Disentangling Science and Technology

Science is a fairly significant element in strategy games. Some, like Civilization, even feature a “Science Victory” as one means of winning, making science not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. In pretty much any game with a central tech tree mechanic, investing in science is a fairly solid strategy. Building labs, libraries, and universities earns you those precious research points that mean bigger guns, healthier cities, and faster ships in the future.

This formulation of science and technology is probably familiar to not just avid Civ players, but to most people in the Western world. Science makes new discoveries which enable new technological wonders. Science puts a man on the moon and the rest of us get LEDs, freeze-dried ice cream, and Tang. Technology is just applied science.

The icon for the Rocketry technology in Civilization VI.
Rocketry in Civ VI allows you to research satellites and guidance systems, but not powdered drinks.

Historically, however, science and technology have almost never worked that way. Furthermore, the idea of technology as applied science is not just a neutral position that grew out of a cultural misunderstanding. Rather, it has been a deliberate rhetorical strategy on the part of interested groups.

First off, the model of technology as applied science is a fairly recent concept, only going back to the 20th century. The term “applied science” encapsulates two earlier terms, the “mechanical arts” and the “useful arts” (Kline, 1995). Both of these referred to the knowledge and practices of material culture. It was practical knowledge that was grounded in the work of skilled craftsmen.

This rebranding as applied science occurred at roughly the same time that engineering was emerging as a profession. The term was championed by engineers from schools like Stevens Institute of Technology, Cornell University, and MIT who were actively campaigning to elevate the social status of their new profession as one based in science, rather than a trade or craft (Kline, 1995).

While the definitions of both technology and science have historically shifted back and forth, they have never been the same thing. As Rudi Volti (1995) notes in his book, Society and Technological Change, throughout much of recorded history, science and technology have had an almost inverse relationship. He gives the example of Greek science, which made huge advances in fields like mathematics and astronomy, yet had very little on their technological developments, which were far less significant. The Romans, on the other hand, made few scientific achievements, yet achieved remarkable advances in technology and engineering. Similar patterns can be seen in other historical settings, such as comparing the European Middle Ages and the Enlightenment.

This conflation of science and technology is pervasive in modern society and can be seen throughout the Civilization series. In order to acquire a new technology, the player must accumulate research or “science points,” represented by beakers or light bulbs. Science is generated from universities, laboratories, and, of course, from scientists.

A screenshot from Sid Meier's Civilization, showing the Russian discovery of Masonry.
Russian wise men discover Masonry in Sid Meier’s Civilization, a process which apparently involved scrolls and geometric shapes.

This leads to some slightly odd situations. For example, in the original Sid Meier’s Civilization, once your civilization has accumulated enough science points to learn masonry, it is presented to you on a pristine, sterile marble patio overlooking the sea. You are informed that your “wise men have discovered the secret of Masonry” as a man in a toga, presumably one of the “wise men” (who looks suspiciously like Sid Meier), gestures to a picture of bricks and a trowel.

The notion of a nation’s wise men wandering about this ancient analog to the modern sterile laboratory is a bit far-fetched in general, but the idea of the first clay bricks and mortar being developed in one such anachronistic marble lab is a particularly absurd scene to try and picture. In fact, it seems rather odd that any of the game’s methods of acquiring science would be particularity useful in this regard. Building libraries or pulling your citizens out of the field to work as scientists in the city are both effective strategies for producing the beakers necessary to acquire a technology like masonry, but diegetically, this seems like it should be counter productive. If anything, it seems like the best way to discover masonry would be to send more of your citizens out to the quarries and farms to live and work and build in the material world. While the idea that technological advance is fueled by the output of scientific research significantly boosted the prestige of engineering, allowing it to be seen as a professional field rather than a mere craft, this model begins to break down when we take a broader historical look at technology.

Of course, the engineers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries weren’t the only interested group that promoted the “applied science” model for political purposes. In an ironic twist, scientists, who had generally opposed engineers trying to ride their coattails, would play an instrumental role in further blurring the line between the two disciplines. Vannevar Bush, who headed the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II, had to contend with the British and American Military’s lack of respect toward engineers. In a report titled Science, the Endless Frontier, Bush attempted to overcome this lack of respect by referring to all OSRD members as “scientists,” regardless of their role in the organization. Much to his dismay, this report had a much more far-reaching impact than merely securing wartime funding. Instead, it cemented the assembly line “science in, technology out” model of technological change, which would go unquestioned by the military-industrial complex for years to come (Kline, 1995).

