A few weeks back Rob Macdougall posted a great essay about using the game Civilization’s approach to the history of science and technology as a point of entry into conversations about models for representing the history of science and technology more broadly. Rob’s students picked apart the way the game allows players to develop science and tech. Student’s then proposed their own ideas for how to model the history of science in a video game.
There is a lot of excitement about games and education but so much of that fervor misses a crucial point at the heart of Rob’s assignment. Games, like other media (books, articles, films, etc.) express arguments in their content. But it’s not just the content of the games that make arguments. In most cases the most compelling arguments in games are actually embedded inside game mechanics. As Rob’s students uncovered, the structure of the tech tree itself makes assumptions about how progress, science, and technology work.
Rob’s assignment is in fact so fun that there are all sorts of gamers that do exactly this sort of thing for fun. Civilization has a sizeable Moder community, which spends a tremendous amount of time building, tearing apart, and remaking the way science and technology work in the game. For an indication of the tenaicty of this community take a look at this book length post on editing tech trees in Civ 4. More impressive than the posts length are the 150 comments from modders thanking and critiquing the work. For another view on the community check out this Civ Asia scenario. Many of these moders are going well beyond tweaking the game, for example in this thread some are working on put different civilizations on completely indpendent trunks.
The tech tree is such a facinating entity that it provokes all sorts of gamers to get into heated arguments about how the history of science and technology works. In the face of this sort of evidence it is hard to support notions that limitations in the way Civ models history give gamers a poor conception of the way history works. On the contrary the enthusism of these moders seems to suggest that the mechanics of Civ provoke gamers to think more deeply about the nature of science and technology.