by Kurt Squire Shree Durga, Ben DeVane
“Josh – I want to get a Civ4 game together for a book chapter we’re writing. Can you help?”
“Sure. Hardest part is when. We have a half day of school on Friday
‘cuz of finals. Let me ask my mom if I can get a ride.”
“What about Morgan?”
“He goes to my school. I’ll ask him.”
The organization of our Civilization games had not always been so easy. It had taken years for us to reach the point in which we could just get together casually on a weekday afternoon, and fire up a multiplayer game. This process used to be much more institutionally, verging on bureaucratic. We held weekly gaming sessions – shifting to three days per week during the summers – using the Civilization series for three years at an after-school youth center. Part of a game-based afterschool program focused on teaching history, geography and trade, these game sessions all started at the same time, lasted three hours, focused on historical-based scenarios and included introduction and debrief periods. These sessions were larger than just the five of us – sometimes they involved five adults facilitating and over twenty young people playing in up to five multiplayer games. The ease with which we gathered on short notice made the game feel more like a hastily organized summer cook-out than an intensely managed after school program.
The surprising ease with which our recent multiplayer games were organized belied the difficult reality of trying to squeeze in a multiplayer game around everyone’s schedules. When we started the Civ club in 2004, things were simpler for all of us. Josh and Morgan, who were 10 and 11 at the time (respectively), had relatively little to do after-school other than ride bikes or play soccer. Now, their afternoons are occupied by homework, athletics and other activities. For the adults, times were then easier too. We all had less email, conferences, writing and family commitments to negotiate. The contrast was not simply a product of collective nostalgia either, for a cursory glance at our collective calendars showed that returning to our old hours – participating in a three-hour Civ gaming session each week (three times a week in the summers) would be an impossibility.
It was in this way that we met in the afternoon of a school half day in our computer lab. Quite a bit had changed in the year since the afterschool program ended. Now 14 and 15 years old respectively, Josh and Morgan towered over all of us – even the six-foot tall Ben. The adults, of course, could not go without remarking on such striking changes.
“Cripes, how tall are you guys?” Kurt couldn’t help but ask.
“I’m 6’2”, he’s 6’3,” Josh said. Competing time commitments meant that neither could come to Civ club regularly for a couple of years. It quickly became clear, however that both still had the same keen interest in history, politics and social issues that they had developed during their participation in the Civ club.
“Are you still interested in politics, Morgan?” Last time we had seen Morgan, he had told us he wanted to become a Senator as a result of playing Civilization. We were curious to see if this interest had “stuck”.
“Oh yeah. I want to go into politics or criminal justice.”
“What do you think about Obama,” (we had to ask).
Morgan replied enthusiastically. “I like him, and I think he’s going to bring
“I like him too,” chimed in Josh. “You know, Obama has already brought change by signing executive orders like closing down Guantanamo and stopping torture.” The contrast between Josh’s initial attitude towards history and his current attention to history and current events was striking. When he first began his participation in the Civ club, he described his opinion of school and social studies in unflattering terms (reported in Squire, DeVane, & Durga, 2008):
Josh: I don’t really like school, unless there’s something fun going on, that’s the only time there’s actually something to do. You just sit there going [puts hand on head to imitate sleeping]. That’s all you ever do really.
Interviewer: How do you feel about social studies?
Josh: Umm social studies can be fun depending on what you’re doing.
Last year we made a mountain out of graham crackers and we made it stuck together out of frosting and in the end we got to eat it.
Since then, Josh had gone from “B”s and “C”s in social studies to mostly “A’s”. On this day both Josh and Morgan had just finished their respective final semester exam in history that they both declared were “easy” for them. While history interested him, Morgan explained, he reported with slight hyperbole that in his world history class he already “knew it all from Civ”. In short, the two young men have an impressive knowledge of history and current events for their age. While we would not claim that the Civ program alone is responsible for their relative erudition of history, it has been a driving force in their interest and expertise, alongside supportive teachers, parents, independent reading and an interest in the History channel.
The Setup: Selecting Civilizations
Consider, for example, the discussion around what historical mod we would play that day. At the after-school club, we commonly played multiplayer games using a mod related to a historical theme or time-period that one of the participants was studying in school. Consequently, we have developed and played many scenarios over the years, ranging in topic from ancient Mesopotamian civilizations to the 100 Years War to the Industrial Revolution. This practice enabled us to not only create scenarios that might have immediate pay-off in school, but also (and probably more critically), created an atmosphere in which it was normal (and indeed desirable) for participants to talk about the academic study of history in relation to their game play. Asked if they preferred playing a random game-generated map or a historical scenario, Josh and Morgan both quickly agreed that they wanted to play a scenario, and they immediately began discussing what they were studying in school.
