I Think It Would Be a Good Idea (Civilization)


In case you missed it, "The Blind All-Seeing Eye of Gamergate," a longform piece on topics closely related to The Super Nintendo Project, went up on Saturday.

At last, the false dichotomy between playing video games and saving western civilization stands revealed. But when we choose to do both at the same time, what exactly is the civilization that we are saving, and how might that shape our understanding of certain larger conceptual wars?

In bluntly materialist terms, which are after all the best way to approach civilization, it is another instance of a PC game getting a fundamentally middling SNES port, in the same vein as Populous and SimCity. There are no doubt those for whom this is “their” Civilization - the version of a monumental piece of video game history. This is the game that inspired Iain Banks to the phrase “outside context problem,” for fuck’s sake. Or, at least, it’s the crummy console version of the predecessor to that game. Certainly that’s where my history here intersects - somewhere past 1996 with a lot of Civ2, in a phase of video gaming otherwise defined by Diablo and Quake. High school, notably, where the Super Nintendo was late elementary school/early middle school.

The games are largely similar - Civilization II refines the original, as opposed to reworking it from the ground up. It’s more balanced and more elegant. This is doubly so when compared to the SNES port - the gap from this to 1996 is in many regards far more shocking than the gap from Donkey Kong Country 2 to Super Mario 64. But the basic thrill of the mechanism and its dizzying central metaphor persists. I compared it to Populous and SimCity earlier, and it really does manage to be a fusion of the two, combining the granular deep systems of SimCity with the cosmological scale of Populous to great effect. You may have had godlike powers in SimCity, but the scale of it was always small - one’s cities fundamentally never felt vast. Civilization feels vast easily, especially in the early stages of the game, which is as it should be. The effect of your initial tiny and contextless patch of land on which you build your capital slowly opening outwards until you encounter the Other, then borders, and finally a coherent world is genuinely effective, making the scope of what you can do feel real and substantive.

But we must be careful here. This sense of progressively illuminating an exterior world is certainly the form of western civilization as depicted here, but it is not the content. We’ve identified the story Civilization likes to tell, but not how it tells it. The answer to that question is inherited from the Avalon Hill board game Civilization is unofficially based upon: a tech tree. This is perhaps Civilization’s most significant not-quite innovation - a sublimely smooth implementation of an interlocking ladder of game upgrades that also serves to create a technologically deterministic narrative of human history from road-building to space colonies.

It is accurate, though not particularly interesting, to note that this is in practice an anglocentric view of history. The Wonders list gives it away: the Great Wall is the sole non-western representative. You can play as the Zulu, the Chinese, or the Aztec, but to do so is to rewrite their history into strictly western terms. Other coded assumptions abound: the Chinese and Russians are led by Mao Tse Tung and Josef Stalin, respectively, whereas the Germans get Frederick the Great and the Japanese Tokugawa. Fine. This is not unimportant, but it is not particularly revealing.

More interesting is the inherent teleology: Alpha Centauri or world conquest. Either consolidate the revealed world under a singularity or defy its boundaries. This is a very specific view of what history does - a narrative with discernible values that knows what it thinks of the world, with one outcome clearly designated as the better one, but both treated as essentially acceptable. This still only reveals ideology at its most default setting, but it is at least more tangibly pathological than mere overt and systemic bias.

What is perhaps most interesting is its tacit acceptance that the liberal international consensus cannot possibly hold without the surpassing of the planetary border. There’s a striking pessimism to this, especially for 1991, when Civilization properly debuted, in the optimistic gap in which it became fairly evident that we were not going to all be dying in a nuclear war any time soon. By 1995 an eschatological mood was setting back in, but it was an ambient and unfocused eschatology - a fear of the timer running out, as opposed to of what will actually happen when it does. This vision of the future, in which “international cooperation” is fundamentally rejected as a long-term proposition, doesn’t really fit with it. If anything it feels more in touch with the present moment than its own.

This is further emphasized by the intro movie, which runs a lengthy film-style set of credits over slowly crescendoing intro music that hits an ominous, almost Metroid-esque tone as a spiraling purple nebula slowly pans into view. The result is to keep the focus decidedly away from the planet, giving it instead a sort of coldly cosmic. The intro when you start a new game is similarly austere, starting with the cosmological “In the beginning the Earth was without form and void” over an image of the same nebula,” with “and void” given its own screen to further hammer home the speculative realism of it all. The intro continues in a similar vein - its depiction of the Earth’s creation is long on cataclysm - a “swirling maelstrom” within which life “clings to tiny sheltered habitats.” Life is described as fundamentally expansionist, with mankind a final teleology of evolution, with intelligence in turn the teleology of mankind. Finally the player is informed that after intelligence has given rise to “fire, tools, and weapons, the hunt, farming, and the sharing of food, the family, the village and the tribe” there is only one final component: “a great Leader” who will “build a legacy that would stand the test of time: a CIVILIZATION!” The fascist undertones of this are downright flagrant - if you wanted to be cynically ruthless you could fairly argue that Nick Land has made a career of rewriting the intro to Civilization into gothically overripe reactionary horror-philosophy over the past few years. It’s distinctly chilling.

