small population struggles to get all the basic tasks done that are needed for survival and growth, plus you are more vulnerable to hostile raids or aggressors. Resources are limited - once you've mined them out, they're gone. This would be the type of game in which over-farming and crop rotations could be implemented...though to my knowledge, no one has. Base builders also have a different idea of "success" - there often is no real end goal, just trying to survive as long as possible, and failure is almost a given. Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld games usually end in the collapse of the settlement, precisely because the more you expand, the more possibility there is of the colony entering into a death spiral - where a failure in one system (food, for example - an early frost, or the cook gets sick, etc) produces a cascading set of failures in other systems (because people are hungry and so unable to work/work less efficiently/get angry and attack someone else) that becomes very difficult - if not impossible - to stem. These games also usually have a mechanic that looks at the relative success of the colony and sends escalating threats at them to ensure that stability is hard to maintain.
posted by nubs at 1:34 PM on March 16, 2018 [6 favorites]


This kind of assumes you play the game based on how developers expect you to play. In the article the writer ponders that gaming's roots in toys and electronics are one reason for it's emphasis on growth, but I would argue that gaming's roots in toys are also what allows for some players to create their own experiences and goals that don't necessarily follow the win conditions set by gamemakers.

In Civilization, the example I would use is the One City Challenge, which was a self-imposed challenge that was eventually integrated into future Civs.
posted by FJT at 1:35 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


I don't really disagree with the author but it is a game, not a textbook.
posted by octothorpe at 1:37 PM on March 16, 2018 [9 favorites]


What I'd like to see is a version of Civilization where colonial tactics lead to independence movements and (if maintained long enough) becoming a pariah state.

Boy have I got a game for you
posted by Philipschall at 1:44 PM on March 16, 2018 [5 favorites]


To a lesser extent, "Civ but with ethics" could be a description of Stellaris. (Yes, yes, or Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri.)
posted by tobascodagama at 2:08 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


In addition to Vicky, CKII is actually pretty good for having mechanics that discouraging map-painting, though lots of sufficiently-motivated players can eventually manage it anyway.

Ultimately, 4X is only a subset of the Grand Strategy genre, and in many ways I feel like it might be the least interesting Grand Strategy subgenre.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:12 PM on March 16, 2018 [2 favorites]


I've criticized Civ for this and other stuff in the past, but I started playing it again recently in a bout of depressive boredom, and I still like it. In my mind, it's just giving familiar names and appearances to a complex-but-not-excessively-complex game system to make it more immediately accessible. Like, it is possible to play and enjoy the game knowing very well that colonialism is bad, that undless growth is damaging, and that war is something to avoid at all costs. It's just SO divorced from the real world for me that it feels like collecting powerups named "pottery" and "archery" instead of, like, actually "discovering" how to make pottery and shoot arrows. I'm team "Austria" not, like, the historic and modern state of Austria.

I mean, I thought the article was interesting, and I broadly agree with everything about it. I'm pretty certain that it does reinforce all kinds of bad ideas in many ways, but I don't know, Civ isn't at the top of my list of problematic things in the world.

I would LOVE to see something like Ursula Le Guin's Civilization, though.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:30 PM on March 16, 2018 [5 favorites]


I've criticized Civ for this and other stuff in the past, but I started playing it again recently in a bout of depressive boredom, and I still like it. In my mind, it's just giving familiar names and appearances to a complex-but-not-excessively-complex game system to make it more immediately accessible. Like, it is possible to play and enjoy the game knowing very well that colonialism is bad, that undless growth is damaging, and that war is something to avoid at all costs. It's just SO divorced from the real world for me that it feels like collecting powerups named "pottery" and "archery" instead of, like, actually "discovering" how to make pottery and shoot arrows. I'm team "Austria" not, like, the historic and modern state of Austria.

Hear, hear. Civ serves as a vehicle for some really problematic messages, but mechanized infantry serve as a vehicle for some really fun fun gameplay, and I'm a long way from internalizing the worldview suggested by its gameplay. And of course it would be lovely to explore quite a lot of concepts in a more sophisticated, less whig history eurocentric manner.

tl;dr:
What do you think about Sid Meier's Civilization?
I think it would be a good idea.
posted by The Gaffer at 2:35 PM on March 16, 2018 [7 favorites]


it really depends on what sort of game you want to play. i never saw Civ as really trying to replicate world history in all its complexity. the use of real nations always seemed tongue in cheek, especially in the diplomacy. it was always really a conquest game, because, well, simple conquest games are fun. they're not trying to be realistic. Civ to me was always like a bloated version of Warlords 2.

games like stellaris--esp the 2018 version with the new updates--are a good example of something quite different. you literally cannot declare war on whoever you want, whenever you want. there are political parties. it's sort of about conquest, but not nearly as much. the risk with this is that it becomes more tedious than fun. (plus, i dont know that stellaris is more "realistic" for going this route. i can be an absolute monarchy and you really want to tell me that i cant order my fully capable fleet to invade the enemy because i have a "treaty"? since when does that stop a dictator? or because of some opaque"war exhaustion" factor with respect to this particular opponent that obligates me to sign a treaty?? the ships seem fine to me, and can be used against another enemy right that moment.)

i respect the latter type of game, but to me it's less fun. i dont see pure conquest games as being politically problematic. i see them as more like chess, with faces and tanks.
posted by wibari at 3:36 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


Any love for Civ Revolutions on the iPad? The movement system is so fiddly and irritating that it's vastly easier to just build a couple of cities and United Nations your way to a cultural victory.
posted by Mogur at 4:01 PM on March 16, 2018


Just about every big change Civ has made each generation has been an attempt to make "paint the entire map your color" harder and harder to do. The mechanics in Civ V mean that once your Civilization gets to expansive, it becomes extremely unwieldy, and your cities take almost forever to build anything. The developers have also tried to increase the importance of trade and diplomacy to discourage mindless aggression. They arguably over-corrected in Civ 5, because you can have an opponent found a city on your border and declare that they are embarking on a holy crusade to destroy you, and wind up being thought of as a brutal warmonger for fighting the war successfully. Civ does seem to be aware of it's own issues, and attempts to correct for them.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:11 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


I would LOVE to see something like Ursula Le Guin's Civilization, though.

