The Philosophy of Game Mechanics: A Civ 5 Saga.

I was originally planning on writing an article about Life is Strange for this week, but for various reasons I haven’t finished that yet. So, to tide you over while I continue to work on that, I’ve written a more lighthearted – some would say downright silly – piece on Sid Meier’s Civilization V (hereafter Civ 5).

Now, while Civ 5 has many things to teach us about philosophy – namely, that it’s impossible to develop it without knowledge of both writing and the calendar, and that once you’ve discovered philosophy and also drama and poetry you can then discover theology (Also you need philosophy in order to construct the Parthenon) – what I want to focus on today is the interactions between military units and civilian units, and what we can infer from this.

So in Civ 5, you have military units – swordsmen, archers, eventually tanks and helicopters etc – with which you fight the other civilizations on the map, either to aid you in your pursuit of victory, or to hinder your opponents in pursuit of theirs. You also have civilian units – workers and settlers – which either build tile improvements – roads, farms, mines – or establish cities. Now, if your civilian units encounter an enemy unit, they will be captured, rather than fight back. This seems fair enough; I can’t blame a construction crew for deciding that they’ll go along with whatever the soldiers threatening them want. Where it gets a bit odd is that if your soldiers, in hot pursuit of your captured civilians, defeat the unit that captured the civilians, then they don’t liberate your captured civilian unit – they re-capture them. (Incidentally there is an excellent webcomic depicting this:

Where it gets truly dissonant/unsettling, however, is that your soldiers have to make it to the same tile as your workers to recapture them. Which is to say, your workers can be captured by enemy soldiers, then witness those soldiers be defeated, and instead of rejoicing and waiting for your soldiers to turn up and bust them out of their chains or whatever, they will leg it away from your forces as fast as they possibly can.

This is particularly noticeable when the enemy forces aren’t another civilization, but barbarians (randomly spawned unaligned military units that never found cities or upgrade their existing units, and will always fight any faction other than barbarians). Your 20th century era workers, equipped with jackhammers, chainsaws, nail guns, dynamite, arc welders and heavy vehicles, can be captured by axe wielding barbarians, see those axe wielding barbarians get eliminated by artillery fire, and apparently decide: “Nope. I’m not going back. I’m never going back. I won’t let their sacrifice be in vain!”

Obviously there are some good reasons from a game design perspective to set the system up this way, but it does feel like there’s a bit of dissonance between the mechanics and the “story” at this point. One likes to assume that one is playing the good guys, right? However, when inspecting the actions of your workers, the question that comes to my mind is: “What sort of hellish dystopia am I running, that they would view living in a camp of barbarians with neolithic era technology as preferable to such an existence?”

Simon Mattes

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