Civilization is one of those games that has been hallowed nearly time out of mind. Sid Meier was, after all, the second person in history to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame. So do I really need to write an article on the series? I don’t know, but I want to. I want to write about Civilization, because I recently played the latest iterations of the game after many years away1 and was struck by the formula’s greatness yet again. I played a lot of Civ II back in the day; enough to know, like anyone else who’s ever touched a Civ game, that the things are seriously addictive. But back when I used to play Civ II I didn’t really give that fact much thought (at least not as much as my parents may have): I just knew that I liked the game, and kept coming back to it. This time around, as “one more turn” syndrome hit me once again with the force of a ton of morphine, it made me think. About games, about addiction, about what’s worth doing in life.
The part where I explain that Civilization is addictive in a serious way (i.e. what you already knew)
We can all laugh about the times we stayed up all night playing Civilization in order to vanquish the Romans or lead the Mongols into space—instead of studying for the chemistry test we had the next morning—but behind the laughter there is, for some of us, a small, pea-sized bit of shame, because that scenario was a little too common; because our chemistry grades were a little too low; because we worry that we’ve wasted our lives away. We wonder where we might be today if we had said no to one more turn, if we had applied ourselves a little bit harder to chemistry and microbiology… aboard the international space station, figuring out a way to get to Alpha Centauri in real life? At Johns Hopkins, discovering the cure for cancer for, you know, real human beings? President of the United States—of America, rather than Magnusonia? I’m sure I’d at least be rich and famous and popular…
Joking aside, check out the case of British sci-fi author Iain Banks, who, in 2006, played Civilization IV for three months straight while supposedly working on his next book: “I became a serial addict,” says Banks, “In the end, I had to delete all the saved files and smash the CD”—not to mention having to explain to his publisher why he needed a good long extension (The Independent, August 2006).
Or we have the creator of the somberly named “Dark Side of the Internet,” who says of Civ IV:
A normal game can take up to 50 hours, usually done in many sittings. I was obsessed with this game. I would sit at home on a Saturday night, instead of going out with friends, and play the game until dawn the next day. Of course, I wouldn’t finish the game and so every spare moment of my time was dedicated to strategizing how I would conquer my enemies. For months on end the cycle continued until my parents had to take away the game from me (The Dark Side of the Internet).
Sid Meier’s Civilization leads this person to condemn all interactive entertainment in one fell swoop, concluding, “The very nature of video games is addicting.”
Take these stories in the context of the media attention video game addiction has gotten in the last couple of years, especially with regard to massively multiplayer online games, and things start to look grim indeed. Only a week ago I learned, for instance, about a website called WoW Detox, “a volunteer-run website aimed at people with a gaming addiction to World of Warcraft.” This website has over forty-five thousand testimonials pertaining to WoW addiction, of which you need to read about three and a half to start getting seriously depressed.
The part where I ask the questions, is it ethical? Is it right? What about the children?
I take this massive tangent into video game addiction because it’s not a tangent at all: it is a serious issue, and it needs to be seriously addressed by anyone promoting video games as something worth spending time on—especially when we’re talking about a game like Civilization, which gave birth to that ubiquitous, sinister phrase, “just one more turn.” We have to ask ourselves, is a game like this ethical? Or beyond that, is it valuable? Should it be played, condoned, promoted?
In the case of Civilization, my answer is an emphatic Yes. It is an emphatic yes, because Civilization is a game about so many things I believe deeply in as a person: at a superficial but not irrelevant level it is about history, mythology, science, philosophy, war and peace, politics and religion, administration and economics; and at a deeper level of intensive engagement it is about thinking and strategizing, problem solving and imagination, multiple solutions, and near-infinite exploration. Actually, the game melds these two layers in a recursive way so that the first level is hardly superficial at all, because of the interplay between presentation and imagination that the game depends on: Civilization is not about “real” history, or “real” mythology, or “real” politics, but it smacks of just enough reality that it ignites the player’s imagination, and spurs them to co-create an alternate, but parallel world to the one they live in. And in co-creating and exploring that alternate world it asks them to ponder very real dimensions of the world that they inhabit.
