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Chopping Down the Tech Tree: Perspectives of Technological Linearity in God Games, Part One

Despite the increasing complexity of so-called "God Games," the model of human cultural evolution that these games present is still overwhelmingly simple. Ethan Watrall, an archaeologist by training, takes a look at the process of technological development in huaman societies, and examines how several key variables might be used to bring realism to the God Game genre.

Ethan Watrall, Blogger

May 31, 2000

22 Min Read

As a species, human beings are completely infatuated with themselves. It's nothing to be ashamed of -- we're actually a really interesting bunch of primates. I'm certainly not embarrassed to admit that I've spent the majority of my academic career scratching my head and trying to figure out why we act the way we do.

It's no great surprise that this fixation has worked its way into the world of interactive entertainment. I'd suspect that most designers realize that computer games frequently mirror our thoughts about ourselves and the world around us.

How did we get to where we are now? What is going to happen to us in the future? Both are questions that are posed time and again in processual story based strategy titles. Processual who? Story based what? Basically, its just a fancy shmancy name for "God Games" like Activision's Civilization: Call to Power, Impressions Games' City Builder Series, or Firaxis' Alpha Centauri. Each time the "new game" button is clicked, the player not only gets the opportunity to explore these questions, but also to play god (something all of us love but don't always admit to) and immerse themselves in a "what could have been" or "what could be" scenario.

For the most part, however, designers really don't have a firm grasp of the process of social change. As a result, most games depend on a skewed view of human culture change that translates into the infamous tech tree. Consequently, despite their often-intricate nature, most processual story based strategy titles are predictable and simple.

Simple? I can hear hordes of designers and programmers scoffing at the remark. Yes, simple. Let me weave a little tale and tell you why I could think such a terrible thing.

Cast your mind back 5800 years to a point halfway across the globe in the Nile Valley. The year is 3801 BC (by our reckoning), and the place is the ancient city of Nehkeh. The city, which lies 650 kilometers south of modern day Cairo, is a bustling economic and political center that stretches for more than 2 kilometers along the western bank of the Nile. Within one of the many specialized economic neighborhoods (of which there are many) lives a potter named Bestawi.

Despite the fact that Bestawi's business is prosperous, he longs for more success. Unfortunately, the bronze tools he feels he needs to expand his business do not exist yet. Never one to be swayed by adversity, Bestawi picks himself up and walks to the large temple near his house/workshop where the "Supreme Calendar" is kept. Upon his arrival, he sighs deeply. His suspicions are confirmed. Egypt is still in the Neolithic (aka. Late Stone Age), and isn't scheduled to enter the Bronze Age for some time. He's somewhat disgruntled because Egypt has been mired in the Neolithic for many thousands of years. He longs to be able to take advantage of the many technological innovations that are scheduled to accompany the Bronze Age. Bestawi turns around, kicking a clod of dirt in his way, and wishes the Bronze Age would just hurry up and get there.

Is this tale simple? Yes. Does it border on silly? Definitely. Unfortunately, this is the way many God Games approach culture change. Cultural evolution just doesn't work this way. Despite what many people think, human societies don't progress along a fixed track from simple hunters to literate empires. Building facilities such as a sawmill, a blacksmith, or a stable doesn't invariably produce technological innovations. Human beings don't arbitrarily choose to undergo complex cultural change.

It's important to note that all God Games aren't created based upon these flawed principles. The gameplay of some (a great example is Impressions Games' City Builder Series) are based upon a real historical framework. In these cases, designers have a strong foundation replete with (relatively) understood processes of cultural evolution upon which to base their creation. This article is less targeted towards this type (though I would argue that they would definitely be able to learn a great deal from these discussions), but more towards the games that don't operate within a historical framework, sometimes referred to simply as "free form," and take a completely player- mandated view of cultural and technological evolution.

Yeah...So What?

The assumption being made here is that the point of processual story based strategy titles is to model gameplay on real human behavior. It really makes little difference whether the game takes place in the past or the future. The fundamental bases for culture change has remained the same for tens of thousands of years, and will conceivably remain the same for many more.

For designers who see realistic culture change as a burden rather than a boon, this article will probably just be filler between the latest postmortem and an article on curved surface geometry. On the other hand, designers who want to use real human behavior as a foundation upon which to base their games will be provided with the necessary tools to understand technological innovation and cultural change over time.

Why focus on technology? Well, it's simple. Of all the variables wrapped up in the process of culture change, technology is arguably one of the easiest to quantify and track. Technology leaves a lot of stuff behind for archaeologists like myself to find and study. Generally, we've got a better (though far from perfect) idea of the factors that influence technological change. Besides, games and gamers have always had a special interest in technology and technological change.

