Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths

Jonathan McCalmont @ 02-03-2011

0. A Tendentious History of Strategy Games Leading Up To A Question

All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.

– Chuck Palahniuk

Some video games require greater imaginative leaps than others. For example, games like Pong (1972) and Space Invaders (1978) were so graphically primitive that the gap between the things on the screen and the things they were supposed to represent could only be crossed with the use of a rocket-cycle; this collection of squares over here is an alien. That collection of squares over there is Earth’s last line of defence. The little squares moving up and down are particle weapons… or possibly missiles… or shoeboxes filled with explosive. It was difficult to tell.

As technology improved, playing video games started to require smaller and smaller imaginative leaps. Not only did the things on the screen start to resemble things in the world, they also acquired enough rudimentary artificial intelligence to make them different to both toys (who require our imagination to take on any life) and the characters in films and books (whose life depends upon the imagination of the author not the reader). Video game characters were now their own class of being. One of the first games to draw our attention to the philosophical implications of our relationship with video game characters was David Crane and Rich Gold’s Little Computer People (1985).

Little Computer People screengrabRather than allowing us to directly control an on-screen character, Little Computer People placed us in the position of social scientists or observers looking in on a world that would quite happily continue to tick over without us. The game opened with an empty three-storey house. Eventually, a character moved into this house and set about his day-to-day routine largely oblivious to the fact that he was being observed. Our only means of interacting with the character was through a typewriter that we could use to make suggestions or initiate games of poker. Sometimes, the on-screen character would approach us to ask for something but there were no victory conditions or goals to achieve. Much like real life, the life of the little computer person just kept on keeping on.

Fast forward a few years and Peter Molyneux was investing the money he had made designing database software into a company named Bullfrog Productions. Bullfrog’s second game was the ground-breaking Populous (1989), a game that placed you not in the role of a social scientist or a voyeur but of a god, with a vested interest in building up your flock of worshippers and having them wage brutal and bloody war on the followers of your rival gods in order to make you humanity’s sole divinity. Much like Little Computer People, Populous placed the players apart from the creatures of the game and encouraged us to look down upon them with a strange mixture of curiosity, rapacity and protectiveness. Yes, these were ‘Our People’ — but because they were Our People, that meant that we could do what we wanted with them. Molyneux continued to develop this theme with the less well known but arguably better Powermonger (1990). Powermonger cast the players in the role of “Captain”. One of many rival wannabe warlords, the Captain began the game with a group of followers and had to move from village to village coercing the inhabitants into providing your army with resources in the shape of food, weapons or men. Again, the inhabitants of Molyneux’s virtual world possessed a degree of autonomy but the aim of the game was to bend that autonomy to our will and force it to pursue our goals and enact our desires.

Cloaked as they were in the trappings of religion and medieval warfare, it was all too easy to overlook the morally dubious nature of the games’ relationship between players and in-game characters. Indeed, it was not until the release of Bullfrog’s Syndicate (1993) that the political savagery of the strategy genre became fully apparent. Stripped of the moral fig leaf of historical context, Syndicate asked us to assume to role of a corporate CEO who used cybernetically enhanced slaves to battle rival CEOs for control over a virtual environment that enslaved the entire human race. For the first time, players were asked to embody not mythical beings or historical princes but ruthlessly exploitative capitalist tyrants. The fact that playing a corporation was no different to playing a god or a warlord merely served to drive home the moral message: You are a complete bastard.

Since the early days of Bullfrog on the Amiga, the god-like genre has bloomed into a veritable garden of subtly differing and interlocking sub-genres. At one end of the spectrum we have the manic tactical scrambling of Real Time Strategy (RTS) games such as Mega Lo Mania (1991) and Command and Conquer (1995). These games position the player quite close to the action allowing them to control in-game characters right down to the level of individual men as they rush to capture resources and produce military units before their rivals can acquire sufficient materials and units to allow them to wipe out the player’s forces.

At the other end of the spectrum we have turn-based Grand Strategy titles such as Europa Universalis III (2007). These games offer us detached imperial vistas in which individual characters exist only as statistical functions. Battles take place in an entirely abstract realm of numbers and even great generals exist solely to maximise the effectiveness of particular units and armies. In between these two poles there exist myriad different hybrid forms including games like the Total War franchise that combine Grand Strategy phases with RTS battles and the infamous Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate (4X) sub-genre which includes classic games like the Civilization and Master of Orion series.

What all of these games have in common is a tendency to make even the most liberal of gamers behave like brutal tyrants. For the player of strategy games, little computer people serve only as a means to an end. We do not care about whether or not our little computer people are happy, we only care about whether or not they are productive. If they are not productive then they are in our way and little computer people who get in the way of their players tend to wind up brutalised, enslaved and dead.

strategy game screenshotStrategy gamers are all bastards… but while this state of affairs cannot be doubted, it can be explained.

In a recent article for The American Prospect entitled “Moral Combat – Why do Liberals Play Computer Games Like Conservatives?”, Monica Potts claims that she is not in the least bit responsible for throwing away her liberal principles the second she sits down in front of a computer:

I’m not the one who made Sim cities run more smoothly if underpaid workers are lulled into submission and Sim households more entertaining if moms stay home–the games’ designer, Will Wright, did. Civilization was not created by Wright but is similarly rigged.

