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Discussion on Whether Civilization V Can Answer Yali’s Question in Guns, Germs, and Steel

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Access to Technology
  3. Conclusion


In New Guinea, the concept of cargo, or technology, was one of innovation and function; for others, “cargo” became one of wealth and power. For local New Guinean politician Yali, the question became how did technology become disproportionately associated with white Europeans and not the black New Guineans? By exploring this issue in his novel Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond sought to dispel the antiquated theories that had traditionally explained this disparity using social Darwinism with more refined arguments related to environmental theory. Throughout his exploration of global societal development, three related theories or themes of development stuck out the most: geographic determinism, access or exposure to technology, and having an organized state. Although the question of advancement is not a new one, it is still widely theorized and, consequently integrated into other areas of society.

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An example of this integration is Sid Meier’s Civilization V. Available for several operating systems, Civilization V is a turn-based game that initially allows the player(s) to choose the leadership and geography of their country and then subsequently makes choices that affect either its fruition or demise. There are four avenues one can take to satisfy a win condition: world domination, scientific research/innovation, cultural victory, or a diplomatic victory. All four of these win conditions are nuanced and must be pre-meditated to some extent even as a player begins the game. Through the themes laid out in Diamond’s novel, Yali’s innocent question can not only be answered by Civilization V but done in a way that lends to a unique, intimate understanding of geography, technology, and government each time a new game is played.

As stated by Diamond in the prologue, Europeans “simply had the good luck to live at a geographic location where they were likely to receive advances” (1999). As readers, we then gain an appreciation for the idiom “luck of the draw” because by no choice were Europeans geographically superior, only chance. Similarly, in the unexpanded version of Civilization V, you are prompted to choose from eighteen nations with corresponding leaders when beginning the game. This selection then determines your relative geographic location on the map; once in the general area, you may choose where you settle your first city. After establishing your nation, you can expand your borders through exploration while simultaneously gauging what natural resources and animals reside within your borders and areas nearby. Much like in Guns, Germs, and Steel this randomly simulated resource and animal presence in combination with the pre-determined location illustrates the theme of geographic determinism because through chance you are provided with your initial resource and animal presence which ultimately lend to your eventual success or failure. In both the game and novel, the presence of certain resources serves as antecedents to other events that inevitably influences your entire nation’s trajectory. For example, in my first game I started for this course I had an abundance of lucrative natural resources and several different types of animals in my country. The presence of these led me to being extremely friendly with the bordering nations because they wanted access to some of what I had. Additionally, I was able to easily add more people to my nation and sustain them – which allowed my focus to be put on other things such as developing advanced technologies.

Access to Technology

In Guns, Germs, and Steel there are several instances when a disparity in technology significantly influences two groups’ interactions. For example, Diamond tells of a small group of Spanish explorers led by Francisco Pizarro overthrowing tens of thousands of Incas led by Atahuallpa (1999). This seemingly impossible feat was secured because Pizarro’s men had guns, steel swords and armor, and horses to ride in on while Atahuallpa’s men had slingshots, wood, and quilted armor. This story of technological superiority quickly manifested in my game play as well.

In the game, you are presented with a technology tree that offers several paths; after assessing what you have been provided with, you can then decide which path to follow. With the presence of silver and animals in my nation, I wanted to begin by pursuing mining and animal husbandry; however, I also needed calendars for agriculture and archery for protection from barbarians and other potential invaders. Because the game only allows you to pursue one technology at a time, my access to certain technologies took precedence over others, forcing me to create a hierarchy of needs. My primary focus became mining silver, because I had two deposits of it in my first settlement; I began my tech tree with mining (which I later used for leverage) and then shifted my focus to animal husbandry and pottery to pursue domestication and calendars. After successfully achieving mining, one of my neighboring countries asked to form an alliance with me and offered to pay me gold every turn for access to some of my silver. This was an important event because my first interaction with them was less than friendly, but my technological superiority re-oriented my relationship with them. While my first technology gave me an economic and diplomatic advantage, the latter two technologies ultimately oriented me towards a scientific advancement win.

As articulated by Diamond, the catalyzing variable or “prerequisite” to his “guns, germs, and steel” discourse is the establishment of agriculture and food production (1999). The argument is that once food security is ascertained and a sedentary way of life is established, all other more advanced elements of society like specialization can then become priority. In short, an increase in crops leads to an increase in calories which leads to an increase in people; in order to be successful as a nation, a growing population is typically centralized and specialized.

As previously stated, my geographic advantages allowed me the luxury of diplomacy with surrounding nations, financial security because of the gold those nations paid me for my silver, and the ability to acquire several additional technologies because my needs were being met. Almost exactly how Diamond suggested, I began to organize my state by increasing workers, citizens, and military size. Additionally, to the extent that the game let me, I worked on instilling social policies that engendered a heightened sense of patriotism (e.g. loyalty and freedom) while also making my people as happy as possible. For the duration of the game, I was ranked as the top world leader because my people were consistently happy and well provided for. Only a handful of times did I encounter conflict with other nations and had no problem overthrowing them or handling the situation diplomatically. This organization I instilled in my nation enabled me to not worry about any negative effects on my people and continue building my nation to reach its full potential.

There are some that might argue that it is impossible to for Civilization V to answer Yali’s question due to the game not including enough variables or being simulated via formulas designed by someone without a comprehensive working knowledge of the history of the world. For example, one of the best opportunities to diminish the strength of my argument is that Civilization V does very little to incorporate the “germs” component of Diamond’s theory. An in-depth component of the book, Diamond discusses how humans meet diseases in myriad ways (like sheep!) and the subsequent effects of such interactions (1999). While understanding the consequences of disease to the human population is important, I believe this is to be an unnecessary inclusion in the game because it is an inherently better understood process than those included in my argument due to its salience in modern society. In addition to this salience, disease would prolong the game and reduce its efficacy as a learning tool.

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Two men, one question: how did society evolve into what it is today? Ultimately, the driving force behind Yali’s question was simple: what variables predicate the success of a nation? While the question may seem deceptively easy to answer, it has caused hundreds of years of debate. Among other things, Jared Diamond uses personal anecdotes, case studies, and geographical trends to help bolster his arguments for Yali’s question; alternatively, Civilization V lets you make the decisions that follow a very similar trajectory. While it is obvious that it is impossible to replicate any of Diamond’s arguments verbatim via computer simulation, the game does reinforce the enduring themes of geographic determinism, access to technology, and the importance of an organized state that are contained in the novel. Thus, the union of these themes and the intimate understanding of what kind of decision making goes into them lends the Civilization player with a unique advantage to answering Yali’s question.

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