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Civilization and its Disk Contents
Two essays on Civilization and Civilization
Essay, Radical Society - 2004

Civilization III is a new computer game by Firaxis that possesses both an enormity of content (the game is about the history of the world) and of hype (the box tells us that its modest contents contain the greatest game ever made). By “hype,” I mean the fact that magazines as diverse as Time and Rolling Stone (and, well, as undiverse as PC World and GameSpot) have used the words “Civilization III” in close proximity with the words “Best Game of the Year”; on Amazon, Civilization III has more than 430 customer reviews, with the first review apparently read and rated by more than seven hundred people (“234 of 724 people found the following review helpful” Amazon earnestly reports)1 . By “new,” I mean that it is new by the standard of books but ancient by the standards of computer games, which like computers themselves quickly go out of date: the game was released in 2001 and, characteristic of video games, has already been discontinued.2 One hopes that the two years have diminished the hype and increased our ability to see the now unobscured content. And what do I mean by “content”? The content of the game is war, culture, and science—the player enters a computer game’s version of empire. The content of this essay is even broader: I want to ask not just what one particular video game tells us about history but what this video game tells us about video games themselves (this being a larger category since Civilization III already shows us that one video game can contain history). To answer the first question, that of the content internal to the game, I would say that Civilization III is a game of obsolete (if not incoherent) metaphysics—it is at once materialist and deistic, multiculturalist and subtly imperialist. The answer to the second question is the reverse: like any video game, Civilization III is too up-to-date: it suggests that it is actually the aesthetic of our own non-digital civilization that is going obsolete.


(But first, the video game equivalent of the obligatory plot description that accompanies any film review: what exactly is the game like?) Behind the hype of packaging—and behind this superficial ambition, which is its own packaging—Civilization seems less like a case of a giant, than a case of gigantism—a vast, computer-rendered landscape whose scenery, over time, looks suspiciously monotonous, balloonish, lacking of any soil or grain deeper than the illuminated pixel. Civilization III, in this respect, very much resembles the Lord of the Rings film adaptations. Both works—landscaped primarily by computers and fan enthusiasts—drag a previous work (the original Tolkien novels and the original Civilization) into the digitally generated present. And both are epics that throw something resembling the broad quest of history onto their screens, but end up being epics about nothing but effects, works that are always grand but rarely special. I have probably never seen a ‘bigger’ movie than The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers, in the same way that I have never played a ‘bigger’ game than Civilization. But both are big the way that a chart can represent the solar system but exist on a single piece of paper: although the worlds of fantasy and history loom before the viewer in Lord of the Rings and Civilization—neither of which can be as thick as what they signify—they end up being as two-dimensional as a map.

Playing Civilization, in fact, is like interacting with an intelligent map—as the ruler of an ancient civilization, you spend most of the game monitoring an unrolling computer generated landscape marked with growing cities, iron ore, roads studded with military units, and, of course, competing civilizations. Much of the game, however, happens off the map: you must instigate scientific inquiry, build your social infrastructure, and initiate trade and diplomatic relations. You might play, for example, as Queen Elizabeth and begin building the first cities of the English empire, starting with London, and then slowly discover Literacy and erect the Great Library of Alexandria. You play the game, to be more specific, on both a general and specific level. On a general level, your interaction with your empire is broken into six concerns, each headed with a different adviser: domestic, trade, military, foreign, cultural. Here, your influence is indirect—merely informational at the least (you can note what resources you have in the trade pane, how many military units you have in the military pane) and numerical at the most (you can increase taxes or change what a city produces in the domestic pane). The most entertaining aspect of the game comes when you control what these cities make—the specific level of the game. And what do cities make? Usually military units: spearmen and cavalry, bombers and chariots, and—more culturally specific—Japanese samurai, Zulu impis and Russian Cossacks. Here is where you interact with the game at its most direct. You can drag these figurines around, declare war, fight. You can win the game in six ways: most stereotypically, conquest (basically the perennial video game objective of killing everyone else); a sort of lower-testosterone version of conquest—domination (you win if you control two thirds of the world’s surface); by winning the space race (a leftover from the original 1991 game); by simply running out of time and having the highest score; or most interestingly by having a city with a high enough amount of “culture.”

