The ansible could be kind of game-breakingly overpowered, though.
posted by rokusan at 4:56 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


Chess is a good example - chess comes from a time when kings and battles where the deciding part of civilisation. The article seems to be saying that 4X games reflect the same dominant paradigms from their point of origin, in that growth was felt to be constant, and that competing civilisations would wipe each other out. So it's not really a critique of Civ but rather the whole genre.
posted by The River Ivel at 4:56 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


the general point here, that civ sims, war sims, and even stuff like Blue Ocean, are hobbled by the designers' ideology, is a primary reason I am not a gamer. Where's my interactive FALC sim?
posted by mwhybark at 5:18 PM on March 16, 2018


not really a critique of Civ but rather the whole genre

You mean, like, humans?
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 5:26 PM on March 16, 2018 [3 favorites]


I think it's interesting that Civ is a strong enough game that it even makes sense to subject it to this kind of critique. When I was growing up, I didn't really expect that I'd one day be seeing discussions about the moral import of the implicit philosophy underlying the games that I was playing at the time. I don't have a lot to actually contribute to this discussion, but I think it's pretty cool.

The fact that we are starting to have these discussions in fairly mainstream venues also says a lot about the state of video games as an art form, I think.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:52 PM on March 16, 2018 [13 favorites]


games like stellaris--esp the 2018 version with the new updates--are a good example of something quite different. you literally cannot declare war on whoever you want, whenever you want. there are political parties

Try playing as "determined exterminator" machines.
posted by walrus at 6:09 PM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


Speaking of implicit philosophy in games, it has always bothered me that in the Europa Universalis games you could alter history in so many ways, but slavery was always baked in as being a resource from certain African provinces. Not only was a slavery-free history impossible, but any country that traded through Africa was then complicit in the slave trade.
posted by drinkyclown at 7:47 PM on March 16, 2018 [5 favorites]


Well, in reality the limits to growth are sending the entire human race hurtling towards extinction. There's no way around that unless you figure out both a way to keep people from reproducing, and to keep them from using oil.

So when you put it in game form, it turns into a game you lose every single time. And that's no fun.
posted by MrVisible at 7:38 AM on March 17, 2018


I worry that some players might come away with the perception that the game works out that way because "that's how the world works" rather than "that's how the game was programmed to work."

I certainly flirted with that notion before it occurred to me that the game was programmed by people, not by some magical input of data points from reality.
posted by Brachinus at 11:07 AM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


What I'd like to see is a version of Civilization where colonial tactics lead to independence movements and (if maintained long enough) becoming a pariah state.

I'd also like to see some notion of ethics brought into Civilization...

As long as I'm dreaming, I'd also like to see an end to the terra nullius assumption Civilization makes about the world.


This is Crusader Kings. Although it certainly (famously) has its own sense of 'ethics.'
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:18 AM on March 17, 2018


There's a recent retrospective on the original Civ that reveals some of the designers' intentions. For example:

“Sid had a very clear notion: he was going to make it fun. He didn’t give a damn about anything else; it was going to be fun. He said, ‘I have absolutely no reservation about fiddling with realism or anything, so long as I can make it more fun.'”

I thought it was also interesting how the Alpha Centauri ship (and pollution) were late-stage additions to put a coda on the gameplay, and that fighters and bombers were signals to the designers that they should also stick a fork in it.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 2:23 PM on March 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


Civ4 had a mod (Rhye's and Fall of Civilization) which had some interesting instability mechanics built in. At set times your existing empire would be rocked by the emergency of new civs; cities would flip, troops would defect. It also had the possibility of far flung cities declaring independence, old defeated civs emerging from the ashes of history, and a plague mechanic that was truly scary.

The games in that mod were chaotic and fun, with the player having to choose between struggling to keep their original civ alive or switching over to one of the new powers gobbling up all their land. It actually had rises and falls as you imagined some long repressed minority rising up to take power or outside nomads invading.

Civ seems pretty trapped in portraying a constant, never-changing monoculture though, without much difference between the various factions. Part of what makes the early game so much fun for me is exploring a "homeland" and imagining how the land and people are shaping each other.

There's some elements of this with Civ's pantheon system, but even by the midgame this distinctiveness has been subsumed under the min-maxing strategy of a religious victory. Same with early units, where a lack of resources may mean the difference between a civ riding out on horseback or tromping forth with a line of swordsmen. All of which gives way to a sameness of late game infantry.

I guess what I really want to see is a game that focuses less on a grand, eternal, unchanging civilization, and more about guiding a particular culture or ethnic group through time, which may mean being a minority group in an empire. Just sort of building idiosyncrasies and cultural traits over time in response to the ecological, social, and political environments.

So, not a civ game, I guess. As much as I get addicted to them, I do spend a lot of time thinking how I'd do a bottom up redesign.
posted by Panjandrum at 4:00 PM on March 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


I remember Spaceward Ho! fondly. It's a 4X game with a limited resource: metal. There are a fixed number of planets in the galaxy, and each planet has a limited amount for you to mine. Ships destroyed in battle only leave behind a fraction of the metal used to build them, and more powerful ships require more metal to build (unless you spend heavily on miniaturization), so games sometimes end with stalemates where no side has enough metal left to continue conquest.
posted by aneel at 9:43 PM on March 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


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