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Why ‘Civilization’ is a political masterpiece Sid Meier's creation invites us to think about how the world works — and warns it could be a lot worse

September 10, 2020   4 mins

You know the memes. “Want to feel old?” they say. And before you have the chance to say “No thank you very much: actually I’m happy just feeling sort of early-middle-aged…” they drop the bomb. Macaulay Culkin has his bus pass. The historical distance between the Spice Girls’s first single and the sinking of the Titanic is less than between “Wannabe” and the present day, or what have you. This week, it was the realisation that the computer game Civilization (or “Civ”, as anyone who has ever played it calls it) is 29 years old this week.

Well, happy birthday Civ. Mind you, Civilization is, by some metrics, older than civilisation. In the preface to Sid Meier’s new book Sid Meier’s Memoir!, the game’s creator notes that player data from the online gaming platform Steam shows that between 2010 and 2016 gamers spent a billion hours playing Civilization V (only one game in a series that spans 12 editions). A billion hours ago, he notes by way of giving the figure some perspective, neanderthals were making spearheads in the Stone Age. Or, as it would appear in the game, unlocking a new technology.

In Civ terms, 29 years is a blip, but — call me sentimental — I think its birthday deserves celebrating. One of the great things about Civ was that, rather than fannying around with barrel-throwing apes or bleeping space-aliens, it asked its players to contemplate human life itself. It asked us — in however schematic a way — to think about us: that is, about politics, economics, science, ideology, war, and about the way in which these things interact and mingle through history.

Here was a game that, starting round 4000BC, plonked a handful of nomadic hunter-gatherer types in the middle of a map. All around them was fog and mystery. And you, the player, in loco dei, told them what to do. They’d found a city. They’d tentatively explore the surrounding terrain. They’d raise armies, develop primitive and then more sophisticated technologies, build ports and cultivate crops, and encounter neighbouring tribes with whom they’d negotiate, trade and sometimes go to war.

It was the full package. You won the game, finally, by taking over the world or escaping it — but there were many different routes to those ends. Perhaps you developed the tech to send colonists to Alpha Centauri. Perhaps you established a global free-trading network and dominated through soft power and diplomacy in the United Nations. Or perhaps you went full Alexander the Great and wiped out all the rival civilisations on the map, weeping, finally, because there were no more worlds to conquer — at least until the release of the next expansion pack.

And that, I think, is the key to its appeal. It offers the idea that there are parameters and trade-offs in the way civilisations develop; that you can establish vicious and virtuous circles as you manage limited resources. It lets you tinker with those parameters — just as governments tinker with those parameters in the real world. Will state aid to tech firms help you “level up” the regions? Is it better to be bound to your neighbours by treaties and trade, or to go your own way? These are the sorts of questions that Civ asks you to consider. (And in Civ, you don’t condemn hundreds of thousands of real people to destitution if you fuck it up.)

To those who think videogames have nothing to teach us, Civ and games like it are a standing reproach. There is a moment in Steven Johnson’s influential book about pop culture, Everything Bad Is Good For You, for example, where the author describes watching his seven-year-old nephew playing SimCity. The boy says offhandedly: “I think we need to lower our industrial tax rates.” Here, God help us, is a budding Chicago School economist not yet out of short trousers.

The game proved irresistibly addictive. We could measure its success not only in hours played but in starker and more dismaying statistics such as the number of PhDs deferred or grades slipped at A-level, the number of marriages soured and hours of sleep lost to people playing just a few more turns until, say, they’d seen off Genghis Khan or got the Pyramids built.

Of course, the model of history in Civ is very far from precise. The basic architecture of the original game was, as Meier puts it, “a reasonably clear progression through anarchy, despotism, monarchy, communism, republic, and finally democracy”. Anthropologists and historians would tend to have quibbled with that even back in the early 90s with Fukuyama in his pomp; let alone amid our current global trolley-dash towards despotism and autarchy. And religion as a mechanism of social control (and its opposite) didn’t make its debut until Civ IV — a couple of years after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

The need for it to be an enjoyable videogame also required certain other, sometimes drastic, simplifications. As Meyer says in his memoir, they toyed with undermining the set-up’s basically Whiggish teleology by including a mechanic that modelled the cyclical rise and fall of empires, but “the moment the Krakatoa volcano blew up, or the bubonic plague came marching through, all anyone wanted to do was reload from a saved game”. So it goes.

But the point was that Civ wasn’t claiming to model the history that actually happened — it was inviting you to create your own, and in the process to think about the sorts of thing that determine how  history goes. As Meyer writes: “It didn’t matter […] that gunpowder was originally developed for medicinal purposes in China — what mattered is that you, as a civilization, could have discovered it any time after the perfection of iron smelting. You were rewriting history, not reliving it.”

And sometimes, the history it modelled was exquisitely resonant. The average game of Civ II, for instance, was supposed to last about 10 hours — but one player called James Moore, his game having arrived at a three-way state of aggressive equilibrium between the Celts, the Vikings and the Americans, kept playing for 10 years.

In the game, as Meier describes it, the three civilisations were “continuously pelting each-other with nuclear warheads while never losing or gaining substantial ground”…”centuries of conflict killed 90% of the population, and nuclear fallout melted the polar ice-caps more than twenty times […] After 1,700 years of nonstop thermonuclear bombing, the rising oceans in James’s world had covered all but the highest mountain regions with swamps.”

So not only does Civ encourage us to think about the way the world really wags — and, gently, to suggest that relations between sister nations need not be a zero-sum game. It also tells us, or warns us, that things could be an awful lot worse. Here’s to it.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.

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Geoff Cox
Geoff Cox
3 years ago

As someone who has spent more hours than I care to admit playing Civ, I think I can safely say this article is somewhat inflating the claims for the game! Yes, you research pottery and steam power and electricity and you have to decide on you civilisation’s political structure etc, but really Civ is no more than a complicated game of sudoku which, once you have played for hours and hours and hours, you can pick through to victory with your favourite well worn stategy. At the most difficult levels, you really have few options open to you as the route to victory becomes more subscribed by all the things that lead to defeat. But it is addictive and (especially Civ 5) beautiful to look at. 10/10 for Sid Meier for creating a great series, but other more sophisticated claims for the game are not proven.