21st: Hail, Sargon!

"Age of Empires" lets you run your own civilization -- and even learn a thing or two along the way.

By Andrew Leonard
Published December 18, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Ever since I read Lord Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib" in a high school "Brit Lit" class, the specter of those Assyrian cohorts -- poised to rain death down upon Jerusalem -- has lingered in my imagination. I had always been an ancient history geek, a card-carrying Junior Classical League member who studied Latin and preferred the unabridged version of Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." But nothing captured the stark and awesome power of bygone imperial legends quite so vividly as did Byron's grandiose poetry.

Nothing, that is, until Microsoft's "Age of Empires," a new computer game bound to stir the dreams of despot wannabes everywhere. Hear the war elephants trumpet as they trample across enemy fortifications! See the trireme galleys fire their catapults! Marvel at the chariot steeds stamping their hooves!

I knew, when I first saw my cohort of Assyrian chariot archers line themselves into a crescent and start firing flaming arrows at a Hittite guard tower, that I was hooked. Knowingly or not, the "Age of Empires" designers had plugged directly into my Byronic vision. If Cecil B. DeMille could have created a computer game, it would have looked something like this.

But graphics alone do not a good game make. Indeed, an emphasis on memory-hogging graphical fireworks at the expense of gripping game play has been a game-industry bugaboo for years. What makes "Age of Empires" work is the decisions it forces and choices it permits as it puts you in charge of baby civilizations and asks you to shepherd them to imperial grandeur. How many villagers does one allocate to gold mining instead of wood-cutting? When's the best time to train a priest or invent the wheel? Shall I be a Minoan sea power or an Egyptian pharaoh? A builder of Parthenons or Temples to Confucius? One can emulate Alexander the Great -- or eschew military escapades altogether.

"Age of Empires," for example, offers players a choice among 12 cultures (ranging from familiar old Greeks and Persians to the more exotic Shang of China and Yamato of Japan) that can be nurtured from Stone Age hunter-gatherers to mighty Iron Age civilizations. Each culture has different attributes and different capabilities: The Egyptians can't build catapults; the Yamato are distinctly lacking in war elephant technology.

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Ever since I spent hours of my youthful afternoons and weekends rolling
dice and pushing little squares of cardboard across paper maps representing
battlefields from Carthage to Constantinople, I've been a sucker for a
well-executed "god game." And I'll even concede that "Age of Empire's"
relative cleverness, judged by itself, is no earthshaking affair. There's
probably a limited supply of megalomaniacs who delight in both the
micromanagement aspects necessary for successful empire building and in
the gorier details of massed cavalry charges and hand-to-hand combat
between phalanx spearmen and sword-wielding centurions. (Although maybe not
that limited -- a recent Microsoft press release claims that 650,000 units
of "Age of Empires" have been shipped since its Oct. 31 launch.)

But in the larger context of cultural entertainment, one can argue that
a game like "Age of Empires" is significant. It isn't the only good computer
game in the marketplace. But it is the most recent proof that computer
games are continuing to improve and continuing to become a more and more
attractive magnet for consumer entertainment dollars.

And that has a number of people worried. There are critics (among whom
one could probably count my wife, and soon my 3-year-old) who believe
that computer games are the ultimate escapist joyride -- a giant
productivity sinkhole whose maw keeps widening. In the view of such
critics, a better game is an even bigger threat. Whither our own
civilization, when every able-bodied citizen is paralyzed in the basement,
hands locked around a joystick? Will modern empires collapse because of
too much time spent reliving the glories of our predecessors?

Perhaps not. The most intriguing thing about "Age of Empires" is how it
weaves real historical information and experience into game play. "Age of
Empires" can teach as it captivates. If, for example, an "Age of Empires"
player chooses to play the Shang, he or she will discover that new Shang
"villagers" require less food than do new Phoenicians or Babylonians. And
Shang villagers turn out to be capable of building particularly strong

There, in a nutshell, is the key to the historical Chinese rise to
power: Build a lot of walls and depend heavily on peasant labor. Similarly,
Minoans and Greeks are great ship builders. "Age of Empires" even includes,
as part of its online help system, a 40,000-word primer on ancient

But "Age of Empires" isn't exactly 100 percent historically accurate. The
very possibility of an ancient Greek "centurion" is a historical atrocity,
but you can march them off into battle in "Age of Empires" -- directly
against Shang "hoplites." The game could use more historical detail:
Personally, I'd rather my Chinese peasant farmers waded thigh deep through
emerald green rice paddies rather than hoeing away at square fields just
like all the other imperial peons.

Bruce Shelley, a lead designer on "Age of Empires" (and, in a previous
incarnation, a designer who worked on the influential "Age of Empires"
predecessor, "Civilization"), shrugged off the historical inaccuracies in one
interview, arguing that it is important not to let attention to detail get
in the way of good game play. But Shelley, as he emphasized that computer
games are "entertainment" and not history texts, is ignoring the salient
point -- whether we approve or not, computer games, as they grow in
popularity and break out of the teenage-boy ghetto, could become as
significant a vehicle for informing the public about the world at large as
are movies and television and books and newspapers.

And, as computer games are increasingly played online, they may even
become one more interface directly connecting us to our civilization's
stored body of knowledge. This doesn't necessarily mean that games will
replace books or documentaries as a distribution channel for historical
information. But at the very least, they can play a stimulative or
interactive role in pointing us toward what we need or want to know.

I myself felt impelled to do some reading on the Assyrian Empire after a
few hours spent impersonating Sargon II. I read the full text of Byron's
poem and discovered that I had repressed the fact that the poem, far from
glorifying the Assyrian might, is actually about the divine destruction,
via plague, of the Assyrian army the night before it was about to sack
Jerusalem. Further research then informed me that said destruction never
took place -- Sennacherib, Sargon's son, conquered most of Palestine and
exacted heavy tribute from Jerusalem.

I used an encyclopedia, the Web and Norton's Anthology of English
Literature to make my discoveries. Perhaps one day, as I take a breath from
game play, I'll just click straight from inside the game. And, just
possibly, the best games will encourage me to do so.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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