Civilization: The Validity of Nation-States

I’ve never played a Civilization game before with any semblance of seriousness. Granted, it’s never been the most accesible game in the world for someone, like me, who invested much of their time in JRPGs and action games when I was a child. Strategy wasn’t my strong suit, and still isn’t. If multiple games of various Romance of the Three Kingdoms in multiplayer have shown me anything, it’s that I lack that ruthlessness and killer instinct to survive and destroy my opposition in this genre. That doesn’t mean it’s too late to start! Only in the realm of video games could I talk like this and get away with it.

Thanks to the glorious Steam Summer Sale, I now have more Civilization than I should (pun!). I figured I should start with the latest one, as it’s been called the most accesible of the bunch. It always astounded me, in a way: how could the rise of modern civilization work in the model of a game? Somebody’s bound to be left out somewhere, right? It’s in the very word that the game holds aloft as its namesake that should give you some impression of the moral force behind it: civilization equals a good, and non-civilization equals a bad. I’m not making a value judgement on a video game’s intentions, but my academic background forces me to notice these things; I cannot turn away, for good or ill.

So it was in the tutorial. The game picked Denmark (which I understand is DLC of some kind), and Harald Bluetooth began his conquest/citybuilding/peace negotiations with all the people who lived on our tiny Pangea. Not sure why a viking marauder style nation would become the perfect introduction to the pacing and movement of a Civ game, but there you go. Not that I had any idea how to start a war machine at all.

That’s not me in the above picture; that’s probably what it should look like, given Denmark’s military bonuses. But, alas, I made then into the world’s trading and technology power, far outpacing its local neighbor the Romans. Exactly the opposite of real life! Civ ekes a lot of laughs out that way; anybody who’s seen Gandhi declare war and scream bloody murder at them knows what I’m talking about.

You start out as a minor tribe eager to eke out one’s way in a vast untamed wilderness, and eventually become a massive world power who (hopefully) dominates the others in a variety of different ways. There’s five or so victory conditions, one involving total conquest of everyone and the rest involving technology/diplomacy/cultural goals. The different goals give you something to work a strategy around, and also makes you wary of what opponents want to do throughout the game.

Given Denmark working completely against their strengths, it was necessary to consult some outside resource to play this properly. Since I’m ignorant into the ways of Firaxis strategy, the Civipedia remains an extremely helpful tool that explains everything you need to know about the game. How does production work? How much food do I need? What’s a good place to slap down Copenhagen, and should I build New York City in an actual harbor? Civipedia, to Firaxis’ credit, provide easy answers for this total noob to understand.

Still, when I saw the “Barbarian” sub-page, I was taken a little aback. Now, I’m all for the progress of human society, technology, and all-around good living, but the barbarians appear a universal evil in a sea of civilization. According to the Civipedia, “They hate civilization and everything that it stands for. They’re bad”. That’s not a direct quote, but it colors somewhere along those lines.

Now, I could just as easily accept this as a matter of inserting an element of human development as a game mechanic. Or, I could be righteously offended that killing barbarians often gets you rewards and influence with other countries and city states. They could certainly go a different way about this, but they don’t. I’ve thought about why, but if the game is Civilization, then such barbarians find themselves lumped into the same categories as anarchists – they oppose civilization and seek its destruction. They want to destroy human technology and advancement; in a word, they’re selfishly cling to their simple lifestyle when they could improve humanity as a whole.

Whether or not real barbarians actually meant this is not the point. It fits in line with the game’s emphasis on advancement and/or conquest; everything in the game has a particular quantity associated with it. Even religions aren’t immune to this; theology, for example, exists as a branch of the technology tree. It also provides a civilization with the ability to build the Hagia Sophia, a Wonder that gives specific bonuses. Does the Hagia Sophia provides actual bonuses, tangible physical ones, in real life? I’m going to guess the answer is “no”. One of the world’s greatest architerual feats, a symbol of the Eastern Roman Empire/Byzantine dominance and flourishing Christianity/spirituality over the region for over a milleniun, reduces down to a 25% greater chance to generate Great People to you society,

A little underwhelming compared to the real thing, eh? Still, I can understand this. Video games work according to numbers, and Civilization is all about numbers at the end of the day. The reductionist approach, then, is pretty much the only way to produce a strategy game proper, with straightforward rules and predictable results for strategies to succeed. The treatment of religion and spirituality can’t fit into this mold except in terms of its geopolitical, cultural, and social influence; all other elements can’t be replicated in this environment.

Video games shouldn’t try to represent what they can’t; that’s the origin of all bad artistic endeavors. But the results of these achievements can be replicated, and that’s what gives Civ its spark. The reduction of everything into these components shows just how much humanity has accomplished when it works towards a goal. The astounding development of human civilization traces back to ancient times, and it’s amazing to watch your civilization grow as well as those of your opponents. It’s the individual components – even religion gets in there – that bring together people of the same heritage to do marvelous things that we’re still understanding and analyzing.

