The greatest challenge to civilization isn’t digging irrigation channels or attaining spaceflight—and Civ I got it right.
At the D.C. release party for Civilization VI, the latest edition of one of the most successful video games of all time, even the coffee tables were on brand. Vignettes from the game—which is to say, scenes from the course of human history—appeared as dioramas inside glass tables at one of the city’s poshest bars.
The release party on Tuesday night was organized by the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group, so the event had the feel of a typical Washington party. Capitol Hill–types hovered around the sushi spread and open bar on the roof of the W Hotel. Aside from the table dioramas, the only tell that it was a video-game party were a few consoles with playable versions of Civilization VI scattered around the room. The game asks players to launch and then guide their own private civilizations; Hill staffers at the event had created (and largely abandoned) civs named after Washington, Baltimore, and Cincinnati.
Then Sid Meier, the creator of Civilization, showed up at the bar, and devotees rushed to snap selfies with him as if he were a celebrity. Which, in this room, he definitely is: Meier’s Civilization games, which first appeared in 1991, have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide. After the release of the sixth sequel on Friday, that figure stands to rise much higher.
A brief scan of the new game shows that everything that has made the series so popular appears to be intact: Pick a society and guide it from 4,000 B.C. to the future. Some playable societies and new features in VI include Russia and its Cossack riders, Arabia and its Mamlūk soldiers, and Greece and Hoplite mercenaries. By investing in faith, science, and military technology, players can advance from the Bronze Age through the Space Age and beyond—and elevate or destroy one another.
One thing that Civ VI is missing, however, falls under the “beyond” category. Today, civilization finds itself on the precipice of a categorical change as to how societies will operate in the future. That frontier is climate change—a factor missing in Civilization VI, but not other entries in the Civilization series.
“Actually, I’m proud to say that the original Civilization game had global warming as one of the consequences of too much pollution,” Meier says. “We were way ahead of our time.”
Given that 195 nations in the real world just signed the first-ever binding, universal climate accord, the Paris Agreement, it’s surprising that climate change is a bigger deal in Civilization I than in Civilization VI. True, we’re just beginning to deal with the issue strategically, so it’s hard to know how a simulation of climate amelioration would work, exactly. Meier also says that his games are not about taking position on controversial issues; instead, Civilization is a way for players to express themselves.
One new feature in Civilization VI changes the look and feel of the cities that players build, in a way that has some bearing on the climate shift. In the latest edition, the cities are “unstacked,” meaning that different aspects of society develop in geographically segregated sectors within a city. In the context of real civilizations—the ones threatened by climate change—this is a missed opportunity.
An example: In Civilization VI, after a civilization attains the technology of writing, it can then build a campus on a tile adjacent to the urban core. The library is the first available building; during a civilization’s medieval period, it can develop education and a university. With modernity and the discovery of chemistry comes the research laboratory. And so on. The same site-oriented development follows for culture, warfare, religion, and other societal features.
This is no way to build cities, of course. Parceling out all the functions of a civilization to distinct sectors would make living in a city a nightmare. Civilization is not granular enough to feature logistics such as transportation or infrastructure. For that kind of gameplay, you’d want to check in with a rival strategy series.
But Civilization VI might have explored the possibilities for an advanced society to control emissions and focus energy consumption in the many ways that cities are doing so today. That could take the form of an ecological district with new building types. In Civilization V, the Atomic Era ends with the solar farm, recycling facility, and nuclear plant. An Anthropocene Era could employ geothermal plants, zero-energy waste facilities, passivhaus homes, and so much more.
Civilization VI does nudge the series toward planning in important ways. The workers deployed in previous series have been replaced by builders: a distinction but also a difference. Players will no longer have to wait turns for construction, but rather they will have to wait turns for planning. Maybe a future Civilization sequel will build the cost of carbon into the cost of planning—and make the challenge of civilization a little closer to our own.