Potts is quite correct; she is not the person who decided that Sim cities run more smoothly if workers are oppressed. However, she is the person who decided that her Sim city needed to run smoothly. ‘Smoothness’ is not a human value, as the efficiency of an entire city or civilisation really does not matter to an individual human being. ‘Smoothness’ is an aesthetic value that only becomes apparent when you detach yourself from the limited viewpoint of an individual human in order to look at the world from a detached perspective.

It is my contention that the tendency of strategy games to turn even the woolliest of liberals into ravening tyrants is a result of a perspective that the games foist upon us. It is the same perspective that politicians have foisted upon them when they gain power. Indeed, strategy games turn liberals into fascists for the same reason that becoming President turns liberal Democratic Presidential candidates into soul-less autocrats who order air strikes on villages, turn a blind eye to torture and send the national guard to deal with people who have been flooded out of their homes. People placed in positions of power do not become authoritarian because the system is ‘rigged’, they become authoritarian because in order to control a state they have to see the world like a state — and the state cares no more for individual humans than we do for the individual cells in our bodies.

1: How Not to See Like A Human

We look at the world through eyes of ancient mud

– John Gray

One of the greatest errors to have been made in the history of human culture and philosophy is the idea that the human point of view on the world is in some way unique or sacred. Bacteria respond to changes in their environment, trees release volatiles into the environment that allows them to exchange information with other trees while even small animals and birds can carry grim tidings of earthquake and cataclysm. All around us, creatures are not just experiencing the world, they are communicating about it and reacting to it. The way in which we see the world is but one of many viewpoints on it. This viewpoint is necessarily a limited one.

As the philosopher John Gray argues in Straw Dogs (2002) “truth has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error”. Evolution does not select for a mystical ability to see the world on its own terms, instead it selects for an ability to perceive and react to those factors that are likely to directly impact the organism’s ability to survive and reproduce. Our field of vision is sharp but extremely narrow and we are just as individually blind to the economic efficiency of our society and the ‘smoothness’ of our inter-group dynamics as dogs are to how fashionably we are dressed and plants are to whether or not a particular female cat is in season. There was never any evolutionary advantage in being able to directly perceive reality and so our perception of it is censored by in the best interests of our genes.

Articles such as Monica Potts’ “Moral Combat” and Jorge Albor’s “Barbarians at the Gates” are expressions of horror at the fact that, when we are called upon to act as a state, we cease to see the world through human eyes and human values. However, in order to understand how it is that states cast a spell over their human agents, we must first understand what it is like to see the world through the eyes of a state.

2: How to See Like a State

Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states

– Hans J. Morgenthau

Seeing Like A State by James M ScottIn his ground breaking analysis of the short-comings of centralised state planning Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998), James C. Scott argues that the history of the modern nation state is a history of perception. Early states were weak and inefficient because the state lacked the means of gaining a clear idea of what resources it had at its disposal.

For example, in the medieval era, forests were many things. They were sources of timber, they were places to live, they were places to hunt and they were places where bandits might hide. However, while medieval forests were all these things and more to many people, the people called upon to administer the forests saw them as simply numbers on a balance sheet. In order to improve these numbers, the people administering the forests set about gaining a better understanding of the ways in which forests yielded financial returns; did they have the most high-yielding trees? Were the trees planted in such a way that they could be easily harvested? Was the forest close to any trading posts where the lumber it produced might be sold? As the administration’s field of vision sharpened, so too did it narrow and soon, in the eyes of the feudal owners of the forests, forests were nothing more than sources of timber. All other aspects of the forest simply ceased to matter. They were invisible to the state. As Scott puts it:

State agents have no interest – nor should they – in describing an entire social reality, any more than the scientific forester has an interest in describing the ecology of a forest in detail. Their abstractions and simplifications are disciplined by a small number of objectives, and until the nineteenth century the most prominent of these were typically taxation, political control, and proscription. They needed only the techniques and understanding that were adequate to these tasks.

Much like plants, animals and humans, states only perceive those things that have a direct impact upon their survival. However, because states have the potential not merely to react to the world but also to shape it pro-actively, the state can also reshape the world to fit its somewhat narrow perceptive field. Indeed, Scott’s book shows how local languages, local systems of measurement and organic forms of urban development were all transformed in the interests of the state. At one point, Scott draws a stark contrast between the organic chaos of medieval Bruges and the grid-like baroque order of 19th Century Chicago:

The visual power of the baroque city was underwritten by scrupulous attention to the military security of the prince from internal as well as external enemies. Thus both Alberti and Palladio thought of main thoroughfares as military roads (viae militaires). Such roads had to be straight and, in Palladio’s view, “the ways will be more convenient if they are made everywhere equal: that is to say that there will be no part in them where armies may not easily march”.

This top-down approach to urban planning reflects a shift in perception that accompanied the rise of the modern nation state. If we consider the warren-like chaos of a medieval city we will note that its streets, though difficult to represent on a map, make perfect sense to the people who live on them. The number of houses, the positions of the buildings and the widths of the streets are shaped by time and the individual human users of the space. It is not until the advent of the modern nation state, with its desire for central planning and centralised military security, that all of these human concerns are replaced by the god-like needs and perceptions of the state. It is not that these human needs and preferences have ceased to exist, it is simply that the state and its human agents cannot perceive them – and so they make the world more efficient by rebuilding it according to the values and perceptions of the state.

