Johan Fourie's blog

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Lessons from a computer game

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Those who know me well, know that one of my secret indulgences is playing Civilization, a computer game that let’s you build a virtual empire. I don’t remember when and where I first encountered Civ, but I do remember spending countless hours over weekends and school holidays building my Egyptian, French or Zulu empire. I’m glad that as a student I never owned a computer with the specs necessary to play, as I’m pretty sure it would have cost me another year at varsity. I do remember playing it while writing my Masters dissertation: for a month, I would write from 5am to 9am, and then play for the rest of the day. I even mentioned Civ IV in the conclusion of my dissertation, using it as a metaphor to explain why a lack of infrastructure is holding back African development.

Why is Civ so appealing (and addictive)? I suspect there are many reasons, but for me it certainly has something to do with the ability to rewrite history. Civilization is in essence a massive simulation of counterfactual history, simplified of course to make it playable. While your aim is to found towns and cities, explore new territories, invent new technologies and conquer other nations, I am always struck by the relevance of economic theories in explaining ‘success’ in the game. Play on the world map, for example, and see how difficult it is to win when starting on the continents of America or Africa. The reason? Economic isolation. Trade and warfare between competitive civilizations benefits your civilization more than if you had developed on your own in peace. This concurs with much of what we know about trade and economic history and is summarised by Gary Fields’ classic remark that “you can’t get rich by selling to yourself”. Trade requires infrastructure, though, and here Africa is particularly problematic. The vast distances and the thick jungles of the continent (clearly visible when you play on a customized map to reflect the actual size of continents) makes it nearly impossible to build roads and railways to connect and defend your cities, and if you’re building cities on the coast of southern Africa, the harbours of other nations are simply too far to trade with. And apart from losing out on profitable trade routes, you also lose out, most critically, on gaining new technologies from your neighbours. The lesson: if you settle in southern Africa, be prepared for a tough game.

ImpiNot only is geography a limitation, but the lack of alternative strategies is sometimes patently obvious. This is most clearly visible in one of the scenarios in the latest Civ V version which allows you to start as the Boers or the Zulus during the period of African colonisation. There really is only one way to win as the Zulus: destroy the Boers as soon as possible and found as many cities in the ’empty’ African interior. Similarly with the Boers: destroy the Zulus and beat back (or trade with) the Portuguese (in Mozambique) or the English (in Cape Town). Was there ever really an alternative to the hundred-years war between settler farmers and the Xhosa (from 1779 to 1879)? Perhaps we will uncover different options if a larger South African map was available, and one that included more southern African tribes. I’d like to see the Tswana, for example. Their special building could be the Kgotla (which could replace the courthouse and be built in any city (not only occupied ones), reducing unhappiness) and their special unit could be the Donkey (which improves the efficiency of workers). Or the Basotho, with their special building the Mokorotlo (or hat maker, which grants one additional gold for every grassland) and their unit the War Pony (which replaces the chariot archer and allows units to cross mountains). For those who haven’t played, the Zulu’s have a special building – the Ikanda – which replaces the barracks and grants extra experience to units, and a special unit – the Impi – which replaces the pikeman.

Simulations are used in many fields to predict future events, and economics is no exception. The world is incredibly complex, and simulations (based on our theories of how the economy functions) help us to explain what the impact of some shock would be. A good macroeconomic model, for example, can explain how an increase in the interest rate should affect other economic variables. Civilization was never meant to simulate the past or the future, but it recently did exactly that: one man who goes by the name Lycerius played a single Civ II game for more than a decade. In the game, he reached the year 3991. What does the future look like? Bleak. He finds himself (playing with the Celts) in perpetual war with the Americans and Vikings, with all other populations annihilated. Communism is the only political system that allows him to constantly make war. Malnourishment and pollution is rife. Sea levels rise. CNN reports on his efforts here. The one positive about this sad state of future affairs is that the game designers did not (and could not) factor in future technological innovations that might alleviate all this misery. Which just shows us the importance of incentivising innovation if we are to survive as a species.