Of course, it’s also largely not an issue here, since the SNES version has a completely different intro - a pan down through a starfield to the Earth. The PC version’s new game text gets repurposed as an attract mode, but if you actually start a new game you get an all-new intro in which a beautiful Goddess (always white and blonde; it’s also worth noting that if you pick the English as your civilization your intro text gets phrases like “Britain was one of those tribes,” whereas playing the Aztecs gets you such awkwardness as “the young leader of Aztec”) gifts you with knowledge of irrigation, roads, and mining (along with a bit of explanation of game mechanics) in the name of giving you a “great mission” to “build great cities and cause civilization to flourish throughout the Earth” so that “the people will leave richer lives and #nation will rule the world.”

It’s certainly not the case that this removes the unsettling fascism from the game’s framing, but there’s a distinctly different edge to it, not least because of the unexpected addition of a goddess on a starry night, an image that’s decidedly off-brand for Civilization’s clean technological determinism. (Notably, the series took until 2005 to deal with religion at all.) But there’s obvious precedent elsewhere on the SNES - it’s a dead ringer for the sort of spirituality evinced by games like E.V.O. or SoulBlazer. This is on the face of it satisfying - a case of the odd transitional cultural moment the Super Nintendo represents getting to leave its mark on this unsettling invader from the future.

Does this matter in any particular sense? No. Not even a little bit. The fact that the SNES port of Civilization muddies the quasi-fascist ideology of the game with a bit of (also problematic) goddess imagery has, in all likelihood, had literally zero effect on the overall arc of history. As turning points go, it makes a butterfly flapping its wings look like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. And why would we want it to matter in that sense? To do so is to treat the world as something very much like a tech tree. But more to the point, not mattering to history - not being a part of it, even - is precisely what’s interesting about Civilization’s goddess: she doesn’t fit with history, even as she undeniably exists within it.

And suddenly it becomes illuminated, this beach beneath the conceptual paving stones. If western civilization is one side of an opposition, what is the other? There has only ever been one possible answer to this question, so obvious we’ve had to keep from asking it thus far: secret histories. Accept this monstrous thing for what it is - an immensely compelling game whose rules reveal an ideology of techno-fascism. To play against that game, then, is to embrace what is excluded from those rules. All the stories that do not fit. The forgotten other histories that stand un-revealed in the face of the inevitable progression from Alphabet to Ethics in Video Game Journalism. Western civilization or what? Literally everything else. “Or.”

But while liberating, this is ultimately a possibility with too many options and not enough precision. We are, in practice, approaching the ending. And so we must focus our search on the binary offered by the game, and what lies outside it. On the one hand, violent conquest. On the other, what was by the early 90s an already discredited image of colonial expansion projected onto the infinite cosmos. We know what is implicit in this choice. What is erased, though? What option is the choice leading us away from? What is the secret history of its “or”?

That’s our ending. Eight more posts.


Jack Graham 1 year, 1 month ago

Trump is basically the guy who says "BUILD CITY WALLS!"

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Jane 1 year, 1 month ago

I like secret histories. Apocrypha Now!

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Eve Schmitt 1 year, 1 month ago

On the one hand: the game has you plunder ancient ruins and kill "barbarians", contributing further to the theme of colonial expansion.

on the other hand, recent modpacks have allowed people to play civilizations that were overrun by colonialism -- most of the peoples of the western hemisphere, for example. Some of these peoples even show up in the base game: Celts, Aztecs, Mayans, Inca. The game shifts towards liberalism by not challenging the basic mechanics of Empire, while allowing marginalized peoples to get in on the action.

Unfortunately the game still doesn't resemble real history because there's no mechanic for "someone fucked up and the entire geopolitical order is collapsing". No assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in other words. Progress in the game only moves forward. The closest the game has ever gotten to creating societal collapse is in Civilization III when excessive pollution causes global warming and desertification.

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Aylwin 1 year, 1 month ago

Doesn't categorising those peoples as definitively victims rather than perpetrators require a selective chronological frame of reference, inappropriate to the longer sweep of time covered by the game/s?

