I 4X therefore I 4 a.m.

March 23, 2009 at 11:17 pm (Tom) (, , , , , , , , )

Neat, theme week. You’ve all just been spared from a rambling discussion on the politics and possibilites of the Fair Work Australia bill – which passed last Friday; something which is probably very worthy, but may or may not have interested anyone greatly. And has also been rather done to death in the nation’s trad media. So a winner is you, dear reader.

But you’re not dodging the ramble entirely – because Percy, perhaps foolishly, has played right into my mental hands. It’s probably common knowledge to the average reader that I did my Honours thesis on computer games – specifically turn-based strategy, what used to be called “God” games. There’s a rather obvious reason for this – my teen years were split near perfectly between world domination and masturbation; and trying to tell academics about onanism would have been like teaching the proverbial granny to suck proverbial eggs.

(The concepts in that sentence are probably NSFW. So I made the best bits into tags. P.S. Hey there, Senator Conroy! How’re you doin’, sailor?)

Oh yes indeed, I was a 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) machine, back in the day. From the classic (and according to Wiki, genre-titling) Master of Orion, Warlords II, Heroes of Might and Magic, Colonization, Star Wars Rebellion, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Imperium Galactica, Europa Universalis and Victoria: Empire Under the Sun, right up to the more modern Total War series, Galactic Civilisations II and Sins of a Solar Empire*, I’ve been responsible for more deaths than cholera, launched more ships than Helen of Troy and Captain Picard put together, destroyed more governments than a well-timed sex scandal, and long regarded genocide as the desirable endpoint of nearly all state activity.

And there is one man I think I can safely blame: Sid Meier and his ludicrously addictive Civilization series.

Back before I had a computer (I know, I know, how did we live?), I used a variety of methods to get my gaming fix. I enjoyed the pixelated pleasures of my already aged Atari 2600; I frequented the local fish and chip shop which possessed a Street Fighter II machine that annihilated my supply of pocket money most weeks, my selection of friends had more than a little to do with who owned a second controller for their console, and I once borrowed a gameboy for 3 months. I asked, seriously! The fact that I happened to know that I would be changing schools within a week was probably information I ought to have shared; but that’s hindsight for you. But the pinnacle of my gaming experience was heading in to the library where my Mum worked on Saturdays; and plonking myself in front of the anachronistically titled “Word Processor”, which happened to have a copy of Civilization installed for “educational purposes”.

If anyone’s actually interested in reading 3000 words about how influential, important and world-changing Civilisation is, I’ve still got a copy of my thesis around somewhere. But why did 11 year old me like it?

The original Civilization is a brilliantly simple game, at heart. It takes a brutally straightforward view of human history, politics and society, and divines about 4 basic mechanics – combat, growth, production and technology/finance. Balancing these goals through the development of cities, armies and fleets, Civilization judges that you have a pretty complete representation of life on planet earth. Oversimplified, but compelling; and one of the first games that gave a genuine illusion of balance and human competition by setting the AI and human player up with the same starting hand and identical goals. It cheated, sure, but that was part of the fun – outsmarting and outplaying someone who’s not quite playing by the rules is just that little bit more satisfying.

And once you’ve dropped yourself into that world, the game unfolds quite beautifully. In the beginning, when your decisions are few, you’ll race along, with your full attention focused on every unit, able to manage your handful of cities and fight off your handful of enemies. As you expand, your focus moves outwards, from units to armies, citizens to cities to production regions and key map features, barbarians to other civilisations, tech advances to, well… higher tech advances. Turns that took 10 seconds can easily take 10 minutes; the steady increase in complexity mirroring the scaling up of human civilisation Basically, it’s possible to lose entire days playing “just one more turn”.

I enjoyed it because I was both a computer geek and a history nerd. I was the kid who because briefly known as Norman, not because I had the archetypal no-mates, but because I turned up to a year 2 show-and-tell in replica 11th century armour and proceeded to explain how Harold got shot in the face with arrows, to the mild dismay of my teacher. Civilisation spoke to both sides of my bookish soul; and I responded with love, affection, and rampant, raging addiction.

Sid Meier, you wonderful bastard, we salute you!



  1. juliadactyl said,

    I find the idea of tiny, 8 year old Tom wearing replica armour and explaining about the Battle of Hastings extremely endearing. Almost as endearing as when you talk about games you love!

  2. Heather said,

    I played a bit of Civ 4 when it came out due to the company I was keeping at the time. Particularly when playing with an experienced player, I found each decision weighed heavily on me and they tended to take at least 10 minutes (or felt like it).

    Later I got Civilization Revolutions, which I found much more fast-paced. I am horrible about the balance, though, and tend to push for culture and science and utterly neglect military stuff.

  3. Danoot said,

    yess, Civ!
    weirdly, in the beforetimes, I have a clear separation between computer games and videogames – I don’t really remember computer games when I think of gaming as a kid.

    Which, weird. It was so formative to my experience! Also, gaming on a PC got me back into gaming on a console. So… yeah, weird.

    But I sure did play the shit out of Civ2. I was rubbish, though. I am kind of tempted to download it now (would have already if my … game store, yes, hadn’t been down for maintenance).

    But I will lose: all my life points, if I get that, or freeciv.
    all of them.

  4. percy said,

    I really enjoyed your thesis! Everyone should read it.

    Did you ever play Spore? There was a Civilization-like part to the game, and I’d like to know your opinion (if you ever played it)

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