I need to make two confessions. Firstly, in my “youth” I have been just a little addicted to the “Sid Meier’s Civilization” series of games. Secondly, I have since been thinking very deeply about history – deep enough that I have supervised a Master’s Project studying the processes that allow civilisations to rise, and fall. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write several posts distilling my thoughts, with each split into:
- Some aspect of history that has an interesting and dynamic pattern;
- How this might relate to “simulations of history”, i.e. civilization. This part of the post will mostly only be of interest for those also needing a visit to Civilization Anonymous (after just one more turn!).
This is an introduction and index; I will update each topic below with the correct link when they are published. The posts will start out well researched with academic references at the bottom and web links in the text; towards the end of the series my “expert knowledge” will wane.
It has been claimed that history is just “one damn thing after another“. Certainly history is extremely complex, and there are almost no examples where there is a simple cause and effect for large-scale events. But that does not mean that there are no patterns to be found. Broad generalisations about the human psyche are possible when modern experimental psychology, sociology, and human geography are combined with game theory, mathematical modelling* and computer simulation. Resting only on the assumption that people everywhere, at all times, were just people – with the same set of biological drives – we can hope to apply the full scientific method to the study of history. Combined with quantified historical and archeological evidence, there is the glimmering of a new renaissance in the study of history.
Across the intellectual divide, Civilization 4 (with some modifications) is the most complete simulation we have for the processes that have shaped history. Although its remit is to be “just” a game, by exploring how the game unfolds we might learn something about how history itself could have unfolded. And we learn that we don’t understand all of the rules it followed. It is of great interest to understand a simulation model for the world that replays history as accurately as we can manage, without having to add too many of the specifics ourselves.
I first discussed these ideas when I decided to take the plunge and do some real research on the subject. Although I will link a lot to Wikipedia, most of the ideas are fully fleshed out in the references at the bottom.
Essential reading for this section
A. Toynbee: “A Study of History” (1961).
*P. Turchin: “Historical Dynamics :Why states rise and fall” (2003) (A must read!)
E. Rasmusen: “Games and Information: An Introduction to Game Theory” (2009). (or similar)
Fotheringham et al. “Quantitative geography: perspectives on spatial data analysis” (2000). (or similar)