The 'Civilization V' Players Trying to Perfect Democracy

Playing a video game by democracy is beautiful, frustrating, and all too real

Matthew Gault

Matthew Gault

Image: Reddit user zachb34r

Democracy is messy. Different groups want different things, special interests clash, and what’s good for the majority isn’t always good for the individual. In the US, we live that reality every day and it’s hard to imagine turning it into a game. But that’s exactly what some enterprising Redditors did.

Civilization V is a strategy video game that puts players in charge of a civilization as it grows and changes. Players start out with a settler, establish a city and then grow and expand. They can win the game by conquering all the other territories or achieving goals tied to scientific, cultural, or religious achievement. People can play single-player games against AI-controlled rivals civilizations or games against other players controlling their own civilizations.

But the /r/democraciv community on reddit is doing something different—they’re playing the single-player game as a representative democracy.

Here’s how it works. According to the community's constitution, the government has an executive, legislative, and judicial branch. The executive branch consists of five directly elected officials who actually play the game (the person with the best internet connection is typically steering) and broadcast it to Twitch. The legislative branch writes laws meant to constrain the executive branch and control the flow of the game. The judicial branch consists of a supreme court appointed by the executive branch and confirmed by the legislative. It exists to settle disputes and interpret the law. The executive and legislative branch have four-week term limits while the judiciary enjoys an eight-week term.

The community held elections over the weekend. It counted 83 total votes and divided 12 legislative seats among seven political parties. The Celestial Party and the The United Front each walked away with three, making them the dominant power in the legislature. Only time will tell how that’ll actually play out in Civilization V, though. This is democracy, but it’s also a game. It’s like a complicated version of Twitch plays Pokemon.

Only one party—Bold Audacious Destruction (BAD)—lost out in the election. According to the party’s platform, it advocates trolling, war, and general destruction. One of its members complained on Reddit that BAD could only have lost if the election was rigged. “I have a very biased gut feeling that the election was rigged. I have no evidence to back up this claim, but still the BAD Party demands a recount!” Redditor dommitor said.

It was a sentiment restated in Huofen, The Flaming Turd, the BAD party's official newspaper. “Bold audacious destruction for Democraciv will have to wait until another election cycle,” the paper said. “All three of the BAD candidates....lost their respective campaigns on appears that the

legislative and executive branches will be run by competent people who promise to show up on time and who do not take seriously unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.”

Democracy is complicated and doesn’t always work. After two years, the community is currently establishing the rules and electing officials for its fourth playthrough. The previous three games played out with mixed results.

“[The first game] petered out because no one really knew what they were doing,” Dhruv, one of the community moderators, told me over Discord. “[The second game] ended strongly with a successful domination victory.” The third game ended in a protracted war that bogged the game down.

Between all four different iterations, /r/democraciv has tried many different types of democracy, always tweaking and simplifying the formula. “The last two constitutions have been written by the community rather than a few people over many months,” Chris, another moderator and a German university student, told me over Discord.

Things got too complicated in the third game—each individual city in the game had its own elected mayor and the constitution was more than 20 pages long. “In [the third game] there have been stages where we did not have an elected legislature but rather a direct democracy which anyone could join,” Chris said..”The ministry...used to be comprised of councillors with individual roles to cover different game aspects.”

Chris told me the fourth game is a return to the simplified democracy that was successful in the second game. The third game also ran a heavily modified version of Civilization V, which made it slower, more complicated, more confusing, and less fun for a group to play. “Instead of having many details which restrict the way the game can be played the drafters wanted to leave things open for the players to decide once the game has started,” he said.

Currently, the newly elected legislators are setting their agenda and figuring out exactly what they want the game to look like. One legislator has proposed the Starting Setup Act, which would codify the map size, game speed, mods used, and other basic structures of the game world. Another legislator has an act that would control the placement of cities when the game starts; another wants to better organize the way the bills are written.

It’s a lot of bureaucracy and minutia, but that’s the point—.so is democracy. “It’s a great concept from which a lot can be learned on the subject of politics and democracy,” Thomas, the group’s founder, told me. Thomas started the /r/democraciv subreddit two years ago and helped organize the early games. He’s less involved now, but he stays active on Discord and Reddit.

He misses the game, but he lives in the Netherlands and his personal life and the time differences between players make it hard for him to directly participate. He’s interested in a political career and feels /r/democraciv has taught him a lot about how democracy actually works. “It seems to be a lot easier to upset the masses than it is to upset the individual,” he said. “When you're working with individuals, you can personally talk to them and explain the problem to fix a misunderstanding. When you’re working with politics, even in a simulation, if your system is unclear or even has a hint of unfairness... it’s really hard to convince large groups of people.”

Thomas acknowledged that Civilization V is vastly different than a real-world democracy. “Because of the size, certain effects are magnified while others are reduced,” he said. “Like what I mentioned with upsetting the masses, that would be less noticeable in a smaller community, whereas corruption might be more noticable.”

Despite the differences, Thomas thinks Civilization V and /r/democraciv would be a fun way to teach the basics of government and politics. “I'd say that you could even use a system like this, similar to...a model UN in schools, to teach children about the workings of democracy,” he said. “I'm sure it'd be more interesting than most social studies classes.”

As /r/democraciv’s political parties shore up their support and establish their agendas, the executives get ready to play and the community’s 83 registered voters prepare to see if their civilization will rise or fall.

Correction: This story originally said that the second /r/democraciv game ended in a science victory. It actually ended in a domination victory. This story has been updated to reflect that fact.