Repackaging the Archive (Part VII): CIV II and Nihilism

Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

—Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”

So Jesse Miksic’s article and a recent account of a decade playing Sid Meier’s Civilization II (Microprose, 1996), Alexis Madrigal’s “Dystopia: What a Game of Civilization II Looks Like After 10 Years” in The Atlantic, have got me thinking about the profound melancholy one can access in video games, a melancholy that other forms of media simply cannot produce. As Miksic points out, part of this is simply a result of time and repetition, of the experience of continually dying, of the near-catastrophic levels of frustration produced by, say, getting to the end of Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo: 1988), and finally beating the boss only to learn there is another (and another) and immediately dying. Or, more recently, inspired by Madrigal’s article I spent some time playing Civilization II the past few days, and experienced something I perhaps never had when playing in my youth. If you actually put the game on an even relatively low difficult setting (“prince”),[1] one can access an acute and nearly overwhelming sense of their ultimate futility, like, to do anything.

Having guided my group of Spanish imperialists into a prominent global position (this isn’t the futile part, but the opposite. . .), every other nation in the game decided that I was the big, bad aggressor, and weren’t having it. Shortly, in the span of a few turns, I found myself at war with the entire planet. I was behind technologically, if ahead in other ways. Mine was a pre-nuclear military. And Greece, Japan, America, the Russians, and the Vikings all indiscriminately nuked me to an appropriate level of global obsolescence, whereby they proceeded to turn their attentions away from me and nuked each other. I had fought back only b/c there was no choice. A war on five fronts and a production line churning out tanks only to have them quickly destroyed. The scenario was beyond my abilities. After the dust had cleared, and I was in a state of détente with everyone but the Greeks, I found myself still a large civilization, but unable to do anything about the quickly heating planet. I finally launched some nukes at the Greeks, thereby ending my war w/ them, but it was more an act of revenge and frustration than strategic. (I have no trouble admitting such petty human emotions as jealousy, envy, and hatred. . . for a computer.) The Americans were quickly decimating them anyway. I could see that the game could very easily go toward the nightmare scenario described by Madrigal, or else my defeat and erasure from the planet. In another game, I hadn’t even attacked anyone when I got nuked.

The experience of getting nuked in Civilization II, esp. if you have not nuked anyone yet, can be deeply unsettling. There is a brutal game-theory logic to it: if someone doesn’t have nukes, nuke them, they can’t fire back. Last night, my Athens (I was playing the Greeks), a high seat of learning and culture—I had built many Wonders of the World There—got  nuked out of the blue, decimating the city, raising the temperature of the globe, causing famine all over. I had it. I shut off the computer, sick of being so utterly destroyed, with so little agency over anything (I also could probably be a better player). No matter what I did, no matter my peaceful nature, utter destruction, or, what’s even worse, a very obvious continuing inability to do much of anything in the face of a thousand year war marked by broken treaties, collapsing governments, and untold (virtual) suffering, appeared to be the only world I could provide the denizens of my “civilization.” Sadly, this seems to be how best to describe reality.

Perhaps a better title for the game would be Endless Total War. It has obviously been critiqued, and rightly so, for its reinforcement of: a progressive, teleological sense of history and its implicit celebration of Western imperialism. But I feel like the deep logic revealed by playing the game, even for a little while, is the manner in which it continually emphasizes the utter depravity and violence implicit in the course of empire. The world and history, as it is “represented” by Civilization II, is simply horror-show. Any of the “higher” activities of humanity, especially “culture,” get subsumed into the universal violent antagonism the game never relents in emphasizing.[2] Constructing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is just a means to further global domination. Da Vinci, a means of issuing new “versions” of troops: legionnaires 2.0, howitzer redux. Religion is represented as a tool of pacification. Shakespeare a means to an end. Abraham Lincoln a genocidal maniac. Eleanor Roosevelt a demagogue.

Civilization II is, quite literally, nihil unbound.


[1] I never did as a kid, preferring the hubristic grandiosity of conquering the world, building all the wonders, launching the space-ship, not using nukes for some sort of weird ethical reason (even though I slaughtered nations indiscriminately), and etc. winning. I was obviously more well-adjusted as a teenager.

[2] It must also be noted, I was playing the “bloodlust” setting, where you can’t win by going to the stars. We aren’t going to the stars.

One thought on “Repackaging the Archive (Part VII): CIV II and Nihilism

  1. Pingback: Edge of Tomorrow and the Gamification of Being | The Hyperarchival Parallax

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