Madness and Civilization III

Tags: Beach Invaders, Howard Zinn’s Civilization, Canadian wise men discover the secret of blogging!

Jonathan Dresner is right: in my earlier post about history and play, I was a bit too flip in dismissing as “teacher logic” the instinct to leverage activities like computer games into historical learning. In this post, I’ll reconsider computer games—or, as the kids today call them, “games”—as teaching tools, and offer my take on two questions:

  1. Why computer games are not effective tools for teaching history.
  2. How they could be.

In a couple of recent articles, Niall Ferguson championed the use of certain games to teach history, in particular the strategic history of World War II. Ferguson dismissed Medal of Honor, a popular first-person Nazi-shooter, as little more than “Space Invaders—make that Beach Invaders—with fancy graphics.” But he gave a gold star for realism and sophistication to a simulation game called Making History: The Calm and the Storm. Indeed, Ferguson has now teamed up with Making History’s creators to develop a new game modeling present-day conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here, Ferguson is recapitulating something simulation gamers have done for years. “That game is superficial and simplistic,” they say, “but in this one, all the variables have been accounted for and all the models have been tweaked just right.” Until the inadequacies of that simulation are revealed, and the next advance in realism and sophistication is demanded. The truth is, any modeling of history into computer code is going to be reductive. And the assumptions programmers make in creating a simulation will always determine the lessons players can get out.

This is not, however, my objection to teaching history with computer simulations. My objection—and I speak here as an inveterate gamer, who loves these sorts of games and has logged more hours on them than I care to contemplate—is that while simulation games may appear to be about historical events and forces, repeated play will almost always preclude and replace the sort of historical thought that teachers aim to foster.

How so? Ted Friedman offers a vivid description of playing a complex simulation game: (The next two quotations are from his book, Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture, but Friedman has a similar essay on Civilization you can read online.)

The way computer games teach structures of thought … is by getting you to internalize the logic of the program. To win, you can’t just do whatever you want. You have to figure out what will work within the rules of the game. You must learn to predict the consequences of each move, and anticipate the computer’s response. Eventually, your decisions become intuitive, as smooth and rapid-fire as the computer’s own machinations.

If you’ve poured much time into games like Civilization or the various Sims, I’m sure you’ll recognize the time-dissolving state Friedman is describing:

The pleasure of [these games] is in entering into a computerlike mental state: in responding as automatically as the computer, processing information as effortlessly, replacing sentient cognition with the blank hum of computation. When a game of Civilization really gets rolling, the decisions are effortless, instantaneous, chosen without self-conscious thought. The end result is an almost-meditative state, in which you aren’t just interacting with the computer, but melding with it.

You really do lose yourself in these games—Tim Burke called Civilization IV, the latest entry in the series, “pure silicon crack.” That may not sound like fun, but it is. Back when I had the time to devote to Civilization (I won’t date myself by mentioning which Roman numeral followed the title then) my housemates and I would routinely play for seven or eight hours at a stretch without noticing where the time had gone. Twenty-four hour jags were by no means unheard of.

Ferguson dismisses Civilization as a WW2 sim, as well he might: Civ (as it’s known to its friends) models thousands of years of human history, from the development of agriculture to the colonization of space. It no more models World War II than Monopoly models the running of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. But many others have embraced Civilization as a teaching game. Esther MacCallum-Stewart has some articles and comments here; there’s another bibliography of articles on Civilization here. A number of historians, documentary filmmakers, and educators, including some of my colleagues at the University of Western Ontario, recently collaborated on the History Canada Game, an elaborate mod for Civilization III that recreates the interactions of Europeans and Natives in 16th century New France.

Debates over Civilization’s suitability for the classroom have generally centered on the ideologies it appears to endorse. Simply put, it’s a game about conquering the world. It rewards militarism and imperialist expansion. Science is valuable insofar as it produces new technologies of conquest and destruction; art and culture are worthwhile only as a means of pacifying one’s own population. (It’s interesting in this regard that the History Canada team features several Native Canadian artists and experts. I imagine they went to some lengths to mute the game’s inherent celebration of imperialism.)

