Thinking through games.

January 4, 2009 at 11:57 pm (Articles, science) (, , , , )

Most games are idle distraction from reality. However, sometimes we can learn things from them. I think I’ve uncovered something very important playing Civilisation 4.

How, you might well ask? In the game, you control a civilisation from its origin through to the colonisation of another planet. Your civilisation grows from a small band of farmers to a world spanning empire. And here is the thing: it only ever gets bigger and better.

Can you think of another empire throughout history for which this is true? There isn’t one. The ancient Mesopotamian empires were very short lived. The Greeks were culturally powerful but soon lost their influence. The Romans controlled the basin of the modern world and an unmatched army yet fell within a few hundred years of their empire being established. China failed to capitalise on its huge cultural, scientific and organisational lead in the European dark ages, was repeatedly overtaken by barbarians, and later dominated by European merchants. Simply put: in history the powerful have always failed to keep their power.

Why is this – what is missing from the game? Civilisation is designed to be fun, not realistic – perhaps it misses out some key scientific knowledge. After a years worth of scientific reading, I can conclusively say – nobody knows! I find this shocking, and exciting. There is huge potential here for research – about a fundamental process that has shaped our world as much as religion, and will determine our future.

I don’t mean to say there is nothing known. There are several good books on the subject – “Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall” by Peter Turchin is a good place to start, as is “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. There are three basic explanations offered:

  1. Internal economics. As a state gets powerful, it develops various methods for doing things. These might be successful initially but eventually they cause problems, and the society can’t change as fast as some other, weaker societies. Essentially: a strong society causes problems that bring about its decline.
  2. External events, such as barbarians and other empires.
  3. Environmental change. This can be either caused by the society (so is really internally caused) or natural changes such as mini ice-ages (and thus an external event).

Clearly, external events aren’t enough on their own to explain why a big empire falls, because bigger societies have more resources available to cope with the event than smaller ones. So there must be some internal explanation, and there is little agreement about how different societies cope with things so differently.

I’ll make another blog post another time to describe some things that cause societies to become weaker, and whether they mean dramatic changes for the future of our society. But in the current knowledge there is:

  • No causal understanding of what leads to societies weakening, nor when. (1)
  • No accepted way to interpret the evidence to support or reject explanations.

What does this mean, in terms of computer games? It means there are good set of ideas of how societies might get weaker, but no knowledge of how “game rules” can be made from these. And nobody really knows which rules influenced the decline of specific empires in history.

Both of the issues could be addressed through a mathematical framework for societal change (which the game of Civilisation actually is!). So, to get a more realistic game of civilisation, we need to do some fundamental research – maybe Firaxis Games will pay my wages?

Note (1): Turchin’s book is actually the first to try to address this by using mathematical models, but he focusses more on larger scale issues such as european versus eastern influence (which he calls “World Systems”). This sort of modelling is the only way to establish that a given mechanism is really causal of society weakening, and under which conditions.

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