23 min read

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

In the second part of his detailed look at technological evolution as it relates to God Games, Ethan Watrall, a trained archaeologist, tackles a new set of variables that influence the development of a society -- including science, religion, politics, and war.

Author's Note: In the previous installment of this article, I mistakingly referred to the City Builder series as the Sierra City Builder Series when it is infact the Impression Games City Builder Series. My apologies and thanks to Chris Beatrice at Impressions Games for gently pointing out my mistake.

Welcome back to my look at technological linearity in God Games. If you're just tuning in and didn't get the chance to read the first installment of this article, let me re-cap. Basically, the crux of the article was that when designers create processual story based strategy titles (my fancy shmancy name for god games like Pharaoh and the Civilization series), a very simple approach to technological innovation and development is taken.

Generally speaking, 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 most often translates into the infamous tech tree. Consequently, despite their often-intricate nature, most processual story based strategy titles are terribly predictable and simple.

In light of this, the point of this article is to look at some variables that influence technological innovations and development. In addition, I 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. In the first installment of the article, I looked at nutrition, life expectancy, willingness to bear risk, geography, and path dependency. In this installment, I'll dive into technology and science, religion, values, property rights and institutions, resistance to innovation, politics and the state, and war.

If you'd like to read the first part of this article before reading on, go ahead; there's a link at the end of it that will bring you back to here. Otherwise, let's get down to it.

Technology and Science

One of the most common mistakes made by designers is the assumption that science and technology are synonymous. There's no doubt that, historically speaking, science and technology are intricately linked. However, they are two very different things. Science is a method of comprehension, while technology is a method of implementation. With this in mind, the question that pops up is whether scientific ideas constrain and guide the creation (and implementation) of new technology.

A body of knowledge exists from which technology, either consciously or subconsciously, draws inspiration. For the most part, this body of knowledge, which is called metatechnology, is generated by purely scientific endeavors. Anyone who's familiar with Francis Bacon's distinction between inventions that depend on a state of knowledge (scientific or otherwise) and inventions that could have been made anytime will recognize this idea.

Most scholars agree that the pool of metatechnological knowledge, as well as the amount that inventors drew upon that pool, increased through time after the Scientific Revolution. Initially, in the West at least, science taught engineers the process of breaking problems into their component parts for analysis. Later, especially during the European Industrial Revolution, scientists taught engineers a rational faith in the orderliness of natural phenomena and physical processes. More importantly, they learned an appreciation of the importance of accurate measurement and control in experimentation, the logical difference between cause and correlation, and a healthy respect for quantification. In many cases, scientific knowledge directly contributed to (and maybe even made possible) technological development.

In all honesty, the distinction between science and technology isn't made that often in God Games. Granted, both terms are used, but they really mean the same thing in an in-game context. The intellectual institutions essential in developing technological innovations are almost always the same as the industrial infrastructure necessary to implement those innovations. There are, however, some notable exceptions. In Activision's Civilization: Call to Power, a number of institutions exist, including the university and the computer center, which are strictly designed to encourage science and increase a civilization's ability to research technological advances. While this is definitely a step in the right direction, there needs to be augmented focus on the fundamental differences between science and technology.

So, how could this be accomplished? Well, first, there needs to be an increase in "units" which generate and focus scientific knowledge. These units, like everything else, need to have a specific path of development that is affected by other variables within the game. For instance, scientific societies (which were responsible for the generation of much scientific knowledge in Victorian Europe) were only made possible by a class of citizens which were secure enough financially that they could spend a great deal of their time pondering the mysteries of the world around them. If a player wished to encourage the development of scientific societies within their civilization, they would need to make sure that economic conditions were favorable enough to allow the development of an upper middle class whose wealth was derived from merchant activities or industrial undertakings. Like most things, this level of economic prosperity would have to be arbitrarily chosen by the designer. However, a civilization's ability to reach that level of prosperity would be determined by a host of other economic variables including trade, industrialization, level of natural resources, and internal political stability.

