September, 1991. Lake Oswego, OR
JR Ralls is in his junior high social studies class when the teacher tells everyone that they are going to the library. He ties his Air Jordans, grabs his Trapper Keeper, and adjusts his glasses before his fast-growing body lankily exits the room. They’ve never done this before and any change is welcome.
“Jeremy has something he’d like to share with the class,” Ms. Pension cheerily extols.
JR perks up some more. Jeremy is a lot like him: He likes comics, doesn’t like sports, and isn’t very popular. They aren’t exactly friends but they talk to each other now and then. Chances are if Jeremy likes whatever this is, JR will too.
“Remember, like, how we were talking about how humans stopped being Hunter-Gatherers? And began to build towns? Well, this Computer Game [JR can hear the capitalizations] does just that!”
Some of the other students are interested, some aren’t, but JR is fascinated. He watches as Jeremy clicks on a city and decides what his civilization will build. After a few turns, a little man armed with a bow, a Militia, appears, and Jeremy sends him off exploring. The class watches for a few turns, right up until Jeremy gets to partially transform his crude hut into a Palace.
“This game has everything!” JR thinks. “And such amazing graphics!” Christmas is pretty far away, but this year he knows what present he’ll be asking for.
August, 1996. Salem, OR
JR takes the CD out of the jewel case and puts it into his PC. He had been seeing Civ II on store shelves for a couple months now, but his old rig couldn’t handle such a game. But, like almost everything, that changed when he left for college. New city, new school, new room, and as a graduation present, a new computer. It’s fully loaded with Windows 95, a CD drive, and 800 MB of storage space.
JR doesn’t want to brag, but it’s a Pentium.
He looks around. This dorm room is completely his. He can do whatever he wants in here. The freedom is amazing, and he revels in it.
He had fun meeting the other freshmen at orientation, and had even gone to a party, but now that class starts at 1:30 PM instead of 7:30 AM, he’s falling into a night-owl pattern of being regularly up at hours when no one else is.
He likes those quiet hours at night, a time with no distraction, a time when he can get sucked into his passion: books and games. This game has got a new isometric view of the world map, and now units have firepower and hit points. The game even has VIDEO CLIPS of actors talking! Man, that will never get old!
JR has three cities built so far and has a couple of chariots off exploring. It’s a long ways to go until the world ends in 2020 AD, but he’s got all the time in the world.
November, 2001. Imari, Japan
JR stops looking out of his window. On a clear, sunny day he can see the rice paddies, but tonight water is pouring from the heavens in a torrent. He can’t see a thing but the cold November rain. Outside of his warm, little, tatami-floored room there is only the dark and the wet and the cold.
A native Oregonian like him barely notices rain, but tonight is not a night he wishes to gaze into the darkness. He has had enough of that lately. It was in this room a mere seven weeks ago that he was awoken, after having moved 5,000 miles to teach English in Japan, to a frantic phone call and an urgent order to turn on the TV. It was in this room that he watched images of death and destruction that he’ll remember for the rest of his life.
Those next six weeks were a bit of a blur. Who did it? Why did they do it? What were we going to do in response? Was the anthrax attack going to spread? Things seemed to be settling into some type of a new normal as the northern alliance advanced against the Taliban, with US air attacks and special forces in support. Hopefully the war will be over soon.
But JR doesn’t want to think about all that tonight. He’s read article after article on the internet and watched news show after news show about the current situation. He’s had enough and just wants to focus on something – anything – else. That’s why he went through a lot of effort and expense to have a friend express mail him a copy of Civilization III. The total cost makes this the most expensive game he’s ever bought, but he’s an adult making an adult salary now; he can spend his money how he pleases. It’s not like there is another way to play American games in Japan, after all.
The 3D intro slows to a crawl on his laptop, but once it’s over JR’s saved game loads up fast. He’s not going for a conquest victory this time. Conquering is even harder now that they added nationalism to the game, as it can take a long time for a people to forget who they were. And he’s always been more of a builder than anything else.
He thinks it’s going well right up until he hits his metallic desk in frustration; he has to survive to get to a cultural victory, but the enemy just took one of his cities, which automatically destroyed its Small Wonder. JR assembles a bunch of knights and creates a stack of doom. There is much to do. Good thing he doesn’t have any plans this weekend.