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taiey 1 year, 1 month ago

That happens in Civilisation II, too.

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Aylwin 1 year, 1 month ago

Other coded assumptions abound: the Chinese and Russians are led by Mao Tse Tung and Josef Stalin, respectively, whereas the Germans get Frederick the Great and the Japanese Tokugawa.

Not quite following this. I mean, the reason for that contrast was presumably the premise that communism is more acceptable than fascism - making by far the best known and most significant political leader in German history the designated leader of the Germans would have been deemed unacceptably offensive, whereas Stalin and Mao were not seen as being beyond the pale to the same degree. Likewise making communism, but not fascism, one of the governmental systems on offer (and initially giving it some surreally positive qualities - no corruption!). But I'm not sure that's what you're driving at.

Notably, the series took until 2005 to deal with religion at all.

Well, it took until then to make it a prominent game mechanic, and hence present it as a dynamic force in history (though notably in an indifferently generic form even then - all religions are assigned the same social impact, in stark contrast to the different systems of government). But it had been present from the start in an impeccably Marxist mode, as the opium of the people.

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Kit Power 1 year, 1 month ago

Well, and in the PC version of Civ II, another form of government was Fundamentalism, IIRC. Good for producing wealth and 'satisfied' population, lousy for science advancement.

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AM 1 year, 1 month ago

"Life is described as fundamentally expansionist, with mankind a final teleology of evolution, with intelligence in turn the teleology of mankind. ... if you wanted to be cynically ruthless you could fairly argue that Nick Land has made a career of rewriting the intro to Civilization into gothically overripe reactionary horror-philosophy over the past few years."

I wouldn't call that cynically ruthless. This is all the same stuff here, and everything that makes rationalists think that the Drake Equation is a mathematical reality, rather than an ideological statement about the meaning of life, is also part of this Civilization-Nick Land continuum.

Fukuyama-style neoliberal grand narrative circa 1990 [via Hegel] -> life defined as a constant urge towards endless "progress" and material expansion, as seen here, and everything outside that definition excluded as failure -> knowledge of the near-future closeness of material limits -> everything you've described in your NRx book

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A C 1 year, 1 month ago

If you trace the whole obsession with space colonisation back to its roots you end up mostly running into mysticism.

Timothy Leary's whole stick in the 70s was basically 'kabbalic ascent with rockets'. 2001 a Space Odyssey is literally just 'Genesis and Revelation with aliens'. Both are based on 1940s-50s SF stories produced in a climate of backstage Theosophy. Arthur C. Clarke basically just took Olaf Stapledon's philosophical vision quests and put more standard narratives around the ideas.

The morally bankrupt undercurrent is that the whole point of religious apocalypticism that led to Zoroastrianism and the Abrahamic faiths is that "despite how the world appeals to reward only evil god has a secret plan to reward the righteous". SF apocalypiticists like Clarke, Leary and the modern transhumanists hijack the metaphors by turning them into plausible scientific reality and throw out the concept of righteousness completely. 2001 basically says "progress started with a murder (but unlike in the Bible no one is punished) and then suddenly military satellites" and appears sort of ambivalent about the morality of it all for a while, then it just turns the AI into a threshold guardian that has to be put down for one's spiritual development and rewards the end point of all this violent progress with apotheosis.

Which shouldn't surprise anyone, science itself having evolved out of the original eschaton immanentizing quest for the philosopher's stone (which transhumanism doesn't even bother to play around with, it just applies a minimal amount of updating to it).

We used to have a dominant history that focused on a protagonist that was a thrown about victim in the imperialistic struggles of the Great Civilisations (tm), a collection including works that were ambivalent about the whole concept of state government and actively demonised progress. Its no accident that fascists are always anti-Semitic and most 'progress championing secular humanists' dismiss the god of the old testament as a anti-intellectual tyrant who doesn't exist but if he did exist would be the enemy.

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Doug M. 1 year, 1 month ago

1) I don't think you can really discuss the first two Civ games without at least placing them in the context of the series. The Eurocentrism, for instance, dropped dramatically; by Civ IV the game's theme song was a West African hymn, most of the Wonders were nonwestern, and the "best" civilizations included Mali, the Mongols, and the Incas (Quechua Rush!). A lot of this was implicit from the beginning, but the game designers probably didn't feel they could *begin* with a game that elevated Mali and the Spiral Minaret to the same plane as Britain and the Statue of Liberty. It's worth noting where they started, sure -- but it's also worth noting where they've ended up.