“Right now, we’re studying Mongolia,” Josh started off. He then asked Kurt about the relationship between Genghis and Kublai Khan, which none of the adults could recall with any degree of certainty offhand (Kublai is Genghis’ grandson), which lead Josh to consult Wikipedia about the matter - a practice that was encouraged in the Civ club. The discussion then turned to how one would play as Mongolian in a game of Civilization.
“Well, Mongolia is sandwiched between Russia and China,” Morgan (who often played as Russia) added. Ben added that there wasn’t much arable land in Mongolia. Josh and Morgan both nodded as if Mongolia’s low precipitation rate was common knowledge for a 14 year old. Josh quickly added, “If I was Mongolia, what I’d do is attack Russia or China,” citing the arable land available there. The discussion turned to the expansion of the Mongolian Empire from 1206 to 1227 and its historical impact on Asia. Both Josh and Morgan already knew a good deal about the Mongols from other sources.
It should be noted that Josh immediately and casually began to design a successful game play strategy from the perspective of Mongolia as he considered how to offset the disadvantages of the countries geography. This kind of thinking about historical scenarios from different perspectives – e.g. thinking of oneself as a country and thinking about how to balance variables in order to negotiate a complex system – is precisely what playing Civilization is about. This is the kind of historical thinking high-end Civilization players like Josh and Morgan engage in constantly. At the most basic level, playing Civilization has given Josh and Morgan an entrée for studying world history. It made history interesting and something at which they can develop expertise. At a more advanced level, it has helped them build them build a fluency with historical terms like Mongolia, and provided them in depth knowledge of cultural geography in different historical periods. Both Josh and Morgan had played as Mongolia, Russia, or China many times over the years, and as such it was easy for them to think as a leader of a nation would. Moreover, it scaffolded thinking about the interaction of variables in a complex historical systems - e.g. how regional food supplies affect trade networks, how trade networks influence foreign policy, and how the distribution of natural resources shapes the use of new technologies. It was striking to see how facilely Josh slid into this kind of historical analysis.
Finally, we settled on “Desert War”, a North African / Mediterranean Mod from World War II. Josh, who embraced most any war-related scenario knew about Rommel’s successes and proceeded to tell us all about them, so he was in. Morgan also had an interest in World War II, so he voted for the Desert War scenario as well. Immediately, this led to light hearted ribbing about who would have to be the Germans. Morgan, who most every game ended up at war with Ben, suggested that because “Ben attacks people for no reason,” Ben should have to play as the Germans. Josh joined in: “Oooo. You’re going to be evil, Ben!”
Ahh… the game had started. For us, a good Civ game involves much more than simply the human-computer interaction; it’s profoundly social, and a giant meta-game of posturing, trash-talking and negotiating surrounds every game. Even though we hadn’t played in about a year, Morgan was already settling into his familiar pattern of blaming any and all conflict on other players (usually Ben). His strategy was to begin establishing very early on a moral justification for his people to attack another civilization (also usually Ben). The justification for Morgan’s “retribution” could be most anything: Past slights from a player, the anticipation of a battle over a precious resource (frequently iron in our “classic Rome” scenarios), or fear of a future strike (pre-emptive warfare). Although Morgan often embraced a doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, it was never his desire to go to war. He was simply “defending himself” and responding to global threats.
Unfortunately, the game soon crashed, as it often does on custom mods downloaded from the Internet. Ben restarted the scenario but quickly chose to be the French instead of the Germans. This time, the kids made Kurt be the Germans, and Kurt acquiesced since he was of German descent. This led to a discussion of everyone’s ancestry (which included Scottish, Irish, Cameroonian, German, English, and Indian). Over the years, we have consciously connected game play to family histories in order to connect participants’ personal lives and histories to the game as well as highlight and leverage the multi-cultural nature of our participants. As discussed in Squire’s (2004) dissertation, many players (particularly those who originated from countries that were colonized) take pleasure in attempting to change the course of history.1
“Are those all of the cities the Germans have? Heh. Good luck with that,” Ben observed as the game rebooted. Trash talking, table talk, and other verbal negotiations are all a part of a good Civilization game – both in terms of strategy and in terms of personal enjoyment. For example, when two civilizations meet, there is usually a verbal exchange of “neutral observations” such as “Oh, I see that you still have warriors? I bet you could use some horses,” or “Oh, the Romans have swordsmen. Who do you plan to attack with those?”
