My empire is the envy of all who behold it. It stretches from the oxen-filled tundras of the Arctic north, down through gemstone-laden jungles and whale-encircled island nations and fertile plains, through to the impermeable, icy southern tip of the globe.
This was my vision from the start: I am a voracious expansionist, and sent settlers out on boats to colonize new territories as immediately as I discovered the requisite technology. I have made sure my towns and cities are impeccably infrastructured throughout these efforts, with roads and mines and irrigation canals built in every possible area a community could utilize them. My scientists are the most brilliant in the land; they are pursuing a breakthrough in the realm of computers, whereas other cultures are still grappling with how to use rifles. My coffers are lined with gold. My people have built me a throne room fit for a god.
This is who I am.
My naysayers are the Celts. They have been our neighbors from the beginning of time. They have forced us to take up arms against them time and time again, despite our attempts to focus on our own nation-building first and foremost. Now, as thousands of tanks and howitzers approach the one city yet to be subdued by my might, their leader sends a final plea. He offers me everything they have left — their worthless technologies, their scant coffers — if I would just allow their civilization to exist. Just let their one city be.
I consider the offer.
I destroy them, brush them away, like a speck of dirt off a silken robe.
One of Sigmund Freud’s many ambitious, influential ideas is that organized society and base human impulse are irrevocably at odds. Ancient animalistic desires — such as the insatiable pursuit of sexual gratification, proclivity towards violent behaviors, and the like — must be subordinated in order to have a well-functioning society. The tamping-down of these ferocious proclivities, according to Freud, is one of the central causes of discontent in civilized populi.
Now, I can’t claim that I’ve ever truly desired seeing someone’s head on a pike. But if anything aspect of my behavior points to a subterranean reservoir of pure bloodlust, it lies within my video game-player persona.
Okay, I mean it lies within how I play Civilization II. And I’ve played an unreasonable amount of it.
My first exposure to this game as a grade-schooler was cursory yet completely telling. On his family PC, my friend Will and I would immediately activate Cheat Mode and launch atomic bombs at powerless Explorers. I was too young for the game to be much more than a cheap thrill; but I sensed the concept underneath it, of a world not entirely unlike mine yet disproportionately receptive to my decision-making. And it was deeply alluring.
Once I got ahold of my own copy in middle-school, I was able to plumb the depths. Resource allocation, infrastructure, diplomacy, barbarian invasions, managing the contentment of my civilians . . . there was so much to understand, so much to master, and such delicate balances to strike. Over time, as I played it in high school, college, and last week, I learned how to manage each element with some amount of grace and moderation.
And that’s not the end of it. I had to win at war-making — which meant conquering every last civilization, which is a viable route to victory in the game. My interest in being able to do this meant that I was consistently unwilling to play the game at higher degrees of difficulty, despite the fact that my general gameplay strategy had most likely advanced to those levels. I didn’t consciously know it, but it was clear: I didn’t play Civilization II for the challenge. I played it to form a narrative of dominance.
In real life, I have mostly been a simpering sack of shoehorned optimism and anti-conflict. I’ve never gotten into a fist fight in my life, and I’ve been hit many times before. The closest I come to being violent is the timbre of my thoughts when I see the New York Daily News. And actually expressing rage? Making it a word and a blow? Forget it. Never gonna happen. It’s because that’s not me, that’s not how I roll, that’s not what I believe in. I’d like to think of myself as the type of guy that would work to build consensus, or forgive and forget, or disengage from tense situations before they come to a head. You know, the kind of guy that would let an essential conquered culture keep its last city, if I had a hand in the matter.
It makes me wonder what Freud would think, observing the Civilization II side of me alongside my regular persona. I wonder if he’d see the game as a way to channel some intrinsic barbarism, have it be released in this alternate realm. I wonder if he’d see me as a child, crying to my mother that I can’t stop playing this damn game, and look at Civ II as a funnel for all the steaming vitriol that was churning inside me. I wonder.
Or maybe that I’m just having fun being in control.
The Celts now vanquished, my place as dominant civilization in the world is now secure. Although the Chinese and the Babylonians are extant, they are weak, and despite their hostility have never launched an attack upon one of my cities. At this point I could lay down my arms with little risk, implement democracy, and blaze a direct trail to space flight — which would lead to your launching a spaceship to colonize a new planet, thus ending the game. I could do those things.
Instead, I scrounge for a narrative. That city I conquered from the Chinese hundreds of years ago but lost later. Your first sea unit, sunk by a Babylonian caravel in ancient times. Is peace actually an option? Do these transgressions go unpunished?
No. I am a king. And a king’s rage topples heads.
About the Author:
Drew is the guy who comes over and demands you play Mario Tennis with him. He is also a playwright, couch-surfing traveler, and sometime Internet-writer for such conglomerates as MTV Networks and Village Voice Media.
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