Friday, 6 July 2012

Life, Liberty, and Civilization: Part 2

Finding the real meaning of any work of art is a notoriously difficult thing, and it certainly not easy with a game like Civilization which isn't overt about it's messages instead it relies upon allowing its mechanics to resonate with its players and allow its meaning as Thomas Jefferson might have put it 225 years earlier 'self evident'. The concept of self-evident truth is universal, but in all its forms & variations it remains incredibly elusive next to impossible to reproduce, rationally de-construct or describe, but its something that games have always been very good at.

This is Civ's implicit promise to the gamer, 'play me' it says 'and it will all become clear' 'this is how the world works' 'this is how a civilisation must be'. A player is expected to gradually come to see this truth, and that anyone who does not understand and accept it is fated to fail, for their civilisation will not 'stand the test of time'. Its a message that is driven home every step of the way as a player advances into the future.

All men are created equal 

As with any journey it's not just how you get there but when you begin, and where you are going which matters. Civ choose to show the beginnings of history as a near blank slate. You are placed on the map with one settler, and all of human history ahead of you. Nothing more, nothing less. This allows a very important compact between player and game to be formed. To make implicit the idea that everything that happens next was because of your work, and your choices.

Surrounded by dark expanses of land on all sides your first settler is alone in the world, slowly but surely exploring, searching for a place to call home. But even after your first city is founded and its ramshackle homes complete, expansion remains imperative. The dark of the unexplored world is itself is the greatest threat to a young empire in a game of Civ, and city left undefended by a careless ruler would soon find itself the victim of barbarian raids.

These barbarians build no cities of their own, are incapable of technological advance, and have no concept of negotiations. It is almost as if the game doesn't see them as human at all, they are just part of the environment, a force of nature. Their only purpose is to emerge from the wilderness to loot and burn, they are truly 'savages'.

By now some may notice a strange familiarity to all this. That this tale of a group of settlers pushing into dark depths of a unknown continent, all the while harassed by savages. Now lets take a moment to have a closer look at how Civ chose to depict those settlers.

A canvas backed wagon.

It's undoubtedly a iconic image, and one which will forever be associated with one of the most enduring and powerful of all America's mythologies, Manifest Destiny. Its' story of a people, unique in the world in their virtue, favoured by God, and whose fate is to remake the continent in their image remains a intoxicating and powerful concept. One which has helped define the modern perception of the great American pioneer push west across the continent, and one that Civ borrowswholesale.

Later versions of Civ would replace the wagon with a tribesman, but although that overt icon of the western pioneers was gone the, heart of the early game remained rooted in the same concepts. The urge to repaint the map your colour is a integral part of Civ, and indeed its fundamental assumption about the way early civilization functions is remarkably similar to many of the the concepts championed by Manifest Destiny. In 1993 critic Alan Emrich would coin a term which is today used to describe Civ & it's many descendants, listing what he saw as the player's underlying motives. 4x

explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate

In Civ while all nations are equal their fates determined only by their own actions, those who are nation-less are not considered people at all and their fate is not a pleasant one.

In Part 3: Liberty and Enlightenment

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