To mitigate personal conflict, we instituted a policy that all trash talking has to take place “in character”, so that a kid could criticize “The Romans” or “The Germans” but not a specific player. (This also made sense because the historical inequities that define many scenarios make it untrue to say that the relative strength of any civilization was related to one player’s actions). Further, this strategy encouraged kids to note which civilization was which and adopt historical vocabulary. By now, this pattern of discussion had become automatic so that none of us even really realized we were doing it.
This practice has overall been a good one, but it occasionally breaks down, as when Kurt (playing as Germans) attempted to “trash talk” Ben (playing as Italians).
As Ben said, “Germans, we should form an alliance,” Kurt responded with, “Yes, but I’m not sure your people are really worthy of joining the German… Ok, trash talking really isn’t cool when you’re the Nazis. That could get weird really fast. Sorry.”
Soon, we decided that in the interests of time, we would play a stock version of the game (no historical accuracy) on a small map.
After the initial banter, we settled in. Although we were playing on fictitious map, everyone made familiar choices on which civ to play. Josh was Egypt for its ability to expand rapidly early. Morgan was Rome as he liked its combination of military and construction. Kurt was the Aztecs for the religious and military bonuses (useful in a multiplayer game full of aggressive teenagers) and Ben was India for its fast workers and religious bonuses. Initially, the table talk was light as players built their cities, first warriors and explorers and tried to get a “handle” on the map.
These choices were in many respects a continuation of past games. Each person played a civilization similar to previous ones. Josh, Morgan, and Ben had each played as that civilization a significant portion (maybe even majority) of the time. Even Kurt’s playing as the Aztecs (an unusual choice for him) was in direct conversation with previous games, as he knew that Josh and Morgan frequently attacked other civilizations and he wanted to have a counter-strategy in place.
Kurt settled into a quick lead on the “point system,” which is a rough indicator of each Civilization’s strength. Although most of us rarely play for “points” on our own, it becomes important in multiplayer games.
“Kurt’s in the lead over there. How many cities do you have?”, asked Ben, drawing attention to Kurt’s early lead.
“Oh, not many,” Kurt lied. He actually had 3 and was working on numbers 4 and 5, whereas Josh and the others had 1 or 2. Kurt had settled into a familiar pattern of rapid expansion with a light military designed to defend his perimeter. He had scouted the boundaries of his continent and found an unpopulated corner of the island where he could build cities that would require light fortification. Kurt did not want Josh, or anyone else for that matter to know how many cities he had. If Josh, who was directly North of him figured out that Kurt had this many cities so early, he might also infer that Kurt was spread thin and attack him to make him pay for this aggressive early expansion.
From this exploration, Kurt also found two barbarian camps located between him and Josh. He also identified an area rich in gems and iron that was in between them, which he ascertained would quickly become a contested region. Kurt then shifted his strategy toward containing the barbarians (through building a chariot that could hunt them down), and building a settler (and an archer to defend) who could settle near the gems. Kurt’s diplomatic goal was (like often) to draw little attention to himself while solidifying this basic infrastructure.
Josh was right behind Kurt in the score. He had one large, well-developed city. He was pouring lots of resources into building workers and buildings for the city so as to make it an early dominant capitol. Josh (somewhat unusually) had built nearly zero military – something no one would have anticipated.
This scenario highlights how no one game is entirely its own; each game is an extension of previous ones, with players’ previous strategies and diplomatic actions coming into play. Kurt adopted a strategy anticipating a potential early attack from Josh. Had he known that his lone chariot could have nearly destroyed Josh … he certainly would have considered it. However, from the adult’s perspective, taking a student out of the game early isn’t fun (or productive), so it would not have
In Josh’s case, we see a similar kind of strategy happening. Josh knew there was little, if any chance that Kurt would mount an early attack, so he started building the infrastructure of his civilization virtually ignoring his military defenses. In an especially novel move, Josh was building cottages and hamlets, which in 20, 40, and 100 turns begin to pay great economic dividends. In general, his strategy might be characterized as “investing early”.
In many respects, this strategy, while new, was a variant of Josh’s well-developed strategy of allying with the nearest adult player, who he used as an insurance of sorts against attacks. Still, virtually ignoring military was extremely unusual for Josh and as such constituted a “bluff” of sorts against Kurt, who was still concerned that Josh would attack him. In the meantime, Josh would build an economic empire that would be forceful later.
