Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Civilization, War, and Learning

Those of you who follow my Facebook posts have probably figured out by now that I broke down and bought Civilization V. It's the latest by Sid Meier, whose Pirates! is one of the best games I have ever played, but that's a post for another time. For those who are not familiar with the Civilization series, they are turn-based strategy games that follow the development of civilization from ancient times up to the modern age. Although they are a hallmark of PC turn-based strategy gaming---and I love turn-based strategy games---I have never played any games in the series until now.

Last night, I finished my first game of Civ V. I used the default settings, which were for beginning players, and I happened to be playing as the British Empire. My civilization developed much faster than the opposition, probably more because of the low difficulty setting than any clever strategy of mine. There are multiple ways to win the game peacefully: scientific leadership, diplomacy, and cultural development. Because my civilization was advancing so much more rapidly than my opponents, I took the classic gamer's optimization approach: military victory. After all, why wait for my inevitable cultural victory when I can just send my superior army to crush the opposition and annex their land to mine, thereby winning the game?

As my army crushed the opposition, the in-game music turned from pleasantly ignorable and ambient into rather dark and sad compositions. Every time I declared war and sent my troops over their borders, the music set the mood not of a glorious conquest, but of grief and despair. As my navy bombarded coastal cities, they caught fire, and I could hear the screams of civilians. As I destroyed the last city of the Indian empire, Gandhi appeared on the screen and congratulated me on destroying a kind and peaceful people. As I defeated my last opponent, I received the end-game screen, an image of WWI-era soldiers marching over a barren land, and again the music set a somber tone.

Here is a great example of the power of learning in games, following the themes in Koster's Theory of Fun. The game is clearly designed to be fun, and there is a sense in which my military victory was enjoyable, but even more than that, it made me think. The formal elements of the game (the rules) combined elegantly with the dramatic elements (the music and story) to produce a unique experience. Most games I play follow a single hero who single-handedly destroys the vanilla-evil opposition, and there was much rejoicing. In Civ, I actually felt guilty for destroying these other civilizations just so that I could "win."

I hope to be able to draw on this in my current efforts with the Morgan's Raid game (as well as the potential Underground Railroad project), where there is a similar lesson we wish to subtly teach: although the player takes the role of John Hunt Morgan, he is neither inherently a hero nor a villain, but the Civil War was undeniably an ugly and painful thing. We have an interesting design constraint in the game as well. Since it is designed for 4th grade students to play in schools, it's likely that it will be played without music, in crowded labs or during free time. It was the somber music of Civ that moved me the most; I can only wonder what would have happened if I had been playing without my speakers on, since I can never go back to my first experience.

1 comment:

  1. I have been an avid fan of the Civilization series throughout its history. The game itself while most definitely having the learning and thinking attributes you mentioned has had an interesting evolution in concepts. They have tried many things both technological and game-play wise to increase the overall experience. If you are just joining the civilization family with Civ5 for instance, you may not realize that in the first 4 installments you could stack units on squares. Units in civilization 5 do not stack so as to add to the strategy of siege attacks against a city. Also note that I said "squares." Former installments utilized square-shaped tiles to delineate the board. I think that this is a very interesting advancement as it displays an adjustment to the technology to meet a more realistic RTS scenario. While the "real world" has a longitude and latitude grid most people perceive the world in a more directionally dynamic manner.