My experience with computers goes back to the early 80s. An Ohio Scientific machine, with its huge floppy disk drive, CPU and printer, occupied a whole table in my Physics lab because it happened to be the most secure room in the school.
I had no interest in computers in those days. But I was determined that if a computer was going to occupy valuable space in my teaching lab, it’d be better if I learnt how to use it. The Challenger 4P looked like a mechanical calculator. It ran a fast basic program language, but had only 64k of ram. It had no software. So I learnt how to program in basic.
Getting a little white arrow to run up and down and round and about a dark grey screen, controlled only by the arrow-keys, was no moderate achievement. Once I’d mastered a few other basic programming routines, I quickly found out how to do similar movements with other shapes. Inventing computer games quickly became a useful way to learn how to program the computer.
My son, Nick, who was 11 years old, had his own computer – a Sinclair ZX81, with a 16k ram pack. There was no software with the ZX81 either. We both learnt a lot from working with that simple device. Nick too found that making up computer games was a good way to learn how to program.
He and I made up a compendium of about 20 games that all ran from the same program that we saved on a cassette tape. But Nick was ahead of me, for he quickly learnt how to use machine code – an art that I never quite mastered.
It wasn’t until about 20 years later that Nick’s younger brother, Jack, gave the family a Pentium computer for Christmas. It was a machine that Jack had used, but it was our family’s first ‘real’ computer, and we were proud of it.
Some of the games software that he’d ran was left on the hard drive. One of the games was an early version of Sid Meier’s Civilization III, a sophisticated strategy game where players could build their own civilisations from a single tiny settlement.
My wife, Linda, insisted that we played a game together. So, turn by turn, we engaged in our very first commercial computer game and not only learnt how to play, but also won a cultural victory for Queen Elizabeth, the leader of our own civilization.
For almost a year we enjoyed pioneering with our civilizations in CIV. We learnt a bit about how technology developed through the ages – not so much of the technology itself, but more about the sequence of technological evolution.
Before my days of playing CIV, I was a total military ignoramus. I could no more explain what a stealth bomber was, than an Aegis cruiser can fly in the air. Yes, Sid Meier’s game taught me quite a bit, and I was soon to find out that what I'd learnt wasn’t far from reality either.
What I learnt
I went off the idea of playing CIV. That was shortly after Afghanistan was invaded by UK and USA. Then there was the similar invasion of Iraq. Quite frankly, what the game had taught me was too much to bear at that time. I’d learnt that there would be repercussions from those two 21st-century invasions, that there would be rebellious uprising and revolt within those invaded countries, that there would be continuous disorder from the resistance.
That’s exactly what Linda and I had discovered happened when we invaded enemy civilisations in CIV and attempted to take over their cities. Even our own people rose to anarchy under circumstances of war, especially if they felt that we had gone to war unjustly. It was a year or so before I could play the game without being constantly reminded of the repercussions of war.
What else I learnt
There was something else that CIV brought home to me. Civilisations haven’t got to where they are today without a cost. That cost took human lives, either through disease, economic hardship or through the vagaries of war.
I don’t play CIV any more. I still have a lot of respect for the game and its creator, Sid Meier. Having seen his (now not so) new CIV IV in action, I think it is a wonderfully animated teaching tool. It has the potential to educate those who recognise and understand the profound and fundamental lesson it brings forward to its players.