As much as I enjoyed the light my classes and Civilization shone on each other, I began to feel I needed something larger to put the whole past into a more coherent context. As I neared graduation, my advisor supplied the missing piece when he encouraged me to take a course in historiography. Most people think of history as all the stuff that happened before now, but that's just confusing history with the more general concept of "the past." To a historian, the past is just the raw material out of which history is created. True history, as a historian sees it, is the framework we use to give meaning to the past and draw connections between what happened and what happened next. Historiography is the study of those frameworks and, I found, just as applicable to historical videogames as it is to written history.


History is often been limited to stories about people in positions of power, but modern historiography has challenged that perspective. Karl Marx, for example, preferred to view history not as the struggle between nations, but as the struggle between classes. Even more recently, historians like Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn have shifted the focus of history onto the experiences of "ordinary" people. Those qualities are heavily abstracted in Civilization, often to the point of being completely unrecognizable.

As a historical model, Civilization ends up as a bit of a paradox. It embraces older (and some would say outdated) models of historiography, but it's also the best expression of historical cause-and-effect on a human level where character is just as important as impersonal historical forces. It just so happens that in the case of the game, all those motivations are preferences are your own. In engaging and examining those preferences, I found myself understanding relatively distant figures like Alexander the Great or Mao Zedong better than I might have if my knowledge of them were limited solely to textbooks and university lectures.

Another thing that Civilization taught me is that the videogame market doesn't demand any more accuracy than Hollywood does, so we end up with a game that's disproportionately weighted towards war and dictatorship, even though war may not always be the most significant source of drama in our history. Current historiographic models accept that general trends, like the rise of monotheism in the Bronze Age, for instance, are just as significant as wars, but Civ still puts more emphasis on fighting and treats everything else very indirectly. It's not hard to see why. Combat is the easiest type of competition to design, and it's the least likely to cause controversy through subjective interpretation.

Over the years, I've seen that trend in other historical games, from Paradox's exhaustive (and exhausting) Europa series, to Creative Assembly's more cinematic Total War games. I've also begun to despair that the models of these games are restricted by the market's expectations, which focus more on war as the main component of history and ignore other, more current ways of thinking about history. Many of us who played Civilization became fascinated with the real history of our world but soon discovered that kings and battles aren't the whole story. Can Civilization broaden its understanding of history without losing its accessibility? Probably not, but as long as it encourages players to think more about how the story of our own past, that's more than enough for me.

Steve Butts is glad he can finally claim all those years he spent playing games and studying dead people as research.

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