Thursday, February 19, 2009

Playing Civilized




Having given my best years and braincells to computer games I feel eminently qualified to answer the blogstresses call and write a little about them. My particular poison is strategy games. To begin with I will write a little about what a strategy game is, illustrating with examples from perhaps the greatest game(series) of all times. Don’t worry, there will be classical references.

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Strategy (the word itself of course from the greek, Strategos; a leader of an army), games are about exactly that, i.e. marshaling your limited resources to acheive certain goals, usually in competion with opponents. Before computer versions there were board games, such as chess, Monopoly and far more complex ones (link to the civilization board game wiki). Often the theme is military, conquest or more generally guiding a nation, or even a civilization through war, peace and what lies inbetween. And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the game; Civilization.

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I still remember the first time I played it; I was 11 and at a friends house. I think that experience forever decided the course of my life. That was the first in the series, which now includes 3 direct sequels, one Nietzschean(titelwise) kinda sequel, variants, mods, scenarios, expansions and countless rippoffs. The original designer now has name included in every game he makes, and probably som he doesn’t.

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What is so great about it? What isn’t? It set the standard for the 4x genre; games where you explore, expand, exploit and exterminate(but in a....nice way). It starts out in 4000 BC with the founding of your civilization’s first city. You then gather resources and build military units, discover technologies, build new cities, defend against barbarians, make contact with other civilizations and deal with them in a peaceful or warlike manner. You can trade, make treaties, spy or just hit them with a big club-or later, tank. The game takes you through all history, endning in 2000 ad-ish unless of course, you’ve already won by then.

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And yes, all you caeser-crazed classicists, out there, you can play as the Romans. You get to be Julius Caeser(The picture is from the latest game in the series)! That is, if Julius was immortal, had (more or less) complete power over his realm and no, you don’t get to explore his personal life. In the original game the Egyptians are not even led by Cleopatra(They are in some later versions, though....in the latest there is even a Celtic civilization you can conquor). This is however basically cosmetic, it makes no difference in game terms. Normally you play on a randomly generated, but earthlike, world, but you can play on the old familiar map as well. Kinda takes the joys out of exploring, though.

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At a certain point in the game you might find yourself with a civilization looking like the classical roman soceity; aqueducts, soldiers armed with iron swords, roads linking your cities, temples keeping your population content and calm, corruption affecting your border provinces where barbarians raid, your republic slowly becoming too expensive to maintain, forcing a change to a monarchy.

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The interesting thing is of course the model; the fact that the game tries to simulate how a soceity works, how increased trade leads to technological advances, population growth occurs because of food surpluses, the effect of roads(allows faster troop movements but also increases trade-as the romans knew, roads make an empire), form of goverment(democracy gives the most trade but makes the military cost more and means you cannot go to war when ever you want to). As I stated ealier the whole point is using your limited resources to get what you want. If you want to conquer your neighbour, you need an army with preferably better armament than the enemy, to get this you need to dicover the iron working technology and also create cities with high production so you can build the units. Since one wants to do well, one is forced to learn this model. For the game to work this has to agree with our preconceived ideas of how things hang together but can also educate/indoctrinate us about it. In learning to play the game, we internalize its underlying ideas of how the world works.

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Behind this lurks, of course, a criticizable view of the world. For example, it postulate a pretty linear view of progress that varies little from one civilization to another(it also postulates progress). Furthermore, you win the game by 1. destroying all other civilizations(might does make right) 2.expanding into space(always expand) or 3. getting the most points when the game ends(Points given for happy or content citizens, wonders of the world and more). You don’t have to be a post-modernist to spot some....potentially problematic values there. Nevertheless, I believe that playing this game(and other) has given me a better understanding of history and the processes governing it; better a flawed model, than no model at all.I could argue further that this gives a different, in some ways more immediate understanding than merely reading history or economic or under sciences; in being forced to apply an internalized understanding, manipulate a model, you get a feel for the connections that only doing(in what ever subject, compare it to solving mathematical problems, handling a computer or commanding an army) can give you; no amount of theory can do the same. To answer your question; yes, I believe our political leaders should be required to log at least 100 hours on appropriate games before being allowed to play with reality.

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The civilization series has of course changed over time, added such features as culture, religon, different leader traits which give different bonuses(Caesar is in the latest game for example imperialistic and organized, Augustus industrious and organized), special buildings and units for different civilizations(praetorians and forums for Rome) great people, natural resources(can’t build Iron equipped troops without iron) etc. Also scenarios where different systems or limited areas/times are used(one in Civ 4 called Rise of Rome where you battle as Rome, Carthage, Greece, Gaul, or Egypt for control of the Mediterranean beginning in 300 bc) or one where Civilizations actually come and go, collapse and are replaced something like what happened in the real world but(for playability purposes mainly I imagine; its more fun to just keep going than see your hard won empire degenerate and fall) isn’t modeled in the normal game. And yes, they have added new victory conditions, including one where you can win a “Diplomatic” victory by building the United Nations and then getting everybody to sit in a circle and sing “Kumbaya”(not from the greek).

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But forget about all that; models, greater undersatanding, yadda, yadda. The real reason surely to play a game is to have fun; the civilization series for me always had that “Just one more Turn”-quality, where you never want to stop playing, telling yourself as day turns into night, night back to day, “just one more turn....just ‘til I discover Mathematics, ‘til I defeat the Persians, ‘til I finish building the Colossus, ”. Be warned; the game invites alien abduction, you sit down to play, and suddenly five hours have just disapeared. Lost time, right out of the X-files.

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There are other arguments and resons for playing games, I will return to the subject later. For now though a quote which makes the most fundamental arguemnt better than I ever could.

“In play the “objectivity” of objects and their effects, and the actuality of the objective world with which one is usually forced constantly to deal, thus learning to respect it , are temporarily suspended. For once, one does entirely as one pleases with objects; one places oneself beyond them and becomes “free” from them. This is what is decisive; in this self-positing transendence of objectivity one comes precisely to oneself, in a dimension of freedom denied in labor. In a single move of a unit, the player acheives an infinitely greater triumph of human freedom over objectification than in the most powerful accomplishment of technical labor”*

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Tomorrow; Total War!

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Tegularius

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* Modified slightly from the orginal. If anyone can spot the alteration and identify the writer of the original I will give you a computer game. Maybe Civilization 4, maybe something else if you already have that. Send your answers(one per person) to latinbloggen@yahoo.com.

For those wanting more about the Civ series I recomend Civfanatics.

1 comment:

dunderklumpen said...

Giving away free copies of Civ is like giving someone their first fix of crack cocaine.

Civ II was my favourite, I've played that for countless of hours.