everything i need to know about life, I learned from Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise.

Hi! I’m Miranda. I’m new around here (Geek Buffet, I mean, not the Internet). I’m excited to be part of this blog, since I like buffets, and I also like some geeky stuff. That’s all you need to know about me for now. Today I’m going to talk about what I know.

But, like the title of the post says, everything *I* need to know about life, I learned from Sid Meier’s Civilization. I don’t mean any individual title, I mean the entire franchise. My life can be neatly chaptered according to its installments; it has formed my understanding of, you know, Civilization Itself. My involvement with it goes back to the fall of 1991, when I was 8 years old and in the third grade.

*flashback noises* Or, wait, scratch the flashback noises, let’s start how Civ starts: “In the beginning, the earth was without form, and void…” Pretend Leonard Nimoy spoke that. OK!

During recess one day, my friend Brendan pulled a computer game out of his backpack. Remember how they used to come in gigantic, quality cardboard boxes? It was one of THOSE. And everything he brought was really good.

“This game is so great! You should copy it!” he said.

I thumbed through the instruction manual (dude, you guys, do you remember when those were like, analog?). This sentence struck me: “And if you use a pirated version of this, may your citizens flay you in the electronic streets.”* I thought, “Cool! Pirates!” (My father and I would find Sid Meier’s Pirates! in a bargain bin two summers later). Then I asked Brendan what “flay” meant, and he didn’t know, so we went back to the classroom to look it up. I was pretty sure at that point that this was actually the coolest game ever. I could not WAIT to get home and find the pirates!

(Dear Sid Meier: a) I was 8 years old and b) I have bought so much other stuff I probably paid for at least 2 tiles in your guest bathroom, or,  like, the equivalent of 2 board squares in the board of your house. At this late date, I make no apologies.)

I don’t remember actually learning a whole lot in elementary school, but I do remember learning systems in the games I played. I spent that fall sitting in my parents’ garage using my dad’s computer to play Civilization and wage wars and build spaceships, though like I said, it took a couple years to really find the PIRATES!.

How did the world work? You built little cities on squares, and you hit enter, and time passed, and the cities made little shields, that you used to build stuff so eventually you could take over the world. It was also good to have little wheat plants. And beakers. Beakers meant you could get technology so you could build spaceships, and also better weapons with which to thwomp your enemies.

A more serious reflection on this game convinces me that it is a product of its time: Civilization I tells us more about culture and politics in 1990 than it tells us about military or science history or anything else.

In 1990, another media object central to my childhood premiered (50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth). In 1991, Civ debuted, complete with what was later referred to as “whack-a-mole” pollution. You build too many tanks? Uh oh, send your settlers to clean it up, fast! A few months after Gulf War I and just a few years after the end of the Cold War, two victories are imagined: one, a peaceful-enough path of rational technology and colonization of Alpha Centauri (another later title). the other, conquest of every other civilization on your planet. At the dusk of Bush I, Civilization I used limited computing resources to circulate an environmental, relatively Eurocentric ethos, and presented two types of success: one militaristic and one technologically imperialistic. You get extra points for turns without wars (3 for world peace), but you lose 10 points for each square of pollution. When I was 8 years old, I thought pollution was about 3.333333 times as bad as war.

When I was in 7th grade, I lived in a new house and went to a different school. Sid Meier very nicely came out with Civilization II. All the good features of Civ I but better, with that fancy CD-ROM technology and video clips. Leonardo Da Vinci would obligingly upgrade your military and it was really important to build both Women’s Suffrage AND Cure for Cancer. Instead of creating settlers to wander in and irrigate your desert for the whole of human history, you had ENGINEERS! I was getting to the age when kids have to hear a whole bunch of suggestions about what they should do when they grow up. Gifted kids all got told to be engineers and oh god, can’t you please at least pretend to care about algebra? I was a gifted kid. I took great pride in outsourcing menial tasks to MY engineers, but that’s just me. Anyway, during those Information Superhighway Days, when the onramp was metaphorically, I don’t know, that one shot out of Godard’s Week-End or something, Civilization II deployed some pretty sophisticated multimedia with its wonder movies and advisory council. In the post-Republican Revolution and pre-9/11 world, you could establish your government as “Fundamentalism” and recruit “Fanatics” to fight for you. The game, like Civ I, still circulated a strong faith in technology, particularly the development of technology that fought wars or enabled colonization of other worlds.

