Humankind, a new 4X strategy game in the style of Civilization, makes its appeal to the player as not just a historian, but a historical imaginary. It looks at all the complexities of world history and says, “look, we managed to capture the vast amount of elements in the world to see what you do with it.” And the systems are incredibly complex and dense. So much so that after 40 hours, I still don’t really know how everything works in the game. Yet in that complexity the game reveals much more about its ideology, not just through its game design, but more largely through the systems we navigate from day to day.
From the beginnings as amino acids to the evolution of land walkers, Humankind immediately brings focus to the technological discoveries of hominids. Through fires, rock tools, and the first shelters, the game asks what stories will build from these beginnings. What results? A mish-mash history of the world’s cultures pitted against each other in a battle for numbers. Who has the most technologies? Who has colonized the most land? Who has killed the most? These are what Humankind determines are valuable in participating in worldwide cultural-historical playmaking. These values are clearly communicated in the interlude cutscenes and game goals. But these are only surface level communications; where these values become more substantial is in the systems of the game.
A match of Humankind takes place over the course of six eras, with players choosing another civilization as a template in each era to push towards a particular production focus. Each of these cultures are like engines that the player is placing at the heart of their game, changing the way they control, create, crusade, govern, produce, strategize, and worship. Beginning the game with the Phoenicians allows the player access to passive traits and the culture specific Meroe Pyramids to create a foundation of higher financial income and production surplus. This can then be taken into the next era where the player can choose a culture such as the Greeks who can utilize that production and money to put towards their passive benefits in scientific research. Meanwhile, the player must also manage the movement of religion throughout the world, influence between cities, the race for “unsovereign land,” and treaty-making with other cultures.
Even though I can name all these systems, actually comprehending them is an entirely different challenge. Each time I go into a game of Humankind I look back at the previous mistakes I made, or lessons I learned from not knowing about particular mechanics before. Only then I discover that there is so much more to learn. It’s completely overwhelming, but it’s also a loop that’s enthralling. With each game I would leave thinking, “Just one more game and I think I can figure this out.” Yet, I never really figure it all out. I just keep clicking and managing numbers, hoping that eventually I will get something right.
In all the numbers and enticement I find with managing the systems, each game of Humankind feels extremely disjointed from the world histofiction that the player is a part of telling. Each decision almost always boils down to a number affecting one of the main management stats. Otherwise, some text-based decisions come up that never meaningfully integrate into your culture beyond the initial choice. The actions of people inside the city are never represented, any moments that emerged between cultures are unmentioned, and your ideological civic choices are never noted. And at the end, all that seems to matter is which culture “won” the game. Everything in Humankind boils down to a number.
This number represents your role as a leader, the fame that your empire brings, and the acquisitions you gained. That is all the number can represent, and because of the systems which build towards that, it means there is only one way it can mechanically reproduce the world. Humankind is a game of systems that inevitably lead to imperial destiny.
Despite being a game with so much detail in its systems, it abstracts so much of the workings of the world to the point that it limits how much potential political imaginaries there really are. There cannot be an imagined Earth in Humankind without nation-states colonizing every piece of land. An uprising of the people doesn’t mean much for the actual citizens in the world, but it primarily reflects on your numeric systems and ability as a leader. In this limiting form of the world’s systems that the game provides, the goal isn’t to imagine what could be, but reinforce what has been.
It isn’t necessarily a new point to say that a newly released 4X game doesn’t present alternatives to imperial colonialist systems. Yet, it’s because that is not a new observation that it is so apparent that there is a problem. The standards of the genre reach back decades, before videogames even, to wargaming culture and design. But there is nothing in standards that should prevent us from asking why they persist, else we become complicit in accepting them. It’s not just the long history of these games that have brought us to accepting their ideological standards, but it’s also in their overwhelming numbers and systems that the underpinnings are overshadowed.
4X games entice us to interface with overwhelming abstract systems because of the learning curve and satisfaction of change over time. They ask us to neglect the details that may not support the numbers or the systems, including the environments and people inside those systems. The goal is to not only have fun with these systems, but become completely entranced. Then we leave the computer and take that internalized form of imperial systemic pleasure with us into real world structural systems. Whether it actively comes out in the way we see the world, or it passively lies within us, it is still imprinted. Even if we log on and joke about how fucked up it is that we find joy in an empire colonial simulator, it doesn’t mean we aren’t also participating in their reinforcement of those very ideals we mock.
What’s even more complicated, especially with games, is that it isn’t always a question of your morals lining up with what you play. In the complex web of audio, mechanical, thematic, and visual values, not to mention the ethics of production, that a game presents there are likely elements you will find enjoyable in conflict with something you don’t agree with, feel discomforted by, or possibly even hurt by. The structural systems we live in are large and can at times be overwhelmingly challenging. Yet, if we allow ourselves to just accept those systems unchallenged we run the risk of moving through the world as an engine of repetition, never pushing for something better, just like Humankind. But we can imagine something better, something different. We just have to keep asking.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.