(Post) Colonialism

Gameplay loops and other politics: Musings on Civilization, ideology and game development

Shaping a genre

Only a select few games come close to Sid Meier’s Civilization‘s fame. As with Doom or Super Mario, the name itself has been firmly committed to cultural memory. And similar to those titles, the name Civilization signifies more than just a specific game: As Doom defined First-Person-Shooters (without technically being the first), Civilization defined the “4x” sub-genre of turn-based strategy games (again, without technically being the first). Its genre-defining qualities are so robust that almost 30 years since its inception the first Civilization’s DNA is easily recognizable not only in the series’ later titles (up to VI at the time of writing) but also plenty of derivatives (according to Mobygames’ catalogue, 167 games fall under “4x” in the strictest sense, with many more hybrid games borrowing individual elements). Superficial variations aside, they all express the same four core principles: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate.

In terms of game mechanics, these “X” are linked systems of escalating loops: eXplore to eXpand to eXplore further, eXterminate the opposition to eXploit more territory, to gain resources for more eXtermination. Winning the game requires manipulating the given systems to achieve escalating and reinforced growth: a stronger economy enables fielding a larger military which allows for conquering more territory, which yields more economic gain and so on. These loops are so firmly ingrained into the genre that, to experienced players, learning a new 4x-game is less about understanding new systems, but rather realizing how systems they are already intimately familiar with have been adapted in a specific instance. Dry as this might sound on paper, these time-proven systems make for engaging and often addictive gameplay, as anyone who’s played “just one more turn” into the small hours can attest. The drumbeat of 4x’s ludic heart is that famous “series of interesting decisions”, as per Sid Meier’s definition of a game.

It has always been political

However, before returning to the genre itself, we need to focus on the politics inherent to Sid Meier’s Civilization; “Inherent” because it is, quite famously, a game not just depicting but narrating “the entire history of Civilization in one game” (Meier & Shelley, 2017, 01:25). The distinction between depiction and narration is important: The game’s presentation doesn’t exhaust itself in merely spooling down historical tidbits, layered on top of an indifferent mechanical structure. Instead, the game constructs a specific ludic narrative (rather than revisiting the debate whether the ludic or the narrative element dominates in digital games, I’ll happily refer to Adam Chapman’s [2016, p. 155] emphasis on how both intermingle and coexist) of history through its interdependence of systems and setting, evoking a theme of play in which you recreate the rise and fall of civilizations. The game’s narrative is specific insofar as the developers choose which sources to consult and how to translate them mechanically (more on that later). It’s political, for neither historiography nor historical narratives are ever sealed deals. Influenced by prevailing ideologies, moral concepts or presumably self-evident beliefs of a given time, they require constant re-visitation and updates. A society’s historical memory is always in flux, not only being shaped by but itself shaping narratives. Civilization is an active participant in this discourse, as it doesn’t simply regurgitate “objective” history – whatever that may be – but both amplifies existing narratives and, through gameplay and interaction, creates its own.

But what are Civilization’s politics? Quite a few authors have already discussed how its ludic narrative closely resembles or seem permeated by eurocentric concepts of society, economy and nation, i.e. civilization (see, for example, Carpenter, 2021; Donecker, 2014; Ford, 2016; Mir & Owens, 2013). There’s no doubt that the systems causing the game’s civilizations to rise or fall are based on extremely modern concepts and understandings of history, yet invoked as eternal truisms of humanity’s history. “This is how society has worked, works and will work”, the gameplay loop implies: an arrow of progress shot from the dark ages into the future, a steady pace of almost linear technological growth and an eternal desire for expansion. In concert, all these elements feed into a spiral of escalating competition. Civilization and the genre it birthed apply an almost neorealist perspective on human history, with all political and societal organization aimed towards security-through-conflict. This logic extends into the peaceful methods of victories, be they “scientific” or “cultural”, insofar military conflict is only postponed as long all involved civilizations consider the arrangement to be more beneficial to them rather than the other way around. Put bluntly, playing 4x-games effectively necessitates a positive feedback-loop of imperialist and capitalist growth.