As computers become more powerful, our models will become more complex too. Civ V: Brave New World (the third extension of the fifth edition) does an excellent job of replicating the major historical developments, perhaps with the exception of two things. Disease has shaped (African) history far more than anything else. The black plague, some scholars argue, were the root causes of the Industrial Revolution. Smallpox killed First Nation peoples at rates that warfare could never do. The deadly disease environment in many African countries forced Europeans, according to Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, to build extractive institutions that continue to have a detrimental effect on development. The resistance of  Africans to tropical diseases was also pivotal into them being coerced into slavery. If the next Civ could add disease and slavery, history might really come alive.

Two weeks ago, Sid Meyer and his team of Firaxis designers released the latest Civilization installment: Beyond Earth. As the name suggests, it takes mankind into space after an unexplained “Great Mistake” on earth. At the start of the game, you must choose one of eight different factions that builds a space ship and leaves earth to permanently settle a distant planet. (For an explanation of why mankind needs to go into space, listen to the two designers discuss it here.) On the new planet you have to choose one of three philosophies (or affinities as they call it) about how you want to live in your new environment. The Harmony affinity allow humans to adapt to the indigenous life, developing new technologies that eventually make you a new species. Choosing the Supremacy affinity means you choose to improve the robotics that allowed you to reach the new planet. Your interaction with the new environment is limited and you rely generally on advanced technology to stay alive and conquer. Following the Purity affinity suggests you believe that humans are the pinnacle of evolution and you therefore want to recreate (through prodigious terraforming) Earth in your new environment. Which affinity you choose, I think, will determine how you interact with the new environment and alien life forms.

columbus_1772950bI wondered whether there are parallels in the process of European colonisation? Some colonisers set out to create a new society, intermixing with the indigenous population. Think of the Cape Verde islands or Mauritius or perhaps Brazil and Mexico. Others set out to create a new Europe. Here the settler societies of the US, Australia and, to a lesser extent, South Africa are good examples. Others, again, tried to simply extract as much as possible, not settling but simply using their superior technology to extract resources as fast as possible. These are the places AJR say have ‘extractive institutions’, places like the Congo, and Hiati and the Philippines. It’s not difficult to see which of these turned out best for the descendants of the settlers, but the same is not true when we consider the welfare of the indigenous people of course. The millions of American Indians or Aboriginal Australians or Cape Khoesan that died due to smallpox or European guns had to give way for the Europeans to create their New Europe. (New Zealand was literally renamed after the home province of the European mapmakers. Think also of New York, first named New Amsterdam.) It is also patently obvious that the indigenous populations in the ‘extractive’ colonies benefited very little, even though they generally survived. If we were to maximise the welfare of the indigenous populations, integration was evidently the better alternative.

It’s not clear how humanity will react when we first discover alien life on a new planet. But let’s hope we learn from our own planet’s history – and the simulations of a computer game – about what not to do.


2 Responses

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  1. I’m a recovering Civ addict. Kudos on having the discipline to write a master’s dissertation while playing! I had to uninstall the game and cut up my CDROM in order to finish my dissertation.


    November 22, 2014 at 08:15

  2. Hi Johan ,

    IF you enjoy game play perhaps you also enjoy movies ?

    Two things spring to mind


    Interstellar ( which I have still to see )

    Watched carefully , Holly Wood and the movies produced there with a futuristic theme , are often somewhat prophetic.
    ( I realise that there is a lot of cross-seeding between the game makers and the movie makers )

    Science and technological advancement do not necessarily have to be exploitative or detrimental to the environment. When the next great leap happens and an energy source that is not fossil fuel based is discovered all of human society will undergo dramatic change. ( and the game developers will have to rewrite all their code )

    How does one integrate an aboriginal ( traditional ) society that is so different to the interloper “advanced” society with which it comes into contact ?

    Speaking of Southern Africa how does one integrate the concept of communal land with that of private property ( the cornerstone of a Western capitalist scientific rule of law democratic system )

    Which one has produced more “utility” for more people ?
    Which one has led to the greatest increase in human population ? ( a bad thing actually )


    November 13, 2014 at 10:19

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