TCS Daily

Civilization IV Whom?

By Douglas Kern - October 28, 2005 12:00 AM

I cut taxes, rammed my religion down the throats of my unwilling subjects, and nuked France. It was a great year. It was worth six hours in my computer chair to get there.

Like every other nerd on the planet, I am playing the hottest computer game of the season: Civilization IV. After a three-hour, eight-store ordeal, my loving wife bought me a copy on Wednesday as an early birthday present. She will soon learn that a Civilization game is the gift that keeps on taking -- taking the man in your life away from work, family, friends, sleep, and proper hygiene. Say farewell to your husbands and boyfriends, ladies; pat Daddy on the head and leave a glass of milk by the mouse. Civilization IV does for the smarty-pants gaming set what cookies do for Cookie Monster. C is for Civilization IV. Thats good enough for me.


The fourth entry in the acclaimed Civilization series is based on the same premise as its three predecessors: you are a small, nomadic tribe in 4000 B.C. Your goal: rise to pre-eminence over all other tribes during the course of history. You will build cities, muster armies, conquer science, discover religions, implement economic and social policies, and even build spaceships.


Civilization IV offers endless choices: will you become an introspective, paranoid fascist state? A freewheeling free market republic? A Christian monarchy? An agrarian slave empire? Will you conquer through military force? Cultural supremacy? Economic might? Civilization IV allows your tribe to win by achieving mastery in any one of six different categories, based on your preferred strategy. And I havent even scratched the surface of the games myriad features. Great prophets? Competing religions? Wonders of the world? Transportation grids? Espionage? Diplomacy? Its all in the game, and more besides. Civilization IV also allows players to personalize their experiences. You can choose from one of eighteen tribes, and select your leader (Queen Victoria? George Washington? Caesar?) from one of twenty-six historical eminences, each with unique strengths and abilities. And you can name your cities! Kernopolis, New Kern, Kernville, Samarkern, Minas Kernith -- knock yourself out.


The addictive properties of the Civilization experience are terrifying. When Civilization II was released in the mid-nineties, a minimal version of the game could be fully installed on hard drives. Impishly, I installed that version of the game all over computer clusters at my university, just before senior theses were due. I watched grade point averages drop before my eyes as beleaguered seniors neglected their culminating scholarly projects to lead the Mongols to victory over the Vikings. Another time, I observed two undergraduates playing an Internet multiplayer version of Civilization for four days straight. They took turns eating and sleeping in their mad quest to beat some guy in Canada. Civilization may be the only computer game series with a web page for recovering addicts: Some say the site is a parody. Some say.


But as much as I love Civilization, I cant embrace many of the historical assumptions that the designers coded into the game. A Whiggish progressivism permeates the games outlook; civilizations invariably grow and flourish unless outside forces stunt or destroy them. Governments and religions have only utilitarian value; freedom and decency are not uniquely useful in Civilization IV. The superiority of the modern to the medieval is everywhere assumed, and the atomization and ennui of contemporary life is thoroughly ignored. To be sure, the game takes cognizance of unhappy citizens and social unrest, but civil wars, religious schisms, and collapses into barbarism simply dont happen in Civilization IV. These absences make for a smoother and more entertaining game, but not a more realistic one.


Civilization IV is highly modifiable; amateur programmers can easily adjust the rules and database to create unique variants on the core game. Some programming genius needs to write a conservative Civilization variant, one in which virtue is as prized as much as science, art, and industry. We need a game in which players must confront the declining birth rates and eroding religious convictions that tend to accompany the spread of literacy and modern labor. We need a game in which bored, affluent citizens can descend into decadence, selfishness, and contempt for the social and economic mechanisms that make their affluence possible. We need a game in which advanced civilizations can defeat themselves.


In the great Civilization IV game that is the modern world, the West is in no danger of losing to an outside civilization. Osama bin Laden will not beat us to Alpha Centauri. China will not acquire cultural hegemony over the world with its thrilling movies and catchy pop tunes. Africa will not send tank columns to capture our capital cities. But the West may lose to its own self-disgust. Our appetite for wealth outpaces our willingness to produce it; our sense of justice grows ever more rarefied even as our capacity for self-discipline declines; and our achievements cannot keep pace with the speed with which we forget our own history.


The terrorist enemies of our civilization are inferior to us in every respect except confidence. I wonder if the terrorist sympathizers in the West -- on the left and right -- find Islamicist fanatics appealing for the same reason that silly teenaged girls find bad boys appealing: the rule-breaking swagger of the delinquent is ever so much more exciting than the hand-wringing and stuttering of the Science Club president. Political extremists can smell the doubt and uncertainty with which the West regards itself, and they hold it in the same withering contempt in which prom queens hold fidgeting guys who cant find the nerve to ask them out. It is this contempt that destroys great civilizations, more than barbarian armies ever could.


The history of civilization (but not Civilization) is as much a history of decay, abandonment, and degradation as it is of freedom and heroism. When we assume that civilizations will necessarily progress rather than regress, we take the first step towards undoing the very progress we foolishly assumed to be a given. It seems unlikely that any computer game will ever capture the essence of growing and cultivating a civilization, because the maintenance of a civilization is boring. The patient teaching of age-old lessons, the defense of honorable customs and manners, the reverent admiration of greatness and the intolerance of evil -- little animated men on a screen cant act out these dramas. But these dull, humble acts build civilization more than technology and wonders of the world ever could.


Now if youll excuse me, the glorious republic of Kernistan must continue its righteous war against its hated Gallic rival. But my wisdom, genius, and large cache of nuclear weapons have propelled my people to greatness, not goodness. True civilization is an ongoing struggle, not a game.


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