The need to explain why we've left Earth in search of other planets puts the game's developer, Firaxis, in an unusual position. Instead of relying on the well-worn milestones of history to inform the player's experience — discovering gravity, for example, or building the atom bomb — the designers have had to dream up an entirely new backstory. Though you won't find this story explicitly told in the game itself, it's based on a reading of modern geopolitics that extrapolates decades and even centuries into the future. How plausible is this lore? Well, since there's nothing more fun than analyzing a fictional universe as though it's real life, I thought I'd take a closer look using our modern-day understanding of history, political science and technology.
The short version of Firaxis' prelude goes like this: In about 2064, 50 years from now, there occurs what humanity will eventually call The Great Mistake. It begins with a nuclear dirty bomb attack in Chengdu, China. This leads to a nuclear tit-for-tat that pulls in everyone from Iran to Pakistan to North Korea; the irradiation of the Middle East forces refugees into northern Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia, ruining these regions' economies. Meanwhile, the nuclear war accelerates climate change in a way that sea levels rise by 20 feet or more, wiping out low-lying coastal areas and worsening the global humanitarian crisis. Wealthy countries withdraw from world affairs, global trade effectively grinds to a halt, and for 400 years the world is in a new informational Dark Age where nobody's really talking to one another. By the time you start the game, nobody really remembers what The Great Mistake actually was anymore — it's become more of a mythology at this point.
"It's a multigenerational game of 'Telephone,'" said David McDonough, one of the game's lead designers, at a conference in Maryland this summer.
McDonough and his partner in geostrategic crime, Will Miller, say this narrative is deliberately based on "who people presently are and what they're presently doing" as a way to connect players to a future world that might otherwise appear completely foreign or random. But they also welcome alternative interpretations of what happened during The Great Mistake. So, with apologies to Firaxis — here goes.
First, what Miller and McDonough get right: The disappearance of today's wealthy countries. By the time you start the game, Britain and Scandinavia have fallen silent — they're not mentioned anywhere. The United States still exists, but the government isn't sending people to space. Instead it's a corporation, kind of like a latter-day Space X. It's hard to imagine the United States not weighing in on a full-scale nuclear war happening halfway around the world, but a quick glance at the political deadlock in Washington these days and suddenly paralysis seems a bit more plausible. Meanwhile, as climate change progresses in this universe, it makes sense that countries like the United States would be focused on managing drought and other consequences — a costly enterprise, but one that rich governments are equipped to handle if they put their minds to it. Faced with rising sea levels, no doubt Britain and Japan would also be turning inward.
The withdrawal of today's most powerful countries is also consistent with political theories connecting global economic welfare to the existence of a single hegemon, a country that "leads" the world. For much of the 19th century, that was Great Britain. Likewise in the 20th, it was the United States. The political scientist Stephen Krasner points out that the world can largely thank Britain, which got slammed by the First World War and the European depression of the 1870s, for turning inward and failing to keep the world economic order at the time from splintering. It wasn't until the United States "assume[d] the mantle of world leadership" that international trade began opening up in earnest once more.
It's unclear in Firaxis' story whether the violence in Asia is a result of the United States' withdrawal from the world stage, or its cause. But here's where the story starts to go off the rails a bit. The dirty bomb in Chengdu leads China to point the finger at Iran. This poses some clear challenges. First, could China credibly trace the bomb back to the Iranian government? Possibly. Nuclear forensics is a real, decades-old science. But proving that it was Tehran, and not some third-party group, would be difficult, because the forensic process doesn't do much more than tell you where a bomb came from. Second, China could also have political motivations for blaming Iran regardless of whether Iran was really behind the attack.
Indeed, Firaxis reveals that China and Iran have been locked in a cold war over Afghanistan's considerable resources for years. In this light, China might plausibly make Iran the scapegoat for the dirty bomb attack. But there are other factors in play, according to Adam Segal, a China scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"The Chinese would probably be most worried about a Sunni [Islamic] country as opposed to a Shia [Islamic] country," said Segal, "because of the Uighurs."
