The Pleasure of Translation in 4X Games
If I play the Romans in Civ 6, I’m going to rush Iron Working and start churning out Legions. This Roman unique unit replaces the standard swordsman, is a little more expensive and a good deal stronger. I then take those legions and establish the largest land empire in the game and feel just like Caesar.
When I play the Vikings, I take my Viking Longships, sink every other ship in the sea and pillage the coast twice over. This feels fundamentally Viking, just as the previous example felt fundamentally Roman, and this feeling is one of the fundamental pleasures of the Civilization series.
This is a special case of a general concept in video games; the translation. Ape Out is the translation of being an ape escaping a facility into video game terms. An FPS is the translation of gunfights into video game terms. In fact, if we’re going to be a little more accurate, they’re translations of conceptions of these experiences into video game terms and they’re at their most satisfying when that conception matches with the player’s conception of these activities.
Key to this is that all translations are imperfect. We know that actually shooting a person is very little like mousing over a character and clicking a button. Players don’t go into a game expecting it to exactly match up. Instead, they take pleasure in the points where it does.
This is most satisfying when multiple pieces click together to make a story that resonates with the player. The dynamic of sending out legionaries or longships plays the way you expect them to and so the whole process of stepping through the actions is fun. Even a singular piece isolated from the rest of the game can be satisfying though. Seeing the conquistador on the loading screen for Spain is satisfying in itself. You get to recognize that as a unit unique to Spain and seeing the religious mechanics is like seeing a puzzle solved.
This is also true for the general pieces of the game. It’s satisfying to see a Library and understand that it increases science. Even if the real world doesn’t work by having a nation choose a technology and progress until they solve it, it feels like it makes sense to build libraries and have the science production of your civ increase, and it’s fun to see that translation. Banks and Markets are fundamentally different in the real world, but having both of them as gold-producing buildings and having the one come after the other all feels like it makes sense.
It then follows that people like to see dynamics that are in accordance with their sense of history. The Indian unique unit is not going to be a boat despite the maritime Chola and Kalinga empires. It’s not going to be the rocketeers of Mysore. It’s not even going to be chariot of Arjuna in the Mahabharata. It’s going to be elephants because everyone knows about elephants and India. Seeing an Indian elephant is satisfying, seeing an Indian boat would just be puzzling to most players.
Civilization famously draws its history from the children’s section of the library. There’s also a strain of Guns, Germs and Steel there, which is arguably worse. When a key pleasure of the game is in translating the things the player knows about history into video game terms, it becomes very hard to challenge misconceptions.
It’s very difficult to explain the defeat of the technologically advanced Mysore state by the British in Civilization. It’s much harder to explain how even after the technological advancements of the industrial revolution, British textiles were unable to compete with Indian ones in price and quality until East Indian Company rule deindustrialized India. It’s absolutely impossible to explain the American defeat in Vietnam.
Games like Civilization make you feel smarter for having played them. You feel like you better understand the systems that run the world. Sometimes this works out, like the health benefits of settling an early city near a river, but sometimes it just reinforces preconceptions that are at best radical simplifications of complex concepts.
It’s at its best though when it describes things that aren’t quite common knowledge. It’s cool to see the Hwacha and learn something new about 16th Century Korea. Here, there’s no preconception to fight and so players are receptive to new information.
B-Side: The World Would Be Better With You In Charge
The most fundamental dynamic of the 4X game is that the nation, and honestly the whole world, does better with you in charge. Even in games where beating the AI is challenging, it tends to be a result of the AI cheating. The player just makes better decisions than the computer and the player’s nation is typically the best in the world.
Let’s be honest, this is probably in accordance with the player’s beliefs as well and it’s hard for them to complain about this particular translation. This is made sharper by what the game systems choose not to encompass. There is no ruling individual in Civilization, so there can be no corruption and so many of the stranger decisions in world politics suddenly become crystal-clear when the self-interest of politicians is brought into play. It’s easy to say that you wouldn’t be corrupt, or that any other leader shouldn’t be corrupt, when you don’t have to engage with the systems that reward corruption.
It is, of course, fair to believe that you would do a better job if given the chance to govern. I even find it commendable as I feel that people should be politically engaged. However, to simply want a better person (ie; yourself) in charge without also considering the systems that bend away from good governance is shallow. It stops you from asking the question of whether those systems should be changed and whether those systems should be removed.
For more thoughts on 4X games and things of this nature, check out Syphilisation, a postcolonial 4X game in which you play a student working on a group report on Gandhi, Chruchill and the Raj.