Playing with World Religion: What Religion Means in Civ IV

Civ IV was the first, and at the moment, also the last of the Civilization games to include religion as a component in the games model of history. I imagine that the developers have always found themselves in a tricky spot. Clearly Religions have played a critical role in world history. With that said, how on earth could anyone come up with a simulated model of religions role in world history that would even remotely please the deeply conflicted ideas about religion in contemporary society? Even further, as Civilization provides a fundamentally materialist vision of history could Firaxis get away with a materialist interpretation of world religion?

How Religion Works in Civ IV

Under the heading of “Religion in this Game” the manual for Civ IV includes the following comments about religion. It is worth noting that this is really the only such disclaimer in the manual.

We know that people have extremely strong opinions about religions – in fact, many a war has arisen when these beliefs collide. We at Firaxis have no desire to offend anyone. However, given the importance that religions have had in human development, we didn’t want to simply leave them out of the game altogether; instead we have tried to handle them in as respectful, fair and even-handed manner as possible. In fact, all religions in the game have the same effects, the only difference being their requirements.

There are seven religions in Civilization IV (testing having determined that seven was the optimal number for gameplay). When determining which seven to include, we picked those religions that we thought would be most familiar to our audience. We do not mean to imply that these religions are more important, better or worse than any other religions.

We offer no value judgments on religion; we mean no disrespect to anyone’s beliefs. We’re game designers, not theologians.

I see the key take away from this as follows. In an effort to not offend, the developers made religions each functionally identical. I think this decision has interesting implications. You can read up on the rest of how religion works in the game in this copy of the manual.

Eight World Religions: Each Functionally Identical

To found a world religion a player needs to be the first to discover a particular technological advance. So, if you discover meditation first you get Buddhism, polytheism you get Hinduism, monotheism you get Judaism, theology gives you Christianity, code of laws gives you Confucianism, philosophy gets Taoism and divine rights gives you Islam. While the discovery of individual religions is tied to particular technological advances, the actual content of the world religions is empty. Each religion functions exactly the same.

In Civ 4 the only difference between religions is that people with different religions don’t really like eachother. As the disclaimer above explains, the devs did this in an effort to skirt controversy. While they did not have a problem with modeling all kinds of other differences between different forms of governments or ascribing different advantages to different leaders of world Civilizations (ex, Montezuma and Napoleon are Aggressive and and Kublai Khan and Louis XIV are Creative) they did not want to get into giving some kind of religion specific bonuses. One could imagine all kinds of problematic stereotypes about Christians being “hard working” and getting productivity bonuses or Confusianism giving some bonuses to creating an ordered and structured society. In any event, the result is that religions in Civ 4 are actually void of any kind of content.

Empty Religions are Filled Via State Stance on Religion

As a result of the content void nature of religion in Civ 4 the game ends up effectively suggesting that doctrine is irrelevant to the course of history. In the game religions are simply tools that states use to manipulate world politics and generate vast amounts of revenue. For each religion a player can use a holy person to construct a special world wonder, religion specific temple, that provides the player with extra gold for each city in the world (either in their domain or in any other player’s) which has citizens who practice the given religion. The religions are potent tools for political control, for generating money, and the various religious buildings offer bonuses to culture. However, each religion does this in exactly the same way.

Civ 4 models most of the core features of religion through civics. Civics allow players to choose their state stance on religion. Over the course of the game players can change into different civics, in the religious context states start in paganism, can chose to move to organized religion, theocracy, pacifism. I have provided a full chart of the specific civics, their upkeep costs, their effects on society and the technologies that they result from. I would suggest taking a minute to review the cells in the table below, each of the claims about the expense, effects and the requisite technologies makes interesting claims about the relationship between the social, economic and political components of religion in society.

Altogether, this matrix of religious civics can serve as an interesting text for picking a apart what Civ says about religion. Theology is a pre-requisite for theocracy. Running an organized religion is expensive. Pacifism is cheap but it then becomes expensive to keep around a standing army. We can think about what these kinds of claims mean just based off the documentation of the game. But going beyond this, when we look at player strategies online, we find the way that these features of religious civics and the way religion works in the game more broadly, become part of explicit emergent strategies which themselves make claims about religion in society.

