Designing Religion

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Religion, with its complex social, philosophical, and political ramifications is inextricably connected to the development of human society. It’s no wonder then, that the aptly named Civilization series incorporates religion and spirituality directly into the gameplay. At the same time, a game of Civilization is not meant to be a faithful model of human history, and so using the concept of religion is a bit of a gamble. After all, how can something so directly connected to actual human history be represented in a game about changing the course of society?


“Sid’s games always have several defining themes with the two most important ones being that the game is truly epic feeling and that the player gets the chance to be something awesome,” notes Barry Caudill, a long-time Civilization producer. “Civilization epitomizes this because the player is the ruler of an entire civilization and the scope is all of human history from 4000 BC to the near future.” However, trying to implement the entirety of human development is a rather daunting task, both from a technological and design standpoint. “Of course, the computers weren’t that powerful back when he made the original Civilization, so much of the ‘epic-ness’ had to happen in the player’s imagination.” The choice to simplify broad concepts was intentionally reflected in the design philosophy of the first game. “It’s very intuitive that having food will make my population grow or that getting lumber from the forest will allow us to build things. Having these relatively simple and easy to understand systems allow players from almost any background to jump in and play.” Even so, religion was a special case. “Topics like religion can conjure up many different experiences and expectations from various players and that makes the rules much harder for people to understand.” As a result, the impact of religion in the first game was limited to placating an increasingly riotous population. “The early versions have religion as an abstraction, with Temples and Cathedrals adding to [the] overall happiness of the population, but the rest is left to the player’s mind,” says Caudill. “Sid accomplished the epic scope in the early games by abstracting certain things that the player’s mind could fill in and having more concrete concepts drive the play.” When it came to religion, a more concrete implementation would have to wait for future games.

Civilization II was a massive expansion on the series’ original concept, adding more technologies, more units, and a new combat system. As the gameplay became more complex, so too did the role of religion. Caudill confirms that “with the significance of religion and spirituality in history, it was simply a matter of time before it ended up as a gameplay element.” Early in-game religious elements like the Ceremonial Burial technology and Temple structure were retained, but the generic mid-game technology of Religion was replaced by the more gradual development of Polytheism, Monotheism, and Theocracy. More importantly, the Fundamentalism government type was added, which granted civilization-wide bonuses to population happiness and penalties to scientific discovery. It also enabled the Fanatic unit, allowing players to project military power onto the world map. Where religion had previously been an abstract way to reduce domestic unrest in the earlier games, it was now a concrete tool that players could wield to gain an advantage over rival civilizations. The ability for the player to use religion as an instrument for conquest was further expanded in the Call to Power games, a spin off of the Civilization core series, with the Cleric and Televangelist units. Through unconventional warfare, a player was now able to directly proselytize within cities, conferring economic bonuses that could be used to strengthen the player’s position.

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Despite its new role as a tool for conquest, the underlying philosophical impact of religion was still largely unaddressed by the Civilization series. William Westwater, designer of the Call to Power games, describes religion as “more of a philosophical element. It might compare to a social value. For example, take the cultural philosophy of ‘slavery’ as represented in human history. At different times, society says it’s either okay or not okay to enslave other people, embodied by cultural values which shift as a society develops. That is, religion touches on a civilization’s philosophical underpinnings rather than just representing a governmental choice.” The main challenge for the Call to Power development team was to find a way to reconcile player expectations about history with the ability to influence the outcome of the game. Westwater goes on to say that “It’s hard trying to use historical religions, because the moment you deviate from history, you quickly get into speculation about how those religious values might interact with modern technologies. What could a society with those religious values have done with some discovery at another time? What if China was still based around Confucianism, and had not had a revolution and still had an emperor, how do you represent that scenario?” The Civilization games are really about the core tension between historical expectations and the ability for the player to reshape that history. While religion could now be used to influence the map more directly through specialized units and government choices, the underlying social and philosophical implications were still left to the player’s imagination.


Civilization III added complexity in some areas while simplifying others. As Caudill explains, “Our focus is to make great games that provide players with fun and interesting choices and experiences. We don’t want to be in the business of trying to make political or social statements.” Fundamentalist governments were removed, and religion was absorbed into the broad concept of culture, simultaneously integral to a society’s beliefs and yet still as abstract as before. “There is no doubt that religion and spirituality have been defining forces in the creation of civilization and society, but it wasn’t until Civ III that we actually started to track the spread of cultural influence, and it wasn’t until Civ IV that we decided to add the founding and growth of religions as a game-play mechanic.” Civilization IV marked a significant redesign of the series. While the core premise remained the same, almost every aspect of the gameplay was altered. Soren Johnson, designer of Civilization IV, notes that “developing a fourth game in a series about a single topic – world history, in this case – is tough because what can we add to make the new version compelling without delving into obscure corners of subject matter unfamiliar to most players. Picking a ‘big topic’ let us avoid this problem as everyone has at least a passing familiarity with world religions.” Fixed government types were replaced with a set of mix-and-match civic choices, including an entire category devoted to religious doctrine. Each of the religious civic options had distinct benefits and subtle drawbacks, allowing players to custom tailor their societies based on philosophical preference.

For the first time in the series, Civilization IV also added named religions. Johnson “decided to make religion a big part of Civ IV simply because it was the biggest aspect of human history that the series had so far left untouched, especially in terms of ‘naming names’ by calling specific game elements Christianity or Buddhism or Islam.” With the inclusion of named religions, their corresponding value systems also made an appearance in the technology tree. Polytheism was coupled with the Hindu religion, Monotheism with Judaism. Of course, the addition of real religions was a loaded topic. “We did encounter some initial skepticism about religion, especially since we were going to have real religions in the game. People were concerned that we might offend believers or trivialize faith. In fact, we lost one key beta tester…because he just didn’t like the idea of ‘playing’ with Christianity,” says Johnson. The tension between historical expectation and player choice was still a challenge, and the choice of which named religions to include was a difficult one. “We chose the seven religions in the game based off of their fame, with an emphasis on ones still influencing us today. Thus, important movements like Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism as well as various dead pagan religions didn’t make the cut. I wanted players to feel a personal connection to the religious choices being offered in the game – whether they are believers or not – which was only possible with living religions.”


Simply discovering the corresponding technology was not enough to grant you the social benefits of a religion. First, the player had to spread it across the map. “By adding missionaries, which let players actively proselytize specific religions to specific cities, the players finally felt engaged in the process. Even though religion could still spread naturally, a determined player now played an active role in how a favored religion spread around the world. This change meant that the secondary effects of religion – happiness, civics, diplomacy – were now tools which the player could use to help strengthen his or her civilization.” Caudill relates a similar experience. “I think we finally got something that was fun and interesting when we added the missionaries to the game. That meant you were able to actively push your influence rather than waiting for the passive systems to kick in. It also kept us from violating one of Sid’s design rules by having the computer have more fun than the player, since all of the percentages and checkmarks were things that the computer was doing for you.”

Civilization IV changed everything when it added named religions to the game, and yet it managed to maintain that precarious balance between historical expectations and giving players the unprecedented choice to shape a society’s philosophical values. After all, the role of religion and spirituality in society goes far beyond temples and cathedrals, and no game about human civilization would be complete without it.

Alan Au is a freelance writer, academic, and games industry advocate. When he isn’t busy building an empire to stand the test of time, he spends his time exploring the connection between games, education, and health.

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