Going deep: thoughts on Sid Meier’s Civilization and Firaxicon

I had a blast at the first ever Firaxicon last weekend despite arriving late, missing out on all of the panels and playing Beyond Earth, and having to leave early. How? The people. Both fans and staff alike were amazing. Even though I was the last one to show up at Firaxis office, the staff cheerfully gave me a personal tour. I hit it off with complete strangers while waiting in the autograph line, and even though there were a couple hundred people there, it felt almost like a big family gathering. But the highlight for me was definitely the evening with Sid. He was really funny, candid, and enlightening. If you were not able to attend, I’d highly recommend watching the video once they upload it to YouTube.

Sid’s words really crystallized a lot of different things that had been floating in the back of my mind lately about my life, my work, and the future of games. I had to do something to sort out my thoughts, so I decided to write a “game diary” about Civilization–the game that changed my life and, I believe, provides a possible blueprint for the future of games and education.

A Gamer’s Tale

“Where are you from?” I have the hardest time answering this simple question. I usually say the name of whatever town I happen to be living in. It’s easier that way. The truth is that I’m from everywhere and nowhere. I am an American that has spent a significant portion of my youth abroad, living in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, and traveling extensively across five continents. “Third Culture Kids,” researchers call us–people who grow up outside the culture of their parents and fuse the two cultures into something new.

Exciting as this sounds, it’s also incredibly disorientating when you’re a kid. For a long time, I wasn’t sure what I was and what I was supposed to be doing. At school, my favorite subject was history because I thought that maybe it would help me sort things out. I was disappointed. Although the material was interesting, it was chopped up, piecemeal–great for tests, not so good for seeing the big picture.

Then I played Civilization, and everything changed. The game gave me a sense of control and order on a grand scale while still being accessible. Today, this is taken for granted–a staple of all “god games”–but to a teenager back in the early 90s, it was a revelation. I  began to see a flow to history, the interplay between complex systems, and how my experiences fit in the grand scheme of things. For this global nomad, Civ helped me to build a sense of belonging and identity–two things that many people take for granted (but shouldn’t) and that make everything else in life possible.

Proof that you've had too many "one more turns" (and just a touch of egomania)
Proof that you’ve had too many “one more turns” (and just a touch of egomania)

Over countless nights of “one more turn,” both my life and my brother’s were transformed. We both developed a deep love of history, and he is now a professional historian. I learned some things from the Civilopedia (believe it or not) and also never to laugh at Gandhi when his words are backed with nuclear weapons. But more importantly, Civilization helped me to hone many character skills and traits that continue to serve me well today–things like strategic planning, patience, focus, grit, and craftsmanship. A growing body of research now shows that character is critical for future success, and educators are looking for a way to develop it in schools. Maybe we could learn a few things by taking a closer look at Sid and Civ.

Never laugh at Gandhi when his words are backed with NUCLEAR WEAPONS.
Never laugh at Gandhi when his words are backed with NUCLEAR WEAPONS.

The Secret Sauce

How does he do it? This was the underlying theme of Sid’s Q&A at Firaxicon. Sid, being Sid, was characteristically modest. He said that his focus has always been to make “games that he likes to play.” When asked whether game designers were making meaningful contributions to society, he simply asked the audience, “What do you think?” He then added, “Fun is meaningful,” and left it at that. But for me and many others, Civ was not merely fun but transformative. I think that Sid–whether he is conscious of it or not–achieves far more than simply making a fun game.

Games scholar, Jordan Shapiro, argues that it’s important to study the “literature of games” because games have become the medium of the 21st century. I agree, and I can’t think of a better place to start than with Civilization, a game that has withstood the test of time and captivated millions. We need more games like it, especially if we hope to expand the use of games in the classroom.

So what’s the secret sauce? I believe that it’s character. It is character (child-like wonder and love of learning) that inspires Sid to make games he likes to play. It is character (grit) that enables him to finish the games when the going gets tough. And it is character again (being a good team player and listener) that attracts great people to help him achieve his vision. All creations take on the character of their creators. It is Sid’s sense of wonder that fuels “one more turn,” and the skills that players acquire from the game are all ones that he feels are important or interesting (strategy, focus, grit, etc). Character makes doing what you love possible.

Hanging out with the great folks at Firaxis Games
Hanging out with the great folks at Firaxis Games

With this perspective in mind, let’s say that Sid makes games that exemplify his character rather than just fun games. This changes everything. Before, people might’ve said, “Sid’s a genius,” which is a backhanded compliment. On one hand, it acknowledges the greatness of your achievement. On the other hand, it discounts the effort it took to accomplish that achievement because things supposedly “come easily” for a genius. It’s also very disabling because there is nothing to do but sit back and marvel. But when you say, “Sid is a curious person and a master craftsman,” suddenly things become possible. “Wait,” you say, “I’m curious too. I work hard too.” Character can be acquired. Game design can be mastered. Now any designer can aspire to be a Sid Meier.

So why aren’t there more Sids running around? First of all, it’s hard, but I think lack of opportunity, not ability, is the limiting factor. As Sid alluded to in his talk, the games industry has changed dramatically since he started. It’s become more corporate, more Hollywood. The pressure on AAA studios to make money is now so overwhelming that it stifles creativity. Why would studios take a risk on a new IP when they can easily make money with Call of Duty 4000?  Teams have also gotten so big that it’s neigh impossible for one person’s vision to shine through.

