I want you to stop and take a look around yourself for a moment—either mentally or physically (or a bit of both)—and consider all you see: your home, your computer, your cell phone, your car, the electricity running your home, the food in your fridge, the highways you drive on, the job you go to—all of it. Go ahead. Take a minute and really see it. I’ll wait.

All done?

Good. Now think about this: what would it be like if none of that existed? I don’t mean you had it and lost it, maybe you’re homeless, or the zombie apocalypse happened, whatever. I mean it never existed, and a lot of it hasn’t even been imagined yet.

All of that stuff it the result of civilization, and it’s a very tricky thing, a very thin veneer.

Off and on, I play a computer game called Civilization. Or, more properly, Sid Meier’s Civilization, Civ for short. In my case, I’m playing Civ IV, which is far from the latestciv iv version (I think on PC the latest version is V, and there’s Civilization Revolution for the gaming consoles), but I have fun with it anyway.

If you’re not familiar with computer gaming, Civ is what’s called a simulation, or sim game. In other words, it simulates something from real life. In the case of Civ, you run a civilization as its eternal ruler and decision maker. When the game starts, you choose a civilization from among several historical, real-world civs. You’ll also choose the world you play on, its size, composition, etc. You can even pick randomly for all this, let the computer assign your parameters.

The game begins in prehistory, something like 5,000 BC, if I remember right (that could be wrong, so don’t quote me on that), and you generally have two units: a Settler, and something else, depending on what civ you chose. Could be a Warrior, could be a Scout. The screen is divided up into tiles, and you can only see a few adjoining tiles. The rest of the world is literally dark, and as far as you can see, you’re the only people in it.

The first thing you have to do is find a good site for your first city. This city will be your capital, so be sure and pick wisely. You can have the game show you good choices for where to put down roots. You can use your other unit to explore and expand your map, eventually meeting other civs.

s2-81f2f04e647cfdad36ec8c6b96543b6eYou’ll usually start out with a couple of technologies, but everything else you’ll have to research, and you have to budget for it. You’re always given a choice of what technology (the game’s term for every advance your civ makes) to research next. It’s not handed to you. And keep in mind that other civs will be researching as well. There are advantages to finding some technologies first, such as the founding of religions, which can give you at least temporary benefits over the other civs.

I’m not going to describe every facet of the game, because it would be far too complicated for this post. But I will say this: playing the game will give you a whole new outlook on all that stuff I had you look at when we started. In Civ, you as the player at least have the benefit of hindsight. If you’re offered the opportunity to research gunpowder, you know, at least in a vague way, what that will possibly lead to. And as you learn the game, you’ll learn what takes you through what’s called the tech tree faster and gets you to your goals (there are several you can achieve). Through  your research, you’ll learn how one thing led to the discovery of another, and how it’s all intertwined to a great extent.

And you’re left with a sense of wonder that we have all the things we have. You’re playing with foreknowledge. Even if you don’t get into history, you know what we have today. But by playing Civ, you can see how chancy it all was, and it’ll make you wonder how we got this far. This depended on that being discovered, which depended on something else, ad nauseum.

I’m nowhere near being a good player, and I’ve only taken up playing the game again for the first time in four or five years (at a guess). I have to play for fun, since I rarely civilization-4-mac-screenshot-3have good scores at the end of the game. It’s so intricate, and you have to keep track of so many things to score high that I despair of ever being what you’d consider a good player.

But it’s given me an appreciation of everything we’ve achieved as a race. And you can look in the in-game Civilopedia to learn things about the actual civilizations you’re playing, as well as the Wonders you can build and so on.

So if you like a game where you can have fun and learn something at the same time, go out and find a copy of Civ. You might just find yourself looking around in wonder the way I do.



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