How Players Use Religion in Civ IV

In this section I will present a few snippets from online discussion of game strategy. In each case, they help us unpack what religion means in the game.

you can spread your state religion to your rivals and spy on them— exceedingly useful through most of the game. Plus you can use Organized Religion— and I don’t fall in love easily, but I love this civic, which lets you build buildings 25% faster. And the religion’s special building gives you money for each city with the religion, which can be a tasty bit of income. From How to Do Better At Civ IV Than You Probably Are

In this case, religion is a political tool to spy on your enemies. Beyond that, the player feels that the organized religion civic is worth the cost of its upkeep in that it lets them build buildings 25% faster. The player then ends by noting that the money provided by the religions special buildings is a “tasty bit of income.” Throughout the comments, it is clear that the game has operationalized a set of political, economic and social benefits of religion which this player has mobilized into a particular strategy.

Another player asks, “So, what are the advantages of becoming a religions founder?” and responds by explaining the value of the extra income that building a holy shrine can generate.

Money income from religion is a really nice addition to your budget – and sometimes can make it possible to play the entire game on 100% science. The line of sight is also very useful – giving you the information about city garrison, level of advancement of particular civilizations and information about military forces’ movements. From Civ 4 Game Guide: Religion 

In the end of the statement, we see the same point from the other post, the value that religious converts in other cities serve as spys in other cities. In the beginning of the post, the player draws attention to the value of the income that the shrine can generate. What is particularly interesting in this case is what the player wants to spend their money on. As a result of gathering this extra income the player notes that it is possible to play the whole game at 100% science. That means by the player would be devoting 100% of their tax revenue to generate science points. To unpack this, the player was able to deeply invest in science because of the substantial amounts of money collected by the church.

What is interesting in this case is that there is clearly an emergent meaning that ways of playing the game create. The game models the holy shrines as massive money generators for the state, but the game invites the player to use that money generating power for any of the things the game lets the player invest money in. Players can use that money to buy a bigger military to defend themselves or to conquer other nations. Players can invest that money in science and buy libraries, which they can in turn use to generate technological advances to defeat their enemies or use to help them create their Utopia. The emergent experience of religion in the game is very complex and much more difficult to characterize.

How I Played Religion in Civ IV

Isabella of Spain Urging you to Change your State Religion

I tend to play Civilization games on the middle of the road difficulty level. In these cases it is relatively easy to beat out other players to get to technologies first. I am not a religious person, but whenever I play Civ 4 I always end up trying to pick up all of the religions. I would then frequently try to get everyone in the world to adopt one of my early religions by heavily sending out missionaries. If I could get it I would generally push Buddhism. While the individual religions have no distinctions between them my personal proclivities for the four noble truths and the eightfold path play a role in the game I wanted to play. For the most part, I try to play the cultural and science side of these games over the conquer the world side. At least, that is the mode of playing the games that I default into.

I provide this personal story as a contrast to the stories from the strategy discussions to illustrate that playing the game at different difficulty levels ends up changing what religion can mean in the game. On lower difficulty levels it is possible to pick up all of the religions and broker how religion works in the world.

What Religion Means in Civ 4

Ultimately, what can we say about what religion means in Civ 4. I think each of the contexts I have described, simply describing the rules of the game evident in play or in the manual offers one perspective on the game, looking at the strategies players use provides another, and reflecting on personal experience provides a third.

The games rules largely define religions as content neutral things that states use to manipulate politics. The games rules place nearly all of the values and implications on religion in the individual civic stances. Thus, any religion could be pacifist and any religion could be a theocracy. These rules alone are ripe for comment and analysis, but they are not the whole picture.

The descriptions of strategies that gamers employ illustrate how the play of the game generates emergent relationships between the rules in the game about religion and other rules. These descriptions also highlight the extent to which an individual player’s personal preference comes into play in the actual meaning made from a game play experience. One of those players loved organized religion for the 25% speed increase on buildings; they were willing to pay the high upkeep costs to realize that benefit. The other loved getting the holy shrine so that they could invest deeply in science. In these cases the possibility space of Civilization is wide open enough to afford very different experiences, and very different meaning, for religion to different players.

