The Magazine

'Civilization' and Its Contents

A video game for the ages.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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If you think the first videogame ever made was Pong in 1972, guess again. If you think it was Spacewar!, a 1962 concoction of the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club, you are also wrong. The answer is Tennis for Two, designed by William A. Higinbotham, a physicist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. The year was 1958. Higinbotham wanted to entertain the locals at the lab's open house. According to Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, authors of Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Video game Revolution, the game's "net" was strung across an "oscilloscope's five-inch screen." The "ball" was "a single green blip. Willy attached two boxes with a knob and a button each to the oscilloscope, so that people could control the motion of the ball as it bounced back and forth." The game was a big hit but, as Higinbotham saw it, Tennis for Two was strictly a novelty--what purpose did it serve?--and after two years he dismantled it.

Today, videogames are a $10 billion industry--a couple of years ago their sales surpassed U.S. movie box-office receipts--and still people are asking the Higinbotham question. Some have blamed videogames for juvenile delinquency and violence. Take Grand Theft Auto, in which you can rise through the ranks of a criminal enterprise and "power up" with prostitutes. In one version of this game, players were able to unlock a secret sex scene (known as "Hot Coffee"), creating an outcry on Capitol Hill. Or take Left Behind, based on the bestselling pulp novels aimed at Christians fascinated with the End Times, in which you must convert others to Christianity and, if they refuse, you can kill them. Delinquency aside, given the amount of time some people spend on the games, especially on their employers' computers, you have to wonder if that $10 billion in sales isn't more than wiped out by the loss in productivity.

Was Higinbotham right? Should we have pulled the plug? Maybe. But then we wouldn't have games like Civilization, the thinking man's Grand Theft Auto, the video game version of a classical education. Yes, there is the potential for violence, on a global scale no less. But really the game is more of a grandiose chessboard than a combat zone. Here's how it works.

Let's say you are "Caesar of the Romans," presiding over a tiny tribe at the dawn of time. You send out settlers to found cities across the continent and discover resources like horses and iron, and luxury goods such as wine and silk. The governors of your cities ask you what they should build--barracks, a temple, a marketplace? At the same time you must decide what your scientists should study--developing the wheel is always a good first step. As your nation begins to take shape, you will inevitably run into other civilizations, such as Egypt and Carthage, or maybe even the Germans and the French. All of these other powers (regardless of when they existed in real history) originate at the same time as yours, circa 4,000 B.C. And from ancient times up to the present and beyond, it is a race to see which of the various civilizations becomes culturally or militarily dominant.

And you don't always have to rule Rome either. You could be Genghis Khan of the Mongols. Or Isabella of Spain. Each civilization has its characteristic strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you control the Japanese, when your scientists discover the chivalric code, you are able to create ruthless Samurai warriors. The trick, as always, is timing. You may think the key to the game is to be the founder of American civilization, and get busy building F-15 fighter jets. But it will take millennia (a few hundred turns, in game time) for your scientists to get up to speed. First, they will need to study physics and engineering, not to mention combustion. Meanwhile, the Greeks almost immediately produce their hoplite--the most fearsome infantryman of the ancient world.

The most addictive aspect of the game is its turn-based system: When you are finished issuing orders for the management of your cities and deploying your troops, you hit the spacebar, allowing the computer to play out the moves of the other civilizations. A few seconds later, it is your turn again. It may take 20 turns to build a great wonder like the Hanging Gardens or 12 turns to learn fission. Every time you hit that spacebar, you get closer to your objective. The tagline for Civilization is "You won't stop playing until you want to stop playing."