Games as Lit. 101 - Is Civilization Educational? -

Games as Lit. 101 – Is Civilization Educational?

Games As Literature
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The Civilization series is all about history. But can it actually teach you about it?

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Arcade Academy, by Pixel Head –

Jimi Bonogofsky-Gronseth –



  1. I think games in general are not the best way to learn the facts of history. Books are still the best way to learn that. Even when a game is relatively accurate it can be difficult to identify what is correct and what is made up or twisted to fit gameplay if you have not actually read about the topic.

  2. Great video!

    There is an interesting point to be made about the Civ series teaching in "concepts" that I don't believe you touched on, though. In many ways, Civ conveys many ideas of how history works through its mechanics and gameplay that are highly debatable or straight out wrong in the eyes of the historian community.

    These are concepts such as having a linear technological and cultural progression identical to that of western civilization or civilization on earth in general for that matter (antiquity followed by medieval times followed by a renaissance and so forth), geographical determinism, representing all civilizations as a singular, static culture with one natural trait that defines them, Whig theory (also known as the inevitable march of progress) and of course the general lack of importance placed upon the well-being of the populace (Civ V introduced happiness, yet even then the dissent of the people can at most be a hindrance, a nuisance in truth, but in no way any real threat. There is no reason to strive to make the world a better place for the common man other than a few small happiness related bonuses. There is no "prosperity victory", the closest being cultural or diplomatic, that can both easily be achieved with a starving, unhappy populace, whilst the world is embroiled in nuclear war).

    There are many more of these, but the greatest culprit is perhaps the way that unorganized cultures (barbarians) are shown as inexplicably hostile and evil, interchangeable and killable without penalty, to the point where it is even encouraged to actively seek them out and destroy them. When discovering new continents, they will typically be swarmed with barbarians that the player will usually kill for money if their military has nothing better to do at that moment. There is no penalty for this, not even in the latest ages of the game, if anything, it is considered an act of selflessness or heroism by city-states, since these barbarians are literally only capable of fighting in-game, no diplomacy, no trade, no empire-building, not even any reason to drive them to violence like, for example, hunger. In this way, the games both ultimately justify the slaughter of "uncivilized" peoples, arguing that they are no more than bloodthirsty, frankly inhuman savages and completely understate the horrors of what the player has done, complete and largely unprovoked genocide.

    Civ is a great and entertaining game, and I assume Sid Meier in no way envisioned it being "accurate" or ethical for that matter, it is a game meant to be played for fun, it should not be seen as a simulation of realistic history, and neither should any moral or ethic meaning be found in it. This can happen very much without conscious decision, and therefore one should always be actively skeptical and not take the game mechanics for the truth of how history works. It is an abstraction, using familiar general concepts and historical names to flesh out its theme. As long as this is kept in mind, the more tangible "concrete" educational value of the civilization series is fantastic for the reasons stated in the video.

    My point is, one should be wary when playing Civ that one does not draw any moral lessons or more "abstract" historical understanding from the game.

  3. I'd say it's more educational from the sociological point of view. Playing Civ you come to understand how societies take shape to achieve their goals better.

  4. You forgot about an Age of Empires reference, which is prob the closest thing to what civilization is. XD

  5. May I suggest a look at Spore? It's basically Astrobiology: The Video Game

  6. Long ago, in my elementary school, we played a pen and paper game where we were building early American colonies. I'm not entirely sure how accurate it was (I don't remember most of the mechanics), but it was apparently educational enough for them. I could certainly see Civilization used a similar way.

  7. I always get the impression they swaped Gandhi´s AI as with the one of a warlord like an inside joke.

  8. I think civilization is educational as it gives you a sense of the psychology of why leaders have acted as they did. For example you see another player has nuclear weapons you get scared and build your own. Or even I have a larger army and that city would make my empire much better lets take it . You even see that if diplomatic relations are bad because they refuse to trade with you that you are more likely to go to war.These are not particularly nuanced examples but they do teach why wars happen in a very general sense and I think the most accurate representation of history comes from players interacting with each other and AI through the motivations for the conflicts that happen

  9. As a history major and a civ fan I've actually found the game pretty useful for understanding a lot of theories, like the various "stages of civilization" theories, geographic determinism, and the agriculture/pastoral divide in ancient civs. Learning these theories in a classroom was an interesting experience because it was a matter of putting names to concepts I already knew because of civ's game design. This and it's requirement for critical thinking place the games squarely in the realm of the educational for me. Obviously it's not perfect, and even with the civilopedia the game leaves out some very important context (the biggest being that the already mentioned theories, which are at the center of the game, are potentially very Eurocentric) but I think does have some inherent educational merit.

  10. Holy shit I spend way too much of my time thinking about this shit! But yes! I agree.
    Civilization is a game that is inherently about tangential learning, and as someone who spends way too much of my time playing this game, (one more turn, just one more turn) I can attest that the game generally just puts labels on how we perceive history to be.