My personal reflections illustrate the extent to which something like difficulty levels can change what a game means. It is important to remember that guides for games are written by particular kinds of gammers, in this case these gammers references to the difficulty of getting a world religion underscores the fact that they were likely playing the game on higher difficulty levels. This has two layers of relevance, first it suggests that part of understanding what any particular subject means in a given game is about also understanding how things like difficulty levels effect the interaction between the rules in player experience. Beyond this, the differences between my experience and the experiences of the gamers who posted guides to the game points toward the fact that, in any situation, there are going to be kinds of players that play games in specific ways who are also the kinds of gamers who write guides, while there will also be players who play games in different ways who aren’t the kinds of folks that write guides. This means that guides and walkthroughs are indeed great ways to understand how some players interpret games, but that they are also likely to carry a particular perspective on the lived experience of any given game.

So what does religion mean in Civ 4? The easy answer is “it’s complicated.” Working through these different approaches, studying the rules, looking at how people tell other people to play, and personal reflection each surface different parts of the game and each offer potential evidence to be used to interpret the meaning of religion in the game. In any event, I think the example of modeling religion in the game is a fascinating case to work through how the game operationalizes models of the past. What do you make of their model? How would you go about modeling the history of religion in this kind of game?


  1. Great post, Trevor. It’s so interesting to me that Firaxis would feel the need to offer that disclaimer. If you look at other history sim games such as the Total War series (especially Rome and Medieval), religion is a prominent feature of the game and unapologetically a means of conquest. In those games, iirc, religion is linked to happiness. Your population is happiest when there is a homogenous religion in the region, and when a foreign missionary moves in and starts converting people, your population becomes agitated. A priest can then “attack” the other religious leader by burning him at the stake (unfailingly the priests are male), thus restoring religious purity to the region. This representation of religion as spiritual violence strikes me as rather historically accurate in the circumscribed spaces/times of the Total War games, but I wonder what dynamics might be implemented in a longer game. What, for example, might happen as a civilization develops the “technology” of pluralism and religious tolerance? What benefits might accrue to a player whose civilization included those features?

    I’m also curious to know what you think about the role of spirituality in all this. Where religion lends itself to algorithmic representation well (even eschewing concepts such as the “protestant work ethic”), can spirituality be represented in an empire building game? There are certainly games that express a sense of spirituality (Journey), but would quantifying spirituality necessarily reduce it to religion?

    As I think about this a little more, it seems to me the problem of spirituality in an empire building game is the problem of the individual vs. the collective. A person is spiritual where a people are religious. Since Civ and other such games are not interested in the individual, there may be no place for spirituality in empire building games…

    1. Author

      Thanks for sharing a bit of how religion works in the Total War games. I think part of this is that everyone agrees that religions that no longer exist should be described as political instruments, but when you start talking about things people believe in now it becomes a different subject.

      With all this said, Civilization: Call to Power, Activision’s take on the series, had a range of interesting religion components. You could build Clerics and later Televangelists that you would use as kinds of spys and to sap money from other nations.

  2. I really enjoyed your article, Trevor, very thought-provoking! I hadn’t really thought that much abot the message of religion in Civilization IV…I will get thinking about it a bit more.

  3. Great article!

    It’s kind of interesting, although they tried to make religion as even-handed and tolerant as possible, I never played it that way. I was very religious as a kid, so by including religion into the game, it completely changed my approach and attitude to how I played. My goal was completely different than what we were supposed to do – whatever that was! (I was never actually good enough to beat the game) Instead, I played Civilization IV with only one thing in mind – to convert as many people to Christianity as possible! Although there are clear benefits to having as many religions as possible, I never considered that as an option. No heathen religions allowed in my glorious civilization! It was pretty tricky being the first to get Christianity without getting any of the other religions first, but somehow I finagled it. Then I sent out streams and streams of missionaries to save the souls of those poor pagan nations! It’s funny, back in the day when I played Civilization II, I would always take over enemy cities, sparing them from destruction. But in Civilization IV, I would raze them to the ground – since the old ones were tainted by foreign religions! Haha, it’s so politically incorrect in retrospect, but that’s how I played! I guess, although I was painfully religious, I was always too shy to speak about my faith in public, so I must have directed some repressed feelings into that game, haha.

    But there’s another way religion can be used in Civilization!

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