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. Continue reading “Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think and Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths”


Fandom as the vanguard of the new cosmopolitanism

Paul Raven @ 04-11-2010

Interesting essay from Cory Doctorow over at Locus Online; I’m always a little leery of pieces that see science fiction fandom doing that pat-ourselves-on-the-back-for-being-a-little-bit-ahead-of-the-curve thing, but I think Doctorow may have a point when he claims that fandom – alongside many other modern subcultures, it must be said – can be typified by a sort of “gourmet cosmopolitan” attitude peculiar to the post-modern (altermodern?) networked world. In passing, he also makes some interesting points about a core philosophy of science fiction stories which I’d like to see further expanded:

… we tend to think of ‘‘cosmopolitan’’ as a synonym for ‘‘posh’’ or ‘‘well-travelled.’’  But that’s not what I mean here: for me, to be cosmopolitan is to live your life by the ancient science fictional maxims: ‘‘All laws are local’’ and ‘‘No law knows how local it is.’’ That is, the eternal verities of your culture’s moment in space and time are as fleeting and ridiculous as last year’s witch-burnings, blood-letting, king-worship, and other assorted forms of idolatry and empty ritual.

[…]

Which is not to say that cosmopolitans don’t believe in anything. To be cosmopolitan is to know that all laws are local, and to use that intellectual liberty to decide for yourself what moral code you’ll subscribe to. It is the freedom to invent your own ethics from the ground up, knowing that the larger social code you’re rejecting is no more or less right than your own – at least from the point of view of a Martian peering through a notional telescope at us piddling Earthlings.

[…]

Rule 34, the Amish, and fandom’s willingness to wear its sweaters inside-out are the common thread running through the 21st century’s social transformations: we’re finding a life where we reevaluate social norms as we go, tossing out the ones that are empty habit or worse, and enthusiastically adopting the remainder because of what it can do for our lives. That is modern, sophisticated, gourmet cosmopolitanism, and it’s ever so much more fun the old cosmopolitanism obsession with how they’re wearing their cuffs in Paris, or what’s on at the Milan opera.

Comments are open: what are your thoughts? (Unless they’re along the lines of  “Doctorow is an [x]!” or “sf fans are [y]!”; these are opinions you’re entitled to, but I’d request politely that you find somewhere else to share them.)


The Mechanics of Morality: Why Moral Choices in Video Games Are No Longer Fun

Jonathan McCalmont @ 11-11-2009

Moral ambiguity is an increasingly ubiquitous part of modern computer game character mechanics – so why are the moral elements to gameplay increasingly less enjoyable?

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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I remember when having a game take into account the morality of your character was something of an innovation. I remember banging my head against the Eye of the Beholder Dungeons and Dragons games appalled at the fact that something as complex as tabletop role-playing had been reduced to throwing knives at spiders in someone’s basement. The Baldur’s Gate games changed this. Suddenly, if you played an evil character good characters refused to join up with you and if you played a good character then certain solutions to problems were denied you. It was a revelation. Now it all tastes like ashes. Continue reading “The Mechanics of Morality: Why Moral Choices in Video Games Are No Longer Fun”


Do novels help our morals evolve?

Paul Raven @ 15-01-2009

Victorian era typewriter keysAre there hidden messages and subtexts in stories and novels that help reinforce and strengthen the values our society holds? A group of evolutionary psychologists researching Victorian-era fiction suggests that the classics of the time…

… not only reflect the values of Victorian society, they also shaped them. Archetypal novels from the period extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted cooperation and affability against individuals’ hunger for power and dominance.

[…]

The researchers believe that novels have the same effect on society as oral cautionary tales of old. “Just as hunter-gatherers talk of cheating and bullying as a way of staying keyed to the goal that bad guys must not win, novels key us to the same issues… “

The idea of culture as societal regulation valve is nothing new, I suppose, but it seems the researchers were focusing on the canonical literature of the era rather than what would have been considered popular by the man on the street. What about the Victorian precursors of the pulp magazines, for example, or their oft-unmentioned love of porn and erotica? There was a very different set of values embedded in those, I think we can assume…

That said, I think there’s probably a nugget of truth in the assertion that art contains coded value systems from the society that produced it. So what does that mean for us 21st Century types? We have somewhat different values nowadays, and we no longer have such a dominant monoculture as the Victorians. [image by k4chii]

Looking back on the science fiction novels we’re reading today, what would an anthropologist or evolutionary psychologist from a century in the future make of our values?