Civilization and its Discontents

Cultural novelties are many, but genuinely new art forms don't come along very often. The computer game may be to our time what film was to the early twentieth century. There's a cultural divide about this -- literate young people in their twenties routinely spend leisure hours hunting aliens on their PCs; gaffers like me tend to regard this as a waste of time. But my link to the world of the young is a game called Civilization III, invented by master designer Sid Meier.

To call Civilization III a game is probably a misnomer. To those of us who love it, "Civ" is a combination hobby, obsession, and alternate universe. At a time when the air is full of loose talk about the "clash of civilizations," the game's fascination -- and its own evolution over time -- provides interesting insights into the nature of civilization, and even more interesting views of our own ways of thinking about it.

"Civilization" is both a description and an aspiration. The historians of the Annales school viewed a civilization as the irrefragable sum total of a geographic region's history, demography, and environment -- one civilization can never become another, they argued, and civilizations that find themselves in proximity to one another are doomed to conflict. Looking at history from this point of view -- what Annales historian Fernand Braudel called the "longue durée" -- events seem to exhibit an inhuman inevitability, flowing unstoppably if not predictably out of material conditions.

And yet there remains that other meaning. "What do you think of Western civilization?" Gandhi was once asked. "I think," he replied, "it would be a good idea." We all instinctively feel that "civilization" refers to something more than irrigation, epidemiology, and climate. If an enlightened leader had been in charge of Sumeria or Great Zimbabwe -- if we, that is, had been in charge -- could sheer wisdom and goodwill have shattered the cycle of shortage, war, and collapse?

The Civilization games offer the opportunity to be that enlightened ruler, a wise and liberal Montezuma or Shaka Zulu. Over and over, in the privacy of my study, I try to rectify the history of the world, to retell the human story as a long moral arc that bends toward justice. And like my real-life counterparts, I always fail.

The Civ games -- which have gone through three increasingly sophisticated versions, not counting a number of spin-offs such as Alpha Centauri and Civilization: Call to Power -- all follow the same format. The year is 4,000 B.C. I settle in a likely spot, till the soil, and explore the world around me. My population grows, I settle new cities, build mines and roads across the land, and erect temples and marketplaces within my cities. History sweeps by -- 6,000-plus years of it -- but I remain alive and in charge of my people's destiny, aided by a grave cabinet of computer-generated advisers who warn me when I am low on money, when my citizens are discontented, or when my enemies are growing strong.

My scientists devise new technologies such as engineering, ironworking, electricity, and finally space flight and the atom bomb. When things are going well, my big cities can build wonders of the world, from a primitive "oracle" to a futuristic "cure of cancer." Meanwhile I compete with other civilizations (controlled by the program itself), that seek to block my growth, or to outsmart me in trade deals and diplomatic negotiations. When I cross them, or tempt them with weakness, they attack without warning. Finally, in the twenty-first century, we learn who has won.

There are a number of ways to win the game. There's old-fashioned world conquest. But the less militaristic can win by being the first to launch a starship (which basically requires the world's strongest economic system). And there's also a kind of American-style victory -- the "cultural victory," in which the other cultures fall in love with yours until they either join it or become its satellites.

It's hard for a summary to convey the raw fascination of the game. A player peers at a map showing his cities. At first, his own territory is surrounded by darkness, but as years pass the area of terra incognita shrinks. The population grows; at every turn, the player must decide whether to build new cities to house the surplus people or direct them to less immediately productive uses -- as scientists, tax-gatherers, or entertainers. Units rush back and forth across the map. Every few turns brings a computer-animated audience with one of the other leaders, who will offer (or demand, or threaten, depending on the relative strength of the two civilizations) something.

Much of the satisfaction of playing the Civ games is the reinforcement they give to Rudyard Kipling's "Gods of the Copy Book Headings." In the Civ world, as in the real one, power grows from hard work, frugality, discipline, and strength. Spend less than you take in. Build the basics (granaries and barracks) before the flashy (banks and coliseums). Always remember that the lion doesn't lie down with the lamb; rulers who neglect their military soon find their neighbors' armies knocking at their gates.

Beyond those lessons, the Civ games teach us that geography is destiny. At the beginning of each game, the computer generates a planet to play on and locates the player's tribe somewhere on its surface, in grassland, jungle, desert, or mountains. Each type of terrain generates different levels of economic growth. A mighty military empire is more likely to rise on a broad, temperate continent than in the jungle; a tribe beginning its history on a tiny island will usually succeed, if at all, only as a maritime trading nation.

