Should Civilization 5 be used for Education?


Or with the recent interest in ‘gamification’ following a talk by Jesse Schell, perhaps the question is– what can we learn about gamifying education from Civ 5?

1. De-historicizing Historical Objects

What I find perhaps most engaging about Civ 5 is the way history is, in a sense, dehistoricized.  What I mean is, when playing the game it’s as if history happened (after all, we have things such as the pyramids, the Louvre, and the A-bomb), but the way history came into existence is negotiable.  Just yesterday, I, the leader of the Japanese people, built the Hanging Gardens.  Babylonia be damned.  I also built the Colossus of Rhodes, now etched forever in my mind as the Colossus of Tokyo.

Perhaps it is my obsession with the Zombie Apocalypse, but I imagine Civ 5 is sort of what it would be like if we came back to the earth after all human life had been wiped out.  All we had left were the objects of humanity, but not humanity itself.  That is the brilliance of what Civ 5 offers: not a chance to make a new history (there is virtually nothing ‘made up’ in Civ 5), but a chance to rewrite history as the victor.  Maybe I like the fact that the Colossus was built in Tokyo.  Maybe I think it makes more sense for the Japanese to have built the Hanging Gardens.  I like to be England and not make one ship the entire game.  And why not?

It could be argued that this gives people a skewed view of history.  I disagree.  I think Civ 5 gives people cultural touchstones, not a linear depiction of how history happened (as if it was linear anyway).  *embarrassing reveal ahead* Until recently, I honestly did not know what the Cristo Rendentor was (well, I knew what it looked like, but I didn’t know what it was called or what it stood for).  But now I have that touchstone in my memory.  I even went and googled it after a game to learn more about it.

The benefits of building wonders aren’t chosen idly, so what about Cristo Rendentor makes it produce no anarchy and generate a great general?  It’s like a tiny mystery packed into each wonder.  Why does the Colossus provide a benefit to commerce instead culture as most other statues do?  Perhaps this is theorycrafting in its most awful sense, but learning about the intricacies of the historical objects is actually pretty fun and can be rewarding in the game too.

2. The Logic of the Illogical; or, Why does Germany hate me?

My mom called me 4 times this weekend.  She tried 4 different Civ 5 games, but Germany would declare war on her every time until she got frustrated and quit.  While it may be true that Civ 5 is, as all games are, a set of algorithms that dictate gameplay, the leaders in Civ 5 are delightfully unpredictable.  That is, unless you can understand at a deeper level what the leader is all about, they may seem very unpredictable.

In the game, Germany earns the following description: “Germany is an upstart nation, fashioned from the ruins of the Holy Roman Empire and finally unified in 1871, a little more than a century ago.  The German people have proven themselves to be creative, industrious, and ferocious warriors.  Despite enduring great catastrophe in the first half of the 20th century, Germany remains a world-wide economic, artistic, and technological leader.”  Germany gets extra money from destroying barbarian encampments, and there is a chance the barbarians will join the Germans after defeat.  My point is, Germany is created as a nation in love with war.  Their perks involve battle, their extra unit is the Panzer, and they are often very disagreeable in the sphere of international diplomacy.  The Germans are completely characterized in this game by that “great catastrophe in the first half of the 20th century.”  To understand that, is to be better able to predict their behavior throughout the game.

It seems counter-intuitive to me as a gamer to look outside the game for clues to gameplay. ie. breaking away from the ‘magic circle’ is actually part of the game.  I am more often concerned with figuring out patterns and algorithms that will dictate action in the game, but Civ 5 forces me to look to context in order to better predict how other nations will act.  I want to learn about Askia and the Songhai people, because I have no idea how they will act in the game.  Outside of a vague memory of the name, probably picked up from a history channel special, I don’t know who Hiawatha is, how he led his people, or what his temperament was.  I didn’t know what a longhouse was or why it would be beneficial to my people.

Essentially, the game is illogical as a gamer but logical as a person.  I think this is an incredibly unique trait for a video game.

3. Achievements (Steam Only) and Last Thoughts

The achievements are one of the most enjoyable parts of the game (if you are an achievement freak, like me).  It’s not that you get achievements frequently (you don’t), but it’s what you get the achievements for.  Like the wonders and the leaders, the achievements are each constructed with a unique little mystery about history.  Achievements like Tomb Raider, City of Science, or I Can Has Nukes? May be self-explanatory.  But achievements like Here Ends the Noble Savage, The Pen is Mightier, or He Threw a Car at my Head may take a little more explanation and thought.

Here Ends the Noble Savage brings up a point that I think about a lot when playing Civ 5.  How can you represent someone’s culture without being stereotypical?  A friend of mine studying Native American rhetoric asked me how you represent a Native American in a game without using a feather.  Using a feather of course is stereotypical, insensitive to the religion and culture of many tribes, and is not always accurate.  My friend’s tribe, for example, didn’t use feathers.  Ever. And I don’t know if Wu Zetian actually wore silk robes and eye shadow.

So is Civ 5 racist? Sexist? Stereotypical?  I’m not sure.  Sadly I don’t know enough about history to go through the game and see if things are totally accurate.  I know that the portrayal of Americans as a war-like nation is pretty accurate.  Which makes me think that each culture is represented as a specific time-period.  Americans, for example, are stuck with how America was at the time of George Washington.  Germany is stuck in the early 20th century.  Rome is stuck in the time of Augustus. And so on.  Perhaps the perks and visuals aren’t so much stereotypical as representative of a specific time period or specific group of people inside that nation (not the entire nation).

Maybe that’s wishful thinking because I enjoy the game so much.  However, I do believe that the game encourages you to do some research as well as provides cultural touchstones that, in 25 years and lot of education, I didn’t get from anywhere else.

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One Response to “Should Civilization 5 be used for Education?”

  1. So is Civ 5 racist? Sexist? Stereotypical? I’m not sure.

    I wouldn’t necessarily tag the game (which, I admit, I haven’t played) as racist/sexist/stereotypical because it depicts empires in certain historical modes, though if one only experienced that culture through the game, that would certainly be problematic.

    I’m actually more struck by the idea of de-historicized cultural touchstones. It seems like a neat idea in theory–who doesn’t randomly learning new facts, after all–but there’s also a level of cultural appropriation that makes me uncomfortable.