But there is hope on the horizon with the success of indie games and smaller studios. With many powerful free tools, crowdfunding, and digital distribution, it’s an exciting time to be a dev. For those just starting out, Sid says, “Make something.” Don’t fear failure. Failure is how you learn. If anything, fail faster!

How to Make a Game to Stand the Test of Time

Okay, now that you’re fired up, how do you actually make a memorable game? There are many fun games but few memorable ones. If you want to stand out, make an impression. Many AAA developers are doing this by imitating Hollywood, and that’s a costly mistake. The true power of games lies in immersive, interactive storytelling. The way to move people is by creating stories that changes the way they think, feel, or behave–by building character–not through glitzy graphics and special effects. To use today’s buzzwords, the key is intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic. When you engage players to actively create their own meaningful stories, they develop a strong emotional bond with the game. Strong emotions create strong memories, and memories over time become habits and identity. As I can attest, it is possible to completely transform a person in this way.

To see how this process works, let’s take a closer look at the mechanics of Civilization. Civ gives players a goal–build a civilization to stand the test of time–and then give them the freedom to pursue several different ways to succeed. The game strikes a good balance between purpose and freedom. Many sandbox games today feel too wide open. You can do anything, but there is no reason to. Other games are too restrictive, and it feels like player choice is an illusion. Another area where Civilization excels is in finding the sweet spot between complexity and complicated. Here is a great quote from Thomas Johansson, the project lead for Europa Universalis IVto explain this point further.

We want complex, but not complicated. A complex feature has a lot of factors that influence it, and you will discover that when you thought you mastered it, there is a sudden a shift in dynamics that forces you to reevaluate your strategy. Complex features are what make games fun in the long run…Complicated features, however, are features that are hard to do anything with. You have to figure out all the mechanics to do anything at all, and the interface doesn’t let you know what you are doing wrong.

In other words, complexity is interesting because it provides the right amount of challenge and reward. Figuring things out is joyful and even meaningful if those insights are applicable to your own life (as is the case with Civ because it is history based). Once you master complexity, you become comfortable with change–even welcome it–because you have a strong framework from which adapt. You want to see what happens next. One more turn…Complicated, on the other hand, can be unfathomable and feel stupidly hard. Without a solid foundation, any unexpected changes will wreck havoc on your motivation, and you may very well quit out of frustration. Finding the sweet spot is difficult, but the Civilization franchise has been doing it for over 20 years. It’s not magic but a lot of learning, listening, and refining–all for the craft. “No ego,” says Sid. Just a whole lot of character.

The World Needs Your Game 

There’s a revolution brewing–a learning revolution–and games can play a critical role. By their very nature, games already excel at many things that complement or enhance learning such as tapping into intrinsic motivation and encouraging exploration and trial and error. But if we truly want to prepare people for success in the 21st century, we must do more. We must show them that there are multiple paths to success and to teach them how to follow the best one for them. We must encourage them to embrace life’s complexity, not run away from it. In short, we need to build character. Civilization helped me do this, and I’m not the only one.

We need more games like Civ, and I don’t mean god games or historical strategy. I mean transformative games: educational games of any genre and type that build character and life skills. As Sid pointed out in his talk, it’s hard to make a game that stands out now. In some ways, this is a good thing. It means that the industry has matured, and overall production quality is high. The only way to stand out now is to break new ground, to create “the next big thing.” I believe that transformative games are the future of both gaming and education. The fields are converging, and that’s a good thing. In a world where time is increasingly precious, we can’t afford false dichotomies like learning versus fun. People learn by playing. They should be able to play to learn.

“But I don’t want to make an educational game,” you say. “They’re boring.” That’s good. It means there’s room for improvement, a market. Forget labels. Just make a game about something you love, something you find true about the world, and it will be educational–not in the rigid “I learn math, science, history, and English for the test” way but in the “I love learning anything, anywhere, anytime because it’s awesome” way. Civilization was not designed for educational use, and yet it is transforming lives in the classroom.

We must stop trying to fit people into a box that we created for the 1950s and start preparing them for the Game of Life. The world doesn’t need good test takers. “What the world needs is people who have come alive,” said Howard Thurman. The education system is struggling to do this, but it’s large and unwieldy. The way to break the mold is through art. The way to transform lives is through storytelling. Game are both.

Toward the end of his Firaxicon talk, Sid was asked about his legacy. In true craftsman-like fashion, he said that he doesn’t think about that because there are still games he wants to make. I’m glad to hear it. It’s great to see Firaxis take Civilization beyond Earth, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for the future.
What will your legacy be? The world needs your game. Now go and make it!
About Transformed Games
I founded Transformed Games because I believe in the transformative power of games. I experienced it through games like Civilization, and I know that I’m not alone. How have games changed your life? I’d love to hear your story, and I’m sure others would too. Please feel free to send me your story in any form you like (writing, video, audio). I am also happy to interview you, if you prefer. There’s a lot of great research on games now, which I write about and share, but we also need to hear from the players if we are to create transformative games.
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