I have played Sid Meier’s Civilization series since the third game came out back in 2001. Most recently I got the sixth iteration on opening day last October, and so far it’s been every bit as engrossing as its predecessors (even if I’m a bit impatient for the modding tools to come out already). As much as they’ve deserved the showers of praise they’ve received over the years, there is one recurring trend in the games that I find rather bizarre and maybe even a bit troublesome. I am talking specifically about how they’ve tended to represent Africa and its indigenous cultures.
No, I’m not submitting a clickbait-style accusation that Sid Meier and his development team are all racist against Africans or other non-Europeans. For the most part they’ve always done an alright job of incorporating cultures from across the world into their series. Europe has tended to be disproportionately represented among the playable civilizations, but perhaps that’s to be expected given the creators’ Euro-American cultural roots. Otherwise almost every game in the series has included several nations from regions as different as the Middle East, Asia, the Americas, and Africa. In fact, discounting those civilizations which might be added in the expansion packs, each base Civilization game tends to feature precisely two African civilizations.
That wouldn’t be so problematic, except the first African civilization is almost always ancient Egypt, and the games (like most other media) typically misrepresent this as a “Mediterranean” or “Middle Eastern” civilization of stereotypically Arab-looking people. Often Cleopatra VII, a queen from the originally Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty, is chosen as the Egyptian leader, as seen in the most recent Civilization VI.
This leaves us with only one civilization from Africa per base game that is portrayed as dark-skinned, or what some might call “Black African”. Exactly which civilization fills this slot varies across the series. In Civilization III, it was the Zulu from South Africa. In IV, it was Mali. V’s introduction was the Songhai, another West African empire that rose after Mali, and most recently in VI it’s the kingdom of Kongo in Central Africa. But the basic trend has remained the same throughout the series’s history: on opening day, you get one black civilization and one whitewashed (or should that be tan-washed?) ancient Egypt. Two slots for Africa, and only one of them is portrayed as genuinely African at all.
It’s uncannily equivalent to the old “Token Black Guy” trope.
To be fair, the expansion packs that have been a staple of the series sometimes add more black nations. Civilization IV’s expansions added Ethiopia and the Zulu to join Mali, and this same pairing reappeared in the expansions for V. Only time will tell what the inevitable expansion for VI will include (although I’m confident the Zulu will pop up again at some point). Clearly the developers are aware of multiple civilizations in Africa other than Egypt. But that’s the thing, if Sid Meier and his team have that knowledge, why do they insist on starting out with only one slot for Black Africa every time they begin a new iteration of the series? Why delay the addition of others to the expansion packs? It’s a truly strange policy for a series that is otherwise above-average in its representation of the non-European world.
Thankfully the newest addition, Civilization VI, corrects one other trend in representing Africa that the other games have gotten wrong. Between Civilization III and V, African nations tended to be portrayed as having the same“Middle Eastern” look to their cities and human units as the Babylonians, Persians, Arabs, etc., with only their unique units (e.g. the Zulu Impi or Malian Skirmisher) having dark instead of tan skin. Even their background music sounded more Arabic than African, especially in the case of the fifth game. But at least Kongo in the new game has distinctly African architecture and dark-skinned units distinct from the rest.
We can only hope that, when Civilization VII launches in a half-decade or so, they stop limiting their civilization roster to one token black civilization. The very least they could do is give their Egyptians a bit more melanin next time, as they should.
Until then, I guess I’ll have to wait until VI’s modding tools come around to rectify this.