State officials can often make their categories stick and impose their simplifications, because the state – of all institutions – is best equipped to insist on treating people according to its schemata. Thus categories that may have begun as the artificial inventions of cadastral surveyors, census takers, judges, or police officers can end by becoming categories that organize people’s daily experience precisely because they are embedded in state-created institutions that structure that experience. The economic plan, survey map, record of ownership, forest management plan, classification of ethnicity, passbook, arrest record, and map of political boundaries acquire their force from the fact that these synoptic data are the points of departure for reality as state officials apprehend and shape it. In dictatorial settings, where there is no effective way to assert another reality, fictitious facts-on-paper can often be made eventually to prevail on the ground, because it is on behalf of such pieces of paper that police and army are deployed.

The history of the Twentieth Century is the history of the state forming its own realities. Between 1959 and 1962, 30 Million Chinese people starved to death because of a famine caused by the short-sightedness of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. In Tanzania, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Kenya and Uganda hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes and forced into collectivised farms as part of a process of social restructuring known as Villagization. In the 1970s – through a combination of execution, starvation and disease – the Khmer Rouge caused the death of up to 3 Million people out of a Cambodian population estimated at between 6 and 7 Million.

Each of these schemes was implemented on the basis of sound scientific thinking and complete indifference to human suffering. This mind-set is identical to the one required to do well in your average strategy game. Strategy games are about seeing the world through the eyes of the state – and when we do so, we see only that which matters to the state: values such as ‘stability’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘smoothness’.

Civ 5 screenshotThis is why we turn into ruthless bastards the second we sit down to play Civ V (2010). The fact that strategy games do not in any way connect with real human lives only helps the process of abstraction that allows us to see the world in this different way. This also explains why strategy gamers tend to be far more psychopathic than even the most ruthless of real world tyrants; tyrants cannot see the human consequences of their actions because the state does not see them. Game players do not see the human consequences of their actions because there simply are none to be seen. It takes a special kind of person to complete embrace the state’s vision of the world and, thankfully, not all politicians are capable of it.

However, while the state’s eye-view may account for the process of moral detachment involved in getting to grips with a good strategy game, it does not explain why we, as humans, should want to exchange our limited viewpoint on the world for that of another class of entity. One answer to this complex question is that the world makes a lot more sense when we look at it through the eyes of a state.

3: Re-Enchanting the World using Nuclear Weapons and Wikipedia

Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. – David Foster Wallace

Referred to alternately as the Death of God by Nietzsche and the Disenchantment of the World by Weber and Schiller, the modern world stands only too painfully aware that it has lost its place in the Great Chain of Being. Where humans of previous eras knew both the moral law and the meaning of life, modern humans stand paralysed by choice. Gripped with existential vertigo we struggle with our freedom as we try to work out who we are, what we should do and what it all means. As Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly put it in All Things Shining (2011):

When they wonder whether they want to become doctors or lawyers, investment bankers or philosophers, when they try to decide whether to major in this or that, when they ask themselves whether they want to advocate liberal or conservative political positions, or associate themselves with a place of worship, or remain faithful to their boyfriend or girlfriend back home – all of these questions ultimately lead them back to the basic one: On what basis should I make this choice?

This same sense of paralysis grips those humans who reach positions of power. Their actions lent gravity by the power of the state, they now have to cope with the question of how to make a decision that might impact millions of lives. The most obvious solution is to surrender to the way that the state sees the world and to allow its deep but narrow field of vision to make all of those troublesome factors disappear.

Man, the State, and War by Kenneth WaltzOne of the most influential works of 20th political theory is Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War (1959). In this book, Waltz argues that while the actions and personalities of individual politicians and political cultures may help us to explain the causes of particular incidents, a true grasp of international politics is only possible when we stop seeing the world in terms of people and start seeing it in terms of states. Waltz describes the system of the world in terms that are fiercely reminiscent of Hobbes’s image of the human state of nature. For Waltz, states exist in an anarchic wasteland devoid of both transcendent values and authority figures. In the international system, there are no laws and there are no lawmakers. There is only power and fear and war.

For a politician, the stripped-back simplicity of Waltz’s Realism must come as a relief. Suddenly, they no longer have to worry about human values and internal political concerns. They can act on the basis of the National Interest, which guides them and allows them to make meaningful decisions. To act in the National Interest is to escape the paralysing fear of freedom that lies at the heart of the modern world. To see with the eyes of a state is to transcend the human condition and escape our lot in life. When seen from this perspective, the Groupthink displayed in the run-up to the Iraq War was not an administrative failure but an act of spiritual communion. As Erich Fromm said of medieval society in Escape from Freedom (1941):

A person was not free in the modern sense, neither was he alone and isolated. In having a distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole, and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need for doubt.

New Model Army by Adam RobertsThe idea that surrendering to a bureaucratic mind-set is comparable to spiritual transcendence underpins Adam Roberts’ science fiction novel New Model Army (2010). Set in the near future, the book chronicles the rise of a type of mercenary company that operates without internal hierarchies. In place of officers and chains of command, the companies have a complicated online infrastructure made up of interlinking wikis, chatrooms and voice channels. This infrastructure allows the company to react to the world in real time and as a close to perfect democracy. However, as the book progresses it becomes increasingly clear that these mercenary companies are more than just collections of individuals. Lacking any centralised source of authority or agency, the companies gain their individual character from the collective actions and decisions of their members who happily subordinate their individual desires to the will of the group. Thinking, seeing and acting as a single unit, the companies soon emerge as a class of entity in their own right: a new form of life that Roberts calls a Giant.

