CULTURAL NOVELTIES ARE many, but genuinely new art forms don't come along very often. The computer game may be to our time what film was to the early twentieth century. There's a cultural divide about this--literate young people in their twenties routinely spend leisure hours hunting aliens on their PCs; gaffers like me tend to regard this as a waste of time. But my link to the world of the young is a game called Civilization III, invented by master designer Sid Meier.
To call Civilization III a game is probably a misnomer. To those of us who love it, "Civ" is a combination hobby, obsession, and alternate universe. At a time when the air is full of loose talk about the "clash of civilizations," the game's fascination--and its own evolution over time--provides interesting insights into the nature of civilization, and even more interesting views of our own ways of thinking about it.
"CIVILIZATION" IS BOTH A DESCRIPTION and an aspiration. The historians of the Annales school viewed a civilization as the irrefragable sum total of a geographic region's history, demography, and environment--one civilization can never become another, they argued, and civilizations that find themselves in proximity to one another are doomed to conflict. Looking at history from this point of view--what Annales historian Fernand Braudel called the "longue duree"--events seem to exhibit an inhuman inevitability, flowing unstoppably if not predictably out of material conditions.
And yet there remains that other meaning. "What do you think of Western civilization?" Gandhi was once asked. "I think," he replied, "it would be a good idea." We all instinctively feel that "civilization" refers to something more than irrigation, epidemiology, and climate. If an enlightened leader had been in charge of Sumeria or Great Zimbabwe--if we, that is, had been in charge--could sheer wisdom and goodwill have shattered the cycle of shortage, war, and collapse?
The Civilization games offer the opportunity to be that enlightened ruler, a wise and liberal Montezuma or Shaka Zulu. Over and over, in the privacy of my study, I try to rectify the history of the world, to retell the human story as a long moral arc that bends toward justice. And like my real-life counterparts, I always fail.
The Civ games--which have gone through three increasingly sophisticated versions, not counting a number of spin-offs such as Alpha Centauri and Civilization: Call to Power--all follow the same format. The year is 4,000 B.C. I settle in a likely spot, till the soil, and explore the world around me. My population grows, I settle new cities, build mines and roads across the land, and erect temples and marketplaces within my cities. History sweeps by--6,000-plus years of it--but I remain alive and in charge of my people's destiny, aided by a grave cabinet of computer-generated advisers who warn me when I am low on money, when my citizens are discontented, or when my enemies are growing strong.
My scientists devise new technologies such as engineering, ironworking, electricity, and finally space flight and the atom bomb. When things are going well, my big cities can build wonders of the world, from a primitive "oracle" to a futuristic "cure of cancer." Meanwhile I compete with other civilizations (controlled by the program itself) that seek to block my growth or to outsmart me in trade deals and diplomatic negotiations. When I cross them or tempt them with weakness, they attack without warning. Finally, in the twenty-first century, we learn who has won.
There are a number of ways to win the game. There's old-fashioned world conquest. But the less militaristic can win by being the first to launch a starship (which basically requires the world's strongest economic system). And there's also a kind of American-style victory--the "cultural victory," in which the other cultures fall in love with yours until they either join it or become its satellites. …