This vignette also highlights how any game can also be examined along an individual’s trajectory. Each Civilization player in the group maintained his or her own personal history of the game, including evolving theories of satisfying ways to play the game (goals, such as a peaceful victory that players might find personally rewarding), and then strategies for meeting them. Each player’s game play can be considered as an evolving hypothesis of entertaining game play: An evolving way of playing that is personally both effective and rewarding.
The players were beginning to suspect that civilizations of both Ben and Morgan were on a different continent than those of Josh and Kurt, as there had been no contact between the two pairs of civilizations despite extensive exploratory efforts on everybody’s part and a relatively small map. Ben’s civilization was surrounded by jungle terrain, which hinders food production in the game, causing him to lag behind on the scoreboard. Ben grumbled about this handicap, observing how hard it was for civilizations in this position to get a good early start, which can only be removed once a player has obtained iron working (a technology that requires significant investment of resources and time to obtain). Until the surrounding jungle was removed, his cities could not support a regular-size population. Soon, the game announced that the religion Hinduism had been founded by the Indians (Ben) causing the players to rethink what Ben’s strategy was. Although Ben had a low point score, he clearly had a strategy in mind.
Morgan lagged behind in points as well. As the group discussed this, Morgan explained that civilization was located on a narrow peninsula. As such he did not have a lot of land to use to produce food because he was encumbered by the sea. This geographic limitation of his food supply placed him at a population disadvantage similar to Ben’s. As such, he had to spend valuable time researching technologies that would improve his ability to harvest food from the sea. This immediately struck the adults as strange; most civilizations are given ample of room for building a few cities early on, so perhaps Morgan was also formulating a long-term strategy.
This table talk around various point totals and discoveries is typical of early game play in which players are sussing out the maps, one another’s relative strategic strengths and settling into a strategy. Although high point totals reflect strength, players with lower point totals may be investing in discovering a religion (like Ben did) which can pay off great dividends later, or a great wonder (such as Stonehenge or the Pyramids) which means that the player’s points are temporarily suppressed as they invest in the wonder.
Much like in real life, events in a multiplayer Civilization game are constantly open to interpretation and re-interpretation. Players attempt to “spin” what is happening to best meet their individual goals. Sometimes, this means downplaying one’s strengths so as not to draw too much attention and motivate others to form alliances. Other times, it means drawing attention to one’s successes in order to scare off would be attackers. Each event – from the sighting of a galley on the ocean to the discovery of a religion is open to interpretation, with players vying to explain what is happening and make a case for their interpretation.
What is at stake in these negotiations is more than interpretations, but a “historical” narrative of the state of the world, player’s intentions and what the likely outcomes are going to be. In arguing that he has no room to expand, Morgan is claiming that he is unluckily placed in a bad spot, simply struggling to survive, and has no intentions of attacking anyone else. (Isn’t this always the case for Morgan, who as the reader may recall is constantly building a moral case for his future actions). Ben is similarly “stuck in a bad spot”, resorting to religion as a way of strengthening his civilization (although will he use this religion later to create a fundamentalist government that dominates through military, or a global network of temples that fills his coffers?). Meanwhile, Kurt and Josh, who are doing relatively well but are under-developed militarily, just hope that no one notices so that they can continue their plans.
Of course, all of this table talk occurs “on top” of the other game play of building cities and infrastructure, scouting for resources, fighting barbarians, selecting technologies to pursue, maintaining military defenses and constructing buildings. Nitsche’s (2006) distinction between the planes of gaming is useful here. There is the first level of the game, the game as it is coded and occurs in the box. On the second level, the game is as it is actually enacted on screen. The third level is the game as the player imagines it in his / her head; the fourth plane is the action actions occurring in real space (the mouse clicks, and so on). But what we are discussing here is the fifth plane of gaming, the social plane in which players interact. To an observer, the activity would at this point look very social (although it would make little sense), with players talking back and fourth with the game as the focal, shared object for understandings.
The “real” game play does not occur at any of these levels, but is at the intersection across them. Part of what makes a civilization game compelling is when these five elements all work in concert, with the player developing a robust mental model (level 3) of the game system which is being responded to by feedback occurring on screen (level 2), and then negotiated through social interaction (level 5) and so on.
After about 30-45 minutes of play, the game was humming along on all five levels, and a feeling of immersion overcame the room. As a player, the feeling might be described as “familiar” and “welcoming,” the feeling of picking up an old, neglected musical instrument, and / or reuniting with old friends around a poker game. Indeed, we began sharing with one another how good it was to get together again. We were struck by how “at home” it felt to be back in our familiar chairs and having our familiar discussions, despite years of little contact. Clearly at some point we all went beyond the standard relationship of researchers and research participants, and became old friends of a sort. It is hard to describe this feeling, other than to say that we have also experienced similar feelings playing poker with old friends or raiding with a long-standing guild. There is something about gaming together, temporarily coming together to construct a ludic environment that is separate from the daily grind that is compelling.