Who were the Mongols? Why do they start out with knowledge of hunting and the wheel, and why is their unique unit a horse archer? Who invented the wheel anyway? How did people get around before the wheel? How the heck did the ancient Egyptians build the pyramids without the wheel? Speaking of building, where should I build my first city? What natural resources are available around here? Oh look, there’s a river, which could be a huge aid to travel in my early empire. I wonder if there’s an ocean close by, because building some fishing boats could sure help my population growth, now that I’ve discovered fishing. What should I put my scientists to work on next? I want to get to Monarchy so I can establish a more efficient government, but I have to research Monotheism first. Wait a minute, did monotheism really come before monarchy? And regardless, why would you need one for the other? Hm… my explorer just found a native village; should I enter and hope the inhabitants have already discovered Monarchy, and will share the secrets with me? Yeah, right. But maybe they’ll at least give me a hand in the fields, because dang my economy stinks; got to get workers out there to build up my infrastructure. Farms and mines and roads, let’s go. Now if only I can get to Biology soon I’ll be able to irrigate and build farms without adjacent fresh water, and then I’ll be able to exploit that wilderness. Maybe I should be thinking about trade with other civilizations… or about the impact my culture could be having… or about how to deal with the Black Plague that’s just broken out in Darkhan… hey, I remember reading about the Black Plague a while back in some class or other—that’s the one that wiped out half of Europe, isn’t it? And holy heck: Wikipedia says that it’s still around!
The part where I try to define a vague concept about the mind being awake vs. asleep, and talk again about opiates
The key element here is a mind awake. Playing civilization, unlike participating in recreational opiate use, is about being alive. I don’t mean to bash recreational opiate users wholesale, but what I’m talking about here is the reason parents don’t generally want their kids taking drugs (and why some of them don’t want their kids playing video games): “the glassy-eyed stare,” as Chris Crawford calls it. The glassy-eyed stare is indicative of a mind asleep, of a person disconnected. Now sleep is an entirely natural part of life, and so too are vacations and time-outs (and perhaps even opiates), but most of us wouldn’t endorse living that way all the time, or even a large portion of the time. My personal reason for thinking as much is that I believe there is better stuff to be had: that life is worth living; so I pity those who choose (or are in some way forced) to opt-out. Civilization is in no way about opting out: it is about thinking, engaging, imagining and exploring; about advancing, discovering, thriving and conquering.
But wait a minute: the world of Civ is still a virtual construction, right? So aren’t you still opting out of Real Life to go play it? Nothing you do in Civilization is going to impact the outside world… so how is this any better than a game like Bejeweled, or any of the other games on this list?
In some ways it’s not. When it comes to paying the bills, or helping your neighbor, or feeding children in India, playing Civilization isn’t going to do any more good than playing any other game. But neither will reading The Brothers Karamazov or watching Kurosawa’s Ran. And yet I am a firm believer that reading Dostoevsky and watching Kurosawa will enrich a person’s life, and are valuable uses of time.
Why? Because life involves an inner as well as an outer part: living in community, but also understanding oneself; speaking out, but also learning in silence; helping people in need, but also helping oneself become a better person—because of course, without the one, we can’t hope to effectively accomplish the other. 2
This is all to say that, just because doing something doesn’t help cure world hunger—or even have any direct impact on the outside world—doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, if it’s having a positive impact on who you are. Isn’t that what art is about?3 Isn’t that part of what this website is about? Indeed, to quote my own vanity page, in which I quote Roger Ebert: ‘I am interested in the potential for games to make us… “more complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical, and so on.”’
When I say that Civilization is not about copping out, I am not saying that playing it affects The World directly. What I am saying is that it affects the player directly, in a positive way; that it entwines them with ideas and philosophies and perspectives and ways of thinking that are all part of Life Proper. This is why the game stands in contrast to opiates, or games like opiates, which encourage people to “check out” of life, rather than “check in” to it. That is why the mind awake is so important. This issue is not one of representing “real life,” or “real things” (heck, any number of relatively worthless RTS’s or FPS’s could be said to do that), but about engaging the player’s mind in a way that sparks imagination and growth. Civilization is not The Brothers Karamazov or Ran or Shakespeare or Citizen Kane4; but I believe playing it will help you become a more complex, intelligent, strategic, exploratory, imaginative human being.
