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The week of March 27, 2016
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How a fluke video game called the Eternal War became a cultural phenomenon—and changed its creator

By Rosie Cima

In 2007, after his freshman year at the University of Texas San Antonio, James Moore dropped out. His mother, recently divorced, lived on a single income; even after selling her house, she couldn’t afford tuition.

Forced to drop out and already facing formidable student debt, Moore didn’t give up on his education. “I made it a goal of mine,” he says, “to do whatever I could to get back into a situation where I could attend school.” Now, almost nine years later, he’s 28, a sophomore, having finally saved the money to go back to college.

Along the way, he inadvertently created another world, a nightmarish dystopia existing alongside ours. It’s a world ravaged by relentless war, waged on a poisoned earth, with no end or hope in sight. It’s the kind of place where, as the saying goes, the living envy the dead.

It’s aptly called the Eternal War. To some, it’s just the weird result of a fluke in a retro computer game. To its fans, it’s a masterpiece of dystopian fiction, and some scholars say it will go down in history as a singular cultural event. But for James Moore, the Eternal War is a strange, sad world that helped him get through his tumultuous young adulthood.

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It all started in 2002, with a little game called Civilization II. It was the second in the Civilization—or “Civ”—series; Civ I had come out in 1991, Civ V was released in 2010. But Civ II was the 14-year-old Moore’s first-ever computer game. “We didn’t have a computer that could play games until I was a teenager,” he says. “Up until then I’d only played on consoles. Other than that pinball game that came with Windows ‘95.”

The game has a simple premise: Players start on Earth in the year 4000 BC, as stewards of a civilization. One turn at a time, the years roll by as you guide your people. Should you sow more crops or build infrastructure? Trade with a neighboring civilization or wage war to acquire resources and territory?

After each turn, you get to see the consequences of your decisions—and see how your opponents respond. (Civilization II has no multiplayer mode; you can only “play the computer.”) As gameplay progresses, so does the available technology: Spears become crossbows become rifles become rockets, horses become carriages become airplanes, trade becomes banking, mysticism becomes democracy. The game changes as you play; survive long enough and you’ll reach the 20th century: the age of space travel and nuclear war, when technological development stops.

A history buff, Moore picked up a habit of playing multiple Civilization games at once. He loved beginning new worlds and novel strategies for surviving in them. He loved watching chance foil him where he least expected it. And most of all he loved sitting back and watching each game unfold. “It’s nice to win,” he says, “But [mostly] I like to just see the world develop, to see it happen. I like to witness history.”

He played out many game histories, but one was not like the others. In its virtual future, the world reached a surprising stasis: three global superpowers—the Vikings, the Americans, and Moore’s state, “Celtania”—locked in a near-constant state of war. There’d be brief interludes of peace, Moore explains, then someone, either Moore or his computer-controlled opponents, would break the ceasefire, plunging the world into chaos.

“I like to just see the world develop, to see it happen. I like to witness history.”

He’d had played enough Civilization to know the future wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. After the year 2020, the players are scored and a frontrunner awarded, but you have the option to keep playing. Most games Moore had played beyond that point were eventually either won (by being the last nation standing) or lost (by being wiped off the map). The few stalemates he’d seen, he eventually abandoned when turns became so complicated that the game was practically unplayable. “At a certain point you’re watching hundred of units move, one move at a time,” he says. “If there are 80 stealth bombers on the map at once, it’s literally taking 15 minutes to watch their turn go by.”

This game was different. This dystopian future was so violent that pieces were being destroyed almost as quickly as they were being created. Which meant Moore could just keep playing to see what happened. Fascinated, he did. Whatever the tumult in his own life, he played. Sometimes he’d only touch it a few times a month; sometimes he’d binge on it, trying out new strategies to break the stalemate.

He transferred it from one computer to another, and took the game with him to college. He also took it with him when he left school and got a job in insurance.

He wasn’t especially called to insurance, he says, but saw it as a chance to work hard and make the money he need to go back to school. It seemed like a good strategy, even if it might’ve looked like a holding pattern. A company he’d already worked for—“essentially an outsourced call center”—had a new contract from a national insurance carrier. “I wanted to find a profession that didn’t necessarily require a college education,” he explains. “It was an opportunity. I applied for a position with them and went from there.

