There's a lot of activities that will forever be linked with this period in my head, I think. Whether or not I carry on running post-lockdown, it'll be hard not to think of these weeks as the first time since university I ran 5km. I probably won't bake much in the future, but I know I'll be talking about those croissants I made from scratch for years. And I can't see how I don't end up deeply associating Civilisation VI with this time.
I have been playing an awful lot of Civilisation VI.
If you don't know the venerable series, Civilisation is the foremost example of 4X games – "explore, expand exploit and exterminate". More simply, it's the most popular digital board game there is. Starting with a single city in the ancient era, you grow an empire, meeting rivals and allies, and eventually expanding into the modern era where you compete to be the first to achieve one of a number of victories, from martial – conquering every opponent's capital city – to cultural – encouraging enough tourists to come to your country that you can claim to be the dominant culture of the world.
I could certainly spin a narrative about why the game appeals to me at this moment. A god's eye view of the world, and a game that spans millennia, serves to remind you that even a year in lockdown is a blink in the eye; the game's relentless focus on playing out a specific arc of history reassures you that the world is always progressing and setbacks are only temporary; the epic span of the games means that no matter what else you have, or haven't, achieved in a given week, you can at least see the global domination of the mighty Phoenician Empire as evidence that time has passed and you aren't stuck in Groundhog Day.
But honestly I think a good chunk of it is that the game runs on my laptop and offers asynchronous multiplayer. That is, I can take a turn, log-off, and wait a few hours for the other players in a game to take their turns. It's perfect for coffee breaks in the working day, replacing the fact that there's no cafe to go to, no pals to irritate, and no canal to go and sit by for lunch.
(Unfortunately, the asynchronous multiplayer is also one of the most hilariously broken features I've ever seen in a shipped AAA game. Nearly every aspect of it doesn't work properly, from the fact that a 60 second timer begins the moment a game lobby is formed, requiring the host to do every piece of set-up in that minute, to the inability to join nearly every public game due to an opaque error code. I'm genuinely astounded the feature shipped, but me and my friends have managed to get it almost working enough to have fun anyway.)
The single player game, to boot, is one of the unsung masters of compulsive gameplay – and I do mean that as the questionable complement it sounds. The first chunk of a game of civilisation is a masterful example of strategic tension playing out, as you engage in a slow-motion chess game with the civilisations near you, trying to seize the best spots for cities while avoiding outright conflict, and ensuring you carefully balance the growth of your existing cities with sending out settlers to found new ones.
Then it all slows down. By the mid game, as most of the map is explored, you'll spend more time waiting for other civilisations to take their turns than you will your own. The ability to queue up productions or set long distance move orders means that frequently, your turn will be nothing more than clicking "next turn".
And that's where the compulsion lies. There's always a countdown somewhere in your civilisation, promising an actual event in just a few turns time. The tech will finish researching in 8 turns! The wonder will be built in 12! If you just sit there clicking next turn for long enough, progress will occur!
In effect, what Civilisation VI is is one of the most graphically impressive idle games I've ever played.
You know idle games: exemplars of the form include Paperclip Simulator, Cookie Clicker, and NGU Idle. These are titles where the game plays itself, and the player's role is reduced to mildly tweaking some numbers to affect the rate at which it plays itself. The best examples, like those above, smuggle actual gameplay into those numbers, but all share the feature of spending hours of time with the game just… running, as numbers go up, and an illusory sense of progress builds.
It would be unfair to Civilisation VI to suggest that an idle game is all it is. The times at which I've stopped the numbers going up to play the actual game do reveal a deeply strategic strata, as does the fact that I'm repeatedly trounced by my friends online. I'm not very good at it, which might be because I treat it as a game where I click next until numbers go up.
But, look, if now isn't the time for me to stare at a screen as tiny people move around and numbers go up, when is?
Moving to the suburbs
According to a new economics paper, "Searches for moving to NYC suburbs are up almost 250% compared to the same period in 2019."
It's weird. I both completely understand the motivation, and absolutely don't fail to understand it. Right now, yes: I think there are few people living in the inner cities who wouldn't rather at least a suburban life. The normal advantages of high-density urban living are currently nullified. I'm closer to a tube station that will take me nowhere I want to go. I've got a wider selection of closed bars and restaurants near me. I can walk to a big supermarket, at least, but that's about it. For the most part, I simply live the same life as my suburban counterparts, but in a smaller house with no garden.
But my god, the idea of wanting to continue that after this is over is wild. I'm more keenly aware than I ever have been of the advantages of my normal life, of the wonderful amenities available within a walking distance of my front door, of the miraculous power of the London Underground to take me anywhere in the greatest city in the world for the price of a year's car insurance.
I know that this won't be over for a long time – "three more weeks of lockdown" understates the more likely "18 months of special measures". But unless we're expecting 2 Corona 2 Virus, I just can't see why you would move house because of this. It will, as Civilisation VI has taught me, pass.
Last week's email struck a chord with a lot of you. I'm glad, because I was worried it would mostly a self-indulgent moan about not going on holiday. Which it was, I guess, but we're all a bit entitled to that sort of moan right now.