“It’s your turn,” my dad says as he comes into the kitchen and relieves me of the job of drying the dishes.
“It’s what?” my mom says, before realizing what’s going on. “Oh, your game.”
The game she’s referring to is Civilization IV, and the scene has become a familiar one in recent years. But while Mom may not understand why we find the game so appealing, it’s clear to both of us that these games have become an important addition to our relationship as father and son. More so with the addition of email games, which have allowed Civilization to become an important means for us to remain in constant contact.
My initial introduction to the 4X genre (the ‘X’s standing for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) was through a demo of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, but because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, I quickly lost interest. It wasn’t until after I played a copy of Civilization IV my dad purchased that I realized just what I had been missing out on. One tutorial-led game and an all-nighter later, I learned both the power of “one more turn” and how amazing the series truly was.
“I hadn’t been playing many games for quite a few years,” my dad said, explaining his own introduction to the series, “but I had that old version of [Age of Empires II] and I recalled having enjoyed that somewhat and so as I finished my doctorate … I was looking for a diversion and I looked up reviews of Age of Empires and somewhere in there I read something about Civilization and thought it might be worth a look.”
“Hey, Dad,” I say as the two of us sit near his computer, taking turns in one of our “hot seat” games. “Want to declare war on Mehmed?”
When I point out to him that Mehmed is making strides towards a space race victory, he quickly agrees to the idea. So we begin to divide and conquer the Ottoman Empire.
“The sense of it being this game on a massive scale that takes in human history,” Dad says when I ask him just what it is he finds appealing about Civilization IV. The full explanation of what he gets out of the game goes beyond implications I might have ever imagined on my own, from economics to religion to what can and can’t be controlled. But as I listen to Dad’s explanation, I recognize some of my own reasons for enjoying the game so much.
For one, there’s the historical interest, something that I no doubt acquired from my parents. Growing up, my parents took my brothers and me to visit important historical sites across the US during our yearly family road trips. Vicksburg, the USS Constitution, Bunker Hill, and other sites from Cape Canaveral to the Arctic Circle in Alaska became important stops as our parents tried to turn our summers into learning opportunities.
Then there’s the game’s massive scale and the anticipation of what comes next. Even as I finish researching one technology, I’ll eagerly be anticipating the opportunity to get another further down the road. While having a massive army is all well and good, it’s even more appealing to imagine how I intend to use it to smite my neighbors before they do the same to me.
“You want to take one more turn?” Dad asks with a grin on his face. I’ve just finished loading my car, and I’m ready to drive home so I can get to my day job on time. I agree to it, and unlike most claims of “one more turn,” it’s one I actually stick to. The game will have to wait until my next visit home. At least we can play a different game by email in the meantime.
Civilization IV isn’t the first videogame we’ve played together. Before that, there were games like Apeiron, but we never played directly against each other. Then, it was a matter of who could get a higher score (it was him). With Civilization, we finally discovered a game we were both interested in playing and that would let us compete together.
For the first year or two, our Civ games were limited to our time together during my trips home. I was in college then, so there would be large gaps between game sessions. Our games played out a lot differently, too. When we first started, I was generally able to keep pace with Dad. Though actual victory remained out of reach, there were times I could pull ahead of him.
Once I got a new computer capable of running the game, we started adding “play by email” into the mix, which is when the game truly clicked as an important addition to our relationship. It’s also seen a significant shift in the way our games play out. Before, I could provide a legitimate challenge to him, but now I’m less of a challenge than the AI opponents. In one recent game, I found myself in a standstill war against last-place France and still in the research territory of Astronomy and Constitution, when the game announced that someone had just completed The Kremlin. Dad, meanwhile, who’s managed to win games on “Prince” difficulty, was up near the top of the rankings.
Naturally, this has forced me to re-examine my style of play, challenge myself and step outside my comfort zone – something Dad is no doubt aiming for. Whereas he prefers to play at gradually higher difficulty levels and to randomize his civilization, I’ve tended to stay at a level where I know I have a chance of winning with a leader sporting the best traits. With the email games making it easier for Dad to set things more along his line of thinking, it’s thus far left me out of my element.
Not that I’m surprised – this attempt by Dad to challenge me and try to teach me something through the game falls right in line with how I know him. Growing up, Dad was never the kind to demean my brothers and me for not being the best at what we did, but he was adamant about us making a real effort. Whether we weren’t doing our best in school or trying to give up because things got hard, if he knew we could do better, he would let us know it.
“As much as anything,” Dad says about how he thinks the game has impacted us, “it’s about maintaining the relationship … that somehow we’re connected in our lives even while we’re almost two hours apart means something to me. You know, father and son, that we have an ongoing contact.”
It’s a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. We both recognize that while we have other means of communication, our email games of Civilization IV provide a constant means of contact. Even on our busiest days, we can usually get in at least one turn a day. It’s a nice thing to have, especially considering how important he’s been in my life. He’s given me my name, introduced me to Star Wars, shown me old-time classics like the Marx Brothers, made a point of trying to teach me the importance of hard work, been my pastor for most my life, and even gave me my earliest driving lessons at a time before it was technically legal for him to do so.
He also enjoys being able to match wits and get an insight about where my focus is. Additionally, it allows him to learn more about my real life, such as what times I’m working or how late I’m staying up. As a bonus, there are also the insights he gets into the game itself that he wouldn’t discover otherwise. Observing my massive deployments of missionaries, he realized the financial benefits of spreading religions as a long term strategy.
But to me, the key to why playing Civ is important comes back to that first idea – even when I can’t see him, I’m still getting to spend time with my Dad.
“I should have declared war on you,” I say as the game ends. Dad doesn’t argue with the sentiment. Having just finished off Mehmed, I’m at home with a large army, while Dad is relatively undefended. Plus, I’m sitting on at least half a dozen nukes that could probably pull me into the lead if I was willing to use them. But whether through oversight or an unwillingness to launch a sneak attack like that on my Dad, I don’t.
Guess that’s just a lesson for another time.
Michael K. Stangeland Jr. is a freelance writer from South Dakota. He sometimes wonders why there’s no option to play as an Israeli civilization.