Rise of Nations or Rise of Factions?

Rise of Nations is a mixed genre game, following Freidman’s account of Civilization, quoting Myers (1989) “An empire-building game like Civilization, for example, rests somewhere between a war-game and a simulation.” (1995), The purpose of this review is to analyse this real-time strategy game and evaluate its claim that ‘the entire span of human history is in your hands.’ What to Caillois, (1961) is impossible to do, Rise of Nations has done, the uniting of agon and mimicry.

Video games such as Rise of Nations (2004) claim that they help to build knowledge, both in entertainment and education to a very wide age-group. All games claiming the educational plaudit aim to teach those who must live in what Bereiter and Scardamalia (2003) call ‘The Knowledge Age Society’. This theory known as knowledge-building (KB), challenges the desire to educate people for a world in which knowledge and innovation are high priorities.

Analysed in terms of their (2003) distinction between knowledge building and learning, does the game allow the player to bring his or her beliefs, skills and attitudes to bear on innovating or changing historical and public knowledge? In this game, do the pursuits of nation building, wealth creation, knowledge acquisition and attacks on other nations, advance what the players understand before the game to a level beyond their initial knowledge?

The game certainly produces knowledge that lives ‘in worlds’ and can share this knowledge with other people. In fictional terms, the game allows the player to create shared goals, dialogue and combined ideas. As Gee (2003) argues: “good games allow players to customize the game to their own levels of ability and styles of learning. For instance, Rise of Nations lets players tweak almost every element in the game, and offers skills tests as well, to ensure that nearly everyone can find the outer edge of their competence. Furthermore, players can continually adjust the game as their competence grows (2003:2).” Knowledge of pre-specified resources is built up and on its basis negotiation strategies are learned. However, does the player gain knowledge, rather than skills, through playing the game that he or she did not have before?

The answer seems to be yes. The sole player attacks or forms alliances with computer -controlled other nations. As a multiplayer game, Rise of Nations has the potential to be played over a local network or a wider internet network. The inter-personal domain of learning is a potential here, which the Wellcome Institute (2010:50) recommended as a way forward in gameplay.

“Further sophisticated developments of games and gameplay within social networks continue to make use of the relationships between the players themselves as tokens within gameplay, for instance, allowing players to virtually buy and sell each other as contact currency within a game’s framework.” (2010:50)

Rise of Nations contains 18 main nations and 6 additional nations in the Gold Edition. Although it has an ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) label for teens, the game could be played by much younger children and is popular among adults. Nations can progress through eight ages of world history. The eras of history the game uses are commonplaces of knowledge rather than new concepts. Primary school children, especially at a Piagetian concrete formal stage (Piaget, J 1929 ) who are still acquiring basic concepts, would easily be misled.

For example, the scenario which shows the opening months of the Second World War makes no allowance for the collapse of morale in France. The game refers to “The Germans” which underestimates the role of the Nazi Party in deciding the course of German history. The RAF did not win the Battle of Britain by destroying German bombers, but by weakening their fighter capacity. The building of oil wells in marked resource-areas distorts the colonial background that allowed oil imports to reach Britain. In another scenario, Renaissance universities “generate knowledge” to equip the techno-structure of the country. Most economic historians would argue that such a cause and effect was impossible and that traditional skills passed on through generations channeled the progress of technology. The teen label at least protects younger minds from stereotyping.

Rise of Nations uses the idea of territory to define the space occupied by the player’s nation, within which, the player or players can construct buildings such as: churches, universities, libraries, airports etc. Players can form alliances and if so can construct within each other’s territories. A territory can be expanded through making new cities and defences.

The game uses a very significant resource known as the library. Earning is also a key feature in this game. The library levels are not cheap. They all require certain amounts of: food, oil, metal, knowledge. This allows openings into other capacities such as advancing the age of a nation. On the other hand, a player can make his opponents nation suffer attrition. In this case, they can reduce an opponent’s resources through wearing down its defences. The game involves an intense race to progress the player’s nation as fast as possible through the ages. One of the optional scenarios involves players in a quest to conquer the world.

Taking a starting point from Huizinga and Caillois, a game can be either open and “paedic” or end-oriented and “ludic.” It is the claim of modern game theory that both are combined in a game’s narrative. According to De Certeau,(1984) narrative is the conversion of place into space. In Rise of Nations places seem to be tautened into abstract spaces. This concept of space has been analysed by Ted Friedman who argues that in earlier games such as Civilisation the affective and ethical aspects of human living are left out of the picture.

“Civilization II’s dynamic of depersonalization elides the violence of exploration, colonization, and development … Military units who fight and die in Civilization II disappear in a simple blip; native peoples who defend their homelands are inconveniences, “barbarian hordes” to be quickly disposed.”Yet he concludes that despite the distortions of history, colonisation can be tamed from its atavistic past through the flexible abstraction that any side can be chosen.

The map can be made to commute between sides and as could represent “conflicted space.” Negotiation however requires plural readings of the same situation. Once the conflict of ideas and their interpretation moves from place to space, plurality is lost. Borders define situations. As Friedman expresses it, “Computer simulations bring the tools of narrative to mapmaking, allowing the individual not simply to observe structures, but to become experientially immersed in their logic.” In the game, however, the logics of the sides taking part are irrelevant.

More obviously the game has only logistics and no logic. It would take immense self-control to build a primitive society with maximised knowledge, resources and no aggression. There is no room for monks, or nuns, in these worlds. That Roger Bacon kept the formula for gunpowder secret for moral reasons would be an absurdity in most scenarios.

The map is also a constant. Map-making skills do not grow. Territories are not defined. They simply expand in a very basic assumption of geopolitics that would have Ratzel or MacKinder blush. At no point in the game do issues such as freedom or justice modify the relentless growth of knowledge-based labour capital and its deployment in conquest. All alliances are opportunistic. As such they do not lead to learning, except in non-political strategy.

The paedic qualities of learning are missing from this game and as such the player who seeks learning needs to assume a stereotyped narrative of world history in order to build up knowledge that the privileges of learning and resources justify the invasion of pre-mapped boundaries.

There is little incentive to exercise what Scardamalia and Bereiter characterise as necessary for “innovation” in knowledge- building. As Scardamalia defines it in the classroom, “Although we have never witnessed knowledge building unaccompanied by learning, we have witnessed a great deal of learning that was never converted to knowledge building.”

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