I have played every Civilization game since the original, and each one has proven a mini education for me. Civ is where I learned what monotheism and polytheism are, the requisite ingredients for gunpowder, and the world-changing effects of the invention of the printing press. This year, in Civ 6, I’m learning new words again with the concept of suzerainty over city-states, but more importantly I’m reminded of a timeless life lesson that’s more pressing today than ever: greed leads to unhappiness.
In our modern world, more people are obese than underweight. As a species, we’ve developed way past the point where scarcity was our biggest challenge, and we’re now faced with the counterintuitive problem of overabundance. There’s no bigger marker of that in the western world than the American Black Friday sales, an annual event that now stretches over multiple days and has extended into Europe and elsewhere. Black Friday is when you shop for everything you need and a great deal more besides. It’s the surfeit and excesses of Black Friday that I want to discuss in relation to Civilization 6.
The typical starting scenario in any Civilization game sees you taking charge of a small group of settlers looking to lay the foundations for a future empire. Once the first city is founded, each civilization starts out on its own path, whether that means arming up to pursue early conquests and fend off barbarians or focusing on cultural and scientific development first. Fending off marauding barbarians, I’m sure you’ll be aware by now, is a signature feature of any Black Friday doorbuster sale.
For me, Civ 6 has been the first game in the series where I’ve prioritized scouts for investigating as much of the map as early as I could, in order to know where those barbarians are and to benefit from encounters with friendly villagers along the way. In Black Friday terms, I’m scouting out each and every deal in order to know which ones will be most profitable for me to grab.
But the problem is that with more information comes the responsibility to capitalize on that extra intel and to optimize every action. If I found my second city just that little bit further out from the capital, I reason, I can harvest an extra banana plantation. If I push my third city just that little bit further out still, I can also secure precious gems and a source of sugar. It would be irresponsible not to be greedy in my development plans and leave that silver un-mined. What ends up happening is that my fear of missing out mixes with my abundance of information and leaves me with a fragmented empire that’s riddled with defensive vulnerabilities (or, in internet speak, FOMO + TMI = sad). I never do make it to the point of mining that silver because I’ve quit the game a few turns after overextending because my neighbors bothered to build an army.
At this point, you might be finding my analogy between Civ over-expansion and Black Friday sales tenuous, but at the heart of both ailments is the instinctive desire to not waste an opportunity. And yes, I consider the way Black Friday makes us act an ailment. China had its version of the shopping bonanza on November 11th, the so-called Singles Day, and the BBC has a good written account of the irrational “unstoppable hands” shopping that people did on the day. There’s such a fine line between rationally pursuing a good deal on something you need — whether it’s a new winter coat, an upgraded laptop, or some iron ore for your factories — and just blindly chasing deals for their own sake.
I finally achieved my first victory in Civ 6 this morning, following an all-nighter as Japan’s circumspect leader. I saw great riches on the map, and I saw competing civilizations threatening to grab them first, but I demured on diving in. I developed a plan around luxury resources and stuck to it. That meant leaving some cattle and sheep un-farmed on the map, but it also meant I survived until the happy end.
Black Friday can be an absolutely terrific time for shoppers. The Google Pixel, my pick for best smartphone right now, is being discounted for the big shopping day. Apple will be returning with a new slate of deals too. But Black Friday also earns its ominous name by prompting primitive and unthinking acquisitive behavior in us all. Black Friday makes us greedy for deals even when we don’t have any manifest need for a new blender, another set of speakers, or a three-piece luggage set (from a brand we’d never previously heard of, but dammit it’s too cheap not to). But if we resist and tame these urges, if we find our inner chill and remain clear-eyed in the face of all those slashed prices, then we can master Black Friday and make it work for us.