Video games as applied anthropology

Pursuing its ambitious development, the ICCI blog has decided now to open a "video games" section. And today, we are discussing the release of Civilization V, the last sequel of one of the most famous series in the history of video games.



OK I was just kidding. There won't be any video games section. But why not after all? Video games are often portrayed as violent and simplistic, consisting only in racing cars or shooting people. Some of them, however, are quite different. Some are about breeding a pet, playing guitar or… developing a culture. In Civilization V, the player leads a civilization from prehistoric times into the future, achieving one of a number of different victory conditions through research, diplomacy, expansion, economic development, government and military conquest.

Of course, one could argue that the view developed in Civilization is quite unrealistic, reductionist and deterministic. You have to go through certain political and technical stages to develop and expand your civilization. In a way, it evokes the old evolutionist theories in anthropology. But is Civilization that bad from an anthropological perspective?



First, the whole process sounds quite realistic, and even familiar. Indeed, it shares with Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (and others) the assumption that geography, natural resources and technology partly determines political development.



Of course, Civilization is far from being a kind of natural experiment in silico (but some have tried to use massively multiplayer games to study the evolution of cooperation). However, it is not as deterministic as it may look like. Consider the domain of technology for instance. Relationships between each technology are far from straightforward as it appears in technology trees.

Finally, one could oppose the western or eurocentric vision of the world in which Europe or America's civilization stand as the final stage of civilization. However, on the whole, I rather find Civilization quite liberating. By using a variety of historical references from Harun al-Rashid for Arabia to Oda Nobunaga for Japan and Ramkhamhaeng for Siam, Civilization stands in opposition to some views according to which all technologies, political regimes and intellectual wonders invented in human history are not accessible to any culture. At a time when newspapers are full of folk theories about European genius, American ethics or Confucian culture, it may a good thing to see such a popular media like video games demonstrating how small differences in natural resources and geography can create huge inequalities in economic development. There is nothing particularly European in democracy, science or economic development tell us Civilization V. No protestant ethics, no christian metaphysics, no western values. It was just a matter of good luck at the beginning of the game!

Next time, I'll try to blog on the implementation of massive modularity in World of Warcraft's characters or on the epidemiology of representations in The Sims


  • Helen De Cruz
    Helen De Cruz 24 November 2010 (12:23)

    If there were enough bloggers interested in the subject, I suppose you actually could do a section on video games and cognition and culture… Two years ago, I attended a lecture by Pontus Strimling on moral norms in World of Warcraft (i.e., how under identical ecological conditions, very different moral norms can emerge). Another illustration (more in the epidemiology of representations) is the development of intuitive user interfaces in computer games. The development of a bar indicating the health of a player in a platform of role playing game, for instance, could be seen as motivated by an underlying intuitive vitalism (which Inagaki & Hatano have argued to be at the centre of our intuitive understanding of illness and health). While health was originally shown in terms of discrete entities like a number of lives, it is now almost universally indicated by a continuous bar (life bar). I’m sure there must be other instances in computer games where epidemiology of representations could be illuminating.

  • Nicolas Baumard 24 November 2010 (12:55)

    Yes, me too! But I have not been able to find Strimling’s article. If someone has it, please share with us! I totally agree with your example on the representation of health. I’m sure there are lots of examples of how video games highjack our intuitive theories to sell themselves!

  • Helen De Cruz
    Helen De Cruz 24 November 2010 (15:48)

    Apparently, Pontus Strimling’s paper is still in manuscript form. It is entitled “Cultural evolution of social norms in World of Warcraft.” I found the title through this [URL= ] document [/URL], but alas, no link to a paper…

  • Bruno Costa 20 January 2011 (01:38)

    Hi all. I’m interested on how we can apply anthropology to videogames. I’ve made a small paper concerning this and other issues on internet. If you can read it and give some feedback it would be interesting to me and possible to you also. Brgds Bruno ps: I sorry for possible mistakes because I’m portuguese.