Immersion: Settling into the Rhythm
As the game becomes established, Josh begins building momentum. He builds the game’s first wonder, Stonehenge. Building Stonehenge, generally considered a peaceful, infrastructure type of wonder has several effects: It centers the world map, giving the player a general sense of his location; it provides a free obelisk in every city (which generates culture), gives +8 culture points per turn to the city that builds it and increases the likelihood of a civilization developing a Great Prophet. Kurt and others pause briefly to make a mental note of this. Josh is at least semi-serious about a peaceful, expansionist strategy (or he just did one heck of an expensive bluff). However, it also means that he is probably about to expand fast. For Kurt, this means that the areas between them are likely to become contested quickly.
Josh deflects this attention by highlighting how he’s focusing on science and not religion (which suggests a long term strategy and potentially peaceful victory scenario). Interestingly, Josh comments that these two are “incompatible in the game as well as real life,” making a somewhat subtle assertion about his own beliefs about religion and science. Josh points to the technology tree as evidence for this incompatibility in game. This is just one small example of participants using Civilization as a model to think through “real world” phenomena – which have ranged from current events to foreign policy, to the factors behind geopolitical strength to nature of knowledge in the world.
In response to this development, Kurt immediately shifts his priorities from one of exploring many routes to one of specifically sending a chariot up towards Josh’s territory to force him to build a defense. Meanwhile, he will expand his cities to the North to contain Josh, and create a network of archers to defend against barbarians. The luxury of building up a civilization and ignoring Josh was over.
Soon, Kurt and Josh meet. Kurt’s Chariot skirts around Josh’s borders somewhat passively aggressively. There are no defenses in sight. The very presence of Kurt’s chariot hints at the fact that Josh is vulnerable. Josh has sent explorers into Kurt’s territory as well, and is plotting expansion near Kurt’s borders. Both Kurt and Josh meet the Incan civilization (controlled by the computer) and quickly hammer out a quick informal agreement to both be at peace but to consider allying if the Incans attack. Although all is peaceful on the Kurt / Josh front, the potential for conflict is rising. Secretively, both Kurt and Josh build galleys that can “discover” Ben and Morgan. Discovering other civilizations enables the trade of technology (very helpful in an economic or military war), and enable a military alliance if necessary.
On the other continent, Ben and Morgan continue their game of cat and mouse. Both discovered the location of Morgan’s civilization first, and teases Morgan about not knowing where he is, calling his bluff on being surrounded by ocean.
“You’re right there!”. Ben’s immediate concern is to tame the jungle, so he has built many fast workers who can transform his civilization. They make an open borders agreement, which enables both to enter one another’s territory. Although this may, at first glance seem like an entirely peaceful kind of move, it is also risky. Trade routes form between cities, adding to their economies. Similarly, religion can spread between cities. However, both players can now see one another’s cities, resources (like iron) and move freely within their borders. Open borders creates an implied trust as each player is now exposed, but it’s a trust that is
Ben’s strategy here is to spread his religion (Hinduism) into Morgan’s territory. Spreading one’s religion makes it more difficult for that civilization to maintain war against you, and tithes some of their money back to you. In this case, it was a defensive move, anticipating Morgan’s inevitable attack against Ben.
As a part of his move toward global interdependence, Kurt researches “writing” and quietly begins trading technologies with Morgan behind the scenes. This move gained Kurt leverage against Josh (by forming a global trade network he was not a part of), while also staving off Ben (who with his religion has a long term built-in advantage). Bolstering Morgan (Ben’s neighbor) increased the odds that Ben would need to build military units for defense against Morgan – which siphons resources off from his economy. Just like in the real world, encouraging a protracted cold war between other countries can be an effective defense.
In terms of a multiplayer gaming community, this kind of trading and negotiating has the added benefit of rebalancing the game so that no one person becomes too powerful. As a multiplayer competitive game, Civilization frequently acts as a self-correcting system rebalancing itself out; if one civilization becomes too strong, the others knock it back a peg through alliances and trade. As adults, we are able to ally with weaker players and / or give them help through favorable trade deals to keep the game fun. It was very common for an adult to take a new player under his / her wing and form a “team”. Because few of our games ever go to completion, the zero-sum nature of the stock game rules don’t really apply, and each kid can feel as if she is achieving some level of success.
