At this point, it’s not hard to understand the colonial viewpoint fundamental to the ideology of the Civilization series. There have been plenty of articles dissecting such things as the tech tree, the love of explosive growth and war, the great man theory embedded in the game, and the colonial philosophies that each of these things mirror. I’ve even wrote a few of them myself while working on my post-colonial 4X game, Nikhil Murthy’s Syphilisation. I’ve never seen an analysis of what it does from the opposite side though and I was curious enough to spend some time thinking it out. Given the nature of the game, it’s much trickier than just pointing out the colonial components, but it’s definitely a fun problem to work out.
An obvious starting point for discussion is that Civilization has points that refute the idea of Western supremacy. Every civilization starts out fairly close to equal. There are differences between them, but they are in the details, and their effects have minimal impact on how the game plays out.
In practice though, this is less post-colonial and more colorblind: it’s a very safe position to take, but one that doesn’t do anything to counter colonial ideology. Indeed, through its reinforcement of neoliberalism, it subtly reinforces colonial arguments as well. Essentially, the game says that had your people simply built a few more campuses in the first 100 turns, it would have been them at the forefront of the world now. If your view of the past is that it existed to bring us to the present, then you have no choice but to defend the bent of the past and the colonialism that came with it.
Similarly, there’s a complete elision of internal racial and religious dynamics even when another civilization is annexed. Differences between people are completely abstracted away. Colorblindness works well from the perspective of designing and building a game and there are definitely worse statements that a game could make. However, it’s not actually a post-colonial statement, much though it may appear similar at first glance.
Great People and Wonders
When I started writing this post, I thought that this section would end up being very strongly post-colonial. It means a lot to me when I see Tagore as a Great Writer in the Atomic Age, and even seeing someone like Valmiki is important, as are seeing wonders from underappreciated areas. The game felt to me as though it was doing the work to give Great People from outside the typical Western regions the recognition that they normally don’t get. Pushing back against the narrative of the West as the only true source of culture and civilization is always an important post-colonial statement.
Unfortunately, when I went into the weeds of the statement, I ended up finding that it didn’t quite say what I expected it to. When you break down Great Writers by region and era, you get the following:
The table starts out mixed with a clear slant towards non-Western writers, but then very dramatically skews Western as soon as we enter the Renaissance. Out of the 18 most recent writers, only one does not come from the West. The game chooses not to say that all great writing comes solely from the West. Instead, it chooses to say that all modern great writing comes from the West, a more insidious statement than the first, but still not post-colonial.
Indeed, this tracks with one of the classic colonial narratives: that of non-Western countries that possessed greatness in ancient times, but as the West moved to modernity, the East stayed mystical and unchanging. Of even more concern, there is not a single African Great Writer and the only South American one is in the DLC.
You then see the same dynamic for engineers, for merchants, for wonders and for leaders. It’s worse still for musicians who are all European save for one token in each era. Artists are more of a mix, which is nice to see. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I do find out about people whom I had never heard of before through games like Civ and it is good to see a more varied bunch. Similarly, it’s good to find a mix for Great Prophets. It’s cool to see Madhavacharya get represented and I didn’t know about Haji Huud before playing this game. Again though, I would like to see more from Africa and the Americas.
Interestingly, it’s in Great Generals that you see the greatest mix. It is unsurprising though that while modern culture is seen as Western, savagery gets to be global.
Faith in Civ 6 feels loosely bolted on. It doesn’t feel like it is connected to the core of the game meaningfully and with one really good shake, you should be able to dislodge it completely. It’s not surprising that Civ struggles with religion. The game is about concrete numbers and faith should not be. It is a checklist feature, and it feels clear that they didn’t know what to do with the feature and so just made it into gold.
Nevertheless, by its very nature, faith cannot help but have some post-colonialism. What does it mean when you purchase a temple through faith in the game? Did the temple come up through a miracle? Is it the community coming together to express devotion?
Similarly, the spontaneous generation of missionaries through faith is interesting. Is it just the desire of a people to spread a belief that they believe in. It’s a little strange that the player chooses how the faith is expressed, but remember that in these games, you do not play a leader, but the state itself. There are no layers between you and the actions of the state. L’etat, c’est toi.
Incidentally, I love the religious conflict in the game. It plays very badly, but it always makes me think of Shankaracharya going up and down India and getting into debates. Also, even more amusingly, I love how you buy rock bands through faith. Does Civ exist in an alternative universe where all music is Christian Rock? Is everyone really into P.O.D.? I cannot know, but I choose to believe.
Fundamentally, of course, this representation is broken. If you represent faith as just a number that goes up, as an equation as simple as more temples = more faith, then you’re making a very specific statement about how religions work. Similarly, when you make converting the entire world to your faith a win condition, that’s a lens on religion that strips everything but shallow political implications from it.
The game treats the church as an extension of the state, neither separate nor equal. This is natural for a game that positions the player as the state, but nevertheless sees religion as a Clash of Civilizations and so cannot help but take on the baggage associated with that.
The Poetics of Civilization
I don’t really think that most players actually engage with Civilization on a political axis, and I don’t really think that they are expected to either. The fantasy of running an empire is, of course, baked deeply into the entire game, but the game doesn’t really want players to engage or interact with the game on any political axis. Essentially, the game does not want to challenge players politically and so is designed to align with the existing political beliefs of the players. It thus derives its politics from the children’s section of the bookstore.
It caters to the player’s desires to have a large and powerful empire, to advance through tech trees and to make the numbers go up. All of these have obvious political implications when put in the context of Civilization, but for most of the players, I doubt that is even a significant part of the experience of playing Civilization.
Until we get players that want to engage with the politics of a game, all that we can expect is for bigger games like Civilization to be anodyne in its statements. Building this consciousness amongst players is a very non-trivial task, but until its accomplished, scrabblings like this are all that we can hope for when searching for post-colonialism.
Nikhil Murthy is an experimental video game developer currently working on the post-colonial 4X game Nikhil Murthy’s Syphilisation.