(A republication of my original article at PlayThePast )
Over the past 5 years Firefly studios has designed two city building games, Stronghold 2 and CivCity: Rome (hereafter CC:R) that offer thoroughly engrossing gameplay while also presenting some interesting models of human behavior. As a gamer, I’m more interested in the former; as a teacher who works with simulation games as tools for learning about the past, the latter. I want to consider and compare how the games model the attitudes of human populations and some of the assumptions that seem to be made in these models.
Since this is my first posting on Play the Past, however, it seems like a good idea to offer a few comments on my frame of reference, in particular my understanding of how commercial simulation games should be handled–at least by history teachers and student historians, perhaps even by professional historians. First, as I have argued at greater length in an article and a forthcoming book, simulation games are interpretations, not oracles. As such they will contain a number of historical inaccuracies, particularly when it comes to core details. Asking whether a historical simulation game is accurate as if that were an all-or-nothing quality seems to me to be missing the point—the accuracy of any historical interpretation is not something that can be determined with any certainty. One historian’s common sense convention is another’s faulty construct to be dismantled. One generation’s conventions are the next’s biased assumptions. What really matters in historical interpretations is the extent to which any particular one is constructed based on the strongest, most defensible readings of evidence and the best supported and culturally sensitive understandings of human behavior. So, a far better criterion than accuracy when critiquing a historical simulation game is whether its core gameplay offers defensible explanations of historical causes and systems. So for example, it is not a question of whether a civilization building game allows a player to develop nuclear fission in the 17th century, but whether the game reasonably models the factors, including constraints, that lead to the development of such technologies. This focus on defensible models of causation is absolutely critical when one’s interests, like mine, center on using simulations as models to aid student (most often high school, but middle school and college as well) in understanding historical systems and learning to critique interpretations of the past. Let me be clear on the term interpretation here. We do not access the past directly nor do we present the past directly; we can only access and construct interpretations. This is true whether the interpretation comes from the Roman historian Livy, the modern historian McCall, or the game designers at Firefly. In this light, so long as a game’s core gameplay is historically defensible, any, even many inaccuracies serve as highly useful targets for getting students to launch evidence-based critiques. Evidence-based critiques is the operative term; simulation games should be critiqued using abundant references to the contents of valid sources of historical evidence.
Another point, made much more briefly, is that suggesting students and others can benefit from, critiquing historical simulation games as an intellectual exercise does not require or even warrant thinking the designers of these games intended to create models that would stand up to serious historical analysis. Sid Meier, designer of the Civilization series, has noted many times that his epic world history game was designed to be fun first and that the historical research was added only after the fact (most recently in his interview about Civ 5for Kotaku talk radio http://kotaku.com/5531995/an-hour-of-sid-meier-brilliance-including-his-surprise-guitar-hero-regret). Most game designers are focused on providing engaging, entertaining experiences, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Firefly has made two great games that I have enjoyed for years.
Now, on to the analysis. Today I want to focus on CivCity:Rome. I was going to go through both games but realized I might spend forever doing so—I’ll come back to Stronghold 2 in a future post. Just in case anyone is less familiar with the such games, the city-builder is a popular genre of PC strategy game where a player constructs a city from the ground up in real time and, in doing so, attempts to meet the growing needs and wants of the urban inhabitants. (check out http://www.2kgames.com/civcityrome/ for screenshots and more details). Construction takes place on a plot of land rendered in isometric 3-D. Players place buildings that fulfill a variety of functions for the community, ranging from economic, political, residential, and security functions, to entertainment functions. Many buildings, especially those with economic functions, must be linked together into systems commonly called daisy-chains. In these daisy chains each part of a task is fulfilled by a different building. So, wheat must be grown on a farm, processed in a mill, and made into bread at a bakery before being stored in a central granary. To take a second example, wood is harvested from trees by workers at wood camps then either stored in a central warehouse as surplus or crafted into various products like beds. Essentially then, CC:R revolves around constructing sufficient numbers and varieties of production and supply systems to meet the needs and demands of the populace.