Investment: Conventional Conflict.
“The Romans attack the Indians” flashed across the screens of Josh and Morgan. As a person who knew their game play history together might have guessed, Ben and Morgan were at war.
Roughly three and a half years ago, Morgan and Ben became perennial arch-enemies within the Civilization game series. Although many of the facts underlying the rivalry remain contested, there seems to be a general consensus about the formal start of the rivalry. Morgan and Ben were playing a multi-player game at the Civ club with several other participants. Ben had established himself at the top of the scoreboard by building a small but highly populated civilization, and Morgan was not far behind in second place in the score count. Morgan began contemplating military action against Ben’s civilization, but wanted to recruit allies to ensure his victory. Morgan began passionately imploring the others playing to ally with him against Ben, and assured other players that there would be a swift victory. Ben challenged him, claiming that he had been nonaggressive during the game and did not deserve to be attacked. Bristling, Morgan turned to the other players and started a passionate refrain, “But he always attacks people for no reason.” While Ben maintained and still maintains that he is and always has been a relatively nonaggressive Civilization player, Morgan’s exhortation became a near-ritual utterance during games in which Ben and Morgan were both playing, and lead to a multi-year rivalry between the two.
“What are you guys doing over there?” Kurt asked, but Morgan and Ben were both engrossed in conflict and only mumbled out answers. Morgan claimed that he was preemptively defending himself from an attack, and Ben, flustered and surprised about the attack declared that he was “screwed.” Pressed for an explanation, Ben clarified that he had not built many military units or infrastructure as he was not expecting an attack this early in the game.
Morgan had invaded Ben’s northern border with around four strong military units - three Axemen and one Praetorian. The Praetorian, Rome’s unique military unit, is particularly powerful during early periods of the game, and Morgan had decided to pursue an offensive strategy using them. To explain further, the game gives each civilization a unique unit that has a strategic advantage during its time period. If one has any designs on going to war, it is generally good idea to do so during the time period in which the unit is strongest, as Morgan did. Still, the attack may have been unprovoked – Ben even had an “open borders” agreement with Morgan to facilitate trade at the time of the attack.
Ben, perhaps worried about Morgan’s display of overwhelming force and losing face as a result of a defeat by his rival, suggested that it was getting late and might be time to end the game. However, this suggestion was rejected by all the other participants, and so Ben faced his fate. It took Morgan a few turns to move his Praetorian unit from Ben’s northern border to his Northern city. Unfortunately for Morgan, this delay allowed Ben to reinforce his city with walls and a couple of extra units, which resulting in Morgan losing his Praetorian unit, as well as his other offensive units, when he attacked the city. Morgan groaned and shouted, “How could this happen?” in disappointment and disbelief. Ben, meanwhile, gloated over his unexpected victory.
“See what happens when you try that? You lose!” Ben exclaimed. “I thought I taught you not to attack cities with defensive bonuses head-on.”
Morgan continued his offensive against Ben, but the element of surprise had been lost, and with it his large military advantage. Ben, however, had to shift his civilization out of its technological and religious strategy, and into a full war mobilization, thereby costing him precious turns that would make it harder for him to catch up to Kurt. Morgan continued to bemoan his initial loss, and claimed that Ben had just “gotten lucky.” The war between Ben and Morgan continued in stalemate for a half-hour until it was time for Morgan and Josh to leave for home.
Back on the other side of the world, the conflict between Josh and Kurt had died down, mostly because Josh was being overrun by barbarians and was on the verge of extinction. Kurt’s archers had effectively chased the barbarians up into Josh’s territory. They had created a settlement outside of Josh’s borders (something Kurt neglected to tell Josh about) and now they were knocking on the doors of his capitol city, just like the Mongolian horde did to first the Chinese, and then Rome 1000 years ago.
“I need help now! Can you send that chariot over to help?” Josh asked.
“Absolutely. I’ll send him right there,” Kurt responded. However, Kurt’s chariot was characteristically slow in responding, getting sidetracked by small skirmishes and stuck in the mountains along the way. By the time he arrived, Josh’s capitol city had been overrun.
“Barbarians have taken over Thebes!” lit up the chat logs. Moans and groans of sympathy for Josh, who had just lost his main capitol, including all of his cottages, hamlets, and even Stonehenge.
Before anyone even realized what happened, Kurt’s chariot appeared and took Thebes away from the barbarians, meaning that he had just captured Josh’s capitol – with Stonehenge — for himself.
“The Aztecs have captured Thebes!” flashed across everyone’s screens.
