When asked what he thought of western civilization, Gandhi replied that he though it would be a good idea, or so the story goes. Meanwhile, in the world of Sid Meier’s Civilization, Gandhi is well known as a psychotic megalomaniac, prone to launching nuclear strikes on anyone who so much as looks at him funny. It’s the result of an oversight in the game’s programming; each AI-controlled world leader has base rating of 1-10 in a variety of characteristics, including aggression, in which Gandhi’s is set at 1. But a government choice of Democracy which, as a pacifist, Gandhi tends towards, will lower that aggression rating by a further two points. This sets Gandhi to -1, which rolls around and instead becomes a score of 255, because computers, and so we get Gandhi the destroyer of worlds. This might seem like something of a major failing, but given the scope of this game, it’s a wonder that the most notable bug is a bit of amusingly absurd mischaracterisation, as opposed to some utterly game-destroying catastrophe.
I mean, we’re coming off a string of three games in a row that are, by any measure, absolute giants, to one that aims to encapsulate nothing less than the entire span of human history. We’ve dealt with some pretty lofty ambitions before now, but nothing remotely on this scale. How can it possibly work? How can a single game possibly reflect the complexities of life to the degree that would be required of such a creation? But then, what is a game, but a system of arbitrary rules by which all participants agree to abide, simply for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the game? What is a civilization, but a system of arbitrary rules by which all participants agree to abide, simply for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the civilization? As above, so below.
In other words, the ground level nitty-gritty stuff of keeping a country running is tacitly delegated to some pompous duke or other, who in turn delegates to a count, and so on down to the peasants plowing the fields, so that you, the king, can concentrate on the really important decisions, like which part of your palace should be renovated to best glorify your majestic ego. Of course the game of Civilization reduces 100,000 people to a number attached to a generic face. That’s just what happens when you have that kind of power.
The Gandhi story may be an amusing case study in the concept of stack overflow, but it’s also kind of emblematic of the major issue with Civilization; Gandhi is far from the only entity in the game who bears little more than a superficial similarity to his real world counterpart. Yes, you can play as the Aztecs, or the Zulus, or the Mongols, and the game deserves some credit for acknowledging the historical importance of these cultures alongside the Greeks and the Romans, but acknowledging their existence is a far cry from actually representing them. The fact is that, besides a few superficial cosmetic changes, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference which civilization you choose. Perhaps the Pyramids will be built in Paris, and perhaps the cure for cancer will be discovered in Babylon, but while the names and faces change, the broad arc of history will play out the same way every time. As if modern day neoliberal capitalism is the inevitable and final destination of humanity.
It’s not that I think Civilization ought to create an infinite number of detailed and varied socioeconomic models depending on which butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo; that would be utterly preposterous. Indeed, the very absurdity of that idea is, in fact, the point; while it may offer the occasional criticism of some of the values of the western society that produced it, the game cannot, ultimately, escape the fact that is a product of that society. It may not offer a straightforward embrace of imperialism, but it is undeniably dripping with imperialist tendencies. The game does not actually require you to act like a fascist dictator, but that is, if we’re perfectly honest, an option that we tend to favour, because it’s just more fun. The devil has all the best tunes, as they say. And perhaps we should accept the grim reality that Civilization ultimately presents: that our only hope of salvation is to leave the world behind altogether.