The part where I absolutely bite off more than I can chew (i.e. where I talk about natural vs. artificial rewards, and unintentionally make WoW players angry)
And that is what differentiates playing an addictive game like Civilization from playing an addictive game like Bejeweled. An important concept, when we’re talking about the value of a process, or a mechanical task, such as playing a game, is the idea of natural vs. artificial rewards—something Jonathan Blow, creator of the hit indie game Braid, has spoken on at length. Compare how I describe the experience of playing Civilization to how Blow talks about World of Warcraft, which he has famously called “unethical”:
One of the things it comes down to is natural rewards versus artificial rewards. Every game has both of those. An artificial reward is a cool-sounding sound effect for when you… I don’t know, Tetris didn’t really have cool sound effects, but imagine that it did — when you filled out four lines, you got a cool, Bejeweled-like particle effect or something like that…. When you play World of Warcraft — and what I’m about to say is a generalization, since different players enjoy different things, obviously — a lot of the appeal of playing World of Warcraft is not in the core gameplay mechanic, because it’s boring, a lot of the time. Sometimes when you’re on a really good raid with a team and you’re getting teamwork going and that’s a close call, that can be exciting, but if you graph out what players are doing over the average 12-hour play session or whatever… if you’re looking at what activities they’re actually performing, there’s not that much good gameplay in there. I think what keeps them in there is, at first, the level ding, because it’s very addictive to get that. “Okay, I’ve got more gold. Whatever.” And eventually, they’ve made this huge time investment and they’ve got a character there and they know what that level ding feels like and the next one is pretty far off, but they can get there! And it’s not any [got to be?] better, because this is like number 67. It’s got to be better than 66! (Gamasutra interviews).
I haven’t actually played WoW, so there’s no way I’m going to sign off on it being a terrible, unethical game. Maybe you’re a WoW fan, and maybe right now you’re thinking of ten reasons why it’s great, and that’s fine. My point in quoting Blow is not to help me explain what WoW is, but rather to help me explain what Civilization is not—namely: built around artificial rewards. I would agree with Blow that artificial rewards are in some sense, at some level, unethical: if you’ve been playing a game for twelve hours, and you’re doing the same thing over and over again just to rack up some numbers that don’t mean anything and hardly even represent anything—your mind’s numb, and you just want to see those numbers go up—then you’ve been had. You may not be intentionally drugging yourself, but you’ve been drugged: you’re addicted, sedated, and full of glassy-eyed stare.5
Feeding the player a nice sound or a shiny coin or a few numbers when they accomplish something in-game—when these things have no relevant bearing on gameplay—is an artificial reward: it’s like trying to nourish someone with air. A focus on these kinds of rewards is (at least part of) what makes unethical games. Those are the games we’re worried about, that we don’t want our kids spending too much time playing, because they’re typically not meaningful, they’re typically not about engagement. Those are the games where, if they’re addictive, and they’ve pervaded our society, we’ve got ourselves a societal-level problem.6
This is not to say that there is no place for artificial rewards in games. As Blow points out, all games have both natural and artificial rewards. The issue is one of balance and scope, and there are no hard lines: only room for discussion. Even games that are completely built around artificial rewards (my example being Bejeweled) have their place, because, as I said earlier, there’s a time for zoning out—as humans, we need that. The issue is how we approach game design (or from the player’s standpoint, game playing) at a global level: if, as an industry, all we’re doing is making games that help players zone out, and we’re making those games addictive because we want to keep our player base, because we want to make money, then that’s unethical. 7
From the player’s standpoint, you may not play anything but half an hour of Bejeweled every day, but that’s not necessarily a problem: you may need to give your brain a break, and Bejeweled is great for that—and this isn’t the only half hour in your day. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that Bejeweled is helping you become a more complex or thoughtful person, etc.; if all you play is Bejeweled, games simply aren’t filling that need in your life—hopefully you have other things that are.
The artificial reward stands in contrast to the natural reward. This is where you do something in-game, and are rewarded by the soul of the game—it’s mechanics, it’s mode of being—and that’s what keeps you coming back. It’s where you lay a brick, and instead of getting a shiny coin and being asked to lay another brick to get another coin, you get part of a house. Lay a few more bricks, and you get a whole house, and you can do something with that house that satisfies some part of who you are. That’s Civilization. Yes, in Civilization you’re often still maximizing something, whether that’s cultural achievement, or citizen prosperity, or the size of your army, but the difference again is the glassy eyed-stare, and how far the numbers go towards symbolizing meaning and keeping your mind active and growing. 8
Civilization is a game that rewards planning with purpose, exploration with discovery, imagination with possibility: the rewards are not only natural to the mechanics and execution of the game, but also to the living of life in general.9 Send your Kheshig into the darkness of the world’s edge and you’ll find forests and jungles, deserts and lakes, perfumes and spices, vast oceans and continents, and maybe the Aztecs or the Americans. Invest in the culture of your people and your cities will thrive, your borders will expand, people of other nations will join you, and you just might give birth to Michelangelo or Thomas Paine, the harbingers of Golden Ages. Invest in trade with far-off lands and the investment will pay dividends of gold—just don’t imagine that your camels are guaranteed to cross that desert in safety. Pay your scientist and yes you will discover things: writing and masonry and philosophy and theology and capitalism and fiber optics and mass media. Fine and dandy, but do these discoveries mean anything? Only that you’ll be able to build walls around your cities to protect them from barbarian hordes and a not-so-peaceful Ghandi; only that you can build libraries and universities to fuel your knowledge faster; only that you can adopt radically different forms of religion and government to satisfy your style of dictatorship or faux-democracy; only that you can build malls and giant corporations to quench consumer greed; only that you can make rocket ships to take you into outer space. The choices are yours, and the natural rewards are what will keep you coming back.
