Culture  /  Profile

Sid Meier and the Meaning of “Civilization”

How one video game tells the story of an industry.

Sid Meier is famous for creating the video game Civilization. He’s also known for having his name on the box. Meier released Civilization thirty years ago this month, after developing it with Bruce Shelley, a veteran board-game designer. The pair were inspired by the illustrated history books you might find on a middle-school library shelf, and by titles like Seven Cities of Gold (1984), a video game of Spanish conquest created by the designer Danielle Berry. In Civilization, you start with a covered wagon on a map that is largely obscured. You found a city. You learn metalwork, horse riding, feudalism, democracy, and diplomatic relations. Eventually, the rest of the world is revealed—a patchwork of nations. You can dominate your neighbors or strive to outshine them. History rolls on.

Civilization didn’t mark the first time Meier’s name appeared on a box. In 1987, we got Sid Meier’s Pirates!, in which you sail your way across the Caribbean, evolving from a winsome privateer to a peg-legged Blackbeard. In 1990, Meier’s earlier collaboration with Shelley resulted in Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon, a construction simulator that spawned a slew of copycats. And then, in 1991, with little marketing fanfare, Civilization appeared. Players realized that they had found a gem. The Sid Meier stamp exploded, popping up on Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, and Sid Meier’s SimGolf. There were sequels to Civilization, which Meier had little to do with. We’re now on Sid Meier’s Civilization VI. His name is still on the box.

The latest rectangle to bear his name is not a game but a book: “Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games” (W. W. Norton). It provides a whistle-stop tour of the video-game industry as it evolved across Meier’s four-decade career. Today, we swim through a digital soup made by machines that were developed, in large part, to play games. Graphics processors designed in the nineteen-nineties for first-person shooters became useful, a decade later, to the developers of the neural nets that power our social-media platforms. Many of the people who helped create our virtual environments cut their teeth by making and playing video games. “I’ve been playing Civilization since middle school,” the Facebook C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, wrote in a post on his Web site. “It’s my favorite strategy game and one of the reasons I got into engineering.”