But ultimately, I would argue, such debates are beside the point. The more Civilization you play, the less it matters what the game superficially seems to be about. When an expert Civ player is in the meditative zone that Friedman describes, she doesn’t see the Romans as Romans or a cathedral as a cathedral. She sees them as the computer does, as pieces of neutral data in an intricate mathematical machine. Alexander Galloway makes this point in his chewy little book, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture:

The more one begins to think that Civilization is about a certain ideological interpretation of history (neoconservative, reactionary, or what have you) … the more one realizes that it is about the absence of history altogether, or rather, the transcoding of history into specific mathematical models. … So “history” in Civilization is precisely the opposite of history, not because the game fetishizes the imperial perspective, but because the diachronic details of lived life are replaced by the synchronic homogeneity of code pure and simple.

In simpler language, Civilization’s game play erases its own historical content. Learning to play means learning to ignore all the stuff that makes it a game about history and not about, say, fighting aliens. One could easily program a different game with a different set of ideological assumptions—Galloway imagines a “People’s Civilization” game by Howard Zinn—and see precisely the same de-historicizing effect. Mastering the simulation game necessarily involves a journey away from reality towards abstraction, away from history towards code.

(I don’t play them much, but my suspicion is that this also holds true for more action-oriented games. Parents looking over their children’s shoulders may be horrified by the violence in the latest video shooter. I expect the kids playing only really engage that violence the first few times they play. After that, they are interacting more directly with the software, focused on keeping up their half of the feedback loop from eye to hand to controller. The gouts of blood on the screen, important as they may be to marketing the game, are more like abstract signals when the game is played. You are welcome to find this comforting or disturbing as you prefer.)

And this is why, though I’m interested in, and pleased to see, projects like the History Canada Game, I don’t think I would use a packaged commercial game like Civilization or Ferguson’s Making History in the classroom, no matter how many historians were consulted in their construction. I’m not saying it can’t be done—I see that Mark Grimsley has used Civilization in the classroom, and the very end of his post suggests exactly where I’m going with this one. But there is a profound way in which the more you play a game, the less you think about its construction.

There is, however, a way for teachers to reverse the direction of this journey from history to abstraction. It seems to me that an innovative teacher might take everything I’ve just said against games as teaching tools and turn it all into a plus. Have you guessed it? I wouldn’t get my students to play a simulation of history—I would get them to design one.

(Cross-posted to Cliopatria. Comments welcome either place.)


  1. As a longtime Civ player (since Civ I, in fact) I can tell you that at least this player does consider design and limitations while playing. I grant you that the neutral, meditative, computative state is the natural high Civ players get. But there is another dimension: obsessing over the limitations. For instance, with Civ IV, I found myself approving of simulation enhancements but demanding others. In fact, I was excited about the fact that an accessible python interface was available to capitalize on the design elements I thought necessary.

    For instance, I wanted coastlines to change, potentially destroying cities. I wanted to see climactic effects have positive and negative overall effects to a given civilization. But in the end, I did not do so for two reasons. First, I am lazy (or have eighty other more pressing things, however you want to spin it). And second, there is the problem I had when I took a class on cinematography: movies were less fun AS movies. Once I knew the tricks and devices, I could do nothing but analyze structure. It took me years to ‘forget’ what I knew about cinema to learn to appreciate them for the story again.

    All that being said, I would never take a class that involved playing a history simulation. But I would definitely sign up for a class that designed one in a targeted fashion (by which I mean cutting down considerably on the scope presented by the Civs). I just wouldn’t want to play the game I designed.

  2. Ah, gotta get Sloucho to write on this, b/c he’s all about this (he and I wasted many hours supposed-to-be-devoted-to-dissertating to playing Civ) melding with the machine thing. All I’ll report is that Civ teaches neoliberalism, not militarism. There’s a phase in the game where the extent of your trading networks gives you the cash to just buy enemy cities out. Anyway, I was just an amateur compared to him, so I’ll try to convince him to blog at MH or comment here.

