Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On Civilization

I wrote an entire post about Civilization VI, over the past few days. It started with observations about the theme music, "Sogno di Volare," and went from there, about what is or isn't disappointing about the game.

I can't write that post, anymore. I've got it saved. Maybe, another day.

Here's the video, anyway, because why not.

I wrote a lot of other things about the song, musically, and then I wrote:

The song is so earnest. It's absolutely refreshing in a way, after more than a decade of irony-based, cynical, and occasionally nihilist culture being dominant -- but it also leaves out what makes the task of simulating all of human civilization itself so interesting and daunting.

And I said that for all that Civ tries so, so hard to mount a global approach, deliberately seeking out non-Western, non-colonial civs and non-white, non-male leaders to head them... the game is still very profoundly an American one, with an American outlook towards what civilization itself should be and is.

It is the march of progress, of science, of commerce and war, and the nexus where those meet. It is the forward, upward momentum of technology and social progress, inevitable even if you aren't leading the pack.

I wrote that all during the first week of November, before the U.S. election. That election has since transpired, and everyone in the world knows what happened.

America just made a series of interesting decisions, and chose to go backwards and take the world along with. Yes, the world -- because a huge percentage of the planet is buying our blue jeans and listening to our pop music. We've had the cultural victory in the bag for decades, and nothing that happens within our borders stays within our borders.

And culture is the hole. It is this -- that ability to go backward, to regress, to be done in not by external forces but by the competing tides of movement and counter-movement within your own society -- that is missing from Civilization.

The map on my screen is a sterile world, where social forces have no sway and rational economic ones are the only ones modeled. I have, in four games (three won, one lost) and twenty hours, already come to find it profoundly unsatisfying.

A war, in Civ, is always against external forces. It is a neighbor who wants land, a conquering force that wants your natural resources, a religious zealot who will convert by force.

Civ cannot account for the fact that within your real civ, people look, think, and act differently from each other, and may, too, come to war within their own country.

Progress is not inevitable. It is hard, ugly work, and it always comes with regression as its twin.

The two are inseparable. For every reformation, there is a counter-reformation. For every revolution, a counter-revolution. For every black president, someone literally endorsed by the Klan and actual, non-metaphorical Nazis.

Maybe if we made a computer model of the world, we could see how it turns out and convince ourselves there's a way. But it wouldn't be a "game" anymore.

I am not sure I would find it any more satisfying to find my play civilization suddenly regressing or entering a civil war with itself, to be honest. If that's where Civilization went, I think I would find myself spending more time in hero's journeys, where the dragons might be present but can always be beaten.

Truth be told, I might need to go home today and do that anyway; I am not above escapism, and we all have to care for our mental health in our own ways. Watching disaster unfold in real-time around me is hard enough.

Because right now, there are at least 50 million people out there who don't seem to understand that the actual course of human civilization -- the real one, the real thing, where people live and breathe and eat and fuck and shit and die and want and hope and despair -- is not a game. That it is not a set of interesting choices and well-sculpted tiles. That a "game over" doesn't mean you reset; it means extinction.


  1. I'm with you. A lot of us are with you.

    I'm trying to draw encouragement from the fact that more people voted for Clinton than for any white guy in the history of ever. Yay, population increases and demographic shifts. But obviously, it wasn't enough; it wasn't the right people in the right places, it wasn't the right rules.

    I don't know how we're getting through this, but you're not alone out there.

  2. For what it's worth, Stellaris (which, though not perfect, has generally replaced Civ for me) does have a system where the citizens in your empire have different outlooks on the world, and might rebel in various ways, up to armed separatist revolt.

    Unfortunately it is not as interesting as it ought to be right now, though some of the planned updates to the ethics system look promising. It's still fun to encounter AI empires that have split into pieces. Gives things a sense of history.

    Stellaris is not great for escapism, though. Here and there you'll find planets with nothing but radioactive wasteland.

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