Everybody Wants to Rule the World
The Atlantic|October 2021
A new game builds on the addictive appeal of Sid Meier’s Civilization.
By Spencer Kornhaber

If the point of life was simply to enjoy the moment that you’re in, we’d all be playing video games constantly. The likes of Minecraft and Zelda turn the drag of time into a silvery chute you drop into and emerge from after hours in a state of flow. No other activity, it becomes clearer every year, can compete in delivering kicks per second— and gaming’s magnetic pull is bending civilization itself. The $179 billion gaming industry is by now bigger than the global movie business and North American professional sports combined, and its decades-long rise has been credited with declines in reading, TV viewership, workforce participation, and even sex.

Much of my childhood was spent in that silvery chute, where I commanded alien armies and cast spells. But then one week during my sophomore year in high school, a realization hit me: Spending so much time questing on a screen might get in the way of other quests—for a driver’s license, a social life, a career. I quit gaming outright, and I mostly stayed away as adulthood unfolded—until the boring horror of 2020’s shutdowns arrived. Netflix and novels couldn’t distract me from scrolling through the news or counting the fibers in my couch pillows. A friend in another city suggested that we game together remotely, and I felt a pang. The real world was out of control, but here was an opportunity for me to play emperor.

That opportunity came in the form of Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, the latest in a legendary computer game franchise that started in 1991. A digital variation on nerdy board games like Risk, Civilization emulates the span of human history: Over hundreds of turns (often filling days, if not weeks, of playtime), a player chooses a culture (the Romans, say, or the Zulu) and then embarks on a long evolution from nomadic settlers to hegemony-seeking, space-exploring empire. Whether fellow players are friends or strangers or artificial intelligence, the action of the game is propelled not by hand-eye coordination or fantastical role-playing but by deliberation. How will your people worship? Whom will they trade with? What type of government will they have? And how will their government influence their trade and religion, and vice versa? The decisions cascade, enabling so many combinations of strategies that not even Reddit could ever document them all.

Perhaps this sounds dry, especially if you’re someone who associates gaming with blasting beasts and eating Mario’s magic mushrooms. But in Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games, published last year, Civilization’s creator—who spent his early career working on simulating fighter-pilot combat—nails the unexpected feeling of wonder he got when playing Will Wright’s groundbreaking urban-planning game of 1989, SimCity: “It was about creating, rather than destroying … and it was a game,” Meier writes. “The objective was dominance over one’s own limitations, rather than a morally inferior antagonist … and it was a game.”

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