If you're around my age, then the computer game Civilization may have been a major part of your childhood. Like SimCity, Civilization wasn't a game you could really win; instead, you just played at building your simulated civilization until you got tired of it or it got destroyed by a rival civilization. (I have vivid memories from high school of my American civilization getting overrun by Vikings.) It was a fairly realistic simulation, too: Each civilization had to develop its own technology, infrastructure, and cultural institutions.
Now comes word that a Reddit user, Lycerius, has taken that childhood past-time to its inevitable conclusion: He's played the same game of Civilization II for ten years straight, and the results are both disturbing and awesome. The game world, he writes, which has advanced to the year 3991 A.D., is now "a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation," and global warming and "dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands." For 1,700 years, the world has been locked in a horrific nuclear stalemate over what little habitable territory remains.
It doesn't end well, apparently.
In his initial Reddit post, Lycerius writes:
The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn't a mountain is inundated swamp land.... As a result, big cities are a thing of the distant past. Roughly 90% of the worlds population (at its peak 2000 years ago) has died either from nuclear annihilation or famine caused by the global warming that has left absolutely zero arable land to farm. Engineers... are always busy continuously building roads so that new armies can reach the front lines. Roads that are destroyed the very next turn when the enemy [attacks]....
The only governments left are two theocracies and myself, a communist state. I wanted to stay a democracy, but the Senate would always over-rule me when I wanted to declare war before the Vikings did.... I was forced to do away with democracy roughly a thousand years ago because it was endangering my empire. But of course the people hate me now and every few years since then, there are massive guerrilla... uprisings in the heart of my empire that I have to deal with which saps resources from the war effort.
... And so on. It's as though, if you were to keep playing SimCity for ten years, the dysfunctional properties innate to all bureaucracies would inevitably turn it into The Wire! I can't help but think of this as a new way of writing science fiction: Instead of taking pen to paper, you set up a simulation and watch it run.
Luckily, in this case, the story has a happy ending: Another Reddit user, Stumpster, took Lycerius' saved game file and managed to end the war in only 58 in-game years, essentially through a clever military strategy which he borrowed from MacArthur's Inchon Landing. Now he can focus on rebuilding civilization. (If only that worked in real life, too: We could hand our world over to another player, and he could fix it.) You can read the whole Reddit thread here.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.