Friday, November 21, 2014

[BoRT Nov. 2014] Lebensraum and Ichsraum: Self-Portrait in Civilization 4

Nov. 2014 Blogs of the Round Table           

 “What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”
            -Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

            -Flavor text for the Superconductors technology, Civilization 4

            Confession: I am not what you’d call a homemaker.

            My apartment only has two pieces of furniture that I actually own – a bed and bookshelves. The walls are completely bare unless you count white paint. I take the time to throw my clothing in the closet, but everything else I own is in cardboard boxes strewn across the floor. I sit on couch cushions because I can’t be bothered to buy a couch. Form does not follow function in my living environments, functions follow functions.

            I have a sizable collection of coffee-table books, but no coffee tables.

            This lack of concern for living environments is reflected in how I play games. When Skyrim’s Hearthfire expansion came out, I had more fun collecting wood and stone to build houses than decorating/living in the house. My Sims houses are storage containers for skill-improving items and showers. For me, houses are places where you put stuff you don’t want to carry around, not an end to themselves.

            This does not mean, however, that I do not carve out spaces for my own.

By posting this image,
I have doomed myself
To a 30-hour marathon
                Enter Civilization 4, the 2005 game that has consumed more of my waking hours than any other form of media. If you’ve never played a Civilization game, I cannot recommend it. If you don’t like strategy games, it will be a waste of your time and money. If you do like strategy games, it will steal the bulk of your free time for the rest of your natural life.

                I was briefly able to escape the lure of Civ 4 for a glorious year or two by uninstalling it and destroying the game disc. Then a well-meaning friend bought me a Steam copy. Le sigh. Now I can never truly escape it.

                But in a sense, I do not want to escape this game. It’s like an old sweater or a beloved pair of jeans. The moment I hear the music of the opening video, I am already enthralled. When I select the “New Game” option, my mind is whirling with the possibilities, all of the possible permutations of options, maps, nations, and leaders. Even before the game starts, I have my moves planned out a hundred steps in advance. I know each modifier, just where to put the slider on the scales to create the exact experience I am craving.

"The same thing we do every night, Monty.
Try to take over the world!"
                The basic concept of Civilization is simple: you are put in charge of a group of nomadic humans who are ready to settle down and start a family civilization. You will guide these people, or rather, this people-group, from learning how to hunt and fish all the way to space ships and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Along the way you will come into contact and conflict with other civilizations. As each civilization’s borders spread, land and resources that can be peacefully exploited run out and war becomes inevitable.

               Even without the material issues of land and resources, Civilization 4 also raises tensions between civilizations that have different government civics and religions. And of course, some leaders are simply more war-like. Though there are many different ways to win the game (technology, culture, diplomacy, conquest, and highest score), the easiest and fastest way to win is to exterminate or subjugate your rivals. At the end of the game there will only be one civilization which truly stands “the test of time.”

                As I play a game of Civilization 4, my nation, my people become a reflection of my personality. I make choices which impact the virtual lives of my subjects – I choose which buildings to build, which technology to prioritize, what type of government we will have, which religion we will follow, and where to expand our borders. Changes in government are called “revolutions,” but whether my civilization is a slave-holding fascist theocracy or a liberal democratic ecotopia depends on one person’s whim. Governments can be overthrown but the Leader, the central governing consciousness, cannot. I am the incarnate spirit of a nation, of a people.

                I tend to build civilizations with strong culture and technology, not because I am dedicated to peaceful victory, but because being strong in these areas makes it easier to wage war. With strong technologies, I can exploit resources faster and build more terrible machines of death. With strong culture, I can easily hold on to the gains of war and push back the borders of my neighbors. And by owning the Holy City of the largest religion, my civilization generates enough income to fund my reckless expansion.

                I do not engage in diplomacy to find common ground or to ease tensions, but to orchestrate elaborate alliances against my rivals. I goad my enemies into attacking me first, making them the aggressor and myself as a hapless victim who is forced to subjugate their cities. I bribe my allies into joining these wars at strategic points, splitting my enemy’s forces and forcing them to fight on two fronts. My civilization, the representation of my will in this world, topples enemy after enemy, swelling from a single city into entire hemispheres.

                As a pacifist, this is all extremely disturbing. I used to play the game in line with my personal moral values, but turning the other cheek is not a valid strategy in Civilization 4. My allies declared war on me along with my enemies and laid my token defenses to waste. I tried engaging only in Just Wars of defense and showing mercy at the soonest opportunity, but this left my people weakened without adding any new territories. I tried trusting my allies, and they used this as an opening for betrayal.

                I have spent more time in Civilization 4 than any other fictional space, but it can only ever be home to my worst instincts. The instinct to control, the instinct to destroy, the instinct to make my ego-consciousness spread over the earth and crush all opposing voices. I wonder if my civilization truly represents any “people” as it spreads from Asia into Africa, from Europe to the New World, as it crushes a half dozen unique cultures and absorbs them into my spreading mass.

                In the end-game statistics, I see that my people were not the happiest, healthiest, or best fed – just the ones with the most cunning and ruthless leader. I neglected my own people in order to crush other nations that were more capable of caring for their own. My people have been subjected to millennia-long war efforts in order to expand my Self.

                Oh, it is true that I would have been attacked even if I did not engage in war. Some other leader would have marched across my people’s land, burned their crops, ravaged their cities, and subjugated them to some other regime. But the result would be the same. A third leader would look upon my people’s conqueror with envy and another war would begin. Allies would betray allies, and the wars would continue until a master dominated all. There is no passive resistance in Civilization 4, only the self-eating snake.

                As the game progresses, I start to become bored. There is no longer any question of if or how I will win, only when. I have already toppled any rival who presented a credible threat. All that remains is the bullying of progressive weaker nations, until I am crushing feudal societies with tanks and attack helicopters. In a particularly well-played game, I will be building an interplanetary space ship and nuking defenseless cities, not because I must, but to stave off boredom. And yet the game rewards me for this senseless slaughter of innocents by raising my score. I have more totally dominated my rivals. I have more completely imposed my will on the world.

                The longer I have played Civilization 4, the more adept I have become at using both the sword and the plowshare to dominate my rivals. My power grows and grows, but there is little resistance left to overcome. I feel a strange sense of pity for my computer-generated rivals. I tweak the settings, shuffle the maps, install mod packs, and set arbitrary goals for myself to keep the game interesting. But I must face the truth eventually – I have grown to fill every nook and cranny of this home. Every modification to the scenario simply expands my power over the total set.

                It’s that Old Hegelian Rag, the Tragedy of the Master. The more power I have over my rivals, the less I see them as human, the less meaning I find in their overthrow and defeat. There is no glory in defeating a slave, in nuking a feudal city, in running a knight under the treads of my tanks. I am the boot on the face of humanity, but it gives me no joy.

                This, perhaps, is the sad lot of the immortal master. When the game announces “The End of History,” the world is filed with the sacred silence that my self has wrought. I can choose to keep playing the game out into a speculative eternity, but there are no more worlds to conquer, no descendants to pass the fruits of my conquest on to, just a solitary blue planet to rule over forever and ever, Amen.

                Or, I can start a new game.


  1. Have you considered playing Eve Online?

  2. No, but I absolutely love reading about some of the insane things Eve players get up to.