October, 2005. Lake Oswego, OR
JR comes home to his cramped apartment, sits down at a kitchen table (which is also his computer desk), double-clicks on his latest purchase and up comes That Song! He’s listened to it over and over again and every time he loves it. Somehow it almost magically captures what Civ is to him. The wonder of exploration, of growth, of the human experience.
JR adjusts his glasses as the song finishes. He’s been thinking about getting Lasik for years but just doesn’t have the cash. Working at a temp agency doesn’t pay much. Maybe he shouldn’t have dropped out of his master’s degree program. Maybe he should have looked harder for a better job. Maybe he should have just stayed in Japan. Maybe ... maybe ... maybe JR doesn’t have a clue what he should be doing right. Twenty-seven simply isn’t young enough that he can pretend that the type of life he’ll be living in his 30’s doesn’t depend upon what he is doing now.
And what he is doing now is adjusting the new governmental system so that it is tailored to his choosing. He clicks End Turn and is rewarded by a new discovery: railroads.
"I fooled you, I fooled you, I got pig iron, I got pig iron, I got all pig iron,” drones Leonard Nemoy.
A few turns morph into a dozen. The new espionage system is probably the best that Civ has ever had, and JR is just getting the hang of it when he looks at the clock and sees that it is time to stop.
He’s met this girl on the internet. They have been emailing back and forth, and are finally going to meet for coffee. He briefly considers one more turn, but doesn’t want to be late for Suzy. The game can wait.
October, 2010. Lake Oswego, OR
JR’s wife Suzy and their brand new daughter Casey are asleep in bed. He should join his family in slumber. He knows that. But he is so close to winning.
He knows that the game is not really important and that it’s just a game. JR knows many other things as well: He knows that he agreed to be a stay-at-home dad. He knows he signed up for this life. He knows that it’ll all be worth it. But he also knows that he needs to spend some time on something, anything, that’ll stretch his mind. Finally finishing his masters did that, but while taking care of a newborn is many things – wonderful, exhausting, awe-inspiring, emotional, frustrating, and amazing – the one thing it isn’t, at least to JR, is intellectually stimulating. So far he has not been able to figure out how to outsmart a dirty diaper.
When he gets to their joint office, JR briefly thinks of how nice it was not to have to fumble for his glasses in the dark. Good, old Lasik. He logs onto Steam and some part of him still resents having to install that useless program to play Civ.
He looks over his game and likes what he sees. JR has been pumping out cultural points in order to get his cities to expand, but as a bonus he now also has enough to get his final government choice. That change ripples through his empire, and because happiness is globalized it’s just enough to push his country into a golden age. He moves his Great Engineer around the new hex-based map and rush-finishes the Apollo Program. With the production bonus and not much else to do in the end game, he pumps out ship part after ship part until he finally achieves a Space victory. He gets ready to watch the victory video and instead is rewarded with a bland congratulations screen.
“Well, that was fairly anti-climatic,” he thinks.
October, 2016. Greensboro, NC
JR sits down in his private home office and scrolls past the 215 other games in his Steam library to get to Civilization VI. His new job as a Government Contract Manager has been keeping him busy, in addition to the responsibilities of home-ownership and fatherhood and being a good husband and, and, and … but now he has clawed out some free time. He adjusts his reading glasses, a new/old addition as the Lasik can no longer keep up with his eyes, and loads up the game.
Just as he finishes watching the intro and starts a new game he hears his door creak open.
“Whatcha doing Daddy?” his daughter Casey asks as she peaks through the door. She is incredibly cute in the way only a six year old daughter can be. For her the entire wide world is an incredible place full of new things to see and do and experience. And she wants to learn everything.
JR is wanting to learn how the unstacked city tiles and the separate cultural improvement tree affect a game he has been playing for most of his life. Instead he says, “I’m creating a Scout! That’s someone who goes off and explores. Do you want to move him?”
Casey does. She crawls up into his lap and JR shows her how to use the mouse. She clicks a hex so the Scout moves forward. Her eyes light up as a new part of the world is revealed.
And the game goes on.