Bridging Worlds: Civilization Outside Stasis

Bridging Worlds is artist Eron Rauch’s ongoing series of in-depth articles on the curious places of connection between video games, contemporary art, and culture.

After a 24 year break from playing Civilization, my friends recently roped me into trying the new Civilization 6. For reference, the last time I had played a Civ game was in 1993. I was 12 and didn’t even have a computer with a color screen at home. After stumbling around the overwhelmingly massive campus of new junior high, my proclivity for reading Dragonlance novels at lunch accidentally made me a new friend who would open the geeky technicolor doors for me.

Let’s call him J.T., and after bonding over our mutual love of 20-sided dice, Robotech, and the number 42, our daily after-school ritual became to head to his conveniently located house. Yeah, it smelled like cat pee, but his mom always brought us nacho cheese dip made with Velveeta and taco seasoning packs so that evened out. But the main attraction was that JT’s family had a full-on computer room in the basement, the lair of a towering beige beast with a massive 15-inch 256 color monitor.

We’d fail our way through Eye of the Beholder’s early stages (too hard); try to pick fights in Star Trek: 25th Anniversary (too boring); and eventually settle into the original Civilization for a long afternoon of mayhem. Nothing could cause more squeals of laughter from us than playing as Gandhi and rushing for nuclear missiles and blowing up the world.

My current friends were supposed to play my first game of **Civ 6* cooperatively with me, but they make video games and hit an unexpected stretch of crunch time. When they are crunching, they may as well be stationed on the moon for hanging-out (and hygiene) purposes, so I just dove in. The game had apparently detected my past life where I started a bunch of anime clubs, so it randomized me the most weeaboo-appropriate choice, Japan, with its special units “Samurai” and “Electronics Factory.”

Long before I could live out my William Gibson fantasy of electrified katanas, things went horribly wrong. By turn 15 my city was on fire with a half dozen barbarian units warming their hands on its embers. Trying to play nice with my neighbors, it wasn’t until like turn 120 that I figured out there was a whole other hidden system governing religion and by then my towns were crawling with Catholics. Then there seemed to be this other, even more obtuse, system for acquiring culturally important objects, masterpieces pilling up in every nations’ vaults except mine.

At around turn 200 my bad karma from when I was 12 years old came back when Gandhi tricked me into declaring joint war on France. And by tricked, I mean put something at the front of a treaty that I thought meant something other than what it did. For reference, France was already in the industrial age while I was just realizing I had missed researching that great futuristic technology: the wheel.

Slowly but inevitably came the realization that I was utterly screwed. My Civilization was way behind in money, art, culture, cities, espionage, famous people, religion, and trade. To top that off every other head of state then denounced me as a warmonger, including Gandhi, who started the whole damn war and surrendered one turn later because he had no military units.

If you’re curious: The entire war was where a single archer unit in my home city managed to shoot holes in a catapult unit France had caulked up and floated alone across the largest ocean in the world. The way that microscopic skirmish ended seemed positively realistic compared to the way the French behemoth then instantly surrendered after losing the Battle of the Lone Unsupported Jury-rigged Ocean-Going Siege Weapon. I look forward to seeing the bronze monument they will erect in future-Paris to commemorate that tragedy.

By now I was a dozen hours deep in a totally unfamiliar game only to find myself in a situation where I’m almost guaranteed to come in last place. But something even more frustrating was occurring as I tried to push forward: the game seemed locked in a damnable equilibrium where the computer players were waiting for me to make a move before doing anything interesting themselves, and every turn that passed with me in last place makes it made likely I won’t have any good opening moves in the future.

Tobias Winnerling recently described this exact problem more concisely than I could in his excellent piece about the lack of impactful diplomacy in video games, “Although they are staged as digital rivals — whom human players might apprehend as their digital equals in terms of pursuing distinct internal needs, intentions, and goals — they really are not… The AI parties are not so much opponents as they are obstacles whose only function is to hinder players in achieving their goals.”

"The AI parties are not so much opponents as they are obstacles whose only function is to hinder players in achieving their goals.”

