Blog Post

Gaming and History: Civilization V and the Law of Accelerating Returns

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.



This is a fantastically helpful and provocative post. I am filled with class project ideas (I teach literature, media, and digital humanities courses) and I very much appreciate you taking the time to share this with us. Thank you!

Amanda Starling Gould


Thanks for your feedback! Glad I could be of help.


I'd also look at the ability to add and create mods.  Having students do the research required to create a historical scenario is a great learning experience.  They can then play each other's mods and reflect on differing outcomes and possible explanations.


Mods are quite fun. I've had trouble in the past building them but once you build  a functioning mod, it really opens up a world of opportunities.


This game is one of my guiltiest pleasures so when I saw this post I got really excited.

I like the idea of using the game as a pedagogical tool, but I suspect it would receive a warm response only from a few.

As a student of English literature, I'm more interested in video games as works of interactive literature, requiring the "reader" to participate actively in forging a narrative. This act of reading a game and making decisions that are guided by that game plays out an interesting dynamic of spectatorship. I think there's a lot to think about there.

And Civilization is a rich area of cultural study, and I don't think that there is a lot of academic writing on the subject. I think it is certainly worth investigating further. A few years ago I stumbled across a very smart analysis of Civ III's postcolonial implications. The game has changed a lot since 2001, but it would be fascinating to think about how  providing civilizations like the Inca and the Iroquois with distinctly land-based bonuses (no movement penalty in hills for the Inca; Iroquois move through forest and jungle as a road; etc) inscribes these cultural groups with Eurocentric attitudes and notions of civilization at the same time that it tries to celebrate their autonomy.

This isn't really my area of study so I'd love to hear what you think.


That's a very interesting way of viewing it. That's what I have found great about HASTAC. People of all sorts of academic backgrounds bouncing ideas off of each other. I see no reason why games like Civ cannot be of equal importance to various other fields. If you do anything further with Civ I'd love to hear.


It isn't my area either, to be honest.  I'm  a technologist, but we have a professor here (Ed Webb) who has used it in his Poli Sci course.  They compare a scenario I created for the world in 1492 and read Todorov's Conquest of America for one section of the course on Empires.  The main goal is for them to think about variables that don't exist in the game and think about the consequences.   He wrote a reflection piece here:



Those were great notes. I specifically like the focus on both limitations and strengths in the sense that just because a game has limitations, doesn't mean its an all out failure. Its great to hear that a variety of academics are using Civ, let alone video games, to teach methodology, history, etc.


Very interesting post. I am doing my PhD on computergames portrayal of history and I think your’e on to something when it comes to reasoning about the Law of Accelerating Returns. As I see it, the main problem with games like Civ V or any type of “historical simulation” (Hearts of Iron, Age of Empires, Total War etc)  is that they are governed by the language of algorithms which in turn circumscribes what becomes possible to portray. Thus a historical simulation like Civ V amounts to a practical model (a simulation) of a theoretical model (theory of history) of something we call history, although we are not really sure what we mean when we talk about history (is it about the past in general, whose past, narratives about the past, facts about the past etc). The Law of Accelerating Returns is such a model which might be used to theorize about the big picture of historical changes. However, one could point to other underlying principles governing historical continuity or change, for instance Marxist models of the accumulation of capital and the clash of classes, or Oswald Spenglers thoughts of civilizations as creatures with a lifespan spanning from birth to adulthood, decline and ultimately death. Whatever models of the driving forces of history the game designer ascribes to, this in turn has to be translated into the algorithmic language of the game. Furthermore it has to filtrated by the conventions of commercial games. The point I’m trying to get at is that games like Civilization may not be suitable tools for teaching history, but they may be rather good tools for portraying various models of history, thus rendering these  models open to critical discussions in a classroom setting.


I remember reading an interesting article by anthropologist Kacper Poblocki on CivIII, where he argued the underlying logic of the Civ games led to a reproduction of the story of progress which is both westernized and extremely hegemonic (articles name is “Becoming-state The bio-cultural imperialism of Sid Meier's Civilization”, Focaal 2002).  I for one, see a lot of potential discussing these games from such viewpoints.


Furthermore, imagine pairing a theoretical model with practical gameplay and then read about some similar events from another historical perspective.  Provided that a lot of people get their interest in history satisfied by these games, such critical approaches may well be part of a curriculum for teaching high school history. There are a lot of different ways to think about history and the educational challenge is to provide students with a variety of perspectives in order for them to able to think critically about the historical narratives they encounter.


The point I’m trying to get at is that games like Civilization may not be suitable tools for teaching history, but they may be rather good tools for portraying various models of history, thus rendering these  models open to critical discussions in a classroom setting.

An excellent point! These games seem to expose civilization-related ideologies as flawed views of history.


I've never thought of the other present narratives. This is exactly what I was looking for though - something to stimulate some further thought on an idea very new to me. I will take a look at that article. Others have talked about it too andit looks quite interesting. I wonder how applicable all of this is to the other Civ games (I've only played Civ 5). And I really like what you said about teaching the method. I even wonder if its possilbe (to the trained eye) to search for the methodologies in the actual coding of the game.


As an aside, the Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group here at the University of Washington opened the academic year with a session on "history," which might point some folks to interesting readings, questions, and contacts.  Here is our introductory post: and our follow-up post:


Those are great articles! Thanks for the links.


I just came across this article that may be of interest. Have you seen it?

Pobłocki, K. (2002). Becoming-state: The bio-cultural imperialism of Sid Meier's Civilization. Focaal-European Journal of Anthropology, (39), 163-177.

Thanks! A few others have mentioned this article in the comments. I'll be sure to take a look at it. Cheers!


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