On Civ-Builders and Authoritarianism

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan‘s blog at The Atlantic linked to an essay at The American Prospect by Monica Potts on how civ-building computer games don’t really allow for liberal-progressive solutions to life’s problems. Games like The Sims and Civilization model a rightward ideology, if not by design then certainly by practice.

There are many ways to out-compete other civilizations and win [Civilization], but the surest is to become a war hawk: I devote all of my resources, early on, to building a massive army — of warriors, then knights, then musketeers, then tanks, and then guided missiles — and destroy weaker cities, one by one, until they all belong to me. Building a society on diplomacy and technological development sounds great in theory but takes thousands of years before I can reap rewards. Again and again, I choose war.

I’ve mentioned this tendency myself; in practice, when playing Age of Empires III, I commit heinous war crimes and atrocities on a regular basis. When building a civilization on New World shores, while competing with Napoleon and Frederick the Great, I don’t find a diplomatic solution. I can’t find a diplomatic solution. The game doesn’t allow it.

Civilization offered a number of different routes to victory, besides the military solution. There’s a cultural victory — your culture is so superior that it takes over the world. There’s the Alpha Centauri solution — your technological prowess is so great you send a colonization mission to the next nearest star.

Age of Empires III, which I love and still play, five years after its release, doesn’t offer, in its original version, a non-military victory. (The expansion pack, The War Chiefs, does offer a non-military victory — if you hold all the trading posts along the trading route, you can start a timer to claim victory.) I did discover once, quite by accident, a largely non-military victory in Age of Empires III — build a wall around an opponent’s colony and starve the colony of resources, whereupon the computer gives up. It was a time-consuming victory and, honestly, it wasn’t especially satisfying.

Age of Empires II offered the “Wonder victory.” Once you had amassed a certain amount of resources, you could build a Wonder. And if you completed the wonder and it stood for two hundred years (in-game time), then the game was yours. Or you could collect all five holy relics and gather them in a monastery. Again, if you held these for two hundred years, victory was yours.

I found, though, that I only turned to the Wonder victory when my military ambitions didn’t match the reality of the battlefield, my military options were all exhausted, or, more likely, I simply tired of the game.

More often, I turned to the relic victory because it was the more challenging victory to achieve. I would often have to attack my enemies (and, occasionally, my allies) in force to gain the relics. Once, I laid siege to an enemy’s town, just to capture two relics from his monastery. He had an extensive fortification of walls and guard towers, and a quickly as I could demolish his walls and towers with my massed trebuchet attack he would rebuild them. Only when his resources dwindled was I able to make much headway in my siege. That was an epic victory, and songs were sung long into the Viking night that told of the deeds of that day.

A relic victory was satisfying to me in ways that a wonder victory never was.

In a way, a wonder victory always felt like a cheat. I always felt that I didn’t win because I’d proven myself superior at building and managing a civilization, because I’d spread my domination across the worldmap. No, I felt like I won because I took the easy way out. That I won because I didn’t need to engage with my enemies.

There’s some truth to that. If one build walls sufficiently far away from one’s town center and they fully wall off the town from anyone crossing his “territory,” it’s possible to build a civilization in peace, amass the resources, and build the wonder without ever having to fight more than one or two skirmishes.

Which doesn’t model any sort of medieval period I’m familiar with… ;)

Diplomatic solutions, though, simply aren’t possible in the Age of Empires games. You can’t build a community and live in peace. It’s not an option.

And this brings me back to Monica Potts’ essay.

It seems to me that the reason why conservative solutions to civ-building games are so easy — and so satisfying — is because of the authoritarian nature of these games. You, as the gamer, are the only person responsible for making the decisions. For the most part, you aren’t held accountable by anyone. Yes, there can be dissatisfied workers in SimCity and your cities may break out in riots in Civilization, but these are easily handled — and they don’t deprive you of any real power. (Democracy makes it more difficult to wage war in Civ, and for that reason most players never go to that political system.) You don’t need to compromise with your people. You don’t need to build political consensus. You don’t need allies. You don’t need communities.

I don’t know how one would go about creating a civ-builder that encourages, or at least allows, a liberal, community-building mindset.

This won’t alter how I play Age of Empires, though. It really is a satisfying to grind an enemy civilization to dust. :)

One thought on “On Civ-Builders and Authoritarianism

  1. Clever article, and a great reminder of how great a game Age of Empires is.

    I spent countless hours playing AOE I & II, trying different strategies out, and that was always
    half the fun for me. My favorite tactic became walling up one (maybe two) of the resource quarries in the enemy territory early on, defending it with a tower and/or warrior or two as I chipped away at their gold. They would send citizens to capture it, but they would be unprepared for my aggression and would slowly lose gold in creating new citizens. I would leave them just enough to try and compete, but ultimately I’d crush them when my time was up (this was the strategy I would use when I only had a short time to play).

    Appreciated the trip down memory lane.

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