Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Gaming vs. Reality

When The Boy was very young, about 13 months, he was wracked with grief over the absence of his mother and I was at a loss as to what to do with him until she returned. Even though he could speak quite well, he was (as all toddlers) a grief terrorist. He'd cry until his demands, however unreasonable, were met. Completely inconsolable.

In frustration, I asked him if he wanted to help me shoot monsters. This captured his attention, and for the rest of the afternoon we played "Doom II". (I steered, he shot.) From that point, our relationship fundamentally changed. All of a sudden, I was Mr. Cool. We probably didn't play again for months (we were moving at the time) but shooting monsters sustained him and fired up his imagination. Also, being with me became an entertaining prospect rather than a dreadful one.

I've never been able to recapture that with his younger sisters, not because they don't want to play, but because they refuse to let me help. They both want to shoot and aim, and they're simply not that coordinated. So other avenues have been necessary there.

The upshot of this is that I've had The Boy as a human lab on which to test the notion that games de-sensitize us to violence, or incline us to violence, or do something or other bad regarding violence that the nattering nannies of negativity previously projected on to D&D, SatAM cartoons, rock muisc, horror comics, flapper music and pulp fiction (to hit the highlights of the 20th century).

Suffice to say that The Boy was the gentlest, most empathic and most kind child I've ever known, and playing games seemed to not affect that at all.

In fact, it was an issue even back in his pre-school days (the late '90s) that he wanted to play boy games, boy games being almost inherently violent. (Though he also excelled in organizing other children, even older ones for more community sandbox engineering projects as well. And he's very, very good at directing younger children to do his bidding. As he says, he's always wanted minions.)

But his clarity between the difference in playing games and living reality was such that I never worried about it. He could go from vigorously competing in some fashion to helping someone in pain or need within a heartbeat.

As a gamer, I tend to look at games in terms of numbers. Now, the best players, the very best players there are for any game, almost always have a clear breakdown of a game's mechanics: The numbers that make it work. As a game designer, I often tried to hide those numbers in order to make the game more immersive. (And as a Dungeon Master, I'm willing to sublimate them complete for a necessary plot turn, which is probably why me and the new D&D don't get along.)

In reality, hardcore gamers don't play games so much as they crunch numbers. That's why they can play something that is absolutely horrifying in the narrative sense. It's also why they really can't be adversely affected by a game, and very often do things like skip cutscenes and narrative text.


Ralph Koster, in his "Theory of Fun for Game Design" talks about a game which has you as a Nazi running a gas chamber. You're given Jews and required to stack them neatly, at which point you can gas them, sweep them out and take more Jews. They're shaped differently and they come faster and faster, and you lose when you run out of room in the chamber before you can gas them.

Horrifying, isn't it?

Mechanically, what Ralph is describing is "Tetris", one of the most innocuous--and popular--video games ever made. He's just given it a back story. The first video game ever banned, I'm told, was "Death Race" back in the early '70s. Inspired by the movie, presumably, but before licensing rituals were established, "Death Race" had you drive your little car around a ring and run into stick figures, which turned into gravestones.

It was about as offensive as "Tetris" to look at, but you could infer some offense from it (and some people did!).

The reason I was thinking about all this is that I play "Civilization" (Civ). Civ began as a board game in the '80s by the legendary Avalon Hill, and was adapted to computers by Sid Meier in the '80s. Sid went on to do a lot of other games, like "Colonization", "Pirates", "Railroad Tycoon" and "Civil War", as well as being at least a figurehead on the various sequels, as he rakes in the cash.

But Civ, currently up to version 4, is the most interesting to me because it's a very, very rough civilization simulation. I mean, it's the "climate model" of civilization simulation, only it sometimes comes out right by sheer luck. It's not uncommon to enter the 20th century and suddenly have massive world wars break out, for example, especially in Civ II and Civ 3.

