Oh the Humanity – Procedural Rhetoric and Social Commentary in Civilization V

Any of my readers who identify as gamers are most definitely familiar with Sid Meier’s Civilization V (Civ V), the 2010 strategy title from Firaxis Games. The object of the game is simple; develop an advanced civilization through turn-based procedures until you conquer rival nations through military, cultural, religious, scientific, or diplomatic supremacy. A “2050” mechanic is also included; if no other victories are achieved by the year 2050, the player with the highest “victory” score is the winner. What gamers may not actively observe, however, is the political rhetoric generated by the procedural and decision-based processes within the game, and how this rhetoric, by effect, delivers a message about the complexities and fragility of international politics.

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At first glance, the interface of the game is complicated and unnerving, but as players relax into the mechanics of gameplay, the UI begins to make more sense. Essentially, Civ V is a random, digital, procedurally generated board game. Players can engage in city settling and building within the confines of their empire and expand their borders by conquering or claiming spaces (tiles). One of the most comical, yet practical, elements of Civ V is the unit display. Rather than vast armies, groups of worker units, or brigades of vehicles, units are represented by large, limited models that appear, against the backdrop of the board, to be giants. The purpose of this mechanic is representative; they certainly couldn’t include massive roaming hoards and armies in the system, as the scale and breadth of the game board wouldn’t allow for it. Civ V is massive in scale for a reason.

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One significant element Civ V deals with is Time. Players settle their first city in what we consider ‘Ancient Times’. As the game progresses, the clock begins to count down towards modern day. Various ‘eras’ are reached as Civilizations research new technologies, such as Theology, which unlocks the Medieval age. Given the exponential expansion of human development in the last 150 years, Civ V slows down the clock as it nears the industrial era. Eventually, when the 2000s are reached, players have access to modern military units, advanced technological strengths, and sophisticated diplomatic options.

Julius Caesar - One of the many leaders you can play as

Playable characters have a huge role in defining one’s experience with Civ V, as each possess their own unique skills and abilities. Players can select from a vast range of world leaders, both contemporary and ancient, to play as. Anyone from George Washington (American Civilization) to Genghis Khan (Mongolian Civilization) are playable. The developers sought to make the roles and relationships of each leader varied and specific; Gandhi gets along with Kamehameha better than Queen Elizabeth.

Apart from the infinite possibilities available in this game, what makes it significant outside of the gaming world? Put simply, it offers a concise, accurate, microcosmic examination of humanity and how our history shapes our culture, our culture shapes our language, our language shapes our military, our military shapes our politics, etc. It teaches players that our ACTUAL civilizations, our homes, exist due to decisions made in our past. Nations feud with other nations for reasons that stem back to the founding of their societies, and gamers are able to correlate the conflicts that arise in the game with actual world events. A player may decide to open up mutually beneficial trade routes with a militarily endowed nation to ensure their protection in the inevitable war that will arise in several turns. Perceptive gamers may even look at real events for strategies to use in the game. I know I certainly do. If America was able to strengthen their economy by launching an invasion against an oil-rich nation, why can’t I, as Maria Theresa of Austria, invade Harald Bluetooth of Denmark to fund my space program. If international politics is truly a ‘game’, as world leaders like to label it, then Civilization V is the closest we can get to playing it.

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