I’ve gotten back into one of my favorite games: Civilization.

About three years ago now, in 2010, I was living in a tiny studio apartment in Daejeon, Korea. I had my trusty old MacBook balanced on my lap, and I was probably engrossed in a game of Civilization IV, and I was probably trying to spread every religion possible to every single city I had conquered on my 3-billion-year-old Pangea map.

Now, I’m living in Chicago in a two-bedroom with beautiful, west-facing windows. I’ve got a great iMac that I love to death, and more markers on my desk than humans should be allowed to have in one home. I make tuna and spinach salads and eat crackers while I play Civilization V.

I didn’t like Civilization V much when it first came out. Especially because they took religion out of the game–in theory to add it back in with an expansion pack that would make it much more interesting and complicated. (They did. I like the new religious gameplay in Gods and Kings. I don’t like, though, that it is more advantageous to have a city with only ONE religion. In Civ4, at the end of the game, it was much more advantageous to have all the religions possible in a city.)

I’ve played Civilization ever since I was a little kid. In fifth grade, my brother and the kid next door used to sit huddled around the ‘kid computer’ in the basement, playing 10 turns each while the other ones studied the technology map for Civ II. I learned the names of ancient and famous cities that way. I learned about ancient warfare, too, and other sorts of interesting things. About irrigation and the improvement of land–about how roads were necessary to bring resources to cities.

I took this screenshot of CivIII at some point in high school. How do I know? Because I made an LJ icon of it. Remember LJ Icons?

Each consecutive version of Civilization has been a favorite game of mine, over years and years of it’s development. I’ve played this game almost my whole life. I used to play it in Eagle Harbor after the sun went down on my mother’s laptop–she always had to bring it for work. I played Civilization III in high school, and I built maps that resembled the fantasy worlds that I wrote my novels about. Then there was Civ IV, while I was in college and Korea.

Civ V came out right when I got back. I didn’t like it much. Game play was way too different. But I’ve gotten over that now. I’m totally addicted.

What is particularly interesting about Civilization, though, is it’s method of imagining the “progression” of human development. It’s been out for easily 15 years now. Our imagination of the future and what the future is has changed drastically.

I came across this article a while ago, and it got me thinking about how this game has changed over the years. In it, a gamer describes what has happened in a game of Civ II that he played for literally ten years. It’s a nuclear wasteland, with global warming changing all of the un-radioactive tiles to unworkable marshes.

That was our imagination of what an unchanged future would have been like 15 years ago. Once you “win” the game–leave for Alpha Centauri–there was no way to conceive of change. The end of the game is a race against the clock for some ‘capstone’ thing that proclaims you have literally “won civilization”. The way that we conceive of “winning civilization” and what happens afterwards has a lot to say about our own culture and our own ‘civilization’. It says a lot about how we think we have ‘won the world’–and what would happen if our same algorithms never break out of the same cycle and make room for change.

I have yet to play Civ 5’s “Brave New World”, which I am saving for a rainy day. (Hopefully to postpone more inevitable addiction.) I wonder what that will do to change the late game, and what it might have to say about the way our world now conceives of the ‘algorithms’ that propel us towards the future.

In a game you can’t conceive of innovation and drastic change, an actually change to the way that we process information and react to it–the direction in which one goes. There’s a great moment in Ender’s Game where Ender re-orients the direction of the game–he changes the rules so that he can win. The same sort of thing happens in the Hunger Games–sort of. Instead of changing the rules, they beat the rules. But this kind of innovation doesn’t happen in a computer simulation. So, we can really see what ‘happens’ if we keep going along the same route forever and ever.

Civ II has some of the more intense images of nuclear warfare that the later games don’t have. Nuclear Warfare isn’t really a thing that we are so drastically terrified of anymore. Nuclear winter, I don’t think, ever appears in the later games–at least past Civ 4. None of the computer players have ever nuked me in 4 or 5. We live in a different world.

Anyway, it’s fun to watch the progression of game that is supposed to be about the progression of human development. Over the course of the game’s development, it has become a fascinating tool for figuring out how we conceive of ourselves–if human civilization was indeed a game, what would that game look like?

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