On perspective.

On perspective.

In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs.  That makes sense to me.  If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.

But my perspective is upside down.  Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth.  They listen underground.  They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.

Picture from “The Wood Wide Web” on New Zealand Geographic.

Perhaps their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep.  I try to roll over only to find somebody’s toes wedged under my back.

Year by year, trees inch their feet toward the sun.  And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried underground.  My reflexive perspective gives me an inverted image of a tree’s world.

I’m surely not alone in this misunderstanding. 

We humans hold our heads high as we walk across the ground.  A major source of tension in human evolution was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the pelvis.

Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other.  Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flyingAll club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music.  Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.

In prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together.  The evidence is especially compelling for human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone in the group.  But even if prehistoric men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.

Our ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’ kills.  Eventually, they began to hunt.  Their strategy was to exhaust and bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each kill.  Mammoths were more likely to fall to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.

The high caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.

And, less tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that once harbored our communities.  After all, we live in our heads.  It seemed sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its loftiest branches.

Our biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.

Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction.  But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.

Only our universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to introduce a directionality for time’s arrow.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress toward higher entropy.  This directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.

Image from ESA/Hubble.

Or so say most physicists.  From my perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is mutable.  If I didn’t believe in that asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.

But, again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we feel about that change.

Is the flow of time progress or decline?

Are a tree’s branches its hands or its feet?

In Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward corruption.  Time passes and the world grows worse.  Currently we are trapped within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes have passed.  We are just biding our time before the world can be destroyed and made good again.

After the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade.  Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.

In Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too.  At one point in time, a pair of humans were good: before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.

In The Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that

To be original means to linger by the origin and insist on it.  The task is to avoid the progression toward a future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any further.  In this sense, and in this sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal.  Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum), just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).

Many humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.

To make America great again, perhaps.

I personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are bad.  We’ve designed distracting, addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children.  Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic, which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.

And we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their ranks.

But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past.  The world was a terrible place for so many people.  Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens – that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.

For generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence farming.  Their lives were worse than their ancestors’.  But we, now, can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.

We’re not doing it, but we could.

At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs.  I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.

But it used to be worse.

And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed.  Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire.  Maybe that’s fine.  Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.

But it’s so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars.  I dream about the future.  And hope against hope – despite overpopulation, climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the one I’ve been living in.

Image by D Mitriy.

From my perspective, time will let us make the world better. 

Although it surely won’t happen on its own.  We will have to work to make it better.  The work might not be that hard.  Just live the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

33572350._UY700_SS700_In Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, the protagonist is preparing for apocalypse.  At a parent-teacher conference, her dad rants that our world is falling apart – we’re polluting the oceans, growing monocultures of a select few (vulnerable) food crops across all arable land, disrupting the climate, overpopulating the planet – and that it’s ridiculous for his daughter to take spelling quizzes in the face of such calamity.  At home, he has her cleaning guns instead of studying for school.

It’s an iconic image – the grizzled, isolate, male prepper.

On dating sites specifically catering to preppers and survivalists, men far outnumber women.  On the banner image for the C.U.M.A. Survival School (which teaches combat techniques, animal trapping, how to build fires, and the like), there are three women out of seventeen visible people.

survival school.JPG

Journalist Nicky Woolf interviewed attendees at a 2015 Preppers and Survivalists Expo in Florida.  One of the men Woolf spoke with was sitting beside a handwritten recruitment sign, looking for someone with medical training to join his team.  Woolf asks the man whether his wife came to the Expo.

He suddenly looks tired.  “No.”  I ask if this is a point of contention between the two of them.  “I bought equipment for my son,” he says.  “I bought three of everything, one for me, one for my wife, one for my son.  My son is too possessed, and my wife is totally mind-controlled by the programs on the TV, the fluoride she’s drinking – because fluoride…”  Bingo!  He begins another rant.

I interrupt him to get more details about his wife.  “She won’t look at anything,” he says sadly.  “She won’t look at any of the literature, she won’t look at any of the DVDs.”