1 Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones, a popular success in a simultaneously more esoteric and mainstream medium (books), has three times as many reviews but none of the review-ratings. This is perhaps suggestive of how bloggers (one video game-buying constituency) will rush to comment on comments of books, while most people will merely read them.


2There is a new expansion pack—that is, a software package that adds options to the original product and thus would not work without the product (perhaps similar to genre novels that perpetuate the novels of a dead genre author but invent no characters of its own)—called Civilization III: Play the World. This pack, not discussed in this essay, offers different map controls, additional civilizations and, most interestingly, the ability to play with other people on the Internet.


What does civilization
tell us about Civilization III?

Why we like video games even
though they bore us

The first Civilization, created by Sid Meier for MicroProse in the early ‘90s, now carries the kind of nostalgia that people my age usually associate with Transformer cartoons and, when playing it, the level of commitment usually associated with organized religion. By now, Civilization has acquired enough viewers (or devotees)—it is hard to say which term is more accurate for this genre (whose current vocabulary would describe me as someone who ‘plays’ a civilization)—to be generally recognized as the greatest strategy game of all time. Why has Civilization been so successful? Is it actually fun?3 I would suggest that contrary to the typical claims used to propagandize great art—the idea that we’ve sustained the canon because of how it instructs and delights—that Civilization has been an extremely popular work specifically because it is not fun at all.

Fun is a difficult piece of critical terminology for a game like Civilization III. This is a game about history that is fittingly slow and process-based. Consequently, like The Sims, where you manage a life, and unlike first person shooters like Quake, where (I guess) you simulate life, the game is slow and open-ended: it simulates the broad expanse of lives rather than life, of history rather than the individual. Thus, strategy games—the equivalent of board games for Generation X—are often fun in the way that data entry is fun. Sim City, Civilization, Masters of Orion—all of these games, these operas of micromanagement—are successful attempts at turning boredom into a recreational activity. They suck you in with a sensation that’s less like excitement or real enjoyment than a negotiation: you play and wait to see how your citizens and enemies will respond to your latest move (i.e., your latest mood); this aesthetic of checking and then rechecking is a little like checking your e-mail every thirty seconds and finding some new response always waiting for you. This is not so much a work of art as an addiction to stimulus. And when it’s all over, you come away, after hours of gameplay, having conquered Japan and invented atomic warfare, and suddenly realize that you are more or less the same as when you started. You have been—not really stimulated, but merely absorbed—like someone watching TV. You have not learned anything.

This would be one way of looking at it. I would like instead to offer a positive conception of boredom—“positive” in two senses: first, I would like to design a use of the word without any normative or derogatory implications, a boredom that we enjoy; secondly, I mean “positive” as opposed to negative, the way that a painter sees the white canvas as negative space or a scientist sees coldness as having no independent existence since coldness is defined not as a thing in itself but as the absence of heat. Ibrahim Kalin, for example, has argued that Islam advocates a positive conception of peace—that is, not only does the Islamic conception of peace refer to the absence of warfare but also to the desire to see peace not as the absence of violence but as an active state. So far as they use “boredom” as an aesthetic term, artists and audiences typically refer to the absence of entertainment:

In both the Freudian and the Marxist traditions… “boredom” is taken not so much as an objective property of things and works but rather as a response to the blockage of temporary energies (whether those be grasped in terms of desire or of praxis)… Even taken in the narrower realm of cultural reception, boredom with a particular kind of work or style or content can always be used productively as a precious symptom of our own existential, ideological, and cultural limits, an index of what has to be refused in the way of other people’s cultural practices and their threat to our own rationalizations about the nature and value of art. Meanwhile, it is no great secret that in some of the most significant works of high modernism, what is boring can often be very interesting indeed, and vice versa: a combination which the reading of any hundred sentences by Raymond Roussel, say, will at once dramatize. We must therefore initially try to strip the concept of the boring (and its experience) of any axiological overtones and bracket the whole question of aesthetic value. It is a paradox one can get used to: if a boring text can also be good (or interesting, as we now put it), exciting texts, which incorporate diversion, distraction, temporal commodification , can also perhaps sometimes be “bad” (or “degraded” to use Frankfurt School language) (Jameson, 71-72).

