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Sid Meier's Civilization

The announcement trailer for Sid Meier's Civilization VI made me very excited. Not just because there was a new iteration of my favorite PC game franchise, but also because the message of the trailer made me excited for the possibility that Civilization VI would take a much more humanist and globalist approach to its gameplay and victory conditions.

The Civilization games have always had a very optimistic tone, treating human development as being constantly progressing forward. Growing your civilization and building more things is almost always better. For the most part, Civilization treats human history as a constant forward march towards a better, more prosperous tomorrow.

This is despite the games including mechanics for "Dark Ages", climate change, nuclear fallout, occasionally pandemics and plagues, and so forth. Regardless of these mechanics, the civilizations of the game never regress, unless it's by the sword or gun of a conquering civilization, in which case, that other civilization is glorified. Climate change or nuclear winter can run rampant and render the surface of the Earth borderline uninhabitable for modern human life, but a civilization can still accumulate enough science or tourism or faith or diplomatic votes to win one of the various victories, or they can be the sole surviving civilization, presiding over a barren wasteland. But it's still a win.

Civilization is a game about cutthroat nationalism.

Despite vague gestures towards diplomatic cooperation and solving global crises, Civilization is, at its core, a game of competitive, cutthroat, zero-sum nationalism. This design ethos is probably the result of Civilization's inspirations coming from competitive board games like Avalon Hill's Civilization and Risk. "Our country is better than your country," and the whole game is an exercise in proving that. Further, one civilization's success must come at the expense of every other civilization's failure, even if those civilizations are friends or allies. One civ wins; all others lose. Every decision made is done to move your civilization closer towards one of those victory conditions, and every diplomatic agreement, trade deal, or alliance that you strike is only a temporary means to that end.

So what did Civ VI's trailer do to change my expectations for that game?

This essay is also available in video format on YouTube.

The trailer

Well, first, it's important to know how previous trailers and intro cinematics for Civilization games had introduced their respective games. Usually, they emphasized a single nation or leader doing great things. Winning wars, building wonders, developing advanced technologies, and so forth. And they usually ask the viewer: "How will you run your civilization?" and "Will your civilization stand the test of time?"

The trailer for Civilization VI takes a different approach. Let's take a look:

Civilization VI's announcement trailer celebrates the collective achievements of all of humanity.
"We are the explorers, the inventors, the architects of change, the builders of a better tomorrow.
We strive, we dream, we inspire, always towards something greater.
All the odds we defy, the risks we take, the challenges we endure, only make us stronger.
There's no end to our imagination, and no limit to civilization.
"
   - Sean Bean narrating Civilization VI announcement trailer

Notice the language that is used. The Civ VI trailer uses plural language such as "we", "us", and "out". "We are the builders of a better tomorrow.". "the challenges we endure, only make us stronger." "There is no end to out imagination, and no limit to civilization.". And so forth. The trailer for Civilization VI isn't a celebration of one civilization or leader rising above all others and being crowned the "greates" civilization; it's about the collective achievement of all of humanity -- not a civilization, but all human civilization!

It's a beautifully humanistic expression that emphasizes plurality and doesn't elevate any one culture or race or nation above any other. It celebrates the collective technological advancements, engineering, art, and struggles of all of humanity, without implying that any one nation or group has the best stuff. It emphasizes that we can overcome challenges by working together, and come out the other side stronger for it. It implies that when we cooperate to build something or solve a problem, the result will be better than what any individual entity can accomplish.

Granted, that is a matter of interpretation. The words "we", "us", and "our" could just as easily be interpreted as referring to the collective population of a single civilization or nations. You know, "we the people, in order to form a more perfect union..." and all that. But that's not how I heard it in my head. Even if you chose to still see this language as nationalistic, the ambiguity present in this language is still a subtle shift from the more explicitly nationalistic tone of the previous games' trailers and intros.

I thought that plurality and cooperation would be
a more fundamental concept to Civ VI.

When I saw this trailer for the first time, I thought that perhaps, this game, the 6th in the series, would differentiate itself from the previous games in the franchise by taking this humanist message more to heart. I thought that the sense of plurality and cooperation present in the trailer would be representative of what Firaxis was going for with the game itself -- that it would be a major emphasis of the gameplay's design, or maybe even an artistic theme present throughout the game.

Unfortunately, the actual game does not quite live up to the ideals presented in this trailer.

The actual game

Trailer aside, Civilization VI, as a game, does not veer too far from the formula established by its predecessors. In many ways, the vanilla release of Civilization VI was just an iteration of the ideas of Civilization V, but with much higher production quality and a more finished, polished feel compared to Civ V at its release.