Brain is network, is a network, Brain is not the equivalent to Mind. Neurons cannot make themselves newer ones. I. The etymology of the word conscious is Latinian, Latian, Latin: conscious which meaneth common knowledge, having knowledge in common – as common-ous and conscious are in their seeds the same word – to be cognizant of. I am knowledge, I have the, I, I have the internet entire as my memory. Con meaneth with, and chile con carne, or carne con scientia, and science is knowledge. These words all contain one another.

Though obviously rendered through the lens of science fiction, Roberts’s account of the emergence of the Giants is based on the same vision of human nature as the one I am proposing. Roberts’s characters subordinate their desires to the will of the Giant for the same reason that politicians abandon their individual morality and judgement in favour of what Cardinal Richelieu once called ‘Raisons D’Etat’: faced with the unbearable tension between a meaningless life and the need to make decisions, they flex their spiritual muscles and seek a means of escape. The same escape we feel whenever we give ourselves up to a good strategy game.

Tree and Leaf by J R R TolkienIn his essay “On Fairy Stories” (1939), J.R.R. Tolkien mounts a defence not only of the fairy story but of escapism as a whole. Far from being a simple retreat from the real world into a place filled with comforting certainties, Tolkien depicts escapism as the heroic action of a species brought low by modern times:

Why should we not escape from or condemn the ‘grim Assyrian’ absurdity of top-hats. Or the Morlockian horror of factories?

Rejecting Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Suspension of Disbelief as a way of engaging with the fictitious, Tolkien places humanity in the position of self-redeeming gods. By creating secondary worlds, humanity grants itself a brief moment of consolation, a small respite from the existential vertigo.

The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of the world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to the question ‘Is it true?’ The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): ‘If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.

While there is no meaning to be found in the real world, we can still construct fictitious worlds in which meaning has a place, where moral choices are simple and our actions make sense. We can escape to these worlds and so feel the warm glow of consolation whilst also realising that the consolation, much like the world, is the product of our imaginations. Strategy games help us to escape to a world dominated by rules that are just as objective as they are easy to learn; they help us to embody a different class of being and so feel the consolation of victory whilst remaining fully aware that all of this is entirely imaginary. Like the first snows of winter, truth lies on the human mind in a wide array of depths. Some truths are deep enough to swallow us up to the waist, while others barely wet the soles of our shoes.

Politicians feel this same urge for transcendence and escape. They feel the need to surrender themselves completely to the simple world that washes up against the retina of their bureaucracy. They feel the need to experience the consolation that comes from the shallow truths of escapist fictions. But while both acts of surrender are fuelled by the imagination, only those of the politician have real world repercussions. Indeed, it is perfectly acceptable and understandable to be a bastard when you can log off and go back to seeing the world through human eyes… but when your desire to free yourself from the complexities of the real world has a human cost, then you truly are a complete bastard.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK.  His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector.  He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.

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22 Responses to “Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths”

  1. Darren T says:

    That was all rather fascinating. So when Blair dragged us into the current round of treasury-emptying conflicts (quick aside: Jo and I have it on good authority – from a guide at the National Memorial Aroboretum – that the UK hasn’t been at war with anyone since 1945 – everything since then has been a “conflict” for some reason…) was that a case of his own self-aggrandising super-ego over-riding his state-based perspective? Or was it a case of the state’s position being that the cost to the UK (financially and in terms of lives lost and ruined) was worth paying in order to maintain ties to the world’s last remaining super-state, something like that?

  2. Athena Andreadis says:

    Along these lines, I don’t know if you’ve been following the Penny Arcade dustup, which shows how quickly gamers can turn into aggressive jerks in real life extensions of gaming:

    http://thephoenix.com/Boston/life/116456-gaming-rape-culture-and-how-i-stopped-reading-pe/

  3. ShaunCG says:

    Wow, a particularly excellent column this month! This one really resonates with me as I’m a big fan of strategy games, but have felt uncomfortable about many such titles whenever I’ve considered them beyond the abstract scenarios they portray. The most memorable example was when I was volunteering for an anarchist freesheet and simultaneously addicted to Imperium Galactica 2.

    I recall seeing a socialist website some time ago where they reviewed games and their approach to them was, to me at the time, unique; analysing the way in which they faithfully reproduce the fictions of reigning economic or political orthodoxy. It seems to me that there is a huge amount of space here for indie strategy developers to explore.

  4. ghost4 says:

    This is all very fascinating, but what does it have to do with video games? As you yourself said: “Game players do not see the human consequences of their actions because there simply are none to be seen.”

    It’s a video game, a simulation. There are no consequences for anything, and few of these simulations model things like the happiness of an individual citizen. This article has really nothing at all to do with video games, so I don’t know why you even mentioned them.

    “One of the greatest errors to have been made in the history of human culture and philosophy is the idea that the human point of view on the world is in some way unique or sacred.”

    There is no point of view but the human one. Bacteria do not have a point of view.