You research techs which make researching other techs, and accomplishing certain tasks, available to you in historically interesting ways. The wheel leads to you being able to make roads, while you must invent the Printing Press to discover Democracy. (There's a slippery distinction between inventions and discoveries.) And so on.

One of the challenges of the game, however, is picking your government style. In Civ 1 and Civ 2, you wanted to beeline to Democracy. Civ 3 tried to balance the types of gov't a bit more, by making Fascism a very good warmongering style at the cost of reducing your population (as you weeded out undesirables), and Communism just a flat out good warmongering style that was good for running a super-large empire (at the cost of, I think scientific research, happiness, commercial success and/or some other penalties).

In other words, the first three iterations of the game sought to represent historically that certain modes of government were bad unless you had evil design.

Version 4, however, is supremely balanced. (Ugh. There's that word again.) Instead of selecting a government, you have five civics representing your religious attitude (theocracy versus free religion, say), your commercial attitude (mercantilism versus free market, e.g.) and so on.

So, there's no communism per se. (No atheism option either.) There is a "state property" option, and it reduces the maintenance cost of your cities. It's a good option for someone with a large empire.

A fair number of gamers will not use that option. It is, in a small way, like packing Jews into gas chambers--something that repulses even in an abstract, theoretical reduction, without any of the real world consequences that "state property" actually had. "Police state" is a viable option as well.

What the designers did makes perfect sense from a gameplay standpoint. I may have played one game of Civ 3 where I used fascism. (I was Genghis Khan and planning to do nothing but fight from there on out.) Communism I played with a couple of times but it wasn't very fun.

Civ 3 was edgy that way. It also modeled slavery in a very distinct fashion. The Civ games (at least from version 2 on) always had the option for you to "whip" your city's population in order to speed the building of something. Version 3 had it that, in some circumstances, when you defeated enemy troops, the result would not be dead enemies but enslaved ones. Civ 4 goes back to the original model but allows for slave revolts as a cost.

These decisions are entirely amoral, of course. One doesn't concern one's self with the fate of a pawn in a chess game, which is all these things are, only with window dressing. In the same way one doesn't really think about using a monopoly to drive everyone else to bankruptcy (unless one is Bill Gates). Most of us would find it repulsive to actually deeply ponder what games meant.

That said, it's sort of funny to me how many people will avoid using "Communism" or "State Property" in a Civ game.

There are still some taboos, mild though they may be.


  1. I tried that game but I just couldn't get into it. Sid Meir's games just got overly complicated for me. I enjoy Empire Earth and Age of Empires as mindless entertainment. But the more bells and whistles the less fun it seems. At least to me. Meir's Civil War games are a lot more fun in theory than they are playing. The stream I seem to enjoy most is the Cossack's series. That seems to play a lot better since you can form units and stuff. I think the American Experiance one is paticularly good. But I am not as big a game expert as you are, just as I am not in your leauge as a movie afficiando. I just know what I like.

  2. Well, honestly, except for Civ 3, I tend to play at low enough levels where you don't have to manage the complexity much. There was a point in Civ 3 where I could have gone to the higher levels but the trade-off between the management and the reward felt too much like work.

    I'm liked Empire Earth but thought AoE was tedious. Go figger. Of that genre, I preferred Seven Kingdoms. Of RTSes in general, I love Dungeon Keeper.

    Don't have much time to play lately, unfortunately.

  3. Me too. But the Age of Empires campaigns were fun. I mean you went through the live story of Genghis Khan or Wellington or whatever. That was kinda cool. Especailly the Roman and Alexander the Great ones. I enjoyed those especially when you moved up the scale of difficulty.

    The Cossack games have an ability to set up units that move as a group in formations and stuff. That is pretty cool too.

    The time I used to waste playing while waiting for the returns to print I now waste blogging. hee hee.

  4. Formations are cool though while they can model climate accurately, they can't really seem to model the effects of formations on battle yet.

    The Boy plays the Total War series. I think I'd like tht but I don't have the time.


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