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Chopping Down the Tech Tree: Perspectives of Technological Linearity in God Games, Part One
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Chopping Down the Tech Tree: Perspectives of Technological Linearity in God Games, Part One

May 31, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

As a species, human beings are completely infatuated with themselves. It's nothing to be ashamed of -- we're actually a really interesting bunch of primates. I'm certainly not embarrassed to admit that I've spent the majority of my academic career scratching my head and trying to figure out why we act the way we do.

It's no great surprise that this fixation has worked its way into the world of interactive entertainment. I'd suspect that most designers realize that computer games frequently mirror our thoughts about ourselves and the world around us.

How did we get to where we are now? What is going to happen to us in the future? Both are questions that are posed time and again in processual story based strategy titles. Processual who? Story based what? Basically, its just a fancy shmancy name for "God Games" like Activision's Civilization: Call to Power, Impressions Games' City Builder Series, or Firaxis' Alpha Centauri. Each time the "new game" button is clicked, the player not only gets the opportunity to explore these questions, but also to play god (something all of us love but don't always admit to) and immerse themselves in a "what could have been" or "what could be" scenario.

Impressions Games' Pharaoh bases its gameplay
on a fixed slice of time that runs from the
Late Predynastic to the New Kingdom.

For the most part, however, designers really don't have a firm grasp of the process of social change. As a result, most games depend on a skewed view of human culture change that translates into the infamous tech tree. Consequently, despite their often-intricate nature, most processual story based strategy titles are predictable and simple.

Simple? I can hear hordes of designers and programmers scoffing at the remark. Yes, simple. Let me weave a little tale and tell you why I could think such a terrible thing.

Cast your mind back 5800 years to a point halfway across the globe in the Nile Valley. The year is 3801 BC (by our reckoning), and the place is the ancient city of Nehkeh. The city, which lies 650 kilometers south of modern day Cairo, is a bustling economic and political center that stretches for more than 2 kilometers along the western bank of the Nile. Within one of the many specialized economic neighborhoods (of which there are many) lives a potter named Bestawi.

Despite the fact that Bestawi's business is prosperous, he longs for more success. Unfortunately, the bronze tools he feels he needs to expand his business do not exist yet. Never one to be swayed by adversity, Bestawi picks himself up and walks to the large temple near his house/workshop where the "Supreme Calendar" is kept. Upon his arrival, he sighs deeply. His suspicions are confirmed. Egypt is still in the Neolithic (aka. Late Stone Age), and isn't scheduled to enter the Bronze Age for some time. He's somewhat disgruntled because Egypt has been mired in the Neolithic for many thousands of years. He longs to be able to take advantage of the many technological innovations that are scheduled to accompany the Bronze Age. Bestawi turns around, kicking a clod of dirt in his way, and wishes the Bronze Age would just hurry up and get there.

Is this tale simple? Yes. Does it border on silly? Definitely. Unfortunately, this is the way many God Games approach culture change. Cultural evolution just doesn't work this way. Despite what many people think, human societies don't progress along a fixed track from simple hunters to literate empires. Building facilities such as a sawmill, a blacksmith, or a stable doesn't invariably produce technological innovations. Human beings don't arbitrarily choose to undergo complex cultural change.

It's important to note that all God Games aren't created based upon these flawed principles. The gameplay of some (a great example is Impressions Games' City Builder Series) are based upon a real historical framework. In these cases, designers have a strong foundation replete with (relatively) understood processes of cultural evolution upon which to base their creation. This article is less targeted towards this type (though I would argue that they would definitely be able to learn a great deal from these discussions), but more towards the games that don't operate within a historical framework, sometimes referred to simply as "free form," and take a completely player- mandated view of cultural and technological evolution.

Yeah...So What?

The assumption being made here is that the point of processual story based strategy titles is to model gameplay on real human behavior. It really makes little difference whether the game takes place in the past or the future. The fundamental bases for culture change has remained the same for tens of thousands of years, and will conceivably remain the same for many more.

For designers who see realistic culture change as a burden rather than a boon, this article will probably just be filler between the latest postmortem and an article on curved surface geometry. On the other hand, designers who want to use real human behavior as a foundation upon which to base their games will be provided with the necessary tools to understand technological innovation and cultural change over time.

Why focus on technology? Well, it's simple. Of all the variables wrapped up in the process of culture change, technology is arguably one of the easiest to quantify and track. Technology leaves a lot of stuff behind for archaeologists like myself to find and study. Generally, we've got a better (though far from perfect) idea of the factors that influence technological change. Besides, games and gamers have always had a special interest in technology and technological change.

This doesn't mean that the other variables involved in culture change, things such as art, religion, politics, economy, and social organization, aren't important and shouldn't be included in processual story based strategy titles, quite the contrary. They are, however, considerably more complicated and ephemeral. For the time being, it would be in the best interest of this article to focus on the process of technological change.

To these ends, I'll look at a series of variables that influence technological innovations. In addition, I'll look at the way some God Games approach these variables, look at how and why they go awry, and (hopefully) provide some useful constructive suggestions for creating more realistic gameplay based on actual cultural processes. The article itself is broken up into two installments...if you didn't already notice that by the title. In the first installment, I'll be looking at nutrition, life expectancy, willingness to bear risk, geography, and path dependency.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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