Video games may help us reclaiming lost histories
Civilization VI might be the game that allows POCs to truly make their own stories
Civilization VI is coming out and, yes, it looks dope. New city and map management is the sort of thing to get me linked into the game I’ve basically been playing since it came out 25 years ago.
What’s remarkable about Civilization is not that it’s a lot of fun. A lot of games are. What’s really exciting about the franchise is how it uses new technology to better understand history. It’s a teaching tool. Not because Gandhi was a bloodthirsty psychopath in real life, we have a gaming glitch to thank for that. But it teaches how pop culture — and gaming culture in particular — grapple with history.
Looking back at Civ 1, it’s outdated. Not just in terms of graphics and gameplay, but also in how it deals with the arc of history. The Mongols and Zulus are, essentially, hordes whether they have horses or tanks. Egypt and Babylon have lush starting spots. History ends with the Cold War, as the game presaged Fukuyama’s The End of History which came out the next year in 1992.
Things got incrementally better. 1996’s Civ 2 is a moody post-punk project, albeit one in which engineers can just ~solve~ nuclear winter. The next few introduce new playable cultures, new wonders, and a general diversification of history. Or histories.
For me, Civilization has been an opportunity to remake the world as I would have liked to imagine it. This usually means picking a culture like the Ottomans or Ethiopians and building a cultural powerhouse. Other people like to play how they want to play. The number of mods allowing a player to be Hitler is astounding. But I prefer to hope most people play like me.
All the same, I thought I was alone until I spoke with Meg Jayanth. She is the writer behind 80 Days, a Jules Verne-inspired romp through the Victorian world.
“It’s entirely possible for a game to recreate history without necessarily being more inclusive, diverse, or politically engaged,” Jayanth explained over e-mail. She called 80 Days a game of reclamation rather than one that simply recreated history.
“The history of the world is actually diverse and broad and multicultural and complex. It is full of women and people of colour and LGBTQA and marginalised peoples living, working, achieving, inventing, loving, and participating. But those stories have been silenced, ignored or forgotten in favour of broad, largely false stereotypes and assumptions.”
Games like the ones Jayanth works on are emphatically — and creatively — inclusive. Civilization has a different mission, and even though both Jayanth and I love the franchise…there was that sexy Cleopatra avatar from Civ 2.
So I often wonder if these games were really meant to be played to reclaim history instead of simply being used as a Napoleon simulator. Am I doing something wrong when I want Addis Ababa to be the center of the world?
I remember playing Assassin’s Creed Revelations with a friend one day last year. Well, not really “playing” exactly. He controlled the avatar as we wandered around medieval Istanbul, pointing out places we recognized or laughing at where they got the city wrong. The Ubisoft game wasn’t historically accurate, but its streets were alive in a way that textbooks and tv shows weren’t. Revelations was more fun than Muhtesem Yuzyil. And could be completed far more quickly.
80 Days is similar; even when I goof off in the game I am drawn to the cities I know to see how Jayanth has made their stories shine. And in Civilization, I can basically recombine adjectives to make history how I see it. I can play Mad Libs with the historical record.
It’s a glib way to put it, but that’s where Civilization (as well as 80 Days and on good days Assassin’s Creed) can mean something special. The games allow for negative space in history in which the gamer can create the stories they want to experience.
To go back to Jayanth, Civilization has become a way for gamers to reclaim a particular history instead of re-enacting historical tropes like other games: Battlefield or Total War. None of these are perfect but “re-enactment is a wilful act,” said Jayanth. “And it’s often a re-enactment not of history but of a particular, narrow, colonialist’s vision of history.”
Somehow the gaming industry and pop history, two fields not known for diversity, have come together to create something better than…all of that. The Civilizations have created a venue in which gamers can wrestle with history and not simply role play through it.
There is no “right” history out there, and Civilization is one of the few franchises which may understand how fraught the past is. Looking back at the older iterations of it, I’m not sure if this is intentional. The fact that Civilization gets it may just be an accident of history.