The Ahistorical Representation of Religion in Civilization


It’s been a week since Firaxis revealed the inevitable but theretofore unannounced Civilization VI. While details remain scant, among the known changes to the storied strategy title are alterations to the technology tree. According to lead designer Ed Beach in an interview with Polygon,

“[Civilization V] had weird problems that arose. You were perfectly free to research sailing and navigation, even if you hadn’t discovered the ocean. We came up with a system where we looked at the tech tree, looked at every node there, and said, ‘What would be a great idea for some activity you could undertake with your cities and your units out in the world that would naturally make your people smarter about that area of science?’ …[T]his is a case of your progression through the game being very much aligned with where you are in the world, what your map is like, and how you play to that map.”

Unlike other historically-themed strategy games such as Age of Empires, Diplomacy 3, Europa Universalis, or Total War, Civilization makes little attempt at simulation. It does not start by asking which processes most significantly determine the direction of human history and attempt to abstract such, each iteration a better representation of the reality it’s replicating. Rather, Civilization is first and foremost a board game, borrowing more from Risk than from Herodotus or Josephus. Firaxis’ primary goal is to create a balanced and engaging sandbox – the global and historical scope is more for flavor. This is reflected in the language Beach and Polygon use to describe the studio’s motivations for altering the tech tree. The changes “discourage players from going into autopilot” by introducing a new gameplay mechanic which rewards more active engagement.

Nevertheless, these mechanically motivated changes also serve to partially address previous entries’ ahistorical caricature of scientific and technological progress as being largely linear, a steady series of inventions and innovations which all inevitably follow from one another. The themes of the series as a whole refute this false historiography, with other critics having praised it for its ability to propose plausible counterfactuals, but the particular implementation of technology offered no meaningful counterfactuals of its own. Every civilization which “stood the test of time” would, in roughly the same order and at approximately the same pace, recapitulate real world breakthroughs and discoveries. Such was a far cry from Civilization’s more fantastical elements of ancient Americans or a genocidal Gandhi.

Of course, it is quite easy to envision mechanics which place an even greater emphasis on the non-linearity of technology and are keeping with the counterfactuality of Civilization. The recent spinoff, Beyond Earth, borrowed the technology web from Endless Space, allowing the player to research an entire branch of the tech tree without pouring any research into another. It also introduced leaf technologies, essentially scientific developments of some specific utility which offered no progress toward any future discoveries. Along with the map-based opportunities outlined by Beach above, such a system could better simulate the process of science.

While technology was a gameplay system which indeed needed improvement, so too is the series’ ahistorical representation of religion as it relates, or rather fails to relate, to the various other systems which steer societal development. In the most recent iteration, Civilization V, religion (introduced in the Gods and Kings expansion) is implemented thus: first, through various mean, a civilization acquires a resource labeled faith. Whereas other resources in Civilization are more transparent in their real world analog (gold represent the wealth of a civilization relative to others’, production represents the available amount of man hours to dedicate towards construction, culture represents all media and its powerful political influence on people), faith is more obtuse. So far as I can tell, it is not the mere numinous sense of the divine but rather the particular piety which motivates specific social engagements, whether charitable giving, missions, penitential warfare, etc.

With a sufficient amount of faith a civilization can begin to select the doctrines of a religion, starting with a pantheon belief and latter including founder beliefs, follower beliefs, and enhancer beliefs. These beliefs confer unique bonuses, and are selected from a pool available initially to all civilizations, with the caveat that each belief can only be selected once. For example, if Rome selects the founder belief “Papal Primacy,” which confers additional influence over City-States following that religion, then France no longer has the opportunity to latter pick Primacy as well (shattering any hopes for an Avignon papacy).

The mutual exclusivity of these religious beliefs is not itself particularly problematic; one could imagine that the French and Roman religions share some unmentioned commonalities such as monotheism, and that the enumerated beliefs are merely those which differentiate their denominations from one another. After all, even real religions are defined primarily by their distinctions. Rather, Civilization’s depiction of religions is particularly problematic in two respects. First, it ignores the systematic nature which any body of sufficiently developed doctrine tends to take on, and second it divorces the development of doctrines from their historical circumstances.


