I’ll say it: I don’t think Civilization is all that educational. It’s more educational than most videogames, certainly, but that’s not saying a lot.
There are four arguments made by the pro-educational camp:
Firstly, that Civilization teaches people about technologies, cultures, buildings, leaders, and of course, civilizations, from all over the world and across the sweep of history. I’m fairly sympathetic to this view, and I admire the game’s expansive worldview – it makes a real effort to include civilizations other than those already familiar to the West.
However, I question exactly how much any player takes away from the game – it’s not as if you need to read the in-game encyclopaedia (the ‘Civilopedia’) to perform well, and the entire point of the game is that you get to play around with history – it’s not as if you’re learning about ancient Chinese or Persian battles. I’ll grant that a motivated student of history might read up on all the game’s historical articles – but once you find that student, the job’s mostly-done already.
Secondly, that by playing the game, Civilization helps people understand concepts like the scarcity of natural resources, the importance of geography, and the impact that small decisions can have across centuries (basically, it’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ in game form). Again, I’m not sure if people actually take away these concepts from the game unless they’re specifically pointed out to them. In some ways I think that Civilization presents a very deterministic and mercantilist view of history, one with constant advancement being the norm; the role of chance and of total disaster is papered over, in the (very understandable) service of gameplay. Maybe this chimes with a particular Western (or perhaps American) view of history, but it’s not something I recognise from reality.
Thirdly, that Civilization is a powerful tool for teachers to provide context to history lessons. This is actually a pretty good idea – not one that I’ve seen in practice or know much about myself, admittedly. I can see how a good teacher could use Civilization to think about counterfactuals like “Why is my country the size/power it is now, instead of what it is in my game?” and to illustrate some of the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ concepts. I don’t know if a single teacher could do this for a class of 30 students, but if you lowered the number, or perhaps played a few democracy games, it could work very well. One can imagine a game of Civilization providing the spine for an entire term’s worth of activities, from art and language to science and politics; I’d sign up, for sure!
Lastly, that mods to Civilization (community-created modifications or expansions to the game) can give players very good lessons in specific subjects. In 2007, Telefilm Canada funded the imaginatively-named The History Game Canada, a million-dollar expansion of Civilization 3 that lets you play as one of nine civilizations, including the Algonquin, Mohawk, French, and English, to rewrite the country’s history and explore various counterfactuals like:
“What if the Huron had displaced the 5 Nations Confederacy rather than the other way around?” or “What if the French had retained Canada, and the English colonies to the East and South had failed to prosper?”
Civilization 3 was the clunkiest and most frustrating game of the series, so I am in no hurry to try this out, but it sounds very enticing, and potentially a real improvement on dry, didactic history lessons (though not cheap, of course).
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find many other overtly educational mods for Civilization, which isn’t surprising, since good mods can require surprising amounts of graphical assets, text, code, rules, and design (I speak from bitter experience after having attempted a couple of total conversions in my youth). It takes a remarkably motivated and skilled teacher to make the effort of designing a custom map, arranging all the cities and units just so, and tweaking the rules to fit the context – but it does happen, as demonstrated by Shawn Graham, who made a mod called The Year of the Four Emperors, aimed at teaching his undergrad students about the events after Nero’s assassination in 68AD, and how someone other than Vespasian might have won out.
Given that Civilization 5’s lead designer, Jon Shafer (who you might remember as the Minister of War in Apolyton’s ISDG team), cut his teeth in the modding community before he joined Firaxis, I think there are good days ahead for modders of all kinds – but it’s never going to be easy to create an educational scenario with accuracy and depth.
Summing up, it’s a bit of a mixed bag – I don’t think Civilization imbues players with any real historical knowledge or understanding, but I do think that it’s an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of smart educators and modders who have specific lessons they want to convey.
When you consider that, in their own words:
…It cannot be overstated that Firaxis has never set out to make an “educational” game
the fact that Civilization is lightyears ahead of most games (including many ‘educational’ games) is an impressive feat of game design.