Civilization III came out at the end of my first semester of college, right after 9/11. Shockingly enough, this edition of the game had neither Fundamentalism nor Fanatics, though you could win with Culture. For the first time, the civilization you played as meant more than the city names and colors. Suddenly, it was possible to dazzle people at cocktail parties by being able to name two adjectives about many historical leaders and cultures. I am sure there were parties I attended in college where I said, approximately, “America is, like, totally expansionist and industrious. I read somewhere that the Persian culture is very…scientific. And industrious! We’re so similar, guys.” As the Bush II era dawned, Civilization III tweaked the system by adding corruption and oil: corruption as a way to shut down city’s production, and oil as a scarce resource that was needed to build plum units. As SUV’s became increasingly common, the game concept of “pollution” was eliminated. As America sought to shock and awe Iraq, suddenly three new paths to Ultimate Civ Victory were presented: Dominance, Diplomacy, and Culture. You can read this in two ways: As a reification of Bush-era politics (you win by being the biggest! And having the most McDonald’s / Mickey Mouses! [Mickey Mice?] And using a Western institution, the UN, to unite the world! Or as a critique, perhaps, of these same politics: Spread the good word of your civilization and its virtues and get everyone on your side. The beauty of Civilization, one supposes, is it can be both and neither to any player.

The year after I finished college, the year I was in Germany, was the year of Civilization IV. Perhaps because I know this installation the best, I feel that it is the best *game* of the franchise. Civilization IV introduces two new sub-systems: religion and corporations, both of which are spread the same way. In the years of the zenith of American consumerist excess, and the “declining years of the long war,” Civilization IV equated religion with corporatism. Oil was still a precious, scarce resource. So was kitsch: Leonard Nimoy was the voice of the game. So were animals: Suddenly, big scary mammals could attack you; the game always helpfully tells you that a “barbarian” wolf attacked and killed your settler, just in case you thought it was French or something. Just like real life, your civilization sometimes had unpredictable Events: natural disasters like hurricanes or scandals like intra-faith marriages. Only months after the rise of Perez Hilton and what I consider the total takeover of celebrity / pop culture, the game introduced the individualistic concept of Great People, units named after Real Historical Individuals who could greatly advance civilization by building special buildings, discovering technology, conducting missions, “creating great works,” etc. Oil is again a scarce resource, and sometimes your “corporate advisors” request that you take it by force. At the zenith of the housing bubble (the final expansion for Civ IV, Beyond the Sword, came out in 2007), the array of things you could build in a city was simply dizzying, and the wonder movies focused on process, depicting the wonder from a blueprint to construction site to final product. This is a game that reflects excess.

This year, the year I finished my PhD coursework (!), Civilization V came out. I’ll be honest: I haven’t had much time to spend with it, and I haven’t been that impressed. Suddenly, in the last gasps of the PC game market, it’s important that the game be all different and like, marketable, and fairly stupid. Gone is the ability to garrison more than one unit in your city; gone is the ability, it seems, to really build up a city. Luxuries aren’t serendipitously found but rather held by city-states, which, according to the Civ chronology, must have existed before the big bang (“the earth was without form, and void” – yet you get notifications about them immediately). I haven’t spent enough time on it yet to really have a full opinion as to How It Tells Us Everything We Need to Know About Year of Our Lord 2010, but I have some ideas that I will expound upon at a later date.

