While the expansionist philosophy's importance to both Civ and America's character shouldn't be underestimated, its not the only theme represented in the series.
For perhaps Civ's biggest contribution to gaming history, and biggest innovation was..... innovation.
Resembling a family tree of science, the Tech Tree concept helped to presented a world of dynamic change, driven by scientific progress and above all player choice.
Although the Tech tree concept existed before its creator Sid Meier adopted it there's a strong argument that Civ was responsible for popularising the mechanic. Years later after the series had become hugely successful Meier would famously say that any game should be
'A series of meaningful choices'
A quote which perfectly sums up the Tech Tree's appeal. You were constantly moving forward dramatically changing the balance of the world with your every choice.
Science is the lens through which all history is viewed in Civ. Human ingenuity channelled through science is seen as transcendent force advancing man ever forward, in the narrative of human history what once was impossible always (one day)becomes the possible. These themes of choice, the transcendental ability of science, and the power of rational thought can be traced back to the philosophies of the Enlightenment movement. These principals were the foundation of the world view of some of the most prominent of America’s founding fathers and would help shape their actions and choice in the time surrounding that great nation's birth. In particular Benjamin Franklin & Thomas Jefferson espoused it's ideas, and their influence helped weave those values into both the declaration of independence and the American constitution.
So if the players progress Tech Tree is a journey of enlightenment, where does it the end? To put it simply, the stars are your destination.
The existence of a Science victory was the logical conclusion to a game which placed such emphasis on technological advancement. The form that victory took with humanity leaving the earth and travelling to Alpha Centuri, presents a image of a civilisation who by very literally leaving 'the cradle of earth' was demonstrating its maturity. It is a representation of the moment of humanity's enlightenment, when it transcended the politics, passions, and petty concerns of Earth and moved beyond.
The concept of space exploration as a end point to history has another more emotional resonance with modern western culture, and in particular with the one man who to many Americans represented for a short time all that what was best about their country. John F Kennedy.
“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish”
Both within and beyond America many see the Kennedy era as the height of American exceptionalism, the time where the City on the Hill shone the brightest. A time before the Vietnam war or Watergate forever stained the promise of a great nation.
In some ways the narrative of Kennedy the transcendent leader ends in 1969, 6 years after his early death and began in 1957 4 years before he took office. Sputnik rocked the assumption of post WWII American ascendancy. 1961 saw Yuri Gagarin and Russia’s cosmonaut program increase Russia’s lead in the space race.
For the first time in it's history, America's exceptional nature was challenged. How if Manifest Destiny was true how could the USSR be first into space? On May 25, 1961, Kennedy responded. His famous “We choose the Moon” speech which ultimately would lead to the success of the Apollo missions and marked the beginning of his growth into the role of President.
The Tech Tree and the space victory in Civ both perfectly encapsulate the enlightenment philosophy, and it's promise that man was master of his own fate. These powerful themes are combined with a nostalgic reference to 'the one small step for man' which ultimately bookended the era Kennedy began to create a model of progress in Civ that had a profound resonance with America.
However Kennedy also recognise that Enlightenment and Manifest Destiny were in conflict, seemingly acknowledging as much in a 1963 speech to the United Nations.
"Space offers no problems of sovereignty…Why, therefore, should man's first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?"
For someone like Kennedy it was the greatest challenges which would bring out the best in mankind. But others were not as optimistic.
This conflict of ideas would be a theme which was revisited in more detail by Civ's creators in 1999 with the game Sid Meier's Alpha Centuri, the second independent iteration on the Civ formula. In this game this conflict of ideas became both more overt and more nuanced. Each faction representing a philosophical opinion, each fanatically certain in their own beliefs. This war amongst the stars was a less optimistic counterpoint to the idea of enlightenment, a representation of the possibility of the idea that even if we escape our planet we can't escape our nature.
Ultimately for me Civ is a representation of a tussle for a nations soul, between an idea that it was America's unique fate to rule the world, and the contrasting argument that it was America’s ability to inspire the world that made it unique.
Those themes of opportunity, choice, progress, and adaptation, all framed by a faith in humanity’s ability to transcend its limitations would remain constant at the heart of Civ for almost 20 years.