China is also investing commercially in resources, so it's not clear why it would resort to force at all, much less nuclear force; Beijing has a stated no-first-use doctrine, meaning it won't strike with nuclear weapons unless it's nuked first. (Perhaps a dirty bomb would not be covered by that commitment.)
In any case, China hits the provisional Iranian regime in Afghanistan with small, tactical nuclear missiles, and invades Afghanistan with ground troops, Firaxis supposes. Pakistan then sides with Iran and uses its air force against Chinese soldiers in Afghanistan. China lobs a few tactical nukes into Pakistan in response, and Pakistan fires medium-range ballistic missiles at China from a "hitherto unknown" submarine hiding in the Bering Strait. That prompts China to literally go ballistic, launching nukes at Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan "and North Korea, for good measure," according to McDonough.
There's a lot more of the politics we could get into — like how crazy it is that China would attack its ally, North Korea, or that India somehow sits idly by while the bombs are falling. Also crazy: India and Pakistan put the past aside and become allies! But let's move on.
Here's where it gets really weird. Most scientists who've studied the possible effects of a nuclear war say that the dust clouds thrown up by the explosions would block out the sun and cause global temperatures to fall. According to NASA, the first three years after such a war would lead Earth's temperatures to drop by 1º Celsius. By comparison, climate scientists are trying to keep the world from warming more than 2º C to avoid the worst of climate change.
Ironically, Firaxis theorizes that a nuclear war in Asia would cause global warming to accelerate, leaving the poles without ice for half the year and flooding three-quarters of India and other coastal areas. This is by far the biggest leap the game developers make, although a spokeswoman for Firaxis claims the nuclear exchange that started The Great Mistake "wasn't big enough to trigger a nuclear winter" and simply exacerbated the worst parts of climate change. I can live with that explanation, I suppose.
What could actually happen?
What do I think happened in The Great Mistake? Where Firaxis views climate change as the slow, long-term thing that simply makes an immediate problem worse, I would probably flip it. After all, the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review identifies climate change as a precipitating factor for an array of future problems.
Climate change can "aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence," the report reads.
One new battleground will likely be the Arctic, where melting sea ice is opening up access to new resources and valuable shipping lanes. It's not hard to imagine a confrontation up there that happens by mistake, leading to a wider destabilization in political relationships and an expanding interest in confronting international rivals elsewhere around the globe. While a nuclear exchange seems unlikely, the resources it takes to slog through this new cold war could wind up becoming a drain on national economies and rejiggering the distribution of power among states. In seeking an edge over their rivals, maybe some countries abandon the international norm against militarizing outer space and trigger a space race of new proportions as countries race to control crucial Lagrange points — places in orbit where gravitational forces cancel each other out, providing the perfect location to put an orbital weapons platform, factory, or space-exploration station. Being able to control these points, according to the astropolitical scholar Everett Dolman, would give a country control over the entire solar system — and beyond.
Of course, if we're drawing up a fictional future, there's nothing like a game of Civilization to help us model it. One user on reddit has famously been playing the same game of Civilization II for 12 years running. Far surpassing the late-game stages of the game, he's now in the very distant future. Here's what that looks like in the game:
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. The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn't a mountain is inundated swamp land, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway. … Only 3 super massive nations are left. The Celts (me), The Vikings, And the Americans. … The three remaining nations have been locked in an eternal death struggle for almost 2,000 years. Peace seems to be impossible. Every time a cease fire is signed, the Vikings will surprise attack me or the Americans the very next turn, often with nuclear weapons.
I tried to reach the redditor to find out how things are going, but I got no reply. Maybe they've left that wasteland behind for greener pastures on another planet. With Beyond Earth.
If you're interested in watching the panel where Firaxis lays out its backstory, watch the video below.