Race in Civ IV: Beyond the Sword

One of the new additions that is not touted at all in the Beyond the Sword expansion pack for Civ IV – but which struck me as soon as I started playing: race-appropriate units.

The Civ franchise is the most influential videogame based, however loosely, on world history; the representation of conflict between different societies is a central part of what it’s for. So its failure or success at dealing with race is pretty major within a gaming context. And it has a pretty failure-ridden past, so I’m interested to see things developing.

With expansions, Civ IV boasts thirty-four civilisations by my count, fifteen European and nineteen not.

One of the longstanding Problems with Civ, from its first iteration, was that the only black African civ was the Zulu. The independent Zulu nation was pretty ephemeral, lasting under three generations; like many Native American cultural groupings, it developed out of European-induced turmoil and is mostly remembered by white history for being crushed shortly thereafter. The military and social transformation of the Zulu is a pretty astonishing story, had a huge influence on nineteenth-century southern African history and cultural identities in that part of the world thereafter; but it never really cut the mustard as a Great Civilisation, and its inclusion gave the impression that Civ was really having to scrape the barrel to find a Token Black Guy. The situation wasn’t helped by the early inclusion of some definitely non-Zulu towns (notably Great Zimbabwe, a city abandoned centuries before the Zulu existed as a distinct group). This has improved significantly in IV with the addition of Mali and Ethiopia.

Similarly, Civ has long had trouble with what to do about the original residents of North America. They should be there, they think – and the Mesoamerican cultures aren’t quite enough – but they need to be recognisably Injuns – extant at the time of the European conquest, with name-recognition to someone with a vague high-school level of American history, and with famous leaders. So rather than sustained urban civilisations like the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) or Mississipian, we got the Iroquois (Civ II) and Sioux (III). The Iroquois, unforgiveably, were led by Hiawatha. The issue was avoided in the initial release of IV, but Beyond the Sword rather regrettably adds the Native American civ, led by Sitting Bull but using a random selection of town-names from around the US, including the major Ancestral Puebloan sites.

Another change I approve of – Cleopatra (a vassal-state ruler, mostly prominent in history for Exotic Oriental Seductress value, and a Greek to boot) has been ditched as an Egyptian leader, replaced by Rameses II and Hatshepsut.

Civ II included race as a game mechanic to some extent; the system was pretty crude, dividing the world into European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern/African, Asian and American, a setup that would make the most idiotic race-theorist roll their eyes. Civs of the same race tended to have starting locations near each other, and got a small relations boost; visually, this made the architecture of your cities look different and gave your citizens different faces. This led to all sorts of strangeness – the USA civ was classified as American, which meant that the Aztecs, Sioux and Inca all started out with brown citizens and magically became mixed white/Native American at, iirc, the beginning of the Renaissance era. India got classified as East Asian. The whole thing was kind of embarrassing, and III let it quietly die; religion serves a somewhat similar function in IV.

Another problem is the colouration of military units. This was not really an issue in the first two iterations of Civ – the graphics were just too simple – but in III and the initial release of IV, it was pretty jarring. More or less all units were white, except for a few early units like Workers and Settlers (ambiguously Mediterranean), the Scout unit (Native North American) and civ-specific units like the Impi and Samurai. This led to really jarring effects if you played a PoC civ – white people until you developed the tech for your Oromo Warrior, who walks around being very black and surrounded by white units, and then gets outmoded and you’re back to just white people again.

Beyond the Sword heavily overhauls this – units have appropriate colouration, and many of the earlier units have distinct models (so the European version of Warrior has shaggy brown hair, a beard and a brown leather kilt; the Middle Eastern version has a shaved head and a white kilt; the East Asian one has a one-shouldered robe and a topknot.) A lot of units are restyled somewhat so that the medieval period, for instance, doesn’t look so European-default. Modern units just have skin colour changed. I’m still not wild about the exact classifications – black Africans are once again lumped in with the Middle Eastern civs – but it’s less jarring than the Civ III version, and a definite improvement on the all-white plain-IV thing.

Also problematic for the franchise is the characterisation, in game-mechanic terms, of entire peoples. On the one hand, sweeping generalisations about The Character of the English Race and The Spirit of Japan are hallmarks of a particular school of C19th-early C20th muscular racism, and there’s much risk of stereotyping here. On the other, different cultures are different, and for gameplay and narrative purposes it’s useful for your choice of civ to have significant effects. Civ has done this in various ways: AI parameters (in II and III, you could pretty much rely that India wasn’t going to wage unprovoked war on you, whereas the Zulu and Mongols would pick fights constantly, and by the mid-game would be either dead or sitting on top of a huge empire.) Another method was civ traits, attributes like Spiritual or Expansive that give bonuses in certain areas and thus make certain styles of play easier. This is pretty broad and subject to stereotyping, of course; how do you sum up an entire culture, across its whole history, in an adjective or two? Take, for instance, Japan; as a nation it has had phases of intense militarism and anti-military pacifism, of deep insularity and strong expansionism, rapid progress and conservative stagnation. From the Western perspective, of course, Japanese history has only two important phases: samurai and WW2, so Japan tends to get traits that reward aggressive play.

The rhetoric gets changed a bit in Civ IV, however, because traits are explicitly attached to leadersrather than their civs. The game effect is the same, of course, because you keep the same leader for a single playthrough, but it does rhetorically distance the trait from the culture somewhat. This is offset a bit because not all civs have multiple rulers to choose from, and non-European civs have fewer rulers on average. 8/15 European civs have more than one available ruler, as opposed to 5/19 non-European (counting Persia, which is borderline); the civs with three available leaders (America, England, France, and Russia) are all European. (One experiment that they seem to have abandoned – Civ II allowed you to choose your leader’s gender for every civ, with the Americans led by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Romans by Livia, etc. 6/50 available leaders are female – Boudica, Hatshepsut, Elizabeth I, Victoria, Catherine the Great, Isabella I. I am not sure how one would completely remedy this without tokenism – Boudica is already pushing it, and it made sense not to revive Joan of Arc – but I can certainly think of sensible additions for at least as many again, off the cuff.)

I think what it comes down to is that there’s, well, they get it wrong an awful lot, but there is at least an apparent acknowledgement that they need to try and get it right.

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