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."

Sound appealing? Since the first version of Civilization came out in 1991, about 8 million units have been sold. The current edition, Civilization IV, has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide in the last two years. Search the word "civilization" in Google and over 42 million hits will result, with an astonishing proportion of them dedicated to the game. Civilization's adherents are found in college dorms, faculty lounges, boardrooms, army barracks, and probably in the cubicle next to yours, where your co-worker seems to spend an inhuman number of uninterrupted hours hunched over his keyboard. The players are about 90 percent male, most between the ages of 18 and 45. Many pick the game up in college but continue playing for years afterwards. Their ranks include celebrities such as Will Smith, Robin Williams, and Drew Carey.

Speaking of celebrities: A movie or book or CD of such mammoth popularity would by now have turned its creator into the prey of paparazzi. But Sid Meier, the creative genius behind Civilization, is decidedly a noncelebrity. He turns 53 this month. He was born in Canada and raised in Michigan. After graduating from the University of Michigan, where he studied computer science, Meier went to Hunt Valley, Maryland, to work for the General Instrument Corporation, which made computerized cash registers for department stores. Meier had always taken an interest in computers--his first PC was an Atari 800 in 1979. Soon, he was making his own games, which caught the attention of his coworker, Bill Stealey. The two formed a game development company, MicroProse, in 1982, and over the next decade Meier would design such titles as Spitfire Ace and F-15 Strike Eagle (flight simulators), NATO Commander, Silent Service (a submarine simulator), Railroad Tycoon, and, finally, Civilization.

"Twenty years of making very good games is a feat few other designers can claim," says Ted Halsted, cofounder of Human Head Studios and lead level designer for the games Prey and Rune. "The brightest bulbs typically have one or two good titles and then get out of the business or coast along on past success. But not Sid and his codesigners. His work touches upon a wide range of topics, which is unusual in an industry marked by specialization and repetition." Halsted was not the only one to take notice.

In 1999, Meier became the second person inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame (the first being Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario Bros.). Meier is widely regarded as the "father of computer gaming." And yet, despite all the accolades, Sid Meier is the prototype of a computer programmer, of modest dress and demeanor.

To be blunt, programmers, gamers, and hackers are often depicted as misfits. In Chaplin and Ruby's Smartbomb, they can even seem frightening: attending the annual Game Developers Conference are "albinos and men covered in angry red acne. Guys with blow-up plastic dragons on their shoulders, slouchy velvet hats, long ponytails, big fat bellies, tiny concave chests, dandruff on their shoulders, and random piercings." Some of them have dark pasts, such as John Romero and John Carmack, creators of the highly successful game Doom. According to Masters of Doom author David Kushner, when Romero was in high school, he illustrated his own comic book featuring "10 Different Ways to Torture Someone," such as "Poke a needle all over the victim's body and in a few days . . . watch him turn into a giant scab" and "burn the victim's feet while victim is strapped in a chair." When Carmack was 14, he broke into a school to steal Apple II computers, was arrested, and sent for psychiatric evaluation (the report mentions "no empathy for other human beings"). Carmack was then sentenced to a year in a juvenile home.

Or take Will Wright, the genius behind SimCity and the best-selling PC game of all time (more than 6 million copies, not including expansion packs), the Sims, in which you control the everyday lives of virtual individuals. Chaplin and Ruby describe how Wright typically interacts with others: "He turns his entire six-foot narrow frame and peers down at the person. And then he waits. He doesn't say anything. He just stares, like a computer waiting for input. It's enough to cause enthusiasts to falter, reporters to wince, and executives to laugh nervously."

After this introduction to the species, my meeting with Sid Meier came as a relief. As cofounder and director of creative development for Firaxis Games, Meier still works and lives in Hunt Valley, just north of Baltimore and about 15 miles from the Pennsylvania border. The company has 80 employees (compared with 7,000 for Electronic Arts, the world's largest videogame producer). Located in a nondescript office park, Firaxis occupies the top three floors of a hideous black and brown brick building. There is no gourmet cafeteria like the one at Google, but there is an Outback Steakhouse across the street. In the Firaxis lobby stands a trophy case containing numerous Game of the Year awards and an Xbox featuring the game Sid Meier's Pirates! I am led through the "fun zone," where programmers and designers seek respite from writing code. The day I was there, four employees sat on a couch playing one of the Tom Clancy Rainbow Six thrillers. Two other staffers were playing Ping Pong (real, not electronic). Upstairs there is a foosball table and a disassembled train set.

I asked Meier what happened to the train, but he hadn't a clue, joking that "it seemed like a good idea at the time." He is a cherubic man, just under six feet. With an occasional, almost imperceptible lisp, Meier can sometimes sound like the actor Wallace Shawn. (Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!) By virtue of his age, Meier belongs to the last generation of videogame designers (along with Will Wright) who grew up before the computer.

