CivAnon and 'Just one more turn': how Civilization sucks us in

We explore the design and marketing that created Civ's "compulsive timesink" reputation

"One more turn."

If you've ever played Civilization, or any game like it, chances are you've heard or even said this three word phrase. It defines Civilization players; we are always ready for one more turn, one more step forward toward victory.

It's such a powerful feeling that Iain Banks, the acclaimed science-fiction author, had to destroy his copy of the game because it was preventing him from finishing a book. The book in question ended up delayed by an entire year.

But the phenomenon of "one more turn" continues to this day. Whether you play Civilization, Stellaris, Crusader Kings, or Endless Legend doesn't matter. As long as it’s a 4X or grand strategy game, “one more turn” is likely to set in.

Origins

"One more turn" is a phrase without a discrete origin. In usage since at least the release of Civilization - as evidenced by this profile of the original game published in 1996 - "one more turn" describes a cycle of compulsive play that is familiar yet uniquely powerful. Someone addicted to Robotron can walk away from the machine after losing a game or all their quarters, but someone in the thrall of "one more turn" will do nothing but play Civilization or something similar for hours.

Part of this is undoubtedly tied to the nature of people who play Civilization. Strategy fans, otherwise known as "grognards", value strategy and challenge more than excitement. They often enjoy min-maxing - the practice of minimizing deficits and maximizing returns - and discuss strategies for winning on places like the CivFanatics forums. If you've ever been to a tabletop store, you've undoubtedly met some; they are the people who play Warhammer, Battletech, and Pathfinder.

But demographics alone can't explain why people become so enthralled that they can't leave the game for hours. After all, Civilization is turn-based, and requires no set-up or take-down time like a tabletop game. You can stop and resume at literally any point. Why would you play for so long?

Civ Design

Civilizations' addictive qualities are not purposefully designed into the game - hopefully - but are rather a combination of influences. Separate, they aren't powerful at all. Together, they encourage players to spend lots of time with the game.

Take the turn-based structure. You would assume that being able to save, stop, and load at any point in the game, without compromising the integrity of the game, would allow players to step back at any time. But this isn't the case.

When you quit playing a game that you enjoy of your own volition, you tend to do so after you've reached some marker of completion. When you feel like you have accomplished something that you can sit on until your next play session, you are able to stop. This marker can be a checkpoint, completing a level, finishing a challenge, or whatever you want it to be. All that matters is the sense of finality.

For example, in turn-based strategy games with more discrete sessions, such as Final Fantasy Tactics or Battle For Wesnoth, this sense of completion comes from finishing a single battle. The fight is over, you get your XP and rewards, and you’re primed for the next fight.

But Civilization's game structure throws a wrench into this process. The “battle” to finish is actually several hours long at the fastest possible turn speed, and days or weeks long at the slowest. Finishing a game of Civilization is impossible within a short timeframe. Thus, the only sense of completion you get is from finishing a turn. But that turn, when finished, inexorably leads into the next one. The result is that players continue playing turn after turn for hours, trying to burn through as many as possible before having to put the game down for external reasons (or until they finish their current game).

The effects of this turn structure are amplified by the feeling that you always have something to strive for. After roughly 20-30 turns, your empire grows large enough that you have to make a significant decision at least once per turn— a decision is about city production, perhaps, or where to move a scout. Due to countless overlapping decisions every turn, you always have something to focus your attention on, something to draw you in. And if you don't, there's always something lurking just around the bend, only two or three turns away, to keep you moving forward.

We already know it's a powerful feeling to complete something in a game; that's why gamification and achievements keep us hooked. But Civilization provides you with the opportunity to complete something every single time the game progresses, for hours. It's even worse on faster game speeds, since you get that rush of accomplishing something almost every single turn. It's the most efficient virtual Skinner Box ever made.

Civanon

When Civilization 4 released, Firaxis decided to poke fun at how much people get into Civilization. So they made a site about it.

Created as part of the marketing campaign for Civilization 4, Civanon is a parody of 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The main page says "Break the cycle of Civ addiction. Your recovery is only 12 steps away" at the top, and a list of the steps - all parodies of the AA steps with "Sid Meier" and "Civilization" replacing key words - scrolls by jerkily at the bottom.

The site's design is very old-internet. A flashing button with caution stripes urges people to "Learn the truth about Civilization." A cyan colored stop sign with purple text says "The end of Civilization begins here". A garish, nigh-unreadable button at the bottom links to somebody doing a George W. Bush impression while talking about key aspects of the game. (Whoever was in charge of writing the impressions was obviously not a fan, as the clips depict him as a bumbling idiot.)

As icing on the cake, the developers created a trailer for E3 2005 that showed the inside of a Civilization Anonymous meeting. The Bush impressionist shows up again, an old lady says "motherfucker" while talking about nukes, and Sid Meier somberly says "I'm a Civilization 4 junkie." It's a little surreal.

While funny, Civanon can be deeply uncomfortable if you've ever had to go to a 12-step program or know somebody struggling with drug addiction. Some of the advice on the page references powerful delusions in addicts, and a character in the E3 2005 trailer breaks down in tears over their addiction. It's intended that we find this sort of behavior ridiculous, but those breakdowns and delusions can be powerfully real.

That’s not to say that this was intended to offend. It’s very much in the spirit of light-hearted fun, and videogame addiction is obviously very dissimilar to the perils and horror of drug addiction. The images this site evokes just happen to be a little too on the nose.

The Cycle Renews

And here we are, shortly after the release of Civilization 6, and the cycle of “one more turn” has begun again.

It’s a phenomenon the genre will likely never be able to shake. It is, after all, in the very blood of 4X games; you can’t make a turn-based strategy game with long match durations and expect people to simply walk away. We strive to finish, failing to realize that civilization is not something a person “finishes.” It continues until we stop.

One civilization ends. Another begins. Such is the cycle in the real world, and such is the cycle of 4X.