Driving alongside other people on a freeway is an experience that I always find numbing. There’s a sense of cohesion on the freeway that you can’t really find anywhere else. Everyone accelerates, slows down, and turns together like it was rehearsed. It’s a bit like standing in line, except you don’t see other people’s faces. All that’s around you is a collection of automobiles, moving in one of two directions, all uniform, all unintentionally working together. A bit like ants moving along with their colony, if I can make that overused comparison.
Somehow this does relate to the Civilization games, I promise.
“What is the meaning of life? What’s my purpose here?”
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to summarize every human being’s motivation behind being alive in those two questions. Meaning and purpose; Purpose in being useful in some way, somewhere. Meaning in having our time spent here on earth matter in one way or another.
Those two desires, I believe, drive every human being to committing the actions that they commit. Even if those actions are directly juxtaposed to the desires in mind, the desires themselves are still at the forefront of every person’s decision making. And here we find the Civilization games.
Civilization 6 is a game that I’ve recently got around to playing quite a bit. After going on a short writing hiatus due to sickness, I found myself with some time on my hands, and Civ 6 absorbed just about all of it.
In Civ, your goal is to make your civilization as powerful as possible, while also defending against or working with the other civilizations in the game. Sounds pretty simple, and in concept, it really is. The difficult nature, as always, shows itself in the details. To actually win in a game of Civ, you have to play pretty optimally to make the most of your resources. Time, science, culture, religion, military force, citizen production, food, land. All of it comes into play in one way or another, and depending on your strategy, will heavily alter the way you choose to play.
We’re all born with different strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are born with almost no strengths, and others, no almost no weaknesses. But for the average person, it all shakes out to somewhere near the middle of not completely useless and not that great.
This is Civilization. Everyone chooses a leader / country, and has bonuses that pertain to one kind of playstyle or another. And right at the game’s start, you can be placed in an area that gives you either no help or an incredibly powerful early game. Or somewhere in between. Just like life, your hand is chosen for you.
Other civilizations might be playing in a way that seems more interesting than what current endeavor you feel you need to undertake to win. Or, you might be playing the best game of your life and enjoying every second of it. The difference between those two things could very well be variables outside the realm of your control. The hand you were dealt.
To chase that feeling of enjoyment, a Civ player eventually studies up on how to play efficiently.
Efficiency as the Inevitable Rule
Driving alongside other people on a freeway is a numbing experience. I’ve said that twice now, and I meant it in the best way possible both times. There’s no decision making. There’s no opinions. There are no leaders, no losers (unless you really fuck up), no winners, nothing. There isn’t anything for you to do except experience the efficiency created by other people. When you slow down, it’s because other people have slowed down. When you speed up, its because other people have made room for you to do so, or because everyone is speeding up because everyone else is speeding up because everyone else is speeding up. Like ants in a colony, if I can make that trite observation twice. And I can. And if you complain I’ll do it a third time…
The whole infrastructure you drive on when you drive on a freeway was created by someone else, designed by someone else, and driven on almost entirely by other people. The sense of self is stripped on the freeway. As aforementioned; no decisions, no winners, no losers, no leaders. The only thing that’s true is that everyone is a follower. A sheep. Cattle, the whole lot. Its inescapable, and a sobering realization to know that we’re only ever leaders if the variables around us permit that kind of function. Even the odd driver who weaves and bobs around traffic dangerously is only allowed the amount of leash the traffic surrounding him or her enables.
Have you ever known someone who curses other drivers on the freeway? People who drive on the freeway with rage in their veins? Hatred for everyone who drives near them? This is a weakness that comes from the enigma of purpose and choice. Meaning.
On the ground, face to face with another human being, its easy to convince one’s self of some great purpose or destiny. The whole universe, in that moment, is made up of only two people. Two beings that both have flaws and strengths. In that setting, anyone can feel big. And that setting makes up the majority of people’s lives: small encounters with a small amount of people, usually no more than 5-10.
This setting creates that enigma, that façade, of self importance. A self importance that cannot be reconciled with the nature of a packed freeway. A freeway that was created because other people wanted to be as efficient as other people who wanted to be as efficient as other people who wanted to be efficient as other people. A freeway driven by thousands of people every day. Thousands of people that might have more important things to do than you. People who might just be more important than you, even if that importance, in the grand scheme of things, is so close to non-existent it might as well not be there at all, its still greater than yours. Maybe.
All the same, that enigma is washed away, and what was once a handful of recognizable faces that an ego can compare itself to is now droves of machines that make no decisions, pay no mind, and are exactly equal to one another. Exactly equal to you and your ego. This conflicts with the ego, and causes that road rage you see in others, or yourself.
The efficiency in our world now lends itself to revealing the degree to which a single person serves as nothing but a droplet. Those who think they’re greater suffer, and those who can sink into the ocean and let their being absorb into the numbness that is an identical lack of self can manage swimmingly (I won’t stop, and you cannot do anything about it.)
This is Civilization. Where the victor is the leader who limits their own desires to a degree that helps them accompany their opponents correctly. To pursue a religious victory, you need to develop the proper sciences, cultures, and units to spread the holy word. But you also need defenses from those who want to win through military might. And money to keep up with those who have stronger economies. And some cultured citizens to keep up with those who want to win through a culture war.
The driver who rages on the freeway is the human who cannot comprehend a world where their choices and their level of importance is directly related to the allotments made, unwillingly, by those forces around them; time, weak / strong dealt hands, other people’s goals, and enumerable other variables that make the ‘self made person of self made importance’ a child’s fantasy.
The loser in Civ is the driver who rages at the world around them for not being perfectly cut out for their existence. Its just a matter of efficiency, in the end. There is no room in an entire race’s civilization to cut out a world made for the ego of one person, as that one person will never be able to match the price paid by the rest of society for the enigma provided. Its too inefficient.
Monarchies aren’t dying out because the general population makes good choices for the rest of society, monarchies are dying out because the general population is more efficient in their productions when they believe they are making good decisions for the rest of society. Efficiency is the rule that always wins, even if it takes millennia to show itself. Not because of a decision or a policy, but because those who are inefficient get left behind. This is Civilization.
There are no second chances in life, but the best Civ players take all other opponents into account because they’ve had the necessary failures to teach them that the most efficient method isn’t a one-person script. They account for as much as they can, who they can ,make the most efficient choices they can, and cross their fingers that their decisions were more efficient than their opponents’.
In fact, when you learn to play Civ at a high level, you can memorize exactly how each leader should play in each situation. You can foresee exactly how an efficient game would be played out just as easily as you can guess what direction traffic is going to be heading in tomorrow.
Civ is a game that greets you with a the sweet taste of experiencing the ego of a world leader, eventually followed by the relaxing numbness of realizing that you can only play the hand that you’re dealt, and that the true options you have were decided for you ahead of time.
Your meaning, your purpose, your morality, your personality, and your ego. All things that you had no say in. All things that were created with no real intention, haphazardly. To avoid being a droplet in human nature, you have do your best to stay out of the ocean altogether.