Art Imitates Life? How Civilization V faithfully tells the faith storyBy: Andrew S
This past weekend, I entered a self-induced virtual coma. The long-anticipated expansion pack to the latest edition to my favorite game series had recently been released, and the weekend was my first chance to play it. But what was the game? Civilization V: Gods and Kings.
I’ll repeat that last part — this is the second time that the Civilization series has implemented religion to the iconic explore-expand-exploit-exterminate strategy God-game franchise. The first time that the series addressed religion was in the fourth game in the main series, Civilization IV.
The introduction of religion to Civilization IV was somewhat controversial when it was first advertised. Perhaps that led Firaxis to be particularly cautious about offending anyone with strategic programming decisions. Whatever the case was, in Civilization IV, all the religions followed the same mechanics…although the particular names for the various religious buildings would differ (so cities with Hinduism could build a mandir, while cities with Islam could build a mosque, and so on with cathedrals [Christian], stupas [Buddhist], and synagogues [Jewish]), the function would be basically the same — no matter what the name of that building is, it provided +50% to culture, +2 happiness is that religion was the state religion, and +1 happiness from Incense.)
In this way, there really was no real difference to having one religion over the other. It’s just that each religion arrived with a particular technology in the technology tree to simulate the historic founding of the real-world religions in time. For example, whoever first researched the medieval era technology Divine Right would found Islam somewhere in their territory, whereas Buddhism would come much earlier with the discovery of the very early Meditation technology. Surely, though, if your state religion differed from that of a neighbor, then that would lead to diplomatic tensions for as long as the difference in state religions existed. So much for ecumenism.
The reintroduction of religion to Civilization V: Gods and Kings starkly contrasts the previous debut. In this game, religions are most definitely differentiated from one another, but the differentiation has a twist that prevents any major fuss about favoritism or stereotyping of any real-world religion. In fact, unlike Civilization IV, which tried to tie the in-game religions to their real-world counterparts by tying their inceptions to a particular order based on the technological research requirements, Gods and Kings doesn’t tie religions to historical real-world religions much at all. The extent that the real-world religions play in the game is that they lend their symbols to the religions in the game, and they are the default names for the religions available. (Also, I don’t know if this has been confirmed, but the different civilizations appear to prefer to pick the religion that most closely related to their real-world religion — as long as it’s still available. )
Easily, I can say that the way that Civ V has addressed religion is far superior to how Civ IV addressed it, even if in many ways, its treatment is unhinged from history. To explain the reason, I’ll walk you through part of one game that I was playing, as the Mayans.
All Hail Pacal the Great!
Just for you all, the first pic I’ve taken has gotten through all of the loading, and I’ve already played through the first few turns…I just want to show you what my immediate starting location looks like. When playing any Civilization game, it’s important to scope the surroundings. What kinds of resources are available? The wise leader decides where to found new cities based on the terrain, as well as any strategic and luxury resources available.
All of the little circle graphics indicate a location of a resource. In this case, around my capital, Palenque, there are three sources of fish — and additionally, there are even more sources to the northwest and southwest. (What you don’t see in this picture is that fish are far more plentiful in the landscape — along with salt. I have no idea if the historical Mayan diet centered around salt and fish at all…but ours apparently will.)
So far, my analysis hasn’t been anything that couldn’t apply to any Civilization game, however…the difference in Civilization V: Gods and Kings is in the bottom right corner of the picture — I have earned enough “faith” to be able to found a pantheon. Pantheons are the prototypes to religions in Gods and Kings…and when you see what I can do with pantheons, perhaps you’ll see why pantheons make the game more fun:
See, when I select the option to create a pantheon, it lets me pick one pantheon belief from this smorgasbord of options. Like Burger King, you can have it your way.
The thing about these options is how they form a feedback loop: when you look at pantheon beliefs, you pay closer attention to your own surroundings, your playstyle, your predictions about the aggressiveness of your neighbors, and so on. In this sense, your environment feeds into your decision of beliefs. However, your decision of belief also feeds into what decisions you will make in the future…if you pick one belief, then you now have an incentive to expand your civilization in a way that best maximizes that option.
As you can see from my first picture, I have a lot of fish. Fish are just one resource that is “improved” by workboats…normally, the hex tile of sea that the fish is on provides 2 units of food, and one unit of gold (sea hexes usually imply trade), but with a workboat to fish the fish, the “improved” fish time provides 3 units of food, and one unit of gold.
But if I have the pantheon belief God of the Sea, then my “improved” fish will give me 3 food, 1 “hammer” for production, and 1 gold.