"It was a sad time. We had to make up our own games," he says with more than a hint of sarcasm. "So I played board games, strategy games, war games. I had blocks, Tinkertoys, real toys." Meier was also a history buff. "I remember when I was 8 years old, I took this long trip and my dad gave me this Civil War book, a kind of picture book of the Civil War, and I guess I was interested in those kinds of things at the time." Those kinds of things were to make a lasting impression. A former colleague at MicroProse, Bruce Shelley, recalls how Meier had been dreaming of a Civil War game for years. "The whole genesis of that game was this American Heritage History of the Civil War that had these beautiful handpainted pictures of battlefields, with all the soldiers running around--that was the image. He was going to build the whole game around the concept of those images that were burned into his brain as a child." This resulted in two games, Sid Meier's Gettysburg! and Sid Meier's Antietam! where the player assumes the role of a general on the battlefield.

Meier cites the strategy board game Risk as one of his major influences. "Conquer the world. All those cool pieces. You felt like you were king. It gave you a lot of power." What about the game Diplomacy? "You had to have friends to play Diplomacy so that kind of left me out."

Civilization followed on the heels of Meier's Railroad Tycoon, which was released in 1990, and the smashing success of Will Wright's SimCity. Both are considered the earliest of the so-called "God games," in which all-powerful players focus primarily on building rather than destroying. Rather than overseeing a railroad operation or micromanaging a city, Meier thought, "Let's ramp this up to a bigger stage, the whole world, the history of the world. And as we thought about that, all sorts of ideas popped into our heads. It just seemed like a very rich and fertile area [for] a game. And the whole Risk experience as a child I am sure tied into that. Wouldn't it be fun to make a game where it ends up where you conquer the entire world? That was kind of the seed of the game. And then we played with it, came up with technologies, science, politics, and economics and put all that stuff in the game."

Shelley, who later helped design Age of Empires, a hit competitor to Civilization, looks back fondly on his time with Meier, which he likens to attending Game Design University. Meier, he recalls, came up with a basic definition of a game: a series of interesting decisions. "You have game play, you have competition, and then you have victory," explains Shelley. "A true game would have all three of those elements. Something like SimCity has the decision making but it doesn't have competition or victory. It's a digital sandbox," not a game.

Shelley recalls quite clearly the day in May 1990 when Meier approached him with a disk and said, "Try this and tell me what you think." It was the first playable prototype of Civilization, which he still has. "That's how I found out this new game was going to be worked on. And basically [Sid] and I played and coded it every day and discussed it every day for maybe four, five, six months before he would let anybody else play it." He adds, "It's so much what I wanted to play that I figured, if I'm an average game player and there's millions of me around the planet, then the game is going to be a massive success. I couldn't measure it, but I just knew it was going to be a very successful game, and I knew we were making something that was going to astound the world."

Echoing these sentiments, Brian Reynolds remembers how "back in those days, we just tried to invent games that we would like to play and then hoped enough gamers would feel the same way." Reynolds worked with Meier on the multimillion-selling Civilization II and other spin-offs prior to becoming the CEO of another studio, Big Huge Games. "Sid is easily the smartest and most brilliant person I've ever worked with--he could always cut right to the key issue in any big muddle, and he constantly had weird and unexpected thoughts, did things in ways that nobody had thought of, and yet they most often turned out great."

And other times not so great. Some games, like Colonization, didn't sell nearly as well as Civilization II, and Alpha Centauri wasn't nearly as big as Civilization III. But neither were they disasters. (The greatest videogame disaster of all time was 1982's E.T. for the Atari system. It did so poorly that 5 million unsold copies of the game were eventually dumped into a New Mexico landfill.) As Firaxis released newer and better versions of Civilization, a massive fan base soon emerged. Wilson Gan began playing Civilization in 1997. He is now a 26-year-old student in New York pursuing a master's degree in computer science. In 1998, Gan created a personal homepage with a section on Civilization II containing useful tips, marking the beginning of the Civilization Fanatics' Center (www.civfanatics.com), which currently gets 6 million page views per month. The Civ Forum has more than 100,000 registered members.

"It's addictive and rewarding," says Gan, who also goes by the name "Thunderfall" (the name of a city in the Viking civilization). "There is always something interesting to look forward to within just a few turns. It's very satisfying to see a Stone Age village transforming into a modern metropolis, or seeing 'We Love the King Day' fireworks when you manage your cities well. Of course, conquering the world feels very good too."

Jason Keisch will sometimes get the itch to play as the Germans "when I feel like I'm in a conquering mood, racing to the Panzer special unit. When I feel more like outproducing everyone, India is my top choice." Fair enough. Keisch is a happily married IT consultant in Boston. "My wife doesn't mind the videogames unless I get too loud [while playing with others on a network]. She would much rather I stay home . . . than go out to the bars with the guys." The way he sees it, "back in the day you used to have bowling night. I like to play videogames."

And then there is my friend who rules his civilization with an iron fist. His secret for maintaining control over a foreign city? "I starve the city to death, then I populate it with my own people."

As Meier says, "The game kind of lets you be yourself."