While real religions, particularly Eastern traditions, permit paradoxes, few tolerate outright contradiction between their various dogmas. Such is the very motivation which fueled the adoption of Trinitarianism at Nicaea. The Church’s historical worship of Jesus as God was incompatible with Arius’ formulation that the Son was a created being; to adopt the latter would be to pronounce three centuries of Christians idolaters, and thus the doctrine of consubstantiality was adopted as it was regarded as reconciling the Church’s prior doctrinal commitments to monotheism and the divinity of Christ.

Over time, this process produced numerous pronouncements dividing orthodoxy from heterodoxy and heresy, each new doctrine informed by and (ideally) informing all others. A major project of medieval Scholasticism was the systemization of such, finding its completion in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Following the Reformation, Protestantism inherited this program, with major branches such as Lutheranism attempting to produce their own corpus doctrinae to demonstrate the veracity of their views by better explaining the relation of each core article of faith through the inclusion of their own doctrines, such as Sola Scriptura and Sola Fides.

However, the haphazard hodgepodge of beliefs which a civilization is liable to select under the current gameplay mechanics bears no resemblance to the internal consistency for which actual religious communities continuously strive. The player’s founder belief is in no way informed by his choice of a pantheon belief, nor is his enhancer belief informed by his previous choice of a follower belief. This is particularly unfortunate in that it not only fails to simulate the workings of real world doctrinal development (surely low on the list of Firaxis’ priorities), but that it leads to less interesting gameplay choices. For example, if selecting particular founder belief limited the potential pool of latter enhancer beliefs, such would force the player to be more strategic in weighing immediate benefits against his long-term goals. Or, alternatively, the benefits of beliefs could vary based upon which other beliefs are also adopted; a religion’s definition of “Just War” might differ depending on whether their founders are “Peace Loving” or their followers “Holy Warriors.”

Equally problematic is the divorce of some doctrines from the historical circumstances which enable their development, much along the same line as Beach noted with respect to certain civilizations in the game mastering sailing and navigation while remaining landlocked throughout their history. When selecting an enhancer belief, the player is simply free to place their faith in “Messiah.” However, the historical Jesus of Nazareth was not an aberration of his age but rather the product of a culture awash in messianic expectations, motivated in part by the Roman occupation following the overthrow of the independent Hasmonean kingdom within living memory. The book of Acts in the New Testament even alludes to such, with the Pharisee Gamaliel making mention of two Zealots named Theudas and Judas who preceded Jesus and had both “claimed to be somebody.”

There are a select few beliefs which meaningfully intersect with the historical circumstances created by the player. “Religious Texts” spreads religion faster with the discovery of the printing press technology. Oddly enough, however, this technology has no interaction with the religious revolution it had spawned in actual history: the Reformation. Calls to reform the corruption of the Catholic Church and the papacy in particular dated back to the Conciliar movement, championed by thinkers such as William of Occam. Moreover, Luther’s particular brand of ad fontes Biblicism could trace its roots back through John Hus and John Wycliffe before him. The intellectual framework for Protestantism had long been established, but it was only with the advent of Guttenberg’s printing press that the ideology was able to quickly and widely reach the critical mass of followers to establish a lasting movement.

“Religious Texts” is somewhat of a start, but beliefs should be reworked to more intentionally have their availability and effectiveness influenced by the circumstances particular to a given playthrough. Perhaps that means a belief such as “Messiah” is only available to select when a player’s civilization has recently conquered an enemy city and it remains in unrest. Perhaps a belief such as “Papal Primacy” is enhanced for a civilization’s whose capitol repels a barbarian invasion (reflecting the prominence which the Roman See gained when Leo I, in the absence of strong Imperial leadership in the West, negotiated with Attila the Hun to spare the city of Rome from being sacked).

The particulars of how Firaxis implements such mechanics are of secondary concern. As with the above critique of Civilization V’s beliefs failing to reflect real world systematic theology, this is not merely a failure to properly simulate the process of doctrinal development, but rather a lost opportunity to infuse the gameplay with additional depth; to reduce passivity on the player’s part and increase strategic planning, per the name of the genre (turn based strategy). Given that the design goals for Civilization VI expressly seek to address similar problems with past implementations of technological development – with respect to both gameplay and historicity – Firaxis ought to likewise be aware of the ahistorical representation of religion previously in Civilization as well as the means to rectify such in future expansions and entries.


One thought on “The Ahistorical Representation of Religion in Civilization

  1. Pingback: Civilization VI Tells a New Tale of Human History | The Hub City Review

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