That Jameson notices boredom is one of the more idiosyncratically interesting moments in the early parts of Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson, however, still explores the boring in a fundamentally negative way; he gives, for example, the example of a piece of video art where the audience is forced to stare at an expressionless face for twenty-one minutes. The initial feelings of boredom give rise to less innocent feelings of kitsch: ‘[T]he videomaker’s choice was a deliberate and conscious one,” Jameson writes, “and… therefore the twenty-one minutes of this tape are to be interpreted as provocation, as a calculated assault on the viewer, if not an act of out-right aggressivity. In that case, our response was the right one: boredom and panic are appropriate reactions and a recognition of the meaning of that particular aesthetic act” (72-73). First, we can see from this example—and Jameson would presumably group this video with Godard’s seemingly infinitely long highway-pan (or for a cinematically younger group, the similar pan in Spaceballs) or the aesthetic flatness of pop art or Polaroid photos—that Jameson still sees boredom as something we are only allowed to talk about when it assumes the same methodology as interestingness: the deferral of, let us say, fun in the video work subverts our expectations in the same way that Wordsworth subverted our class expectations for poetic content or the early free versifiers subverted our expectations for rhyme and meter—what interests us then isn’t the boring but the subversiveness of the boredom. Because of this, we are only interested in the boring because of its specific context rather than its usefulness as a general category, its slot in time that allows it to be subversive: it is a historically specific boredom, the kitsch period style in which boredom becomes “appropriate” because it is an antithetical intellectual tactic. Secondly, boredom is not really a characteristic of the art—it is a reaction of the audience when it realizes that its yearnings for delight will be endlessly postponed. This is consistent with our common understanding of boredom: consider why people often say “I was bored to tears” to describe a negative reaction to a film but “It was really good” to describe a positive reaction. Boredom is seen as a response of the viewer rather than, like quality, a characteristic inherent in a work of art.

I would like to tear the brackets away from the aesthetic and propose the boring as a useful aesthetic criterion. The boring shares certain characteristics with the boring but has its own non-normative designation in the same way that terms like “metrical” or “metaphorical” identify specific tropes without indicating favoritism. The experience of boredom in Civilization is neither subversive nor historically appropriate—it is an inherent quality of its genre and its principle way of achieving its artistic effects. The boredom that Civilization inspires is directly proportional to its addictiveness. Civilization lacks the aggressive affect, the loops of reflex and response that are at the center of Pacman or Super Mario Bros. (what most adults think of when they hear the words “video game”)—in comparison to these first generation computer games, Civilization is almost not a ‘computer game’ at all. It is almost more like gardening—for like gardening, the game is enjoyable not in the moment but in the culmination of successive moments. The joy is paraphrased—it occurs when looking back at the created artifact rather than at the moment of creation. This category of accretionary games would include: The Sims (and all the other games in the Sim-line, a series of games that are essentially about method rather than content, maintenance rather than action); the experience-building aspects of role-playing games (where the hero becomes stronger the more he kills enemy creatures); and strategy games like Civilization and the once popular Koei games in which the player managed the fiefdoms of ancient China. A boring experience, therefore, is one that draws us away from thoughts and pushes us towards experience. Video games, because they are works of art that blur the distinction between secondary and primary experiences, are often boring because when we play them, we do not become more ourselves—we do not become deeper, we merely go deeper into the experience of the game. I am not arguing that primary experiences are automatically boring—after all, the immediate point of so much great art is to make our hearts beat faster. I am instead arguing that there is a correlation between the boring and works of art that seek to provide only a primary experience. The boring work seeks to usurp the world. It desires to enact experience more than it desires to use that experience to change one's relationship with the materials of the medium (the way the modernists destroyed the materials of theirs) or one's relationship with the world. An infinitely escapist experience would therefore be an infinitely--and wonderfully--boring one. For what would you escape from but your own life? But having escaped your life for some immersively novel new world--the movie that makes you forget your own troubles, for example--you have nothing of your own life to bring to the experience. You have none of your own thoughts to apply to the boring work. And because thought is what a work of art leaves behind, our immediate experience of the work becomes synonymous with the work itself. Our engagement with boring art ends the moment our experience of it ends. The boring is traceless.

