A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The armchair Napoleon has been with us for a long time. Lately, the personal computer has spawned a successor: the cyber Caesar. Computer gamers can now choose from a variety of strategy software that promises to put them at the epicenter of historical change. "Build a city, build an empire!" beckons the maker of one popular game; "Get civilized...again and again," invites another. The entertainment value of these products aside, how well do they simulate what they purport to sell--history and prehistory?
The question takes on real importance when we realize that some games have reached many more people than any 50 or 100 scholarly treatises or textbooks combined. (The Caesars titles have topped a half million in sales, and Civilization more than that.) Indeed, the interactive quality of such simulated histories can make them diabolically absorbing. After many late nights of fevered empire-building, even the most bookish, sophisticated player can find them shaping his or her understanding of the ancient past.
Microprose's Civilization II is still the acknowledged classic of the genre. Starting as a Neolithic "despot" with a few nomadic followers, you proceed to establish settlements and balance economic, military, and scientific development in competition with other "civilizations." Civilization is an engrossing game, but it uses some very old anthropological ideas. Notions that societies tend to develop along technological lines of descent, and develop from bands of hunter-gatherers through chiefdoms to states, were described more than a century ago by evolutionist thinkers like Herbert Spencer, E.B. Tylor, and Henry Lewis Morgan. It also promotes a nineteenth-century view of social politics, where different cultures are merely variations on a theme that naturally seem to evolve toward the European and the Western. It's no accident, for instance, that varieties of native architecture disappear as technology advances, and Maya and Zulu cities all start to look like midtown Manhattan.
Microsoft's Age of Empires resembles Civilization insofar as players collect resources and scale a ladder of technology to survive and advance. Here the action is restricted roughly from the Neolithic to classical antiquity, proceeding in a fashion authors nonsensically call real time. (Real time would take about 10,000 real years.) The simultaneous action lends some very plausible qualities to the warfare: as in actual battle, you can painstakingly arrange your plans and forces, but events have a way of spinning out of control as hoplites scatter all over the battlefield and catapults start showering boulders on friend and foe alike.
But in Empires, your villagers are mere drudges, moving tirelessly from berry-picking to ore-mining to building. Just when you suspect nobody ever had any fun in antiquity, Sierra's SimCity-inspired Caesars III (1998) offers a more plausible mix of bread and circuses. This game casts you as the governor of a province in the Roman Empire, responsible for founding colonies and pacifying the natives. The challenge is one of administration more than conquest--your colonists are an unforgiving lot if, for instance, you forget to zone a bath or theater in easy walking distance of their insulae. The resulting unrest can pitch your capital into an economic depression that will make it easy pickings for any passing band of marauding Illyrians.
So is it possible to learn anything about the past by playing these games? The computer-age truism, garbage in-garbage out, is certainly best kept in mind. The software only displays the historical sophistication of its framers. Yet the creators of these games face the same challenge historians themselves do, how to give structure to what might otherwise look like a world of unrelated events. Insofar as the games demonstrate which theories of history work best, and play most truly, they may be worth a few late nights.
Nicholas Nicastro is an archaeologist and filmmaker based in Ithaca, New York. His 1996 video documentary on the repatriation of Indian artifacts, Science or Sacrilege: Native Americans, Archaeology, and the Law, is available from the University of California's Center for Media and Independent Learning.