Then, in 2012, he decided to share his Eternal War with the Internet.
He was looking for help. Try as he might to break the stalemate, the war had persisted for almost two thousand in-game years. He’d transformed Celtania from a democracy into a communist dictatorship so he could better wage war against the Vikings and Americans. “I tried for a very long time to maintain democracy,” he says. “But it only hinders me having the Senate force these peace treaties down my throat. If I have a peace treaty enforced that means that I cannot attack my enemy force that I know is preparing to attack me.”
His citizens hated him, and were in frequent revolt; the other two superpowers were theocracies that similarly ruled through fear. Nuclear war had ravaged the world: much of the terrain was poisoned with fallout, which, along with other pollution, caused the ice caps to melt (several times over, “an abstraction, of course” Moore adds), flooding the rest of the world’s farmland. Every city was nearly deserted, and the earth’s meager population was starving.
He needed engineers to restore farmland, but all of his resources were poured into war, which seemed necessary to keep him in the game. So, in June of 2012, (3991 AD in the game), Moore wrote a Reddit post under his username “Lycerius”, describing his predicament. “I couldn’t sleep one night so I was playing the game and I just figured, well, this is pretty interesting,” he says. “I thought this would be a neat story. I typed it up due to a little bit of insomnia.”
“You’ve heard of the 100 year war? Try the 1700 year war,” he wrote. “My goal for the next few years is to try and end the war […] I want to rebuild the world. But I’m not sure how. If any of you old Civ II players have any advice, I’m listening.”
Reddit responded in force almost immediately. “Three or four hours later my post was just everywhere,” Moore remembers. “It was really incredible how fast it was disseminated and how quickly people took notice.” A new subreddit dedicated to the game appeared and gained thousands of members. Moore uploaded his save file so strangers could play his game and prototype strategies. Civilization buffs raced toward not just any solution, but the best solution. Others began generating art inspired by the dystopia in the game, including stylized Celtania propaganda posters, along with pages and pages of fiction set in Moore’s universe. “Apparently George Orwell was a time traveler,” wrote one Redditor, “and spent all his time in the future playing Civ II.”
“You’ve heard of the 100 year war? Try the 1700 year war.”
Moore’s game, and the frenzy around it, soon received coverage everywhere from Ars Technica to CNN. “There’s no way we could have tested for this, so it was a surprise to us,” Civilization’s creator, Sid Meier, told Mashable. “I can’t say that we ever thought anyone would play a game of Civ for that long.”
It was also a surprise to Henry Lowood, the Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and Film & Media Collections in the Stanford University Libraries. He’s long been involved in the preservation of computer games and virtual worlds. He and his team archived Moore’s game, and some of the Reddit discussion around it, as part of a project funded by the Library of Congress. (“I didn’t work through it myself,” he says, laughing. “The people who solved it are pretty intense Civilization players.”)
Lowood studies the cultural artifacts people make with and about computer games, and he knows there are a lot of them. There are forums in which people discuss characters, cheat codes, and strategies; real-currency marketplaces for items and properties in virtual worlds like Second Life; WarCraft celebrities streaming their gameplay on Twitch; and “machinima”—movies that build novel narratives using videogame animations, just to name a few.
He says the Eternal War is unique: It’s the biggest known case of somebody’s actual save file—their actual gameplay, not a video of it—going viral. “People tend to keep software, and their own games,” he says, “but there’s very little public documentation on actual replay. The oldest replay I know of for example that’s accessible that we were able to work with was one from Doom for 1994-95.”
The Eternal War intrigued Lowood because, as librarians, he and his colleagues think gameplay is very important. They’ve had some success in preserving the out-of-the-box games, but they think that the way people played these games will end up being just as, if not more, important. “A game’s not going to tell us anything about what people did with it,” he says. “If we save only the game software we’ll be able to play it in 100 years. The other interesting stuff is—how was it part of the culture 100 years from now? They’ll be interested in what people did in this really early stage in the development of digital media.”
As technology and licensing practices change, Lowood says sharing and saving gameplay is getting trickier. He and his colleagues are developing tools to ensure continued preservation; in the meantime they’re snatching up whatever they can find.
A game’s not going to tell us anything about what people did with it—100 years from now we want to know how it was part of the culture.
The Eternal War is a great example of the cultural importance of gameplay, Lowood says. Moore had done something so remarkable with his game that it was even interesting to a popular, contemporary audience. “If you read the Reddit boards,” Lowood said, “people saw the game as showing this dystopian future of what’s going to happen to the real world, when we use up all the resources and the only thing left is war.” Most people playing Civilization II in 2012 or 2002 didn’t know they could play the game that far in the future, or think anyone would ever want to. And, Lowood says, this would be a profound loss for historians.
A historian who only had an out-of-the-box copy of Civilization II would never know, for example, that a young man named James Moore found the game’s simulation of future warfare so compelling that he played through it for ten rather difficult years. They’d never know about his stubborn devotion to democracy, or the fact that—even when he had the resources to clean it up—he once let one of his ruined cities remain surrounded by nuclear fallout as a “monument” to remind him to be more aggressive. And they’d never know that thousands of strangers were enthralled by this game, made art about it, and banded together in a symbolic but earnest effort to redeem the simulated future and “save the world.”
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