For some reason, I find this unbearably sad.

“How does that make you feel?” I ask.

“What can I do about it?” he says.  “I love her.  Been with her 27 years.  But when the shit hits the fan, I’m going.”


While I was researching a story about a hands-on retreat teaching the history of technology – under the auspices of recreating our world after a disaster – I realized there was a strong feminist argument for preserving this knowledge.

710v76v5doLLewis Dartnell distills some of this information in The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch.  Dartnell focuses on contemporary technologies, especially methods to jump-start food production and long-distance communication from the detritus of our current civilization.  The book is focused on the future – Dartnell convincingly argues that technological development after our civilization’s collapse would progress very differently than it did in the past, both because contemporary artifacts would remain to be learned from … and because we’ve already depleted the easily-accessible fuel sources that powered our own industrial revolution.

If we were starting again, we would have to make green technologies.

The history of technology still matters, though.  Contemporary gender inequality sprung from that history.

763220016_3ed7cdeb06_bAmong most primate species, gender inequality is correlated with sexual dimorphism – when males are a lot bigger, they behave badly.  In bonobos and chimpanzees, males and females are relatively close in size … and they have relatively equal status.  In gorillas or orangutans, males are much larger than females … and females can have pretty rotten lives.

And humans?  We actually have pretty low sexual dimorphism.  The average male is bigger than the average female, but only by about 15%.  Based on the behaviors of other primates, we ought to be fairly egalitarian.  Through most of our evolutionary history, we probably were … as were many of the hunter-gatherer societies that persisted until recent eras.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at contemporary U.S. news.  And we’re doing better now than we have been for the past several centuries.

What went wrong?

PSM_V18_D469_Wheeled_plough_from_the_roman_empireIn our current world, being 15% bigger provides very little benefit.  Gasoline-powered machines do our heavy lifting.  But the importance of human sexual dimorphism was accentuated by early technologies. Our size differences mattered more once we developed agriculture … and seemed crucial after the invention of the plow.

Being 15% bigger does matter if you’re plowing a field.  Suddenly, men were more important for food production than women.  The status of women in these cultures plummeted.  And – lucky us – our culture derived from theirs.

sapiens book.jpgIn Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, vegan historian Yuval Noah Harari depicts the development of agriculture as a kind of “original sin.”  After agriculture, the average person experienced a much lower quality of life.  Agriculture made progress possible, but only because it made oppression possible.  Serfs could be taxed to feed the idle rich.  After agriculture, most people worked harder and ate worse.  Inequality soared.

Certain patches of land were better than others before agriculture.  Even among hunter-gatherers, there are skirmishes.  Tribes fight; people die.  But agriculture made war worthwhile.

And agrarians thought it reasonable to spin myths about the weakness of women.  15% more body mass meant the world to them … and we still celebrate their stories.

Let’s hope we never go through that again.

On crashing waves of violence and Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘The Wake.’

On crashing waves of violence and Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘The Wake.’

Our world was stolen.  Current wealth, even when no recent crimes transpired to obtain it, flows from a legacy of murder, theft, and oppression.

I’m no communist, mind you.  It’s quite clear the the total wealth available to the world is not a static number.  People’s effort to create more should be rewarded.  The basic principles of capitalism are, to my mind, the best way of doling out those rewards.

For instance, the wealth of many modern nations comes from oil reserves.  But petroleum, for ages, had little value.  It was noxious black muck.  Wasn’t until the invention of machines that use petroleum as fuel that oil became real wealth.

And it’d be ridiculous to claim that the wealth of internet barons was merely appropriated.  They had ideas, and in recognition of the value of those ideas, they were given wealth.  Those inventors did nothing wrong.

The problem is, the wealth they were given is tainted.

This is easiest to see when we consider wealth tied up in land holdings.  Millions of years ago, bands of Homo sapiens ranged over relatively small tracts of land.  Many other species of humans also inhabited the planet, and the land was shared with other animals (although I’ve noticed that when my daughter shares toys with other toddlers, there’s generally less spilt blood, singed fur, and rent flesh than there would’ve been when early humans “shared” territory with wolves, lions, hyenas, elephants, hippopotamuses, etc.).

