A Civilized History

History, owing to the fact that it’s primarily written by white men, tends to be very white and very male. History is, ultimately, a narrative with facts chosen and framed to fit that narrative. Disagree? Look at how the Civil War is taught and remembered in the American South; it was firmly impressed upon me while living there that slavery had nothing to do with it and it was all about state rights. Those writing history have an agenda, and when the writers are white and male, there is an attempt — knowing or not — to maintain a status quo in which history and the narrative are controlled by white men.

So when we (and that we is a general we, including myself, probably you, and the general cultural awareness that exists) think of the Really Big Important People of History, chances are we’re gonna settle on a bunch of white guys. Napoleon, Lincoln, Socrates. Hitler, Edison, Caesar. The big historical stuff, for good or for ill, was mostly done by people who were white and/or male, at least until this whole newfangled thing called ‘diversity’ showed up recently.

Following this logic, if you’re gonna make a game about, say, the rise (and fall) of civilizations over the millennia, you’ll want the iconic leaders that your payers will have some frame of reference for, and the civilizations that gave rise to them too. So: white guys.

Fortunately, the Civilization games do not follow this logic.

A scroll through the list of leaders and civilizations available for play in Civilization VI reveals an eclectic selection of nations that go beyond a collection of Western superpowers, with an effort made to have as varied a selection of leaders as possible. Of course, you’ve got the United States, led by Teddy Roosevelt, Germany as led by Frederick Barbarossa, and the Roman Empire led by Trajan. But France is helmed not by Napoleon, but by Catherine de Medici, who led France as Queen Mother for thirty years. The Greeks are present, but you can choose to have Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, as your leader instead of Pericles. It is Cleopatra who leads the Egyptian Empire.

The Civ games have been doing this for a while. Civ V featured the Zulus amongst mainstays like India and the Aztecs. England’s most always led by Victoria or Elizabeth I. The Chinese, Japanese, and Arabians have been in most of the games too, a staunch reminder that not all culture comes from the West. Civilization II notably had a male and female leader for each civilization, although some of them were apocryphal, the idea that not all world leaders are men has been present for a long time.

What’s notable in VI is the extent to which the development team has gone to find these lesser-known leaders. I had not heard of the Scythians until I played this game, let alone their leader Tomyris. Turns out, they were a nomadic people who lived in the Central Asian steppes, and though not much is known about them, they did briefly have a queen named Tomyris. Firaxis highlighting this in their game, by making Tomyris one of the leaders, is a pleasant reminder that there’s a lot more to history than the common narrative we’re taught (contrary to popular belief, the history of modernity is not a straight line from Greece to the founding of the US) and that there’s always gonna be more to learn.

I do appreciate learning stuff, always have (see: my biggest issue with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey), and learning about, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mvemba a Nzinga of Kongo, or Kristina of Sweden is a real plus.

Look, my High School history class skipped over the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires chapters of the history book, so I know I have some gaps to learn. Why not do so while engaging in some world domination?

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