A conversation with legendary video game developer Sid Meier about the worlds he’s made, the people who have played in them, and how his Civilization resembles reality.
Sid Meier has made a career of putting the world -- many worlds, actually -- at people's fingertips. For over 30 years, he has developed video games that allow people to build empires and rewrite history.
He is known for Civilization, one of the most famous series of computer games ever made. When it debuted in 1991, gamers flocked to its colorful and compelling chronicle of the military, economic, technological, and cultural rise and fall of civilizations spanning 6,000 years of human history. The game allows players to assume the role of George Washington, Alexander the Great, Nebuchadnezzar, or one of a dozen other famous leaders to guide their civilization's development -- building armies, developing technology, and amassing fortunes along the way. For many players, Civilization made history and politics fun for the first time, a chance to get hands-on with controlling the destiny of nations. Some 23 years later, millions of copies have been sold and the franchise is now in its fifth edition. Foreign Policy spoke with Meier about the inspiration behind the game and whether it can help us to understand current events.
Foreign Policy: What inspired you to design Civilization in the first place?
Sid Meier: There were a couple of games I had played that had good [game] mechanics, some good ideas. As a game designer, you're always thinking, "If I were to do this game, I would add this or change that." I had been playing Sim City and another game called Empire. These were what are now called "god games," where a player starts small and builds up over time. We had just finished Railroad Tycoon, which also had a bit of that quality. You started with one little railroad, you added track, and built this railroad empire.
People liked the idea. So we said: What's the topic that we could build upon this idea of starting small and building up? Let's just do the whole history of civilization. There are all sorts of cool stuff there. The idea was to make a game of that instead of blowing things up -- which is what most of the games were about at that time -- a game of building something that was your own design, so that every player would have a different story, a different path through the game, so that they own the experience.
FP: Were you always interested in history?
SM: I always had an interest in history, and especially military history. Part of the inspiration for Civ was to relive the life of Napoleon, or Julius Caesar, or other great leaders who had made a small nation into an empire. It was kind of a Walter Mitty fantasy.
FP: The Civilization games became almost a cultural phenomenon. What about them speaks to people?
SM: We really didn't design it in, but as I look back, I realize there is a really interesting growth path in the game. In the beginning, you have one or two military units, just a couple of technologies, and just a couple choices to make. The game opens up and unfolds gradually at your own pace. And before you know it, you're dealing with lots of interesting decisions.
There is also that one-more-turn quality. There are enough different things going on that there is never really a good time to stop. In one city, you're building something, and when that is done, you're exploring this other continent. And then you meet the leader of another civilization, and you're wondering how that is going to turn out. There are enough different threads in your imagination at any one time. One of the reasons that Civ has become this well-known phenomenon is that people remember the night when they stayed up to 3 a.m. playing it. It's these experiences that stick with you.
FP: It seems to me that it taps into people's desires to get hands-on with history.
SM: I think it's doing history your way. What if things had gone this way instead of that, or how would I have dealt with these great world leaders? Maybe you believe that military power is the answer, or culture is the way to go. You can explore all these directions.
FP: Which of the empires in the game resembles today's United States?
SM: One of the things we avoid is forcing the player down a certain path, or trying to recreate history. This is a brand-new version of history that you as the player create. One of the stories we often hear is that a player meets Gandhi [the leader of the Indian civilization in the game], and pushes Gandhi to the point where he is really upset and launches nuclear weapons.
We're giving players a sandbox. Trying to create a specific situation detracts from the feeling that the player has control and is able to determine the direction of the game. There are places in the game where you can decide what type of government you want, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. Civ may represent some of the forces and considerations that are involved in running a country, but I wouldn't claim that we have any particular insight into the United States today.
FP: You must have seen every strategy that players have used. Some are aggressive, some are stupid, some work, and some don't. Do you see the United States ever pursuing similar strategies?