A model of an adult Neanderthal male head and shoulders on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

As time went on, Homo sapiens spread and killed off all other species of humans, either directly, with spears through the chest and rocks concussed against skulls, or indirectly, by excluding competitors from fertile land and waterholes, letting the conquered tribes fragment and starve and slowly waste away.  The spread of Homo sapiens was a violent apocalypse for all other humans.  There were zero survivors.

Homo sapiens didn’t just kill off their human competitors.  Throughout most of the world, the spread of Homo sapiens coincided with the prompt extinction of all other large animals (Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens has a lovely discussion of the archaeological data supporting this.  You can get a pretty good sense of the impact of Homo sapiens migration by looking at the “Timeline of History” that Harari compiled, with entries like: “45,000 years ago: Sapiens settle Australia.  Extinction of Australian megafauna.”  “16,000 years ago: Sapiens settle America.  Extinction of American megafauna.”).

And then, once the world harbored growing numbers of Homo sapiens, clash after clash occurred as newcomers made forays into already-settled land.  Sometimes the newcomers were repulsed.  It’s unlikely that we preserve a record of many of those instances, because a failed invasion is generally more transient than a successful one, and the archaeological record would show no dramatic changes since the same style of architecture and artifacts will predominate in an area before and after.

At other times, the newcomers were more numerous, or brought more advanced weaponry, or were accompanied by crippling diseases spawned by their cohabitation with swine.  In those instances, the newcomers often expunged the previous inhabitants.  This happened over and over again.  I don’t know much about the history of England, but I know a bit about Stonehenge, and how the people who built Stonehenge suffered a devastating apocalypse when newcomers arrived bearing bronze weaponry  … and then those newcomers, firmly established years later, were in turn conquered during the Norman Invasion.


Which always seems unfair.  After each wave of violence, a culture becomes established that would like for the cycle to end.  Sure, history up until now has featured wave after wave of newcomers coming and crushing and taking, but now that we are here the killing should stop.

I think this idea is conveyed beautifully by a line from Marcel Proust (trans. CK Scott Moncrieff): “But like those persons recently decorated who, their investiture once accomplished, would like to see the fountain of honor turned off at the main, Mme Bontemps would have preferred that, after herself, no one else in her own circle should be made known to the Princess.”  A gorgeous phrase, “the fountain of honor turned off at the main.”  And quite telling.  It’s incredibly common for people to buck at the idea of losing their status to others who follow their own footsteps.

For a contemporary example, you could read Alec MacGillis’s recent opinion piece.  He provides several examples of past beneficiaries of government aid voting to end that aid for others once they themselves no longer need it.

No matter how our good fortune came about, we don’t want to lose it to others.

So, the world formed.  Then humans spread and claimed certain tracts of land as their own.  Then humans kept migrating and re-claiming land.  Taking it from others.  In relatively modern times, the argument was often put forward that previous inhabitants were not using the land well and so had no real claim to it.  This was the justification given for the slaughter of Native Americans, and the same argument is alluded to in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake as regards the slaughter of the people who built Stonehenge:

anglisc folc cum here across the sea many years ago. wilde was this land wilde with ingegas with wealsc folc with aelfs and the wulf. cum we did in our scips our great carfan scips with the wyrms heafod and we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right

Roughly: English folk came here from across the sea many years ago.  The land was wild with foreigners, natives, elves, and wolves.  Our people came in dragon-prowed ships and then worked the land to make good what had been weak and unkept, so the land was ours by right.

But there are many ways to define what good stewardship means.  Although they did not build fences, by many measures the Native Americans took better care of their land than the European settlers did after stealing it.  And this same argument could be used by any culture with more advanced technology than another.  From the perspective of someone who discovers a more productive farming method, vast tracts of U.S. farmland could be seen as underutilized and therefore free for the taking.

