The curvy cutie up above is a spy in an enemy city. The city is beseiged by force’s from the spy’s country (Rome) consisting of a unit of mechanized infantry (the bronze vehicle) and modern armor (M1A1 equivalent). The screen shot is from one of the many civ (civilization) games on the market, in this case Civilization IV: Warlords.
Sunday, March 1, 2009


Civilization Games and Reality

There are a series of games that are loosely called civ or civilization games. Sid Meier is responsible for Civilization, Civilization II, Civilization III (and expansion packs), Civilization IV (and expansion packs), as well as for Alpha Centauri, and Alpha Centauri: Alien Crossfire. There is another variant called Civilization: Call to Power, that is not by Sid Meier, and that was the bone of contention in a lawsuit over the Civilization trademark. There are also various mods and other variants, including Master of Orion.

These games are turn based strategy games in which each opponent makes moves in turn. Now readers who think computer games are a waste of time are probably going to dismiss this as childish. You can, however, think of chess as a turn based strategy game that combines elements of military and political strategy. The pawns are essentially infantry soldiers, the knight is a mobile unit capable of making flanking movements. In fact he only moves in such a way as to flank the opponent. Rooks are fortresses that are useful as protection for the king, hence castling in chess. The others are political and military actors who have varying degrees of value and effectiveness.

Now, nobody thinks that chess is a waste of time or childish. They may not like it, or enjoy it, but it doesn’t get the pejoratives hurled at it that computer gaming does. Neither does anyone think that the war games carried out on computers in the Pentagon, or the training exercises in Nevada, Utah, or wherever, are useless.

So how are these civ games both in terms of game play, and in how they model reality?

To be perfectly honest there are boring stretches in all of these games. What you are essentially doing is building up your forces in preparation for the coming conflict, so you sit there waiting to get to the tech that will give you praetorians, or tanks, or tectonic missiles, and then you spend a few more turns building the units or the buildings. The excitement, for me, comes in the conflict between nations when you finally get to invade France, and burn Paris to the ground. Although I usually save the city burning to the last stage of the game.

For the most part I’ve played at the lowest level of difficulty, but lately I’ve moved to the highest level. At this level the rival civs are more vigorous in expanding, and there are more cities. They are also closer to my borders. So I find that in order to expand I have to take over those cities that are impinging on my borders. Can anyone here say “lebensraum?” Shades of the 1930s!

One area in which the games model real life, to some extent is the emphasis upon population growth. More cities, and larger cities, and more total population mean faster technology development, and faster production of weapons. Why is this?

Bell curve for a population of 2^²⁴ or 16,777,216.
Bell curve for a population of 2^²⁸ or 268,435,456.
The two charts show the same basic shape, the standard bell curve. They actually show the binomial distribution for 2^²⁴ and 2^²⁸. It may not be completely accurate, but assume that IQ is distributed along the lines of the bell curve. The ones at the left and right ends of the curve will be the dumbest and the smartest members of your society. Most of the population will fall smack in the middle. What is important though, and what you can’t tell from the graphic representation of the populations is that there are more people not just overall, but towards the extremes, so that the larger society is going to have more people who are brighter than the smaller society. So this tends to result in genius appearing more frequently in larger societies.

That’s the biological/genetic explanation, more or less. There are other factors, sociological ones, that produce gifted people, or that allow them to rise. The pilpul used in Jewish schools, may tend to make students pay greater attention not just to sacred texts, but to all texts, or it may incline towards a subtle analysis of ideas and situations. The classic Chinese emphasis on the Confucian texts for civil service exams may produce a better bureaucracy. On the other hand oppressive, or repressive conditions, segregation, the caste system, not educating women, may keep talent from rising. So the competitive advantage, both in real life, lies with the more fertile society that allows the gifted members of its society to rise.

The games come with a technology tree. This means that one technology precedes another, and is a precursor to the development of later techs. That part is okay. The big exception is that societies don’t research one technology at a time. There are usually several things going on at one. My recollection is that Master of Orion allows several technologies to be researched at once.

You also have improbabilities, such as a longbowman destroying a tank. Good luck with that one Robin Hood.

So the games model the imperialistic, expansionist impulse, and they model population growth as it relates to economic and technological growth. Are there any other areas where the modeling is more or less accurate?

There’s diplomacy. Other leaders send you the equivalent of diplomatic notes. Other than declaring war, or exchanging technology, some of these notes have little effect on the game. The opposition leader will ask you to cancel deals with some other leader, or to declare war on somebody else. Refusing to do so will usually have no effect. On the other hand, you can use gifts of technology as a bribe to soften a leader’s stance towards you, or you can use outright cash payments to induce them to act as your proxy in a war against someone else. Some of that is vaguely reminiscent of real world diplomacy, but not enough so that State will hire you as a Foreign Service Officer.

Intelligence, spying, comes rather late in Civ IV. I understand that’s been remedied in the latest expansion pack, but that’s not yet available for the Mac.

The game covers 6,000 years more or less, so the designers did not implement a 6,000 turn game. Turns cover a greater period of time in the early stages than in the later ones, but the time periods are still screwy in comparison to reality. For example, it took 6 years, from Einstein’s letter to Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, but it can take 30 or 40 turns, covering a period of 300 to 400 years, or less in the later periods, to go from the discovery of fission to the completion of the Manhattan Project in the game. It took 3 years for Magellan to circumnavigate the globe, not hundreds. The standard for infantry is about 14 miles a day (marching). Jackson’s 25 to 30 miles during the Civil War led to his troops being referred to as “foot cavalry.” So infantry should be capable of relatively long marches. It’s not. Mobile forces are capable of longer movement, but the historical role of cavalry was screening infantry and artillery, not capturing cities. Battleships, which are obsolescent in modern navies, are the ultimate ship in the games.

One principle, which is expounded, more or less in the Alpha Centauri games is feedback. Feedback comes in two general flavors, positive and negative. Positive feedback tells you to keep going. Negative feedback tells you to stop. A loop that provides only positive feedback results in systemic crashes. Here’s a computer example. Back in the early 90’s I was fooling around with Paradox for Windows at work. I designed a loop that filled an array. There was no limit to its iterations, so it filled the array till all the memory in the system was filled, and then the computer crashed. When a politician or leader is cut off from negative feedback, think of Hitler in his bunker, so we can avoid more contemporaneous and contentious examples. He starts manipulating divisions that no longer exist, or making decisions that border on the insane. Here’s a contentious example, there’s an Islamic, or Arabic expression, Insh’allah. I understand that means “If God wills.” Now the Islamic states have fought 4 major wars with Israel, and lost every blooming one. You’d think that any normal person would say “Allah ain’t exactly insh’ing the extinction of Israel.” An unfree press, and a religious establishment that insists upon the evilness of Israel blocks the feedback from getting through. On a very controversial note, let me add that the stock market, and the other markets as well, are providing negative feedback on the stimulus and other economic plans emanating from Washington, but the pols can’t seem to get the idea.

It occurred to me that perhaps I am wrong on that last point. Normal people do not want to see the destruction of markets, and the loss of wealth, but perhaps the current pack of pols actually do want to see the markets destroyed, and people impoverished. By impoverishing people, and putting the blame not on their policies, but on greedy corporations and capitalist pigs they can accrue more power, and prolong their stay in office. In that case the markets, as they decline, are providing them with the positive feedback they want.

So what do we learn from the games? A healthy and growing population is important to the development of civilization, and the necessity of negative feedback.