Thursday, March 16, 2006

Aztecs with Nukes

(For those of you bored with game-related entries, please ride this one out.  There is a point at the end.  Two, in fact!)

Last night I stayed up way too late and finished my current game of Civilization IV.  For those of you who don’t know, Civilization IV is the latest entry in the Civilization series.  In it, you take a civilization from founding its first city into the modern era and beyond.  The game can be won in a variety of ways, including overall performance, control of a large portion of the available land, simply wiping out everyone else, earning a diplomatic win from the United Nations, building the three greatest cities in the world, or being the first to launch a colony ship to Alpha Centauri.  There’s a lot of detail in the game, and I enjoy the changing technologies and time periods.  Early in the game, you’re building city walls mustering spearmen and archers to defend against barbarians.  Late in the game, you’re launching SDI satellites and running bombing missions with Stealth bombers.  Lots of fun.

In the game that I just finished, I was playing the Aztecs.  Recently, I bought a board game called Mexica which is about building the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, so I’ve been doing some reading about these people.  So, they were on my mind when I started this game.

Now, like any self-respecting Aztec, determined to preserve himself, when I located the Spanish, I killed them as quickly as possible.  Then I settled into the raising of a large and prosperous civilization and intimidating everyone else into submission.  I figured that I’d aim for a Time Victory, which means that I have the overall best civilization by the year 2050.

Then disaster struck.  One of my neighbors across the sea (the Americans, actually) began the project of building the colony ship.  I knew that he would complete the project before 2050, costing me the game.  So, my course was clear.  I declared war on him and launched my attack.

However, this was different than my war on the Spanish.  The conquest of the Spanish had been led by hordes of Jaguar Warriors, armed with obsidian-studded clubs.  The war against the Americans was spearheaded by a massive nuclear strike.

That’s right.  I pushed the Red Button.  I will confess that, game or no game, I cringed a bit at the necessity.  There was something sobering about the initial strike.  Even though the American SDI system shot down most of my missiles, a couple made it through.

Mushroom clouds bloomed over Boston.

It was a little disturbing at first.  But soon that changed.

The other surrounding nations also began building colony ships.  So I declared war on all of them.  At one point, I was at war with three nations at the same time.  I needed that edge, if I were to take them on.  So, as my tanks crossed the frontier, the missiles again began to rain from the sky.

Soon I had thrown the entire weight of my economy behind producing tanks and ICBMs.  Every five turns or so, I had another salvo ready to be launched.  Most were shot down by defense lasers, but enough found their mark to deliver their deadly payload.

Other ill effects began to show themselves.  The fallout spread across the globe, damaging the earth.  Large stretches of desert appeared as the result of my constant nuclear bombardments.  But still I persevered.

I presided over my very own World War III.

Finally, one of the other nations built the United Nations and quickly implemented a nuclear ban.  I was unable to continue my nuclear assault.  But, by then, the damage had been done.  By 2050, none of the colony spaceships were ready for launch, and I won.  The American homeland was literally glowing in places as we slid across the finish line.  Doing a little poking around, I discovered that they would have completed the final component of their spaceship in just three turns.  Three more turns and I still would have lost.

It was a nail-biting end to what could have been a fairly mundane endgame.

But that’s not my point in writing all this up.

Instead, I have a couple of thoughts.

First, while I have a hard time asserting that a game is a reasonable historical simulator, I found myself thankful that the Aztec people had not developed their culture into the modern era.  The little reading that I have done confirms for me that they were a blood-thirsty and violent people.  What if the Aztecs had been equipped with nukes?  Is my scenario so far off?

The second point is a little more personal.  Even though it is only a game, I had the feeling of crossing a line when I launched my first nuke.  I was about to do something irreversible.  Something deadly.  Something…bad.  Indeed, the icon on the screen to launch a missile is a picture of a Big Red Button.  I pushed the Red Button.

Anyone who grew up during any part of the Cold War should understand this sort of feeling.  I remember living in New Jersey at age six or so, seeing a map of the devastation that would result if a 100-megaton warhead were to be detonated in New York City.  My home would have been affected by the blast.  It scared me deeply.
So, here I was, starting a nuclear war.

Yet, very quickly, necessity took over.  After all, I needed these nukes to win the game.  Losing was not an option.  So, soon I needed more missiles.  More missiles!  Easily half of my economic power was dumped into creating these missiles.  As soon as one was ready, I launched it.  What had started as a horrible act became normal and, indeed, rejoiced over.  I was thrilled whenever a missile became available, and I mentally cheered whenever one penetrated the SDI defenses of my foes.

And I realized how quickly we humans become hardened.  What was once evil becomes distasteful, then becomes needful, and soon becomes rewarded.  Bleak?  Perhaps.  But very true.

And I wonder how much of our foreign policies are formed in just the same way.

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