Sid Meier’s Clash of Civilizations

10 July 2023, 0900 EDT

Just like any other medium, video games can serve pedagogical purposes. Putt-Putt and Carmen Sandiego taught me some very basic world history and geography, and I spent a lot of time on Math Blaster in my childhood computer classes.

Whether it’s learning the location of Kathmandu or practicing basic math, video games can clearly communicate facts and sharpen real-world skills. Games can also offer arguments about how the real world works even if those will be shaped by technological, commercial, and political constraints.

That video games can teach us things is not a new argument—this idea is central to the long-running “serious games” movement, and the U.S. military has long used games for various purposes. Sometimes, however, players learn lessons the game designers never meant to communicate.

Video games are, to borrow Jesper Juul’s term, half-real: “real in that they consist of real rules with which players actually interact, and in that winning or losing a game is a real event. However, when winning a game by slaying a dragon, the dragon is not a real dragon but a fictional one. To play a video game is therefore to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world, and a video game is a set of rules as well as a fictional world.”

To treat the fictional worlds of video games as if they can provide dispositive evidence on how the real world works would be a mistake, yet some players seem to do exactly that.

Sid Meier’s Civilization (Civ) series, for example, gives players the chance to guide a highly stylized “civilization” through history and to win through military conquest, religious or cultural influence, diplomatic feats, scientific advances, or some combination thereof. Civ is clearly not and was never meant to be a perfect representation of world history.

A recent Twitter kerfuffle, however, started with one user linking historical strategy games such as Civ to the rise of the “new right”: “Sid Meier and Creative Assembly raised a generation of boys the west abandoned… And they raised them to conquer.”

As others pointed out, this ignores the presence of multiple win conditions and Sid Meier’s consistent statements to the effect that game design should favor fun over realism. But even poor interpretations of games (or academic work) can affect real-world behavior.

One might thus read Civ as containing content open to different interpretations regardless of whether any particular argument or message was intentionally crafted by Sid Meier and others on the creative team.

In particular, Civ’s representations of discretecivilizations,” all of which must draw on built-in strengths and weaknesses to expand their dominion while progressing in an upward, linear trajectory through world history, might naturalize those seemingly real-world dynamics to players.

This appears to be the process at work in the aforementioned Twitter kerfuffle. Civ was taken as truth about how the world really works, perhaps because the player was predisposed to thinking of the world as defined by the sort of cultural conflicts predicted in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (a book that provoked much deserved critique).

Similarly, I considered in my last post whether the popularity of Japanese video games provides Japan with soft power, and there Civ provided some evidence for the proposition. After all, one commenter noted, soft power “is also a concept that itself has been explored in games before, notably the Civilization series (‘soft power’ is actually a win condition in that series).”

In short, video games like Civ can teach us some things, but players can take different lessons from the same game. In asking whether those perceived lessons affect political behavior, political scientists would have much work from other fields on which to build.