SM: I think there is a general question of short-term versus long-term decisions. Sometimes something will seem like the right answer for a short-term game, but in the long term it will be detrimental to your country. Civ certainly introduces you to a lot of general concepts of decision-making and trade-offs: The idea of allying with other civilizations versus being at war with them, looking at the cost of things versus their value. In a military or an emergency situation, buying military units in Civ may be the best thing to do. Otherwise, your money is best spent elsewhere. You're thinking like a leader in terms of consequences and trade-offs, and trying to come up with a plan for a world where things change and evolve every turn. You have to have the flexibility to change your strategy. Maybe that's the lesson for today.
FP: Do you pay a lot of attention to historical accuracy?
SM: Most of our decisions were based on common knowledge, as opposed to some intense research of obscure details of history. What we were actually trying to do is allow you to play based on your own knowledge of history, not because you have read the same history books that we have. We use broad, familiar ideas to drive the game. For example, the player knows that inventing the wheel in the game is probably going to be helpful.
FP: The game is essentially a narrative epic of how civilizations progress over thousands of years. Is this how you view the path of human history?
SM: The original design of Civ was the rise and fall of civilizations. There would be occasional setbacks, such as the Dark Ages, that you would have to overcome, and the glory of overcoming them would be satisfying. But what we found was that when bad things happen, people would just reload the game. They were not interested in the fall of civilizations. Just the rise of them.
So we ended up with a game of constant progress. We actually started to understand the psychology of gamers. When something bad happens, often they blame it on the computer, or the designer, or some other outside force. They would think it wasn't fair, and they would reload the game.
We also found the same phenomenon when nuclear weapons came into play in the game. Players did not have much hesitation in using nuclear weapons against the AI-controlled civilizations. But if somehow the AI used a nuclear weapon against them, it would be: "wait a minute, that's not fair." The message of Civ is that [nuclear weapons are] a lose-lose for everybody. But we found that we couldn't allow the AI to use them, because it was destroying the player's experience. If the player is destroying the AI's experience, then it's only the computer that suffers.
FP: Do you have a favorite power or strategy in Civ?
SM: I guess I tend to think of Civ in terms of the various types of gameplay now, rather than as particular powers. I've tried most of the strategies in the game at one time or another. I think I enjoy getting away with small victories against larger opponents: beating them to build Wonders [special cultural achievements with in-game benefits] first, or maybe snatching away a prime spot on the map. It makes me feel clever.
FP: How would you say the Civ games have evolved?
SM: It's pretty surprising to look back, I guess, 20 years now, and see it still cranking along. With each iteration, we brought in fresh designers. Keeping the basic core concepts but adding in new elements, new ideas. By Civ III, we got to the point where we realized that for every new thing we put in, we had to take something else out, because the game was in danger of overwhelming the player. We kept up with graphic advances, added multiplayer, added networking, all the cool stuff that the progression of computers has allowed us to do. But it's always been a game where you didn't need the latest cutting-edge computer. Then there's been a player community that has created mods and maps and variations that have added another dimension to the game. All of that explains why we are the fifth generation of Civ and the game is still alive.
FP: So what is the secret of Civ's longevity?
SM: I think there is a combination of these grand ideas -- war and peace, exploration, 6,000 years of history, great leaders -- in a playable format. You can easily make a game with these elements that is unplayable or overwhelming. What we've tried to do is introduce these elements in a playable, manageable way, so that you as the player can master and experiment with them. Combining these things is the power of Civ.
FP: Has anyone told you that Civ has affected their real lives?
SM: I have often heard of people whose interest in history or politics was stimulated. Occasionally, you'll meet a proud parent who says, ‘My son knew all about Napoleon because he ran into him in the game and he got interested in him.' We've always had the Civilopedia in the game where you could look up more information. Also, there have been teachers who have used the game to expose students to world history in a fun way. That kind of feedback is really gratifying.
FP: Have we seen the last of Civ?
SM: No. We're not done with Civ, but we also like to do other things. Last year, we released XCom: Enemy Unknown, which is a game about an alien invasion and Ace Patrol, a game of WWI aircraft. We like all kinds of strategy games. I'm sure Civ will be a part of our future for quite some time.
(c) The Photo Group 2012 via Flickr