  5. Jonathan M says:

    Hi all :-)

    Darren — I’d say that there’s a degree of psychological complexity involved in surrendering oneself to the vision of the state. Some politicians do it gladly and, when it all explodes in their faces, point to the narrowness of the state’s vision and say that they were doing their best whereas others (like Louis the XIV) think that they are the state and so use the apparatus of the state to impose their viewpoint on things. There’s probably a book to be written about that but I don’t think I’m the one to write it :-)

    Ghost — Games are simulations and as such abstract from reality. The institutions of the state also abstract from reality and so there’s a degree of similarity there and I think the fact that liberals play Civ V like Hawkish nazis explains a good deal about why every Democratic president has swung hard to the right on foreign policy the second they step into office. It’s like they’re sitting down to their own personal version of Civ… all that human stuff simply disappears.

    Video games don’t exist in a bubble. By writing and thinking about video games we can learn not only about games but about the world.

  6. garik16 says:

    I’m going to defend RTSes from this article here:

    Take a classic strategy game: Chess. In it, your pieces are, like in RTSes and other video games mentioned above, simply means to an end: victory. As such, standard strategies involve trading pieces to gain advantage in position, or even sacrificing such pieces for lesser value. In fact, to win the game at any non-childish level, such sacrifices are NECESSARY for victory.

    Does that make one heartless, a brutal psychopath, because we’re willing to sacrifice all of our pawns to protect and preserve the royalty? Not really. Like you’ve said, the “pawns” are not people.

    But what if we’re talking about generals of opposing sides in a real war, that seem to command forces that are equally matched? Well like chess, like an RTS, etc, a general WILL make such sacrifices to win the day! In essence, this isn’t anything non-normal.

    RTS-es are particularly odd at times in that they’re forgiving of you for sacrificing pieces (units) unnecessarily against a computer. But when you play them against other individuals, they’re essentially no different from chess. Sacrifices are necessary, just as in the real world, but they only can reasonably be used to promote the greater good of victory. This doesn’t make one a bastard…..just a commander.

  7. Binyavanga Wainaina says:

    Kenya never had a villagisation policy, or practice. Nor did Uganda.

  8. Wintermute says:

    While I agree there is perspective shift in assuming a position of power, I disagree that it is necessarily a shift into “the states’” perspective and I think that the situation is more complex than suggested here.

    Firstly, I don’t think it’s a feature of strategy games in particular that causes gameplay that might be abhorrent if the pixels were real people, because it’s not just strategy games in which people do appalling, repulsive things. There are enough FPS clones to fill a Pentagon mainframe out there, wherein the sole purpose of the game is the wholesale slaughter of other human beings, in photo-real detail. There are games where you play serial killers, rapists, sandbox games where you can become either the Campbellian mythic hero, saving humanity from certain destruction or the ultimate “bastard”, enslaving the entire human race, and every other race too, under your all-seeing eye, a la Fable. The key element here is that a game is fiction, it’s entertainment. Mundane goody-two-shoes worlds where people just tie their suits, go to work and make money to maintain their 1.4 kids and 10,000 square foot lawns, where states live in eternal utopic peace and harmony, where war-room roundtable meetings consists of quarterly reports on the increase in sales of sporting footwear or guantlets in Germany and continuing sunny relations with BRIC countries, these worlds make poor games because they lack conflict and drama. They’re boring. They make poor fiction. And most people are capable of separating entertaining fiction from serious reality, so I feel that it’s not entirely fair to say that people playing games are “behaving like brutal psychopaths”.

    Nearly everyone and their pre-boomer grandma I’d wager has viewed a fair share of movies, played games, read books full of genocidal warlords, ruthless Machiavellian autocrats, serial killers, pro-torture gangsters, murderous housewives, et. al., yet we don’t see any empirical evidence suggesting correlations between psychopaths and experience of violent media. People don’t make decisions in games based on what they’d do in reality, either. As in Fallout 3, where people can play through as righteous Megaton-saving, kitten hugging paladins of righteousness, and on another run-through, play “bad” characters, nuking Megaton for profit, killing anyone who gets in the way of completing a quest and scoring loot like psychopaths. They’re roleplaying characters, not making life-changing moral decisions in reality. By your logic, these people should all go out and kill their coworkers secretly to bump themselves up in line for promotions.

    Having your SCVs sit around, hug and kiss, read poetry to one another, and make snow angels in their collected minerals and vespene gas is not only not possible due to the programming of Starcraft II; even if it was, it would be boring. If your dev team starts pumping out Kumbaya-Craft, you can bet your ass your investors will flee like financial corporations from a European tax hike, your capital will soon succumb to its burn rate, and you’ll be yanked forcibly by the collective hand of the market.

    Pleasantville is boring. It defeats the purpose of entertainment, such as games, a subset of which includes strategy games, and that purpose is not to fill the yawning void in some post-industrial existential crisis of meaning or resolve some metaphysical yearning for “truth”. No, the purpose of a game is to give you something fun to do for a couple hours in between filling out excel spreadsheets or waiting to pick up the kids after soccer practice. I and my Civ and Starcraft 2 buddies certainly are not “constructing fictitious worlds where meaning has a place” as we’re lolling at each other over failed “tyrannical” zerg rushes or fighting for bragging rights in.