The boring is a self-abolishing form—first, in the way it offers a generic relationship with the self (in fact, what is most comforting about boredom is how inherently unsubversive it is) and secondly in the sense that its existence in our thinking is inherently impermanent. Novels have a greater tendency towards being boring than poetry since they try to mimic life more than they try to mimic art; they are saved by their length—we must necessarily cease reading and go about our lives, the smell of the novel staining our thoughts. As T.E. Hulme once described the “rope of letters,” “The prose writer drags meaning along with the rope. The poet makes it stand on end and hit you” (Hulme 17). We see non-boringness at its most intense in the aphorism, defined as a vague lie with universal applications. It is the tool of Wilde and Valery, Bierce and Barnes, because it is the propositional equivalent of poetry. It gives nothing to experience aside from a thesis.

Something that is boring need not be considered “bad.” The majority of what is considered “good” art in any given time is inherently boring; these works are considered good because they so embody the period conventions of their time that they draw us in with full familiarity. (Non-boring works require ingestion on more a personal level—we feel like we are always reading them for the first time. This is so difficult and time-demanding, that these works are often neglected or seen as too deviant to be experienced.) In fact, the boring can be a dominant paradigm of art: the goal of haiku and the narrative prose poem (from Williams to Galway Kinnell) is to draw us deeper into the experience of being—as Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” But these works cease being boring to the extent that they signify beyond their boredom: Williams’s enthusiastic flatness, like that of Jameson’s video artist, works to subvert our poetic expectations for Romantic flower petals and abstractions; Basho’s haiku often contain puns, references and syntactic dislocations that somehow fall of the sides of the words on their way into English. But I would argue that our age—in spite of its interest in postmodern formalism—is one infatuated with the boring. Films and television shows—especially action films, Spielberg movies, music videos, and reality television shows—tend to embrace the boring, because (ironically) they are terrified at ever losing our attention and seek nothing more than to drag us further into their experience. Consequently, we have no thought left over to watch ourselves watch the work; our sense of reflection is deferred so that although we may be leashed to the stimuli when we experience it, we do not frame it in our memory—leaving it to evaporate when the work ends. The manic attentiveness to physical objects in Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace, most American poetry involving epiphany and moment-by-moment observation, and the downgrading of writers like Eliot and Woolf, partly for being too “artificial”—all of these literary fascinations start from an automatic assumption that the most direct experience is the most desirable. Even language poetry (as well as Steinian repetition and the way John Ashbery’s sentences swoop around that which they describe) is anti-intellectual in so far as it wants us to have a primary interaction with the words themselves and not the concepts they signify. This is what I mean when I said that Civilization III really teaches you nothing when you play it—its goal is to teach you nothing and to the extent that you learn something from it, the game has failed. This is because any new thoughts could only have arrived by seeping through the gaps in the work’s overwhelming hypnosis. Video games—which one can imagine on a spectrum (a boring scale) with roller coasters on the left and uninvented virtual reality programs on the right—are the central art form of the boring: if postmodernism is boring, then video games are high postmodernism. Like all boring works, they want us to be awake to them while we play them—unlike non-boring arts that wake us to the world when we are away from them.

What does Civilization III tells
us about civilization?

Why Civilization III—a game about history
and science—is really a Christian video game.