Further, the development of many of such units would increase a civilization's ability to generate scientific knowledge. As the player encouraged the development of these types of units, their "science rating" would increase. It would also be interesting to create research institutions (like universities) that would focus their energies towards a specific area of science such as engineering, physics, biology, or history. This would allow the player to more directly affect the path that their scientific endeavors would take.


In my humble opinion, religion is perhaps one of the most important influences on the process of technological change. There is one thing, however, which must be clarified before we continue.

One of the largest mistakes that I find in God Games is the idea that people in the past were intrinsically more religious than those of today. Why, when one plays a game that spans a large amount of time, do religious buildings, institutions, and beliefs generally become obsolete as time goes on? Conversely, why are the lives of people in the past completely controlled, dictated, and manipulated by religion? There's no doubt in my mind that there were many people in the ancient world who could have cared less for religion and simply wanted to farm their fields or tend their cattle. My point is that religion plays an important role in today's society as it played an important role in societies of the past. Its importance, however, was (and is) balanced against many other variables that, when combined, made up a complete cultural whole.

So, how does religion affect the process of technological change? Basically, it's a key variable on the microlevel in setting a given individuals' frame of mind regarding technological change. Religion acts in many ways to shape, influence, and focus technological change

The first, and most general, way is to discourage technological change that challenges long held ideological beliefs. One of the most straightforward examples is the development of the telescope and astronomy. The telescope, a necessary tool for any serious astronomical observation, allowed any moderately trained individual to question the 17th tenet that the earth, and therefore humanity, was the center of creation. The Vatican was concerned enough with Galileo's astronomical observations (aided by his new powerful telescope) that they ordered him to immediately recant his statements and placed him under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

Let's look at it in more modern terms. Recently, human cloning has become an increasingly hot topic in the public eye. Many people, either casually religious or devoted believers, consider that the creation and manipulation of life on such a profound scale is the role of some sort of deity. Who knows where the discussions about human cloning will lead us? What I can tell you is that there will surely be a religious component.

A second way has to do with a societies' belief about their relation to nature. Because the act of invention is a game against nature, the willingness to adjust the ecology depends on the innovators' attitude towards the physical world. Most western religions have a very deep-rooted belief that nature was created specifically for them, and should be manipulated and enjoyed. This sort of attitude is definitely conducive to the sort of technological creativity that requires an often-irreparable alteration of the environment.

cath.jpg cleric.jpg
The trappings of religion in many god games.

Religion is a predominant feature in all God Games. The effects that religion has on technology, however, are amazingly minimal. In Impressions Games' Pharaoh and Caesar III (and most likely Impressions Games upcoming title Zeus), religious institutions (such as temples and shrines) affect the happiness of the people as well as maintaining the areas of the civilization that the particular deity has domain over (i.e. Ptah is the is the god of craftspeople and therefore influences industrial production). Likewise, in the Civilization series, building temples and religious institutions increases population happiness. What does happiness have to do with technological innovation? Well, in an indirect way, happiness does have an affect on technology (an unhappy civilization would have problems, such as rioting, that would make the uninhibited development of technological innovations difficult).

The first step that needs to be taken if one wishes to better incorporate religion into the fabric of God Games is to recognize that ideology has a profound influence on the process of technological innovation and development. On a practical level, designers need to define specific innovations which would either go against established religious doctrine of a players civilization or be encouraged by it. For example, if a player's civilization were at a level of development comparable to 15th Century Europe in which, as discussed above, the church asserted that the earth was the middle of creation, the development of astronomical observation and heliocentrism (the sun is the center of the solar system) would be difficult. If the player were to encourage such scientific thoughts, they would take much longer to develop than if they were being developed in a more favorable religious climate. In addition, the player would have to take into account the fact that the endeavor might fail as a result of constant attacks by the religious establishment. If astronomical observation and heliocentrism were able to develop, it would not only make possible the development of other astronomically based sciences (like cosmology, astrophysics, and space craft construction), but would also change the civilization's religious institutions (perhaps making other controversial developments possible and even paving the way for the development of other ideological beliefs).


