January 29, 2001

Finding a motivation for conquering the world

Josh Renaud

If there's one thing I love, it's taking over the world.

Ever since my mom can remember, she says, I always used to play games that ended in me becoming the almighty ruler, by corporate, military, or political means. Apparently I wasn't picky.

As I grew older, this desire for conquest led me to get involved in strategy online and board games.

One of my favorites was Solar Realms Elite, an online game where you build an empire. The game allows you to grow, trade, invest money, build a military, and even perform intelligence operations. But the secret to this game is not how strong your military is--it's in how persuasive you are and how effectively you can get other empires to follow you. If you can build an alliance, you will become the most powerful.

You can't ever "win" SRE, because the game can continue forever, if you let it. It's like the real world. The Romans didn't exclaim "We Won!" and then put away their armor, tear down their fortifications, and hang up an award certificate after they conquered much of the world. Instead, they held power for a while, then they collapsed. They were followed by other rulers.

In SRE, then, your gratification doesn't come from one "win." In standard games, which can last months or even years, your goal is to hold power the longest. Depending on your persona (good or evil), you might also like to be known as the most feared or the most revered ruler.

A former Current staffer and good friend of mine laughed when I once described the game for him. He thought it was funny I was playing a game that I couldn't actually win. "What's the point of that?" he asked.

SRE does mimic the history of world empires in some ways. I think it also parallels individual human motivation. After all, people spend a lot of time considering the question "Why am I here?" The answer to some is to make a lasting mark on history, to be remembered for being very good or very bad.

It seems to me that the quest to be remembered, to make an impact on history, is just as fruitless as my little online game. Life won't stop and throw us a giant victory party and declare us the ultimate winners. It will just keep plugging on until we are forgotten.

But that doesn't make the game any less enjoyable to play. It just makes you look for motivation from somewhere else.

This article was reprinted with permission from The Current.

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