SO WHAT? Did you read all of that? I like to think this is more than a tl;dr nostalgia trip (since I have been mentally composing this essay or whatever for, like, months). I feel that using Civilization, we can see a historiography of the past 20 years and how changed cultural thinking is reflected in a game. Moreover, I think the Civilization franchise is inherently American: essentially, the game is a growth strategy. That’s the most yeah-duh genre thing ever, but let’s think about that for a second: in Civilization, you start with almost nothing, and you leverage your resources to build an empire (as defined, one imagines, in the West). You follow a good old-fashioned bootstrap narrative of building something huge out of nothing. You raise your people from barbarism (loosely defined) to a specific type of victory: a corporatist, Western-rationalist, military-industrial complex type. Ultimately, to win the game, every action or choice you make should help you get one step closer to dominating, destroying, or gaining the technology necessary to dominate or destroy other planets. So in that sense, is Civilization not really AMERICA? Is this game introducing people to the idea of other civilizations but within the rubric of Americanist aims and values? What would a non scientific-rationalist or Western-centric version of Civilization look like? How does Civ V reflect changes in the world since Civ IV came out?

I say this not to be critical. I have spent untold thousands of hours of my life with this game; I’m obviously not going to give it up. However, nobody I can think of has ever thought about it from a critical / cultural standpoint before, and it’s obviously long overdue.

What do you think? About the game franchise, I mean, not how overdue an examination of it is, or how long winded I am.

*Many, many years later, I would pay 50 cents for a copy of the same instruction manual in a thrift store in Sarasota, Florida. That is how I know my memory is correct enough for this quote (Despite the fact that 2 seconds of Googling revealed it online in HTML). And yes, I footnoted a blog. It’s just how I roll.


9 Responses to everything i need to know about life, I learned from Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise.

  1. Mandaliet says:

    I like how in Civilization IV, religions founded in your civilization can give you money when they spread to other cities. It manages to be both a fun part of the game and a clever criticism.

  2. guyintheblackhat says:

    Awesome first post, Miranda! Welcome to the Buffet of Geekiness.

    I played Civ 5 just recently and found it more tactical than its previous incarnations, meaning that, well, I had to consider hard whether or not I moved my one unit in front of the river or the other behind the forest. And somehow the warriors being able to instantly transform into boats struck me as both convenient and silly. Having to spend so much money on maintaining influence on the city-states usually prompts me to conquer them instead. I think within your historiography, it may reflect a post-crisis shift toward the whole world being a battlefield and an awareness of the unfairly vast resources available to some?

    As for your point about Civilization being very American, the answer is: absolutely. McKenzie Wark even devotes a chapter to it called
    America – Civilization III. Actually, the whole Gamer Theory book is a worthwhile read: about the shift from topical (oral) to topographical (film/book) to topological (games/Internet) understanding of our world. When we frame the game rules with an American understanding, we lose out on possible other notions of how civilizations “work.”

    One of the best board game explorations of how social structures determine our production of resources and so-called “civilization” is the obscure boardgame Crusoe’s Planet by Nigel Ray. He shows how gender, class resentment and other intangible constellations also infiltrate and determine our leisure, work and warfare.

    Just some thoughts!


  3. Mike says:

    This is awesome. And only in part because I’d never made the Darnielle/Rumsfeld connection.

    I haven’t played Civ 5 yet (I’ve spent my post-pubescent life almost exactly 3 years behind the electronic game curve). But I’d say Alpha Centauri (about which I have strongly geeky opinions) wraps a neat multicultural, post-colonial, skin over the fin-de-siecle, cul-de-sac liberalism of the 90s.

    Or something like that.

    • mirandate says:

      thank you so much for the kind words. I am so pleased that everyone has been so positive about this post!

      ALSO HOLY CRAP YOU LIKE PHIL OCHS. Can we be best friends?

      • Mike says:

        Absolutely. Those of us who can put up with that weirdo need to stick together. Did you see there’s an Ochs movie coming out *next week*? I don’t have much faith based on the trailer, though.

        • mirandate says:

          Yes I did see that, though I don’t think it will be very special. I am right now trying to finish up my book proposal about Ochs. Trying being the operative word.

          • Mike says:

            Jeez, I definitely want to hear more about this. For a while I was dreaming about trying to get access to the John Train tapes used (or so it seemed) for the Marc Eliot biography, for use in a TAL-ish radio piece. But I never had the gumption to start making calls.

            I move that you put together a post pegged on this movie. It’ll be the beginning of your media blitz.

            • mirandate says:

              you can be my marketing specialist, haha. if you’d like i’ll email you the proposal once it’s more done. it was shortlisted for 33 1/3 2 years ago and now i’m revising it for someone else…

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