There are many fascinating points of departure when considering how this game models the historical realities of urban Roman cities, but the one I want to explore here is the metric CC:R uses to measure the satisfaction of the populace: happiness. According to the manual, “City happiness is the single most important factor in running a successful city … When your city happiness is positive (shown green) people will come to the city, but when it is negative (shown red) they will start to leave” (p. 18). When one considers again that all city functions must be operated by citizens, it should be clear that the most important measure of success in the game is the happiness rating, for it determines whether the settlement grows or shrinks, directly through population, and by extension through employment in the various productive capacities represented by the buildings.
Time in-game passes in monthly increments. At the beginning of each month, the current happiness rating is modified by the sum of all the happiness modifiers, whether positive or negative. In CC:R these are: wages; rations; work time; civilization (the level of material cultural achievement in the city); city foundation (the initial level of excitement from belonging to a new city); unemployment; housed workers; wonders (whether any wonders of the world have been built, a concept taken from the game’s ostensible parent, Civilization); external events (good and bad news from the empire); and research (certain areas of knowledge, such as mysticism and codes of laws, bring a bonus to happiness, another concept from Civilization).
What should we make of these calculations? To what extent are they defensible representations of the attitudes and motivations of historical Roman city-dwellers? Is ascribing such importance to happiness a seriously anachronistic application of Enlightenment era sensibilities manifested in such documents as the U.S. Declaration of Independence? Did Roman cities function or cease to function primarily because of the happiness of their inhabitants? The answer is yes and no—depending on how one understands the term happiness. (A disclaimer here: I am not going to enter into a philosophical discussion of what true happiness is and its relationship to material goods). CC:R’s measures of happiness are material more often than not: wages, rations, housing, unemployment, even a civilization level, which tends to be measured in terms of buildings and entertainments. And this makes sense for a simulation game. Computers excel at manipulating the quantifiable, and things like rations and wages are easily quantified. Now, certainly Romans, (elite Romans who wrote at least), demonstrated a sensibility that access to material pleasures was helpful in bringing about a measure of what they might term happiness—the efforts of the Stoics to combat this equation notwithstanding. Paintings, sculptures, and exotic foods are all noted sources of pleasure. The graffiti on the walls of cities like Pompeii gives adequate reason to suppose Romans lower on the social ladder had a sense that material things and entertainments brought pleasure if not outright happiness. So the idea that happiness or, if one prefers, satisfying basic physical pleasures was sought after by Romans is reasonable. Going further, the itemization into factors that cause happiness seems to conform to the efforts that Roman emperors, governors, and municipal officials made to placate urban dwellers. The grain dole to feed the urban plebs in the late Republic and Empire, the holding of games, in short the demand of the people for “bread and circuses” that the Roman satirist Juvenal purported to regret bitterly (Satire 10.77–81), were all part of the business of running a city. As for wages and housing, these certainly must have been concerns high on the mind of the poor day laborers that made up the majority of Roman city dwellers, men, women, and children who had to struggle to make ends meet daily.
So to a certain extent it does make good historical sense to suppose that the happiness of the population of a Roman city, so long as we take that to mean satisfaction of basic material desires, was of some interest to a governor who hoped to rule a city effectively. There are some important objections, however, that can be raised to the model. The first is mildly semantic but important nonetheless. Beyond the fact that happiness in the game means largely physical satisfaction, the metric itself would probably be more accurately termed consent to be ruled or, perhaps, toleration of the powers that be. Neither of these is as concise, but they represent what was more likely at play in governing an ancient city. Broadly speaking, it is reasonable to suggest that governing in the ancient world required the active consent of at least some of the governed and the toleration of many more. (This is true today too, but in an age of weapons of mass destruction and the ability to communicate and travel at extremely high rates, one can conceive of a government ruling through far greater coercion). That consent was largely given by the elite members of society because they were able to participate to some extent in ruling, at least at the municipal level, and were able to share in the material benefits of empire including access to goods and luxuries from across the Mediterranean. But what of those from lower social strata, who could not participate as readily in holding the reins of empire? A good case can be made that these people, who made up the vast majority of individuals under Roman control, consented to be ruled by the existing regime so long as their conditions of life were tolerable. Or perhaps to put it another way, it was not so much that their lives had to be tolerable, as it was that they could not reasonably expect to improve their conditions through any radical change. Despite my progression on this track, however, one does not gain much from renaming happiness so long as there is the understanding that we are talking about practical matters involving the condition of life, rather than any spiritual value of happiness.