We’ve had many years now of relative stability in ownership of land, but this is due in large part to the knowledge that any unrestrained attempts at conquest could now exterminate the entire species.  Yes, newspapers make the world sound violent.  But compared to the past (and especially if you weight this comparison for population density), the advent of nuclear weapons has slowed the spigot of violence to a trickle.

Still, it’s worth acknowledging that violent conquest set an initial distribution of holdings that our current allotments stem from.  That’s why it’s so valuable to consider what those conquests might have felt like for the losers.  Their tragedies birthed our prosperity.  True gratitude for our lot acknowledges what they lost.

Edwards'_DodoIt’s horrifying to consider what the end times must have felt like for the last of those people who had built Stonehenge.  Did they know that their culture was being obliterated?  Even worse, what did the end times feel like for the last Neanderthals?  The last Homo habilis?  The last Homo floresiensis?  Did they know that their kind were going extinct?  Did an individual Neanderthal know that his language would be lost forever, his myths forgotten, his lineage come to an absolute halt?

In The Wake, Kingsnorth addresses these horrors in a not-too-unfamiliar way by depicting the travails of an Englishman losing his world to the Norman Invasion.  The protagonist is wicked, the owner of large land holdings that he forces servile tenants to work for him, an occasional wife beater, wielder of a sword smithed by a revered figure who raped and murdered the innocent children of his adversaries… but Kingsnorth presents him sympathetically.  The man’s family is killed by the French.  He is driven away from his land.  And his way of life is coming to an end.  In Kingsnorth’s words,

The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history.  It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery, and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects.

As long as we restrict ourselves to considering events for which we have historical documentation, I’m inclined to agree.  The language I now speak was starkly branded by that occupation.  Some of the most telling relics are our words for meats.  The names of the animals stem from their Old English roots, because the animals continued to be raised by the conquered people.  The names for prepared meats come from French, because French speakers ate the food.  Cows and swine and sheep become beef and pork and mutton once they’re ready to be served.

Kingsnorth’s book begins with the protagonist as a man of appreciable wealth.

9781555977177three oxgangs of good land i had and two geburs to worc for me on it and four oxen of my own for the plough this was mor than any other man in this ham. baerlic i had and rye sceap and hors also i had swine pasture holt my own water aeppels on many good treows

a great man i was in my ham all cnawan me a seat i had on the wapentac and free i was from the worc of other men. this was my land it was my fathers land i will not spec of my father. geld wolde i gif but only to the gyng not to the thegn. sum lytel worc wolde i do for the thegn for this was how things was but no man was ofer me no man will be ofer me

But then he loses his land.  All Englishmen lost their land, because after the invasion it was all claimed by their new king.  Kingsnorth points out that a legacy of that violence is still with us today, because a huge percentage of land in England is owned by just one percent of the population.  Although that concentration of wealth almost certainly would have occurred eventually, Normans or no.  There was nothing particularly special about the culture of that particular set of murderers and thieves that led to the current distribution of English wealth.

Wouldn’t have needed violence, even… although if you’re plotting a massive land grab, history has shown us that violence clearly helps.  But, inequality has been with us forever.  From the beginning of time, not all territory was equally productive.  Some spots were better for fishing or hunting than others, and there’s no reason to suspect that these were equitably shared.  With more advanced technology, the severity of inequality that can be maintained increases.  It’s easier to tax and horde grain than felled elk.  And easier still to horde gold.  Grain rots.  Gold does not.

Plus, as technology advances, the productivity of a worker’s efforts diminish in comparison to the productivity of owned wealth itself.  This is easiest to see if we consider advances in something like shoemaking.  At one point in time, a worker would make an entire shoe.  That worker’s skill and training determined how good the shoe would be, so the worker was highly compensated.  Later, a worker would stitch just one single component in a factory.  The identity of the worker did not matter much; how hard would it be to train someone new to make that stitch?  So compensation decreased.  Later still, the shoe will be made entirely by a machine.  Our worker will do no work, and won’t be compensated at all.  Only the owner of the machine makes money.