    The game is still a game though, and a brilliant one at that, but it differentiates itself because of its dynamic game-play, as opposed to the linear (and musical) nature of literature. As you play more into the game, the titles begin to melt away, and America turns into an okay civ with a good unique ability to buy tiles in the early game, a sight increase, and two mediocre unique units. Whereas the Babylons are basically a godlike civ (Great Scientist at Writing, Okay :), but historically, none of this makes sense.

  11. A very well crafted answer to a rather open-ended question. Nice job, prof!

  12. can you do a literary analysis for the witcher 3 ? please .

  13. Very well done! Although, your Rome strategy needs more of a military focus. 😉

  14. I would go ahead and say that it is educational without qualification. It exposes the player to a lot of historical references, technological achievements, and cultural advances, and gives a sense of how they relate to each other. It doesn't, though, as you say, give the player an accurate timeline or a clear geographical map of the the origins of these references and I'm not sure what the result of that is in the mind of someone who hasn't first learned the timeline and map… and oh yeah, it is very addictive.

  15. Mind if I recommend the Persona series? Specifically 3 + The FES Chapter and/or 4. 3 and 4 are linked, but not necessarily needed to understand the other.

  16. Sub for sub? By the way I liked the video 👍

  17. tfw you learn more about history through an episode of Games as Lit. than your history class.

  18. Can you do a literary analysis of Half Life 1 please?
    The mode of story telling in that game was pretty unique.

  19. errant signal did great video about civilization's win states

  20. Have you considered some Paradox titles, like Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, Victoria, and Hearts of Iron? They get at much the same educational angle as Civilization, but their narrower focus leads to strong tangential learning on important events of the time period (with the caveat that it's still a game). Crusader Kings, in particular, taught me "subinfeudation".

  21. I miss your bookcase background. But once again a good episode.

  22. When I was in high school, my AP U.S. history teacher referenced Civ III in one of the first classes of the year. He brought it up in reference to the colonization of Americas by comparing the process that you would follow in Civ for finding an appropriate location to found a new city to the process that real settlers used to found cities. You want them to be along a source of water with ready access to a variety of natural resources. That was my first introduction to the Civ series. Been a huge fan ever since:

  23. As usual, great video. The only issue I have with the discussion is this definition of educational, in that we are assuming that the source of the education will feed us direct knowledge, but very little education happens directly in life. The tangential education is the more holistic version of education to begin with because that is how humans were made to learn. We research the things we want to know more about whether we are exposed to it through a game or a textbook, and we beat our heads against more difficult problems in that topic until we finally understand. Being told by an expert or reading the answer in a book usually doesn't do much to benefit anyone that isn't already wanting to learn to begin with anyway.

    ——–Last point: what did that bunny do to get the fury of Shiva unleashed upon it?!?!?

  24. FOr a game that really resembles history and that teaches a lot look for paradox games. Europa universalis, victoria and hearts of iron

  25. Of course it's educational. We all remember the great war between all the world powers, and when India led by immortal Ghandi nuked absolutely everyone and we only recovered civilization by repopulating through the spacecraft the Babylonians launched. Wait…

  26. All kidding aside, I remember picking up many of my interests through Video Games and the tangential learning affect that you describe. I actually learned and investigated Greek Myth from a little Sierra city builder game called Zeus. I got into Star Wars through Lego Star Wars. Hell, the Elder Scrolls got me interested in Lord of The Rings and D&D. Age of Empires II introduced me to history (not Assassin's Creed, mind you, although that did feed my interest a bit and zoom my focus in from AoE II to individual figures within Civilizations like the Britons, instead of just the Civs themselves). Hell, I probably owe my high test scores in AP History (World and US) from the sheer interest sparked in me from Video Games. Also, don't even get me started on Bioshock and Fallout both influencing not only my interest in the culture around the time of the early Cold War, but also the music and fashion from that time period.

  27. I remember taking an Honors Music Appreciation class in my first semester of college, and I brought up a conversation with my professor about how Civilization V, with the culturally correct music, gave me a refined interest in ethnomusicology. That was how I learned my professor also taught history and was a fellow ethnomusicologist. One of the best teachers I've yet met in my life, and all due to the many, many conversations we had about the historical elements of Civ V's music and beyond!

  28. I used to play Rome Total War for hundreds of hours when I was little (5 or 6). And I learned so much about Rome and ancient history, it made every lesson in school useless, because I already knew everything they were telling me.

  29. I'd say that Age of Empires is more educational, as the historical info is told through the campaign mode. I personally love the story of El Cid thanks to AoE II.

