Civilization Can Help You Understand Napoleon Better

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There’s more to learn from Civilization than just Mongolian place names.

Civilization might not be the most accurate depiction of world history – the Aztecs never invented the microprocessor or communism, for example – but it does neatly demonstrate how important people and personalities can change the course of events. In Issue 295 of The Escapist, Steve Butts talks about how his love of Civilization not only led to him changing his major at college, but also helped him really get to grips with his studies.

When you become the ruler of a country, you have to meet a variety of conflicting priorities with a very limited set of resources. Some rulers might turn their economy and population towards military power … Others will forego military might to focus on economic infrastructure, hoping to buy off the enemies who are sure to call once they see full coffers and defenseless borders. The interaction and tension between these forces puts players squarely on the throne of history’s greatest rulers, giving them a chance to decide among these priorities.

What I realized from playing [Civilization] is that, like gamers, those real rulers were constantly making plans with no sure knowledge of what their rivals were going to do. In a game of incomplete information, the best gamers and best rulers adopt a rational strategy that will minimize the maximum damage an opponent can do.

But Civilization also taught me, more clearly than any historical example, that nations aren’t always ruled by these types of rational considerations; fear and honor play a powerful role as well. Fear will make a nation, faced with a strong but friendly neighbor, seek security in alliances that will, paradoxically, provoke conflict with that neighbor … Honor will encourage a people to pursue strategic aims that cost more than they’re worth … Any Civilization player who has found himself or herself caught in someone else’s war, or desperately wasting armies to conquer a completely worthless enemy city simply to satisfy his or her pride understands the value of these lessons.

Butts still had to hit the books to learn about the actual events, but Civilization gave him a much better understanding of why rulers made the decisions, and the mistakes, that they did. You can read more about it in his article, “The Missing Piece of Civilization.”

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