If the point of life was simply to enjoy the moment that you’re in, we’d all be playing video games constantly. The likes of Minecraft and Zelda turn the drag of time into a silvery chute you drop into and emerge from after hours in a state of flow. No other activity, it becomes clearer every year, can compete in delivering kicks per second—and gaming’s magnetic pull is bending civilization itself. The $179 billion gaming industry is by now bigger than the global movie business and North American professional sports combined, and its decades-long rise has been credited with declines in reading, TV viewership, workforce participation, and even sex.
Much of my childhood was spent in that silvery chute, where I commanded alien armies and cast spells. But then one week during my sophomore year in high school, a realization hit me: Spending so much time questing on a screen might get in the way of other quests—for a driver’s license, a social life, a career. I quit gaming outright, and I mostly stayed away as adulthood unfolded—until the boring horror of 2020’s shutdowns arrived. Netflix and novels couldn’t distract me from scrolling through the news or counting the fibers in my couch pillows. A friend in another city suggested that we game together remotely, and I felt a pang. The real world was out of control, but here was an opportunity for me to play emperor.
That opportunity came in the form of Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, the latest in a legendary computer-game franchise that started in 1991. A digital variation on nerdy board games like Risk, Civilization emulates the span of human history: Over hundreds of turns (often filling days, if not weeks, of playtime), a player chooses a culture (the Romans, say, or the Zulu) and then embarks on a long evolution from nomadic settlers to hegemony-seeking, space-exploring empire. Whether fellow players are friends or strangers or artificial intelligence, the action of the game is propelled not by hand-eye coordination or fantastical role-playing but by deliberation. How will your people worship? Whom will they trade with? What type of government will they have? And how will their government influence their trade and religion, and vice versa? The decisions cascade, enabling so many combinations of strategies that not even Reddit could ever document them all.
Perhaps this sounds dry, especially if you’re someone who associates gaming with blasting beasts and eating Mario’s magic mushrooms. But in Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games, published last year, Civilization’s creator—who spent his early career working on simulating fighter-pilot combat—nails the unexpected feeling of wonder he got when playing Will Wright’s groundbreaking urban-planning game of 1989, SimCity: “It was about creating, rather than destroying … and it was a game,” Meier writes. “The objective was dominance over one’s own limitations, rather than a morally inferior antagonist … and it was a game.”
That improve-and-prosper ethos has since animated other behemoth franchises such as Animal Crossing, FarmVille, and Wright’s The Sims, but Civilization—which, to be clear, does involve some razing and pillaging—may be the most immersive of them all. Meier knew he had come up with a hit, he reports, when an early Civ prototype hypnotized his brother for a full six hours. I’ll never forget encountering Civilization II in fifth grade after a day at the beach. Still sandy and damp, I sat up past my bedtime watching a friend, who was playing as the mighty Aztecs, defeat America. As he dispatched chariots across pixelated peat bogs, I dug into the thick, textbook-like manual, whose pointers—press the “I” key to irrigate—remain needlessly lodged in my brain today.
For my first outing as a 30-something Civ VI player, I picked the Aztecs too, and got to work building a resource-rich theocracy. In the decades since I’d sworn off the game, the graphics had improved and the rules had grown knottier in a series of new editions and expansion packs. Yet the game’s essential pull remains the same. Turn after turn, bafflement at complex systems gives way to a sense of mastery: Capturing a city is fun, but have you ever harmoniously curated a dozen art museums? Meanwhile, granular details accumulate into a grand narrative that you feel you’ve written. Once, playing as Scythia, I gloated as my horsemen, fighting over generations, eventually upgraded to helicopter fleets. Fresh accomplishments—the discovery of aluminum, the completion of the Pyramids—continually beckon, too. I went to bed late after that first Civ VI round and lay awake thinking of tactics to use next time. Next time came to engulf long weeknights, full weekends, and even poolside afternoons during a California escape from the East Coast winter.
For a game so inspired by the real world, the miracle of Civilization is total escapism: Nuking a city or burning so much coal that the sea level rises brings consequences for your populace, but not really for your own psyche. Earth’s actual history does not so much constrain players—part of the fun lies in the possibility of making Genghis Khan a dovish diplomat—as it does guide them through tricky questions. For example, as a beginner, you’re helped by having a preexisting sense that selecting a fascist government will help fortify your population for wartime while cutting off the commercial dynamism afforded by democracy. Some academics and journalists have taken issue with such gamification of humanity’s ugly history, and over the years Civ has done a good job of both addressing criticisms (later editions are not nearly as Western-centric as earlier ones) and shrugging them off. As my Montezuma dispatched evangelists to spread a feline-themed religion to Russia, I reflected on the social-studies fever dream of it all only in passing. I was mostly preoccupied with building grander houses of worship without leaving myself militarily vulnerable to more scientifically advanced rivals.