It’s pretty clear that the concentration of wealth Kingsnorth writes about would have happened eventually.  But in this world, in England, it happened then.

CaptureI do wish, though, that Kingsnorth had written his book in English.  As you probably noticed from the excerpts I quoted above, it isn’t.  The language he invented is related to modern English, but I found it difficult to read.  Multiple sentence fragments are often conjoined without clarifying punctuation, many words are spelled eccentrically, and archaic words are used in place of their contemporary equivalents.  Kingsnorth explains this choice as a way to emphasize the temporal setting of his work.

The early English created the nation we now live in.  They are, in a very real sense, the ancestors of all of us living in England today, wherever our actual ancestors come from.  Despite this link, though, their world was distant from ours; not only in time but in values, understanding, mythopoesis.  Language seemed the best way to convey this.

Personally I disagree with this reasoning, but I have to admit that my disagreement stems from my own failings.  I speak only English and read many books in translation.  I’d like to think that I can understand Proust even though he saw the world as a French speaker and I’ve read only English translations of his work.  I’d like to think that I can understand the Ramayana even though I can’t read the original Sanskrit.  I’d like to think that I can understand Beowulf, which is set amongst people with beliefs very similar to those that might’ve been held by Kingsnorth’s characters, even though I read Seamus Heaney’s translation into contemporary English.

(Heaney did permit himself a few archaic terms.  I love his explanation for one of these: “Putting a bawn [Irish word for fortification] into Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all in order to render it ever more ‘willable forward / Again and again and again.’ ”  And it made me smile that the word Kingsnorth used for “foreigner” was translated by Heaney as “stalker.”)

Even though I would’ve rather read Kingsnorth’s book in contemporary English, I should point out an unexpected (for me) virtue of his choice.  The book’s language compels a reader to slow down.  Many passages are difficult to understand without sounding out words.  Parsing sentences without much clarifying punctuation requires careful attention.  And good literature rewards attentive reading.  In our era of glitzy headlines and scrollable text, there’s some merit in forcing people to read assiduously.

All told, I appreciated the chance to read Kingsnorth’s take on the end of a world.  It gave me a lot to think about.  And makes me want to read more about the last Neanderthals.  It’s just brutal, trying to empathize with the magnitude of their loss.  Sure, I know that species go extinct all the time (another species vanishes forever every ten minutes… not that this isn’t tragic), but it hits so much harder knowing they were humans.  People with their own cultures, languages, dreams.

And now?


On the historical interpretations deathmatch: Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization 2’ versus Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens.’

On the historical interpretations deathmatch: Sid Meier’s ‘Civilization 2’ versus Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens.’

CaptureAfter dinner recently, one of K’s former students asked me for my list of the all-time best video games.  I blathered out an answer.  I think I listed Braid, and Cave Story, and Myth 2, and the NYC GTA , and the game Limbo could’ve been.

A reasonable list.  But by evening, after our guests had left and I was in the kitchen stirring wet flour for our next day’s bread, I had a better answer.

There are at least two ways to answer, I feel.  One: which games deliver the most pleasure while you’re playing?  After all, games are designed to be funMyth 2 and GTA from my initial list fall into that category, along with League of Legends, Golden Eye, Smash Brothers, Diablo 2, Hearthstone.  Those games can eat away entire weekends while keeping you continuously entertained.  They’re designed to trigger steady bursts of dopamine release.  And while they aren’t meaningless —Myth 2 and GTA 4 both unspool interesting stories — that’s the sort of game you’d list if you think the purpose of a video game is to reduce human beings to pleasure-wracked zombies.

The other criterion you might keep in mind while ranking video games: which games best use the unique features of their medium to convey an idea?

Under this criterion, games start racking up points if, yes, they are pleasurable (a game is more likely to convey meaning if people want to play it.  No matter how beautiful the message tucked away in the final levels of Super Meat Boy might be, if it’s too frustrating for most people to reach those levels, the message will go unheard), but also if their very game-ness is needed to express an idea.  As in, was the game’s message something that would’ve been difficult to express in a painting, or a piece of music, or literature, or film?

