God, man and Civilization IV

9b67a0ed 56a7 4307 abfa 5d894ac5a244If there is anything that sets the hearts of the GetReligionistas a-twitter, it’s reading a really interesting news feature and, lo and behold, running into a solid, relevant dose of religion.

Here’s a case in point. I have a teenaged son and my house contains five or six computers at the moment (depending on whether you count those that are unplugged), so you will not be surprised to learn that the family has had some lively discussions of video games and trends in the $10-billion industry that creates them.

As a rule, I hate video games, especially those omnipresent first-person shooter/slasher/basher games. However, because of my family’s love of the classic Myst series, and the work of the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller, I am aware that it is possible to create — or sub-create — video games that bless minds and souls rather than twist them.

This brings me to the newsy Weekly Standard feature “‘Civilization’ and Its Contents: A video game for the ages” by reporter Victorino Matus. It focuses on the quiet artist Sid Meier and his mega-selling Civilization series, which Matus calls the “thinking man’s Grand Theft Auto, the video game version of a classical education.” The game is, in fact, a kind of social-sciences chessboard that blends history and logic into a game that demands a long, long attention span.

Near the end of the piece we also find out that Meier is a churchgoer, a Lutheran in fact, and that this may have something to do with his values as an artist — especially when his worldview is contrasted with that of the competition (or much of it):

Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay. The same goes for choosing nuclear power or heading a government that isn’t democratic — you could opt to run a fascist or Communist regime, though these choices all have consequences.

… Nevertheless, Meier’s faith puts him at odds with other game-design geniuses like John Carmack, John Romero, and Will Wright, who are all avowed atheists (and Meier is, incidentally, the only one from this group to have graduated from college). To be sure, Meier has the utmost respect for them and their pioneering work. But it is yet another factor that sets him apart.

When Carmack and Romero decided to introduce blood and gore in their breakthrough 1992 game Wolfenstein 3-D, they voluntarily rated themselves PC-13 for “profound carnage” — a brilliant marketing ploy. Later, when Romero realized Carmack had found a way to enable players to interact with each other on a network, as noted in Masters of Doom, his thought was: “Sure, it was fun to shoot monsters, but ultimately these were soulless creatures controlled by a computer. Now gamers could play against spontaneous human beings — opponents who could think and strategize and scream. We can kill each other! ‘If we can get this done,’ Romero said, ‘this is going to be the f–ing coolest game that the planet Earth has ever f—ing seen in its entire history!’”

It’s difficult to imagine the soft-spoken Sid Meier having the same reaction.”

Check it out. It does appear that ideas, yes, and beliefs, often have consequences — even in the digital world of virtual reality. Religion is only part of this story, but it is a crucial part. Amen.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dpulliam

    I am a huge fan of Civ-III (other than the fact that I can’t play the game due to its addictiveness), which had some religious aspects, such as the ability to develop polytheism. While I was pleased to see that Civ-IV did include a religious aspect, I think it was a cop-out of the games’ creators to make all the religions equal to each other in terms of affecting their respective societies.

    In other words, if I were the Greeks and I adopted say Islam as my religion and my neighbors the Romans adopted say Christianity as their religion, each religion would be neutral to each other in terms of benefits. Getting missionaries to convert the Romans to Islam would increase my ability to affect their culture, but they could do the same for me, for example.

  • http://www.mindonfire.com John Remy

    I’m a Quaker, a father of computer-savvy children, and an avid gamer. Sid Meier has created some of my favorites games, and I’ve been loyal to the Civilization series because you can achieve victory through means other than military conquest.

    As an atheist (yes, there are non-theistic, practicing Friends out there), I have a problem with the equation between atheism and bloodlust (and swearing, apparently). It’s an odd angle to emphasize, and one that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Will Wright (also mentioned in the article), who designed the much less violent and much more popular “Sims” series, apparently decided at the age of nine that he was an atheist. Where do his beliefs play into the creation of his non-violent games?

  • Dale

    Since I bought my first computer in ’91, the only games I’ve bought are Myst, Civilization and Sim City. I knew about the Miller brothers, but not Sid Meier. Interesting.

    I have a problem with the equation between atheism and bloodlust (and swearing, apparently).

    I think you may be inferring something that wasn’t intended by the writer. The whole piece was about how Meier was different from many of the other successful game creators, and his faith was one aspect.

    Anyhow, neither “atheist” nor “theist” are particularly descriptive terms. Someone may be an atheist as part of a peaceful philosophy (perhaps Wright), or as a result of nihilism (apparently, Carmack and Romero). A theist may be Sid Meier, or Osama bin Laden.

    Did anybody else catch this gem?

    Or take Left Behind,
    based on the bestselling pulp novels aimed at Christians fascinated with the End Times, in which you must convert others to Christianity and, if they refuse, you can kill them.

    Good grief. Maybe it’s time for a first-person game where you try to toss the millstone around Tim LaHaye’s neck. . . .

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Sid also designed two highly addictive economic simulation games: Railroad Tycoon (which is he has made available for free) and Railroad Tycoon II. And as Adam Smith discovered, economics grows out of moral sentiment.

  • Larry Rasczak


    I am a HUGE CIV Fan. I am of the opinion that when I die, IF I have been good, God will say, “Here is your computer, here is your copy of Civ 3C, Take all the time you want.”

    (I haven’t loaded Civ IV yet).

    dpulliam is right though, in Civ 4 they took the cop out and made all religions equal. I was a bit sad to see that, though I can understand.

    A better (and harder and much more complex) game that includes religion is Europa Universalis II.


    EU II ( I don’t have EU III yet) is like CIV, only set in the real world, 1453-1789, or there abouts.

    In EU II religions DO have direct effects upon your nation and your economy. (beliefs, do have consequences). Converting your nation from Catholicisim to Protestantisim gives you much $$$ (stolen Church lands), greatly annoys large portions of your population (possible civil war), ruins your political ties to other Catholic Countries, increases your political ties to Protestant countires, and (this is interesting) makes your workers work harder because of the Protestant Work Ethic!

    Islam, if I recall correctly, has the opposite effect. (The Protestant Work Ethic has never really caught on in the Islamic World, as people who have lived there can attest.)

    (Side note, the BBC did an online story a few weeks ago about how different nations view the idea of punctuality, and it was noted without debate that punctuality was a function of Protestantisim.)

    It is facinating because until a few years ago the historical view that Protestant Work Ethic had a lot to with the development of the West was taught in school. Now it no longer is, but if you want to accurately model the development of the West during the critical days of the early industrial revolution, you need to include it.

  • Larry Rasczak


    Wrong link



  • Sean

    I have been playing the civ games for years. I am a Christian, having returned to the church about four years ago, and somewhat conservative. I enjoy the complexity of the games (I recently purchased civ 4) and the time it takes to develop and win — though I lose more often than not. One problem I have with the game, and civ 4 especially, is the mechanical way religion is treated. In other words, adopt religion X and get result Y. Religion is an asset (war by other means, really) for much of the game, but there is a built-in progressivism where the most highly evolved religious “civic” a civilization can have is a non-religious state. Likewise, economic developments are treated as mere attributes which provide certain benefits/detriments, etc., instead of the being reflections of the moral development of the societies.

    Of course it’s just a game, but i can’t help but think that it depends on Progressive take on history. A more highly developed form of this game in the future will give the game player more opportunity to think about the development of the mind of the citizen and will make the player less of a god and more of a husband (as in husbandry) of his civ.