Coded blue.

Wednesday 10 January 2007

Civilization IV title screen

Pic of the day: Title screen. Today's trivia: The majestic song played during this part of the intro sounds like something out of Lion King, but is actually a Swahili rendition of The Lord's Prayer. With a good bit of artistic liberties, but then again that fits right in here.

Civ4 and religion

Back when the game Civilization was new, I played it obsessively. I remember being disturbed in my playing one evening by a weird light shining on the curtains. It turned out to be the morning that had come, hours before I expected. Civilization was the first (and probably only) game I have seen that got a reduction in its score in one computer magazine for being too addictive.

Later games in the series have expanded on the original concept in many ways, and generally become more realistic and thus more complex. They also have more detailed graphics, looking less like game tokens on a board and more like accurate pictures blending into the landscape. Of course this is still in a cartoon-like way, since they are not drawn to scale. I am less enamored of the decoration, for me a strategy game is all about gameplay. And I am not convinced that Civilization IV was such a big leap forward in that area. Well, in some ways it was: The endgame is now faster, it could drag on for days before. But the new core concept in Civ4, religion, is poorly implemented in my view.

It was already a courageous move, to include religions in a game. Civilization had always had temples and cathedrals, but they were generic happiness producing buildings. They were not associated with any particular religion, much less several competing ones. Now they are. You first get the ability to build standing stones (obelisks) and the Stonehenge world wonder, which are non-denominational. But early in history you begin founding religions by discovering the associated cultural invention. Ironically Buddhism comes before Hinduism, the reverse of our world, but this is only a symptom of a larger problem: The mapping of fictional religions on the major world religions of today.

Not only is this potentially offensive and unnecessary, it also distorts history. Now you may say that the game was never meant to simply replay history. This is true. But it distorts history in a systematic manner. The real emergence of religions as we know them is a fascinating story in itself, a story of cultural evolution.


At the dawn of civilization, people had tribal religions that varied drastically from tribe to tribe. With the rapid spread of agriculture, a somewhat standardized fertility religion became the norm in each cultural area, like Mesopotamia or Europe. Each city-state had its own pantheon, but by and large some basic functions always had their gods. The Bronze Age religions had powerful goddesses that may have gotten most of the attention, though each had an associated male deity. Their sacred union was often celebrated again each year with erotic rituals up to and including intercourse. (Although, contrary to feminist historical fiction, there is no sign that these intercourses in the general populace were extramarital and with the women in a selective role.) Even here in the chilly north, spring would see couples re-enact the divine fertility in the fields to ensure growth for the plants. Although Iron Age religions generally abolished these rituals, they were kept up by some.

The age of empires unified these city states, and the god of the victorious army tended to become the main god of the land. Popular gods and goddesses from around the land got a seat in the pantheon, which could grow quite large. But there was still no clear distinction between people, nation and religion. Religions were ethnic more or less by definition. It was unthinkable that two different peoples could have the exact same religion, nor could two utterly incompatible religions coexist within one empire. The patron deity of the leading area was top god. While local gods were tolerated, even venerated, they better not make any claim at universality. As we know, this later came to pass.

In a manner of speaking, such religions as Judaism and Hinduism have remained ethnic until our time and largely still are, though there are ecumenical movements in these as well. And Taoism, despite is highly generic basic tenets, did not make it far westwards from China. Both Taoism and Buddhism were anyway more spiritual philosophies than worship of gods, although people (being people) tended to include aspects of worship into them. It is ironic that people would worship the Buddha, who taught until his dying breath that there were no external saviors. Confucianism is hardly a religion, and I am not sure whether I would even classify this philosophy as spiritual. Perhaps it is, in a manner of speaking. But there is a vast difference between these and the monotheist world religions. Oh well, at least neither of them is inherently ethnic.

This was a new thing, you see, the emergence of a religion that was separate from the nation, a religion that claimed to be universal. And it is this property of religion that is important in Civ4. But it does not work right there.


In the game, the religions appear one after another over a fairly long span of time, as they did also in the real world (although the order is wrong at the very start). It makes sense to go for the first religion available and then spread it vigorously. In the game, the site of origin for a religion can reap great benefits later: Your civilization will earn gold for every city that has this religion, and also be able to peek in at them even if they are in other parts of the world. And nations with the same religion as you are likely to act favorably in diplomacy and may become allies in war. So you would get the first religion you can "invent" yourself and then push it with missionaries as far as possible.

Emulating the real world would have made for better gameplay, in my opinion. As in, you would be limited to generic ethnic religions for all of early history. Then at a certain level of cultural progress, your religions would start to mutate and spread, with only indirect support from you. I can't help but notice how Rome utterly failed to think Christianity was a good thing until it was too late to avoid it, after many generations of trying to root it out. If history was playing Civ4, Rome would have snatched up the new religion as soon as possible and sent missionaries into neighboring countries to get the benefits of tithes and clerical spies. Religion should have been an element of randomness, of opportunities taken or wasted.

As it is, we are left with a parody of religion, fulfilling a completely different role from the real world. The part it plays in diplomacy is vaguely realistic in the year 2007, but a couple hundred years ago the Protestant Christian countries of Denmark and Sweden were bitter enemies and the religion did not seem to make much difference. And factions of the same religion, such as Protestants and Catholics in Ulster or Shiite and Sunni in Iraq, can still see each others as worse than "infidels".

I still think Civ4 is better than its predecessor. But this is because of the less protracted modern age, the improved diplomacy and trade, the built-in multiplayer support and the permanent alliance options, and generally more options for fine-tuning the setup. Religion is a fiasco, and I would be surprised and disappointed if it exists in the same form in Civ5. Which, incidentally, is still years away, according to Firaxis. If I am around at the time it comes out, I can make no promises as to which of the earlier versions I am going to play at the time. Probably Civ4, but probably in a modified form. The game is very malleable, though I am not eager enough to bother modifying it myself. I am increasingly growing too old for such things. Though I am still not too old to play games. Or think about religion. Or both at the same time.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Telephone day
Two years ago: "W Wish" anime, review
Three years ago: Haunting the dead
Four years ago: End of the cold
Five years ago: High on religion
Six years ago: School of life
Seven years ago: Mr. Soreass and Mr. Loveass
Eight years ago: Random philosophy

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