Thursday, 5 July 2012

Life, Liberty, and Civilization

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

That sentence begins what is undeniably one of the most important documents of western civilisation. But while I doubt those words can ever resonate with me as they can with anyone born in the land of their origin, the promise implicit within them still has the power to speak to me across the expanses of time and the Atlantic ocean. They expound to me a sense of a shared human experience, and a faith in the potential of every individual. They are in a very real way the heart of the American ideal.

In particular when I look at those words I see the great paradox of western democracy, born from the essence of two philosophies who's ongoing conflict has helped define modern life.
I'm going to talk about that paradox, the slippery nature of truth, how history makes some more equal than others, and the enduring power of hope. But mostly I am going to talk about a how a video game helped me understand these ideas. How it began a series of games which has for over 20 years remained approachable and bipartisan, while providing ongoing conversation over what the ascendancy of western democracy means. I'm going to talk about Civilization.

The Truth

This story begins in 1991, as the slow inward collapse and eventual dissolution of the USSR brought the cold war to a end. It seemed finally the world could breathe again after holding its collective breath for 50 years, as the doomsday clock's hands moved slowly away from midnight. Western capitalist democracy stood alone, and the great ideological wars seemed to be over.

It's hard now to understand fully what this meant for many people at the time, and certainly as a child I didn't grasp the significance of the events going on around me, so my own concerns were different and less high minded. I was deep in the throes of a new obsession, I no longer cared what the fastest dinosaur was, and football stickers were so last year. Now fighter planes were my everything, and my waking hours were spent nose in a book engrossed in absorbing their every detail in that singularly determined way that only children seem to posses.

I had a soft spot for the rugged Soviet machines they felt more like 'proper' planes than their sleek US equivalents. As such when it did begin the end of the cold war had me worried. Did no more USSR mean no more MiGs? No more Hinds? It seemed to my mind that bidding goodbye to the era of those dearly loved big beasts, was a steep price to pay for world peace.

But my disappointment at the immanent dismantling of the eastern block war machine wouldn't last long as in 1992 my parents would by a Amiga 500+, and a little later I would get a game called Civilization.

Yes it looked terrible, even by the 1990's highly pixelated standards but it promised a scale and scope beyond almost anything else. The games 6000 year time line meant Civ sometimes got described as a 'God Game' (the term 4x didn't emerge till a year later), but unlike true god games such as Populous in Civ you were able to influence but not directly intervene. There was no rains of fire, or angry lightning bolts here, instead yours was the guiding hand behind a nation's collective consciousness subtly changing it's path through history. The task in front of could seem daunting, you didn't have to just deal with one city, or one time period, your task was to guide a civilisation from nothing through all of human history and into the future, to “Build a empire to stand the test of time”.

Looking back with hindsight that tag line really does give the game away, with Civ arriving as it did not long after the Berlin wall fell & tanks rolled through red square, there was really only one empire that appeared to fit that criteria. 

The truth is Civ wasn't a game about civilization, it was about a civilization. It was a game about America, the worlds only superpower.

Next Part 2: Why I think in Civ sometimes not all men are created equal.

Side Note: This series has been brewing for a while (since January in fact), but I finally made up my mind to beat it into some kind of readable state after listening to Civ being discussed on the Three Moves Ahead Podcast and then talking about Civ V again on the Idle Thumbs forum. Still nothing might have come of it if it hadn't lead to me following Jeff Green on Twitter, which in turn lead to me reading this great post by him, which in turn made me decide that if he can talk about depression (which I've had my struggled with at times in my life) so openly, I can certainly stop worrying about putting myself out there and  having my opinions judged and talk about a silly video game.

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