What exactly does someone playing this game of civilization learn about history? Civilization has always sold itself as a game of history. While the original Civilization was a more complicated, computerized version of Risk, this newest update of the game—Civilization III—has many players talking about historical accuracy and even claiming that it’s helped them more completely understand history. Here is a game for the military fetishists and the gun club historians: Civilization III is a game where some of the truly interesting parts come not from winning it but from trying out new pieces of weaponry or science—trying out history, really—the way a teenage girl might try out different prom dresses. Militarily, you can create Japanese samurai, French musketeers, bomber jets, nuclear missiles, galleons, invisible submarines, pirate ships (these can attack enemy ships without revealing their own nationality), archers, catapults. Infrastructurally, you can build police stations, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, temples, the United Nations, Shakespeare’s theater, coliseums, universities and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. As all these varieties of things attest to, this is a game that is enthusiastically materialist: because Civilization is a computer game, every element of the game must contribute to some kind of point score, some indication of whether or not you are winning or losing the game. Because of this—and because this is a game made by Americans in the American era—Civilization has a Medusan view of history: it turns everything in its gaze into an object. Every atom of history necessarily acquires some note of utility: the Heroic Epic creates more leaders for your military campaigns and Police Stations decrease “war weariness” (which makes people unhappy, which reduces your productivity). Even “Culture” is measured in points rather than ideas. There is nothing really different between Civilization’s French and Japanese cultures, for example, except for the number of Culture points. The idea of culture is the most provocative change that separates Civilization III from the last two Civilizations. The game marks it as the dotted border of your empire, so when you build temples and cathedrals, the size of your country literally increases. Culture is so significant that if your border falls over a foreign city, the city may defect, recognizing your culture to be “superior” to that of its defective and suddenly barbarian motherland. So, in Civilization, culture is so neutral as to be invisible—it has no qualitative shape, only quantitative shape; one merely accumulates it, the way one would money. The same is true about technology, economies, government, and (for the most part) military—all are abstracted, to the point that there are no incredibly significant differences between one culture and another. Whether you decide to be French or Babylonian allows only a few subtle differences—the way the ghosts in Pacman are different or the way that Mario is different from Luigi in Super Mario Bros.—by which I mean “not very different at all.” The main difference is material: where your people happen to be born on the map.

This open-ended interpretation of history—geography as narrative, rather than narrative as narrative—seems remarkably similar to the approach recent historians have taken towards one of the most necessarily contentious questions in history: why did some civilizations advance further—militarily, scientifically, “culturally”—than others? The question belongs (along with debates about the canon and affirmative action) in the sweaty palms category of socio-political conversation: it is something difficult to talk about because underneath the evidence and the arguments, lies the inevitable consequence of saying that one people, one race, one culture—the noun is irrelevant—is “better” than another. A century ago, the answer was obvious because the question was not even assumed. The historians that gave us “the white man’s burden,” were eager to talk about Christianity and of primitive civilizations. Our era may be remembered in its attempt to reverse this ironically unscientific applauding of Western scientism. Recent historical works4 have often emphasized not the cultural differences between one civilization and another, but the geographical ones. They give us an anti-essentialist view of history, one where cultures rose and fell not because of anything inherent but because of contingent factors: England had coal and China did not (R. Bin Wong); the terrain and coast line of Europe allowed small states to compete unlike the despot-friendly open terrain of China (Jared Diamond); East Asia experienced an ecological crisis that forced it to conserve resources right when Europe began the Age of Exploration (Kenneth Pomeranz); the world was at economic and scientific parity but geographic accident allowed Europe to leap ahead thanks to New World gold (Walter Blaut). Civilization is thus a less contentious thing than we’d thought: it’s climate change, land mass, trees and minerals. The meaning’s only supplemental.

The similarly godless world of Civilization III, the fact that this most popular of computer games is really about tax collection and granary building, would make you believe that the game is ideologically neutral—that is a version of history that does not appear prejudiced either by religion, nationalism, or any specific interpretation of history. There is no built-in story, no manifest destiny. Any civilization can conquer the world—whether you are the Zulu, the Chinese, or the English—and often the crude facts of geography can make the difference between winning or losing the game: whether you are landlocked or coastal, cut off or ringed by civilizations, or simply closer to iron ore deposits or gunpowder, silks or spices. Civilization III’s version of history—like civilization’s—seems inherently anti-essentialist.

