The Real Path Through History: An Arrow of Progress

Although civilization-building computer games can be an informative way for young people to learn the famous leaders of history, they forget the most important thing about carving a path through history: true consequence.


| January 2015


The Earth is approaching a critical environmental juncture. In The Age of Consequences (Counterpoint Press, 2015), author Courtney White explores how the depletion of the five pools of carbon—soil, wood, coal, oil and natural gas—is affecting Earth and its modern-day inhabitants. When these resources go into decline, society will follow. This excerpt, which discusses how civilizations progress forward from simple to complex civilizations, is from Chapter 7, “To Complexity and Beyond.”

A Video Game’s Virtual Path Through History

My son plays a popular civilization-building computer game that fascinates me. Not only is it exciting—going toe-to-toe with Genghis Khan or Napoleon is never dull—it appeals to the archaeologist in me. Build a civilization from scratch? Cool! But there’s another reason I find the game intriguing: it illuminates an important lesson about the Age of Consequences.

You begin the game by selecting a famous empire to command— Babylonian, Greek, Chinese, Roman, Russian, among others. Then you are plopped down in the middle of a vast wilderness circa 4000 B.C. and given the mission to build a mighty civilization. You’d better do it quick too, because as many as a dozen not-so-benevolent computer-generated empire- builders soon will be competing against you. To start, you are given a Settler, a Warrior, and, if you’re lucky, a Scout—and the race through history is on. As you fend off wild animals and barbarians, your villages grow into hamlets which grow into towns and eventually cities. You gain new technologies over time, beginning with mining, agriculture, hunting, animal husbandry, religion, music, and so forth. Eventually, you discover bronze, iron, math, philosophy, oil, steel, capitalism, environmentalism, and computer technology, becoming in the process a great and enduring civilization.

Of course, the real goal of the game is to wage near constant warfare. New technologies mean new weapons and players spend most of their time invading, or repelling, other civilizations. Archers kill enemy spearmen; chariots duke it out with war elephants; knights fight off cavalry; musketmen mow down macemen, and are, in turn, bombed by flying dirigibles, and on and on. Meanwhile, you scramble to keep the burgeoning populace happy by building stadiums, libraries, markets, banks, monuments, courthouses, castles, and theaters in your cities as quickly as possible—while praying that you don’t run out of gold before the peasantry becomes riotous.



Personally, I like the odd quirks of history that take place during a game. While instructing Queen Victoria to build the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for example, don’t be surprised if a machine gun-toting Mayan chief declares war on you. Sometimes, however, the quirks go too far and give the wrong impression to youngsters. It’s disturbing, for instance, when Gandhi declares war on you and invades your territory with his armies, intent on your violent annihilation (seriously, what were the game-makers thinking?). Fortunately, Martin Luther King, Jr. isn’t among the American choices for warlord!

Ultimately, players discover uranium and develop nuclear physics. Soon, they’re shooting nuclear missiles at each other while trying to contain the radioactive fallout from missiles shot at them. All civilizations eventually pass into the future, if they survive nuclear holocaust, and a player wins when he or she is the first to land a colonizing party on a planet near the star Alpha Centauri.














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