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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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."