I hope I haven’t bored you with the numbers; please blame it on my being an accountant. The point is this: based on my surroundings, and based on how I intend to play the rest of the game, the pantheon beliefs can give me a little boost.
So, let’s skip forward a little bit in the game:
After a few more turns of building faith, I finally have a prophet who can lead my people out of the mere pantheon worship to which they have been resigned so far.
Using the Great Prophet to create a religion leads me to a screen that looks like this:
Where, you may be able to guess: for Founder Beliefs and Follower Beliefs, I get yet another smorgasbord of options to pick from.
Here, these options are less on the animistic side, but still, they offer me immense customizability to my surrounding and expectations about the future. I’ll just share with you what I ultimately decided for my options:
What does this have to do with real-world religions?
I am guessing that many of you may be lost right now. So far, I seem to have described very ahistorical, rather simplified mechanisms, rather than anything having to do with real religion. I mean, in the real world, faith isn’t something that a civilization automatically accumulates each year just by having a shrine or temple built somewhere. And one doesn’t get a prophet just by spending so many years collecting faith.
So, in what ways did Civilization V: Gods and Kings get me thinking about religions?
The question I asked myself was this: what if religions adapted to their environments and reflected the situations of their adherents and founders?
I guess asking this question could be tricky for a believer in any given religion. After all, if you believe that your religion exists in the form that it does because God revealed it to be that way (or because God has specifically anointed individuals to lead it to be that way), then it won’t make a lot of sense to entertain the possibility that religions are socially and culturally adaptive and adapted.
So, if it helps, try to consider someone else’s religion instead.
The Civilization V approach to religion, quite simply, seems to evoke the way that a secular, pragmatically-minded sort of person might view the development of religion. For such a person in the real world, we could look at how Robert Wright discussed many aspects of religious development in his The Evolution of God.
One phrase that Wright uses frequently throughout the book is “facts on the ground.” When accounting for how various religions and theologies developed (he mostly sticks to the Abrahamic religions in the book, but has enough details to show how his thoughts could apply elsewhere), he provides context beyond the divine explanations that religious texts and believers usually ascribe to the various aspects of their religion. This context, the “facts on the ground,” show that religious development can be understood pretty well in terms of the social, economic, and political goings on of the day. From the opening of his sixth chapter, discussing the shift from polytheism to monolatry:
…Certainly we’ve seen examples of mundane motivations shaping theological principles. We’ve seen Eskimo shamans tell sinful women that divine forgiveness depended on their having sex with an Eskimo shaman. We’ve seen Polynesian chiefs say that people who irritated them had to be sacrificed to the gods. We’ve seen Sargon of Akkadia fuse Ishtar and Inanna into a single god that served his imperial ambitions. We’ve seen Akhenaten, the engineer of Egyptian monotheism, kill off gods whose priests he found politically threatening. Again and again we’ve seen the divine, or at least ideas about the divine, reshaped by the mundane. Facts on the ground—facts about power and money and other crass things—have often been the leading edge of change, with religious belief following along.
Of course, sometimes the influence moves in the opposite direction. Religious beliefs, especially in the short run, can shape the political and economic landscape. It’s entirely possible that Elijah had deep faith in Yahweh, and this faith inspired a political movement against Ahab and Jezebel. For that matter, the influence can move in both directions at once: maybe Elijah’s motivation was wholly faith-based but some of his supporters had political or economic grievances against Jezebel and King Ahab.
In short, the whole thing is messy, and focusing exclusively on any one “prime mover” is too simple. Still, I’ll argue that on balance the best way to explain the centuries-long evolution from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism is via concrete social forces. At the risk of oversimplifying: politics and economics gave us the one true god of the Abrahamic faiths.
Religious people often find this claim dispiriting, as it seems to reduce belief in a higher purpose to a mirage, an illusory reflection of the mundane. By the end of this book I’ll argue that the opposite is in a sense true: that seeing facts on the ground as prime movers winds up presenting a new kind of evidence for higher purpose.
As I said, in order to try to understand this, let’s consider a religion that most of us do not follow: Islam. Section IV of the book discusses the triumph of Islam, and in Chapter 14, Wright writes:
…at times Muhammad may have been more like Jesus than Jesus—that is, more like the Jesus of story than was the Jesus of history. Jesus is reputed to have said, “Turn the other cheek” and to have preached the story of the good Samaritan as a parable of interethnic harmony. But, as we’ve seen, he probably didn’t do either of these things. Neither did Muhammad, but he does seem to have said some fairly pacific things, and to have urged religious tolerance: “To you your religion, and to me my religion.” On the other hand Muhammad also said some less pacific, less tolerant things. Such as: “When ye encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till ye have made a great slaughter among them.”
