Pottery’s role in society through the lens of video games
This is the first guest post on this blog about the role of clay in society and culture. This guest post examines the role of clay in video games and it's written by Christian Burtchen. He's a lead front-end engineer and the former senior editor of PC Games, and he also happens to be the person I am married to. I hope you enjoy. Subscribe to the blog and the newsletter to get the news first.
The line between media and society has an arrow on both ends: a society’s cultural artefacts reflect its relationships, power structures, attitudes and so forth. Likewise, the media consumption in said society shapes, if subtly, its understanding of society, of culture, of history. It seems thus only fitting to ask: how are video games portraying potters and its role in (our) society?
Note: Even if this analysis were to be limited to only the most significant games that simulate broad cultural interactions, there’d be well over 40 titles to cover. As this analysis should fit within the consumption window of one (hand-thrown) cup of tea, let us instead focus on some tentpole franchises and their big pictures.
The Civilization series, on the market since 1991 with more than 40 million copies sold, allows the player to build up an entire civilization, starting from a meagre field in pre-historic times and going all the way to becoming a global empire that launches rockets into space. One of its core elements: technology trees, in which researching a specific technology will unlock buildings, civil or military units, improvements and further technologies. It is a common way for many games to envision progression.
The Civilization 5 tech (image source) tree showing Agriculture as the root technology (this is different in other Civilization games) leading to Pottery and other technologies. Pottery then leads to sailing to more advancements.
How does pottery fare within the constraints of this model? The franchise’s six games all include it as a technology, and in every single one of them it’s a requirement for the building granary, which makes it possible to grow populations much more cheaply – a reflection of the boon that is safe food storage. Additionally, in most of the titles pottery also enables other technologies – usually including writing, which is a good reflection of the importance of clay (especially in the absence of paper) for human progress. Other unlocked technologies include seafaring, metal casting or irrigation. Finally, pottery itself usually does not depend on other technologies to be researched first, only two of the six games have a prerequisite like agriculture. This is a good reflection of the simplicity of working with, well, mud.
It seems like the Civilization series captures pottery well as a basic technology in both meanings of the word: it’s fairly simple and easy to attain, but also quite fundamental to expand a society’s progress further. How do other games with a smaller timely and spatial scope handle pottery? That’s a, pun fully intended, much muddier picture.
City-Building and Business Simulation Games
As the name suggests, city-building games concentrate on constructing a specific place, usually growing it all the way from a few huts next to the village center all the way to a sprawling metropolis boosting a rich local economy and exquisite housing. This growth is achieved by ensuring citizens needs are met – starting with water and maybe one religious building and, oh, food, all the way to multiple forms of entertainment and luxury goods.
Where does pottery fit in there? It depends on the time period portrayed. Games dominantly set in Ancient times almost universally feature pottery – whether it’s about ye olde Romans, Egyptian Pharaonic societies or Chinese kingdoms. Only one of the more prominent games – Zeus, set in Ancient Greece – omits pottery altogether. All other titles usually incorporate the need for pottery as a fairly basic good, set somewhere above basic religious access. Some later titles even refine this to adding a need for potted sculptures for elite housing or add multiple production chains where clay ends up being used for both pottery, writing and bricks.
An industrial section in Emperor - the domed building in the bottom center-left is a kiln, and just across the street we see some ceramics in the warehouse
Emperor, the historically last of these games ends in 1234 AD with the fall of the Jin dynasty – and this also marks the end of pottery’s prominent role in city-building games. All of the prominent medieval to industrial times city-builders simply omit pottery. The long running Anno/A.D. series (5 games set between 1404 and 1800) features the most inventive products the digital citizens need, from perfume to champagne, from jade to phonographs, from silk to… you get the gist. But nobody seems to need pottery, clay is only occasionally used as a building material. The same is true for the other prominent European medieval-ish building series: The Settlers franchise has nine games under their belt, all without pottery, two with clay as a building material.
Why this pottery erasure? One possible argument: after, roughly speaking, the fall of the Roman Empire and the decline of resources and population in many areas, pottery became a much more private affair that everybody did, but on a smaller, less industrial level. Therefore, it is less prominent in our understanding of later periods of time, and therefore it never made on the list for included products in any of these games whose aim is to replicate an interesting medieval atmosphere that matches our understanding of these times with the ambition of economic expansion.
There is, however, one bright spot: games that center more around trade and business aspects, often with some construction or other mechanics such as politics or family planning attached. In most of the games with Europe as the main place – The Guild and The Patrician series –, ceramics or pottery are tradable goods. And in Port Royale, a series set around trade in the newly colonized Americas (the criticism the Anno series has faced about its treatment of colonialism applies here even more), ceramics are present as a tradeable good in every single instalment.
Why this difference? A plausible explanation is that if a game is focused on tradeable goods as opposed to personal needs (which include goods), the list necessarily becomes longer as “individual” goods would still be included here. Both sub-genres blur the line a bit here – pottery was not a main trade good on par with leather and pelts. But also, it seems unrealistic that not a single public marketplace in any medieval-ish city-building game would have any ceramics!
One final note in this section: Pottery is practically completely absent in any game of either sub-genre set in contemporary times. Cities: Skylines, SimCity, Capitalism, Industry Giant – all come without ceramic workshops, though the digital residents in the games might still find ceramics in the department stores or furniture outlets. At least the people, well, simulator The Sims allows your on-screen alter ego to pick up pottery as a hobby.
Pottery is a core cultural technology humanity needed to master for its ascension, and its portrayal in video games seems to reflect that accordingly. The genre-defining Civilization series treats it differently over time, but clearly signifies importance as a steppingstone for further achievements. City-building games set in Ancient history pay due respect to its importance as a tool for basic human comfort in an evolving society. However, games set less than 900 years ago give pottery a far smaller role, apart from trade-focused games during the Medieval times.What do these editorial choices suggest? That by and large pottery is seen as a rudimentary technology in both the bad and the good meaning. In today’s economy and society: not that prominent, not that significant. But when it comes to historical settings, all designers, sipping their morning coffee through a ceramic mug, agreed: pottery is fundamentally linked to the cradle of humanity.