Everything You Need to Know About Life, in a Game

Words by Andy Orris

Rarely is there a computer game that mirrors the real world, and then lets you wonder how it could be different like Civilization (aka Civ). Known as the ‘intellectual’s computer game’, it made waves back in 1991 and has gone through many iterations since that have kept its loyal fan base engaged. To me the game is escapism--pure and simple--but it’s also a mind bender; a way to look at challenges and opportunities and navigate them.

Imagine being supreme ruler of a country through the journey of time. You begin as a wandering settler in 4,000BC, tiptoeing through a tiny slice of an undiscovered world. Over time (provided you are not killed) you create and evolve an empire; a complex network of cities, resources, military, trade and international relations.

I was playing Civ with my flatmate when I noticed how our approaches seem to mirror our personalities. I’m introverted and have a desire to perfect, and my civilizations are often small and focused, with no more than three highly-manicured cities. My flatmate is more extroverted and his civilizations tend to sprawl. He likes to extend his power by winning the alliance of as many city-states as possible.

It made me wonder how else Civ mirrors reality. And so I made a list:

1. You can’t choose where you start out, but it matters more than anything else.

Want to lead the world in production? Better have hills to mine and resources to manage. Want to wage a war? Difficult if you’re on an isolated island far from your enemy. Want to lead in science? Give it a shot, but that other team that began their journey right next to a sprawling coral reef is already leagues ahead of you. In Civ, and in life, you can follow any path you like, but no single element shapes your destiny quite like where you were born.

2. It’s all about connection.

There’s only one strategy that is doomed to fail: an insulating strategy. Even if you establish yourself as a peaceful country with access to abundant resources, the rest of the world can surpass you by connecting with one another and leveraging their collective strength. You need to be a part of that. That neighbouring city-state that shows interest in sharing food? They’re worth investing in. Nobody accomplished anything alone in the real world, and nobody accomplishes anything alone in Civ.

3. The answer lies in creativity.

There you are, chugging along happily with a focus on culture and construction, and suddenly you find yourself surrounded in a surprise attack. As a massive enemy army descends on your weakly-defended capital city, it could seem as though the end is near. But what if you create a diversion? You could negotiate heavily for a third country to join the war, or sneak a roaming scout into enemy territory to pillage the resources that sustain their army. Thinking outside the box can be extraordinarily satisfying.  

4. Dare to create something magnificent.

In Civ you can construct Wonders of the World like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Red Fort and Neuschwanstein Castle. Taking on massive projects consumes your best cities, putting them on hiatus from Business-As-Usual. But it’s worth it. It will benefit you long-term, and it can help solidify your strategy. In both life and Civ, creating something special is almost always better than BAU.   

5. Forming deep alliances across ideologies and religions is hard work.

How much of a challenge do you want? I once heard a saying that you can have anything you want; you can’t have everything you want. Your energy is limited and although you can choose to foster a friendship across a totally different ideology, it may be a lot easier to match up with others who share some of your basic beliefs.     

6. If at first you don’t succeed...

Civ can be frustrating. I hate it when my settler is killed by a barbarian, when my close ally throws me under the bus in the UN, or when I endorse the International Games only to realise it’s too costly to contribute to. So goes in life. In the words of Brene Brown, “if you are brave enough, often enough, you will fail.” There is no shame in failure. In Civ and in life it’s all about learning to get back up.