Civilization II a good “sociological simulator”? I say no

I was amused earlier this week to see a report from a guy who has been playing the same game of Civilization II for ten years. Here is a little bit of his report on the state of the Civ II world:

  • The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.
  • There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.

While I loved playing Civ II (and I think the gameplay was superior to later versions of the game), I’m scratching my head at how much attention this report has received in the media. Does it really tell us anything about the world’s possible future? Here is one overview from the BBC that I think goes too far:

A man who has been playing the computer game Civilisation II for ten years describes the year 3991 AD as a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.

Daniel Knowles, from the Telegraph and a fan of the game, says the game has certain assumptions built in to it about what will happen if there is a nuclear war or if you stop producing green technology.

“It’s a kind of sociological simulator… a giant economical model” he told the Today programme.

He believes gamer James Moore “would not still be playing it if he had reached an Utopia”.

Civilization II is a “sociological simulator”? I doubt it. Granted, the game is intended to replicate real-world nation-building and interaction. As you build your society, you have to make decisions like what kind of government to have (for example, in latter stages of the game fundamentalism is quite effective when waging all-out war), what to build and produce in individual cities, how to move certain units (military and otherwise) around, and pursue scientific and technological advancements. But, all of these types of games (and I’ve also been a fan in recent years of Age of Empires III) are only as good as what they account for. In other words, this is a low-level simulator of anything. The real world is far more complicated and many more moving pieces that games like this can allow. Indeed, these sorts of games seem geared toward all-out war between nations even as some would argue the international scene is getting more peaceful.

We are still far from a true “sociological simulator” that could account for all of the human variability in real life. This hasn’t stopped some scientists from trying – there was news recently of a group trying to put together a “Living Earth Simulator.” But, we need to remember what Civ II really is: it is a fun game with some modeling of human behavior but it really tells us very little or nothing about what the world might look like in 3991 AD.

Sociologist discusses the Living Earth Simulator

A sociologist explains a little bit more about the Living Earth Simulator that aims to model society:

Time travel: probably not going to happen any time soon. At least, not in the physical, “Back to the Future” sense. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to peek into the future. In the December issue of Scientific American, writer David Weinberger chats with Dirk Helbing, a Swiss physicist and sociologist who is pitching a project called the Living Earth Simulator, a billion-euro computer system that would absorb vast amounts of data, use it to model global-scale systems — economies, governments, etc. — and predict the future.

Well, maybe. Weinberger speaks with researchers who point out the roadblocks. While it’s possible to model small systems, such as highway and pedestrian traffic, getting a read on the economy, the environment and public health all at once is a much more complicated process. For instance, how would you account for feedback loops in the system — that is, what happens when the computer model’s conclusions alter the situation that it’s modeling? And if you can’t understand the process through which the model generates an answer, the whole thing is just a giant Magic 8 Ball, anyway. The computer may call upon world leaders to “set fire to all the world’s oil wells,” writes Weinberger. “That will not be actionable advice if the policymaker cannot explain why it’s right.”

So data mining will not be encouraged or will the model’s supervisors insist that every discovered pattern come with an explanation?

Interestingly, Helbing is also featured in a recent article in The Economist about pedestrian traffic:

In 1995 Mr Helbing and Peter Molnar, both physicists, came up with a “social force” computer model that used insights from the way that particles in fluids and gases behave to describe pedestrian movement. The model assumed that people are attracted by some things, such as the destination they are heading for, and repelled by others, such as another pedestrian in their path. It proved its worth by predicting several self-organising effects among crowds that are visible in real life.

One is the propensity of dense crowds spontaneously to break into lanes that allow people to move more efficiently in opposing directions. Individuals do not have to negotiate their way through a series of encounters with oncoming people; they can just follow the person in front. That works better than trying to overtake. Research by Mr Moussaid suggests that the effect of one person trying to walk faster than the people around them in a dense crowd is to force an opposing lane of pedestrians to split in two, which has the effect of breaking up the lane next door, and so on. Everyone moves slower as a result.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Combining physics and sociology to explain social behavior seems to be growing in popularity. Here is what I assume: the physics side brings experience in dealing with complex models and a more naturalistic way of explaining human behavior while sociologists bring more theories and knowledge about human contingencies. (But I could be wrong.) It does seem like the combination of these two disciplines could uniquely bridge the gap between the natural and social sciences.

2. Overall, I assume there will be many more projects like this. Getting the data is not so much a problem and we have the computing power to calculate complex models. If this does increase, this will mean some changes within the discipline of sociology: a shift toward mathematical sociology (making regression look relatively simple), thinking about “natural laws” in a way that sociology has generally avoided, and viewing the world in a different way (individuals operating within complex systems).