An Analysis of Civilization 5's Values as Demonstrated via its Ludic Language

An Analysis of Civilization's Values as Demonstrated via its Systems

I, like many people my age, enjoy video games. I also, like many people my age, enjoy thinking about things. But oddly enough I seem to hold different opinions about video games than many people my age. I view video games as sets of systems that encode values, typically the values of the culture in which they were created, and therefore as inherently political works of art. Many people, especially on Reddit and Twitter, do not share my opinion and view people who think about games like I do as damaging to the genre. Many people, when asked to think about the political implications of the games they consume, tend to react with "keep your politics out of my video games," a claim which presupposes the political neutrality of games. I think this reaction is natural, politics can feel like water to a fish sometimes, so natural that we barely notice it. But in this blog post I want to look at the water and see what values it encodes.

I intend to break down the political assumptions found within one of my favorite games, Civilization 5. Note that for the purposes of this post I presuppose basic familiarity with Civ 5's mechanics, like city building, unit management, and so on. So, how will I be going about examining Civilization 5's politics?

How to Examine a Game's Politics

So, if the politics of a game are oftentimes less than accessible, how exactly should one go about examining a game's politics? How do we make sure we're not missing anything or reading into something that's not really there?

Well, I claim that it's actually far easier to examine a given game's politics than it is to examine a movie's politics. Movies can often be ambiguous as to exactly what kind of behavior/political worldview they are encouraging. Legions of dude-bros think that Tyler Durden is someone they should emulate, despite the fact that Fight Club fairly explicitly paints him as a Holden Caufield-esque character that the viewer should hold in contempt (or at least regard with suspicion). And yet the legions of dude-bros still love him. Why? Because film can be ambiguous, sometimes frustratingly so. This ambiguity is because films, usually, don't explicitly tell the viewer who they should be identifying or empathizing with. Thus, determining a film's political values is sometimes hard since there's little explicit textual guidance

So why are games easier to parse than movies? I claim it is because games are different from any other form of media: they have explicit win and loss states that are arrived at through systems interactions. I claim that we can divide games into three distinct parts that we can use to interpret their politics:
  1. Win states
  2. Lose states
  3. Systems used to arrive at either 1 or 2
Take the following toy example: The Sims. The Sims has several implied win states which include: reaching the end of a particular career path, having the best (most expensive) house, having the best car, and having kids. The way you arrive at these win states is by going to work, finding a spouse, and making as much money as possible. Thus, The Sims fairly clearly values accruing wealth through the sale of ones labor and the use of that wealth to buy personal goods. As a contrast, imagine another hypothetical game called The Sim-truists.

The Sim-truists has the same mechanics as The Sims with a few minor tweaks. In The Sim-truists, your character can participate in the workforce, but doing so will cause them to become alienated and sad. You can use your money to purchase your sim entertainment and toys which will bring them bursts of momentary joy, but which only serve to depress them further in the long run. Instead, your sim becomes happier when they work less and participate in their community, work in their garden, and spend time with their families and friends.

The Sims clearly values conspicuous consumption and wealth accumulation for personal use in a way that The Sim-truists does not. Even though both games share the same mechanics (a simulated person who works, sleeps, socializes, etc...) through their win states they encode different values into each game. This toy example should illustrate to the reader that games can and do endorse and condemn behaviors through their win states. We will call this win state based language "ludic language."

 Win States and Ludic Contextualization

Okay so here's what we have thus far: Games have win states. People desire win states, thus anything that pushes them towards said win state is good (like consumption and wealth in the Sims) while anything that moves them away from the win state is bad (like dying in a shooter.) This is actually great game design when you're making stuff for children or families. After all, if a Mario game ended with an introspective monologue in which Mario pondered if he'd become the real monster after all, it would probably be a pretty bad Mario game (even though I'd still play it.)

But games are maturing and tackling heavier themes nowadays, and applying the ludic language of win/loss states to mature, gray concepts can produce some... less than desirable results. Take a made up game called Dall of Cudy so that activision doesn't sue me for slander . Dall of Cudy is a mature shooter for mature people and thus uses an actual real life faction, say an Islamic militant group, as an adversary. 

So in any arbitrary level of Dall of Cudy there's the end of the level (the win state) and a bunch of enemy militants. As established prior, any action that pushes the player towards the win state is seen as good. Therefore the game is tacitly claiming that shooting the enemy militants is unambiguously good because it gets you closer to your goal. 