It’s under that latter criterion that the game Limbo could’ve been excels.  The player’s illusion of control (you are free to do whatever you want, but only a small subset of actions allow you to progress through the game) makes the game’s message about moral complicity and the origin of evil much more powerful than it would be in a novel.

Braid, also, conveys an interesting message about mistakes and forgiveness that couldn’t have anywhere near the same impact without it being a game.  This is an idea that anybody whose game-playing peaked in the decade from about 1995 to 2005 has probably thought a lot about.  In early video games, you couldn’t save your progress.  Your game of Asteroid would last only as long as you were willing to camp in front of the machine.  Same with Mario, or Double Dragon.  And in contemporary games the system often saves your progress automatically, and your “saved game” will restart at a pre-designated state.  Like having a bookmark that squirms away if you try to put it midway through a chapter.  If you stop at any moment before you reach chapter seven, you’ll have to restart at the beginning of chapter six.

CaptureBetween ’95 and ’05, though, many games were designed with the capacity for a small number of self-overwriting save files.

That design had serious psychological ramifications.  If you were about to undertake a difficult task inside a game, you could save your progress and then play as riskily as you wanted.  If the first few moments of an encounter went well, you could save your progress midway through a battle.  And then, if you later made a mistake, you’d simply reload your previous file and try again, over and over until everything went perfectly.

I imagine there were lots of awkward gamer types out there who felt frustrated that real life didn’t offer the same opportunity for trial and error.  That you couldn’t save your progress through high school before boldly marching to the popular kid table and asking one of them to prom.  If you heard “Sure,” then good for you!  If you became a laughingstock, you’d just reload your save file and try something else — maybe a more subtle note slipped through the grating of a locker, maybe asking somebody else entirely.

Games without save files — Rogue-likes, for instance, or real life, or even those final GTA 4 missions that’d force you to play for an hour or more without encountering a save point — can easily make someone risk averse.  But that can be it’s own sort of failure.  Better broken arms, or broken hearts, than a paucity of dreams.  The Yes song was wrong.

All of which is conveyed beautifully by Braid.  The game is like Super Mario, but you can’t die.  You can’t fail.  Not permanently.  The world is dangerous, inside the game, but you’re given the ability to travel backward through time.  All your mistakes will be forgiven.

Until the end.  But I don’t want to wreck the story.

Anyway, while I was stirring the thick muck that would become bread, I realized I’d left out some of the best games according to the second criterion: Was a game better at conveying this idea than any other medium could’ve been?  A killer example that I missed is Sid Meier’s Civilization 2.

600full-sid-meier's-civilization-ii-coverIn Civilization, giving the player control over history is an essential part of the message.  I don’t even agree with the central message conveyed by the game — roughly, that history has a purpose, that civilization is steadily getting better as it makes progress toward that goal — but I appreciate how well it’s conveyed.  Very subtly, too.  I played a lot of Civilization when I was growing up without ever thinking that it was ideologically driven.

In part, that’s because children’s history classes in the U.S. convey the same message.  It’s much harder to notice a strange bias if it’s everywhere.  At the same time, the game aspect of Civilization makes a teleologic interpretation seem so natural.  The concept of victory points, with multiple avenues toward success, is a common feature of war games (in Civilization 2, you could win murderously, by subjugating all the earth under your nation’s rule, or technologically, by building a space ship and leaving the world behind, or through something akin to diplomacy — after a while the game gives you a score based on how cultured your civilization seems to be and how long you were at peace).

And the concept of goals, that there is something discreet you’re trying to achieved, is common to almost all games (people love Minecraft because it’s one of the rare exceptions).

The teleologic view of history that Civilization conveys seems so natural for a game, and that same bias is reinforced in almost all high school history classes, but the idea is certainly contestable.  Consider the interpretation of agriculture between Civilization and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens.