This doesn't mean that the other variables involved in culture change, things such as art, religion, politics, economy, and social organization, aren't important and shouldn't be included in processual story based strategy titles, quite the contrary. They are, however, considerably more complicated and ephemeral. For the time being, it would be in the best interest of this article to focus on the process of technological change.

To these ends, I'll look at a series of variables that influence technological innovations. In addition, I'll look at the way some God Games approach these variables, look at how and why they go awry, and (hopefully) provide some useful constructive suggestions for creating more realistic gameplay based on actual cultural processes. The article itself is broken up into two installments...if you didn't already notice that by the title. In the first installment, I'll be looking at nutrition, life expectancy, willingness to bear risk, geography, and path dependency.


It's well known that "hidden hunger," a significant long-term shortfall in nutrition, doesn't kill, but results in the reduction of the overall level of energy at which an individual operates. It's safe to assume that in societies where hidden hunger is rampant, the initiative and ambition necessary for technological innovation would be severely reduced.

A particularly vicious form of the hidden hunger is infant protein deficiency syndrome (IPDS). Significantly low protein levels in the first 18-24 months of a child's life will result in permanently crippled mental development. In order to decide whether a new idea has the potential to work, an innovator needs to be able to evaluate the impact of a given change while holding all other things constant. Individuals who suffered brain damage in their earlier years due to insufficient nutrition are simply unable to reason in this way.

Most will agree that food is an integral component in all God Games. Unfortunately, the role it plays is a limited one. Creating a stable food source is often one of the first steps a player must undertake before they progress. After this, however, nutrition level has almost no effect on the game as a whole and even less on technological innovation.

Lets take a look at how Activision's Civilization: Call to Power approaches nutrition and technological change. As one of the industry's most recognizable franchises (and easily one of the more intricate titles of the genre), it's unfortunate that it doesn't take a more complex approach to nutrition and technological innovation.

While political structure and path dependency (something we'll talk about later) are important, capital is the primary influence on technological change; players buy advances with gold. Food production doesn't influence technological change beyond the amount of population a given civilization can support.

Perhaps a more realistic scenario would take a more involved approach to the effects of nutrition on technological innovation. A civilization in an earlier stage of development (aka Neolithic) would need to produce a surplus (either by farming or hunting & gathering) of food before a group of full-time technological specialists would be able to develop. More complex civilizations would need to be able to maintain a certain level of food production so that their population wouldn't fall prey to malnutrition, and therefore be unable to produce technological innovations. If food production fell below a certain level and malnutrition set in, the player wouldn't be able to encourage technological innovation. In order to maintain a stable level of nutrition, the player would need to encourage the development of an infrastructure (accessible markets, social safety nets, etc) that would facilitate the rapid and efficient distribution of food.

It's difficult to determine the level of food necessary to support a given population. I'm not going to bore you with the many complex mathematical formulas anthropologists have developed to model caloric intake among modern and prehistoric populations. Whatever levels a designer chooses for their game is going to be mostly arbitrary. Just remember that a well-designed title needs to reflect the changing nutritional needs as a civilization increases in complexity.

Life Expectancy

People who live very short lives have little time or incentive to generate new knowledge. In earlier times, the act of technological innovation depended on a process of trial-and-error that was not only time consuming, but often quite dangerous. Why would any short-lived individual concerned with far more life sustaining pastimes (filling their belly, etc) ever engage in the activities necessary for the generation of new knowledge?

When looked at thoroughly, however, life expectancy is probably one of the lesser variables involved in technological innovation. Historically speaking, technological progress has always marched on in the face of extremely low life expectancy. 14th Century Europe, for example, saw many technological innovations in a time when thousands of people we're dying every day from the infamous (and terribly nasty) black plague.

While many God Games do indeed consider population health, very rarely do they ever take life expectancy into account when dealing with technological change. In games such as Impressions Games' City Builder series or Blue Byte's Settlers series in which an individual actually counts for something (opposed to other titles that treat the population as a relatively homogenous blob), life expectancy isn't really a factor in anything. Sure, people can get eaten by stray wolves, skewered by rampaging enemy armies, or fall prey to disease. Most of the time, however, given good conditions, individuals are virtually immortal. Populations mostly only increase and decrease significantly due to immigrations and emigration. People aren't born, nor do they die of natural causes. Technological innovation isn't at all linked to the life expectancy of the population.

I think that many of the titles out there are on the right track in the way they deal with health. The largest problem, however, lies in the whole immortality factor. The peons within a civilization really need to be given a finite lifetime. Increase in life expectancy through time would depend on key variables such as the creation of stable and predictable food sources, the establishment of basic sanitary facilities, medical research, and the infrastructure, both social and physical, necessary to maintain population health (infant vaccination, widespread medical facilities, birth control, socialized medicine, etc.). Consequently, as life expectancy increased, people would have more free time to engage in technological innovation and provide the player with more opportunity to encourage advances. The effect of increasing life expectancy on technological creativity would essentially be cumulative. The higher the life expectancy of the population, the more technological innovations would be available to player.

