Saturday, January 05, 2019

Grand strategy computer games: the ultimate waste of time?

I suffer from an addiction. It’s not a craving for alcohol, tobacco or some other substance. My poisons are computer games like Civilization and Europa Universalis. Civilization is up to its sixth iteration now. I was playing the first version at university back in 1992. Aficionados still argue about whether Civ II or Civ IV was the best, but all iterations are essentially the same. You start as a small tribe of nomads in 4000BC about to found its first city. You expand your civilisation over the next 6,000 years and finally attempt to launch your people into space. Along the way, you have to allocate food and resources to scientific research, armies and buildings. The game mechanics haven’t changed in a quarter of a century, although each new edition adds some tweaks and improved graphics.

I played Civilization V on the Steam platform, which allows me to quantify my addiction. It tells me I have spent 470 hours playing the game. During that time, I have won (meaning my civilisation achieved domination over the rest of the world) on the highest difficulty setting of ‘Deity’ just twice. Obviously, the attraction of the game is not just those two victories. Rather, Civ gets its claws into you by being perfectly paced. It lobs small achievements at the you every few turns, each of which provides a dopamine hit that makes you want to continue playing the game in search of the next high. For example, early on in the game, successfully researching writing means you can try to build the Great Library in one of your cities, which in turn lets you discover another technology. Or researching mining allows you to exploit a nearby mineral reserve so you can recruit soldiers with better weapons and biff the barbarians harassing your borders. Later, you’ll be conquering another civilisation’s cities to take control of their uranium reserves and hamstring their nuclear weapons programme. Or you’ll send your submarines to lurk off an enemy’s coast to sink their invasion fleet before it gets anywhere near your capital city.

But like all addictive substances, there is less to Civ than meets the eye. While the game design allows you to play historical civilisations, playing the game misleads you about how the world really works. Scientific research is entirely driven by the resources that your government choses to throw at them. You can tweak your policies to encourage technology, but really the game is based on the false idea that public spending is a key ingredient in scientific advance. Worse, the game assumes that science can be directed and that certain technologies lead inevitably to others. Players pick the technology to research in 3000BC on the basis of what they’d like to discover centuries later. A player’s early bronze age sages might be ordered to develop sailing boats because that makes it possible to discover optics in the late iron age. Thus, Civilization presents history as having a direction. The game’s mechanics ensure that progress in science leads to more advanced technology, industrial success, and political freedom. Players know where they want to go and they can set all their policies to get there.

In the early-twentieth century, Herbert Butterfield famously rebuked his contemporaries for writing ‘Whig history’. His target was habit of scholars to imagine their own civilisation, be it British or French, as being the goal to which mankind has been progressing through the aeons. Marx explicitly claimed that history has a direction that leads inexorably to a socialist paradise. Even Butterfield himself was decidedly whiggish when it came to the history of science, calling the scientific revolution, which we now doubt happened at all, the most significant event in the story of the human race. Whig history is in the DNA of Civ. When you start a game in 4000BC, you know exactly where you want your people to end up in AD2000. Each of my victories at the hardest difficulty setting was the product of loads of play-throughs to establish the perfect strategy to get to the end point before any other country. That makes for a wonderful strategy game, but a woeful simulation of history.

Rather more credible in the history department is Europa Universalis. Steam shows I’ve clocked up 1,300 hours on Europa Universalis IV; over twice the time I’ve spent on Civ V. EU IV is a complicated game with new expansions arriving every few months. As a result, it is hard to get into and extremely difficult to master. The player becomes the ruler of a country in 1440AD and aims to enhance its power until the game ends in 1820AD. While the scope of EU IV covers the whole world and 400 hundred years of history, the game mechanics prevent you from diverging too far from real life. The player can ensure that it is Saxony and not Prussia that unites Germany; or that Spain colonises Brazil and Portugal gets Peru, but the long-term geopolitical and technological realties are fixed. Diverge too far from them, and the game punishes you. In addition, wholly random events completely out of your control can poleaxe your progress. That’s realistic too, but can make playing the game massively frustrating.

All this makes EU IV complicated, unforgiving if you get something wrong, and requiring a vast amount of time to play. Civ is notorious for how long games take to complete, but it has nothing of EU IV, where a committed player like me can take weeks to finish a game. On the flip side, EU IV is vastly more realistic, being set in a historically accurate past, and allowing players to explore alternative histories that could really have happened. What if the England stayed Catholic; if the Holy Roman Empire had united rather than fallen apart; if the Ottomans had not been stopped at the gates of Vienna; or the Chinese discovered America? The trouble is, all this realism makes for a more hardcore game. Every time the developers try to make it more realistic, they annoy the players who just want to have fun. And realism has it limits: any half-decent player can conquer the entire world if they start with one of the more powerful countries (I subjugated the planet under the Ottoman Empire). And frankly, that isn’t realistic at all.

As the Christmas holidays come to an end, I’m off the sauce of both of these games, distracted myself with altogether less taxing entertainment on an Xbox. But eventually I’ll crack again and kiss the rest of my life goodbye for another couple of weeks.

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