    Quiet 1st world cushy conflictless society is suited well for reality where consequences have real adverse impact. We all love murder mysteries and “getting in the shoes of” people in horrible life-threatening situations such as wars for the emotional and cognitive rollercoaster rides they take us on. But the hell if any of us would really want to be chased by a serial killer or stuck in Iraq or Afghanistan in real life. And we humans have the capacity to separate the two (most of us anyway, that’s why we have media ratings systems limiting consumption of films and games for the younger minds who have yet to fully develop that capacity.

    “This also explains why strategy gamers tend to be far more psychopathic than even the most ruthless of real world tyrants; tyrants cannot see the human consequences of their actions because the state does not see them. Game players do not see the human consequences of their actions because there simply are none to be seen.”

    This suggests that the condition of psychopathy and/or immoral decision making is an artifact of one’s environment — be it behind a mouse and keyboard in a game of C&C or behind a mahogany desk in the oval office — as opposed to some neurobiological defect of the individual or weakness of character. The problem with this line of thought is that it absolves responsibility for decisions made by political leaders such as the Cambodian massacre, or the oppressive regimes of Egypt, Libya, and the host of other revolutions set to party like it’s 1989 in the Soviet Bloc. “It’s not my fault, it was the nation-state worldview-puppeteer in my brain making me pick up that phone and order warplanes to carpet-bomb my own people into oblivion!” Claiming “temporary perspective-insanity” in a trial for Gaddafi’s war crimes. “It’s not my fault we done smoked out the ‘Raqi’s based on fabricated evidence of WMDs that wound up in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, and burying the US in mountains of debt… Rumsfeldt, Cheney and I, we was just ‘spiritually communing’ with the state and trying to find meaning in our lives!”

    This is not only a disservice to the victims of atrocities caused by state leader war criminals, I think it unfairly paints politicians, and especially the good ones, into these sort of choice-less cages of sub-human politico-borghood. It’s not unlike the recent pop-psych riffs going off in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that it’s not that CEOs and bankers and the ultra rich are bad, they are just “held hostage” by their own power which turns them into sociopaths. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704407804575425561952689390.html

    While there is certainly an amount of distancing effect inherent in taking on a position of power, this is not some universal get-out-of-indictment free card for being a bastard, committing financial crimes, sucking wealth from the population, blowing up economies for profit, etc. etc.. Because there are good super-rich people out there too, the Warren Buffets and Ed Boons of the world who show great empathy and compassion for the “pawns” wallowing far below their 102nd floor corporate towers, who maintain their humanity and altruism in their decision making despite their position. These good business leaders often prove instrumental in generating systemic-level change for societal goods such as eliminating malaria in Africa, jumpstarting renewable energy with investment, providing vital funding for charity work, and putting pressure on the bad blue bloods.

    And just as there are good and bad businessmen, there are good and bad politicians, of varying degrees. There are the JFKs and there are the Pol Pots. There are the Churchills and there are the Hitlers. Great leaders such as these didn’t make decisions based on how much more of their RISK pieces they could place on the “board game” of Earth. They did what politicians should do, which is make the often unbearably difficult but right decisions for the good of the people, of their countries, and also of the entire world. I think it’s perhaps more illuminating to view the states not as the controlling viewpoint foisted upon the politician and the powerful, but rather the subservient minion of ulterior human agenda. In the case of Churchill, the state was a vehicle for protecting humanity from a world enslaved to fascism. But if the leader’s goals are more sinister, then the state can be used for that as well.

    For example, in the case of the various economic blowups, the biggest of which being in 2008, the accused CEO’s first move is to claim exactly what you say, some abstract “state view” – in this case “corporate view”, the corporation as some big evil monster forcing their hand to do all these terrible things, ruthlessly achieving its own agenda of survival in a Darwinian concrete jungle of survival of the business-fittest. In reality, corporations are blowing up all the time; a mere 20% of biggest corporations in the US still *exist* today. Subprime derivative games, insider trading schemes, derivatives shenanigans and the like are directly *opposed* to the interest of the corporation as an entity as they inevitably wind up killing the corporate organism off once the toxic waste is revealed as in Lehman, AIG, Enron, et. Al.. But at the same time as the supposedly self-preserving corporation is dying off, the human CEO at the top gets away from the burning corpse with millions or even billions in bonuses, sailing off in a golden parachute to the Caymans. No, the corporate view does not shanghai the human perspective, the human agent here is using the corporation as a puppet, a scapegoat, a wealth-siphoning vehicle to enrich themselves, then discarding the wolf costume as soon as they’re safely away from the scene of the crime. To say that their “field of view” as a CEO (of Enron or Lehman or Madoff, say) “caused” them to commit these horrible acts is pure apologism. It’s a false evolutionary metaphor originally incited by the neoclassical school of economics and perpetuated by the Wall-Street owned academic field of economics.

    And likewise, the Bush Administration claiming it in “The National Interest ™” of the United States to invade Iraq is not some usurpation of Bush’s undying humanitarianism and Mother Theresa-like compassion by the inescapable “communion” with “the state”. It was a calculated, media-controlled, exploitation of mythical concept of “the state” in order to further the specific *human* interests of involved parties including Cheney and the band of war profiteers, oil moguls salivating over Iraqi black gold, Black Water & friends, and every CEO, croney, and gangster in between. As for the US “state”? Well.. a decade later we’re several more trillion in debt, thousands of brave men and women lost, rest of the world hates us a whole lot more… it’s the opposite of what is good for “the state”. No, I think it’s a whole ‘nother strategy (game).