Over the rest of the decade, Moore worked his way up the corporate ladder, eventually establishing his own business selling property and casualty insurance. In the wider world, Bush exited the White House and Obama entered; MySpace gave way to Facebook; cellphones became ubiquitous only to be replaced by smartphones. Civilization III, IV, and V all came out. Moore bought newer games and waged other campaigns, but still he returned to Civ II and the Eternal War.

Celtania propaganda poster "Celtic Communism" by Reddit user Oliver_BM. "Bí Fiúntach" translates to "Be worthy."
Celtania propaganda poster "Celtic Communism" by Reddit user Oliver_BM. "Bí Fiúntach" translates to "Be worthy."

Then, in 2012, he decided to share his Eternal War with the Internet.

He was looking for help. Try as he might to break the stalemate, the war had persisted for almost two thousand in-game years. He’d transformed Celtania from a democracy into a communist dictatorship so he could better wage war against the Vikings and Americans. “I tried for a very long time to maintain democracy,” he says. “But it only hinders me having the Senate force these peace treaties down my throat. If I have a peace treaty enforced that means that I cannot attack my enemy force that I know is preparing to attack me.”

His citizens hated him, and were in frequent revolt; the other two superpowers were theocracies that similarly ruled through fear. Nuclear war had ravaged the world: much of the terrain was poisoned with fallout, which, along with other pollution, caused the ice caps to melt (several times over, “an abstraction, of course” Moore adds), flooding the rest of the world’s farmland. Every city was nearly deserted, and the earth’s meager population was starving.

He needed engineers to restore farmland, but all of his resources were poured into war, which seemed necessary to keep him in the game. So, in June of 2012, (3991 AD in the game), Moore wrote a Reddit post under his username “Lycerius”, describing his predicament. “I couldn’t sleep one night so I was playing the game and I just figured, well, this is pretty interesting,” he says. “I thought this would be a neat story. I typed it up due to a little bit of insomnia.”

“You’ve heard of the 100 year war? Try the 1700 year war,” he wrote. “My goal for the next few years is to try and end the war […] I want to rebuild the world. But I’m not sure how. If any of you old Civ II players have any advice, I’m listening.”

Reddit responded in force almost immediately. “Three or four hours later my post was just everywhere,” Moore remembers. “It was really incredible how fast it was disseminated and how quickly people took notice.” A new subreddit dedicated to the game appeared and gained thousands of members. Moore uploaded his save file so strangers could play his game and prototype strategies. Civilization buffs raced toward not just any solution, but the best solution. Others began generating art inspired by the dystopia in the game, including stylized Celtania propaganda posters, along with pages and pages of fiction set in Moore’s universe. “Apparently George Orwell was a time traveler,” wrote one Redditor, “and spent all his time in the future playing Civ II.”

“You’ve heard of the 100 year war? Try the 1700 year war.”

Moore’s game, and the frenzy around it, soon received coverage everywhere from Ars Technica to CNN. “There’s no way we could have tested for this, so it was a surprise to us,” Civilization’s creator, Sid Meier, told Mashable. “I can’t say that we ever thought anyone would play a game of Civ for that long.”

It was also a surprise to Henry Lowood, the Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and Film & Media Collections in the Stanford University Libraries. He’s long been involved in the preservation of computer games and virtual worlds. He and his team archived Moore’s game, and some of the Reddit discussion around it, as part of a project funded by the Library of Congress. (“I didn’t work through it myself,” he says, laughing. “The people who solved it are pretty intense Civilization players.”)

Lowood studies the cultural artifacts people make with and about computer games, and he knows there are a lot of them. There are forums in which people discuss characters, cheat codes, and strategies; real-currency marketplaces for items and properties in virtual worlds like Second Life; WarCraft celebrities streaming their gameplay on Twitch; and “machinima”—movies that build novel narratives using videogame animations, just to name a few.

He says the Eternal War is unique: It’s the biggest known case of somebody’s actual save file—their actual gameplay, not a video of it—going viral. “People tend to keep software, and their own games,” he says, “but there’s very little public documentation on actual replay. The oldest replay I know of for example that’s accessible that we were able to work with was one from Doom for 1994-95.”

