7 writing (and life) lessons I learned from playing Civilization V

Share this article

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrShare on FacebookDigg thisShare on StumbleUponShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someone

I’m not exactly what you would call a gamer, but God of War taught me some time ago that I am far from immune to gaming’s addictive charm. Since that heady period of 3am bedtimes and caffeine-infused mornings, I’ve stumbled upon a strategy game called Civilization V…and there’s no turning back.

For those who aren’t in the know (and until recently, I was one of those unfortunate souls), Civ is a turn-based video game in which you don the mantle of a great leader and play your way to global domination. It’s a 4X game, which refers to the fact that you explore, expand, exploit and exterminate your way to greatness. So far I’ve been Darius of Persia, Oda Nobunaga of Japan, Otto von Bismarck of Germany, and Wu Zetian of China, just to name a few. No matter who you are and what you do for a living, that’s pretty cool; but for a writer, Civilization offers so many lessons that I had to jot some of them down.

1.    Play to your strengths

The current version of Civ that I play has 27 civilizations (I believe that the latest expansion pack adds even more), each with its own particular strengths and weaknesses. I quickly learned that I could have a cultural or diplomatic win with Attila the Hun, but, unsurprisingly, forceful domination was more likely to yield victory.


“Diplomatic Immunity”

Similarly, professional writers should be able to turn their hand to pretty much any genre, but the fact remains that we’re humans, not machines, and we have natural strengths and weaknesses. Writing is a competitive field, filled with talented and hard-working people; the smart play is to figure out what your strengths are, and find a vehicle that allows them to shine.

2.    Make conscious sacrifices


Sacrifice for some; justice for others.

When writing, it’s easy to feel paralysed by choice; there are a million potential iterations of a story, and it can be difficult (if not impossible) to know which one will turn out to be the ‘best’. This is a particular bugbear of mine – probably some leftover perfectionistic trait – but Civ helped me to exorcise those demons through its emphasis on decision-making. At every turn, you are forced to choose what your city builds, where you spend your money, what technology to research, and which social policy to adopt. As one door opens, another one closes…and you know what? That’s okay. It really is. In fact, once I’d played for a while, I learned to shift my perspective from what an opportunity cost me to what I was gaining, and I started to enjoy the fact that my civilization actually stood for something. This may not be an issue for some, but for those of us who occasionally feel overwhelmed by that blank white page, Civilization helps train away an unhelpful mindset that achieves nothing but self-sabotage.

3.    Endure through failure

Unsurprisingly, I lost my first few Civ battles in spectacular fashion. What did surprise me was my compulsion to scrap the game altogether and start a brand new one. It was as though I’d ruined the game by starting off with a few mistakes, and needed to start afresh. Yikes.


“Tracing the wood grain is TOTALLY normal”

My compulsion to perceive every mistake as an outright failure struck me as a revelation, and one that needed to be dealt with immediately. I forced myself to play through those failures, to claw my way back from the brink, and something miraculous (yet totally predictable) occurred.

Firstly, I learned that the games ‘tainted’ by failure taught me a lot more than the ones marked by a string of victories; with every error, my understanding of strategy deepened, and it happened at an accelerated pace. In fact, it was the failures that helped me to level up…not the wins. Secondly, I learned that there was little correlation between the outcome of a particular battle and my overall ability to play the game. And thirdly, failure afforded me a sense of pride when my underdog civilization closed the gap and finally took the lead. It was like being in my own 80’s teen movie, only with fewer leg warmers and more giant death robots (yes, they really have those).

We all know that the fear of failure holds us back; I’m not saying anything ground-breaking here.  However, having a virtual persona in a microcosmic world can help you to identify, address, and work through character traits that may be holding you back with your writing…or anything else, for that matter.

4.    Don’t miss the forest for the trees


Does this thing come with a manual?

At first glance, Civ looks insanely complicated. There’s just so much stuff going on, so many balls to juggle, so much to supervise and control and manage…really, it’s a lot like plotting a story. This is particular true for the longer forms of storytelling, where the challenge of weaving multiple threads into a coherent whole can sometimes prove to be a monumental – and sometimes insurmountable – challenge. This isn’t just a concern for novices; many wonderful, promising novels have gotten away from very experienced writers (you know to whom I’m referring, Mr Martin).

Here’s the thing: we don’t get to play God in our own lives, but it’s something that writers are expected to do within their make-believe world.  Their perspective must be omniscient, capable of seeing the wider story arc and its implications, as well as the highly subjective viewpoint of a single character, all at the same time. The ability to flip-flop between such extreme viewpoints is a vital skill, and it’s one that should be practiced. Civilization is an enormous help in this regard: you can step back and look at your empire in the greater context, delve in to make minute adjustments, then step back again to see where things are heading. Civ helps to foster a mindset that allows you to maintain control over your world so you don’t miss the forest for the trees.

5.    Stay the distance

Southpark-World of Warcraft

At standard speed, it takes most people at least 5 hours to complete the game. I take a fair bit longer, because I fiddle around with the details. Make no mistake – this represents quite an investment. It really can feel like an epic battle for mastery, especially if you’re playing at the higher levels, and it’s actually quite refreshing (not to mention rewarding) to test your commitment in this way. The parallels with writing are obvious.

6.    Success comes in many forms

The Hot Chick

One thing I love about this game is that there’s no single (or best) way to win. You can have a cultural victory, a diplomatic victory, a science victory, a conquest victory…or you can just have the highest score at the end of the clock.

As I mentioned before, the smartest strategy is to pick the type of victory that best complements your empire’s strengths. Sometimes, however, you find yourself excelling in an unexpected area; you didn’t set out to be technologically superior, but well, you are. If you’re quick to leverage the windfalls, then you can have a different kind of win – it may not be what you set out to do, but that doesn’t make it any less valid or enjoyable.

The same is true of storytelling.

Sometimes we set out with a certain idea in mind, but the story presents us with other possibilities. We need to keep an eye out for those opportunities, and if it seems appropriate, be flexible enough to review our blueprint.

7.    Enjoy the journey

Will write for food

This is the most important part. Win or lose, you play Civilization because you enjoy the process of playing. You enjoy getting knocked down by superior armies, then rallying your forces and fighting back. You enjoy exploring new lands and finding the best trade deals. You enjoy keeping your citizens happy and building great works. If another civilization ‘beats’ you at the end, you don’t throw up your hands and bemoan the wasted hours; you just start a new game.

Writers know all about this. It can be easy to become fixated on the goal of ‘getting published’ or ‘making money’ – those bills still need paying – but if those goals are what drive you, then you really need to stop and think about whether you actually want to be a writer at all. There are easier ways to make money or boost your ego; ways that involve less isolation, less time, and less risk. Chances are you won’t secure that publishing deal, but if it’s not about ‘winning’ and ‘losing’, then does it really matter?

What’s really important is the way you feel when you sit down at the computer. Do you become lost in the world you’re building? Do you get a deep satisfaction from the inexorable crawl towards completion? Does 3am sneak up on you without warning?

If so, then you’re a writer. Or you’re probably playing Civ.