BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — When it comes to discussing simulation game designers, there are few names as famous as Sid Meier. With over 30 years of history in game design and programming, the man himself is known for plenty of games — ranging from projects like Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! to Sid Meier’s SimGolf, and even Sid Meier’s Pirates! (which is often quoted as one of the best pirate simulators ever released to this day). But none of these are as famous as his Civilization line, which set the groundwork for countless strategy and simulation games to come.

These classics feature the player taking up the role of the leader of one of the world’s many civilizations, competing against famous figures like Ghengis Khan, Frederick Barbarossa, and Teddy Roosevelt to assert scientific, cultural, religious, or military dominance against the rest of the world. In the past, it’s seen not only six major installations, but space-themed spinoffs, phone and tablet apps, and even board and tabletop games sporting the brand’s name and play style. Over the previous weeks, a seventh game has been announced, bringing a long-awaited new member of the franchise to the world.

With a game franchise as immortal as Civ, there are bound to be jokes and running gags in the community. One of these is not only a classic internet meme known not only by Civ players, but has gone down in history as one of the most infamous gaming jokes of all time: the tale of Nuclear Gandhi.

Any history buff can tell you that Mahatma Gandhi is known as the father of modern India, famous for his campaign of nonviolent resistance that liberated the country from British rule and would go on to inspire civil rights movements to this day. To this end, one would expect a video game version of Gandhi to act in a similarly pacifistic manner. However, in the case of Civilization, fans instead know Gandhi for his tendency to stockpile massive numbers of nuclear weapons — as well as his clear willingness to use them.

The exact history of this behavior is one that is shrouded in stories, game experiences, and confusion, but a fascinating one nonetheless. Join us as we descend into the odd rabbit hole that is the story of one of the most bizarre and beloved gaming ‘glitches’ of all time.

The Popular Story

As the legend goes, the origins of Gandhi’s sudden shift in personality came from a bug in the first games in the franchise (either Civilization or Civilization II, depending on the story). Back in these early editions, stories say that the Artificial Intelligence for the many leaders had a scale that rated their aggression on a scale of 1-10, from least to most aggressive. True to history, Gandhi was the only leader who boasted an aggression rating of 1, and thus would never lash out at others unless attacked first.

However, one of the possible options for Government in the game (Democracy) automatically reduced this level by two — and if Gandhi adopted it, Democracy would set his aggression value to -1. Because this level was stored in a system that could only measure values between 0 and 255, Gandhi’s aggression would loop around to the maximum, making him 25 times more aggressive than even the fiercest leaders. This would then cause the pacifist to pour all of his time and resources into making weapons of mass destruction, which he would quickly send flying toward everyone else in the game. The sheer hilarity of this recharacterized the legendary pacifist as a dangerous and reckless warmonger — one who was more than willing to bring his ideals of peace to the world using extreme violence.

An image of Gandhi from the earlier Civilization games.

The story continues by saying that while the bug was fixed, the developers enjoyed this glitch so much that they continued to implement it into future games going forward. The rest, as they say, is history — but is it the real story, or a revisionist work?

The True Story

While Gandhi’s explosive temper is stated to go back over 20 years, it never actually came into existence until the release of Civilization V in 2010– and even then, was not the result of a glitch, but instead a prank from lead game designer Jon Shafer.

To explain the origins of the meme, we need to consider how artificial intelligence performs actions in Civilization. Each leader in Civilization V has parameters on their artificial intelligence (ranging from 1-10) that dictate what they focus on building and using in the game when against a player. The higher the number on a unit or building, the more likely the leader is to place an emphasis on constructing it. As a further way to randomize things, Civilization 5 also adds values of +2 or -2 to any action in each game — meaning that even more militaristic empires can be more or less aggressive between matches.

Civilization 5 ‘Priority Parameters’. Note Ghandi’s absurdly high Nuke numbers.

