Teaching Civilisation 
The World Within Your Hand’s Reach

Daniel Golebiewski on exploring International Relations in Civilization

Two civilizations fighting for control of the world. Photo by Vlad Genie via Flickr.

Two civilizations fighting for control of the world. Photo by Vlad Genie via Flickr.

To read is to write as to write is to read. Whether in speeches, academic texts, novels, films, or video games, students meet this inevitable analogy as soon as their first day of school. In blunt terms, it describes how the way in which an author interprets the world, comes to influence how he or she reads or writes about it. In doing so, the author adds their own interpretation to the meaning of the words on the page. In Animal Farm and 1982, George Orwell creates a window to the world, luring the reader into believing that, for a moment, the book is describing a real world. In a similar way, video game developers have increasingly put the consumer into the action, free to explore the world by their own control. In other words, the player controls a character from a “first person” perspective where the screen becomes the eyes of a person within the world.

Entering a Brave New World in Civilization V

One such computer game is Sid Meier’s Civilization V: Brave New World (2013), which gives the player the power, as leader, to be the first to build up his or her civilization. As the player manages resources to develop his or her civilization, makes or breaks diplomatic relations with other civilizations, bolsters trade relations, and forms alliances, he or she is drawn into a simulated international system. Hence, as the decision maker of his or her empire, the player faces an endless number of international issues, and comes to better understand International Relations, both its defining concepts and complexities.

As soon as the player enters the game in 4000 B.C., they first learn how vital diplomacy and negotiation, seen through the concept of power, become. Because their civilization starts off from sticks and stones, the player will look to bargain in trade agreements to stock up on resources from other civilizations. The player soon recognizes how having leverage in a negotiation can protect them from being attacked or conquered by a much more powerful civilization. For example, they might find themselves in a deal where they lose more than receive, or in a negotiation where they exploit their opponent. In any case, the player realizes how important the force behind power is.

Secondly, through diplomacy and negotiation, the player further explores international cooperation through the lens of the United Nations. The player can form bilateral and multilateral treaties with other civilizations—human rights, trade, military alliances, bans on nuclear weapons, embargoes, and so forth. In fact, the player realizes just how much time and effort treaties and agreements take, how states have difficultly ironing out terms of treaties, how states become frustrated when another breaks an agreement, and how international law finds itself in a primitive nature. Therefore, with no “big brother” watching, with states looking for unfair tactics, and with states turning back on other states, the player will see for themselves just how the international system really works—all the ups and the downs.

With so much international cooperation, the player learns the fourth value: the concept of globalization. Since resources are divided unevenly from the start of the game, they begin to see why some countries are rich and others are poor, and try to find ways to reduce poverty across the globe. As the game progresses, the player will find a consistent trend: civilizations that are born near natural resources—water, land, and metals—develop much quicker than others, resulting in economic and population growth. Hence, the player sees how these civilizations interact more because they have the resources, as compared to those that have not.

Unfortunately, since not every civilization will want to participate in diplomacy, the player must defend their lands and waters from conflicts, the fifth value. From the beginning of the game, the player needs to keep his or her eyes open for barbarians, who steal, kill, and settle. However, as the game progresses, with oppressive governments and foreign occupation causing unhappiness, the player faces much more destructive conflicts, one of which comes by modern non-state terrorists. Hence, the player learns about some of the causes of terrorism, as well as some of the ways to stop terrorists from attacking.

Lastly, the player meets the triangle of economic growth, the environment, and sustainable development. In making economic decisions, to dig into the treasury with gold reserves, the player will face domestic constraints and consequences. Because the country’s financial resources influence citizen happiness and population growth, the player needs to run down a cost-benefit analysis if they want to build defensive units, explore the high seas, make or break diplomacy, or connect the civilization’s cities.

Throughout the game, the player will look into how his or her decisions might impact the environment and sustainable development, both in the short and long term. From the start of the game, the player needs to wisely settle his or her first city based on the type of terrain, the natural resources, and the physical borders. Furthermore, as their civilization advances, clearing land to expand cities and to build factories, the player starts to deplete the environment, leading to deforestation, desertification, and pollution. Therefore, the player may construct a coal plant, which would increase a city’s output, but then the player would have to see how to cut down on pollution that is causing a dissatisfied, diseased population.

Questions Within and Beyond the Game

Besides players controlling their empires, Civilization V brings up three interesting debates. One is showing the non-Western perspective, including the silenced voices of women and postcolonial groups, which textbooks seldom look into. Producer Sid Meier states:

Civilization was designed to let each player write his or her own story, so there’s never an intended outcome or message from the designers. It’s designed to give players the freedom to rule and conquer as they please

From Meier’s statement, players have the power to challenge history’s dominant narratives—those written by victors who are western, white, bourgeois men. They can consider how the world would be if the Global North and South traded places, or if certain events such as the rise of Hitler or the Cold War had not occurred. By revisiting the shaping of the international system, players can put the scattered puzzle pieces back inside history textbook pages, where they rightfully belong, and not leave them lying outside the pages’ margins. Players can, therefore, connect the international system in multiple ways.

The game encourages players to apply what they learn to the wider world, whether this is when watching the news or when reading the newspapers. Because players keep a log of the inputs that determine the fate of a nation, players can refer to their logs and uncover the behind-the-scenes of any event—from its creation to its implementation. Hence, they will understand history as a series of cause and effect, packaged and sold to the public in a specific form.

Through Civilization V: Brave New World, rather than reading black ink on white pages, students have a chance to directly engage in international concepts through an entertaining and cutting-edge way. It seems they will never read the news the same way again.

Daniel Golebiewski is an MA candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University.