  30. A good example of tangential learning is when I played morrowind and I thought the Imperials were cool so I got into the Roman Empire/Republic

  31. No, no, no! You can't play Baba Yetu while showing Civ 5!

  32. So while you mention the history of human development, I think you underrate how valuable the Civilization series can be to explaining this concept, and more so, to make current students empathize with decisions of past humans. The different technologies, religions, and administrative systems you adopt throughout the game are made in response to the world around you. At the earlier stages of development, it is a strategically sound choice to use slavery, an idea which is abhorrent to us (rightfully so, of course! as it is an immoral and inefficient system of production). Another example is the adoption of free religion, which is great choice later in the game because it takes advantage of the efforts that your rivals have made to convert your cities.

    What the inevitable push towards these developments makes you realize is that the human species has changed its notions of community, human rights, and self-fulfillment to respond to changing conditions in technology and the natural resources those technologies can utilize.

    I am not sure how familiar you are with Marxist conceptions of history, but the gist of it is beautifully reflected in Civilization. Intellectual and cultural trends are embraced in response to the material conditions of the world your society occupies.

    Nobody should play Civilization to learn the dates and specifics of world history, you are absolutely correct. But in terms of creating empathy for past historical actors, I cannot think of a better learning tool than Civilization. After all, if you can't understand the societal pressures that motivated the construction of Borobudur, does it really matter if you know who built it?

  33. I was thinking about this for a while. Civ is not a direct educational game, as you say, but there is POTENTIAL for it to be if used in tandem with real history.

    Let's say every Friday in your history class, you play Civ. Instead of just doing what you want, the students (split into 5 groups) are not allowed to make any major moves without proper historical context. For example, China would not be able to have aqueducts or France couldn't make Hollywood, but they could make the Great Wall or have cannons in the proper time period. Every war, technological advancement and great person would have to be justified through history lessons. You could start off with "what victory would your country want?" to give students a direction that starts in the past and leads up to modern day.

    I agree with your video 100%, I also believe that it definitely could be made into an educational game in the right hands.

  34. In my opinion, the greatest failure (or at least missed opportunity) of the Civilization series when it comes to potential educational value is that they never try to teach the patterns of history through the mechanics. (I'll throw in a link to an Extra Credits video which most people here have probably already seen, since it explains what I mean by teaching patterns etc.) Civilization focuses on an almost painfully abstracted form of technological development and building up cities and militaries, sometimes varying amounts of cultural influences which express themselves in various ways. There's a lot it could do in that direction that it just doesn't…though I admit that I'd probably still find some issue if it didn't do about as much work as a Paradox grand strategy game and then successfully generalized all those mechanics across all history. Which would be awesome in my opinion, but I doubt most people would care.

  35. Civilization ripped off Age of Empires I and II, as well as Empire Earth I and II, AND Rise of Nations (back when Rise of Nations was actually awesome). Also, Stronghold Crusader and Stronghold Crusader II.

    Seriously. I get that we're talking about Civilization, but my point will stand. Tangental Learning in Age of Empires I and II is still significantly more intense, and funnily enough it HAD campaigns which were strongly built around events in history which DID happen. In Rise of Nations, yes like Civilization its anachronistic in its single player general map mode, but the campaigns are practically good learning curves in and off themselves.

    And Stronghold Crusader is almost completely dedicated to the Crusades. How the two sides handle each other, what fits what, even linguistic fidelity are what make it both a good tangental learning game, but also emphasizes – although in a biased way – how systems generally worked in those days. Hell, its free building portion (in which you start from Year 0 and then build your kingdom at your leisure and control whatever you like in that mode, such as pestilence or attacks from lions or bandits joining your cause, what have you) is definitely a good way of understanding what makes a successful kingdom. And in Stronghold Crusader II they actually remedied some of the bias in the original and it was a good game, and panned for nothing but to appease some (insert curses here) because "et wuzent lek da orgenel".

    Civilization V gets too much rep for being something "groundbreaking", even though the whole tangental learning it thrives on is pretty much grounded in principles, mechanics, and approaches done better by games prior.

    And since we're also talking about games prior, WHERE IS POPULOUS?! The very game which introduced the whole idea of tangental learning mechanics is not even mentioned here!

    I know this sounds like a rant, but this is kind of my way of saying… I'm actually inspired to write something on this topic. Thanks for making this video.

  36. Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis gave me an interesting perspective on history and the motivations of world leaders.

  37. A fair analysis. Adjusting game play by, say, playing on an Earth map, and focusing on the historical scenarios can really help harvest Civilization's educational value. We do exactly this with where we use Civilization (the game) as the main teaching tool in our Civilization (course). And it's a much better way to spend your time than plants vs zombies any day of the week.

  38. but you are kinda wrong cause if you click on the hanging gardens or the pyramids or any of the world structures it will tell you about it.. where it was built when it was built and other interesting things about those structures. in fact I wouldnt know about the hanging gardens if it wasnt for this game.

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