First released in 1991, Sid Meier’s turn-based strategy games, the Civilization series, quickly captured the attention of gamers everywhere. Though not the first strategy game to allow players to play as historical civilizations and certainly not the last, it did allow players the unique opportunity to control a civilization from its beginnings in the Stone Age to its end in the not-so-distant future. It allows players to construct incredible wonders, build necessary infrastructure, found religions, declare wars, explore new lands, and interact with historical leaders.
Civilization has kept up its innovation throughout the series and claims to have perfected its formula with Civilization VI, which allows players to interact with “dynamic AI leaders” and better politics. This includes giving leaders historically accurate agendas (for example, Queen Victoria of England’s historical desire to expand and have a city on all continents guides her play style), granting players the ability to barter with other leaders, ally or request tributes from city-states, and convene world congresses once your people are “civilized enough.” However, for as much good as Civilization does in the representation of international politics, it does surprisingly little on the homefront of domestic politics and, in fact, presents a false idea of how governments are run.
In the game, players can adopt different governments from republics to monarchies to downright fascism. The different governments each provide unique and different benefits that might make it easier to meet a certain victory condition; however, implementing these governments does not change the playstyle of the game. Playing as a democracy is still the same experience as playing as a totalitarian state because even though the player might be able to build different wonders or gain certain boosts to city growth with an oligarchy as opposed to a Merchant’s Republic, the choices the player makes as a leader are still the same. Players are able to rule over their civilizations without any pushback from their citizens whatsoever, which might be authentic in a totalitarian state, but is absolutely not representative of any other form of government.
For example, in a democracy, a Declaration of War would likely take days if not months to be passed if it was passed at all while the game treats a democracy declaring war like any other power. War is instantaneous and citizens’ happiness levels are not lowered by the player’s objectively single-minded decision. There are a variety of other decisions presented to players that are treated in the same way, and it all boils down to this: leadership in any form of government is presented as if all governments are ruled by one individual. It really doesn’t matter if players are technically ruling over a democracy; despite any unique in-game benefits, players rule over any type of government as if they are oppressive dictators.
While this may not seem like a big deal, it actually presents a big issue in the way that players perceive how governments work. The reality is that there is an enormous difference between governing a democracy and governing a totalitarian state, and those experiences should be shown. By definition, democracies cannot be controlled by one individual and the experience of selecting it as the player’s’ main form of government should result in a slower-paced game, where a player might have to wait for the people to vote before they decide to declare war on their neighboring country. Choosing a democratic government only to honor it with a few unique buildings and benefits does the entire system of democracy a disservice and creates real problems for how players perceive how this form of government actually would operate in real life. On the other side of things, totalitarian governments are much more like the default playstyle, wherein leaders directly govern their people. However, with these governments, leaders should have to deal with more unhappiness and unrest from the population, potentially putting them at risk for uprisings and rebellions should the player start picking fights with powerful countries or raising huge armies for wars over simple territorial disputes. The current version of Civilization eliminates all of these differences and presents an incredibly single-minded view of government, where the intricacies of politics and leading are washed away in favor of a singular, dictator-like play-style that is simply disguised by the labels of other forms of government.
There is an argument to be made that it’s fine if the portrayal of government isn’t historically accurate. After all, it’s just a game, and having to deal with citizens would make the entire experience more tedious. However, there are two counters to this: first, Civilization prides itself on realism. It seeks to create an environment where players can really feel like they are controlling every aspect of a historical country, and indeed in harder levels of the game, players are really challenged by complex issues like citizens being influenced by oppressive “Western Culture” analogs. Civilization wants to be real, and if it truly intends to commit, it needs to fix this issue.
However, the other reason may be even more important. Civilization and other strategy games are incredibly influential to kids and teenagers. It is the reason why many of my high school friends really got invested in our history classes at school. It was really the first exposure we had to politics and government and having the experience to play as historical leaders heavily influence the way we started thinking of real-world politics. Civilization is intensely interactive, and playing it can do wonders for kids and teenagers by exposing them to how difficult it is to rule a country. Though it doesn’t have to be completely accurate, Civilization should at least strive for some more accuracy in the field of governing, because at the end of the day, that’s really what Civilization is about: a player governing their civilization and confronting all of the real challenges a leader would.