Long write up about weird theory of Ludonarrative Dissonance and Colonizer mentality in Civ VI. The next post will ask questions about implications on Classroom Themes.
Back at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic EPIC Games gave away Civilization VI. This was a call back to my childhood as I had spent many an awkward mid-90s tween evening in front of the family computer playing the first version of Sid Meir’s Civilization.
Civ VI and Ludonarrative Dissonance
There is so much to like about the mechanics of this series. Players can choose to play as one of several unique civilizations each with different attributes, there are several ways to win, the battle mechanics are interesting, the cities need to be cultivated and the people kept happy, and there is a complex diplomacy system. Over the next 5 sequels (and various offshoots) these mechanics have grown, been tweaked, and new civilizations have been added. One of my favorite parts of the Civilization series is the really advanced Technology and Civics Tree Mechanic.
Honestly, it took me a few games to understand the new Civilization VI gameplay but within a month or so (it took a few days for a full game) I figured out how to beat the game with each of its 5 win conditions (Domination, Science, Religious Conversion, Top score and Culture). One of my favorite parts of the Civilization series is the really advanced Technology and Civics Tree Mechanic.
After a few months of playing the game though I started feeling uncomfortable with some of the decisions I was making! I don’t know if this was intended by the game designers as in a game-for-change social impact game or if it is an example of Ludonarrative Dissonance. If this were intended as a game for change the player should get a deep sense of unease by playing in a way that violates social justice expectations. For example, if while playing Civ VI I were to completely wipe out another civilization there should be some uncomfortable awareness of the genocide that I had just committed. The reason I don’t think this is an intention though is that there is never any real mental anguish caused by this. In fact, I think the game supports horrific strategies which makes me lean towards Ludonarrative Dissonance.
If you haven’t played Civ VI a “quick” game (meaning 5-6 hours) starts with around 6 civilizations spread out on a random world map. Early on civilizations are small with just a settler unit and a warrior. Players are encouraged to settle within the first few turns so they can start gathering resources. Typically there are at least 2 civilizations on a single continent and within 20 minutes or so the new civilization will quickly be discovered. Since the initial settler unit typically starts near an ideal city location I quickly stumbled on a horrific tactic. I would immediately build 2 or 3 of my civ’s most powerful military unit and start exploring. As soon as I found my neighbor’s capital (often the only city if I caught them early enough) I would send as much military as I could and capture the city. This meant that I would occupy a 2nd prime city location and be able to monopolize the entire continent and its resources. Since it was so early in the game other civilizations didn’t hold me accountable for the war and any score penalty would easily be overcome with the resources would possess. It took me a few turns to realize that I was committing digital genocide. I started to consider my future moves in terms of how I would expect a “good” society in terms of foreign and domestic policy. I had one vision of how a society should behave but the game wants me to play in a different way. This is Ludonarrative Dissonance in a nutshell – my values are in conflict with the way the game wants me to play.
Once I saw this in my early game decisions I started noticing the decisions everywhere. The game encourages the player to eliminate “Barbarians” and their camps. These appear randomly but are often in strategically beneficial locations so I often built cities near the Barbarians’ former camps. Damn, I was destroying and occupying indigenous territory. Even worse is that later in the game I can develop archeologists that can go to dig sites and collect “Artifacts” from not only my civilization but from other civilizations and barbarian cultures. Not only did I commit genocide and live on stolen land but I was also stealing cultural artifacts and displaying them in my museums for tourists to come gander at – and the GAME REWARDS YOU for doing so.
Another example can be found in the religious win condition. Civilizations can “win” by forcing the conversion of all of the other civilizations to a religion that you created. To prevent your civilization from being converted the player can start an inquisition – an INQUISITION. Apostles can “Battle” missionaries and other Apostles and if they die in battle can become martyred. In a Theocracy religion points can be used to purchase military units. Finally, there is LITERALLY no benefit to creating a society with freedom of religion. One of the core values of a multicultural society is completely ignored by the game.
There are many examples of this sort of awkward retrograde reward system. I would go so far as calling this a Colonizer mentality. Overall, the descriptions of the different civilizations are at best cartoonish stereotypes and possibly even racist. The thing that really bothers me most though is that the game allows you (encourages you!) to become a FASCIST.
There are other ways to “win” the Domination mode but Fascism offers the player an amazing amount of advantages as a government of conquest.
The game is literally encouraging Neo-Nazis with almost no penalty, almost no contemplation of the deeper moral issues. In fact, rather than struggle with some moral consequences to, you know – literal genocide, the player gets this Victory Cutscene.
Since noticing these moral dilemmas I find that cannot play the game at all.