As my Civ 6 save-state currently sits, I have no reasonable goals left to try for, thus the AI has no reason to interact to hinder me (should we call that “hinderaction”?). So my Japan will forever just get passively screwed by its larger, richer, more connected, more advanced, oft-snarky neighbors. Meanwhile the AI presses ever forward, ever more efficiently until hundreds of turns from now we will cruise to a finish at exactly the same ranks as turn 50.

But I’m stubborn, so I was puzzling through my options one last time before giving up in boredom, when I realized there is something insidiously obvious I could do. The very option my 12-year old self, smeared with drying Velveeta, would have done from the beginning. By listening to the game’s virtual advisor I had accidentally given myself insanely sophisticated tech for making warships. That means I could quickly make a massive navy far larger and far more advanced than anything my neighbors could produce since they had spent their resources on other things that would, you know, win them the game.

To put a fine point on it, I could simply embrace my warmonger reputation and race through the remaining turns using my fleet smash the other Civilizations, burn their cities, kill their populations, destroy their temples, and pillage their works of art. Then, and only then, would I be able to avoid coming in last place.

JT and I would already have been sailing on Gandhi’s capital, knowing he was aiming for a pacifist religious victory and had nothing to defend with. But all those intervening years suddenly snapped into focus: news reels of guided missiles in infrared; faces of neighbors from around the world; the aftermath photos of suicide bombings; drone strikes; years of studying the actual history of Japan; years of travel; my friends and their families; shattered cities. Every time I load the game and think about cueing up a terrifying fleet, some part of me that has its roots in the real world shouts, “But there has to be another choice!”

I want desperately to win, as I am a terrible loser, but I also desperately don’t want to see the world burn. Yet the game is designed so that I have two clear options: First, I could keep doing what I’ve been doing and spend a dozen hours that could otherwise be spent hanging out with my friends, to see the game’s narrative to its logical, peaceful conclusion, where my Japan is a happy-but-third-world country living off the scraps of the big colonial powers.

Or second, I could take my Japanese navy, blindside one of the strong but neutral countries, and start some alternate-history version of World War II. Which even if I lost would at least move me up the winners list quite a few spaces.

Yes, some small part of my reticence to just go along with the game is assuredly a stylistic reaction to its chipper, Disney-fied vision of innocuous, a-historical colonialism that annoys me in every media. But there seems to be something deeper to my discomfort with launching a massive last-ditch war of aggression: I feel like I would only be doing it to make the game happy. Even more distressing than that, it feels like going full Pearl Harbor seems like the only way the game will even acknowledge and respond to my presence as a player.

Going full Pearl Harbor seems like the only way the game will even acknowledge and respond to my presence as a player.

There is a third option, one that anyone who has played a lot of video games is probably screaming at me to pursue, which is to just restart my damn game. But a new game does nothing to allay my concerns about how the game wants me to interact with it. All that would be different is that I would reach that momentous decision to slaughter, bully, and pillage my way through a the ages a few dozen turns earlier. All that would be different is that I would be more prepared to launch an assault on Pearl Harbor.

I first learned to see and express myself through geek/fandom culture with JT and his friends in that basement. We all drifted apart after getting split up during the first few years of high-school, and I feel like I was never as true and pure a fan as those few youthful years. Fandom made up a lot of my youthful identity, but as life went on I started feeling increasingly uneasy with the media aimed at fandom propagating ever-intensifying stories of heroism, machismo, war, and mastery. In short, as games grew more spectacular and more targeted at their core demographic, and the more I lived of life, the more the dropdown menu in those games seem less and less likely to have the option I felt to be meaningful or interesting.

This sense that Civ really is trying to teach me to love seeing the world burn wouldn’t be such a crisis if the Civ franchise wasn’t the standard bearer for everything good, adult, serious, and sophisticated in games. This is the game that many game fans use an their example for how games are more than brutal shooters, martial arts mayhem, twitch reflex tests, and science fiction apocalypses. There’s even a creator’s name slapped across the front of the game’s name, giving it the legitimacy of a Ken Burns documentary, “Sid Meier’s Civilization*.

