After 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 fun. Myth 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.
Between ’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.
In 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.
Harari’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.)
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.