Flash of Steel header image 2

Culture as a Mechanic or, Get Out of My Head Michael

March 3rd, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 5 Comments · Blogs, Design, Firaxis, History

While trying to use propaganda posts in Sins of a Solar Empire last week, I started thinking about cultural control in strategy gaming, how culture assimilation is an either/or proposition, how an homogeneous culture is assumed to be better than one with spillover from neighbors, how rival cultures bring nothing with them but trouble.

Then I noticed that Michael Akinde already wrote this essay. So I don’t have a lot to add. He covers it nicely and says a lot that I was thinking of. (He has an update on his game, today, too.)

It is interesting to consider what blended culture would look like in game terms. I love to talk historical reality versus game theory, but it does eventually need to find its way into a design.

Let’s take Civ IV as an example; an interesting example since you can make a case that the strongest Civ nation has multiple religions (more temples, more cathedrals) but a single culture.

If your Persian Empire is next to a stronger Greek culture, then bit by bit your cities will become Greek. They may eventually flip to your rival. The Greek culture brings no knowledge, no traditions…only the risk of defection. Could you let a multicultural empire use the minority culture’s unique units and buildings, with perhaps an upkeep penalty? Could you have a slow bleed of research from the more advanced neighbor, making it easier to discover things that the Greeks had researched? On the negative side, could you increase upkeep in multicultural cities, to model remittances and maybe policing ethnic tensions.

The chance of having a city with more than two significant cultures in it is pretty small in Civ, so it probably doesn’t deserve it’s own civics tree, but the civics already model the unsteady movement from primitivism to modernity. And there are many historical instances of foreign cultures being embraced and sometimes leading to new fusions. Could a civics culture tree give you greater tolerance for foreign population? You’d need more than that, of course; the beauty of the Civ IV civics menu is that you can conceive using all them options in specific circumstances, even when more modern options come available. You could also put cultural conditions on existing civics; mercantilism could slow the growth of foreign cultures but as a penalty give a specific hit to relations with neighbors who have free trade, which promotes culture. Representation could make cities with large minority populations more or less likely to revolt.

But that’s Civ. Galactic Civilizations and Sins of a Solar Empire also have a zero sum approach to culture and there’s no clear way those mechanics could be altered to create a new paradigm of interstellar culture. I mean, I assume that there are interstellar immigrants, right? Europa Universalis, spanning an era that saw both the acceptance of foreign rulers by large populations and the rise of nationalism, assumes that multiple cultures means instability and slower research.

Once it comes down to it, it’s all about representation. What does each game mean by “culture”? Sins has it purely in terms of propaganda and government broadcasts, so a cultural mechanic that focuses on territorial control probably makes sense. In EU, culture is a specific population that must be placated. But Civ has culture wrapped up in theaters, temples and libraries – education, religion and the performing arts promote culture. So why should these make a foreign city revolt? Does the cultural percentage represent love of new music, the movement of immigrants or both?

We want to keep culture as a mechanic, of course, since it is points out a pacific path to victory. Build enough museums and great wonders and you should be rewarded for not focusing on beating in heads. But when culture is boiled down to a population figure, it gets a little disjointed as a representation of the Pyramids and Oxford.

Read Akinde’s essay, since it covers the historical ground pretty well.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Jon Shafer

    With games, the big question is always “what is the purpose of feature X?” With Culture (in Civ) it’s been almost exclusively land control. If you really examine it in the real world, you realize that Culture is a pretty amorphous thing that’s hard to attach tangible properties to. By saying that Culture = Land I think that precludes a lot of other possibilities, but it was a simplification made to make the effects of Culture very explicit. While not impossible, I think it’d be a big challenge to come up with both a fun AND “realistic” model to depict Culture. Games have tended to lean towards the former, and I believe not without good reason.


  • Troy

    I’m not sure it’s realism I’m looking for so much as tradeoffs. In religion, for example, foreign religions can lead to greater happiness/culture but can also give money to a rival Holy City. When you expand corporations, you sometimes give a rival extra food or hammers all for the extra bit of wealth. (Giving a rival ethanol is usually a mistake, I’ve found.)

    But all foreign culture gives you is a headache. The push is to make all your cities “pure” while making rival cities mongrels. I love the culture mechanic, myself; culture bombs, sticking the Hermitage and three cathedrals in a border town, all that stuff is great. But is culture just a safe weapon? No upkeep, no risks. Just drive the foreigner before you.

    I’m certainly not advocating “realism”; that would be completely out of place and mostly out of character. Everything in its place, and realism has little place in Civ. Mind you, plausibility and realism are not the same. I just find it interesting that in so many 4x games, “culture” is just another word for “brainwashing.”

  • Jon Shafer

    Ah, fair enough. I think the drawback to Culture is simply that it’s effects are nebulous and not really enforceable… sure, you can grab a few tiles along the border with the Indians or maybe even flip a city, but in the end they could just come in and take it back if they have a bigger army.

    I think your example with Religion is better than Culture. Culture isn’t something a player really has direct control over… aside from constructing various Buildings to increase its production rate you don’t really do much with it. Religion spread, however, involves sending Missionary units around. That’s something where there can be much more interaction between players. I can choose to let the Indians’ Missionary into my borders, or I can keep my borders closed, or I can even hunt it down and kill it if I really want to. There’s hardly as much interaction with Culture, and that’s just intrinsic in the way the two features work in the game. If spreading Culture were more “hands-on” then I think there would be more opportunities for trade-offs in allowing it to spread vs. playing the xenophobe. Right now though it’s just Push-Push back (or not). It’s almost like warfare in a way, just without the ability to make peace. ;)


  • Troy

    Well, you don’t always have control of religion, especially in the early going. Found one coastal city and the first thing you know, some Viking rabbi sets up shop because of the trade route effect.

    I wouldn’t say that culture isn’t hands-on, since you can focus it in one direction and increase its rate through the budget control or city production. I notice that the AI loves to build culture in newly conquered cities for a few turns. Certainly more time intensive and less concentrated in its effect than religion, though.

  • Nelson

    “Culture” is a famously sticky subject, but I think games like Civ and EU portray the difficulties of managing a diverse empire about as well as can be expected. Decentralized empires are vulnerable: Think of the breakup of the Mongol khanates or the difficulties faced by the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I. I think EU’s rendering of it is lacking in subtlety, but nevertheless it feels right to have nationalism and religious discontent grow in proportion to the size of your empire.

    Maybe there’s a distinction to be made between cultural diversity and openness to outside influence. Japan is ethnically almost completely homogenous, but over the centuries it has absorbed much thought from China and the West. The Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, was quite diverse and fairly tolerant inside its own borders, but largely closed to innovations taking place in Renaissance Europe.