One of my favorite things to do to decompress is play Civilization IV. It seems odd to a lot of people, but I find it oddly soothing — the repetitive nature of creating something within a more or less strictly structured environment can be therapeutic when your life is about creating things within a very unstructured environment. Also, being the king of a virtual world is cool, at least for a couple hours. I’m having a hard time with the game lately, though, because as I get better at it, I realize that what I’m getting good at is simulated imperialism, and what the game does is set parameters that force you to follow-through with a development narrative that also necessitates conquest: in order to have the resources to win a diplomatic victory, you also have to be one of the strongest civilizations in the game. Racial issues aside, there are specifically design-oriented problems that I have with the game. The mechanics, the game interface, the various win conditions, all assume several things: that you will progress “forward” on a Eurocentric historical model; that you will eventually have to fight to defend your resources, or fight to gain control of someone else’s; and that you either need to be pandering and subservient to avoid your neighbors’ wrath, or you need to be militarily robust to deter their attacks. I think the second two of these assumptions follow directly from the first.

Civ IV is basically a game about resource management. How quickly can you spread your sphere of influence over the planet? How efficiently will you control the means of production? Can you defend your resources against others? Can you seize control of other players’ resources? How will you use your resources to gain further control of resources? The assumptions of gameplay in a resource-management model are that players will feel the competitive need to perform well in these categories. Of course, by posing these questions in this way, players of resource-management games (as a genre) are shoehorned into a development narrative that requires them to gain resources in order to build better technology in order to gain more resources.

Now, I don’t purport to be an expert in this arena, but I haven’t ever seen any RTS games that allow the player to develop on any paths other than a Eurocentric, linear-historical model. I’ve tried to play Civ IV in a different manner, but ultimately the arrogant demands of my neighbors force me to build up my military might. Inevitably, another civ will invade and start razing farms, sacking cities, and generally trampling on my peaceful, culturally-oriented civ. Other civs don’t like it when my cultural spheres of influence expand into their territory, which occurs when cities reach new cultural thresholds. The development of culture has a direct benefit defensively, too — as a city’s sphere of influence increases, so does the defense bonus that troops stationed there receive.

I guess it’s somewhat realistic that more powerful cultures will prod less powerful cultures into giving them what they want, and that if the less powerful don’t comply, they resort to less civilized methods of extracting those things. But in a world where relationships between the powerful and the lowly are now more complicated — especially in the age of a superpower-sponsored War on Terror, in the aftermath or crumbling final days of the world’s greatest empires — you’d think that we’d come up with another RTS model that is just as compelling and fun to play. I can’t really wage asymmetric warfare (or whatever it’s called these days) against my neighbors in Civ IV. I can’t wage warfare at all, in fact, unless I’m a legitimate state.

Maybe it’s nostalgia for the days when nation-states fielded armies that weren’t disingenuous about their militaristic intentions, or maybe it’s that adding any more complexity to the already-rich Civ IV would be ease-of-use suicide, or maybe it’s something else. I don’t think epic RTS as a genre is going to budge anytime soon, at least not on the mainstream level. For a game with the aspirations of giving the player the power to completely rewrite history, Civ IV leaves out a lot of rewriting options. I have been thinking about this for a while, but I need to work out a more detailed, coherent position, so if you have any thoughts, I’d like to hear them.