On Cultural Conquest…

Continuing my thoughts on things barbarian in games, it’s been extremely interesting to see the way the concept of “culture”( usually = civilization) is increasingly present in the games we play. What I find less interesting, is the idea of the civilized cultures conquoring the uncivilized. And I don’t mean that from the “politically correct” point of view; it’s quite simply just a poor simulation of what history tells us occurs when one civilization is conquored by another.

When Gaul was romanized, the result was not tribes of copy-cat Romans. The result was a Gallo-Roman culture, mixing elements of both civilizations, until the invasion of the Franks melded that culture into the Merovingian period. The same happened in every region of the Roman empire: elements of Punic culture survived the fall of Carthage for more than 600 years in the thoroughly Romanized province of Africa and the Greeks remained very distinctly Greek even when they became the capital of the Roman Empire. When cultures and civilizations clash, change is inevitable. It may happen so slowly that it is not noticeable (except to the old people who inevitably talk about how things were better back when they were kids), but the change occurs.

When a culture stops changing, it is usually because it’s about to die (a thought for the cultural nationalists of Europe today).

In game terms, however, culture (or civilization) is inevitably represented as an unchanging entity. And while the addition of Culture to the Civilization games was a nice touch, the treatment of culture really leans toward the primordial “Clash of Civilization” theory. This seems almost a natural trend in game design, given the focus on conflict in historical games – and it can be seen in pretty much every strategy game that includes elements of culture/civilization/religion.

I can think of only one game design that really attempted to treat culture in a plausible way, and that was the “Ethos” system of Master of Orion 3 (dropped from the final game). An Ethos in that design had a world view (essentially “religious system”), a bunch of ideals (militaristic, peaceful, etc), and a tradition. As usual, of course, ethoi could and would compete across cultural boundaries, but the interesting aspect was that the more established a culture became, the weaker its ability to proselytize would tend to become. It was also intended that fringe groups (same culture with a small change) would break of from the main ethoi, which given the mechanisms described (small fringe group = high proselytize ability, mainstream ethos = low proselytization), would probably have resulted in fringe groups breaking off and quickly replacing the mainstream ethos.

Adding a few more elements (which may or may not have been included in the design; it’s hard to tell); the resistance of an ethos to proselytization being dependent on its similarity to the proselytizer, the ability of ethoi to merge, and the influence of outside events on an ethos (long wars, for instance, leading to pacificism) and the cultural simulation would have been complete.

Would this have been the ultimate cultural modelling in a strategy game? No doubt. Would it have been an unplayable mess? Perhaps, though I can’t help feeling that there is a core of interesting gameplay in this aspect of civilization modelling that could make a fascinating and perhaps even instructive game.

Before you ask; no – Imperium won’t contain such a detailed modeling of culture. Religion wasn’t really that important back then, and cultural change occurred at a very slow pace (the “Romanization” of Spain, for example, took centuries). So while culture will be modeled and have an effect (primarily in terms of military capability and government structures), it does not have the priority I would devote to it, for instance, if this was a game about the renaissance.