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Ten Years of Civ II: Why Procedurality is Insufficient yet Critical

The Internet (well, the part of it I care about anyway) practically exploded this morning in response to the 10 year Civ II game.

If you haven't read that article yet please do so now, as I'm going to assume you are familiar with it for the rest of this post.

While I certainly found the story interesting, especially since I've been reading Noah Wardrip-Fruin's excellent book "Expressive Processing," I have been wondering why everyone has found it so compelling. On Twitter Chris Remo called it "breathtaking," and this doesn't seem to be an isolated case of hyperbole.

So what is it about this particular game of Civ II? I think that the answer is pretty straightforward, but is interesting in light of a recent game studies debate.

It seems pretty apparent that we (myself included) find this instance of Civ II compelling because it resonates with our fears regarding our own future. With Stanford biologists recently claiming that the current state of the world is unsustainable, recent economic pressures, climate change and general environmental destruction, in this game we see our potential future. It looks like a real possibility, and it scares us. This fear is amplified by the fact that it comes from a medium so many of us are so attached to, and furthermore, from a simulation that many people don't realize is as ideologically charged as it is. It's a bit like predicting the Super Bowl with the most recent Madden game. As Ian Bogost might say, people reading this story are working through simulation fever, asking themselves what it might mean that Civ II predicted this (feasible?) outcome for us.

What is fascinating to me about the reaction to this game is how it appears in light of recent game studies discourse in the wake of Migel Sicart's fascinating "Against Procedurality." As the argument goes, proceduralists believe that the meaning of a game arises primarily, if not only from, the rules and mechanics driving it. On the proceduralist side, games researcher Mike Treanor has perhaps most openly embraced this viewpoint.

The reaction to the 10-year Civ II game shows one of the major shortcomings of the proceduralist stance: the meanings that people make of games depend heavily on the context in which the games are perceived. I highly doubt anybody would care about the Civ II game if it did not seem so real, so possible, and it only seems this way because of the world we live in and how we understand it. If I played a game of Civ II for ten years and it ended in a utopian paradise, would anyone care?

I don't wish to throw-out procedurality entirely, though. As is often the case, the truth lies in the middle. This instance of Civ II is important to us because the rules of the simulation enabled it to happen AND because of who we are and our experience of the world. It is the sum of what the game is and how it works AND our own selves that make it meaningful. Subtract either and the meanings that so many are finding it, the meanings that make the story compelling, are gone.

From debates on Twitter I've realized this was not as clear as it should have been. I will blame writing quickly, but own it anyway and leave the original unchanged. My goal with this piece was to be a reminder that meaning construction is a collaborative process.

Many say that the "proceduralist" is a strawman, and they could be right. But I've met people who believe the game is everything, and I've met people who believe the game is nothing and it's all on the user. I don't think either viewpoint is correct, and that most people don't hold such extreme views, but even at the extremes both are valuable.

And I forgot to add in the original that Mike does great work, and I highly recommend it.

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