I know what the game wants me to do. I know what I would have done when I was a young fan. But while both the game and my teenage self are hanging out with chips in 1993 like nothing has changed, I don’t think the me of 2017 wants to do any of those things anymore. Critically, I’m not sure if I get the sense that anyone making big budget video games is really willing to waste time from cashing all those fat checks from Ghandi-nukers to notice or care that there is some scruffy 36 year-old sitting there scratching his chin, keyboard silent, second-world Japan idling away. In that way, my crisis with the decisions presented to the player in Civ are basically a mirror of the sense of disconnect I increasingly feel I’m presented by the the broader spectrum of products that span the core of commercial video game fandom.

In the end, contemplating starting virtual WWII in a time of real turmoil is a deeply personal but far reaching question: Are video games simply shiny toys designed for passive entertainment, or can video games be a deep part of a complex life outside of a narrow marketing demographic?

Are video games simply shiny toys designed for passive entertainment, or can video games be a deep part of a complex life outside of a narrow marketing demographic?

That is, if I’m not a core gamer but I’m not a non-gamer what are the options left to me and my faltering relationships to video games? The first and most drastic solution would be to finally throw up my hands and say “fuck video games.” I’m a busy 36 year-old and I’ve legitimately got enough other shit to do that I could just walk away. I mean, video games don’t seem to give a shit about me either, so that feels like a fair response.

But this seems to be really dismissive of the potential of games. Somewhere deep down I really believe video games can be something cooler and more interesting than murder simulators for white straight guys to escape into. If everyone like me who finds video games lacking exits the scene, then we’ve basically done a video game culture version of Brexit.

The flip-side option is that I can just grit my teeth into a forced smile and like all the same shit that “core” gamers are supposed to: sail to India with canon-fire in my eyes. I get told to, “turn off my brain and enjoy the fun,” all the time. I could just play Civ because my friends do. Fetishize the creators. Fetishize the money games make. Fill my house by buying all the right merch. Revel in the fact “we-the-geeks” won the culture wars.

Fetishize the creators. Fetishize the money games make. Fill my house by buying all the right merch.

But that explicitly flies in the face of the whole reason the geek and video gaming world attracted me, which was because it provided an alternative set of values to the really constrained mainstream Midwestern conservative-Christian suburban life that I found so confining and degrading. Whatever I might think of Civ 6 or Kantai Collection, I still stand by the fact that Final Fantasy 6 or Akira was a hell of a lot more interesting and mind-expanding ways to spend my time than watching Full House. These were places filled with darkness, weirdness, and complexity, and helped me make sense of being bullied and all the other day-to-day crap that comes with smug suburbia.

This feels like turning my back on the whole reason I came to love games.

I could become a games maker and fill in the gaps myself. As much as I’m an idealist, even I think its a naive answer to solely answer my complaint that “even flagship serious games seem to be rooted in brutal behavior enjoyable by 12-year olds,” with “make your own damn Civ game.” Maybe if I was 20 and had this falling out, I’d end up out there trying to revolutionize the industry. But that’s hardly an option for me or for a vast majority of the folks I’m talking about - people who are older and have lived enough life to see video games fail to speak to them in ways other than juvenile industry tropes rooted in violence, mastery, and productivity.

For myself, and many of my friends, we’re not likely to stop playing games totally, nor are we about to sit down and say nice things about Bioshock Infinite, let alone interning for a few years to be a game dev (only to end up making crappy franchised games based on Hollywood movies). So what does that leave us? Well, from my experience the most common ending is that former game lovers become self-identifying casuals as they age.

This option seems to be the default position that the industry and fandom wants to see with former core gamers too: quiet, steady, low-maintenance consumers for flagship products. It’s basically a combination of both of the first two options, where there is no active connection to video game fandom, but regular forays into a particularly choice mainstream game like Witcher 3 or Skyrim are embraced as a kind of indulgence.

But so far, none of these options let me do the thing I want: to play and think about interesting, complex games that bring meaning and richness to my life. Whether music, novels, painting, or movies, no other major medium seems to have provoked a crisis in my love and appreciation for them simply because I’m no longer a teenager and no longer am willing to try to pretend I’m still a teenager.

That said there might be a clue in that my passion for certain genres in music, novels, and art, have faded. Certainly some genres I used to like can be actively hostile to older folks (“never trust anyone older than 30”). Do I still like Chemical Brothers as much as I did when I was 16? Hell no, I am not block-rocking those big beat records in 2017. But I still buy new records every week from the myriad of other genres that I’ve grown to love.