Except that it’s not. The game is most dangerously essentialist—at its most Eurocentric and conservative—at its edges. The result is a theory of history that, because it is a video game, is vaguely scary in the subtlety of its indoctrination5: it makes the player automatically assume the game’s archaic 1950s version of the world before the game even starts. How is Civ essentialist?

First of all, we have already seen that any of the available countries can grow up on any continent, at any time and in any way the player sees fit: the causes of history are randomized. Your decisions are the cause of your own culture. You decide where to build cities, whether to talk to other countries, to war or not war. None of the causal factors that might determine a civilization’s character (distance from other civilizations, size and population of cities, resources and climate, etc.) exist before the game begins—but one thing does exist before the game starts: the national identity of your civilization. But if all the causes are determined after the game starts, then how could a country’s name and attributes exist for you to pick from? After all, you don’t play with civilizations of your own creation: you play with “real world” civilizations (“England”; “Russia”); you play with troops and adjectives. The Americans, for example, can build quicker and explore faster than other cultures. This is because they are “Industrious” and “Expansionistic.” They can build F-15 fighter jets. The Indians can make money and culture better. This is because they are “Commercial” and “Religious.” They can build war elephants. Gandhi leads them throughout the four thousand year history of the game, the same way that even the stone-age Americans are guided by an interestingly stone-age Abraham Lincoln. On a purely factual level, this is uncomfortably comic: the Chinese invented paper, printing, gunpowder, bicycles, porcelain, two major belief systems, and (at one point in history) it seems everything else. And because of its small number of wars and conquests relative to its long history, China has long been seen as an emblem of peaceful—almost monotonous—stability. On the other hand, as high school history books will tell us, few civilizations have been as “Expansionistic” as the recent Spanish, the first European civilization to discover and (with the Treaty of Tordesillas) own the New World. If we trade the high school text books for college ones, we might hear the disembodied voice of Howard Zinn reminding us of Spanish conquistadors cutting off the limbs of Native Americans for recreation. In Civilization III, however, the Chinese are “Militaristic” and “Industrious”; the Spanish are “Commercial” and “Religious.”

The problem is not that these adjectives are particularly incorrect—no one would say that agrarian Industrious or that one of the earliest users of the joint stock system (the Spanish) were not Commercial—the problem is that adjectives themselves are incorrect. First, it seems automatically inaccurate to assume that any word can summarize any civilization. This is not just because civilizations are voluminous but because each civilization contains its own refutation—any student of Tang penal codes and indigenous Chinese Buddhism would say that China is both rational and religious. But also on a larger level, it’s less helpful to see civilizations as nouns than as processes. Much in the same way that artificial intelligence experts tell us that consciousness is only the effect of a number of different biological reflexes, the idea of a country appears to us more than it appears to the country. The country is merely incidental—an effect. It is our own naïve pattern recognition habits that search for intention in what was only a complex accident.

What is most problematic about Civilization III’s choice of adjectives, leaders and airplanes, is that it suggests that there is an internal content to a country that occurs outside of the country’s facts. You can raise war elephants in an arctic tundra, recreate key moments in your country’s history (sans history), be “Religious” without ever building temples and “Commercial” without ever building banks. Civilization III’s multicultural politics is ironic—the game would be less essentialist if you were not allowed to play outside of history. Since you are, the game implies that even when the contingent forces of history are totally rewritten, the countries will still be how they are in our world rather than theirs. Even if the Civ III Zulus, for example, develop electricity and the United Nations while the “Western” world is still “developing,” they will still be “Militaristic” and “Expansionistic.”

