I have spent many summer afternoons for longer than I care to remember playing Civilization with an old friend. What this means, mostly, is that we have killed tons of people; so many millions that I can sometimes hear them, wailing, from the depths of my hard-drive’s temporary files. Some perished in the nuclear catastrophe following the collapse of trade talks between Byzantium and Ethiopia, global superpowers. Others were martyred in Sumeria’s struggle for the global triumph of the proletariat. A lucky few survived to old age in isometric suburbia, where, in some save file or other, they live still. Others will join them, whenever we next get the time.
I am like many people of my generation: my sense of history is grounded in a patchwork of games. Books, documentaries—these are entitled to add some polish. But they will never change the facts. My Old West was settled by Oregon Trail’s eight-color Conestogas and their dysentery-ridden crews. My Rome—the Rome of Sierra’s Caesar III—was built in a day. And if the distant past often feels eerily present to me, it is perhaps because I have done substantial time temping as Pharaoh of Egypt, Doge of Venice, and Japanese Shogun.
Games engage with the past in a way that is viscerally different than any other medium of representation. This is because they allow for a certain freedom, for an element of play. The vast empathic distance between our own times and others may be shortened in the accounts of great writers, but only in games is this gap entirely bridged. This is not to say that historical games are superior representations—they are too systematic to have the vivacity of great writing—but only that they allow for a uniquely transparent, even transcendent point of view.
Who is the player in Civilization, or the Total War series of games? There are individuals—heroes, military and political leaders—but they come and go. The player remains somewhere above, unconstrained by the limits of knowledge, lifespan, and individual perspective. Not for nothing is the viewing angle of most historical simulations called the “God’s eye”: in most of them, the player is less any particular person and more a disembodied will behind the course of events. Only a game could arrive at this kind of person-less perfection—every other representation resolves to some kind of voice.
This is both the best and the worst attribute of the historical game. By allowing the player to impersonate the course of history, the world of the game begins to take on the imprint of the player’s will. Things can be changed—there is a certain thrill in leading the helicopters of mechanized infantry of Sitting Bull’s Native American Empire through the trembling cities of Europe, or in launching the world’s first extra-solar spacecraft from Tenochtitlan.
But large historical simulations are systematic and goal-driven, and because of this they often fall short of articulating true historical contingency. The qualitative differences between different peoples and ways of living are reduced to quantitative bonuses and penalties: Egypt is “Creative” and “Spiritual,” the United States “Philosophical” and “Industrious.” And, while it’s true that some things change from game to game—who wins, in what way, the physical shape of the world—others are hard-coded. The circumstances of Civilization’s development vary endlessly, but the way its technology tree unfolds is always the same.
Airplanes, radios, refrigerators, corporations, modern armies, and mass media are represented as historical inevitabilities, rather than particular historical developments occasioned by the ascendancy of particular groups and ways of thinking. No matter how the game goes, the soldiers end up in camouflage, the leaders in suits. No matter what the chain of events, the whole apparatus of real-world history is assumed. The play in the system is closely bounded. You are fated to end up where others found themselves by chance.
Fortunately, there are very few things in games that cannot be fixed by communities of players. And for each representational gap in the world of a game like Civilization, there is, somewhere out there, a modification. There are new civilizations, more detailed terrain, rules that better approximate the vast intricacies of global life. And in the final count, whatever is reductive or programmatic in the historical game is more than compensated for by these thousands of products of players’ imagination.
—Columnist Julian C. Lucas can be reached at email@example.com.