A portion of the Tech Tree from Civilization VI.
The Tech Tree in most Civilization games closely follows the assembly line model, with each technology requiring a certain amount of “science” in order to be discovered.

This model, of course, forms the backbone of the tech tree mechanic, both in the Civilization games and the countless others that draw inspiration from them. Libraries, laboratories, and universities generate abstract scientific research which is then cashed in for advances like ironworking, computers, writing, and philosophy. It should, perhaps, be no surprise that the rhetorical maneuvers that Vannevar Bush made in the 1940s would reverberate all the way into the Civilization series nearly half a century later. As Meier himself has noted, the original Civilization drew most of its historical information not from deep research, but from generally accepted cultural knowledge.

These arguments for a specific understanding of “technology” as a concept are deeply embedded in the Civilization series. They are quite easily seen in the games’ textual rhetoric, which can be seen in places like the Civiliopedia, as well as in the visual rhetoric, as in the above example of masonry in Civ 1. It’s possible, however, to gain even greater insight into the influence of these ideas by looking into the game’s code. An interesting example can be seen in Civilization II in a file called RULES.TXT.

As with other games in the 1990s like Doom (Christiansen, 2012), Civilization II was designed with modders in mind. In order to make it easier to modify the game and create new scenarios, the developers placed many of the basic rules of the game world into a single text file. By altering this file along with a few image files, modders could easily create new units, change how governments worked, or tweak the AI’s personality traits. It also has a section detailing the rules for technologies.

An excerpt from the file RULES.TXT
An excerpt from RULES.TXT

Unlike the XML files used in later games, RULES.TXT is a huge list of values that aren’t labeled but are instead interpreted by the game based on their order in the file. Each row contains the name of the civilization advance, followed by six variables, Ai Value, Civilized Modifier, Preq1, Preq2, Epoch, and Category. The final column is merely a note for modders to tell them how each technology is referenced by the program so that they can reference them elsewhere.

In this section of the file, the impact of the rhetorical struggle over the concept of technology can be seen. The sixth value in each row, the Category variable, classifies the technology according to the category of knowledge it represents, such as applied or academic knowledge. The game breaks down these categories even further, creating five categories: Military, economic, social, academic, and applied. Thus, not only is Vannevar Bush’s applied and military science pulled into this model of technological change but so are social structures as diverse as monotheistic religion and the development of labor unions.

One of the interesting things about the Category variable is that although it is one of the fundamental pieces of data that defines a technology, alongside other information like the prerequisite technologies that tie it into the tech tree itself, it has little actual function in the game. A technology’s Category indicates which icon is used when representing the technology in a menu and little else. For other icons in the game, such as those that represent a city improvement like a library or factory, the appropriate graphic is hard-coded into the game, rather than read from the rules file (requiring modders to alter the actual graphics file in order to make a change). The technology icons could have easily been done this way. For the developers, however, the designation of a technology as being academic or applied was a fundamental attribute, just like its place on the tech tree.

Though largely superfluous from a functional standpoint, it gives us an insight into the way in which the developers understood the concept of technology. The field of critical code studies refers to this as extra-functional significance, a topic that Mark Sample has discussed here on Play the Past in greater detail.

It’s also interesting to note that while the concept of technology encompasses a wide range of diverse knowledge, the concept of science remains surprisingly generic. Whereas a technology might be academic or applied, civilized or uncivilized, science is science, no matter if it is produced by the local library, a research lab, or by Charles Darwin returning from a successful voyage.

While the conflation of science and technology could be considered a problem simply because it’s historically inaccurate (which is a fairly compelling reason for modders and other dedicated Civ fans), it’s also limiting from a design perspective. With the tight, causal relationship between science and technology in the Civilization series, it’s impossible to model technologies like Damascus steel, which was developed and subsequently lost long before the corresponding science was able to explain how it worked.

Of course, to say that science and technology do not have a direct causal relationship is not to say that they are completely unrelated. As I will discuss later on, the relationship between the two can be complicated and has changed significantly between different periods.


Peter Christiansen. (2012). Between a Mod and a Hard Place. Game Mods: Design, Theory, and Criticism.
Ronald Kline. (1995). Construing “Technology” as “Applied Science”: Public Rhetoric of Scientists and Engineers in the United States. Isis.
Rudi Volti. (1995). Society and Technological Change.

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