What Can We Learn about Video Games from those who change the rules?

Granted, this is a strange way to begin analyzing this subject, but it seemed like a reasonable question. Trevor Owens, formerly with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University certainly thought so.  He took Sid Meier’s popular game Civilization – both praised as an educational tool and criticized for promoting Eurocentrism – and studied the problematic issues in interpreting this game by examining the ways in which gamers modify play and how they approached the history of science, technology and knowledge represented in the game. Owens discovered that Civilization modders (gamers who modify the game) use reason and argument rather than their intuition for developing historical models. Community members value a form of historical accuracy, they prize subtlety and nuance in models for science within the game, and they communicate through civil consensus building.

Instead of mining information from interviews, surveys, or questionnaires, Owens used message boards and forums to explore discussions about science and technology in the Civilization games. He keyed in on two specific game communities: the CivFanatics and Apolyton web sites.  The two groups provided a way to discuss game play and work collectively on modifying projects.

He then focused on how game modders were working with the system of civilization commonly known as the “tech tree.” Owens’ examination included a single thread discussion allowing him to record the objectives and considerations that Civilization game modifiers pursued and discussed.  From the Apolyton site, four main points emerged in the modders’ philosophies and values. They established a desire to increase historical accuracy in the game. They assessed how game mechanics mirror socio-historical behavior. They introduced distinctive changes to make the game more factual. They held their discussions by consensus building.

Unique to this game is a “science advisor” who provides potential cultural progressions and technologies. Players decide on a research agenda, generate research points and acquire technologies yielding game play advantages. Gamers create the research points by assigning a portion of their civilizations taxes to research. More points are earned if citizens are turned into scientists and buildings constructed which produce additional research points.

Most revealing was one gamer’s reason for modifying the game. Simply put, the gradual progression of human learning and advancement cannot be summarized into 100 unrelated milestones and a player is unrealistically limited to doing one thing at a time. In this example, historical accuracy and authenticity helped better reflect this gamer’s concept of the past.  Additional posters finessed how Civilization could be altered to reflect their understanding of how knowledge, science, and technology:

Technology should be affected by what the player does in the sense that if he builds a lot of ships, his shipbuilding technology should go up, and if he stops making ships, the technology deteriorates. Maybe technology level could be a property of a population whereas scientific knowledge is the proper of the whole civilization?[1]

The shipbuilding argument explains this gamer’s line of reasoning that a specific technology should develop additional expertise with that technology. His idea settled a perceived problem from a previous posting, namely that rudimentary scientific and applied technical skills are modeled in the same way.

Instead of examining the flaws in Civilization’s representation of the history of science, game modders looked at this as an opportunity to consider their own understanding of technology and science.  Changes within the paradigm of a “See the game, play the game” mindset allowed players to discuss historic fact. Along the way, they developed the methods and courtesies of scholarly conversation. Modders replayed history; they constructed, critiqued, proposed, and developed real simulations for understanding historical events.[2] Civilization was designed to be altered and changed. Owens’ presentation illustrated that a positive discourse, accuracy, and consensus building can occur within the worldly confines of digital imagination and can help engage both the public and students in a valuable process of developing and refining their understanding of science and its role in society. A true win, win scenario for all.

[1] Trevor Owens, “Modding the History of Science: Values at Play in Modder Discussions of Sid Meier’s Civilization,” accessed 4 April, 2011, http://www.sagepub.com

[2] Hayden White, Metahistory:  The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.


2 Replies to “What Can We Learn about Video Games from those who change the rules?”

  1. When you wrote the gamer's reason for modifying the game – "a player is unrealistically limited to doing one thing at a time" – I thought about the limitations within writing history and wondered if technology will enable us to escape some of those limitations. In other words, if we are writing about a period in history, the very nature of language in writing only allows us to address "one thing at a time." We can certainly be descriptive about multiple "things," but the order of those things are presented in only one way, and perhaps not in the complex way that the historical "thing" was actually experienced. Perhaps technology may aid historians in presenting the past more accurately in multiple dimensions beyond those ways that writing limits.

    In a way, I suppose, this is illustrated in the way a film projects an event differently than a written work, though I think there is so much more needed than just a film. Advancing technology may give us those platforms that will enable historians to present history in more complex (and authentic) ways, though there remains one difficulty (well, probably many). Historians need to publish, which requires publishers willing to do so hoping for profits. While technology may help us present the past better, often "published" technological items are easily obtained for free, which may make it difficult then to find "publishers" willing to expend their own resources for such things. Their are also copyright issues, the threats to data manipulation and/or deletion, and probably a whole host of problems that we don't even know exists.

    I wonder if we'll see in the near future an entirely new discipline of "digital historians" who ONLY publish historical technologies (techno-histories) rather than traditional manuscripts.

    1. Dennis, You bring up many valid points.I agree that historians need to publish but feel that much of that requirement is slowly going by the wayside. Many of these assumptions came before the advent of the computer, the internet and/or other means of producing scholarly works. Publish, yes but the method in which that is achieved will be the subject of further debate. As change comes to the top, so too will the acceptance of atypical methods to accomplish this goal.

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