As far as collective influences on technological innovation are concerned, one of the most pervasive is the value placed on the creative process and those who create. Many different societies afford different activities with varying levels of prestige. The ancient Greeks, for example, valued artistic expression and athletic prowess, while the Romans valued military service and administrative ability.

For the most part, historically speaking, children who received an education were kept away from activities that involved any serious degree of practicality. Whether they studied horsemanship, Latin, astronomy, or religious texts, matters commercial and industrial were rarely part of the curriculum. The act of invention was viewed as a dirty job unsuitable for the wealthy. Those who invented things were almost always the lower or middle class.

There are examples of wealthy individuals involved in the process of invention. For the most part, however, the majority of Western societies held physical labor, commerce, and invention in contempt. This resulted in the creative process of invention and inventors themselves to be held in low regard. So, it stands to reason that societies that have nothing but contempt for inventors and the innovative process will be less technologically creative than those who think the opposite.

It's unfortunate, but this variable is totally neglected in God Games. In order to include values in the mechanics of a game, designers would have to provide players with a way to change the fundamental perceptions held by individuals within a society. One way to do this would be to set an arbitrary level of social acceptance at the beginning of a game. A low level would reflect the general sentiment that technological innovators were at the bottom of the barrel (socially speaking). Conversely, a high rating would indicate that technological innovators were held in high esteem in a society. The level of social acceptance would increase as key developments that directly benefit the society were developed. These could include, but obviously not be limited to, medical techniques, vaccines, or agricultural advances. As the level of social acceptance increased, technological development would become easier.

Property Rights and Institutions

Basically, for technological change to be effective and sustainable, the authorities must relinquish their control over the innovative process and decentralize it. This creates two important, though on their own insufficient, conditions for technological innovation and change.

First, decentralization is important because it means that numerous independent units carry out experimentation. While this sort of situation can result in a duplication of work, it ultimately minimizes the probability of missed technological opportunities. Technological innovation is not only an uncertain process, but is filled with varying opinions on how to get the job done. There is always more than one way to skin a cat, but ultimately, there is only one way that is most efficient. A decentralized system generates a wider variety of technological departures, less potential bottlenecks in the creative process, and a simple way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Secondly, decentralization is important because it offers the successful innovator a chance to enrich themselves. Beyond the basic everyday usefulness of new technology, innovators need a way to seriously cash in on their inventions. A system lacking in monetary incentive discourages innovators from investing the time and effort in future projects.

In the past, patents, monopolies, grants, pensions, prizes, and medals provided innovators with the rewards necessary for maintaining a high level of inventive activity. However, the patent system did not emerge in Western Europe until the 15th century and was not fully entrenched until the 18th century. A patent system, while important for the creative process, probably wasn't completely necessary. After all, many inventors were quick enough to capture a large share of a "market" before they in turn were imitated. Also, some inventors engaged in their trade for the sheer sake of fame. Ultimately, however, societies that have some sort of reward for the creative process are likely to experience more technological innovation.

Like many of the variables discussed in this article, the notion of property rights and institutions are totally ignored in God Games. More than likely, this originates from the fact that many titles view a population as a homogenous whole (much like one single organism) where the individual counts for little. In reality, including property rights and institutions into the overall in-game scheme of technological development and innovation wouldn't be all that difficult.

As with science and technology, the player could encourage the development of numerous institutions (universities, etc.) where the innovative process could be carried out. Each of the institutions could be separately influenced by the player to increase innovation or steer it in different directions. This would effectively decentralize the process and result in an increase in the pace of innovation as well as the possibility of more developments that was previously possible. The more institutions a player develops, the faster their civilization will advance technologically.

Further, the player could develop institutions that encourage technological innovation by giving out monetary rewards. Building a Patent Office, for example, would increase a society's overall level of technological innovation.

Resistance to Innovation.

Although technology often involves a net improvement to the welfare of the people in a given society, it's almost always the case that there are groups whose welfare is reduced as a direct result of the technological innovation, and will therefore be opposed to it. Technological change shakes the labor market, alters (sometimes drastically) the environment, and inherently damages the lives of the innovator's competition. A situation is almost always created where those who stand to lose the most from a new technological innovation will do their best to suppress it.