It’s important to stress that these logics don’t rest in Civilization’s setting and visual design alone. Take, for example, the so-called “Tribal Huts” which players can discover and (literally) collect for a boon early on. While superficially they appear to echo colonial tropes – noble savages happily greeting their colonizers – there’s a reason why the player community affectionately calls them “Goodie Huts”, or why the series’ fifth part could swap them for “ancient ruins” without missing a beat. The setting matters little for the intended game-play purpose. The hut’s key role is randomization of the early game, giving incentives for exploration and breaking the monotony of exploration. The relationship between mechanics and the setting is strenuous at best; the thematic link remains paper-thin. Likewise, the “Barbarians”, often cited as proof of Civilization’s inherent settler-ideology, can easily be stripped of their thematic hide to reveal the ludic purpose beneath: Build an army early and keep territory explored. They are the early game’s military tutorial and a way to gain combat experiences without the risk of a full-blown conflict with another civilization. Still, there’s no denying how extremely well this mechanical purpose fits their in-game depiction as marauding “Barbarians”: They are indeed, in the classic understanding of the word, the negation of “civilized” states, their only purpose (both in terms of mechanics and as observed by said states) is to destroy. It’s easy to see why this thematic link was chosen, as the mechanics fit a specific historical narrative and vice versa. But which concept came first during development? A question which extends beyond these arguably minor mechanical elements, into the entire genre’s structure.

Screenshots of “Tribal Huts” taken from Civilization II (MicroProse, 1996) and Civilization VI (Aspyr and Firaxis, 2016) respectively.

But if it’s not the setting, what’s left? Is it only the immediate interaction, the ludic moment-to-moment experience? Sure, the aforementioned politics do spring from the game’s mechanical core and its algorithmically defined rules of play and systemic loops. But I want to emphasize that those might only seem separate from the setting (“it’s just a game!”, as the defiant battle-cry goes), when in fact the opposite is true: These ludic logics are in place because they were considered to be the appropriate gameplay lenses (borrowing a useful term from Jesse Schell’s book on game design [Schell, 2019]) to focus history through. MicroProse didn’t start with a blank slate of systems and then went looking for an appropriate theme. Their intent was to “compress the entire history of civilization into a [game]” through the mechanics required to make playing history an entertaining experience, “[…] not only the actual history but every possible history, that could have happened in civilization” (Meier & Shelley, 2017, 01:25). Setting and mechanics matter equally insofar as the game takes shape as history-translated-into-mechanics. The aforementioned “Barbarians” are presented the way they are, because they combine recognizable historical imagery with a useful game-play purpose. As with all other elements of Civilization both combined tell the4x-tale of civilization’s history, of control and conquest as motivation, purpose and necessity.

All this is meant to highlight how supposedly neutral game systems and mechanics really aren’t. The game’s algorithmic core is political insofar it has been designed by people with a certain understanding of society, politics and history. All systems in place, from available technology, to the economic structure to the AI’s decision-making, aren’t the way they are because “it’s just a game”, but because designers and developers decided on these specific implementations to depict history as considered applicable within the game’s frame. By treating the development and design process as a black box and only looking at the finished product itself, this crucial part of understanding is ignored. Thus, these observations highlight the need for further engagement with and better understanding of the game development process itself – unless we want to fetishize algorithms and visible pixels as being the actual proponents of ideology rather than its vehicle.

Historical narratives transported through time and code

Civ I is an excellent subject in this regard, because of its importance – an entire genre’s lineage can be traced back here – and the outspokenness that comes with fame. Of course, the story as told by its lead developers, most prominently Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley, is anecdotal and very likely does not provide the full picture, yet it offers plenty of useful material. With the above claim in mind, I want to focus on one famous factoid: The developers’ preference for doing their research in the children’s section of their local library (Meier & Shelley, 2017, 21:00). To be absolutely clear: I think that’s a good thing. In fact, I’d go so far as saying that this points towards a critical understanding of the subject matter which in more recent times has unfortunately been replaced by a pedantry of capital-F-“Facts” or an almost mind-numbing deluge of “authenticity”. Instead of focusing on minute details, the original Civilization‘s developers were apparently aware that generalizations and broad, sweeping concepts are perfectly adequate, if not better, tools to weave a historic narrative from, which can be deployed in an entertaining framework.

