Sid Meier's Civilization: Is It Educational?

Sid Meier's Civilization: Is It Educational?


Before joining EdSurge, I worked for four years as a commercial game designer. Whenever I would speak to my colleagues about educational games, they would invariably reference one game as a shining paragon of excellence: Civilization.

I love Civilization as much as the next guy and have invested approximately 50 to 60 hours into various incarnations of the game (mostly Civ III and Civ IV). This might seem like a lot, but this barely scratches the surface of the depth the game has to offer. But is the game educational? If so, what does one “learn” by playing it?

To get a better perspective, I asked Casey Harelson. He is an English teacher at Huntington Beach High School in California, a former Senior Director at Kaplan, and most importantly a hardcore Civilization player who, as I can attest to as his college roommate, spent many long nights engaged in fierce battles for continental conquest. Here’s what he had to say:

“I think it comes down to how we define ‘educational’ in the gaming context. Civilization is probably not a game that's going to help students pass their next history/social science test. However, it does prompt players to think intellectually in a way that puts it in a different category from games like League of Legends or Call of Duty. After all, this is a game that requires you to make macroscopic societal decisions that affect the makeup of your nation. Players make decisions such as which economy best suits their landscape, how to balance industrial progress with environmental preservation, and the cost/benefit of engaging in wars with other nations.

Everything is necessarily dumbed down from real life, and the oversimplification of the ramifications of the decisions you make is the best counter-argument to the ‘Is this game educational?’ question. That said, I think what makes this game great is that [series creator] Sid Meier managed to not overly-simplify it. The game is complex and robust enough to provide measured consequences for decisions that do often seem reflective of human history.

At best, this game teaches people in a simplified way some reasonable outcomes, both good and bad, for a variety of large-scale national decisions. At worst, it is a game that tickles its players intellectually, inviting them to make decisions, see consequences, and mentally and philosophically engage with the topics therein. And that right there is enough for me to classify this game as at least partially educational.”

Well put, Casey. Let’s break it down.

Strategic complexity…

Yes, Civilization is an intricately complex game system in which early decisions butterfly into substantial late game differences. There is an interesting balance between picking a society which is strong early (A Hatshepsut-led Egypt begins with the Wheel and Agriculture already researched and has access to powerful War Chariots) versus one that is strong late (A Frederick-led Germany can eventually build Assembly Plants and Panzer Tanks that will power a dominant late-game military). Formulating a strategy that leverages these strengths to their fullest is the key to successful campaign. While League of Legends and Call of Duty involve quite a bit of strategy and critical thinking, they clearly cannot approach the macromanagement demands of Civilization.

Unlike Casey, I don’t see Civilization’s concessions in complexity as a downside. Most subjects are taught by first presenting a simplified view: First you learn that the American Civil War was a battle between the North and South about slavery, but later you learn that there were other deeply-rooted factors, including states’ rights, underlying the conflict. Besides, Civilization is complex enough: would it really benefit from being a more complex experience? (If you answered yes, give the ever-so-esoteric,  Europa Universalis a try. Game design luminary, Greg Costikyan describes it as complex enough to make Civilization seem “transparent as a cubic zirconium” by comparison.)

…does not make a game educational

Consider this: Is Chess educational? What about Starcraft? Magic: The Gathering? Fire Emblem? Pokemon? Mortal Kombat? Checkers? Tic-Tac-Toe?

These are all competitive games with varying levels of strategic depth. If you deem strategy as a valid criteria for a game being educational than these, and pretty much all games, are educational. In a way this is true, but for our purposes, labeling every game as educational is not a useful exercise. Because of this, I posit that strategic complexity does not make a game educational.

Historical Accuracies and Inaccuracies

If we are ignoring the strategic aspects of Civilization for our categorization, then we are left to pass judgment based on the historical content in the game.

Every character, unit, and building in Civilization is taken directly from history. These range from leaders like Winston Churchill (with Charismatic and Protective attributes) and Suleiman (Philosophical and Imperialistic) to units like the Roman Praetorian (extremely proficient swordsmen) and Russian Cossacks (cavalry with an attack bonus against mounted units). These traits are quite flavorful and very relevant to gameplay: each unique unit, if utilized correctly, will be dominant in their era of relevance. Compared to a game like Oregon Trail, in which dysentery functions exactly the same as typhoid (a randomly occurring illness that, if left untreated, leads to death), Civilization scores very high for having units whose function matches their flavor.

Unfortunately, we cannot examine Civilization’s accuracies without considering the fallacies that it presents. Is a Japanese Samurai stronger than a Viking Berserker in one-on-one combat? There’s no way to really tell historically (or is there?), but according to Civilization, Samurai are indisputably the superior warriors. Would Mahatma Gandhi really be an effective warlord? With the Spirituality trait which allows him to warmonger freely without his nation falling into anarchy, Civilization would have you believe so. Should Abraham Lincoln have built Stonehenge while the United States was advancing through the Stone Age? Yes, this is a fantastic strategy!

Of course no one playing this game, student or otherwise, would ever believe that Lincoln actually built Stonehenge, but they might come to the conclusion that Gandhi wasted his potential as a military commander. Herein lies the danger: Gandhi wasn’t born with inherent trait bonuses that allowed him to become India’s spiritual leader: It was his actions that caused him to be remembered as a historically spiritual and philosophical man. This is a subtle distinction that could easily be misconstrued by a young player.

History, as an academic subject, is about understanding causes and analyzing their effects. Civilization simplifies the effects, which is fine, but wholly misrepresents the causes which, ultimately, is not fine. This Ludonarrative Dissonance (a disconnect between a game’s narrative and its play mechanics) fights against its academic integrity. You can think about this as a textbook where 90% of the material is accurate but 10% is pure fiction. Problematic, right?

So, is Civilization Educational?

Well, as Casey put it, it’s at least partially educational. Like most things in life, this is not an absolute black-and-white dichotomy and should be evaluated along a spectrum. I like to break it down into two components: Educational Value and Academic Value.

Educational Value — A

Civilization excels here. It brings historical characters to life in a fantastically engaging fashion that a dusty old textbook never could. It has inspired plenty of young historians and inclined many more to read further on the exploits of figures like Charlemagne and Saladin. You couldn’t ask for more educational value from a game.

Academic Value — C+

There is a lot of historical knowledge to be learned from Civilization, but it would be unwise to mistake that knowledge for deep historical insight. Again, despite the game’s factual resplendence, it loses points for its misrepresentation of historical cause and effect.

I still love Civilization as a game, and it’s a bit unfair to judge it as an educational game because I don’t think that’s what it’s trying to be (maybe secretly educational). Regardless, Civilization presents a subtly problematic portrayal of history and anyone using it in an academic setting, whether parent, teacher or otherwise, should understand this.

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