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Defending Civilization Part 1: Civilization and its “Critics.”

Written by: MigsDC

Sid Meier’s Civilization is one of the quintessential classics of PC strategy, alongside other notable franchises such as the Age of Empires and Total War series, and few would doubt that fact nor the long-running series's impact on more than just the gaming industry. Yet, for all the well-deserved acclaim and enduring popularity among gamers, it has also caught the ire of a variety of emergent critics that grew more vocal by the 2010s. Critics who, beyond just highlighting the games’ shortcomings, lambasted them for propagating colonialism, Eurocentric viewpoints, nationalism, and other views deemed “politically incorrect” or “problematic.”

Two critics of the franchise immediately come to my mind, as I feel they are representative of the Civilization criticism. One is Chris“Errant Signal” Franklin. He is a game critic and YouTuber known for doing informed commentary on “gaming as an art form.” His Civilization analysis video in particular, which was posted on May 26, 2014, is something I take great issue with. The other critic is Kyle “Brows Held High” Kallgren. He is a content creator with a penchant for high-brow analysis of both arthouse and popular culture who, while not particularly known for covering video games, has released a “Between the Lines” feature on the series on November 1, 2016. While not so similar at a glance, Kallgren coming off more passive than Franklin, both have quite a bit in common. For the most part both videos cover the same points and use pretensions of being intellectual to give themselves an authoritative aura.

So, what exactly do they find so concerning about the series? Well, even while acknowledging Civilization’s boardgame-inspired elements, they take issue with how inaccurate the games were in conveying abstract historical dynamics. Something the more recent Paradox Interactive games, such as the Crusader Kings and Hearts of Iron titles, are known for. They also take issue with how the games, and by proxy the developers, frame said elements. One glaring case being the “Barbarian” mechanic, wherein warbands from the wilderness beyond your faction’s borders would run amuck, especially early in-game, unless you defeat them in combat or crush the camps they spawn from. This is perceived as “problematic” as it reflects a Western/Eurocentric view of treating poor hunter-gathering nomads as primitive brutes who, according to Franklin, are destined to lose and become marginalized from being “civilized.” This is also highlighted by Kallgren.

Another criticism is how myriad aspects of the franchise be it a Conquest Victory, the technology tree or what nations/cultures/societies get to be playable are similarly portrayed through a murky Western lens. For both critics, albeit more explicit in Franklin’s case, these come off as extolling the dark side of Eurocentrism. The very darkest of evils that include nationalism, imperialism and anything arbitrarily deemed politically incorrect. However, at the same time they chastise those aspects for downplaying common “human” virtues. In Franklin’s case, he goes so far as to accuse the games of sexism due to the selection of leaders highlighting “Great Men” and barely any women, despite noted female figures being a recurring and growing trend, while Kallgren bemoans the notion of having victors and losers. Even the very use of the term “Civilization” is questioned, emphasizing its troublesome connotations while invoking academic discourse on social constructs.

These “critiques”, however passively they’re framed, mirror the encroachment of culture wars into gaming over the years. Similar politicizing narratives have come from media outlets such as Eurogamer and Polygon in more recent times, especially in regards to Civilization 6, further adding accusations of warmongering and all but demanding that the series address contemporary political issues such as social justice diversity or climate change. While it's easy to say "they're wrong," that's a story for another time. As always. feel free to comment, like, share, tweet, or whatever other thing you kids do on your social media these days.

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