What I Learned from Games & Comics

The Missing Pieces of Civilization


I was 19 when Sid Meier’s Civilization came out and it quickly became an obsession for me. I drew my maps, made spreadsheets of units, charted different tech paths, and sat through many a college lecture thinking about my “next turn” when I should have been taking notes on Boyle’s Law or the customs of the Yanomamo people. Eventually I thought, “If I’m going to be spending so much time thinking about chariots and the Sistine Chapel and Abraham Lincoln, maybe I should at least be doing it in classes that are actually about those subjects.” One quick trip the registrar later and I was officially a history major.


For the next few years I learned about the Council of Nicaea, the Defenestrations of Prague, and the Berlin Airlift. I found myself drawing parallels between Civilization and the people and events I was studying. I discovered, for instance, that triremes had to stay in coastal squares not because of the whims of a designer, but because triremes weren’t designed for long voyages and needed to put ashore every night. But more important than the particular details, I began to get a sense that the big course changes in the river of history were made by people who had motivations I could relate to.

As the god-like ruler of an entire nation from the invention of the wheel to the colonization of other planets, I was calling the shots. I was Mohandas Gandhi leading an army of tanks in my conquest of the peaceful Greeks. I was Genghis Khan building a massive railroad network to increase the yield of my farms. I was Queen Elizabeth mobilizing my entire economy in a desperate race to beat the Aztecs into space.

Even though the specific scenarios that came up were entirely fictional (what proper historians call “counter-factual”), the idea that small events can alter the course of the entire future is very much a part of history and an essential part of Civilization. What if the Spanish Armada had survived to land troops in England? What if Hannibal had marched on Rome? What if Germany had the atomic bomb during the final days of World War 2? Some historians find this type of conjecture tedious (though not all do) but gamers love it. Civilization taught me these “what if?” exercises are not only fun but also very illuminating.

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, trusting in mighty armies to keep the people in line when their social welfare is threatened. 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 this game 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.


Every Civ player will have a lot of personal stories that illustrate these objective strategic choices, but let’s take one from actual history, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. During the Second World War, the Japanese prepared to sail reinforcements around the island of New Britain. The Allies knew they were coming, but not whether they’d be traveling along the northern or southern coasts. The Allies only had enough planes to search one route at a time, but needed to find the Japanese fleet as quickly as possible and begin bombing it. The trick was to determine which route the Japanese would be taking; if the Allies guessed wrong, they’d lose a whole day of bombing.

Either route takes three days for the Japanese, but the northern coast was covered in storms, which would delay the Allied search and bombing efforts for at least a day. So if the Japanese sail south and the Allies search south, the bombing can start right away and the Japanese fleet endures three days of bombing. If the Allies search north instead, they waste a day looking for the fleet and then find it after switching to the southern route on the second day and inflict two days of bombing damage on the fleet. If the Japanese sail north and the Allies search north, they find and bomb the fleet starting on the second day, leading to two full days of bombing. If the Allies search south instead, they get their worst possible result, not finding or attacking the fleet until the final, third day.

The payoffs here are fairly obvious. Knowing that the Allied commanders have the same information, the Japanese sailed north because the worst possible result, no matter what the Allies did, was only two days of bombing. The Allies also had to choose to search north because, no matter what the Japanese did, they would still get at least two days of bombing. Unless the enemy made an obvious mistake, neither side can obtain a better result by changing their strategy. If you’re able to reason through things this way, the strategies you find in history and games can begin to make more sense.

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. History is full of these mistakes, from the Peloponnesian War to entangling alliances that led to both World Wars. Honor will encourage a people to pursue strategic aims that cost more than they’re worth. King Pyrhhus’ victory at Ascalum ruined him, and the Luftwaffe’s switch to civilian targets during the Battle of Britain gave the RAF time to rally and drive back the attacks. 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.

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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