In Cvilization, your society must learn agriculture in order to advance.  In my beloved Civilization 2, one of the earliest research advancements you can make allows you to build granaries.  Which makes sense, given the progression of our own real-world history.  I wrote more about this in my essay about the parallel between gene duplication and oppression, but a quick summary is that some citizens must produce more food than their own families need for a society to “advance.”  That allows an elite class to syphon off the surplus and devote their time to pottery or literature or engineering or whatnot and not worry about survival.

a7857d64e581b1c2b9d0202ab8ee586eHarari’s contention in Sapiens?  He thinks that, for the actual people living in a society, it makes little difference whether a certain production scheme will allow new technologies to be developed someday.  Far more important is whether the citizens are able to lead fulfilling lives.  Did agriculture help with this?  In Harari’s words,

Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity.  They told a tale of progress fuelled by human brain power.  Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people.  Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat.  As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the gruelling, dangerous, and often spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.

That tale is a fantasy.  There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time.  Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agricultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered.  Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.  Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease.  The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure.  Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites.  The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.  The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

Similarly, the Civilization games require players to research cooperative strategies like mysticism and monarchy in order to progress.  (This isn’t entirely true.  Theoretically, you could decide not to develop these strategies and attempt to use the military units available to a “primitive” culture to conquer the world.  The games include some number of randomly-appearing barbarians who may be attempting to do just that.  But in practice, with most possible worlds you could inhabit in the game, this plan will fail miserably.  The barbarians rarely win.)

Yuval Harari - 'Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind'
Yuval Harari – ‘Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind’

I thought Harari did an impressive job translating concepts like “cooperation” for a non-academic audience.  This is one of the major virtues of his book.  He presents a huge amount of information culled from history, anthropology, biology, economics, philosophy… but does so in language that wouldn’t seem out of place in most magazines.  Anyone could (and should!) read his book.  I’d feel comfortable recommending Sapiens to any enterprising high school student.

Without further ado, here’s Harari’s explanation for what pedantic academic types (hey!  That’s me!) actually mean when they talk about “cooperation”:

Impressive, no doubt, but we mustn’t harbour rosy illusions about ‘mass cooperation networks’ operating in pharaonic Egypt or the Roman Empire.  ‘Cooperation’ sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian.  Most human cooperation networks have been geared toward oppression and exploitation.  The peasants paid for the burgeoning cooperation networks with their precious food surpluses, despairing when the tax collector wiped out an entire year of hard labour with a single stroke of his imperial pen.  The famed Roman amphitheatres were often built by slaves so that wealthy and idle Romans could watch other slaves engage in vicious gladiatorial combat.  Even prisons and concentration camps are cooperation networks, and can function only because thousands of strangers somehow manage to coordinate their actions.

Altogether, Harari’s Sapiens is an impressive work.  I’m thrilled that he makes such a persistent effort to shift our focus away from the “big picture” of history as a record of cultural and technological developments, and instead think about what people’s lives may have been like at any point, and how the changing world affected the quality of life available to its inhabitants.  Which can seem more grim.  If you think that humanity’s “purpose” is to break free of Earth and populate the galaxy, or to develop artificial intelligence sufficiently advanced that it becomes its own life form and continues evolving without us, then we’ve been doing the right thing.  Agriculture and organized religion and prisons really were necessary developments.

But if you deny the teleologic view of history?  If you think there is no overarching purpose that individual humans should care about more than happiness and fulfillment during their own brief lives?  Well, then you could argue that small bands of hunter gatherers led better lives than the vast hordes of modern-day underemployed ill-fed densely crowded urban humans.

And that’s a message you probably couldn’t take away from Civilization 2.  Even if you keep playing so long that your world becomes a sparsely-populated totalitarian nightmare.  The game still doesn’t invite the player to reflect on the idea, “Maybe my people should’ve stopped.”  Especially because, if you do try to create a pacifist wonderland of loosely-connected small settlements, the AI will create a rapacious Western-style empire and exterminate your people.  Just like we did in real life.