The Eternal War intrigued Lowood because, as librarians, he and his colleagues think gameplay is very important. They’ve had some success in preserving the out-of-the-box games, but they think that the way people played these games will end up being just as, if not more, important. “A game’s not going to tell us anything about what people did with it,” he says. “If we save only the game software we’ll be able to play it in 100 years. The other interesting stuff is—how was it part of the culture 100 years from now? They’ll be interested in what people did in this really early stage in the development of digital media.”

As technology and licensing practices change, Lowood says sharing and saving gameplay is getting trickier. He and his colleagues are developing tools to ensure continued preservation; in the meantime they’re snatching up whatever they can find.

A game’s not going to tell us anything about what people did with it—100 years from now we want to know how it was part of the culture.

The Eternal War is a great example of the cultural importance of gameplay, Lowood says. Moore had done something so remarkable with his game that it was even interesting to a popular, contemporary audience. “If you read the Reddit boards,” Lowood said, “people saw the game as showing this dystopian future of what’s going to happen to the real world, when we use up all the resources and the only thing left is war.” Most people playing Civilization II in 2012 or 2002 didn’t know they could play the game that far in the future, or think anyone would ever want to. And, Lowood says, this would be a profound loss for historians.

A historian who only had an out-of-the-box copy of Civilization II would never know, for example, that a young man named James Moore found the game’s simulation of future warfare so compelling that he played through it for ten rather difficult years. They’d never know about his stubborn devotion to democracy, or the fact that—even when he had the resources to clean it up—he once let one of his ruined cities remain surrounded by nuclear fallout as a “monument” to remind him to be more aggressive. And they’d never know that thousands of strangers were enthralled by this game, made art about it, and banded together in a symbolic but earnest effort to redeem the simulated future and “save the world.”

Poster reading "fight for a better future," evocative of old Soviet propaganda posters
Celtania propaganda poster by Reddit user infectedmanz.

In the end, the Redditors won. One, going by the username “stumpster,” figured out a plan to win in “only” 58 in-game years. (Another redditor soon authored a fictional backstory, saying stumpster had lost both legs in “a Viking counter-offensive during the 568th battle of El Amein.”) The strategy devoted all material resources and manpower to constructing howitzer missiles and using them to wipe opponents off the map. Stumpster played the strategy out and uploaded his save file as evidence of his success.

Moore was impressed, writing, “Glory to Comrade Stumpster’s 58 year plan!” But he didn’t adopt the scorched-earth strategy. Since he shared the game with the world, he’s been more influenced by the work of fiction writers than of warmakers, and he’s chosen to preserve the global detente.

“The year is 4200 AD,” he wrote on Reddit in 2013. “The world is a nightmare of suffering and devastation. This has not changed. Two more centuries of war have yielded no victor. But of course this is now by design rather than stalemate.”

He also wrote, “I continue the story now simply to see the narrative play itself out. […] Consider if you will, what need would there be for my glorious Celtic Communist state to exist in a world at peace?”

“I have […] decided to fully embrace our inevitable Orwellian future. Or present, considering the headlines,” he added, citing among other things the then-recent NSA revelations, and Assad’s violence in Syria. Though the Eternal War has been cloned countless times over, its future played out in myriad ways, he still gets weekly requests for updates on his game.

Moore’s real life is sunnier than the of his tyrannical alter ego. In 2014, seven years after dropping out of school, he went back while continuing to work part time. In 2015 he was able to stop working and go to school full time. He’s at Northwest Vista College, in the fall will transfer to either UT Austin or Texas State. And after much deliberation he’s settled on a major: an interdisciplinary program called International Relations and Global Studies

“I’m studying something that fascinates me so I’m really having a great time with it,” he says.

He credits his experience as a gamer with some of his success. He says he’s only been able to go back to school as the delayed consequence of a very long-term strategy. That, he says, is something he learned from Civilization. “That’s really what the game is about,” he says, “executing a long-term plan.”

All those hours building up forces or planning in-game attacks were like his real-life years saving up money and working long hours selling insurance.

“The game has taught me that I can be very patient,” he says with a chuckle. The Eternal War continues, locked in an intentional stalemate, but Moore has reached the goal he set ten years ago. “I’m finally at a place in life I’ve been aiming at for a decade and I couldn’t be happier.”

Illustration via J. Longo