This essentialism is doubly ironic because of the way the game strips away the actual content of each civilization. Their cultures are quantities and their troops are only visually racial. A democratic government, for example, does not change the way a player controls the game (through a god’s-eye view of the map) and democracy (or despotism, anarchy, etc.) is roughly the same no matter which civilization implements it. The French Revolution is merely an inconvenient change from one government to another and not at all distinct from an American Revolution or for that matter, a Russian one. There is no “Communism with Chinese characteristics.” There is only Communism and related productivity gains and losses, accrued culture points. The game injects you with a large variety of objectifying assumptions: that culture can be quantitatively measured, that cultures are comparable, and—contrary to Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent—that culture can improve. Ideas themselves have no content: your game-playing experience is roughly the same whether you invent electricity or not. A civilization that has mastered literature does not appear more sensitive—or even more effete and bad at sports—than any other civilization, since “Literature” is not edifying but just another rung on the civilization ladder. That is to say, “Literature” is only a name and like all the labels in this game (“The Great Library”; “Radio”; “Swordsman”), it is something the game designers could have easily given a different name and graphic without any real change in the way the game is played. This view of technology seems quietly dangerous: it is a high school history of science where what matters aren’t the cultural implications of a technology but the dates of completion. Civilization III’s technology tree resembles a naïve pre-postmodern history of science, a science of nouns rather than concepts, one that that presumes that science would exist and discover itself regardless of context. What might be the most shocking development for Civilization III might be not a rampaging barbarian army on the horizon but the lone approach of Thomas Kuhn, staggering towards the game’s version of history, eager to replace its succession of facts (The Alphabet, then Literature; Printing Press, then Democracy) with ideas.

Science is suspect in Civilization III in another more literal way: if you want to do it, you have to do it like the West.6 (This is the consequence of a game of history that assumes that historical reality is historical essence.) In order to pass from the Ancient to Middle Ages, you must develop monotheism, monarchy, and the alphabet—whether you’re China or England. I think the problem with this isn’t necessarily just that the Indians must become (essentially) Christian or that the Japanese must use the alphabet: the error is the more subtle assumption that science and culture are a progressive accumulation rather than a series of mutually exclusive options. The game would be more interesting, for example, if the discovery of Christianity in one millennia would hinder the discovery of science in the next. A civilization could choose instead, let’s say, to develop Secular Humanism but developing this before Christianity would remove the cultural impact of a theory of evolution.

In fact, for all of the game’s worship of technology, I would argue that Civilization III’s underlying belief system isn’t science: it’s religion. The formal rather than literal content of the game suggests Christian baggage: you are omniscient and immortal, all mind, no body, and able to see the entire world unroll itself beneath you. In the original Civilization, if you didn’t conquer the world by killing everyone else (and it’s worth noting that many of the “Militaristic” civilizations in Civ III are non-Western countries), you won by building a space ship to colonize another planet, where the game starts over, pristinely unpopulated. It’s hard not to see a Christian parable: the ascension from the earth is Revelations; the new world is Eden.

Civilization III’s sloppy approach to history should infuriate you no matter which side of the debate you’re on. If you are on the side of history, then you should be against Civilization III’s particular slant of history because it says that a Zulu or Babylonian civilization could conquer the world. If you’re on the side of art, then you should be opposed to the idea that Civilization III must adhere to history in its most literal interpretation. If you believe the West has won history because of something particularly Western, then you might complain that Civilization III isn’t literal enough about history, that it makes world “progress” just a matter of geographic whim or tactical savvy. But if you believe in the more progressive, materialist explanations of Blaut and Diamond—or have the faith in contingency of a writer like Richard Rorty—then you will be surprised to discover that the culture in Civilization III has no connection at all with its people. Lacking the responsibility and creativity to imagine history, Civ manages to be both essentialist and universalist, both Eurocentric and vaguely multiculturalist. As a game of history, Civilization has not decided what civilization is.

Ironically, the players of Civilization III are obsessed with the game’s “accuracy.” But this concern with accuracy is flawed in two ways: first of all, it is primarily logistical (the overwhelmingly large number of negative comments are from players who complain—with such frustration that you can almost hear their hands being thrown into the air—that there’s no way a swordsman could defeat a tank!); second of all, players declare that the game is accurate only so far as it follows “what actually happened.” When one player (an anthropologist) critiqued the game’s unilinear Western model of world history on Joystick101.org, an online forum on game development, one player wrote back:

The current Industrial and Modern ages in Civ3 reflect a reality: the Western world dominates culturally and technologically. The only realistic exception could be Japan since it has maintained a strong and different identity. Implementing civ-specific developments throughout all ages would make it almost a fantasy game. Although the current game doesn’t let you dominate the world in any culture you want to be (as you pointed out, you always have to follow the Western evolution path) I think the current Civ-game is pretty historically correct. It has it’s [sic] flaws but I think I prefer it this way rather than being confonted with the game designer’s fantasy when playing the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Zulu, etc (Moumouni).

