Anthropology and the Clash of Civilizations

While I appreciate Kerim’s far-reaching vision of how the internet will affect anthropology, I think he has missed one of the most fundamental ways that our discipline will be transformed in the coming year by digital technology: “Civilization IV is coming soon”: (“screenshots here”: If most other anthropologists are like me, this means hours, days and yes, even weeks, lost.

For many of us, the strategic depth and historical sweep of the Civilization series of videogames has not merely fed off of the interest in social life that drove us into the arms of social science, it has actually formed alongside it. And yet in many ways Civilization’s game design is a prime example of the commonplace assumptions of American culture that drive anthropologists absolutely nutty. Despite minor tweakings regarding how you run your empire, the game basically runs in full on Leslie White Unilineal Evolution Mode. You begin in some sort of Wittfogelian Oriental Despotism (complete with vaguely Central Asian advisors) and then advance to an Obviously American Democracy, which is freest, most lucrative government to run — unlessy you want to attack someone, because war creates discontent in democracy because Democracies Hate War And Love Freedom.

In fact it’s telling that the game starts in some sort of vaugely Asian space — you never get to play the ‘lower levels (read: ‘black’) of development’ at all. I suppose that’s because none of the peoples of Africa, Oceania, or Australia count as ‘civilization.’ Of coure, I’m exaggerating — you can always play the Zulus, whose civilizational style involves constant expansion and a special military unit — the Impi — which is devastatingly effective in the stone age but is quickly outmoded by the time you discover chariots. Despite the fact, of course, that the Zulus did their bestest beating up of the British after Waterloo and not before.

And yet… and yet… slide the ‘continent size’ indicator all the way to the right and you could play Social Stratification In Polynesia or you could bump up the erosion and dryness meters and play Inner Asian Frontiers of China . Somedays when I was too tired to read another page of Michael Mann or William McNeil I would play entire chapters. The game’s immersive qualities and strategic depth were fantastic. Of course Big Picture authors like Braudel or Eric Wolf paint a picture of world history infinitely more detailed than Civilization. But I think that my love of Civilization is actually one of the reasons that I find Jared Diamond’s stabs at world history so boringly mediocre — his analysis is literally less complicated than Civ III’s game engine.

In sum I am afraid — very afraid — of what might happen when Civ IV finally ships. It’s not that I’ll stop thinking about anthropology, it’s just that I’ll stop thinking of anthropology in this world and begin engaging its most fundamental questions in another, more virtual world. A world with musketeers.

Hells yes.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

One thought on “Anthropology and the Clash of Civilizations

  1. Now you’ve ruined my day. I haven’t thought about the Civilization game since v 2.0–and back then, I always wanted to stretch out the years of mud walls, horsemen, and caravans and started losing interest when the railroad arrived.

    I, too, was frustrated with the inexorable linear progression.

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