If you read the Koran from start to finish, these shifts in tone, from tolerance and forbearance to intolerance and belligerence and back, will seem abrupt and hard to fathom. One solution is to read the Koran in a different way. Like the Bible, the Koran isn’t organized in the order of its composition. Just as tracing the development of Israelite theology meant keeping this fact in mind—remembering that the second chapter of Genesis was written long before the first, for example—understanding the evolution of Muhammad’s thought requires reordering the Koran.
Wright’s basic contention here is that one can roughly sort the tone of the Koran’s suras based on where they occurred, not necessarily in the order they’ve been organized in the Koran. Today, Islam’s reputation suffers for so many folks because they see the violent lines of the Koran and assume that theologically, there must be conflict between religions in a theological basis. Others counter to say that Islam is (theologically) a religion of peace. Wright points out that whether warlike or peaceful, the reasons for conflict among different groups can often be better explained by political context, rather than enduring theology:
…the Koran’s intermittent hostility toward Jews and Christians isn’t shocking. Muhammad was asking them to accept major amendments: the promotion of Ishmael relative to Isaac, the demotion of Jesus relative to God. No wonder they balked. And if Muhammad was possessed by the conviction that his divinely ordained mission was to bring all Medinans into a common understanding of their relationship to God, no wonder he took their rebuff as grounds for enmity.
At least, that’s the way things look if you view religious belief as the prime mover: the logical incompatibility of beliefs leads to the social and political incompatibility of the believers. But what if you see the causality moving in the other direction, see facts on the ground as the prime mover? Consider this Koranic characterization of Christians and Jews, presumably uttered after Muhammad’s ecumenical mission had begun to falter: “O Believers! take not the Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another’s friends.” Muhammad is recommending enmity, or at least a chilly reserve, as the proper attitude toward Christians and Jews, but the reason he gives isn’t that they are theologically confused. The problem, rather, is that they aren’t being friendly: they’re not people you can do business with. Indeed, the implication is that if Christians and Jews were friendlier to Muslims, friendship toward them would be in order, notwithstanding their failure to convert to Islam.
And why weren’t the Christians and Jews being friendly? If belief is the prime mover, the answer is easy: Muslims were asking Christians and Jews to embrace a religion they didn’t want to embrace. But remember: the religion Muhammad wanted them to embrace was a reflection of the power structure he wanted them to accept. He wanted to be their political leader, and for them to signify allegiance by granting that he was the designated spokesman for the one true god. Maybe their resistance to this package deal lay less in its theological dimension than in its political dimension. Maybe they just sized him up and decided they didn’t trust his leadership in day-to-day affairs, or that his political goals weren’t theirs.
Consider the famous “break with the Jews.” According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad successively expelled Medina’s three Jewish tribes (and with the third tribe “expelled” is a euphemism; he executed their adult males). The circumstances are hazy, but in all three cases the most plausible explanations have to do with facts on the ground, facts that point to underlying political tensions.
The first tribe, the Kaynuka, were craftsmen and traders, and so, as the scholar Fred Donner has argued, would have favored good relations with Mecca—a position at odds with Muhammad’s growing belligerence toward Mecca. The second tribe, the an-Nadir, seem to have challenged Muhammad’s leadership of Medina after he suffered a military defeat in his war against Mecca. The third tribe, the Qurayzah, were suspected of secretly negotiating to help the Meccans during a battle that, alas for the Qurayzah, Muhammad finally won. In no case was religion per se the likely problem.
The point here is just that incompatibility of Islam with Judaism and Christianity at the levels of theology and ritual may not have been an intellectual inevitability. Muhammad’s ecumenical project might conceivably have succeeded had its political implications—especially including acceptance of Muhammad’s leadership—been to the liking of more Christians and Jews.
While I have been discussing a religion that in many ways may seem foreign to that of many of the Wheat & Tares’ readership, to bring things back, I will mention that I have been reading Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People. This article has become far too long for me to go into detail, but what struck me about the history of Mormonism was the sense that what it meant to be a Mormon has changed over time. Even more, what it has meant to be a Mormon has often been influenced by the social and political goings on. I can connect just a little bit more with Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and early LDS leaders, when I view these individuals not as perfect theological vessels, but rather as other folks traversing in a world of Gods and Kings.
(Or, I guess, Presidents.)