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Gamer’s Bookshelf: Guns, Germs and Steel

January 15th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 5 Comments · Gamer's Bookshelf

Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel sets out to answer a single question and finds a single answer.

Q: Why did the European powers have such an historical advantage over the world they dominated?
A: Geography.

Sure, the book is more complicated than this, but not much. The east-west movement of crops from Nile Delta to Fertle Crescent to Ganges River (and back again) was made possible by similar day/night cycles and mean temperatures, so there was a greater variety of foodstuffs in the early Eurasian civilizations. The ready availability of easily domesticated animals made farms and merchants more productive, especially when their power was yoked to the wheel. This gave a larger boost to centralization, labor specialization and communication of ideas. The transportation across the Middle East and Mediterranean spread the Babylonian cuneiform script, leading to written languages nearly everywhere in Eurasia, where the isolated Mayans had a language that spread nowhere.

Diamond takes some interesting detours. Why didn’t China dominate the world, with its huge population, written language and long technological superiority? What makes an animal suitable for domestication? There’s a very long and boring section on grain types. But the book has managed to do what few popular science books have been able to do. It takes a very complicated historical case, boils it down to its essence and loses none of the nuance that this sort of argument requires.

It’s a great book – one of my favorites – and was made into a not terrible PBS documentary series. Too bad any game that took its precepts seriously wouldn’t be much fun.

Only Civilization and its clones start from the same point as Guns, Germs and Steel. There are various tribes with modest differences in culture and suitability of terrain for settlement. In recent Civs there have been different resources which are tied to various advancements or military units on the tech tree. But Civ deviates from the Diamond model in very significant ways, even though many armchair analysts try to find connections between the two.

The “progress model” of historical 4x games has been much commented upon and is, naturally, historically suspect. No two civilizations follow identical paths and you can have advanced cultures without the wheel (Incas), the alphabet (Chinese) or animal husbandry (Aztecs). Civ retrofits the European model of success upon the world and gives everyone a roughly equal chance to get there. Though iron and horses could be very rare in Civilization III, the latest incarnation of the game makes them more common to prevent frustration at being stuck on a bad continent. Even if you don’t have iron or horses, there are ways to prevent this becoming a major problem. Rush for macemen or gunpowder, for example. Or expand your culture so your defending troops get that cultural bonus. There is always a counter.

Diamond’s major conclusions lead you to realize that there isn’t a counter to much of history. One advantage leads to another advantage until it becomes impossible to “catch up”. In this way, economics based real time strategy games aren’t a bad analogy. If you can get ten new villagers collecting resources when your opponent can only get out five, this early advantage can explode exponentially if managed right. Double resources means early advancement means more better weapons faster. The cry against “build orders” in RTS games is a cry against optimal paths up the tech tree – that there is an ideal solution. Where Diamond would certainly not refer to European domination as ideal, he would certainly point to it as relatively optimal.

Not that you can’t get completely screwed by a Civ setup. Some of my most memorable games are when my poor nation has had to start in a swampy jungle or desert island, unable to get anything going for the longest time. The larger the maps are, the more important early contact with another culture is. More than once I have dominated entire continents only to find that I was a half-dozen techs behind people on a more crowded land mass. (The necessity of cultural interaction is another one of the lessons of history that Civ gets right.)

But like most games, it is interested in balance – giving a player a chance to win no matter how things start. History is not interested in balance, which is why games are limited as true simulations or textbook substitutes.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Nelson

    I just had a situation like that today. I had a larger land area than anyone else, yet I didn’t have a single coal square and couldn’t build railroads, so my industry was incredibly anemic. Meanwhile, I had *five* aluminum resource squares, but of course the ruthless AI would not trade.

  • JonathanStrange

    Diamond’s book even comes with a tech tree as I recall! Though it’s branches are not as numerous as Civilization’s or even Age of Empires’.
    A fascinating book even if one feels that the idea that “geography is destiny” undervalues culture as affected by individual “great men.” Nevertheless, a great read and thought-provoking.

    I think we’ve all experienced a “Guns, Germs, and Steel” moment in our first Civilization games: here you’re controlling your small isolated continent, and then one day musketeer are landing on your beaches and shooting down your swordsmen and scattering your chariots. Or you’re greatly outnumbered in some Age of Empires scenario ’cause you’ve not enough workers to generate the revenue needed to advance your techs. Ouch.

  • Soren Johnson

    Interesting post to read since I had the exact same reaction when I first read GGS. I had just started at Firaxis and was working on Civ3 – thus, I was very excited to find a book that matched up so well with the game’s subject matter. The more I read, however, the more I realized it would make a terrible game. By definition, Diamond is saying that your fate is determined at the very beginning of the game. And let’s not even get into his germ theory, which is a solid theory, but a terrible game mechanic for punishing players who are already behind.

  • Troy

    Disease as a cultural leveller would seriously break a lot of “Plato to Nato” games. The whole GGS model could work on a SimEarth type of scale, but SimEarth wasn’t much fun.

  • Krupo

    Wonder how much Spore will draw upon GGS, then? None at all I assume. ;)