On Being Stuck in Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Promise of Freedom in Historical Games

By | December 5, 2023

The Value Foundation, an academic research foundation focusing on research on gaming, has posted on Twitter that 2 researchers from Leiden University have published a new research manuscript about Civilization! The research is featured in the journal of digital games and associated phenomena (DIGRA), and titled “On Being Stuck in Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Promise of Freedom in Historical Games“. In this manuscript they explore a question, which many of us civ-fanatics have probably pondered about multiple times, and that is Civ as a game where you shape history, versus Civ as a history simulator, and how much you can or actually cannot do to achieve this.

An excerpt from the manuscript:

You are never given, for example, the option to create your own mode of government. In Civ6 you can swap between a small pool of government structures, but these are euphemistic versions of governments from western history: autocracy, oligarchy, classical republic, monarchy, merchant republic, theocracy, democracy, fascism, and communism. You can make minute changes by prioritising certain policies over others, make your fascist government even more aggressive, or your merchant republic to work like a financial clockwork, but you have no option to fundamentally design your own government or mode of governance. If you are like us, this stuckness can initially be countered by coming up with all sorts of ‘wild’ political pairings for your game: Communist Americans, Democratic Aztec, the Zulu Republic! Still, this counterfactual trick gets old fast. The Zulu Republic in Civ does not meaningfully play or even look different from, for example, the Dutch Republic.

Contrary to Graeber and Wengrow’s ideas of play-kings discussed earlier, the ability to jump in and out of political structures, in Civ you are actively punished for doing so. Once, for example you move into the modern era and choose Democracy you can include 8 policy cards in the structure of your government, clearly making it a more powerful form of government. If, however, you decide to revert back to an oligarchy or to classical republic, both from the ancient era, you will only have 4 policy slots available. Such an action would place you at such a disadvantage compared to your adversaries that you might as well stop playing the game altogether. Wanting and growing power is central to the way the game forces you to play. The reason for this is that Sid Meier’s enterprise promotes the view that most fun is had by the player when they have the most power. In particular, when he looked at history to design Civ, he felt it were the kings who had the most power and as such would have had the most fun historically (Meier 2020: 204). If you concede your power in Civ, you concede your ability to have fun. In short, you don’t get to be a play-king, and jump in and out of power. Instead, you are to be a real king for the sake of fun.

You can download the whole manuscript here, and you can discuss the manuscript here with us. Let us know how often you see CivFanatics mentioned in there ;).