One of the best examples of this, though there are many, is the late 14th Century German pin industry. As early as 1397, tailors in Cologne were prohibited from using machines that pressed pinheads. On the surface this seems silly. Why would anyone be opposed to a machine that pressed pinheads? Well, look at it this way, during the 14th, 15th, and 16th Centuries there was a thriving hand manufactured pin industry. The guild of the red metal turners, the organization that included those who manufactured pins, was intent on suppressing any machine that would damage the livelihood of their members.

In 1561, the city council of Nuremberg, influenced by the very powerful and influential red metal turners' guild, launched an attack on a local coppersmith for his invention of a vastly improved slide rest lathe. This unfortunate smith, one Hans Spaichl by name, had originally been rewarded for an invention that, among other things, would have made the production of pins a far easier process. The council quickly changed its tune when they began to harass Spaichl and forced him to agree not to sell his lathe outside his own trade. They then offered to buy the lathe from him if he agreed to stop using it completely and never sell another machine. To add insult to injury, in a final attempt to thoroughly destroy Spaichl and his new machine, the council finally threatened to imprison anyone who sold the lathe.

Like in the case of many of the other variables discussed in this article, resistance to innovation is almost totally ignored in God Games. In all honesty, its inclusion in the fabric of any given title wouldn't be all that difficult, and would ultimately lead to a far more interesting gaming experience fo the player. The first thing that would need to be done would be to look at the path of any given technological progression to determine whether the development of a new innovation would threaten the livelihood of a preceding innovation. The most obvious example would be automated production of any given manufactured good. Automation has been one of the largest causes of unrest in the industrial workplace since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In order to model the obvious resentment that a workforce would feel towards a new technology, the player would have to wait a longer period of time for the innovation to be built.

In order to shorten the time, the player could invest in the creation of institutions that would lessen the workforce's resistance. These could include social safety nets (especially those which retrain workers). Throughout the process, the player would constantly be threatened by the possibility that the endangered workforce would destroy the new innovation. The player might also want to take more heavy-handed action, such as union busting, to compel their workforce to submit to the implementation of the new innovation.

Politics and the State

In all honesty, it's really quite difficult to determine if there is a certain political structure conducive to technological innovation. Some have argued that a strong centralized government would be secure enough to withstand riots and political pressure from coalitions representing those who stand to lose the most from technological change. On the other hand, a weak government that succumbs to demands to legislate technological change would be unable to enforce such laws, and therefore leave the process of technological innovation to market forces.

Politics also matters because the ruling elite, be they emperors, presidents, regents, councils, parliaments, high priests, or grand poobahs, set a national agenda of priorities. If these agendas divert too many resources, particularly talent and creativity, into non-productive and destructive pastimes, innovation on a national scale will be unavoidably damaged. An excellent example of this kind of situation was the string of monumentally destructive wars fought in the most advanced parts of Europe, mainly southern Germany, the Netherlands, and Bohemia, between 1550 and 1650. The result was the total destruction of the participant countries' infrastructure and their ability to initiate and support any kind of technological innovation.

The bottom line is that the state plays an unquestionable role in the process of technological change. The general consensus among those who study such things is that if one wishes to fully realize the potential of modern technology one cannot do it with the state, but one cannot do it without either.

Generally speaking, the effects of politics on technological innovation are usually included in God Games. Some, like those that act within an actual historical framework rely on it less than those that span huge amounts of time and rely on the player for the motivations for social change. In the case of the Civilization series, different political systems have different effects on science and production. The problem with this is that political systems don't directly affect technological development, but instead the institutions that encourage, develop, and focus innovation.

