It took awhile, but after its release in 2005, the latest installment of the popular computer game Civilization IV was received warmly by many cultural commentators. Civilization IV, or CivIV for short, was hailed alternatively as “a video game for the ages,” and “a kind of social-sciences chessboard that blends history and logic into a game that demands a long, long attention span.” The basis for much of this regard among even conservatives as “crunchy” as Rod Dreher was a piece in the Weekly Standard, highlighting the background of the game’s founder, Sid Meier.
For the first time, religion plays an important part in the strategic gameplay. Victorino Matus sums it up this way,
Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay.
Indeed, while CivIV deserves praise for integrating non-material elements like religion and culture into the gameplay, in the end these pieces suffer the same fate as the rest of the game’s components. CivIV, ultimately, is less about the development of civilization than it is about the expansion of imperial tyranny.
The game begins by the player being vested with “absolute power” over all aspects of the lives of the citizenry. Religion quickly becomes a means of social control. When your civilization founds a religion, you are able to build structures that have other important benefits attached to them. You can spread your religion to neighboring civilizations, expanding your influence. But it doesn’t matter which religion you prefer, as long as it keeps your people happy.
And happiness, by the way, is something that can be bought in this game. If your citizenry is a little restless, simply up the percentage of money spent each turn on “culture,” and watch the happy faces multiply. That’s the CivIV equivalent of Caesar holding gladiatorial games at the Colosseum to appease the populace.
There are consequences to which sort of economy, government, technology, and religion you choose. But in the end all these choices are yours, and you are free to use whichever combination you find to be most expedient. The variety of game-ending scenarios, including world domination, UN diplomacy, and space-race technology races (which may indeed teach us something we need to know), mean that you don’t have to simply hack and slash your way to victory. But make no mistake about it, you are out to conquer your opponents, by any means necessary.
The popularity of the game, which has won numerous awards and spawned successful expansions, is well-deserved. It taps in to a fundamental human drive for dominance in a way that promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.
The revisionist history that is possible to reenact with the game is one of its greatest attractions. While it may cause some cognitive dissonance to see Mohandas Ghandi order an nuclear ICBM attack on an opponent’s city, it is also reassuring to know that Genghis Khan can expand his empire by means of free trade and cultural suasion rather than force of arms (although in some cases “revisionist” history ends up corresponding better to reality than accepted theories).
The game’s interface is straightforward and intuitive. One drawback of the game’s emphasis on strategy over action is that the conflict sequences are repetitive and buggy. The graphics when units are in battle leave much to be desired.
These tactical criticisms aside, however, CivIV is a superb game. But the adeptness with which it meets the deepest human desires for power and control teaches us as much about ourselves as it does about the progressive unfolding of history.