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The Relentless Course of Civilization (and its expansion packs)


The Mayans, well known for their devotion to Zoroastrianism.

A few weeks ago I got an email telling me that Civilization V had gone on sale in the Steam store. I was broke; both the rent and my student loans came due in the same paycheck, and I was at the most difficult part of the pay-cycle, four days before payday.

I bought the game anyway. Food, after all, is but a luxury.

Civilization, if you haven't played it, belongs to a genre called 4X. The Xs stand for... Something. eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate, maybe? Think Risk, except that the game begins at the dawn of history and proceeds up until slightly after the present day, and there are ways to win besides beating the snot out of all of your enemies. (Though snot-beating remains a highly satisfying way to win. Hey Constantinople - eat Danish Snow Infantry!) You start off with a small city-state and Stone Age technology, and from there, develop new technologies, discover new territory, and encounter other civilizations, some of whom you may become friends with and some of whom you will decide are in need of a pummeling-induced mucus ejection.

While I had heard of Civilization long ago - the first game came outin 1991, and it's a staple of computer gaming - I only became intrigued by this game after hearing a two-part series on Games and Religion on  Extra Credits. Give it a listen if you get the chance; Extra Credits usually produces thought-provoking material, and these are very good episodes if you, like me, are interested in the intersection between popular culture and religion.

Extra Credits brought up Civilization - or, more specifically, the expansion to Civilization V, Gods and Kings - as an example of one way video games can play with religion: the simulation of religion-as-institution. Rather than focusing on the "truth" or personal journey of any particular faith, Civilization looks at religions as elements of a society's infrastructure. You build shrines, churches, and temples, which produce faith; in the context of the game, faith is a currency used to purchase units and services, like missionaries (whom you can send to foreign cities to win converts) and inquisitors (whom you can call upon to root out infidels within your cities.) Unlike military units, who will get you into trouble if you recklessly send them across the borders of other sovereign nations, religious units can cross borders at will. Every so often, religions produce Great Prophets, who act as super-missionaries, capable of converting metropolises by themselves. They can also create holy sites and, if the given Great Prophet is your first, can found a whole new religion.

The religion mechanics have a different dynamic than the rest of the game, in which your empire is clashing against other empires, trying to one-up them in military, scientific, or cultural matters. Religion doesn't work like that; if you convert an enemy city to your religion, it doesn't directly help your empire expand, but you gain more influence and prestige by being the homeland of a big religion. Overall, building a religion is a lot of fun, and can lead to great moments: my favorite so far was the time when, after my Danish empire founded the mighty religion of Taoism, the Celts sent a Great Prophet directly into my home city, which was also, of course, the Holy City of Taoism. The prophet converted the entire city to Christianity. Even though I was still crushing the Celts in every other way, this pissed me off to no end, and for the next twenty minutes I ignored everything else and purged the heretics. (How quickly we become zealots!)

As much as I enjoy the religion mechanics of Civilization V, I have problems with them. For one, as you have probably noticed from my description, Civilization treats religion as highly competitive, conversion-based system: it is very much focused on an Abrahamic view of religious colonialism, and virtually all of the units are based on the Christian and Islamic model.

Secondly, like everything else in Civilization, religion develops along a tiered system. Just as you must have spearmen before you can have archers before you can have machine-gunners, in Civilization you must have a "pantheon" before you can have a "religion." In the early ages of your civilization, your people will worship an ill-defined deity: "the god of war" or "the goddess of festivals," among others. Despite this stage of worship being called a "pantheon," as best as I can tell, all cultures are relentlessly monotheistic: if your civilization worships the god of war, they will only worship the god of war, and, oddly enough, nobody else in the world will worship the god of war unless you bring him to their attention.

Once you have made enough cultural progress, you can trade in your old and busted pantheon for a "true" religion - a Great Religion which, as it happens, will not be called by some generic name, as the pantheon gods were, but by the name of a real-world religion: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Taoism, Tengrism or Zoroastrianism. Technically, these names are purely for show: in game terms, Sikhism means nothing in particular, and you can select any benefits you like for any religion. Your Islam can practice ancestor worship and liturgical drama, if that's what you want.

But this leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Despite the wealth of cultures available to play - everything from the English under Queen Elizabeth I to the Mayans under Pacal - religion is presented as, inevitably, falling into one of these handful of modern-day faiths. This seems particularly weird in a game that shows such love for ancient peoples: despite Rome being the series mascot, it is impossible for Augustus Caesar to worship the Roman gods! You may have noticed my Danish empire up above followed Taoism; this was purely because there was no option for them for them to worship the Aesir, as I intended.

I suppose it seem obvious that a game which espouses a progressivist view of history in its other aspects would do the same thing for religion: faith begins as a primitive belief in simple gods, which then evolves into the complicated system we may call genuine "religion." All religion ends up being white-washed into the Abrahamic model of convert and conquer, which, while obviously the most familiar model to a Western gaming audience, is hardly the only way a religion could have been modeled - think of an option to "syncretize" the religions of conquered empires, for example.

This is a small criticism in the face of the larger game, which is sprawling and wonderful. But since Civilization in general embraces the possibilities of history - the ability to develop a culture however you choose, from pacifist scientists to globe-trotting conquerors - the fact that all religions play out in such a bland way, and in a way that gives no credence to the pantheons that lend ancient civilizations much of their appeal, represents, to me, a failure of vision.

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Eric Scott is a second-generation Wiccan, raised in the St. Louis-based Coven Pleiades. He writes fiction, memoir, and criticism, and has been featured in Ashe Journal, Witches and Pagans, and The Kansas City Star. He completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010. He's also an inveterate geek who, at one point, played in 10 different RPG campaigns at once. He once fought a giant banana while cosplaying as Thor. Check out his other work at Killing the Buddha and Patheos Pagan.


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