Procedural History

Mongols at War with the Japanese and Greeks in Civilization II

I’ve always found history fascinating.  It ranks among my nerdy interests somewhere above heraldry and below cartography (I was obsessed with maps as a child).  How could you possibly improve upon my love of history?  How about throwing in a dose of, oh, I don’t know…games?  Not surprisingly, then, I think Play the Past is one of the most exciting things to grace the Interwebs since Al Gore first gave them life.  Also, they recently posted an article by Emily Bembeneck about one of my favorite games of my youth, Civilization.

Of course, her article deals with the most recent installment of the franchise, which I have yet to play.  However, Civilization II is a game near to my heart.  It was one of the first games that kept me up all night and certainly the first one that did the same for my younger sister.  I still remember carefully following tiny archipelagos with my triremes as her single elephant rampaged across the continent, toppling the entire Spanish empire…

But I digress.

The central idea of this article is the way in which history is used in the game.  Is it essential to the gameplay, or is it simply fluff?  Would taking out the history out of Civ be like removing the jumping from Mario, or would it be more akin to taking the theme out of one of the hundreds of themed Monopoly games?

This question isn’t a new one, and it’s not unique to Civ.  Indeed, this question goes back to the ludology vs narratology debates that permeated the early days of videogame studies.  Many of the “Hard Core” scholars argued that the only thing worth studying in games was gameplay.  Story, music, graphics, sound…all of it was merely a veneer that designers placed on top of the “real” game.  While this answer certainly lies at the extreme end of the spectrum, one can’t deny that players and even designers sometimes think this way.  That’s how we get things like Spongebob Squarepants Monopoly…

But what about Civ?  Do we actually learn any history from it?  Well, certainly not anything that’s going to show up on a test.  There is, however, something very significant that Civilization teaches us about history, and it’s precisely the thing we don’t learn in textbooks.

An Engineer builds farmland near the city of Xanadu

In his article, Procedural Literacy, Ian Bogost examines the way Civilization portrays history.  It doesn’t teach us what things happened, it teaches us why things happen.  It doesn’t focus on any particular historical events, but it does focus on the underlying systems that create these events.  It suggests a way of looking at history much like Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel.  In this view, underlying systems such as geography, plant life and climate are the forces that drive historical events, not generals, diplomats or inventors…the kinds of people you read about in textbooks.

Allow me to illustrate with some historical lessons I’ve learned over the years.

First, starting on an island is hard.  Sure, you can shoot for developing triremes early on, but you still find yourself with a considerable setback while other nations send horses and settlers across the wilderness.  By the time you meet your nearest neighbors, it’s a good bet that they’ll outnumber you considerably.

A Tiny Viking Village in a Swamp

Starting in a swamp isn’t to hot, either.  Swamps aren’t all bad, but they won’t grow your population like nice fertile plains.  Building roads and irrigation also takes you considerably longer than the more geographically blessed.

Can you overcome these obstacles?  Of course.  I’ve managed to build successful cultures in the middle of the desert and on the edges of the arctic tundra.  But the forces that shape the game are still the same.

How does this affect my view of history?  Rather than trying to discover how Scipio outwitted Hannibal in the Battle of Zama, I might try to see if the natural resources available to the Romans gave them an advantage throughout the war.  Would I find something that other historians missed?  Who knows.  One thing I don’t doubt is that if more budding young historians looked at the world this way, they would certainly find plenty of new ideas.

Fortunately, we already have an excellent tool for teaching them.

I like what Bembeneck says is Civ’s greatest strength, the ability to take history and turn it into play pieces.  For me, however, the reason that this is so important isn’t just because we can learn the play pieces, but because it allows us to see the rules that make the pieces move.

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