Which leads me to suspect that the problem here in video games is that we’ve mixed up a medium and genre. What we as fans call “video games" is basically a genre that we might call “gamer” rather than the fullness of the medium. Even Civilization, the go-to example gamers use to show that their “medium” is capable of interesting stuff beyond highly-rendered guns, is steeped in gamer and cultural conventions from nerd and video game fandom’s history. It’s not 4x genre conventions or strategy game conventions that irk me, but “video-games-as-genre” conventions.

From the art of the leaders to the way victory is scored to the prioritize military technology, Civilization 6, thinks and acts not as a video game (since you could certainly design a game without any of those things) but instead in a profoundly “video-game-y” way.

Because I am fan of video games, I’ve mistaken fan-targeted products as the entire possibility of the medium.

If we’re willing to say that “video games aiming to sell themselves to a churning amalgamation of historical geeks, hardcores, gamerbros, and self-proclaimed fanboys” is a kind of macro-scale-genre that contains a number of subgenres like first person shooter and platformer, my issues with feeling left out start to make a lot more sense. It’s not that video games are a place absent of the potential for meaningful art; instead it is that is that because I am fan of video games, I’ve mistaken the fan-targeted products that I typically come into contact with, spanning Civilization to Call of Duty to Mario, as the entire possibility of the medium similar to mistaking solar systems for being the largest unit of celestial measurement, instead of galaxies, clusters, or super-clusters.

Like some pre-Conpurnican church, video gaming as a community desperately upholds this myth that the kinds of games we see on Steam, Polygon, and E3 are both center and sole location in the universe. But indeed, just like there turned out to be no crystal sphere, and the stars are all other places so to goes our perspective on video games. During the Renaissance, powers-that-be, especially the church, suppressed the knowledge of the heavens, killed its exponents, and tried their damnedest to keep thinking of Earth as the center of everything. Similarly, institutions of fandom entrench their claims of representing the sole and complete potential for their “medium” despite evidence the heavens of video games are multitudinous.

Whether it is animation, comics, or board games, video game fandom is hardly the only fan-as-target-demographic space that is realizing what they took as a medium might be best understood as only one limited genre place within a much larger system. Especially as these fandoms have grown and moved out into the world, all the while gaining new fans with different backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations, able-ness, histories, and political opinions, there is a growing sense that the American mainstream products made by white straight men for white straight boys aren’t the entirety of what the medium can make.

What started as a simple attempt to think about this historical echo of playing Civilization seems to have led me to a whole new chapter in my video game fandom. A chapter that will be about the exploration of the unknown, not mastery of known. Rather than quitting video games, rather than making video games, rather than than trusting the high priests of video games that there is one true way, another option is that it’s time to go exploring. It’s a scary proposition, but also kind of exciting, to think of the Steam bestseller list as a genre, and to plan an expedition far into the expanse beyond that.

I’m hardly the only person who has been feeling uneasy with video games as I age, uneasy with the repeating 12-year old warmonger solutions and homogenous world views that typically fill the top 10 lists of every major publication every year. Similarly, I hardly doubt I’m the only person who has doubted the liturgy of high priests of the gamer, and set out to see the variations of other heretical genres. Indeed, the honest blog writings of Cara Ellision late in her career writing about games and the directness of Tale of Tales documentation of their production process both started the chain of questions that led me to see a more macroscopic vision of video games.

Charting a voyage beyond the known boundaries of mainstream video gaming is a long way from eating Velveeta dip and nuking the virtual world of Civilization 1, but by that scale it is excitingly an almost equally massive distance from drinking a whiskey and contemplating starting a world war in Civilization 6. Setting out to see the far reaches, beyond our little home, is a fairly adult thing to do.

Setting out to see the far reaches, beyond our little home, is a fairly adult thing to do.

Who knows, maybe I’ll stop by once in a while to see what’s happening and share some stories. But while I’m probably not a video game fan by most conventional genre or marketing definitions, I’m still sitting here, I still exist, so that means maybe we need a new term. So why not call me a video game explorer. That name feels right for the future.