Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cheating at Civilization

I cheat at Civilization. For those of you who are of the younger generation (oh yes, it hurts to be able to say that), you might not remember Sid Meier’s computer game sensation called Civilization. Or maybe it was only sensational for us gaming geeks. Anyway, for a time in the 1990s, Civilization was THE game, and there were many people who sat in front of the computer for hours, days and in some rare cases even weeks as they nurtured their fledgling empire through the millennia, living from the age spear-chuckers to space-travelers.

I played a lot when I was in college. As I have gotten older, I return once in a blue moon to blow off steam. The version I play is Civilization II (or “Civ II”). In this age of iPhones aps and handheld arcades, Civ II is an obsolete computer game in every sense, but it is the only one on my laptop. And as ancient as it is, it is still formidable as a time suck. If I had modern games on my computer, no doubt I would never get anything done. I judiciously steer clear of that trap.

So, the object of Civ II is to reach a level of advanced civilization where you can send a spaceship to colonize one of the moons of Jupiter, all the while fending off the other vicious would-be empires in the world. Or, as an alternate objective, you can absorb, subvert or utterly destroy those other cultures, thereby ending the game. Either way works, depending on how blood-thirsty you envision yourself.

It’s mostly a maintenance game. There is no schnazzy real-time fighting or lifelike CG action sequences. Success is due to constant, consistent pressure over time, and by getting a jump on the competition. If you’re still dawdling around with chariots and iron working by the time B.C. becomes A.D., you are a ripe fruit from which the other empires will gladly take a big, wet bite.

This brings me to the cheating. In the early stages of the game, I will orchestrate the “random” elements of the game to my favor and build twice as many cities as anyone else before I even reach 2000 B.C. Once my cities are larger, I get scientific advances quicker, and soon I have tanks while everyone else is galloping around on horses. The game pretty much goes my way after that.

I have gaming friends who consider this blasphemy. I mean, it’s a one-person game. Who am I really cheating? The computer doesn’t care. What could possibly be the point?

My answer is: I don’t know.

I do know that it’s soothing, and strangely engaging. Somehow, there is a solid satisfaction in beating those little glowing Mongols or Babylonians, poor saps who never had a chance from the start.

But why do it? Just for the rush of believing, for a few hours, that you’re as canny as Caesar or as powerful as Alexander? Like fantasy novels, does it take one to a place where they can be someone more exciting? Someone better?

What about the other games out there that mimic real life? There are a thousand of them. And in many of them, one is actually doing things one could do for real. Really, why play a “life simulation” game at all? Why spend hours and hours of your life courting fake girls and becoming fake rich when you could go out into the world and court real girls or earn real money? What a lot of wasted energy.

But so many people do it. Is it because it’s easy? Controllable? In a life filled with innumerable variables, the fantasy that we could actually control those variables --make them roll our way as though we were “destined for greatness”-- has a vast, intrinsic payoff. And it’s safe. All reward and no sacrifice (aside from the aforementioned time). And since it’s all fantasy anyway, why not fantasize that you’re not cheating, too? Just throw that on the pile with the rest of the faux-truths, yes? Yes, that’s right, I really AM the unconquerable, immortal ruler of the Egyptian empire!

Then, of course, one wakes up 36 hours later, buzzing on Blue Sky soda, blind as a mole rat and blearing up at a frowning wife who wants to know why you’re such a waste of space. (Which, under the circumstance, is a difficult question to answer)

So why spend so much time in fantasy? Is the real world really that hard? That scary? Have we just become so comfortable that fake-effort and fake-reward are “good enough”? Why risk anything when you have everything you need?

It makes me wonder what future civilizations will think of this bizarre behavior…


Mike said...

I totally get the fascination with bringing back old games, like old friends.
Civ is definitely a huge time-suck. I was big into the Pool of Radiance games (which, with the DragonLance titles on the side, I'd think were right up your alley), and its fun to revisit them from time to time. And around the 5th time the wife asks me "Are you almost done working yet?" (sometimes days later!), I realize that I need to get cracking, and the game goes away for another year or two. :-)

Mike said...

Oh, and the point of all that? I cheat at PoR also! There is one spot that gives more money than you could ever use, and I hit it every time.
Why? Simple: when I'm frustrated that work isn't going the way I want it to (or life, for that matter), at least I know something will go my way and I still et a small sense of accomplishment.