Sunday, July 10, 2011

I did it. I bought Civilization V. Off of Steam (which I quite like, by the way). They had it discounted as a part of their Summer Camp Sale promotion. And, honestly, I’ve been reading about the game for months and I just couldn’t help myself. Don’t judge me.

My experience with the Civilization series of games goes way, way back. I actually remember the first time I heard about it: Two friends (Jason and Yirong) were talking about the original game on the bus home after school one day during what must’ve been 9th grade (circa 1992). An odd conversation about playing as the Germans or Aztecs or whatever and fighting battles and dealing with barbarians and such. “I realized they had settled on the other end of my continent!” It all seemed kind of mysterious, and even at age 14 or 15 these terms of history and culture carried enough weight that hearing them mixed up into bizarre and unreal configurations seemed pretty novel. Enough so that I still kind of remember the conversation (loosely).

Anyway, somehow I got my hands on a version for my little old black-and-white Mac Classic. Probably from Floppy Joe’s, Austin’s computer game rental place that eventually folded (I suspect) after lawyers got involved and accused them of facilitating exactly what I did to get a copy of Civ for myself: Piracy.

(I should make a side note about Floppy Joe’s. First, I really can totally bring to mind the feel and layout of the place as I sit here just now. It sat up near 29th and Guadalupe in Austin TX, right next door to where the famous Toy Joy now sits. It’s a place my mom probably remembers, as well, since she took me there fairly often after I got my first Mac. They rented computer games, which really kind of meant that the games with decent copy protection got rented and the ones without got pirated. And most Mac games back then didn’t have very good copy protection. So that’s how I wound up with stuff like Civilization, Kid Pix, Spectre, Oids, Prince of Persia, Zork Zero — games I could never have afforded to buy. Piracy is one of those very hard topics to deal with because on one hand, yes, I knew that my behavior skated on the bad side of the law. But I had so many seminal moments with games and just interactive “stuff” in general that I got from Floppy Joe’s — I think there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t be where I’m at today as far as working creatively with technology if I hadn’t had those experiences. I also remember being exposed there to stuff like shareware for the first time (back when shareware came on floppies you’d buy for a few bucks (yes, yes, yes — and BBSes)) and, of course, the vast world of PC gaming which I had no way to really participate in — although I could check out the boxes and try to imagine what was going on.)

Anyway, I played the hell out of it. Civilization’s a remarkably addictive game. I remember phases of playing this game to the point of having dreams about military units moving around on the square grid and forming boundaries and blockades and skirmishing, building cities, trading, etc. On the one hand, I feel like surely there must’ve been something better I could’ve been doing with my time (I’m going to guess that this impacted my schoolwork). But then, looking back, I don’t think Civilization is quite the worst game a kid could spend his or her time glued to. For one thing, every single element of the game has some sort of historical underpinning. For example (and, honestly, I could be talking about Civ 1 or Civ 5 twenty years later — the core game is almost identical): You start with one single band of settlers in 4000BC and play the game on a randomized planet full of islands and continents with a collection of competing civilizations. You might, say, play the Romans. And in this random world a bunch of other civilizations — the Germans, Americans, Zulu, Indians, etc — are also trying to grow and flourish. But the game tries to make the world “feel” like the world as it stood circa 4000BC and later 1AD and 1500AD and 1996AD not by flashing a title card and announcing “Now You’re in the Industrial Age!” but by incrementally taking you from one phase of history to the next with things like the technology tree (where you must first spend some years researching agriculture which then lets you research horseback riding and eventually on to other more advanced technologies like gunpowder and semiconductors). So in a sense it kind of was a game about how resources and the sort of random arrangements of land and the starting points of civilizations along with their tendencies towards things like science or war can lead to different results for different people thousands of years down the line — kind of a gamified version of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Which may sound obvious. (I’m certainly not the first person to make that connection.) So I do wonder how much this one game might’ve influenced my outlook on how the general flow of global history works. I did, after all, play it well before I ever read Guns, Germs, and Steel.