What I couldn’t kick, though, was the twinge of shame I’d long felt about hours spent gaming. As news of vaccines rolled in, another anxiety emerged: What if I ended up re-addicted, for good? The Civilization aces I watched on YouTube (yes, I was that hooked) were hyping a new game that I knew I would have to try. Called Humankind, it was rumored to be “the Civ killer.”
Humankind, a turn-based strategy game created by the Sega-owned French studio Amplitude, differentiates itself in its title: Our species, not our stuff, is the point. Civilization encourages you to quickly establish a capital, but Humankind’s early turns are all about communing with nature as your wandering tribe of hominids hunts and gathers. The bigger twist is that once you do settle down, you don’t stick with one civilization for the millennia to come. You instead get periodic chances to pick a new culture, creating a hybridized society: Your Bronze Age towns may be strewn with the colossal stone heads of the Olmecs, but you might later evolve in an Austro-Hungarian direction, with opera halls and Evidenzbureau agents. The buzz among gamers was that this mixing and matching could enable a richer, even more unpredictable historical simulation.
Curious to discover how far my new gaming habit would extend, in June I accessed Humankind’s “closed beta”—a prerelease trial version made temporarily available to solicit feedback. I was immediately struck by the visuals: serene and painterly, with loping hills and wandering deer. Civilization has well-drawn terrain too, but I mostly perceived its map as a nifty chessboard. Humankind really feels like a world, and other aesthetic details—illustrations, text narratives—encourage imaginative engagement. Every so often, highly specific scenarios crop up: a destabilizing rumor spreads through your population, or refugees accumulate at your borders. Choosing how to react (suppress dissent or allow it; integrate outsiders or expel them) jangled my sense of ethics in a way Civ rarely did.
The most important divergence between the games lies in their answers to an impossible question: What would it mean to “win” the world? Civilization VI has multiple discrete paths to victory, including conquering your enemies’ capitals, colonizing another planet, or converting the globe to your faith. This vision of progress is about determinedly working toward a capstone before anyone else achieves greatness. Smart players apply ruthless cost-benefit logic to every decision, which sometimes means sacrificing present-day prosperity while building toward future dominance.
By contrast, the structure of Humankind rewards societies that steadily flourish: A broad range of accomplishments—influence attained, cities booming, wonders constructed, skirmishes won—feed into one ledger of “fame” points, which eventually determine the winner. The goal is to cultivate some ineffable melange of impact and happiness over time—a theoretically uplifting answer to the question of what gives a society, and the people in it, a sense of value and purpose.
But as I played through my first Humankind game as a science-focused civilization (blending Babylon, Greece, and the Korean kingdom of Joseon), the hunt for legacy came to feel more like gardening than gaming. I built schools, researched technologies, and watched my score climb like a thriving vine. In life, it’s healthy to feel that every endeavor, large and small, has intrinsic value. In a game, conniving toward one ambitious goal—inviting a continual drip of intrigue and risk—is more fun.
As a result, Humankind didn’t glue me to my spot in the way that Meier’s franchise did, and I lost only a little sleep pondering my next moves. Then again, I was playing a limited demo during early-summer balminess as mask mandates began to be lifted. When the world resumed doling out its own points—novel experiences, consequential encounters—I didn’t exactly stop feeling the computer’s pull. Instead, the vividness of reality made me realize that gaming could be part of my life without running my life.
One recent night, arriving home after a reunion with colleagues, I fired up Civilization for the first time in a few weeks. The French had my capital surrounded, but I fended off the siege and counterattacked. By the time I took Paris, it was 1 a.m. I didn’t know when I’d resume my conquest, but I did know that until then, I could count on a warm hum of anticipation in my brain, more motivating than distracting. I also thought of something Meier said in his book: “A bad game strands you in the past (as in, ‘What just happened?’) while a mediocre one keeps you in the present (‘Sure, this is cool.’). But a really good game keeps you focused on what’s yet to come.”
This article appears in the October 2021 print edition with the headline “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.