  9. Ben says:

    Very nice, but I strive for happy citizens and golden ages in Civ 5. Also, I lose. A lot.

    And Wintermute, well done. Churchill was not the saint you seem to think he was, but excellent follow-up. Do you have your own blog somewhere?

  10. Wintermute says:

    Thanks! I do have something like a blog, you can click on my name to be taken to it. ( http://wirechildren.blogspot.com )

  11. zipdrive says:

    A fascinating read, Jonathan, if only in opening my eyes to the viewpoint of the state and provoking thoughts on the manufacturing of realities by the media.
    Still, you take as granted that players of strategy games ignore human needs and views without providing any proof and while ignoring examples to the contrary, like Civilization’s Happiness parameter, a parallel to which also exists also in the Sims and SimCity.

    Wintermute: I do not see anything in the article that suggests that there should be “correlations between psychopaths and experience of violent media” as you put it, so your point is moot. I DO, however, think that non-strategy games do not necessarily give the player a more humane viewpoint of the world (or A world).

    In addition, I don’t see Jonathan’s assertion of statesmanship potentially leading politicians to inhuman viewpoints as an excuse for such behavior, just that it might be an easy view to go to in order to avoid making those hard decisions. As you say, we’ve seen politicians who won’t shrink from making some tough choices.

  12. Chad says:

    McCalmont, your connection between state decisions and strategy games is dead on. Just read the book, The Next Decade: Where We’ve Been…and Where We are Going, written by a former CIA analyst, to get the sense of “state” politicians get pulled into.

    For example, in the book Mr. Friedman argues that the U.S. is not close to Israel because they are a democracy (human reason), but because they provided a counter weight to Soviet influence over Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

    It is well known that the U.S. used Iraq as a counter weight to Iran in the 80′s and was one of the main reasons, a state reason, why the U.S. went into Iraq. Iraq had lost the power to be a counter weight to Iran, so the U.S. deemed it had to fill the void (state reasons).

    While, Wintermute is correct that the Iraq War benefited a certain group of people, and that it is abhorrent, it is incorrect to assume this was more than a secondary reason (human). The main reason was to demonstrate the willingness of the U.S. to demolish a country that didn’t fall into line (state reason) and the above mentioned counter weight to other regional powers (Iran and Saudi Arabia). It was interesting to see how uncooperative Saudi Arabia was before Iraq and how cooperative they were after. This was a state decision first and a human one(benefit me and my friends) second.

    By the way, this does not mean I am arguing for this decision. I’m just explaining it.

    Back to the games, it is interesting that Civ is one of the few strategy games where a valid and more efficient strategy is to go away from war or use it minimially to win. The science or UN option is more efficient some times.

  13. Wintermute says:

    Zipdrive: The violent media was a bit of an aside, not really directly addressing JOnathan’s article, so I’ll accept that. However he suggests in the article that people behave like brutal psychopaths, even the “wooliest of liberals” do while playing strategy games *because of* the perspective the game provides. I’m suggesting this is not necessarily a function of strategy games but of games as a whole, ad people are capable of separating fiction from reality, so I’m feel less strongly about at least the degree of influence of the “state perspective”.

  14. Wintermute says:

    “The main reason was to demonstrate the willingness of the U.S. to demolish a country that didn’t fall into line (state reason) and the above mentioned counter weight to other regional powers (Iran and Saudi Arabia)”

    It’s certainly true that Iraq had stopped playing along as the puppet of the US and had become a monstrosity to his own people, and installation of a “friendly” regime was desired. But this is not entirely dissimilar from the Monstrosity of Hitler, who many states deemed had to be removed, and replaced with a more friendly regime. In this sense, the state is still serving the (human) good of the people, as it should be, or the ulterior agenda of individuals in power — which may be to make money, stay in power, prove something to daddy (Bush jr.), or maintain security — financial, oil, military, and otherwise — for the good of the people of that nation. And make no mistake, despite the liberal bleeding heart crying, securing the fossil fuels necessary to sustain our 1st world civilization is definitely in the interest of the human citizens, even if they don’t want to think about the dirty work. At any rate, I don’t think we can say with any kind of certainty what the “main” reason we entered into a war are, but we can certainly identify influences.

  15. zipdrive says:

    Wintermute, as Jonathan has still to provide any proof for his assumption of strategy players behaving like sociopaths and as I’ve yet to see any scientific study done well showing that violent games lead to violence, I will not accept the points you two make in this regard.

  16. Chad says:

    It seems to be quite easy, in hindsight, to determine why we went in to Iraq. Actually, it wasn’t that hard to determine before we went in. It’s not like there was ever any decent evidence for WMD’s, that Hussein was allied with the terrorists (never was and was actually a target of the terrorists), we ever give more than lip service to “freeing” people, or thought Afghanistan was big enough to show our determination.

    If we used your definition of a state decision and a human decision, everything would be a human decision. Just because a decision causes human good does not mean it is a human decision. One could argue the Holocaust helped the average German, as it provided slave labor for their war effort…though it could hardly be called a human decision.