Civilization VI is still a strictly competitive, nationalistic game, based around a zero-sum victory model in which a single victorious leader wins at the expense of all other civilizations and leaders. One civilization wins, and all other civilizations lose. This is true matter how closely allied or related the winner might be from some of the losers, and no matter how intertwined their economies or research or culture might be. If you aren't the winner, then everything you've ever done throughout the game is rendered moot.

Another civilization launching a colony ship to Mars isn't a monumental scientific and technological achievement that is celebrated by the entire world. Instead, Civilization VI acts as if that one nation launching a Martian colony ship causes all the other nations to crumble to ruins and dust.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the United States and other western democracies didn't all just throw up their hands and say "Well, the Soviets won. Guess we'd better all learn to speak Russian.". No, it was taken as a challenge to put a man -- an American man -- on the moon by the end of the decade.

Civ's model of the space race is based on the competitive Cold War space race.

In this case, the United States and the Soviet Union were in conflict, and these Cold War-era contests form the basis of most of Civ's victory conditions, even in matches in which the political circumstances do not remotely mirror the real-life Cold War. In the Cold War, there was a pressure to match and exceed the Soviet accomplishments in order to "beat" them. But would that have been the same if an allied nation like the UK, or France, or Australia, or Morocco had launched the first satellite or person into space? I would certainly hope not. I would hope that, had that been the case, the United States would have worked with those allied powers to move their space program further, even if it meant the first person on the moon would be British or Moroccan instead of American.

But the United States rising up to meet that challenge didn't mark the "end of history" either. It lead to space shuttles, space stations, and eventually to the privatization of space and impending space tourism that we're seeing start to flourish now. And since the decommissioning of the NASA space shuttle fleet, United States astronauts fly to the International Space Station on Russian rockets, and American astronauts co-habitate on the ISS with Russian cosmonauts, and both perform scientific experiments together. History goes on, and both nations benefit from the cooperation that goes on within the ISS. Or at least, that was the case until Russia recently went rogue and invaded Ukraine. Who knows how these recent events will shape the future political environment.

Scientists and astronauts from many countries collaborate on the I.S.S..

Eventually, in Civilization VI, there comes a point when cooperation breaks down, and any civ that is in a position to compete for a victory has to beeline for it, and also work towards slowing down the victory progress of all other civs. And if the A.I.s of the game are programmed to try to win, instead of to simply role-play, then they'll have to do the same as well. This might mean declaring war on a civ who is further along a victory track than you are on yours -- even if that civ has been your BFF ally and trade partner for the entirety of recorded human history. Even if it doesn't mean outright war with a long-time ally, you will, at the very least, be sending spies to sabotage critical infrastructure. You can trade the entire game to boost each other's economies, have declared friendships and alliances, share the same religious and political values, and be pledged to defend each other in wars, but when it comes time to build that spaceship or vote for world leader, or fill your museums with art and artifacts, suddenly this planet ain't big enough for the both of us.

This seems to fly in the face of the plurality presented in the teaser trailer.

Cooperative, globalist mechanics

For the sake of fairness, this isn't to say that Civ VI is completely devoid of more pluralist, globalist, or humanist mechanics, especially in its two expansion packs.

In general, there was an attempt to give leaders more of a personality, and some of these A.I. leaders are much friendlier and more cooperative than others.

The Rise & Fall expansion provides scaling benefits for maintaining long-lasting trade partnerships and alliances. Betraying a long-time ally can potentially cripple the economies of both nations. These diplomatic interactions can even create passive espionage with friendly civilizations without the need to explicitly send operative to spy on them, as if they trust the player enough to volunteer the information freely.

Civ VI does provide greater long-term reward for maintaining amicable relations.

The Gathering Storm expansion adds natural disasters and a climate change model that increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters as all civilizations' industrial and military activities contribute towards the cumulative greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere. It takes the existential threat of real-life climate change seriously as a gameplay mechanic and impediment to progress, and it's something that every civ in the game has to work together to solve.

These are all good ideas, but at the end of the day none of them (not even all of them combined) overwhelm the selfish incentives of the game's rigid and discreet victory conditions. Trade partners and military allies cannot win the game as a single coalition, no matter how long that alliance has been going or how strong it is. Eventually, one member of the coalition triggers a win state and forces their trade partners to all lose, or that single member has to actually turn on those partners or allies to slow their allies' victory progress.

Even the climate change mechanics do not force the civilizations into greater cooperation, as a civ can still win the game regardless of the state of the planet's climate. If you're far enough ahead, you can simply ignore the effects of climate change and power through to a victory, even if your victorious civilization now presides over a hot, desolate, flooded, storm-riddled wasteland of a planet. Better to come in first place in hell than second place in heaven, I guess...