Finally, the conclusion! (i.e. the part where I say again what I said at the beginning, but add in a couple tidbits for fun)
To say that the game works absolutely perfectly, that the mechanics are straight from heaven, that there is never a wasted moment or a second of frustration would be ridiculous: of course there is, of course there are. But in my experience those moments are rare and far-between. Civilization is not defined by grinding, or button-smashing, or mindlessness, but by exactly the opposite kinds of things.
Does that mean that Civ can never be about opting out? Of course it doesn’t: I lied when I said that. Because the game can be abused like any other thing on earth, ethical or not. All of us have to make the call about what’s important in life—right now—and sometimes we should probably study for chemistry, or hang out with friends. If everyone played Civilization all day long, then of course we’d have a societal problem, just as much as if we were all playing Bejeweled all day.10 The difference is, Bejeweled has a small potential value (allowing you to zone out for a bit now and then), while Civilization has a significant one (the ability to make you a more complex, intelligent, strategic, exploratory, imaginative, etc. human being). Anything can be abused, but this is basic fifth grade health: some things can be consumed in greater quantities before we’re abusing ourselves, because they’re healthier for us. Think about chips vs. vegetables, or reading romance novels vs. reading Søren Kierkegaard… you can gorge yourself on vegetables, and read Kierkegaard until you wither away and die from lack of exercise, just as much as you can with chips and romance novels. But there are qualitative differences there.
So yes, Civilization is addictive, and if you find yourself in the shoes of Ian Banks, then by golly you’ve got to smash that CD if you want to live a balanced life. But for the rest of us, a little Civ craving now and again is going to do a lot more good than bad. So please, let’s not call the game evil, or a waste of time, or even “just a harmless game.” Because Civilization is better than that: it’s full of life, full of good things; it’s an awesome, anti-unethical game that should be praised and emulated. So the next time someone asks what you’re playing or tells you you’re addicted to “that thing,” don’t shirk away or shrug it off: tell them that you’re playing Civilization, and that you don’t just like it, but that you feel passionately about it; that you don’t need to play it because you’re addicted, but that you actively want to play it, because you believe in what it’s doing, in what it’s about, in what it is. Tell them that you’re a mind awake, that you deal in histories, mythologies, ideas and possibilities; that you believe in living life, not numbing yourself to it. Tell them that the International Space Station is coming up next, and that Civ’s what inspired you to get there. Tell them—unless you’re wearing those Ian Banks shoes—that this is the good kind of addicted.
- For those not aware, the latest edition of Civ, Civilization Revolution, can be played on the Nintendo DS, Xbox 360, PS3, and iPhone/iPod Touch. If you've got one of those platforms, pick the game up here. Not quite as "juicy" as the fourth edition of the game proper, but more accessible, and almost as fun.
- If you own Civ IV, but have not yet played the amazing dark fantasy-inspired Fall From Heaven II mod, you need to download it now. I wanted to address this mod in my article, but just didn't have the space. Suffice it to say that it is gorgeous, incredibly intricate, and substantial enough to be a standalone game in its own right. If that's not enough to convince you, it was #2 on PC Gamer's 2007 list of 200 reasons to love PC gaming. #2 out of 200. Yeah.
- Sid Meier on Civilization Revolution and his next plans - GamersGlobal
- The History of Civilization - Gamasutra
- Jonathan Blow on the WoW Drug, meaningful games - Gamasutra
- Jonathan Blow: The Path to Braid - Gamasutra (more discussion of artificial vs. natural rewards)
- Awesome by Proxy: Addicted to Fake Achievement - a recent and relevant article by Doctor Professor