Is Civilization educational?
This is a question that got a lot of attention in 2016 when Take-Two Interactive announced that they would be partnering with GlassLab to create an educational edition of Civilization for classroom, to be released in Fall 2017. Well, that date come and went, and the only announcement since was that GlassLab would be closing indefinitely. It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll be getting Civilization Edu anytime soon.
Civilization VI, however, was released on time in October 2016. I should give the disclaimer now that before Civ VI I had never played any of the previous editions. A further disclaimer: I’m terrible at it. (I’m currently having my ass handed to me by Germany in almost all of the world rankings, and I can’t get these damn barbarians off my lawn.)
A little intro to Civ VI
What is it? A turn-based strategy game (and/or resource management game) in which the player builds a civilization from scratch, starting in the Ancient Era.
What is the goal? A player can win (against other human and/or AI players) by achieving one of four victory conditions: science, culture, domination, or religion.
What does this really look like? At the beginning of the game, the player’s map is randomly generated. Settings for difficulty level, game length, and of course the type of victory the player is aiming for are just a few of the factors that ensure that no two games of Civ are ever alike.
Who made it?
- Developer: Firaxis Games
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Distributer: Take-Two Interactive
- Designer: Ed Beach
- Composer: Geoff Knorr
How can I play it? Platforms include Nintendo Switch, Windows, iOS, Mac, and Linux
Does Civ really teach history?
When I started playing Civ VI, I had some misconceptions about how it would be educational that I think a lot of people share.
When people think of Civ, they think of history. When people think of history, they think of fact recall, a subset of “automated” knowledge like muscle memory or memorizing vocabulary. What was the date of the Attack on Pearl Harbor? Who was the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800?
Good history teachers might disagree with or even resent this approach. So maybe it’s good news that Civ VI is pretty much useless in the domain of memorizing the dates and names of history. I would argue that what Civ VI teaches best is conceptual and strategic knowledge around how civilizations develop. In an interview in 2016, Sid Meier said that it’s not just the “little tidbits of history” [that make the game educational], but that it “makes you appreciate how history easily could have gone another way.”
When it comes to teaching history, the best I can say for Civ is that it may make young players more interested in the history they learn in the classroom. This is no small feat — it is quite difficult to make a student think of Ben Franklin as a real, living, breathing human who went through life making decisions, rather than a distant and abstract historical figure following a predetermined destiny.
While it was likely far from Meier’s mind when he created the concept for the franchise, Civ may teach players empathy. Empathy for political leaders and the challenges of juggling diverse interests. Empathy for those living in third world countries that struggle despite the technology thriving in other parts of the world.
So, does Civ teach skills that transfer to the classroom?
Civ might teach skills in a wide range of domains.
Civ is a resource management game, and the thing that it teaches best is how to manage resources in Civ. But the thing that makes it a candidate for being categorized as an “educational game” is how this skill might be transferred to “real life.”
To get started with Civ VI, players will need a relatively advanced vocabulary, perhaps that of a 5th grader. Will Civ help you ace the GRE? Probably not. Does it build upon a vocabulary that one might use in their middle school social studies or history class? Almost definitely. Players must also come in with a basic understanding of maps. Perhaps the most important prerequisite is a basic conceptual understanding of money and inventory. You have things until you spend/deplete them. Things can be traded for other things.
As our hypothetical 5th grader plays Civ VI, they will be forced to look at spending in a way that many Americans never will: how to spend in a way that produces the greatest good for a large group of people. The player must juggle spending on military, arts and culture, merit goods, urban development, research and technology, and religion.
From playing Civ VI, players may learn additional transferable knowledge and skills in the following domains:
- Resource management; urban planning
- Geography: reading maps, conceptual understanding of space
- History: relevant vocabulary and “atoms” or snippets (people, places, events)
- Economics: macroeconomics, personal finance
- National defense
- Politics; diplomacy
- Environmental science and climate change (expansion pack)
The greatest takeaway is for those who are really paying attention.
Perhaps the most directly useful skill that Civ teaches is how to research and read critically. Civ VI comes with the amazingly comprehensive “Civilopedia” glossary.
On one of the easier settings, a player can probably blindly stumble through a game of Civ VI without understanding some of the more complex mechanics. In fact I recently spoke to an adult who plays Civ VI regularly, and doesn’t understand why she (in her words) sucks at it. She also explained that me that she rarely reads any of the dialog, and prefers to figure it out on her own.
I would argue that to experience the game’s aesthetics of challenge, narrative, and expression in a fulfilling way, the player must critically read a good portion of the dialog and explanatory text that the game provides, and also do their own research in the Civilopedia.
Does this sound like a metaphor for life yet? Like my friend Sherri who sucks at Civ VI, I know a lot of programmers who suck at their job. Why? Because they lack the ability to solve their own problems through research and critical thinking. When I was reading the Civilopedia trying to understand the mechanics of the game, I was reminded of other types of research and critical reading I have needed to perform throughout my life. Doing my taxes. Scanning research papers for relevant information. Reading a boring essay about frog reproduction for the verbal reasoning section of the GRE.
