‘Civilization’: Sid Meier, three decades dominating the kingdom of video games | Culture

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 ‘Civilization’: Sid Meier, three decades dominating the kingdom of video games

Choose a civilization. It embodies its historical leader. And rule the world. Broadly speaking, this is the premise of the video game saga civilization, which after 13 deliveries and more than 40 million copies sold has just passed 30 years of age. A difficult milestone in an industry that has gone through so many changes throughout this time, such as video games. The person responsible for its success has been Sid Meier (Ontario, Canada, 68 years old), a programmer who fell into this sector almost by accident and who, still active today, has ended up becoming one of the fathers of computer games . He attends the interview by video call from Baltimore, where the headquarters of Firaxis, the current company that manages the product, is located. Now it is less crowded due to the pandemic, and “of about 200 people probably 30 or 40 come to the office”, but “it is a lovely morning” and he is handling the situation “as best he can”.



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Even though civilization Turns three decades old, Meier started video games a little earlier, in 1982. He studied history and computer science, starting as a programmer of cash register systems for department stores at General Instruments. There he coincided with ex-air force soldier John Wilbur Stealey, nicknamed Wild Bill, who worked as a commercial. During an afternoon the two shared in an arcade, Bill, emboldened by his experience, challenged Meier to a game of Red Baron (1981), an Atari title that recreated aerial combat from World War I. Meier not only defeated Savage Bill, who was disappointed with the result, but also promised him that he would develop a much better flight simulator. Trusting his partner, Bill agreed to finance and market it, and the two founded MicroPose in 1982.



Video game developer Sid Meier, creator of the 'Civilization' saga.Video game developer Sid Meier, creator of the ‘Civilization’ saga.



After various flight simulators and a few other releases, such as Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1987) or Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon (1990), Meier set his sights on a more greedy project. “We had the idea that we were doing something a little different, and that once people understood how much fun games were, the audience would eventually grow. And that is what we have seen in the last 30 years”, explains the Canadian. In response to the challenge of whether there is anything more ambitious than creating a game that encompasses the development of the entire history of mankind, from 6,000 years ago to the present day, the first civilization in 1991. Resources and technology were “very simple” then, so “you had to have faith in the imagination of the players,” says Meier: “You had to trust that if we told them an icon was Gandhi or Julius Caesar, even if there were only a few pixels on the screen, they could associate it with something they had heard, seen or learned about them and add it to the gaming experience. It was a very simple version of things, but because we were dealing with the story, we were dealing with real leaders, real people, real ideas, real technologies that they could draw from their imagination. If we were to say ‘you just invented electricity’, you can picture wires, lights and everything else in your head. That was the only way to bring it to life: take advantage of the things that the players already had in their minds.”



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However, you didn’t have to bring all your knowledge from home. One of the fundamental pillars of civilization happens to learn while playing a game. “Part of the fun of playing this series is feeling like you’re smarter after you’ve done it. This is not an educational game, but everyone likes to be smarter. AND civilization while having fun conquering the world, let’s learn a little about farming or meet a great leader you’ve never heard of.” The good thing, Meier points out, is that it’s something that comes hand in hand, since “it’s included in the fun part of the game, it’s not something you have to do on purpose. I think the secret is that people like to learn, not being told they have to learn. And if you can learn and have fun at the same time, then it’s a great combination.”



The title, in which infinite games can be played with different combinations, reflects its educational commitment with the civilopedia, an encyclopedia integrated into the game, accessible at any time, which also acts as an instruction manual. For example, in the last installment, Sid Meier’s Civilization VI (2016), if you have started a game with the Spanish empire, which Felipe II leads here, you can access the Civilopedia not only to find out that you can produce inquisitors, who will help you keep the rest of the religions at bay during the game, but you can also read about its historical context. The same with the 46 empires available and with their 58 leaders who, controlled by artificial intelligence, act according to their historical context. For example, Ghandi, chief of the Indian civilization together with Chandragupta, will never declare war, while Trajan, of the Roman empire, or Genghis Khan, of the Mongol, are some of the most belligerent.





But war is not the only way to win over rivals. There are also the options of imposing it through religion, culture or science. And although the proposal of dominating the world with the Stone Age as a starting point may seem overwhelming, Meier improved his saga until it became a kind of turn-based board game where short-term objectives help the player not to get lost in the immensity. Hence the popular expression that accompanies civilization since then and with which the developer jokes during the interview: “Just one more turn.”



The Canadian has always declared that “you have to be a bit of an egomaniac to accept the challenge of dominating the world”, but he clarifies that all video games are a bit like this: “It can be about becoming a great hero, a great commando… .or Minecraft, for example, where you have to build a wonderful world. Each title allows you to be bigger in the game than you might be in real life. So I think video games in general appeal to that egomaniac in all of us. As a designer I also think that the idea of recreating the entire history of the world on my computer can be a bit ambitious and a bit egotistical. But I think we all like to think that we’re a little smarter and a little more handsome or beautiful than we might be in real life.” In the case of Meier, who is now around 70 years old, he has had a life that has little to envy to the fiction of video games, but, as long as he can, he ensures that he continues and will continue to enjoy them.



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