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Playing ‘Civilization’ to Keep a Lost Loved One Close

Playing ‘Civilization’ to Keep a Lost Loved One Close:

Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.

As a kid, I loved going to my grandparents’ house. My grandpa was a retired biology teacher and a historian, and he wouldn’t let a visit go by without a look under the microscope at anything we could dream up. My favorite was pond scum from the next-door-neighbor’s house. But I also can’t remember a visit when he didn’t spend at least a few hours up in his study quietly playing Civilization, a game in which you rule through the ages, trying to build the most successful empire.

My brother and I always thought it was kind of weird and very cool that this man well into his seventies was spending so much time playing video games. We couldn’t understand why he loved it so much, because he was old and the game was honestly pretty boring to watch.

But looking back, I think he liked the game because it was like playing football, but with a built-in history lesson—you have to be able to guess what your opponents are going to do way into the future, and the game’s encyclopedia, the Civilopedia, has tons of fun information about leaders, technology, and architecture, even if the gameplay is notorious for being ridiculously inaccurate (it’s not unheard of to try to use bows and arrows to fight an opponent that has aircraft).

Grandpa always was wildly competitive, a trait he passed on to his kids. He won every board game we ever played at Thanksgiving and came up with crazy new maneuvers during his tenure as a high school football coach. It was important to him to be sure his players got at least a few wins under their belts every season. One football season he even came up with a maneuver he called “epilepsy right;” for this move, somebody on his team fakes a seizure in hopes of distracting the opposing team so that his players in the midst of a particularly major losing streak could win, just so they could know what it felt like. With that need to win and to be creative doing it, it’s no wonder that Grandpa loved a game that let him come up with creative solutions to a millennium’s worth of problems.

But it was always a little bit dull for us when grandpa wanted to play Civilization. His study was sacred space, so my brother and I had to be quiet if we wanted to watch him play. Mostly, we just wanted him to be done with it because in all honesty, the game is really boring for anyone who isn’t playing. The beginning of each turn, when you plan and maneuver your empire, can take several minutes to get through, all for just a few seconds of actual progress. Much better when Grandpa wanted to go outside and play catch or look for bugs. But even the hours spent watching him play in the study were special because occasionally he’d offer up a really lame joke—always a crowd pleaser for us—and sometimes he’d even ask us for input on his next move. Even though we didn’t understand how the game worked, we both loved the chance to offer our insights.

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When Grandpa died in 2008 at age 80, my brother and I inherited his copy of Civilization IV, and my brother played it on occasion for the first few months after he died. I’m not sure what happened to the disk, but I think it ended up broken in the back of a drawer.

I’d almost forgotten about the game altogether in the five years since his death, but I needed a way to unwind in grad school. My boyfriend was a pretty serious gamer, and he’d heard me occasionally talk about my grandpa and his game, so he got me a downloadable copy of the newest version, Civilization V, for my birthday. Visually the new version was much better to look at than my grandpa’s game, but otherwise it was pretty much exactly the same.

I was shocked to find myself playing for ten hours straight the first night, ignoring my homework and bawling my eyes out because I couldn’t share the moment with my grandpa. For the next several months I played almost nonstop—taking just enough time to make sure I went to class, finished my homework, and had something resembling a social life. I hadn’t felt this close to him in years, and clearly I needed more time to grieve.

I have a few odds and ends from my grandpa, and I love visiting my grandma in the home they built together. I even own (and regularly wear) one of his old sweatshirts, but nothing makes me feel as connected to him as playing Civilization. I can almost hear him making jokes and talking to me about the next move, and I feel like it helps me understand him a little better. I love that even years after our last conversation, my grandpa and I can still share this game.

I don’t play as much now as I did while I was in school, but I still log on a few times a month for a game, and I always wish the multiplayer function would let me play just one game with my grandpa. I know he would completely kick my ass.

Kirstin Kelley is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been published in ThinkProgress, Everyday Feminism, Bitch, and others. Follower her on Twitter @KirstinKelley1.

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