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.

On videogames and moral complicity.

NintendoMariostatue-1Given that there are critical theory courses discussing Super Mario Brothers, I assume there’s no need to get into the whole “Can videogames be great art?” argument.  Presumably almost everyone agrees that the medium can be used to make art.

Honestly, I fall into the camp that believes that almost any medium could be used to make art: Twitter?  Why not?  They’re still words.  Drip castles made out of sand?  You’re still making choices, you can still convey meaning.  A beautiful starting arrangement in Conway’s “Game of Life?”  (And, sure, that comes close to being a videogame, but aside from setting the initial conditions you don’t actually get to play, so I think it’s fair to put it in a different category.)  Why wouldn’t that be art?  You can convey deep meaning, someone versed in the form can get a sense of aesthetic appreciation; what else do you want?

But I thought it might still be fun to discuss some types of meaning that videogames are particularly good at conveying.  Specifically, moral complicity.

And, sure, you can do that in literature.  There’s the use of second person: in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Junot Diaz implicates the reader in the whole culture of ignoring the plights of others with lines like “For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history…”, where, yeah, he’s not saying it’s your fault, but you too, dear reader, have allowed bad behavior to go unpunished.  Or there’s Jay McInery’s “Bright Lights Big City,” which to me seems to be attempting something even riskier.  I think it’s pretty well exemplified by this passage from the end of the book; yes, the reader becomes complicit, but in that work the pervasive second person risks alienating the reader, pushing them away if they feel too strongly that isn’t me.

Capture“You get down on your knees and tear open the bag.  The smell of warm dough envelops you.  The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag.  You will have to go slowly.  You will have to learn everything all over again.”

I think McInery pulled off his use of second person well enough that not too many people would reject his book for that reason.  Back when I was teaching organic chemistry I used to send passages from literature as “inspiration” to my students, one of which was a long piece from this novel, and none of them complained.  Of course, I’m not sure how many of them actually read the emails I sent them.  Organic chemistry courses at Stanford tend to have a lot of people who want good grades in order to get into medical school, and maybe not so many people who want to read snippets of literature curated by their TA.

Or there’s first person plural, which could potentially implicate the reader.  Not always, of course.  Like there’s Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Virgin Suicides,” where the first person plural clearly seems to be a group of now-grown boys sharing their findings with the reader: at the end of a passage describing a photograph of the heroines there are the lines “Please don’t touch.  We’re going to put the picture back into its envelope now.” (Someday I’ll have to find a good way to sneak in a snazzier quote or two from that book into one of my essays — something that Eugenides does extremely well, that I don’t think he’s often given enough credit for, is the way he blends science into his stories).

I this quote from Steven Millhauser, in an interview with failbetter wherein he discussed the use of first person plural in some of his own stories, gives a great description of what I find alluring about Eugenides’s narration… especially the final line: “One interesting fact about ‘we’ is that it’s rarely used.  The mere idea that it isn’t ‘I’ or ‘he’ is wonderfully liberating.  The fictional possibilities are enticing.  ‘We’ is an adventure.” 

But “we” might, instead of being adventurous, signify complicity.  You could argue that the first person plural of Joshua Ferris’s “Then We Came to the End” comes close to bundling the reader into the same group as the narrators.  You, dear reader, might have been there.  Perhaps you’d temporarily forgotten.

That said, I think this is something videogames can do better.  Because as close as you can be drawn in by judicious conjugation and pronoun use, it’s not the same as holding controls and being empowered with direct responsibility over whether the protagonist, or any other character onscreen, for that matter, will live or die.  And there are some games out there that do very interesting things with this moral complicity.

CaptureIn the first draft of my novel, I alluded to “Shadow of the Colossus.”   Sadly, I removed that passage — the book is long, and I hate the idea of it being longer than it needs to be.  Referencing that game did add something, but I don’t think it added quite enough relative to how much space it took to describe (three sentences) and how many likely readers would understand the allusion (somewhere between zero and one percent, right?).

But, look, now I’m typing for a website!  Space is infinite!  I’m going to describe the game, by golly.

First off, it’s beautiful, and apparently a lot of fun (I’m not terribly good at videogames, but I do like them.  I didn’t play this game, but I watched my brother play it.  Sometimes that can be even more fun — you get all the excitement of playing a game, none of the stress).

