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).
Rather 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 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
In 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’.
This 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.
One 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.
The 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.
In 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.
Jonathan 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.