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All Civilized Nations

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On April 6th 2017, after launching missiles in to Syria without congressional approval, President Trump called on “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”

The appeal to ‘civilization’ is an odd one, betraying an essentially Trumpian worldview. It sounds as if Trump is deep in to a game of Civilization, and making a clear divide between the civilized nations and the bit players (city states and barbarians). And that actually is how Trump governs: like he’s playing Civilization (and not very well).

That makes, in reverse, playing Civilization a bit like seeing the world through Trump’s (or Bannon’s or McMasters’ or whomever has got his ear at the moment) eyes.

Unending Progress

The starting point to getting to a (small) hamfisted policy agenda is a belief that we’re better, that we’re at the pinnacle of human progression and it only goes up from here.

This is a fundamental assumption of Civilization as well. Technology is a march forward. There are no Dark Ages in Civilization. At most your progress is momentarilly stalled by other concerns.

There are, both in Civilization and Trump’s agenda, caveats. Sure, you may have that spearman still hanging out in your capital because there’s no reason to upgrade them yet. Sure, coal is ancient, but it’s also really really good (says Trump). Knowing that we are, at this moment, the best we’ve ever been allows us to ignore shortcomings. When we believe ourselves to be the pinnacle of progress, whatever we do is by definition the best. Coal can be accepted because research shows it’s better (not actually the case) and we’re working under the assumption that we are always moving forward, always becoming better.

Once backsliding and another dark ages are ruled out, once progress is bedrock, policy becomes much less critical. In Civilization a player never has to decide if a new tech is better, because every technology is by definition better. It may not be enough better to justify the research cost for that particular game state, but it is essentially better. If a technology is free it is always worth taking.

Trump’s policies feel like they come from the same point: our progress is guaranteed, so we don’t really need to be critical about how we develop. We are the best, we are the first, and therefore whatever we do is the best.

Great Men & Heroic Invention

Winning Civilization typically means having the best people. Not in a general population sense, but in a Trump attempting to describe his cabinet of rich white men sense: these are the best people and singular people (probably men, because sexism) are key to history.

This is the antiquated Great Man theory with a bit more nuance. In Civ VI in particular great people are a byproduct of investment in an area, more or less, making them a part of the overall inexorable march of progress. But they are still powerful singular individuals who have an outsize influence on the game. While a game of Civ doesn’t quite turn on great people, they are a factor on the scale of geography and natural resources.

Trump’s approach to building his team seems to revolve in the same way, with a focus on individuals as the key factors in policy. A claim to just getting “the best people” makes sense from this point of view: there are great people out there who will drive things forward, we will find them and recruit them with our great person points.

The Essential American

The “we” of Trump’s statements is always vague. Yes, as President, he is speaking for America. But there always seems to be an asterix hanging after it. Trump’s “we” appears to define Americans as natural born citizens who aren’t too foreign looking (but not too natural born either, as he doesn’t appear to care much for Native Americans). There’s an idea of “American” as something that people just are and which immigrants clearly are not.

In the same way, each civilization in Civilization has an essential nature. America, by the nature defined by Civ VI, is predisposed to take its continent through military conquest (gaining combat strength on their home continent). Civ manages to make manfiest destiny more manifest.

The idea that there is an essential nature to a specific political entity is a wonderful part of Civ’s gameplay. It gives the player different sets of tools they can use in each game, presenting new challenges like military victory as India. These references are also a key way Civ brings in historical fact, leading the player to learn about stepwells and stave churches.

But taken to the real world the idea of a national essence, perpetual and great, is at best a fantasy and at worst an excuse for a multitude of actions. There is no reason to help Syrian refugees with anything other than missiles fired at them because they are not American. Not just that it is not in the interest of the people and government currently called the United States of America (because arguably humanitarian aid is very much in our interest) but that these people are somehow fundamentally different than Americans by anything other than the random chance of where they were born.

Barbarians At The Gates

In Civ the most essentially different are the barbarians. From a gameplay perspective they serve an important purpose as an early threat and objective when civilization-vs-civilization warfare is impractical.

The idea of barbarians, though, is built on a fundamental divide deeper even than the essentialism of the civilizations: that there are people who are deeply wrong and backwards. There are savage humans and they are nothing like us.

For proponents of racism and imperialism this is a convenient justification of the same kind of wholesale slaughter that is so important to the gameplay of Civ. Civ VI makes barbarians less than human. Unlike other civilizations or even city states they cannot be negotiated with and their aims will never fully align with the player’s. The only possible reason to suffer a barbarian to live is that they might bother someone else instead. Their only value is the things you can take from them and the pain they may cause others.

This is the most direct problem with Trump’s choice of words to call on “civilized” nations: it implies that there are lesser humans who, by not having some arbitrary bit of social techology or viewpoint, are not as good as us.

Civilization and Trump both state this divide in a binary way that seems predicated on there being a fundamental difference in the code that makes up civilizations and barbarians. This is not nuanced appraisal of the value of a specific societal structure or way of life. It is a wholesale divide of humanity in to those who are civilized and those who are not and an attached deep value judgment on those who are not.

If you, as Trump apparently does, believe in an essential American nature and that there are people who are just coded differently out there, then his policies have a more firm basis. We cannot allow the barbarians in, because we have a +5 combat strength bonus on our home continent and they do not.

Enlightenment And The Threat Of Religion

The other major danger, as Trump appears to view the world, is religion. Or, more specifically, religions which are not ours.

Viewed pragmatically this appears to be pointless. Rallying against a broad set of beliefs instead of a specific belief—rallying against Islam instead of rallying against a specific set of oppresive beliefs of some offshoots—does nothing but create enemies and muddle a political agenda.

In Civ, though, religion is a velvet glove on the iron fist of another player’s victory. It’s easy enough to ignore until its too late and another player has a religion victory through converting the world to their religion.

I doubt that Trump sees it exactly this way. He’s probably not counting the number of Muslim-majority major cities in the world to make sure he won’t lose next turn. But the underlying idea, that a religion is an agent of our downfall, does seem to be a part of his view.

Victory Over All

The naming of a winner (religious or otherwise) is Civ’s greatest concession to gameplay. Civ is not a sandbox like Sim City or (parts of) Minecraft. There are winners and losers.

Mapping that to the real world is iffy at best. Did the Mongol empire win circa 1309 when it held approximately 16% of the world’s land area? That was certainly an achievement, and one that’s only been bettered once (600 years later by the British empire). But is it a victory? Is it an ending?

The conservative policies put forward by Trump are about winning. He seems to view politics and diplomacy as he would business or golf: a game to be won by great people. He wants America to win again.

Civ VI offers one victory condition that might actually seem like a victory to the population: a cultural victory, where your nation is so wonderful that everyone wants to visit. This, unfortunately, does not seem to be the victory condition Trump is pursuing.

To us, the people who live in these places, I suspect victory looks much more mundane, like healthcare and liberty and safety. We don’t win when our civilization wins.

Do You Want To Play A Game?

Defining what is or isn’t a game is a pointless digression, but there is a relevant element that seems important: playing a game means taking on rules that otherwise don’t apply to you.

By taking on rules that don’t normally we can see the world in different ways. The rules we abide by when playing a game can put us closer to the position of someone else. Playing A Distant Plain gave me a different perspective on the conflict in Afghanistan.

The fact that Civilization’s rules put us in the position of a conservative nationalist is not a complaint against the game. If anything, it’s a higher praise: playing Civilization gives insight in to what its like to see the world as an enemy.

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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