Josh was now reeling. He had caught a bad break and lost most of his civilization to first the barbarians, and now a more powerful human enemy.
Taking Josh’s capitol city this way – under the conditions that it was a barbarian city was now a barbarian city – was technically not an act of aggression but surely would be read as such if not given back. Kurt’s score shot up way past Josh’s on the list.
“Do you want it back?” Kurt asked, as if the answer would be anything other
“Sure,” Josh said as non-chalantly as possible. Kurt open up the trade window and offered Thebes. In return, Josh offered some gold. Both accepted.
And with that, the war ended, with Josh substantially weakened from the battle. In truth, Kurt probably had to return the city because couldn’t he really hold it anyway. It was too far from his capitol, culturally still very “Egyptian” (making it likely to revolt), and still exposed to barbarians with a lone chariot as a defense.
And with that, the chapter had closed. For Kurt, the next strategy was to dominate the continent and box Josh in on the Northern half of the continent. With a little luck, he could even expand into Josh’s territory “peacefully” through building a strong culture. To achieve this, he would focus on applying his military to beat back barbarians, “cranking out settlers” to fill in the unsettled areas, and establishing cultural outposts along the borders with Josh. Simultaneously, he would think about founding a religion and getting a jump up on technologies compared to the rest of the game. In short, he was in the midst of a “golden age” and needed to fortify his position while others were reeling.
For Josh, the challenge was to seek out revenge on the barbarians and perhaps even enlist Kurt’s help in doing so, but making sure that Josh received all the spoils. Josh had on his side the reality of a moral justifiable war against the computer, and he intended to take back what was his.
One More Turn
“Umm Josh, don’t you have to go?”. It was 4:25. Josh’s mom got off of work at 4:30, and if Josh wanted a ride home, he needed to call her now.
“Yeah, umm, well… I’ll find a ride home...” His voice trailed off as he turned back to the screen.
“Kurt, don’t you have to go pick up your son?”
“Yeah… but I can wait a few more minutes. I can get there in 20 minutes or so. I can wait one more turn. Josh do you want a ride?”
“Maybe,” Josh said.
“What about you, Morgan?” Kurt asked. Although he was starting to somehow justify to himself that he could turn a 30 minute drive into 20 minutes and afford to be a few minutes late, the reality of having two teenagers stuck in the computer lab overnight was beginning to hit him in the face. They needed to call this game now.
“Morgan can go home with me,” Josh suggested.
“Kurt your phone is ringing. It’s Constance.” Constance, his wife, had called.
“Whew, you’re getting Walt…. Wait, if you are, why are you still there?” It was now 4:40. Kurt tried his best to explain how for research purposes, it was important that they finish this just this one last turn, but as the phrase “just this one last turn” came out of his mouth, he knew he was stewed.
“Just one more turn” is a common phrase among Civ gamers (one that Constance herself knew and had used many times), meaning, “I’m hooked on this game right now and don’t plan on finishing yet.” One more turns have been known to last hours, even days.
With that, Kurt turned off his monitor, unplugged his phone and stood up.
“That’s it. I have to go. NOW.” Kurt stumbled out the door, not even looking back as if the remainder of the room had some sort of a disease. “I don’t care what you do… finish it, don’t whatever… I’ll call you when I’m on my way.”
With that, the game was over.
A Community Game Well Played
Just what makes Civilization so compelling is the subject of countless reviews, articles, and message board ruminations, and probably beyond the immediate scope of this article. However, a few things are worth mentioning. First is the “just one more turn” phenomena. Part of why Civ works is that it creates overlapping goal structures. Players develop immediate goals (like Ben’s desire to clear the jungle), which break down into subgoals (build workers), and then are subject to modification as orthogonal goals (develop a religion), and new conditions (Morgan is attacking) take place. Civilization’s game play is to a large extent an endless series of cycling between goals, strategies, and sub-goals as players adjust to the game’s conditions.
The second pleasure is one of learning to “think like the system.” As Ted Friedman (1998) points out, a primary pleasure of civilization is very cyborgians, a feeling of “entering” the game world and thinking like the computer. One’s civilization is on the one hand, a creation, much like a pet. However, it is also in a very real sense, one’s own creation, as the buildings, roads, and technologies are all artifacts of the player’s decisions. The player then, feels immersed in that particular game world, with its history and peculiarities. With Civilization, a game series with multiple titles and infinite permutations of any one game, the relationship to the underlying “system” becomes quite amorphous. It no longer is any one map, civilization, or even set of rules; rather, it is a relationship with a mode of being.
