The psychology of playing the Civilization game: It mirrors one’s work life


I like to consider myself a pretty fashionable New Yorker who is hip and cool and is up to date on pop culture, as well as serious news. But the news is no fun these days.  I have cool shoes and handbags and just revel in dressing up. Despite all that coolness, I am a super nerd and I am ok with that. Part of my nerdiness, is the fact that I play and love the Civilization game. I have been playing this game for over a decade. That is along time to be dedicated to a video game. I wonder how many kids from this point in time will be playing the same game in a decade. Video games seem to be continuously growing. I suppose the good ones have staying power, such as Civilization. Have you heard of Civilization’s objective is to “Build an empire to stand the test of time.”  You start off playing somewhere in 4000 BC and you aim to expand and develop an empire through the ages from the ancient era until modern and near-future times. In the ten years I have been playing this, I have been though many Bronze ages.

Civilization is a video game that consists of a  turn-based strategy (meaning that it can take a rather long time to play a game) where you pick a civilization to play as. You can be Aztec, Indian, French, Russian, German, Mongolian, American and so on. Each civilization is known for particular strengths and life-orientations (i.e. expansionist, war-mongering, builder, explorer, and so forth).   The game is centered on building a civilization on a macro-scale from prehistory up to sometime in the future. Each turn allows you to move your units on the map, build or improve new cities and units, and wage war or peace.  As I pulled out my iPad to play a game of Civilization while I soaked in the bath, it hit me how much Civilization mirrored my work transitions throughout the years. It may sounds hokey, but upon reflection it is quite a strong comparison.

Throughout this past decade, playing Civilization has served as my moment of zen. Everybody has their way of capturing that zen.

My moment of zen consists of just playing a game where I am building up an empire and fighting my way through that growth. To me, that calms me I play it while soaking. I play it when I need to try to go to sleep and nothing else has worked. By the way, counting sheep just doesn’t cut it for me.  I play civilization when an airplane is extremely turbulent.  It calms me even after all these years of playing it. When something works, why knock it?  On March 12, 2007, The New York Times produced a list of the ten most important video games of all time, and it included Civilization. Not only is this game important in terms of the role it has played in video game lore, but also has served as a mirror for many work life transitions, including my own.

When I first started playing the game, I thought it was a total nerdfest and didn’t think it was for me. I was completing my post-doctoral fellowship and was in the middle of trying to figure out where I would be heading to next.  I picked up the game one night and proceeded to stay up all night. I swear I ate no cheetos. That is just a more recent food phenomenon for me. I started off playing as the Americans. It was natural for me to want to play them; giving me a sense of patriotism. Furthermore, in the game, Americans are set as explorers. They start off with a “scout” unit – a little person that helps explore the world with the ability to see a little further than other units. That was so perfect for my stage in life. I was an explorer.

Then I got my first big job as a director. I was anxious to prove much and make a name for myself. At the same time, I started playing as the Egyptians who are known in the civilization lore as being monument builders. It was a fun time. I built up a department, I built up an organization helping it establish itself as a national entity. My civilization games mirrored my work/life trajectory. Then slowly I started feeling burnt out at work. I felt I was being taken advantage of and that my sacrifices were for naught. I then started playing as the Aztecs-the group that engages in certain sacrifices in the game.  As I got more and more burnt out, I started playing as the Germans; playing an aggressive game. Then I left and I had huge challenges to address and situations to turn around at my new places.  I eventually landed at a place that was going to be a place I could sink my teeth into and take to higher heights. I want to build up an empire. Alas, I started playing as the Mongols. By playing as them, I get to overtake barbarian villages and built up cities very quickly. I have a strong army and a can have a strong general. Its all about strength. I like being able to build up quickly and fortify my foundations.


That is where I am at now in my life. I know, I nerded out a bit here. But it is amazing when you get that lightbulb moment.



7 replies »

  1. the feeling of life being a veneer, and how easily being or acting civilized could be dispelled by just one thing. I think that’s why we make so many end of the world tv shows, they are not far off being true in terms of how others would act toward one another.


  2. I’d never heard of this game before, but will now check it out as a potential fun activity at ORICL, a local school that mostly serves the retired intellectual people who live in my area. I am the history curriculum chair and, based on your description, think this would be an interesting way to learn some details about various periods and civilizations in which students have an interest.

    Personally, when it comes to nerding out for me, I make it a point to always have reading material available when I plan to spend time sitting on a toilet. That’s why I sometimes refer to the bathroom as the reading room!


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