A better alternative would be to make politics a secondary influence on innovation. Political structure would instead directly affect the types of institutions that could be developed by the player. In turn, it would be these institutions that would directly affect innovation. Throughout this article we've discussed specific institutions (universities, patent offices, hospitals, etc) and processes that potentially increase the pace of technological innovation. Each of these would need to be looked at in terms of compatibility with every single possible political system available to the player. For example, due to state ideology, patent offices would be difficult to develop under communism. Because of this, players might have to wait far longer after they had built a patent office before it actually affected the technological innovation within the society. Another alternative would be that the development of a patent office would be altogether impossible. Players would need to use subtler methods to change their political system (something which is beyond the scope of this article) before they would even be offered the opportunity to develop a patent office.


I'm pretty sure that no one will disagree if I say that military activity is one of the most important components, if not the most important one, in God Games. The vast majority of players' free time is either spent gearing up to be attacked or preparing to attack someone else. Despite the fact that most games purport that victory can be achieved through non-military means, the opposite is almost always the case. I don't mean that players can't achieve a final victory through diplomatic, scientific, or economic means, quite the contrary. The problem lies in the fact that players, during the course of gameplay, are almost always confronted with an AI whose sheer hostility often surpasses that which would exist in the real world, and are therefore forced to engage in military conflict.

The vast majority of free form processual story based strategies offer up a host of possible units to make the other poor sod die for their country.

There is no doubt that military activity often generates new technological innovations. As a species, we're quite adept at coming up with new and nasty ways to kill each other. War also has a habit of destroying the infrastructure necessary for the support of technological innovation and production. A question rarely ever considered, however, is to what degree does military technology benefit civilian endeavors. Well, historically speaking, it seems very little. While military needs served as a focusing device for technological innovation, weapons more often borrowed from civilian technology than acted as inspiration themselves.

The wonderfully complex war machines of the Romans (the catapults and the ballistas) didn't lead to any clear advances in civilian technology. In spite of its technologically revolutionary nature at the time it was introduced, gunmaking didn't lead to any significant civilian applications other than a new means of hunting. The machine tool industry, which is often cited as deriving from the mass production of firearms, owed more to clocks and instruments than to guns.

So What's the Point

So, where does this leave us? Well, if there's one thing that I want designers to realize is that technological change is not an easy thing to understand and model. As I'm sure most have realized by this point, technological change happens as a result of the interaction of many different cultural variables. Not only do these variables, some of which I've discussed above, react differently with one another in a given society, they vary tremendously between societies. Designing a logical in-game technological progression based on realistic cultural processes is a very tricky thing. Designers need to seriously take into account all the permutations and combinations of variables necessary for technological innovation.

Further, designers desperately need to realize that for in-game technological innovation to happen, some of the direct control must be taken out of the hands of players. Technological change needs to be influenced as much by internal variables as player choice. While not immediately obvious, many of the variables would ultimately be the direct result of player choices (or the result of the combination of a series of player choices). Pulling this off would obviously be tricky. A game will quickly become boring as all hell once the player has only a minimum of input. So, a balance needs to be struck between fun and reality (not that reality isn't fun...but you get my point).

Above all, technological change has as much to do with public sentiment, political climate, and national values as it does with personal creativity. As a result, designers need to start thinking about how a society would react to player mandated technological innovation. We've got to start moving away from the situation in which the player hits the "Industrial Revolution" button and several turns (and a fixed amount of capital) later...wham, the Industrial Revolution. How would the average shmo feel about being forced to work in a factory for eighteen hours per day? Would they riot? If so, how would such rioting affect the society as a whole? Would it damage the economic system? Would it damage the societies' ability to defend itself from foreign enemies? There isn't any real simple answer. However, it's my hope that when designers explore these sorts of questions, God Games will only get better.

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].

Latest Jobs


Chicago, Illinois

Build a Rocket Boy Games

Edinburgh, Scotland
Lead Animation Programmer

Windwalk Games

Austin, Texas
Game Designer

Sucker Punch Productions

Bellevue, Washington
Campaign Director
More Jobs   


Register for a
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Account

Game Developer Newsletter


Register for a

Game Developer Account

Gain full access to resources (events, white paper, webinars, reports, etc)
Single sign-on to all Informa products

Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more