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Civilization V’s Religious Story…at Wheat & Tares

June 28, 2012

As many Civilization players seem to feel, I am really impressed with the Gods and Kings expansion to Civilization V. I think that the treatment of religion in this game is far superior to its treatment in Civilization IV. As I reflect on my amazement, this has caused me to ask myself what exactly it is about the treatment of religion in G+K that I like so much.

I wrote 3,000 words on that topic at Wheat & Tares…to summarize, I think that Civilization V: Gods and Kings does something rather remarkable for a video game — it causes us (or at least me) to evaluate an aspect of out-of-game reality. How has religion in the “real” world developed over time?

Civilization V: Gods and Kings Logo

Normally, we think of religions in terms of their theology. If we are believers, we think of theology in terms of what God has said or has expressed to his representatives, prophets, and so on. We don’t tend to think of religion as something that develops in response to social, economic, and political situations.

What Civilization V does is that it causes players to pay even more attention to their surroundings, their goals, and their anticipated strategies than they already do. In my first game of Gods and Kings, I found myself with a lot of incense and wine…so it was a no-brainer for me to take Goddess of Festivals (+1 faith and +1 culture for wine and incense), and when my pantheon upgraded to a religion, it was just as much a no-brainer to apply the belief that allows you to buy monasteries with faith — monasteries give +2 faith and +2 culture, but it provides more when there is wine or incense.

Interestingly enough, Jeff Grubb at Venture Beat describes this very thought process as being a subtle criticism of religion. I don’t think it’s that cynical, but I do think that it’s a good way of approaching religion from a pragmatic, theologically agnostic viewpoint. This is precisely why what came to mind when I was playing was Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God — one of Wright’s favorite phrases seems to be facts on the ground, and there is no denying that religions in Civ V shape up precisely because of the facts on the ground. To quote Wright:

The Evolution of God

…Still, I’ll argue that on balance the best way to explain the centuries-long evolution from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism is via concrete social forces. At the risk of oversimplifying: politics and economics gave us the one true god of the Abrahamic faiths.Religious people often find this claim dispiriting, as it seems to reduce belief in a higher purpose to a mirage, an illusory reflection of the mundane. By the end of this book I’ll argue that the opposite is in a sense true: that seeing facts on the ground as prime movers winds up presenting a new kind of evidence for higher purpose.

Throughout the Wheat & Tares post, I used Wright’s writing about the development and progression of Islam in its early years to illustrate the point…I wanted to do that because I thought that addressing a religion that was further away from most of the W&T’s readership’s own faith community would’ve been more appropriate — quite simply, I didn’t want people to be so quick to impute the development of religion to God, so I picked a religion for which people wouldn’t necessarily believe the theological claims.

But as I’ve read Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People, I’ve had some similar thoughts…reading this book has made me far more aware of the social setting in which Mormonism has originated and developed.

Still, I think that creating religions in each game of Civilization V: Gods and Kings is more fun than reading about the historic, set-in-stone development of real-world religions. (I say this even though I think that religions are changing even today, and that ordinary members can impact the progression of their religion.)

The greatest reason I love religions in Gods and Kings is because it introduces so much customizability and variability to the game.

A History of Variability in the Civilization-type games

I’ve played (at least a bit) all the games in the main series of Sid Meier’s Civilization (for that, I include Civilization, Civ II, III, IV, and V…sorry Civilization Revolution!) On top of that, I’ve played quasi-official games in the series — Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri remains my favorite game in the entire “series,” even though it’s not even a main entry in the series. I would dedicate a shrine to Brian Reynolds if he left Zynga to make a true sequel to SMAC. Finally, I’ve played other “spin-off” games (like Activision’s Call to Power series), and other 4X games (like Stardock’s Galactic Civilizations 2 — but I admit I have the least experience with this game).

Overall, I would say that the progression across games has been positive. I certainly think that people can quibble about whether Civ V is “better” than Civ IV, and certainly some people think that Civ II will always be reigning champion, but as for me, I would say that over the series (and with competitor offerings), things have generally been making progress, rather than regress.

The original Civilization is commendable for starting the craze, and certainly Civilization II deserves credit for polishing that original foundation (and being a game that people are willing to spend 10 years “just one more turn”-ing.) But to me, the flaw in these two games that dates them is that, essentially, there is no variability in civilizations. All you get are different names for leaders and cities, and different city graphics…but other than that, it’s all the same.

The various attempts to succeed Civilization II are interesting to assess because they are different ways of introducing more variability. Civilization III did it through leader traits and unique units (a concept that has remained in the main Civilization series in some iteration ever since.) Civilization: Call to Power didn’t distinguish the civilizations (although it did add a WHOLE lot more of them), but it added just a sick amount of new gameplay ideas. Slavery? In. Religious conversion? In. Corporate Franchising? In. Sea Cities? In. Space Cities? In (at least for the first Call to Power game). And even more types of government.

The most innovative approach to differentiate was the system implemented in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Firstly…there are faction traits to match Civ III’s leader traits. The faction traits, of course, are just a peak into an even more comprehensive social engineering system…now, rather than picking static government types (like “monarchy” vs. “republic” vs. “communism” or whatever), you mix and match social engineering choices for the economy, politics, and values of the faction.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri Social Engineering

And the unit workshop? You’re telling me I can design my own units? Holy smokes!

I may sound like schoolgirl at a Justin Bieber concert, but the thing is that nothing has ever really matched that. (So, I guess it was a lie that the series has been a general progression…it’s a general progression if you take SMAC out.) Civilization IV added civics (and across even more categories than the social engineering system), but these seem more like just selecting which buffs you want at what time. Civilization V carried civics further as social policies (now you have buff trees!), but in other senses, I still feel that things can be limited.

Ironically, even though the original Civilization’s civs were functionally identical to one another (and thus, there was no variability), the variations of civilization unique abilities leads to less variability within civs. Based on unique ability or unit, each civilization in V clearly has a “way” that it should be played…and it’s clear that if your map isn’t right, or whatever may be the case…that your civ’s uniqueness can be stifled.

Religion changes this. Religion in Civ V is like Burger King — have it your way. Since religions aren’t set in stone, you can make different combinations of beliefs for each play.

…at the same time, certain combinations won’t make sense…so you still have to be responsive to your environment, to the past and the future.

  1. Over the years, I’ve heard a number of Church members say that the Church could only have been restored to the earth in America, at the time and in the place it was restored. I remember hearing people say that when I was a teenager. But I heard it said over the pulpit as recently as a few years ago by my previous bishop. Folks talking in this vein would typically acknowledge that the Lord had to prepare the ground for the restoration, creating an environment that would be receptive to it, where it could take hold. I’ve heard similar analyses of the Lord’s reason for establishing a “chosen people” in ancient times…

    If you look at the parable of the vineyard in Jacob 5, you’ll find a similar model of understanding religion, in which God is actively manipulating history in order to produce the results he desires. Though human agency still plays a role; in fact, it is human agency that requires God to be so actively involved — responding to human-created crises.

    In other words, to extend your metaphor here… Give Civ5 an AI, and make God the player.

  2. JGW:

    This extension of the metaphor works quite well with the very premise for Civilization in the first place…it’s not just called a “leader game” but a “god game.”…the player, although he plays a “ruler,” is in many ways more akin to a god.

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