The second objection that might well be raised is the effects of low happiness on the population. The population simply decreases to represent people emigrating from the city. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that most denizens of Roman cities would flee the cities if there was insufficient access to amenities. Hazarding a guess, presumably fleeing from cities, as those involved in the study of late antiquity would know better, happened mostly through famine, raiders, and other forces that made city life simply untenable. Presumably short of these catastrophic factors, the majority of people would not have had the resources or inclination to travel elsewhere. Certainly they could not easily flee to the countryside, where the demands of subsistence agriculture required a far different skillset than the demands of day-laboring in the cities. To a different city? Perhaps; it is worth noting that the trade and travel networks across the Mediterranean certainly existed, if someone wished to relocate. So it was possible to pick a new city for a new life; that still leaves a big question whether a poor laborer would or could move because there were too few gladiatorial fights. As for the wealthier shopkeepers, artisans, etc. it would presumably be a pretty risky business to pack up wholesale and try to start a new financial effort and life in a distant city. This idea of wide scale travel and relocation by individuals is not characteristic of most people in the pre-industrial world, and I suspect it did not happen with any regularity. It seems like a pretty modern, cosmopolitan projection, especially on the scale modeled in the game where the population can halve or double in a year or two due to the happiness level in the city.
An alternative response to unhappiness that is missing from the game is the better documented riots that could erupt in ancient cities. Riots about shortages of bread, high prices of bread, excessive periods of war, the political and social brushfires of the moment, all of these could and did happen in Rome, and it is reasonable to suppose the same was true of other cities (Thomas Africa, “Urban Violence in Imperial Rome,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 2(1971), 2-21, gives a nice survey of various riots that occurred in Rome over the centuries). Here though, we run into another issue in the game’s interpretation. Not only are historically documented riots eschewed in the game in favor of mass immigration and emigration, but the sources of riots, though they certainly could be about bread, could also be about far more sophisticated issues. One of the more notable of these was the protest that arose when a Roman was murdered by one of his slaves and senate made the decision to execute all the slaves in the household, even those innocent of the crime. This was a sentence that was in accordance with Roman law, but ran against the sense of justice of crowds in Rome, who attacked the senate building in protest.(Tacitus narrates this even in his Annals, 14.42-5)
Finally one could criticize the overarching control the player as governor has over the various causes of happiness. CC:R is a command economy the likes of which even Stalin might have envied. Wages, rations, and work time are set directly by the player through a slider. All the other factors are controlled through the buildings the player chooses to build and the research pursued. Here though common sense needs to prevail and mitigate the critique. It would be a very strange city-building game indeed if the player did not have control over these variables. Essentially every city builder to date from SimCity to Citylife has placed the player in ultimate control because, after all, that is the most enjoyable position from which to play in this genre, the position of grand architect and builder.
It is important to note that we have only examined one mechanic in the game and hardly the only major one. That said, what does the game suggest about Roman city-dwellers? Certainly the Roman populace is represented as a very materialistic lot to the exclusion of more lofty concerns. This is oversimplification, but the game does not overly engage in caricature; rather as it simplifies it notes that Roman citizens expected a food supply, baths, entertainment, basic educational facilities (for those who could afford them), and access to the gods, among other things. This is, on a basic model, a helpful illustration of the material culture of urban inhabitants. The use of migration rather than riots is a misrepresentation of how urban inhabitants expressed their discontent with conditions, and the lack of concern for things like justice and peace, is simplistic. On the other hand, the general representation that ruling an ancient city effectively required some form of reciprocity between governor and governed, some form of consent, and that consequently there were limits to the demands and burdens rulers could place on the ruled is a reasonable model to have students experience.
Where does all this leave us? With a simulation game that has defensible interpretations and a host of flaws, just like all simulation game interpretations, and many interpretations crafted in text and image. For my students the crucial next step would be to corroborate and challenge the models in the game using valid historical evidence, especially primary sources of evidence. For the reader who is not one of my students a reminder that, lest we forget after all this analysis, CivCity Rome is an exceedingly fun game.
— Jeremiah McCall