  3. Am I the only one who usually found war and conflict to be incredibly wasteful in CivIII? I always did my best to avoid it whenever possible – easy if you’re powerful, of course – but remember once playing to prevent nuclear weapon development by my rivals. I wonder if CivIV is more tolerant or condemnatory of preemptive strikes…

  4. Sorry, Rob, Sloucho loved the essay, but given that he’s trying to rejuvenate an honors program at his university, he has no blogging time this summer.

    I’d just add that Rollen’s comment suggests that the game may even teach an anti-militarism lesson–you learn by playing over and over that war and conflict are “incredibly wasteful” compared to other strategies. (Or maybe it only teaches that already-“powerful” countries are better off focusing on trade than conquest.)

    But of course you’re only learning what the designers designed, so I’d supplement your formalist analysis of game-playing with an ideological one.

    Makes sense that pro-alternate history guys like Ferguson would be into history simulations, too. All those things are more interesting in terms of how they are designed (what the author’s slant is) than any lessons they supposedly teach.

  5. The focus here seems to be on solo play, man vs. Big Blue. But, of course, multi-player play opens another box of things to consider. Within this context, the mechanism of the game is still important, but with a layer of social complexity thrown in that expands the pedagogical limits of the game.

    To whit: the struggles of one Guild Master we both know, who eventually “retired”, not because the game itself, but because of the diplomatic work load. The social life of the game became more vibrant/demanding/interesting than the game mechanism itself.

    I think there’s great potential in using the interface of multiplayer games to explore simulated real-world issues. My personal bent is more towards the modern political simulation, rather than historical. But I think it’s a facet of the discussion still worth considering.


    ps. Interesting article in Wired about the moral impact of games:

  6. Thanks for the comments,all!

    Shane: Thanks for your comment. I must admit I cut myself off after Civ3 and have not tried Civ4. Shane, are you saying that there is in fact an interface that lets you monkey with the algorithms behind the game? I mean, in a more detailed way than just creating your own maps and scenarios? Because that’s what I would see as a really interesting classroom exercise: letting the kids debate what the effect of trade, or luxuries, or various forms of government, might be on a city.

    Rollen, et al: A bunch of people here, at Cliopatria, and in email, took me to task for saying Civ rewards militarism. I guess I can’t speak for Civ4, or for the way you play, but I know I’ve catapulted a pantload of Mongols, and my scores are pretty good. I could, if you prefer, replace the word “militarist” with “expansionist” – surely there’s no way to win at Civ without expanding? But as I tried to say above, Galloway’s argument, which I buy, is that ultimately it doesn’t matter what the ideological underpinnings are – those are just windowdressing that you learn to ignore as you get closer and closer to the code.

    TC: No worries about Sloucho. But you read my mind re: alternate reality gaming. Thanks for that link, and look for that in a future post down the road.

    Sean: Thanks for the Wired link, and very good point about the social games. That changes everything in terms of the argument I/Galloway/Friedman make above. (Which Guild Master are we talking about? I think I know, but maybe I know too many WoW players, or too many Seans…)

  7. CIV isn’t historical? So does this mean that Sid Meier’s Pirates! (Live the Life) is not an accurate reflection of nautical tomfoolery in the 17th century?


    🙂 m.

    P.S. I’ve been playing CIV since the original, and it has eaten at least one novel that I might have otherwise written with the time.

    Great post!

  8. Jere: Agreed! That’s going to be a future post. Do you know of any ARGs that have been heavily historical (either real or pseudo history)?

  9. Very, very well-put and argued. Computer games are indeed ultimately about learning to anticipate the programming, not about learning history. And yes, I do say that as a long-time Civ addict (I still remember installing it from floppies all those years ago), although I have so far resisted the siren song of the latest version (I don’t know how much longer that will last, though!). I absolutely love your idea of having students design rather than play such a game as a learning method, and look forward to reading more.

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