Saturday, December 5, 2009

Games and Life

"Nice civilization you're building for someone else there."

Freeman Hunt forwarded me this (somewhat hard to read) set of notes from the G4C conference. (There's an interesting story about Zynga and real-life donations on that G4C link. I've been studying Zynga for a while and have a post brewing about it.)

As I was reading it, I thought of the above quote, which I read on the Apolyton forums years ago, regarding the game Civilization. Some poor sap had developed this gorgeous civilization powered by art and culture (Civ 3 introduced the ability to conquer cities via culture) and was fretting because the cretins around him—with their pathetic attempts at art—had instead built up massive armies of guys with pointed sticks.

He was dismayed that all his culture and education was threatened by some barely literate clods still in the Stupid Ages.

And what I wondered at that point is whether or not the popularity of the computer strategy game might not have a profound impact on people's philosophies regarding the nature of war.

As noted in the pseudo-transcript above, games are models, and they have some limited value in their real-life application. Civ 3 was very good at emulating historical trends (at least as we perceive them from here, which is very skewed, but that's another story) such that industrialism, nationalism and treaties would almost always lead to massive world wars.

This, by the way, feeds into my prejudice about computer climate models. Civilization does a better job "predicting" the past than climate models do (but an awful job predicting the future).

But whatever the limitations, there is one thing that is true in every strategy game: The surest way to invite war is to not develop militarily.

The motivations are (one would hope) not exactly the same: Strategy games tend to be zero sum. If you conquer the world in Civ with a bunch of rock-wielding cavemen, well, you've still conquered the world. The game ends at that point, with you victoriously ruling the stone ages.

Nonetheless, it only takes one guy—one Attila or Genghis or Napoleon—to convince his people that, yeah, they pretty much should be running the show, to turn a bunch of weakly defended countries into fuel for a war machine.

Peace (for you) is only assured by being substantially stronger than the other guys.

Another interesting evolution in the Civ games is that while you may be hated if you're very powerful, people will act nice to your face. If you're weak, you'll be openly loathed, extorted and eventually conquered.

It's not just Civilization, though: Every 4x game I can think of (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) has the same basic rule. If you want peace, you have to make war an unpleasant prospect for others.

The modern 4X game is only about 15 years old, and Civilization not quite 20, but it's not hard to imagine that the lessons they teach might have an impact in coming years.


  1. He was dismayed that all his culture and education was threatened by some barely literate clods still in the Stupid Ages.

    Ha. I remember that same feeling the first time I played that as a kid. Lesson learned.

    Maybe someone could send Civ to Obama. Or, better yet, his daughters, and they could tell him about it.

  2. Well, in Civ 3, you can actually win solely with culture, at the easiest level. Of course, you can win doing just about anything at the easiest level.


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