When I was a kid, I played a lot of Civilization 2. I played a lot of strategy games in general, but having a deep love of both history and sci-fi, the epic sweep of Civ 2 from prehistory to the stars held a particular appeal. I loved taking my little people from their huts and ziggurats to the world of science and advanced space-flight.
But there was something that always bugged me. It didn’t matter who you played as, when you hit a certain point all those lovely ziggurats and castles and pagodas vanished and were replaced by grey, blocky skyscrapers. You hit the modern age and everything looked like America. At the time I think it bothered me because what I loved about the game was stepping into a historical culture for a few hours. Once everything homogenised it didn’t really matter whether you were the Aztecs or the Sioux or the Carthaginians – they were just names slapped over civilisations that all looked kind of the same.
Of course, we could put that down to the graphical limitations of the time. But it also illustrates a particular idea of how civilisation works that’s incredibly pervasive despite being basically wrong. From at least the nineteenth century onward, historians, anthropologists and social theorists thought in terms of Progress. Even if it wasn’t spelt with that capital P, you can feel it in their confident, forward-striding conviction that history is a narrative about things generally getting better and that they were the people to define what ‘better’ meant. That’s not to say there wasn’t the odd setback along the way, of course. Rome fell, people took a few steps back before regathering themselves and marching forward once again. History was a story of things getting more and more complex; more and more ‘modern’. And like in Civilization the game, the ‘modern’ looked like us.