Ethno-nationalism remains a part of modern life; the modern Olympics represent this impulse to celebrate the achievements of countries around the world in friendly competition, each eager to show what four years of intense dedicated training have wrought. According to Faith & Heritage, the modern model is the model of Biblical understanding of nations:

Ethno-nationalism is a belief system that affirms a traditional Christian understanding of families, tribes, and nations. Ethno-nationalism holds that nations are defined and rooted in common heredity, and that the foundations of a nation are based on common ancestry, language, culture, religion, and social customs.

Barring the weird historical jumps that any Biblical historian could lambaste me with in this instance, I don’t think this idea is wrong in itself. I had always been taught that Christians became a nation unto themselves, children of God, heirs to the Kingdom, and residents in said Kingdom though still on the earthly plane. Enough Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, though, would prove that the nation state model actually works throughout Scripture. God sets up a nation of chosen people, and they rule as a nation for many years. Even after that, God eventually restored that land (from a theological perspective) in modern times. The nation model continues to have success, and it probably will forever if Scripture is any indication. In Revelation 21, describing the New Jerusalem, the world isn’t destroyed; it is remade into God’s original intention. That includes, apparently, nations:

10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as astone of crystal-clear jasper. 12 It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. 13 There were three gates on the east and three gates on the north and three gates on the south and three gates on the west. 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

15 The one who spoke with me had a gold measuring rod to measure the city, and its gates and its wall. 16 The city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as the width; and he measured the city with the rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. 17 And he measured its wall, seventy-two yards, according to human measurements, which are also angelic measurements18 The material of the wall was jasper; and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. 19  The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation stone was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, chalcedony; the fourth, emerald; 20 the fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, topaz; the tenth, chrysoprase; the eleventh, jacinth; the twelfth, amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was a single pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.

22 I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24  The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; 26 and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it (emphasis mine)27 and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

-Revelation 21

Heaven isn’t some ambiguous otherworld; it’s here, although looking much more dapper and sinless. Perhaps I am wrong in this, but I don’t think the “afterlife” of Christianity will be much different than life here, except without all the sin that seperates man from God. Difficult to imagine, sure, but altogether awesome.

As long as nations don’t think they’re Greater than God, but Under God, they will continue to thrive and prosper. We’ve got Babel as an example of WHAT NOT TO DO in Genesis 11:

Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise wewill be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”  The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lordscattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lordscattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

I suppose that’s what made Israel different: they saw God as the reason for their success, rather than their own works. Civilization, then, is a very respectful take on the whole of civilization’s history. Everything contributes to the whole.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Interesting thoughts on Civ V! Yeah. My tutorial set me up as the Arabic nationality. I dug it a lot, being that I generally dig Arabness (and speak a really tiny amount of Arabic). But I was disappointed that the game favored military victory over all else. I kept wanting to win with Culture and Economy, but kept getting attacked. So I built up a huge military and used my camel archers to tear up Japan. 
    Unfortunately, strategy games are always emphatic on gaining power to exert that power over others. That obviously the way of the world. But you’re right to contrast that with the “power” of the Kingdom: surrender to God. I agree that all of Israel’s greatest successes came as they as a nation did just that. 
    But I wonder if anybody has enough imagination to design a game that’s about the dissolution of power as an aspect of gain in and of itself? That would be quite the inverted strategy game (or RPG even!).

    •  @Mjoshua In Civ games, usually Cultural or Scientific victory are the easiest, actually. You can chalk it up to the costs for war, as well as the problem of dealing with the decidedly “undiplomatic” AI (which is dumb). If you have the greater technology, they won’t attack you as much. Even the new hexgrid style system (One Unit Per Tile) makes a Domination victory the most difficult, which always struck me as an intentional design choice. Certainly, there’s war, but that always happens. I’d be interested in trying the new Religion mechanic, which I hear only represents the socio-political results of such things.
      I can;t imagine making a strategy game about the dissolution of power, to be honest. How would that even look? I guess not in my lifetime, anyway.

      •  @Zachery Oliver Yeah. I guess it would have to be an RPG that did it first. Imagine starting at level 100 and having to work your way down to 1. Each time, you lose power, you’d have to gain in something more important. Perhaps followers? Some kind of important reward. Sounds like novelty at first. But might have some merit…

        •  @Zachery Oliver Sorry to go all Monlyneux. 

        •  @Mjoshua Molyneux in the “God Game” sense, or in the “Fable” sense? Because if it was the former rather than the latter, such a game has already been made, now that I think about it. Black and White (and its sequel) allow you to play without violence at all, going for conversion instead – but it’s EXTREMELY difficult to play peacefully, as it should be. 

        • I mean more Molyneux in the “let’s talk about a great game concept” sense; the very thing that Molydeux has been mocking him for. I tend to think of a lot of things in terms of game design. Though, being a visual designer, I haven’t yet made any games…

        •  @Mjoshua My childhood was filled with the limited constraints of video games. It might explain why I was in school for so long (MTS BABY).