Willingness to Bear Risk

The level of an individual's willingness to bear risks definitely affects a society's ability to produce technological innovations. Let's face it, innovation and invention carry a huge amount of risk. What would have happened if something had gone wrong with either Fat Man or Little Boy in that infamous stretch of New Mexico desert? That's right...boom.

Changing a known (and trusted) tool or production method by even the slightest margin involves something of a gamble. In the past, when social safety nets were either imperfect or simply nonexistent, the dangers of failing in a technological venture were far greater than they are today. Toying with something as critical as agricultural production could easily have resulted in something as serious as starvation.

Most people will agree that humans, at least those who don't engage in pastimes such as jumping out of planes, have an aversion to risk. However, little is knows about the factors that determine the degree of risk aversion. At what point will people engage in an activity that they previously thoughts was unacceptably risky? Most anthropologists believe that the level of institutional complexity within a society (such as the presence of institutions that make diversification possible or act as a social safety net upon failure) determine an individual's willingness to bear risk. Another possibility is the level and position of a given individual within society. For example, all things being equal, heads of extended families will naturally be more cautious than heads of small nuclear families. Conversely, individuals whose position in society is threatened and have little to lose will be far more willing to take risks.

So, if willingness to bear risk is an important variable in technological innovation, why isn't it incorporated in more games? Well, in some cases it is. Activision's Civilization: Call to Power challenges players to finish the Alien Life Project while being constantly threatened by the risk of explosion in the X-Lab. The players, however, are only limited in the amount of times they rebuild the Lab (after it accidentally detonates) by the amount of money they possess. No matter how much money is available to rebuild, do you think that any scientist or technician worth their salt would continue to be involved in a project if their life was always in peril…probably not. Would politicians continue to fund a project if they constantly saw tax dollars being funneled into an impossible undertaking…not likely.

So, how could we go about making an individual's willingness to bear risk more of an important factor in technological innovation and change? The secret lies in providing incentives so that the individual will participate in risky behavior. Let's say that each technological undertaking, whether it's building a blacksmithy or a spacecraft, has an initial risk value. Granted, the designer would arbitrarily choose this value, but it would be set in relation to all other activities in the game. As time went on, the player could build institutions and facilities (such as hospitals) that would lower the technologies' risk value. People would be a lot more likely to participate in risky behavior if they knew that they had ready access to good medical treatment (even happier if that health care was socialized) if something went wrong and they were injured. Another incentive would be to increase the wages of those who participated in the dangerous undertaking. Through history, humans have done some amazingly dangerous things in order to make more money than they normally would. In time, the technology would become much more accepted and attract more workers. The whole cycle would start anew when the player encouraged the development of a new technological innovation.


The level of impact that geography, either physical or cultural, has on the process of technological innovation and creativity is a point of much dispute. Few environmental factors are either absolutely necessary or completely sufficient for technological creativity. Rather, most geographic conditions act simply to focus and direct the level of creativity that exist in a given society. It's arguable, then, that geographic factors are far more permissive than they are causative.

In Egypt, for example, a great deal of technological development, such as shipbuilding and agriculture, was intimately coupled with the Nile. The vast majority of common Egyptians lived their entire lives according the seasonal fluctuations of the Nile. Some scholars have even speculated that the presence and nature of the Nile itself was an irreproducible component in the development of Egyptian civilization.

Most God Games at least pay superficial attention to the effects of geography on technological innovation. In Ensemble's Age of Empires series, the player's ability to gather resources, and therefore the types of technology they can develop, is determined by their geographical surroundings. Likewise, in Impression Game's Pharaoh (one of my particular favorites at the moment), players are unable to engage in mining activities if there isn't anything around to mine. One of the most common effects that geography has on technological innovation has to do with building space. Players can't build something on unsuitable land (rocks, marsh, etc).

This kind of approach really doesn't do justice to the effects that geography has on technology. If a player overcomes the lack of either suitable building land or immediately available resources, they are free to encourage the same sort of technological innovations available to them in other scenarios. Geography has almost no effect on the technological path (something that will be talked about shortly) that a society takes. The tech tree of a scenario that takes place in the desert is usually identical to one that takes place in a river valley.

So, what's the alternative? Well, for each scenario that a player has access to, there should be a predetermined path of technological possibilities that is partially controlled by geographic setting. For civilizations that reside in river valleys or close to the ocean, the technological path could include maritime trade, the waterwheel, shipbuilding, and hydroelectricity. For civilizations where population centers are widely dispersed, the path could include long distance trade, communication devices, and high-speed travel. The pace and manifestation of this technological path would in turn be influenced and affected by a suite of other variables (like those discussed in this article). Granted, the civilization wouldn't be limited to that one specific technological path. It would, however, serve as a base upon which the civilization's technological character would be founded. Perhaps some sort of bonus would be available to the players who develop technology that lies along their civilization's base technological path.

