Science Grows On Trees: The History of Science and Technology Acording to Video Games

I think historians and sociologists of science might be surprised to learn that video game designers spend a considerable amount of time and energy building playable models of the history of science and technology. In game design circles these systems are commonly referred to as “Technology Trees“. Below is an example of one of these trees from Civilization ll.

The tree provides a guide to the relationships between individual intellectual discoveries. Each box represents a single potential discovery, the other items inside that box are the benefits that technology provides.  The blue and red lines chart out lines for perquisite advances. For example, to discover writing a player needs to first discover an Alphabet. Once the player discovers writing they can start training diplomat units and building libraries in their cities. If they have also already developed a code of laws they can start to research literacy, which would allow them to build the great library world wonder.

Tech trees are a part of a variety of games. For example see Bob Bates book Game Design.

Bob Bates, Game Design, 2004, p.50

In game design tech trees provide a powerful way to create a wide range of player strategies. Scholars might find the sort of technological progressivism at the heart of this mechanic a bit discomforting, but that aside, its an interesting way to play with the history of science and technology. In many cases the trees are quite sophisticated. We can think about them in three parts; the input the system requires for advancement, how the different kinds of knowledge relate to each other, what those different pieces of knowledge contribute to game play. I will pick these apart for the earlier example from Civilization ll.

In Civilization players invest a portion of their Tax income into science and luxuries while holding onto the rest for spending on infrastructure or to weather future financial hard times. Players can also assign representative amounts of citizens in their cities to work as scientists. Both their scientists, and the funding allocated to science generate research points. The player then decides which advancement to study. Each turn the player racks up research points that are then contributed toward the advancement they’re exploring. When the player gets enough points they acquire the advancement and the benefits (new units, new buildings, new forms of government, and world wonders) it provides.

The system in Civilization is quite sophisticated, and there are other similarly sophisticated systems in different games. I think they are worth thinking about more for a few reasons. First, the chart I used in this post did not come from a game company. Civilization has a vibrant user community, one of whom created this document. Scholars working on the public understanding of science frequently bemoan how little the public understands about how science and science policy works. These games are compelling enough to get players working on mapping and thinking about this kind of knowledge. There is a chance for game designers, historians and sociologists could think about these sort of models together, I think each might get something out of it. Scholars could provide interesting ideas for modeling the history of science and technology, and designers might be able to provide gamers demands for more athuentic experiences in their games.

10 Replies to “Science Grows On Trees: The History of Science and Technology Acording to Video Games”

  1. This seems pretty interesting. Have you charted any changes or evolution across the history of games as they related to science and technology? That is, has, say, the system for science and technology in Civilization changed with each new version?

    Also, what is the word from game companies in general? Do they employ or consult historians when making games?

  2. I think your onto something Jeremy. The systems have changed and evolved a little bit through different iterations of the game, there are also a variety of spin offs and related games that each have slightly different systems and I think there is some richness there to explore to better tease out the possibilities available in these sorts of games. Another avenue to explore is the way users mod the games, and make alterations to the tech trees.

    On the second question, my impression is that historians have just about nothing to do with these games. In general this has probably been a good thing. Here is how Sid Meier, the creator of Civilization put it when asked about the kind of research he did for the first version of Civ by Gamasutra.

    Q: When you were creating Civilization, how much research did you put into world history?

    Sid: Not a whole lot. I did do a little bit of reading, and it's kind of where the idea of the city as one of the kind of core elements of the game came from. It just struck immediately: "4000 BC the first city was formed," and I thought, "Oh, that's a cool place to start the game." But basically, I tried to use fairly well‑known concepts, well‑known leaders, and well‑known technologies. I mean, it wasn't intended to be "bizarre facts about history." It's more like, "Here, we all know a little bit about history, but now you get to take control of it, invent gunpowder, and the wheel, electricity, all sorts of cool stuff." But you don't have to research to know what it is, you just know.

  3. Great post, Trevor. I haven't had a chance to post about it yet, but the most recent assignment in my Global History of Science and Technology class was to critique the assumptions of, and propose an alternate model to, the Civ tech tree. We got a great collection of responses: tech spheres, matrices, randomizers… If I'd seen this post earlier I would have included it in the assigned readings!

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