I also remember picking up a certain amount of vocabulary from the game. “Phalanx” and “trireme,” for example, are words which I first saw in Civilization which I them went and looked up and learned what meant. (The Extra Credit video series has a great piece up about this called “Tangential Learning” — written by the same James Portnow as the previous link.) This stuff does also seem important (and literally, like I said, the entire damned game is packed with historic and cultural references — there’s so much to tangentially learn). To me, though, it feels kind of secondary to the bigger picture stuff about learning a perspective on how history “works” on a more fundamental level. But interesting, nevertheless. And healthy, no doubt. I’m going to guess that one major reasons kids do poorly in school — especially in subjects like history — is that they’re expected to memorize the information, but not really use it beyond regurgitation in some way. When you need to know what a phalanx is in order to prevent Napoleon from barging in conquering your cities — you’ll remember what the hell a phalanx is.

And I’m not going to argue that the version of how history works presented in Civilization is really the Way History Really Works. No one has that figured out. But it does present a picture, and I feel like if nothing else it put into my head a starting point — something which I could knock other ideas and experiences up against.

Anyway — that was then. I did pick up Civilization II (at Floppy Joe’s, no doubt) a few years later (still in high school) and played the hell out of that, as well. And that was more-or-less the end of my life with the game.


They released a kind of lite version of Civilization IV for the iPad last year. Which I couldn’t resist and played around with for a bit. Fun fact: It’s great for flights because it doesn’t necessarily take much thought (or reflexes, since it’s turn-based) but is addictive enough that I can burn through an entire five hour flight playing with it — exactly what someone like me who fucking hates flying needs.

And so I saw Civilization V at a discount on Steam and decided to grab it. And I knew what would happen. Last weekend I kind of felt crappy, so I just played Civ for, like, ten hours over the course of a couple days. Until my brain started viewing everything in my real world fixed into a hexagonal lattice (Civ V uses hexes instead of squares — the most radical change in the game in 20 years, I think). And I made a mental agreement with myself to not play during the work day, but I’ve been sneaking an hour or two here and there while Christin’s out or doing other things in the evenings. And I played about an hour earlier today. (And might play a bit more before dinner!) I don’t have a ton of time and my brain just works differently than in did in the early nineties, so I’m not quite as compelled to just sit for hours and hours and hours playing with it — but certainly if all of my other engagements went away for a weekend I could probably fall into that trap.

So, yeah. One thing I’ve been thinking about during this play-through is just why it’s so crack-like and addictive — if not to everyone, than at least to me. I guess I have a few ideas…

My first idea is simply that when I play Civilization, I’m not just fighting battles and trying to win the game or whatever. My mind constructs a story around the whole thing — a story of my own creation, mostly. And this isn’t really done consciously — at least, I don’t feel like I do something like “Well, now I’m going to sit down and create a narrative.” I think it does have to do with the fact that the names of the peoples, cities, and such are real: I’ve been playing as the Americans, and when you found a city called Philadelphia, immediately my brain has some kind of resonance with that city, even though it has basically nothing to do with the real-world Philadelphia. (My Philly’s landlocked mid-continent and on the edge of a desert.) But I guess it subtly makes you care about these things (or at least have an opinion on them) and it makes the differences between the fake and real cities kind of stick out in starker contrast. My Philly’s on a desert. My Washington has city walls and the Brandenburg Gate. My Atlanta is just about the southernmost city in the world. It gives some connection to the game and it pokes that “what if?” part of my brain. And I guess that pulls me into caring about this new alternate reality history I’m building. I do find the alt history that is created over the course of playing a game to be very engaging and interesting.

The second idea about why I get so hooked isn’t quite as high-minded. In Civ, there’s just never any end to anything. There’s always something in the middle of being built, or in the middle of being fought, or whatever. Since there’s never a clear stopping point mid-game, like there might be in an FPS between levels or scenes or whatever, it’s easy to get locked into an extended period of “oh, just one more thing.” I know I’m susceptible to this because I do the exact same damned thing with the web sometimes: I get locked into these extended cycles of “oh, let me just see what’s on Gawker — then that’s it” through twenty-ish sites that’ll last hours. In a way, the game does play itself to a certain degree, only bothering the player when it’s time to make an important decision. So you can get locked into a trance-like period of pointing and clicking and responding. It’s a game you can watch TV while playing. I’m not sure if this part of the game is good or bad or what, but I do feel like the designers have mastered the art of doling out little rewards at just the perfect rate to make it difficult for people like me to escape the game. (But at least I’m learning about triremes.)

Anyway. These are just a few thoughts on Civilization. I’m enjoying Civ 5, although I’ll probably just finish with this run-though and then shelve it. I don’t need to spend hundreds of hours at it. But it is nice to be reminded of these other bits of my personal history with the Civilization series and games in general…