And finally, there is war. Civilizations that fight their neighbors suffer economic loss and scientific stagnation; watching the enemy chew up your legions and catapults is a graphic reminder that the same time and effort could have produced cathedrals, marketplaces, or aqueducts that could last for hundreds of years.

But having shown the folly of war, Civ also puts peace out of reach. I stockpile arms in my cities to deter aggression, but when my neighbors show up demanding tribute, I'm meek as a lamb and go to humiliating lengths to avoid giving offense. It doesn't matter: When the time comes, for reasons of their own, they attack me anyway. Of all the words I have read on a computer screen, "The Babylonians have declared war on us!" are probably the saddest. And I have read them a lot.

At the same time, some of Civ's lessons are at the very least subject to debate. For one thing, in Meier's world all of earth's civilizations go through the same stages of development. Bronze Age poverty gives way to a Middle Ages, then industrialization and the dash for outer space. Concepts are "discovered" in logical order, and rulers know what they are working on -- in my latest scenario, for example, as the Emperor Jerxes, I am trying to invent pottery so I can discover monarchy. This makes the game seem a little like a Monty Python movie, where characters cheerfully explain that radio hasn't been invented yet. My reading of human history suggests that "science" doesn't really march forward like this -- it skips, hops, and stumbles unpredictably.

Civ also gives an odd view of indigenous peoples. Players send out units to explore neighboring "tribal" villages. Every so often, the village's residents begin their own city -- but that city is part of the player's civilization, with no culture of its own. Far more often, the villages disappear the moment "civilized" troops make contact. Villagers may turn into angry warriors (who obligingly die off in battle); they may furnish cultural know-how, or a trove of gold coins; but in any case, they disappear without demanding justice or even building a casino. It is a rather chilling view of cultural growth.

As a way to learn ancient history, Civilization has its flaws. It is, however, a peerless introduction for us ordinary folk to the psychology of those who govern us. As a player becomes absorbed in pursuing long-term goals, it is easy to neglect "unimportant" things until a riot or a surprise attack brings one up short. And no matter how I coach myself to act with cool reason, I find myself growing furious at other leaders (particularly that supercilious Elizabeth of England, whose computer-animated eyes regard me as if I were a slug crawling up her crumpet); eventually, I snap back at them and find myself at war. If it's this hard to keep cool with artificial intelligences, what must it be like to have to deal with a real Saddam Hussein or Ariel Sharon?

It also takes only a few turns of Civ play for me to turn into a combination of Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft. The people -- busily hammering, digging, and marching on the screen -- appear in my thoughts, if at all, only as refractory, ungrateful dolts, to be manipulated when possible and sacrificed when necessary. Citizens often riot in Civ world, and when they do I feel nothing but betrayal and contempt. Didn't I give you a cathedral just 12 turns ago? Can't you see that I am in an arms race with Zululand just now?

Democracy is an important development in Civ: People work harder when they believe they are free. But when an important decision looms, the people's views just don't count. No matter how much I need those Babylonian oilfields, the people, bless their simple hearts, never want to go to war. So I do not consult them; when the bullets fly, they always rally around, at least for a while. If necessary, I institute dictatorship until the people are "ready" for "self-government" again. (For that reason, a vague queasiness often accompanies the persistent aching in my wrist after a long game.)

But Civ III offers one transcendent pleasure that real-life power, even if absolute, could never match. After each game, when my world has descended into poverty, pollution, and war, I brood over my mistakes, much as, I imagine, Fulgencio Batista or the shah of Iran must have done during those too-quiet evenings of exile. But unlike those luckless rulers, I can always get a second chance. If I have saved my game at key points of history, I simply go back, wiser now and avoid those fatal mistakes -- this time no appeasement of the Germans, no land war on that huge continent, no premature transition from monarchy to republic, no fatal charge up Cemetery Hill.

Who has not yearned to go back, just once, and try to do history over? It is the one thing we can never do in reality, so the chance to try it on a virtual planet has hooked me like some cyber-narcotic. Time after time I start again at 4,000 BC, determined to avoid mistakes; time after time, events and my own frailty betray the vision of the peaceful kingdom that shimmers in my brain. Over and over, tired and broken after 6,000 years of heartbreak, I turn off my G4 and swear off politics for good.

And yet I can't let go of that hope for transcendence, that naive faith -- central to both Marxism and much of Christianity -- that humanity is meant to get history right. By the next day I am ordering up a new scenario, mentally calling for my bow of burning gold and arrows of desire, determined not to cease from mental fight till I have built Jerusalem upon my green and pleasant screen.

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