Is Civilization 6 an Emergent Game?


Civilization 6 is a turn-based strategy game letting the player pick a historical leader and lead their cities and people to world domination. From a randomised map the player must micromanage their empire and manage their random AI neighbours and frenemies wisely. Are these mechanics enough to call Civilization 6 an emergent game?


Eiffel Tower in London? That’s what game mechanics freedom looks like.

Emergent games can be identified by  “rules that combine and yield large numbers of game variations, which the players then design strategies for dealing with” (Juul, 2002). Their design also allow for “compelling game experiences that offer great freedom to the player at the same time” (Dormans, 2011).


At first glance, Civilization displays strong emergent streaks:

Strategy: Brexit. It backfired.
  • The player starts each new game at a random location, random resources, and, potentially, a random leader. This almost infinite game variation allows the player to freely develop a new strategy each time.
  • AI players all have distinct personalities with randomised traits, meaning that each game will yield very different relationships, bonuses and maluses, making each game unique.
  • Finally, AI moves, builds units, and builds wonders independently and secretly, sometimes directly clashing with the player. This forces the player to design and revise winning strategies while considering a large number of potential options.
Annexing Brazil first, a tried and tested strategy.

However, for a veteran Civilization 6 player, the emergence can be dampened by too good a knowledge of these systems and rules. Indeed, players familiar with the winning patterns may start following set strategies that drastically reduce outcomes characterised by variety, novelty, and surprise which are key to emergence (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p.160); for example, players can systematically choose foolproof bonuses allowed by key buildings or locations, leaders that offer better overall bonuses, or even modify world settings to suit their favourite winning style, making the game more restricted but also easier to predict.

By beating the game at its own rules, players can make Civilization 6 less emergent – however, for most players, Civilization 6 will remain a game full of surprises! Except for Ghandi. Ghandi never changes.


Dormans, J. (2011) ‘Integrating Emergence and Progression’

Juul, J (2002) ‘The Open and the Closed: Game of Emergence and Games of Progression’, Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings, 323-329. Available at: (Accessed: 11 October 2017)

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E (2004) Rules of Play. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Civilization 6 (2016), Firaxis. All images my own.


Social Realism in Games

What is realism in games? One might think of it as the way games’ graphics mimic reality – in other words, their pictorial realism. However, in games as in other forms of art, realism can have many forms beyond a simple illusion of reality. Enter social realism.

Social realism can be defined as “the realistic depiction in art of contemporary life, as a means of social or political comment.” (Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2017), and focuses on “anonymous everyday workers were recast as heroic symbols of persistence and strength in the face of adversity” (Manes, 2012). At first glance, this is a difficult parallel to make with games. Many early games were preoccupied with shooting space invaders or chasing ghosts, or later with shooting pixelated bad guys and aliens, making gaming’s assumed escapism a far cry from Les Misérables. However, this social and political commentary is far from absent in the medium, and several very direct examples can be found in the history of gaming.

Figure 1: The ominous border (Papers, Please, 2013)

Papers, Please is a game set in a fictional soviet state, Arstotzka, and puts you in the place of an immigration inspector at its volatile border (figure 1). Your job is to control passports, stamps, and documents, and to assess who has a right of entry and who should be refused. The game takes a very human approach to this mundane task, however: what do you do when a citizen has the wrong stamp but is desperate to join their young children? Will you let them in but have your pay docked so much for the mistake that you cannot buy food for your family? Will you let a spy through for the greater good, if it means you may lose your job and your roof? When your family is ill, do you take corruption money to help them, or do you stand by your initial moral ground? All these questions are explored in the game, making it a sombre commentary on authoritarian regimes and their twisted values from the point of view of an every day anonymous worker.

Figure 2: “she imagines a place where she can live without fear…” (Dishonored 2, 2016)

Sometimes this commentary is more subtle, and has to be found and wanted by the player. Such is the case in the Dishonored series, wherein the player has access to a mechanical and magical heart allowing them to see the backstory of any character in the game, no matter how trivial (figure 2). Non-playable characters can sometimes serve as environmental fodder, and disposable pixels; not so in Dishonored. Pointing the heart at characters reveal disturbing truths about the world they inhabit, and how this has affected them. A woman dreams of escape from a world of fear. Her neighbour has killed a messenger boy for money. Another one burned down a store to pay for his children’s food. Some are evil, some are good, all are anonymous faces affected by the twisted world of Dishonored. This adds an interesting layer of social realism to the heroic antics of the playable character.

It is interesting to note that games strongly anchored in reality are not always the most social realist ones. The Sims, a game about simulating the (more or less realistic) life of a computer character, offers no commentary on the society it mimics; Civilization, a game about building civilisations around cities, economy and policies also abstains from this, presenting choices as a simple numbers’ game.

New Scientist notes that, in games, we are still awaiting a “Citizen Kane moment”, “when a landmark work wins acceptance that games can fully reflect the human condition“, and that this moment must be close (New Scientist, 2013). I agree – and I can’t wait!


Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016). Image my own.

Manes, C. (2012) MOMA |Social Realism: Art for the People [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 23 January 2017).

New Scientist (2013) Social realism lets gamers feel reality’s bite [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 26 January 2017).

Oxford Dictionaries | English (2017) Social realism – definition of social realism in English [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 23 January 2017).

Papers, Please (2013) [image]. Available at: (Accessed: 23 January 2017).