What is an issue, however, is that, through no fault of the developers, these children’s books are now over 60 years old, as is the story they tell. While their facts might be in order, the construed narrative will likely be outdated, just as our current narratives will require updating eventually. Yet the 4x-framework breathes these narratives through its logics of competition and conquest. While additions have been made to the genre throughout later titles, the overall mechanical arc has hardly been revised. Take, for example, Civilization VI, which tries to emphasize societal development in a separate “Civics tree”: The result is the well-known linear “research tree” with various social concepts replacing technological achievements. Just as one would before progress from wheel to aircraft carrier (with a few steps in-between), one now also follows a neatly structured progress of society.

Again, all this makes sense mechanically, insofar digital games call for abstractions, both from it’s source object and towards the overall game-play purpose. Mechanically, 4x requires technology to be a steady progress, as without it scientific competition and thus victory wouldn’t be feasible. But we’re in politically loaded terrain insofar as these new additions require abstraction towards a systemic framework, which itself is already an abstraction from specific interpretations of history. But as new designers and developers carry on Civilization’s legacy, either through immediate successors or derivatives, these core-systems remain firmly in place. And with it, ideologically loaded concepts are inherited, entrenched and further crystallized through supposedly neutral mechanics and rules – even if these games don’t carry Civilization’s historical mantle.

Who gets to tell history through games?

Game development matters. It matters, because it shapes the rules of play, the actions they invoke, and what these actions imply. It matters, because designers and developer’s intent to convey meaning through both setting and gameplay, fundamentally shaping the trajectory of their ludic narrative. And it matters because this intent remains, even if game mechanics, rules and loops continue their existence entirely divorced from their inventors. But what of it? Just a bit of academic finger exercise, merrily casting one’s critical gaze from ivory towers? While that’s admittedly fun, I’m mostly concerned about one key question: What if the peg doesn’t fit? If 4x as a mechanical framework is both based on and constructs a specific historical narrative of civilization – how do peoples fit in it who don’t share these understandings of history?

In January 2018, Milton Tootoosis, Headsman of the Cree Nation, raised his concerns about the inclusion of this first nation as a playable faction in Civilization VI. Notably, his criticism was not directed at the immediate, thematic representation. He neither took issue with the optical presentation of Poundmaker nor the look of their unique unit, the Okihtcitaw. Instead, his objections pointed towards 4x’s ludic logics:

“It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land. […] That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view.” 

It’s abundantly clear that Civilization’s entire framework is a specific interpretation and narrative of history, incompatible with the understanding of the Cree people. While it might seem like representation on paper, in truth the Cree Nation was pressed into a mechanical and thematic harness, suffocating all cultural specificity by enforcing a specific historical narrative. At best, its poor representation; at its worst, it forces colonized people to re-enact their history through the colonizer’s logics. While the Cree-example might be a fairly recent one, the problem it points toward is not. Of the first Civilization‘s fifteen playable entities, the majority were Non-European, including Zulus and Aztecs. Which is, without a doubt, a commendable feat for a game made in 1991. And yet their in-game descriptions leave no doubt, on which (and whose) historical narratives they were based on.

Ultimately, unraveling the political logics and unspoken-yet-experienced narratives at the heart of Civilization serves one purpose: underscoring that the design and development of mechanics are not a neutral zone. Consequently, representation can’t exhaust itself in optical changes and a few select non-white pixels. The rules of play need to be taken into account, as well as their design. Likewise, developers need to be aware of their responsibility when creating their ludic narratives. Putting the cruel spotlight of critical discourse (the horror) on Civilization and the 4x-genre is not meant to berate the game or morally brand its developers or its players. Rather, it serves to illuminate the empty space next to it, where other voices should be telling their narratives through their design and development process. It might seem depressing but frankly, it’s just as exciting to think of the myriad of possible games. Hopefully, unraveling the ideological strands burrowed in digital games is one contribution in creating possibility spaces for these future games-that-could-be.

Markus Bassermann has recently graduated from the University of Hamburg, after having studied sociology and history in Hamburg and Oslo. He’s currently exploring the digital aspects of history and remembrance culture, be it in games or other media. To this extent he’s active in the “Working Group Historical Science and Digital Games” as well as the online-magazine “Hamburgische Geschichten“. Besides (post)colonialism, his interests include the history of 19th-20th century labor movements, European Integration and Public History in general.


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Shield, D. (2018, January 4). Poundmaker Cree Nation not happy with chief’s portrayal in Civilization video game. CBC News.

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