You Must First Invent the Universe

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


Whistleblower or Traitor?

Exclusive: Former Google CEO says Snowden helped us, but he broke the law.

The executive chairman of Google, which has been a frequent target of government surveillance agencies in the United States and Britain, said classified information revealed by leaker Edward Snowden has helped the company better protect its customers' privacy from unwarranted intrusions. But he stopped short of endorsing Snowden's decision to disclose the inner workings of government spying, arguing that the leaks could have grave consequences for national security and human life.

"The Snowden information was helpful to know," said Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and a current advisor to its co-founders, in an interview with Foreign Policy on Thursday, Feb. 27. In 2013, company officials announced that they would henceforth encrypt traffic flowing through its data centers to make it harder for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies to spy on users' data. Google "changed its systems" after documents revealed by Snowden showed that Britain's Government Communications Headquarters had collected information on Google users, Schmidt told FP.

"We addressed that," he said. "But that is not an endorsement of either Snowden or bulk leaking."

Schmidt said that Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, committed a crime when he disclosed classified information in 2013 to journalists in violation of his government security clearance. (Schmidt said that he himself holds a high-level clearance.)

"[Snowden] has admitted that he violated those rules. That would be evidence of his own illegality," Schmidt said. "There's a separate question as to how society should treat such people, and to me that question is where you fall on the whistleblower versus traitor line, and I think society will sort that out."

Schmidt didn't say where he fell on that line. Asked whether Snowden should be tried in a U.S. criminal court, the Google executive deferred. "That is a question above my pay grade."

But Schmidt questioned the wisdom and the usefulness of some NSA programs that Snowden revealed, including the agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records.

"I think that you really want to think about whether society should do that," Schmidt said. The NSA compromised the privacy of some 330 million people, he said, by collecting their phone logs, information that was "recorded for posterity … to target 56 people of which one was a likely terrorist. That's their public statement. Does that make sense to you?" he asked.

Schmidt was referring to public statements by intelligence officials that the NSA used phone logs in a handful of cases to determine whether suspected terrorists were inside the United States and possibly planning attacks. President Barack Obama is currently weighing whether to continue the controversial program, perhaps by moving the data from the NSA and placing it under the control of the FBI, phone companies, or a third party.

Schmidt didn't say whether it made sense to him to maintain such a large database of information when it is so infrequently tapped. "I have a personal view on this," he continued, "but what's more important is to have the debate. Until Snowden leaked these things, which he clearly did illegally, we weren't having this debate."

Schmidt has been less hesitant to condemn spying by the NSA that occurred overseas and that affected his company directly. (Google doesn't collect phone records.) He has called the practice, revealed in documents leaked by Snowden, of tapping into cable connections between Google's data centers in other countries and the public Internet "outrageous" and possibly illegal. Google executives have maintained that they only hand over customers' data to government agencies when presented with a legal order.

Schmidt said he had come to the conclusion that the kind of "bulk leaking" Snowden committed, which he described as releasing hundreds of thousands of documents en masse, risked lives because sensitive information could be revealed in those files. It's an issue he explores in the recently published paperback edition of his book, The New Digital Age, which he co-authored with Jared Cohen, a former State Department official who runs Google Ideas, which explores technology and public policy.

"We do not endorse the unilateral bulk leaking of data. We think it's too dangerous," Schmidt said. He acknowledged that, to date, no one is known to have died as the result of Snowden's disclosures. (National security officials have said that the leaks could "gravely impact" intelligence operations and risk the safety of military personnel.) But Schmidt said he didn't rule out the possibility that future leaks could cost lives. "People could get seriously hurt by this. This is not a good thing."

Over the course of a wide-ranging interview, Schmidt also said that efforts by foreign governments to protect their citizens' personal information and communications from intelligence agencies, such as by moving data centers to within their borders or setting up private computer networks, would fail to work.

"It would be very difficult to do that without putting in very hard gateways" to block interaction with the broader Internet, Schmidt said, referring specifically to a plan announced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to build a European network that would avoid routing people's emails and other communications through the United States, where they could be intercepted.

"Eventually you end up with sort of a police state barrier. It slows things down. It makes encryption stop working," Schmidt said. "Eventually, Germany would need to have its own domain name system.… It just doesn't work."

But Schmidt said he doubted that Germany or any other country would follow through on plans to Balkanize the Internet. "We talked to the Germans in order to see how serious they are. It doesn't seem like what they're talking about is really going to happen."

Schmidt allowed that domestic political concerns in Germany, where he said citizens have gone "berserk" over NSA spying and revelations that the agency tapped Merkel's phone, may have persuaded the German leader to take a tough public line against U.S. intelligence efforts. "But I can report to you that there is not a credible plan to disconnect any country from the Internet, except Iran," Schmidt said, referring to Iranian officials' public announcements that they intend to sever their network connections to the outside world and filter all traffic that moves in and out of the country.

Iran has also been on the radar of U.S. national security officials, who are increasingly concerned about the Islamic Republic's efforts to build up an offensive cyberforce, which officials believe has been used to attack banks and possibly energy facilities.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images