But, specifically as regards the “moral complicity” thing?  You, the player, have to kill gigantic monsters.  As you play, though, you gradually notice that the monsters aren’t actually harmful — they’re hanging out peacefully until you charge up and attack them.  By the end of the game, you, the player, realize you’ve been tricked… you shouldn’t have done that.  It would’ve been better to let the monsters live.  Your protagonist accumulates “The Picture of Dorian Gray”-esque manifestations of sin on his physique.  Everyone is disappointed.  The world is worse.  But, you were playing a game!  Killing gigantic monsters is what people in games do!  How could you know you shouldn’t have done it?  Also, if you didn’t kill them… well, then there would be no game.  In effect, the only choice you have is to do bad or not play.

CaptureIn a way, that’s similar to the “choice” you have in Grand Theft Auto 5.  At one point, you, the player, have to torture a captive in order to proceed.  Again, do bad, or stop playing.  And you, the player, are given this information midway through progress through the storyline.  Presumably the idea is that by this point you, the player, are enjoying the game enough that you’ll want to continue, and there is only one way to continue.

And I think that this teaches a lesson about torture and empathy beyond what you can learn from literature (although, we’ll see.  I’m still waiting in my local library’s queue for Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s “Guantanamo Diary.”  I expect more bleak essays will appear here in the future!).

To wit, why would anyone do those awful things?  Well, you’re told to.  You’re led along, you spend a lot of time learning to follow directions, and each new command issued might be a little more immoral than the one before, but there aren’t huge jumps from one to the next.  By the time you’re told to punch the tied-up man in the face, it’s not that much worse than other things you’ve done before.  And you want to move on!  Keep your job, get promoted, serve your time and get back to your real life.

Honestly, just thinking about it, it sounds ridiculous that someone would justify torture to himself that way.  Which I think is part of the benefit of the game, even though it’s got a lot of awful stuff in it, and maybe was played by a bunch of people who weren’t prepared to think critically about its message — like, right, obviously children shouldn’t be playing things like that — but it does teach players that they are perhaps not as morally pure as they’d thought.

Limbo_Box_ArtBut, okay, my favorite example?  I saved this one for last, even though… well.  Let’s just state this first: Limbo was almost one of the best games of all time.  Potentially the best, in my opinion.  The game has two movements, effectively, and I think that in order for it to be the best game ever, the first movement could go unchanged.  The second let me down, but, who cares?  Coming that close to greatness is pretty impressive.  And, with luck, maybe the developers will rework it in the future and turn it into the best game of all time.

A brief description, in case you haven’t played it: it’s a Mario-like (i.e. sidescrolling, cartoony) puzzle game.  The puzzles include many traps that can only be identified through trial and error.  Mistakes result in the sudden, gristly, controller-vibrating demise of the cute protagonist.

The game is terrifying.  You proceed through the woods, trying to escape.  As you play, you’ll be eaten by spiders.  Crushed by rocks.  Attacked by… wait, what?  Attacked by spider-like contraptions built by other children; those boys run away into the distance when you draw near.

Thing is, the game is so scary that it really sucks you in.  And makes you (if you’re anything like me, that is) feel pretty angry at those other cutely-drawn cartoon boys who’re beleaguering you.  And it’s great.  The whole first movement of the game where you’re proceeding through the woods.

The second half of the game is set in a mechanized wasteland.  It’s mildly interesting, but gameplay is simply more of the same.  And it became less and less scary.  My brother and I had been playing for a while at that point, after each ghastly demise we’d hand over the controller, so that was part of why it was less scary, but also, many previous games feature industrial scariness.  The woodland segment felt special.

CaptureBut, okay, the thing that I think would’ve made Limbo great?  If the second half were replaced by more woodland puzzles that put the player into the role of tormenting other boys who were trying to escape.  As is, in the first half of the game you are tormented but your tormenters simply disappear (or, sometimes, accidentally commit suicide in their zealous efforts to expunge you).  It would’ve been nice if the second half of the game built on the psychological effects it was engendering by forcing you to attack other children in order to solve puzzles.

The controls for the game were quite simple, but I think the developers could’ve done it; as a basic example, you can push blocks around, and it might be horrifying to need a block slightly higher than ground level in order to jump to a platform, and be forced to push it on top of another child in order to escape.  And I think that could’ve added to the game’s message: yes, you can persevere, you can escape, but to do so you might have to become a monster.

Oy, nutters.  Apparently nap time is over now — still, I feel like I typed out most of what I wanted.  Pretty good for just an hour-long nap-written essay, right?  And I can always write another videogame essay later, if N ever falls asleep again.