This winter break I had a bit of time to get back into Sid Meier's Civilization V. This is a strategy game for PC in which you start your own civilization and your objective is to dominate: either in science, culture, militarily, or you just end up with the most points (collected throughout the game). In Civ, you can choose to be one of many historical rulers yet you can choose the topography, time period, etc. Thus the game is in the realm of counterfactuals, yet there is some history mixed in with it. It is similar, in a sense, to the film Forrest Gump in which a non-factual approach coincides with some historical events. For example, you progress technologically as the past has, you can build great works such as the Sistine Chapel, etc. Yet you control when everything happens. Also, rulers such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Askia Mohammad I exist in the same time period. The game begins in 4000 BC and ends in 2050. Coming back to the game after a year-long hiatus, I was a bit rusty but my mind was bursting with ideas. I had spent enough time away from the game that my brain began to process my return to Civ 5 with all my new historical knowledge. I will outline a few of the thoughts that came to mind such as the Law of Accelerating returns and the methodology of progress so present in the game. The latter, I believe, presents some of the limitations of the games as a pedagogical tool.
First I will look at how Civilization deals with the Law of Accelerating Returns, which will lead to the prevalence of progress in the game. In a previous post I commented on the Law of Accelerating Returns: "each major event in history builds upon the last and the period between them shortens. For example, the time between the Big Bang and the first single cell organisms on earth (life) was about 14 billion years, give or take. Then from single cell organisms to multiceullar life was about two and a half billion years. From that to mammals was about 800 million years and then to the Homo genus was almost 200 million years. From Homo to human was over 2 million years. It also works for human achievement (i.e. fire to tools to agriculture to democracy to technology, etc.)." From my experience, Civilization seems to operate using this law in mind. When you first begin your civilization the time between your city and discovering sailing, for instance, takes up much of the game. Yet every turn you build upon your previous achievements. So by the 1900's, says, while not in complete technological or military lockstep with actual human progress, you may have discovered how to harness the power of the atom. By these later periods there is very little time between each major achievement. This by itself is interesting but it leads to a major question: what historical methodology does civilization represent.
One might assume that the Western notions of factual historical accuracy and human progress are not mutually exclusive of each other. Yet Civilization breaks down this notion. There is virtually no factual chronology or events (you may be able to build the Eiffel Tower or train Samurai soldiers but each major 'event' is brimming with anachronism and it is ultimately your path). Yet the idea of progress remains fundamental to the functioning of the game. There are turns, you discover techngology at certain points and you are almost always going forward. Occassionally, yes, your civilization will experience a retrograde movement but the whole idea is still built on this idea of progress with the antithesis of regress. Thus one might draw from this that Civilization is an improper tool for teaching history.
While limited, that does not mean that it should not be present in teaching history. Not only does it present a major method to the study of history but it allows one to view the past "crooked," as Hans Kellner writes. It drives the brain in new directions. Counter-factuals are contrasted to the factuals and the brain experiences a new way of thinking. Furthermore, I recall a post I wrote several months back about the failures of a text analysis project where a fellow HASTACer Josh Honn commented, telling me that "it's actually OK to work with data that contains a certain amount of noise. I understand the temptation to strive for perfect data...but I don't think that should hold you back [from the noise]." Thus, mistakes, inaccuracies, and limitations should not be dropped but studied.
My thoughts on the game are still young and just because another major historical method is not present here to me, does not mean it is not there at all. Thus I would greatly appreciate comments from anyone. It need not matter if you are familiar with the game, just so long as you understand the basic premise.