Playing God

4 minute read
Chris Taylor

Is your spouse spending too much time with the PC again? Does she emerge looking bleary-eyed, strangely distant yet somehow satisfied? Is he unable to provide a good excuse for skipping dinner? Don’t be alarmed, and don’t point the finger at playboy (or playgirl).com The explanation could be quite simple: your husband probably just placed a toxic-waste dump in New York City’s Central Park and wanted to see whether the police could handle the inevitable riots. Or perhaps your wife was overseeing earth’s first space colony, and had to decide between building creches in all her bases and laser-blasting an enemy faction.

The most addictive computer games known to mankind are back, and they’re badder than ever. God games–so-called because you gaze down on the action from the heavens–began a decade ago with three now legendary titles: Sim City, Civilization and Populous. You became, respectively, an all powerful town planner; the head of a civilization through 4,000 years of history; or, quite literally, a god. Now all three franchises are hitting stores with simultaneous sequels: Sim City 3000, Alpha Centauri (from the Civilization team) and Populous: the Beginning. Wannabe deities everywhere are being tempted back with cooler graphics, features and ambiance.

When the long-awaited Sim City 3000 was released at the end of January, it topped the first week’s sales chart despite being on shelves only three days. That was all it took to defeat the mighty Myst and Microsoft Flight Simulator and reassert the dominance of the god game. In a year in which the $6.3 billion video- and computer-game market is expected to overtake the entire movie industry, that’s no mean feat.

And because there are already 8 million owners of Sim and Civ games, sales of the latest batch are likely to have good legs. “Games usually sell like a Roman candle,” says Ann Stevens, president of industry analyst PC Data. “This genre is evergreen. And it appeals equally to both sexes.” Explains Sid Meier, creator of Civilization: “People like to build things and create their own stories. That’s an eternal, universal thing.”

So why splash out on sequels that have the same plot? Two words: better technology. Alpha Centauri is essentially an extra-terrestrial Civilization, yet it looks and feels like a certain upcoming George Lucas movie. In Populous: the Beginning, you manipulate a whole tribe, as before, but within one of the most satisfying 3-D environments ever. (And with a level of vocal subservience from your braves that should delight management trainees.)

Sim City 3000 mayors still transform their towns into skyscraping metropolises, but never has the game been so gorgeously complex. Now you have to zone for landfills and incinerators or watch your city pile up with trash. Zoom in tight and watch the scurrying of antlike pedestrians. Play on real landscapes (Washington or Dallas?) and construct real landmarks (the Capitol or Coit Tower?) Listen as traffic grumbles and birds twitter over a jazz sound track. Is there any more fulfilling way to waste a weekend?

Except that these games–whisper it low–may actually be the most enjoyable and effective educational tools to come along since Jeopardy! This week in Washington seventh- and eighth-graders from across the country will compete in the finals of the annual future-cities contest, judged by a panel of engineers. The contest’s software of choice? Sim City, of course. “They should introduce this game to all classrooms,” says Hayes Lord, a New York City planner.

Lord’s boss, Rudy Giuliani, would no doubt agree. He was in his first term when he found his son Andrew, then 7, playing Sim City. Andrew had placed police stations on every street corner. The crime rate was zero. Giuliani Sr. watched, fascinated, and began making suggestions on taxation, zoning and so forth. Finally, Andrew wheeled around. “Dad,” he told the mayor of New York, “this is my city.”

Perhaps we’d better prepare for the coming of the god-game generation: children who have tasted such power and know little of defeat. Sid Meier spent his childhood reconstructing the fall of Rome with legions of toy soldiers. Now his eight-year-old son conducts the same campaigns in Civilization, to much greater effect. “Nothing is impossible to him,” says Meier. “I suppose once you’ve led the Roman Empire, you don’t really have a sense of limitations.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at