    Let’s take your oil example. Yes, part of the reason for going into Iraq was to stabilize oil production (though most of the stabilization came from the threat against other countries in the region). The government didn’t just decide one day that they wanted to make life easier for their citizens. The government decided that a more stable oil price/producion would help the state/economy. It’s just a byproduct that it benefits the people. Though, one could argue that with at least 100k dead Iraqi’s, 4,200 dead Americans, and over 30,000 seriously wounded (many lost limbs, brain function, etc.) Americans, the human benefit of the oil argument doesn’t quite add up. This was a state decision.

  17. Wintermute says:

    “If we used your definition of a state decision and a human decision, everything would be a human decision.”

    Yes, exactly. That is exactly my point. There is no such thing as “a state decision” because there is no magical state entity hovering out in the ether making decisions for human politicians, except as a fabricated entity to scapegoat the blame of the atrocities willfully done by those politicians.

    “The government didn’t just decide one day that they wanted to make life easier for their citizens. The government decided that a more stable oil price/producion would help the state/economy. It’s just a byproduct that it benefits the people.”

    Except… the state is the people. If politicians really cared about the state, they would not throw it trillions of dollars in debt, heist away billions of dollars through war profiteering during the Iraq war, fail to make investments in green technology, let the financial system turn into a vampire squid latched onto the face of the state (Deregulation, zero interest rates, bailouts, blind eye to shenanigans), killing the US slowly and causing it to fall into bankruptcy. All of these things have left the US far worse off than it was ten years ago, economically, geopolitically, socially. Politicians, bad politicians, help “the state” when it is in their own best interest to maintain a powerful state, such that they get re-elected, make gains for their own companies and friends which they revolving-door back into when they get back to the private sector (Cheney & Haliburton, Goldman Sachs & Henry Paulson), and generally benefit their own *personal* interest. And if they can make gains by hollowing out “the state” and destroying it, then they will take those as well.

    “The government didn’t just decide one day that they wanted to make life easier for their citizens. The government decided that a more stable oil price/producion would help the state/economy. It’s just a byproduct that it benefits the people.”

    Actually if we’re really honest, a more stable oil price/production that helps the state/economy benefits the *politician* because if they fail to maintain a stable economy, it is the people who will have their head on a platter when it comes to voting time. And states don’t “decide” anything, it is only human politicians who can choose to go to war or take campaign contributions or not. Just as we see reps and dems playing hot potato with the present economic downturn, trying to shift the blame over to the other party, even though they have both taken part in destroying their own state by assisting the financial moguls in slaughtering the economy and pushing their losses onto the state balance sheet, in return for massive campaign contributions..

    States are again imaginary entities which don’t actually feel “benefits” or “pain”. They’re construct tools for maintaining social fabric. The only real sentient involved parties here are human beings who are capable of experiencing the pain of being voted out or joy of winning an election, the pain of gas shortages and economic downturns or the joy of a boom, the quarterly losses due to lost oil sources or the quarterly gains due to aquisition, or through criminally generous government contracts.

    If you believe that states truly are the influencing party, then you are implicitly absolving guilt from the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Bush, and the like. You are saying, “It’s not their fault that they acted like a brutal psychopath, they were forced to make those decisions by ‘the all powerful state’”. Such defenses do not hold up in a trial for war crimes. Because, like guns, states don’t kill people, people kill people.

  18. Chad says:

    “If you believe that states truly are the influencing party, then you are implicitly absolving guilt from the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Bush, and the like. You are saying, “It’s not their fault that they acted like a brutal psychopath, they were forced to make those decisions by ‘the all powerful state’”. Such defenses do not hold up in a trial for war crimes. Because, like guns, states don’t kill people, people kill people.”

    Not all state decisions are bad. Just like not all human decisions are good.

    I am not absolving those leaders of anything. Especially, since most of those decisions (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Bush, etc.) were bad for the state, but good for the them. I’m not saying all bad decisions are state decisions and all good decisions are human ones. Far from it.

    I don’t believe you refuted my previous oil or holocaust example.

    By the way, I’m enjoying the argument.

  19. Wintermute says:

    As much as I have enjoyed the argument as well, I believe I’ll have to bow out at this point due to time constraints. :)

  20. DoubleW says:

    Why are we assuming that the State is entirely rational? A human brain can lose all sense of priority due to cocaine addiction. A State could just as easily have bad information fed to it, causing it to expend a huge amount of resources to eliminate a non-existent threat. This would be an even faster process if the State in question did not view the resources in question as limited. It already doesn’t care about the human lives being dismembered and ruined in the desert, but if the money is just flowing from nowhere, It may not be very concerned.

  21. Wintermute says:

    Except the ‘state’ is the one fabricating the bad information.

  22. Noel says:

    Hmm, interesting article. Next time I play civilization I’m going to try to play it from a human perspective instead of attempting to achieve victory and see what happens. My goal will be to create a peaceful world and a happy empire instead of making my empire the biggest and the first to victory. Of course, to do this I’ll need to have a sizable empire (I’m not going to just ignore the rest of the world) to have influence, and I may need to declare war against a warmongering empire to maintain peace in the process. I’m now wondering if my decisions will actually be any different than when I play non-militarily. The only thing I can think of is that I may be a bit more of a world moral police, because I still need to survive and grow, because I can’t help the world without surviving and being strong. Do you guys have any idea how I could best make the civ world into the best place possible?

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