By pairing traditional win state based gameplay with realistic asethetics, games can often create binary morality in which the actions of one side (the player's) are seen as unambiguously good. This is especially disconcerting in the context of military games (like Dall of Cudy) as this binary morality can be read as aggrandizing one side (usually the United States and/or NATO allies) while villainizing the other (usually, though not always, brown people and/or eastern europeans.) 

By unthinkingly applying ludic language to realistic aesthetics, these games boil complex geopolitical scenarios down to "the side the player is on is good" and promote a nationalistic worldview through their gameplay. From these examples we can see that slapping the language of games on to real world scenarios can produce some disconcerting results. So how might one fix that?

Games can sometimes frame this ludic language in a way that suggests that your actions are either morally ambiguous or wrong (see Spec Ops: The Line or Far Cry 2 for two excellent examples) but I would argue that in doing so they actually are merely toying with player expectations and turning what the player thought would be a win state into an implicit lose state.

So in sum, games have win states that frame certain actions as good, and certain other actions as bad. Unless the game attempts to frame these actions in a questionable light (see the above examples) games thus tend to endorse black and white worldviews in which actions that benefit the player are unambiguously good. This can produce odd, often disconcerting results when win state gameplay is paired with realistic aesthetics without some kind of framing device.

So, what does this have to do with Civilization 5?

A Look at Civilization 5's Politics

So now that we have our toolbox, let's apply it to Civ 5. Well first we know that some games, like Spec Ops: The Line, pull the rug out from players and frame their explicit win states as implicit loss states. Does Civ 5 do this? Clearly not, the game does not intend any of its mechanics to act as subversive or meta textual deconstructions of ludic language. Therefore we can safely assume that Civ 5's rhetorical position is that win states are good, while lose states are bad. So what are Civ 5's win states?

Civ 5 has 4 distinct win states (technically 5, but I'm not counting score because it's what happens when time runs out) which are as follows:
  1. Domination:  The domination victory is militarily focused, and requires that the player take control of all other civilization's capitals
  2. Science: The science victory requires the player to research most of the tech tree before the other players and launch a space ship
  3. Cultural: The cultural victory requires the player to achieve the "influential" rank of cultural influence with all other civilizations through tourism
  4. Diplomatic: The diplomatic victory requires the player to get elected world leader by the World Congress
So what do all 4 of these victories have in common? They all involve some kind of dominance over other nations or the natural world. They involve being first, being the best, being the number one state in a particular category. More importantly, these categories are all external and involve comparisons to other nations, and thus use notions of comparative progress, not internal progress.

There is no victory for "best protector of civil rights" or "first to eradicate poverty" because those aren't external goals that involve demonstrating your nation's worth or strength to the rest of the world. Even the cultural victory has nothing to do with raising your population's literacy or ensuring mass familiarity with great works through education. Instead it has to do with who can get the most people to want to see their country. Culture in this instance means mass consumption and disseminating ones culture as widely as possible, not preserving or celebrating great works. It is a celebration of consumer culture over every other kind of culture.

These dominance based goals are all deeply American and imperialistic in nature. They value dominance over cooperation (even diplomacy involves being elected world leader, not ensuring world peace or some other globally beneficial goal) and the power of the nation state above all else. Through the ludic language of Civ 5, we can see that Civ 5 values an unhappy, starving Civilization that can win a war against the rest of the world over a peaceful, small civilization with high literacy rates but middling influence over the rest of the world.

Civilization purports to be the story of humanity throughout the ages, of humans advancing from humble stone masons to master engineers and philosophers. But instead of claiming that the optimal state of humanity is harmony, or income equality, or equal opportunity, or education, Civ 5 claims that the end goal of humanity should be the dominance and submission of other humans. Civ 5 is not an ode to humanity, but is rather an ode to the imperial nation state.

I love Civ 5, but through its mechanics it reinforces a capitalist, imperialist worldview. Which would be completely fine if it were up front about it. But the fact that Civ 5 claims to be the story of not just domineering western white men, but of all of humanity, indicates a deep flaw in its design. Civ 5 cannot comprehend a world in which a group of people does not seek to dominate, to oppress, to eradicate the Other. And until it does offer additional win states that more in line with global, non oppressive, cosmopolitan values, it never will.

I can't help but hope that Civ 7 has a more open, non-eurocentric worldview, but I'm not holding my breath.


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