Breaking down Civ VI with the MDA framework
You may be thinking that I am making a bit of a lazy argument by posing that a player will learn how to be a better learner by learning the rules of Civ VI. Couldn’t you say the same of any game? What sets Civ apart is the massive amount of mechanics that it has for the player to learn, and the clever design of the Civilopedia.
The “main” mechanics of the game are as follows:
- There is a currency in the form of units of science, culture, faith, gold, and tourism.
- Technology and civics accomplishments each follow a cumulative tree. Steps in the tree cannot be skipped, but they can be “boosted” by other accomplishments.
- Cities are largely built around the unit of “production”; the amount of stuff being produced by citizens.
- The success of individual cities is measured by amenities, food, housing, and other variables that contribute to citizens’ productivity.
Some of the more defining dynamics of the game are as follows:
- At the beginning of the game, the player is randomly assigned a nation (on the default setting) and will play as its leader. Each nation has some built in advantages (based on actual history) which may influence the victory the player aims for.
- Similarly, the map is randomly generated.
- Other nations will interact with the player in a range of ways. They may ask to trade with you, ask to visit your city, denounce you, or declare war on you, all depending on your prior actions and interactions.
- The game is turn-based, and applies no time pressure on the standard setting.
And finally, the fun part. In my opinion, playing Civ VI inspires the following aesthetics:
- Narrative and Expression: There are so many ways to win the game, and so many different play styles. You will tell your own story using the names and places of history!
- Discovery: The game evokes discovery in so many ways. Because of the dynamic of randomly generated continents, the player is constantly exploring the world with the use of scouts and other troops. As turns pass, the player builds, invents, and uncovers new technologies (in my own playthrough, this created many little real learning moments, like realizing that “of course, we would have needed astronomy before we could master celestial navigation.”)
How do all of these factors relate back to the aforementioned learning objectives of Civ VI?
Civ encourages careful studying and planning.
Civ is a strategy game, and players should spend just about as much time thinking about their next move as they should making it. The slow pacing and lack of time pressure of any kind allows players to spend time reading the Civilopedia or combing through the technology tree, and customizing their own strategy (expression aesthetic).
Civ encourages paying attention to the little historic details.
The real historic details that are scattered throughout Civ are supportive to the story, but not critical to the gameplay. Yet Civ VI does encourage players to pay attention to these details by creating additional advantages for those who understand them. As previously mentioned, each nation comes with some built-in advantages based on their actual history, which may influence the way they play.
Learning Science Principles
Let’s get back to the good ole’ Civilopedia. In my humble ex-graphic-designer opinion, this thing does an amazing job of conveying information in an easily scannable way. It uses the multimedia principle in an interesting way: key terms are accompanied by an icon (the same icon each time the term is user) so users can quickly scan the text and see what it is about. The icons are used on the map and other portions of the UI, strengthening the connection, and practicing linking of key concepts.
Similarly, Civ frequents the modality principle; for key events, a character will read the text aloud while a graphic is shown. (The game does redundantly show the same text that is being spoken, but this is perhaps necessary for those who play without sound.) The voice that reads the information is typically anchored in reality by being linked to a character and scenario, either the advisor (a character who guides the player through the rules of Civ) or an explorer.
So really, is Civ an educational game?
In my opinion, Civ is successful in using mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics and some basic learning principles to achieve some learning objectives that are transferable to “real life,” and therefore it can be considered an educational game according to the EDGE framework. However, I wouldn’t recommend it be used in the history classroom, unless they ever finish that Edu version, OR if it is being used simply to generate interest in history and social studies.
How can Civ better achieve its learning objectives?
I see a lot of potential for Civ to be used to teach two learning objectives I outlined: 1. How to critically read to find solutions in dense text, and 2. Empathy in politics.
I went on and on about how well Civ VI is achieving #1. But I do think Civ could make some changes to make a more realistic portrayal of #2.
Civ uses scaffolding very well through tech trees that show how civilizations develop technology. But in reality, it isn’t quite this linear. For example, many developing nations have more or less skipped over the industrial revolution and straight to smart phones, creating very interesting situations with new cities like Singapore that are not held back by legacy infrastructure. I could see Civ introducing some chaotic fun by allowing for dramatic “boosts” of open-source technology and shared knowledge. This could contribute to the aesthetic of challenge for more advanced players that are in the lead, and balance out the game for weaker players. Alternately, Civ could even introduce shorter games in which players enter the game at a later era.
Civ is already making Civ VI more realistic in a different way. In Civilization 6: Gathering Storm, players must contend with natural disasters that are outside of their control, including the effects of climate change. What a great step in the direction of making Civ as chaotic and random as reality is.