Uncivilizing Influences

What makes a video game “addictive”?
Illustration by Paul Kim

One evening a few months back, as the hour of 6 p.m. and the year AD 1490 approached, a profound choice was thrust upon me: should I declare war on Germany, thereby committing the French nation to decades of strife in pursuit of territory and power, and myself to a night spent seeing through the campaign; or should I push myself away from the computer, make myself some dinner, then read a book for a while and sleep to fight another day?

Needless to say, I, Napoleon, eternal emperor of France, barely paused for thought. I opened my diplomacy interface and sent word to my German counterpart that war was at hand, then ordered the great cities of Paris and Orléans to ramp up production of military units, and moved my archers and knights to the outskirts of Hamburg. By dawn the next day, Germany lay in ruins, and so did I. I dragged myself to bed undernourished and fetid, my nerves fried.

Discussed in this essaySid Meier’s Civilization V (Firaxis, 2010)

Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar, 2008)

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell (Random House of Canada, 2010)

Kill Screen, “No. 1 — The No Fun Issue” (August 2010)
This sorry state of self will be familiar to anyone who has played a game in the Civilization series, whose latest iteration, Sid Meier’s Civilization V, was released on World Peace Day, last September 21. So compulsive is Civ’s gameplay, so engrossing its range of possible outcomes, that it is legendary for stealing whole weeks from players’ lives. Mere days after Civ V ’s release, a friend who is on scholarship at a world-renowned art school emailed me to say that the game had “immediately caused sitcom-esque strife” in his life, minus the laughs. Early reviews echoed the sentiment, with writers making frequent sport of Civ’s ability to induce players to stay seated for “just one more turn.”

And sport it mostly is. Compared with gore carnivals like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto or Activision’s Call of Duty series, Civ is a pretty mild ride. It has a wholesome, even educational feel: its turn-based approach makes for methodical gameplay, and its violence is limited and highly contextualized. It has also incorporated a number of forward-thinking touches, emphasizing female world leaders and in-game advisers, and punishing cities for polluting. Its world historical framework, meanwhile, is highly strategic, presenting gamers with choices that can reflect genuinely held ideals.

The first Civilization was released in 1991, the brainchild of the series’ namesake, Sid Meier, a thirty-seven-year-old, Sarnia-born, Detroit-raised designer. Despite its limited colour palette, Civilization I was almost debilitatingly fun, deploying a system of frequent and varied player reward that was perfected by the time its first sequel was released in 1996. Many would rank the two among the best video games of all time, myself included.

Meier’s bio on the website for Firaxis Games, where he serves as director of creative development, refers to him as the “Father of Computer Gaming.” The designation exaggerates his singularity, but there’s no question his work had a profound influence during the ’80s and ’90s, when the industry’s profits began to explode. Notably, the popularity of such Meier titles as Civ, Railroad Tycoon, and Pirates!, along with his personal influence, helped advance the reward-centred philosophy that underlies nearly all of today’s bestselling games — even the hyperviolent Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 titles that bear little visual or moral relation to his work.

With their teen-friendly trappings, parental warning–worthy motifs, and multmillion-dollar development and marketing budgets, these Xbox and PlayStation games have seized the greatest share of public attention in recent years, coursing along two radically different streams of thought. In the one stream, debate has focused on whether video games have entered the lofty realm of art — and in the other, on whether they have descended into the less felicitous one of crack cocaine.

Civilization V, like its predecessors, sets forth from a simple premise: you are to guide a tribe from prehistoric times toward modern technological society. After founding your capital city, you gain the capacity to create units, such as warriors, scouts, workers, and more settlers; and city improvements, such as libraries and markets, which enhance your citizens’ finances, literacy, happiness, culture, and military capacity — sometimes, if you construct a wonder of the world such as the Pyramids, greatly. The gameplay consists mostly of founding new cities, improving your land, exploring the world, establishing diplomatic (or undiplomatic) relations with other civilizations, and conducting scientific research into technologies that expand your abilities and options on all fronts. When you complete a given task, which typically takes several turns, you set new priorities for the city or unit in question, and the cycle begins anew. Throughout, you are influenced by the activities and diplomatic entreaties of other players, be they artificial or mortal. Victory can come at any time, through military, cultural, diplomatic, scientific, or political means.

At first, when you’re in control of only a few units and cities, Civ V moves relatively swiftly, leaping ahead by forty years with each turn. Each early decision has potentially long-lasting implications for your society. If you found one of your first cities in a mountainous region, for example, you will be relatively safe from attack, but the lack of surrounding arable land will translate into slow population growth. Your early decisions also go a long way toward determining your overall strategy. If you’re inclined to aim for military victory, you might prioritize technologies such as ironworking, and city improvements such as barracks, which allow you to produce better-armed and more resilient units, respectively. If you want to win by being the first civilization into outer space, you might research writing and build libraries, which increase the speed with which you develop subsequent technologies. Invest in scientific research at the expense of defence or economic growth, however, and it won’t be long before you’re going broke and German forces are massing on your borders, demanding that you hand over your hard-earned technologies, or else.

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5 comment(s)

AnonymousDecember 07, 2010 07:50 EST

Why does this not have Minecraft!?

The Walrus BlogDecember 07, 2010 07:54 EST

"The thrill of Minecraft, the internet's newly viral, crudely sadistic video game" — www.walrusmagazine.com/blogs/2010/10/20/craftwerk

AnonymousDecember 12, 2010 14:55 EST

I agree with your argument that games are addictive and that they can lead to the same adverse consequences as drugs but I don't think that this is inevitable.

Games allow designer to put players into systems which they have to understand to progress. This is a great tool for learning unlike any other form of media before. For example, before playing civilization I had no interest in history or world events. While playing civilization, I started to understand a bit more about how governance works. I learned how to constantly compromise between what I wanted for my civilization and what I needed to protect it against the other players. I learned that words spoken during diplomatic talks are often not set in stone. I understood the role of policy in shaping the direction of a country. I developed a sense of how populations grow and how civilizations progress.

After playing civilization, I started to get more interested in politics. I also went out of my way to learn more about history and world leaders. These interests have enriched my life and I think made me a better person. Playing civilization was not the only reason that I developed these interests but it certainly helped.

Games can be addictive but I do not think they are addictive in the same way that drugs are. I think games make us addicted to learning. They reward us for developing new skills and applying them. While the skills in call of duty may not be applicable to the real world right now, who knows what games can teach us in the future.

myetvmediaDecember 22, 2010 08:57 EST

Insightful.

Sika-SannaJanuary 10, 2011 07:39 EST

Some people drink to relax, some play. I rather play.
Why here is only violent games, there are loads of different games to play.
Puzzles, simulations etc. They are too interesting.

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