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‘Civilization’ Taught Me All About the Darkness at the Heart of Man

The famously addictive game's everlasting conflict presents us with an accurate portrait of who, and what, we are.

by Andrew Lowry
Jul 15 2015, 4:25pm

This screenshot, and the next, are from 'Civilization V,' released in 2010.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

For more than 20 years now, and across five different editions and a brace of expansion packs, the Civilization series has been quietly holding a dark mirror to human nature. Sure, the various generations of designers have attempted to throw human triumphs from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to Leonardo da Vinci into the games, but this veteran franchise has long represented devastating proof of one thing: Despite window-dressings of diplomacy and culture, human beings will raze a city at the drop of a hat.

If you've never played the game (and if so, congratulations—you're automatically 3,000 times more productive than we poor addicts), think of it as a history simulator. With varying degrees of visual sophistication, you're presented with a top-down view of the world, and you're basically roleplaying a partial god, guiding a civilization from initial mud huts to nuclear weapons and Panzers over about 6,000 years.

And this is a partial god in an Old Testament sense. The developers rather sweetly include options to live in harmony with your neighbors and develop in peaceful co-prosperity—there's even a win condition determined by your popularity with your AI competitors—but it doesn't work out quite like that. I have no doubt that I'm in the overwhelming majority in playing the game like some combination of Genghis Khan and Henry Kissinger in one of his more bloodthirsty moods, merrily conquering nearby countries over wars that span centuries, and razing their cities without a second thought. There's even a fun sound effect when you do so, allowing you hear your enemies' lamentations as they're crushed under your virtual jackboot. Seriously, there are few greater satisfactions in life than building an invincible army of Aztec cavalry and sending them to eradicate the spearmen of your American neighbors.

Sometimes it's about some vague sense of avenging a historical wrong—it's satisfying to destroy Spain when playing as the Incas, and sometimes it's about a sense of quasi-reenactment of history, although that can lead down the psychologically dangerous path of playing as Germany and establishing a Reich that lasts a lot longer than a thousand years. But mostly it's about pure idle savoring of destruction, the passing of recreation time with fake conquest. Destruction becomes addictive, too—if you've already sent Napoleon packing in 500 BC, there's little reason to spare Caesar in 1,500 AD.

But why is this? There's no real incentive to behave this way. In fact, there's no incentive to behave in any way—like my occasional bouts of cobweb-removing mass murder in the GTA games, this is a consequence-free environment. Like that guy who tried to live as a pacifist in Los Santos, I could be a good virtual helmsman, guiding my people through peaceful and virtuous lives and eventually exploring space in peace. Instead, my teenage years were marked by frequent 2AM fits of virtual genocide. Why is this? Why not be a nice guy?

Well, equally, why not become a virtual Attila? The clue's in the "consequence-free environment." There's no ICC coming for me, there's no court of public opinion, there's not even a supernatural entity who'll hold me in judgement should my people execute me in a drainpipe, Gaddafi-style (let them try). Sure, people have been saying that a good life is its own reward since the Greeks, but the reality is that without the chidings of others, human beings can be pretty despicable. History is littered with cases where might made right, where cynical or exploitative acts led to riches or power, and where the idealistic little guy is crushed by the more pragmatic big guy, less hung up on agonizing over whether something's the right thing to do. It doesn't matter if you're Machiavelli or Stalin or Kissinger, the cynic usually wins out over the idealist.

And this is the reason the Civilization games, for all their gentle nudging toward a constructive building of a harmonious global community, are so goddamn dark. The game doesn't force us to live in a state of Hobbesian chaos, where conflict is permanent and the strong eat the weak—it lets us choose. And given the choice between pacifism and leaving smoking ruins in our wake, the majority of us reach for the touchpaper.

And so, despite the options to micromanage where exactly your cities do their mining, we're left in this way with a series that has wandered into becoming one of the most realistic simulators of the Orwellian forever war that makes up history. But there's another way it's realistic as well.

If we accept that history is a string of wars interrupted with periods of peace spent preparing for the next one, despite how it may sound, there is a positive. If I'm playing Civilization, my reptile brain is telling me to devastate all around me. I can't do that by sending pikemen against tanks, or if I do my efforts will be pretty short-lived. I have to learn and develop new technologies to beat them—I can't do it by hurting their feelings. Conflict and competition spur me on to take my tribe from initial settlement to space, not because progress is in itself good, but because I need that edge.

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This is what happened in history, too—Europe's dominance on the world stage is obviously over, but serious thinkers have argued that it only came about at all because, rather than the monolithic empires of the East, the fractious and argumentative city states, and later actual states, of Europe were forced to compete through innovation. Marginally better armor could make the difference between having a whole shitload of chapels with Caravaggios in them and having to pay tribute like the short kid on the school bus. For all the darkness, for all the pain, this everlasting violence led to some pretty great things as well—but has it been worth it? The most troubling thought is, when I survey my empire after 5,000 years of wise guidance, and launch it into space in search of fresh worlds to dominate, it kind of does.

So, Civilization shows us who we are. It may not be a pretty reflection, and we may not think of it as showing our best selves—but the everlasting conflict it presents us with is an accurate portrait of who, and what, we are. Now, one more turn—my enemies still draw breath.

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