If single player Civilization games have us feeling like cyborgs, multiplayer civilization games are unique in that they are a shared experience. The feeling of a Civilization game might be described as a shared cyborgian hallucination in the sense that they involve multiple people vicariously being part of this same synthetic system. It is the creation of a group’s actions, a virtual world that builds and responds to players’ actions, but then goes away when the power switch is flicked off. However, while it is alive, the multiplayer Civilization game is like a living breathing entity responding to players actions. In many ways, Civilization games do begin to capture that mystical goal game developers have long had of creating “interactive” jazz, as players collectively create games these shared compositions.
Time is in many respects an apt framework for thinking about Civilization. On a minute, moment-to-moment kind of level one can describe the rhythm and feel of a Civilization game, which as Will Wright once aptly described, is like settling into a comfortable leather chair. The turn-based nature of the game means that one can settle in and linger over key decisions and events. Much like a chair, the game becomes even more familiar and comfortable as it matures and ages.
Drawing from Davidson’s (2008) framework, we might also look at a Civilization game as it evolves through time. There is first the set-up. This is made more complicated here due to the reality of coordinating multiple people (and in that respect resembling a raid in an MMO more than say, a traditional console game). The next phase we experienced, which we labeled exploration shares much in common with Davidson’s notion of involvement. It is here that we are introduced to the game and explore its internal dimensions. In Civilization, the player’s practices are much more about exploration in terms of defining immediate goals, identifying resources and devising strategies to get them. However, the key idea here is that the game (when it succeeds) creates a coupling between the player and the system that leads to immersion.
Much as Davidson described, our next phase might be characterized as immersion. Here, we had each developed multiple sets of overlapping goals that were “humming along” in order to produce an immersive experience. It is intriguing that a game such as Civilization, which is famously built around “interesting choices” as opposed to more visceral action would produce such a similar curve as Davidson’s analysis.
Within a multiplayer Civilization game, we see that this immersive experience is deeply mediated by social context. The processes by which participants become immersed is only partially explained via human-computer interaction; in addition players’ desire to commune with other players, to settle old scores, or try out new ideas within a group also drive players.
The key idea here is that in these multiplayer Civilization contexts, it is difficult to separate the game play from the social contexts in which it is situated. The pleasures of the game very much involve connecting with friends, settling into familiar and comfortable social roles (and jokes), and trying on and developing a social role. In this case, the game play is not unlike that of an MMO such as World of Warcraft, in which case a player might experience being the trustworthy tank, the lethal damage dealer or the supportive druid. The game play is about trying on and playing with different roles within a social context that evolve over time.
As such, Civilization game play is in most respects like an MMO but also like a friendly game of poker. Players are, after all, generally working in direct competition. One player’s success comes at the expense of another’s (although most realize that collective entertainment is goal; otherwise the game would not ultimately be interesting). Players are both creating and sustaining a social gaming context, while also pursuing individual goals.
Games like Civilization provide excellent models for “family” oriented games (particularly games on the Wii), which exist in large part to create social cohesion. The experience of a shared virtual world (which we have described as an hallucination) can be profound. One can easily imagine other kinds of shared experiences that families or social groups might benefit by having.
Regardless, this example of a well played Civilization game reminds us of the social origins of much of gaming, and calls into question where the boundaries of a game begin and end. With many games, analysts are tempted to examine the code, the representations, or even the game being played in the player’s head. With this case of Civilization, this sort of analysis doesn’t even begin to capture the “game” being played. The game is reminiscent a game of poker in that it has a living, breathing social history. It is difficult to understand the game phenomena I few rigidly draw the boundaries around one particular game session; instead, to account for the game play, we need to see these games as a part of a group’s history.
The social community provides the context for the play, both in terms of being an audience and being the “game” that the player is playing against. Each participant here was, to some extent, playing the others as the game, whether it be Morgan’s endless campaigns against Ben, or Kurt and Josh’s cat and mouse game over contested territories. It is encouraging that the field of game studies is beginning to look at these multiple dimensions of play, but it is our hope that as we continue to investigate the relations between them, as well as looking at them individually.
1 Having said that, kids developed “favorite” civilizations with little obvious connection to their lived histories, revolving more around an interest area (such as naval warfare), or a media property, such as the film 300.
2 This strategy goes back several years, to when Josh was 10 or 11 years old and Levi Giovanetto was running the program. Levi is an exceptionally skilled player who could take on all of the kids at once and still prevail; meaning that allying with Levi was almost mandatory for survival. Josh developed this strategy of cozying up to other powers as a way of negotiating protection and biding his time for when the best strategic opportunity to attack arose.