2) Yes, the phrase "Great Leader" makes us all go 'ding! Fascism' but fascist leaders don't live for thousands of years, you know? It's a god game. You're a demiurge. Your people don't turn out for rallies (well, unless you get a "we love the King" day); they mostly obey you, _pace_ the occasional rebellion, but otherwise they pretty much ignore you.

3) Dude, how can you discuss Civ and fascism without mentioning the nukes? You don't really want nukes most of the time -- but if a "bad" rival civ gets them, you really have no choice. Limited nuclear war can be won, and that's a thing. OTOH, if it escalates, the planet dies and that's also a thing.

4) Also the environmental thing. In Civ II you're simultaneously a threat to the environment but also its potential saviour -- provided you can unlock and deploy the right technologies in time, of course. (There is no social or behavioral fix IMS. It's strictly technology and resources.) You need industrialization and similar techs to get anything done, but then you start strangling on your own waste products. Nuclear meltdowns and nuclear war can do lasting global damage. Global warming is already a major danger, which is pretty striking for a game from 1996. Even if you're in Brutal Asshole World Conqueror mode, you have to pay attention to the environment if you want a high score.

Even in 1996, there was a lot of somewhat contradictory stuff going on there. And it's become a lot more complex and richer since.

(That said, no subsequent version has matched those little video clips with your advisors. Those were hilarious. I managed to get the Schwarzkopf-looking one drunk, once.)

Doug M.

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A C 1 year, 1 month ago

There's more to Euro-Centrism than the available nations.

The concept of 'world wonders' has been linked to tourism from the beginning, so you're basically lose/lose there. One could always ask whether or not the foreign wonders are the wonders foreign cultures would choose themselves to be represented by or the ones we want to pose in front of.

Representing China by The Great Wall is incredibly racist, it doesn't really matter that the Chinese have reclaimed it as a symbol of pride, The Great Wall as a representation of China is still a concept rooted entirely in the European imagination. Its a largely fictional British Imperial projection of China as a closed, backwards, inwards looking nation that needs to be broken open to drag it into the 19th century. Seriously, there was no Great Wall of China, its a complete fantasy version of the far less dramatic actual northern Chinese border defences.

Again, there's no solution to this. Representing Arabia with Saladin is looking at the world through the lens of Walter Scott novels sure, but Walter Scott novels have to a degree been appropriated by Arabs. Does it matter than Saladin was forgotten outside of Europe until he started showing up in the most popular literature of the world's greatest empire? Is it righteous to insist foreign cultures decolonise their culture and return to some made up 'pre-victimisation state'

Wonder period choice can also be suspect. You can argue that Babylon has to have the hanging gardens and America has to have the statue of liberty because those civilisations didn't exist to build things in various eras, but valuing Asia for its past and the west for its present is highly problematic. Why is Sumeria/Assyria/Babylon even in the game when Iraq isn't? If you say "that's just history, duh" then you're just admitting your own Euro-centric blindspots.

Imagine a mod where the Pyramids aren't build-able but the Aswan dam is. What if Alcatraz prison was a wonder but the Statue of Liberty wasn't? What if Russia was represented by well, anything but the Kremlin but how about the Qolşärif Mosque. As an American cultural product Civilisation has a right to represent an American view of what in world history is 'cool' but what it chooses shouldn't be let unexamined except for its 'diversity'.

King Solomon's Mines is a freaking natural wonder in Civ5. A made up place from a racist novel, is that really 'inclusive location diversity'? Every culture imagines fantasy places in faraway lands, but does The Fountain of Youth have to be in there while the island of the Taoist Immortals is absent?

Civilisation is a game where the colonised largely cease to exist. It doesn't matter much if you can have a world where the Astecs conquer and eradicate all traces of western civilisation if they're just acting as a surrogate for western achievement standards. Its fun to nuke DC into dust from our Iroquois missile silos but its just a revenge fantasy (and for most of us an appropriated one). The game mechanics inherently turn the coloniser into the subject and removes all agency for the victims.

You could make a strategy game about surviving and adapting as a colonial subject, a game about preserving culture and identity against aggressive assimilation practices. A game the represents the reality of being part of a disenfranchised class without devolving into a fascist killing simulator. But probably not a '6000 years of history' game because stereotyping any group as eternal victims wouldn't really be fixing anything.

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Phil Sandifer 1 year, 1 month ago

I think it's pretty easy to discuss the first two Civ games without putting them in the context of later games: you just put them in the context of their time instead.

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mister slim 1 year, 1 month ago

As best as I can tell, the SNES version was ported by a Japanese company, Asmik Ace, which probably explains some of the cosmic imagery and awkward phrasing.

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