While Gandhi is indeed one of the most pacifistic opponents, Shafter opted to set his parameters for the actions ‘Build Nuke’ and ‘Use Nuke’ to an over-the-limit rating of 12 — the highest of any leader by a long shot (most have a value between four and six, and the most aggressive have values of eight). Due to the limits on parameters, this means that even if Gandhi receives the-2 modifiers, his desire to create and use nuclear weapons will never be lower than the maximum value. Shafer would later confirm this was done deliberately as a joke, noting that “It’s fun to imagine that an Indian politician promoting Satyagraha (passive resistance) may have a desire to nuke his neighbors.”

The Fallout

Shortly after Civilization V’s release, Gandhi’s out-of-character behavior became a topic of discussion amongst players, and the topic was even picked up in online gaming articles and magazines. This led to the former conscientious objector receiving nicknames like ‘Gandhi, Destroyer of Worlds’. It was at this point that ‘Nuclear Gandhi’, as he became known, officially made his debut on the world stage.

The running gag was taken further in Civilization VI, which included a new ‘Hidden Agenda’ feature that continued to relegate the AI’s behavior. This mechanic gave each leader multiple randomized ‘secret interests’ that would affect their relationship with the player based on categories like army size, wealth, and culture. While many civilizations could secretly be ‘Nuke Happy’ (which makes a civilization more willing to use nuclear weapons and respect others who possess them), Gandhi has been given a much higher than average chance of it being his Hidden Agenda, at a whopping 70%. This confirms that the Nuclear Gandhi trend is one that’s been officially welcomed as a pantheon of Civilization’s culture, and presumably, one that will continue with the addition of new games to the lineup.

The confusion with the story, however, does not concern the more modern incarnations of the joke, but when — and if — Gandhi’s nuclear tendencies began to rear their head in earlier games. Stories regarding memories of an aggressive Gandhi from the very first Civilization games were spread across the internet in 2012, and are believed to have been ‘proven’ using a made-up wiki article on the topic. The story was then picked up by gaming websites, after which other individuals came forward to report that they had their own grievances with Gandhi’s AI in the olden days of Civ.

The Bomb is Dropped

In 2019, an investigation into the history of Gandhi’s nuclear tendencies was conducted by Chris Bratt, where he asked designers on the first games of the series about the glitch. When speaking to lead Civilization II game designer Brian Reynolds, the developer said that “Although it’s been around 20 years since I’ve seen the code, I can still tell you with 99.99% certainty that the Gandhi bug is completely apocryphal (doubtful).”

Reynolds stated that in Civ II, although it was true that Gandhi had the lowest possible aggression level in the game, there were only three to begin with, not ten or twelve — and thus, Gandhi shared his temperament with 1/3 of the other leaders. Reynolds also stated that based on his memories of the source code, there was no way that leaders could act more aggressively than their angry counterparts. Adding to this, the programming language that Civilization and Civilization II would not have permitted the aggression level to roll over from the minimum to the maximum level of anger– and furthermore, that government forms like Democracy did not actually affect AI aggressiveness at all.

These game values meant that technically speaking, Gandhi would typically use nukes at the same pace as more peaceful leaders like Abraham Lincoln. The idea of him doing so more often is believed by developers and hardcore players to have its roots in the fact that Gandhi’s pacifistic approach to the game allows him to dedicate more time to science and industry, thus reaching the ability to develop nuclear weapons earlier than other civilizations and having the resources necessary to rapidly build them when needed in times of war.

Eventually, the meme became so widespread that even Sid Meier himself acknowledged it, and would later go on to reference the joke in his memoirs. Meier would eventually state that the original story about the Gandhi glitch was fake, but he did enjoy the legend, stating the following:

“Given the limited technology of the time, the original Civ was in many ways a game that took place mainly in players’ imaginations, so I’d be reluctant to limit what that player can imagine by introducing too many of my thoughts.”

While we don’t know much about Civilization VII yet, it’s safe to say that many of the most famous players from history will probably be appearing once again — and that presumably includes the return of Gandhi. Whether he’ll be bringing his nuclear arsenal with him, though, remains to be seen. Still, we would recommend investing in some fallout shelters for your cities … just in case.