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?
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. 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.