Path Dependency

In traditional processual story based strategy titles, path dependency is probably one of the most often used variables that influences in-game technological development. You know the story, once you develop gunpowder, you gain access to firearms and explosives. Basically, path dependency means that that technological change and innovation depends on its own past.

There are two basic components to path dependency. The first is something called spillover effect. A good example is the technological innovations that were associated with mining activities. Mining, of course, was located wherever some desirable mineral resource was located. The often inhospitable and remote mining locations forced miners, who often struggled to get water, to develop better pumps. This in turn led to the development of more accurate boring machines and better tools. The result of this was the eventual development of the mechanisms involved with steam and waterpower. Granted, the line between mining and steam-powered mechanisms isn't a completely straight one. However, without the technological innovations that derived from mining, steam power probably would have taken a radically different form.

The second component is something called the bottleneck effect. If technological development is dependent on its past, then imbalances and "bottlenecks" will occur in related and complementary processes. The bottlenecks would serve both, dependent on the presence or absence of other variables, to either stimulate or constrain the further search for innovation. In the best of cases, these "bottlenecks" serve as focusing devices that not only guide the development of specific technology, but also propel technology in directions not evident in other societies. In the worst of cases, the "bottlenecks" would lead a given society down the path to technological ruin, creating a situation where further technological innovation in a given area was nearly impossible.

However, it's difficult to predict where a given technological path will lead. What appears at one time to be a marvelous example of technological creativity may prove to be a dead end. A great example of this is the story of the potato and Ireland. During the 18th Century, Ireland adopted the potato as a staple crop. Because the potato yielded more than three times the amount of calories per acre planted than grain, the idea seemed a reasonable one at the time. However, as most people are well aware, the results of potato monocropping were absolutely devastating on Ireland and the Irish people. Between the years of 1816 and 1842, there were been fourteen full or partial potato famines. The height of the potato famine happened between 1845 and 1847 when a new type of fungus, Phytophthora infestons, reduced the entire crop to rotting compost. As a result, between 1840 and 1911, the population of Ireland decreased from 8.2 million to a staggering 4.4 million due to disease, starvation and emigration.

Path dependency is a tricky thing to talk about in relation to God Games. Most designers would probably say that path dependency is in full effect in their games. Well, it is and it isn't. The tech tree (which is the most obvious manifestation of path dependency) really only limits the pace at which technology can be developed. There is little or no outside influence on the tech tree. Given the proper resources (gold, population, etc.) players can tear through it without even a passing nod to realistic cultural processes.

Perhaps the most important thing that designers must realize is that a given technological path neither exists within a vacuum nor is a fixed object. They are organic systems that change the way they play out in relation to a host of variables (some of which we're taking about in this article). On a more practical level, designers can certainly incorporate both the spillover and bottleneck effects into their technological paths. Each technological innovation (be it a stone tool or a microchip) needs to be placed on a path in relation to every other technological innovation within the game. The influences on a technological path need to be clearly defined well in advance. For example, designers can start with a base technological path that is defined by the geographic environment in which the scenario is going to be played out, the level of technological sophistication (probably something set by the back-story), and pre-defined parameters of the technological path (what innovations are available to the player). Next, all the available innovations need to be laid out in relation to one another (much like is done on a traditional tech tree). Now, comes the hard part. The effects of all in-game variables (like those outlined in this article) need to be hammered out. Examples of these affects are found throughout this article. I know this doesn't provide a whole heck of a lot of insight into the act of creating realistic technological paths. But what is important is that designers need to realize that technological paths are not necessarily something that can be adequately represented in a simple flowchart. They are composed of sets of relationships between in-game variables and technological innovations. 'Nuff said.

At this point we'll step back, take a deep breath, shake off the glazed look in our eyes, and leave the exploration of the remaining variables to the second installment of the article. In the meantime and in-between time, as always, I'm open to all sorts of email if you want to share your feedback.

In any case, be sure to tune in soon when we'll talk about what technology and science, religion, values, property rights and institutions, resistance to innovation, politics and the state, and war have on technological innovation and development. Same Gama time, same Gama place.

Click Here for Part 2 of this article

Ethan Watrall, an archaeologist by training, is currently doing his PhD at Indiana University. He spends most of his time either sitting at his computer wishing he were in Egypt or working in the Egyptian desert wishing he had a computer. Any suggestions to his eternal dilemma can be sent to [email protected].

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About the Author(s)

Ethan Watrall


Ethan Watrall, an archaeologist by training, is currently doing his PhD at Indiana University. He spends most of his time either sitting at his computer wishing he were in Egypt or working in the Egyptian desert wishing he had a computer. Any suggestions to his eternal dilemma can be sent to [email protected].

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