Civilization has a range of levels ascending in difficulty, from "Settler" to "Deity," sometimes known as the Sid level. Ironically, Meier has never won at this level. His excuse? "When we're developing, it's hard to finish a game. A lot of times, you play for a while and say, 'Oh, this or that ought to change.' People in the real world get better than us. I mean, there are people who are just so willing to spend the time."

Take, for example, WEEKLY STANDARD contributor and First Things editor Joseph Bottum, who has, in fact, won at the Deity level in Civilization III. He first began playing Civilization II in 1995 when he was a professor at Loyola College in Baltimore. "Among real aficionados," he says, "the goal was to see whether you could launch a spaceship before you reached A.D." The Deity level of Civ III posed more of a challenge, though Bottum eventually found a winning strategy--one involving an ancient civilization whose prime achievement appears early in the game, such as Egypt with its war chariots.

"We picked a topic with pretty universal appeal," says Meier. "We made a game that wasn't that hard to play but had a richness to it that people grew to appreciate. It tapped into things people already knew. I think it made people feel smart when they said, 'I'm going to develop the wheel or electricity or gunpowder. I know all this stuff and I'm in charge here.'" Besides that, "people like to be in these positions in games that they probably don't have a chance to be in real life and it tapped into that fantasy to a certain extent of being the leader of a civilization and having the destiny of all these people depending on you, and that was fun."

When Meier is not playing and testing his products, he spends his time with his wife and 16-year-old son (with whom he enjoys other videogames, like Guitar Hero). He plays keyboards and jams with a band consisting of members from his local church. The band's name is Faith Unlimited. The church he and his wife attend is Lutheran.

Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay. The same goes for choosing nuclear power or heading a government that isn't democratic--you could opt to run a fascist or Communist regime, though these choices all have consequences. (Your citizens may be less happy, but also less prone to rioting thanks to your secret police force.)

Nevertheless, Meier's faith puts him at odds with other game-design geniuses like John Carmack, John Romero, and Will Wright, who are all avowed atheists (and Meier is, incidentally, the only one from this group to have graduated from college). To be sure, Meier has the utmost respect for them and their pioneering work. But it is yet another factor that sets him apart.

When Carmack and Romero decided to introduce blood and gore in their breakthrough 1992 game Wolfenstein 3-D, they voluntarily rated themselves PC-13 for "profound carnage"--a brilliant marketing ploy. Later, when Romero realized Carmack had found a way to enable players to interact with each other on a network, as noted in Masters of Doom, his thought was: "Sure, it was fun to shoot monsters, but ultimately these were soulless creatures controlled by a computer. Now gamers could play against spontaneous human beings--opponents who could think and strategize and scream. We can kill each other! 'If we can get this done,' Romero said, 'this is going to be the f--ing coolest game that the planet Earth has ever f--ing seen in its entire history!'"

It's difficult to imagine the soft-spoken Sid Meier having the same reaction. "Those other guys," adds Bruce Shelley, "you look at their games, what kind of picture are they painting with their games? You look at Sid's games, I think what you're going to find is the kernel of a young man, a little boy, and the things he loved as a kid."

"We don't get into glorifying the violence and the gory stuff," says Meier. "That's just not the games that we like to do. I've raised a son and I know all the messages, all the influences, all the things that come into a young person's life, and we're responsible for a part of that. I mean, as game designers, we want people to play our games, so I think we need to take some responsibility for the content and the messages that come through our games."

Ultimately, Meier hopes people will want to read more about the subjects treated in his games. "I think people like to learn." And he might be on to something--at least when it comes to Laszlo Korossy. The 21-year-old junior at Catholic University has been playing Civilization in one form or another since the age of five, at a time when he spoke mostly Hungarian and knew only a handful of English words. At first, he says, "it was all just a game. I would then run into certain historical concepts, and as I started learning about history in school, I would see these concepts reappear. I already knew the word 'feudalism' in the first grade. I had no idea these concepts from the game were based on reality. But the game provided me with this framework through the years, a sense of familiarity."

"History was never a chore for me to study. It was always about going deeper into this game," says the history and international politics major, whose college application essay revolved around Civilization. Laszlo is also converting to Lutheranism. But this, he says, has nothing to do with Sid Meier.

Back at Firaxis, Meier and his team are hard at work on their next project, knowing their fans are eagerly waiting. Unfortunately, we can only speculate since, he explains, "we're not at the point where we're ready to talk too much about it." One possibility is a game about creating dinosaurs, an idea he called DinoMon, which he shelved years ago. But chances are, the next product will be related to the Civilization series. And yet there may come a time when replayability is completely exhausted--after all, the current edition features 18 civilizations, including Arabia, America, China, Russia, Spain, and Mali. What could possibly be left? "Canadians versus the Swiss," replies Meier. "That would be a real battle."

Millions of Civilization fans would agree, eh? And the purpose of it all? As the people of Long Island knocking the blip across the oscilloscope quickly figured out, but the physicist never quite grasped, not everything in life has a purpose.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.