On the surface, the Civilization series is History Lite™, a shallow but entertaining look at the mechanisms that have shaped social evolution over the past several millennia. Digging deeper, it’s definitely not the game to play if you have an overdeveloped conscious. It presents itself as a game about building a civilization but really, it’s about war; pacifists looking for a city building sim will find no victory here. There are few ways to play nice and still win the game. Even Science and Culture based approaches demand the backing of a large army. Whatever my ideals about politics and government in real life, they’re nowhere to be found when I’m playing Civilization VI.
Of course, I don’t mean this too seriously; like almost all videogame players, I have strong mental barriers preventing me from acting on any of these impulses in reality. I’m not about to start a religious cult or land war, at least, not ones inspired by the events of Civilization VI. But even in a virtual scenario sometimes you can see the corrupting effects of power and what a person might be willing to do to get it. Of all the insight Civilization offers, that might be the most value lesson. With that in mind here are five ways Civilization VI makes me an awful person.
As a preacher’s daughter who grew up during the height of Jesus Freak hysteria in the 90s, I really should know better than to weaponize religion. I’ve been fostering a heavy resentment toward flashy megachurches and rich celebrity pastors (both antithetical to core Christian beliefs) since I was 11 years old. And yet, pop me into a game of Civilization VI and not only do I start proselytizing, I actually design the system to make me money, earning Gold every turn for each Follower in my established religion. I think nothing of the potential significance to my culture or how it might make my Citizens happier or more healthy. I use it to generate cash, hoarding my gold to buy military units in case of sudden war. I also stock up on any boosts to Production, putting the fervor of my flock literally to work.
Even worse, I become territorial and intolerant, lashing out at other leaders for sending missionaries to my cities, refusing to allow even a single citizen convert to another faith, lest I lose out on money or labor.
The problem is inherent in the mechanics themselves; religion in Civilization is only contextualized as a system that can result in strategic benefits to the player. The opportunity to attribute any deeper meaning is completely absent. Nonetheless, it was my decision to factor religion into that strategy in the first place, incentive or no. I should “just say no”, to drugs. In this case, the opiate of the masses.
In both Civilization V and VI, players are able to accumulate a vast knowledge of science and culture that eventually allows them to produce Archaeologists, a unit that can scour the land for artifacts left behind after early-game battles, excavating them to bring back to your cities in exchange for a boost in Tourism.
In Civilization V, if an Archaeologist unit excavated an item on land owned by another civilization, the leader of that civ would denounce the player, scolding them for stealing an artifact that rightly belongs to their culture. I always took the scolding pretty well, even appreciating that the writers would have the courage to take a stand on cultural theft. But did I listen? Absolutely not. I had achievements to earn and tourists to lure.
In the many hours I’ve played of Civilization VI I haven’t encountered that warning yet. Offsite artifacts that originate from other civilizations don’t seem to inspire the same anger from other leaders, and I haven’t had the balls yet to go excavating on other people’s property. So maybe I did learn my lesson. But still, I’ve been doing it for the tourists. The tourists. I should be ashamed.
At the risk of confirming a stereotype, I start some really bullshit wars in Civilization VI. To be fair, some of the pettiness is retaliatory. Despite the series’ improvements to the diplomacy system, I still get attacked at random by world leaders who can’t even figure out why they’re really mad at me. In that kind of climate, you may as well start a fight based on bratty spats and garbage. In my latest file, I have a long standing grudge against Catherine of France because I don’t like her snooty tone. I consistently make Frederick of Germany my sworn enemy because I don’t like the modeling of his nose. I almost never start wars based on territory or resources— “I’ll just go get my own!” I always say. But if that character art representing the idea of a long-dead world leader is so much as even illustrated to look at me wrong, I will kill them. To death.
I never quite realized the effect that growing up with America’s unique blend of patriotic capitalism had on my priorities until I started playing the Civilization series. It wasn’t until the first expansion for Civ V, which added trade to the game, that the balanced web of interconnected core systems made sense to me, and it was largely because it used an incentive I could finally understand: currency. Lots of unexpected things can happen in Civilization, but with a stockpile of Gold, you can get through almost anything. This especially applies to wars, many of which I got the upper hand in simply because I had the money lying around to buy lots of military units. Succeeding on the machinations of big-spending, warmongering man-chimps? Yup that sounds familiar. Unfortunately it’s what makes the most sense to me. That, and my colonialist plundering of cultural artifacts to boost my tourism industry, makes me one ugly American.
It’s possible, in a way, that Civilization actually encourages the player to view different political systems in terms of their overall benefit to society, rather than the corruption and poisoned history that exists surrounding them in real life. That being said, it’s hard to shake the stigma even in a context that does not offer one. Communism, monarchy, fascism: in American history, they’re the oppressive bogeymen used to justify our country’s policing of democracy around the world. Even as I’m aware of how my views on these systems have been shaped by those in power who sought to dismantle and vilify them, I still feel I’m violating some deep inner taboo.
In my last file I chose fascism, which grants more military based policies than other forms of government. Did I actually want to become a fascist? No, but it was the only advanced government available, and I became dependent on its benefits before I could form an exit strategy that wouldn’t cause my civilization’s economy to collapse. It was either that or remain in the dark ages while everyone around me advanced and I did what I felt I had to do. Do the ends justify the means? I won the game. But I definitely did not do so in a way that reflects my own personal values.
At any rate, I’m not actually too worried about my Civilization playing style. If given the chance in real life, I know I would make the right decisions. But I do think in the future I’ll challenge myself to win the game on my own terms, even if it’s harder. It’s more satisfying that way.