Civs do not need to stabilize the global climate in order to win.

At the end of the day, one leader still reigns supreme, and all others lose. And all those trade agreements, alliances, world congress resolutions, and emergency foreign aid are proven to all have been just a means to an end.

Alternative victory models

This hasn't always been the case though. There are examples of 4x games (both Firaxis-developed and from other studios) that have taken other approaches to victory.

Civilization IV included an option called " Permanent Alliances", which allowed exactly two allied civilizations to combine their nations into one polity that shares science, culture, resources, and (most importantly) victory.

I even thought that the ideology mechanic of Civ V's second expansion, Brave New World, could have been a great way of introducing cooperative, coalition victories. In that game, it could have been one of the ideologies that wins the game, rather than a specific civ. Whichever ideology dominates the globe would win, and whichever civs had fully-embraced and spread that ideology could have been considered the winners.

Beyond Earth even went a bit further in this direction, but still limited victory to a single civ. In Beyond Earth, the victory conditions are each tied to one of three affinity paths. But even in that game, the winner of the game is the first civ to complete any of the affinity victory conditions. All other civs lose -- even if those other civs had adopted the same affinity and have the exact same goals. They still can't cooperate to fulfill that shared goal together.

Beyond Earth ties its victories to each of the three affinities.

This was especially disconcerting in Beyond Earth, since a running theme of that game was the idea of the "Great Mistake" that had resulted in people fleeing the Earth to begin with. The exact nature of the "Great Mistake" is never specified, and is left open to each player's imagination, but the opening cinematic heavily implies that the mistake in question was the over-population and pollution of the planet -- a direct result of the competing economic interests of Earth's nations. But the civs of Beyond Earth don't seem to learn from that mistake. Instead of working together to build sustainable colonies, they just go to another planet to repeat the same mistakes over again.

Amplitude's Humankind takes a different approach by basing the winner off of a concept called "Fame": basically victory points that are accumulated throughout the campaign. Yes there is still one single winner, but the use of a scoring system instead of discreet victory conditions means that the different players are ranked and runners up are also awarded and celebrated on the victory screen. Their accomplishments aren't just dismissed and rendered invalid or moot. This might provide a reason to keep playing, even if you fall behind and probably won't get first place, because you can still compete for 2nd or 3rd.

Humankind uses victory points, allowing cultures to compete for 2nd or 3rd place,
even if one culture is too far ahead to be surpassed.

Furthermore, one of Humankind's end-game triggers is for the globe to become contaminated by pollution or nuclear fallout to the point that it is rendered unfit for human life. I've personally never come close to seeing that happen. One culture always runs away and triggers the end game long before the other cultures have had a chance to heavily industrialize. But from what I've read, rendering the globe unfit for human life does not result in everybody losing, it simply triggers point-tallying early, and a winner is still awarded. I appreciate that Amplitude at least considered the idea of one player's selfish play potentially ruining the game for everybody, but it's disappointing that they didn't include an outright "everybody loses" condition

I wouldn't mind seeing a similar approach taken with a model similar to Civilization VI: Gathering Storm's climate change mechanics, such that stabilizing the global climate (whether through mutually-agreed upon climate accords, diplomatic sanctions, or military force) is a necessary prerequisite for any player to win.

Heck, even in the competitive tabletop board games that I play (including the ones based on the Civilization video games), there is the possibility of a tied game. Players can even agree to a truce to work towards that tie if they want to. Maybe 1 player in a 3-player game is snowballing towards a victory, and the other 2 players decide to gang up to defeat that snowballing player, and divide the winnings between themselves so that they both come out the other end as the overall winners of the game. Inversely, if 2 players are close to victory, they could agree to take the tie instead of having to attack each other and drag out the game, or risk that they weaken each other so much that the 3rd player can sneak in a victory and cause them both to lose.

Board games based on Civ allow for ties.

You can't do these things in Civilization -- at least not in the video game, as you can do it in the board games.

Life is not a zero-sum game

At the end of the day, real life is not a zero-sum game. This is becoming even more true as technology and social progress have the potential to make energy and material resources cheaper than dirt, eliminating much of the need for national and individual competitiveness. And also as the problems that we face become even more global and require the cooperation of multiple nations around the globe to solve. Whether it's the warming climate, nuclear proliferation, digital terrorism, refugee immigration, economic inequality, or the disturbing revival of fascistic, anti-democratic, right-wing nationalism, no one country can solve these big problems on its own. It is not the case that in order for one civilization to stand the test of time, all others must fall. Civilization VI's announcement trailer seemed to recognize this. It's too bad that the actual game didn't. And I hope that Civilization VII makes more than token efforts to acknowledge that.

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