Clearly this paragraph is annoying in about twenty different directions: that the Western world “dominates” now does not mean that it did in all eras or that it was destined to do so now; Japan is not the only country that has maintained a “strong and different identity” (any historian would find this an interesting claim to start with, given Japan’s eager consumption of Chinese Confucianism and Western technology); and so on. What I find most disturbing, though, isn’t any factual discrepancy between his view of history and my own, but between his view of views and my own. I think the historical weaknesses of Civilization III’s shouldn’t be measured in accuracy or inaccuracy—they should be measured in how the game helps us better understand history’s possibilities rather than its certainties. What the game suffers from is not a deficit of multiculturalism but of imagination.

By now, deconstructing Jackie Chan movies and Puma ads has become a distinctively late Twentieth Century parlor game—what we play while our parents sit in the other room or decade, playing charades. So why should this analysis of Civilization III be distinctive? I think that the purpose of a game like Civ is exactly to allow us to explore our historical fantasies, to be able to sit outside of history as though it were an aquarium and watch it unfold in its own chaotic way. The point is not just educational but aesthetic—the game is more fun in direct proportion to how it is different. Imagine a game where technology spirals out—inventing one thing blocks off another and each technology comes with its disadvantages. Christianity might allow an increase in compassion—if the game is going to quantify something like culture, it might as well quantify everything else—but at the risk of religious and scientific intolerance. Because essentialism is unavoidable (the draw of the game for many players comes from more or less re-enacting the Roman empire), the game might as well twist essentialism with contingency: maybe you could begin by choosing percentages from different cultures, allowing you certain technological and cultural choices but not others. Or, maybe your proximity and contact with other civilizations would qualitatively change your own civilization: you would think differently, build different structures, invent different ideas. The point of the game is this difference: Civilization III is a fantasy game not because the options are open but because any interpretation of history is itself a fantasy of the real.



Additional notes

3 Video games critics are uncritical, they are the opposite of literary critics, for whom joy is a perhaps interesting but always secondary concern to the consequences of punctuation and leftist politics. Video game audiences simply do not care. The primary criterion is not politics or even intelligence and characterization: they are graphics, sound, game play, and other wonderfully physical considerations.

4 For an excellent article on this subject, see Stoakes.

5 One multiculturalist critic of Civilization III suggested that the Chinese, for example, could have a Wonder of the World of its own. He did not suggest the Zhuang-zi, Tang Dynasty lyrics, Sung painting, Ming porcelain, the Tang legal codes, the Summer Palace or the first Emperor’s tomb at Xian. He suggested a fireworks festival (Bitz).

6 Other people have noticed this as well. See Bitz.



Works Cited

Bitz, Bako. “The Culture of Civilization III.” Joystick 101. 15 Jan 2002. 10 July 2003 <http://www.joystick101.org/?op=displaystory;sid=2002/1/12/222013/422>.

Hulme, T.E. “Notes on Language and Style.” Seattle, WA: University of Washington Book Store, 1929.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham : Duke University Press, 1991.

“Moumouni.” “Maintaining civ-specific cultures.” Online posting. 18 Jan 2002. Joystick 101. 10 July 2003 <http://www.joystick101.org/?op=displaystory;sid=2002/1/12/222013/422>.

Stoakes, Gale. “Why the West?” Lingua Franca. November 2001. 7 July 2003 <http://web.archive.org/web/20011122122053/www.linguafranca.com/print/0111/cover.html>.


All content, unless otherwise noted, (c) Ken Chen, 1998-2006. Ken Chen can be reached by email.

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