For I Have Tasted The Fruit
June 11, 2019 9:05 AM   Subscribe

I don't have an hour to watch that SMAC video right now, but I am intrigued as hell.
posted by SansPoint at 9:08 AM on June 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

I will happily admit that I have not watched this yet, but it sounds very related to Jimmy Maher's "The Game of Everything" series on Digital Antiquarian, all about the first Civilization game from Sid Meier. It starts here with the game's development, but gets philosophical in Part 3, which, yes, starts talking about The End Of History.
posted by timdiggerm at 9:44 AM on June 11, 2019

“There’s also a political dimension to it in that none of us are particularly big fans of capitalism, but you still need to work and pay rent. So why not try to get something better going? There’s something exciting and liberating about just having a team of equals in the workplace, where we all own what we make and the proceeds from it.”
This. We need more of this in 2019. Better work conditions makes for better gaming. I wish the industry would take heed of this. Thanks for posting this Whelk.
posted by Fizz at 9:50 AM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

It's similarly been noted that the SimCity series of games has some underlying politics at its heart, like assuming that race and ethnicity are immaterial and don't effect behavior, that a strong preference for automobiles over other modes of transportation exists, and that improving material conditions is the only way to improve the lives of denizens of your city.

Moreover, as mentioned in the other thread, one of they key ways to build a "successful" city is to make sure that poverty is "eliminated" by gentrifying and outpricing all the poor people, who just disappear without any real consideration for where they move off to.

It's a game that has a ton of interesting pedagogical potential but also some really unexamined politics.
posted by thegears at 9:56 AM on June 11, 2019 [6 favorites]

Can any artistic statement have a political message?

I think the question only appears radical because most people don't think of games having a developed political consciousness. Games have clearly reflected the politics of their creators forever, from Trinity through Duke Nukem to Civilization. Colonialism and cultural extinguishment is how you win in Civilization. The "best" non-violent victories are cultural or religious imperialism. It's a fun game I've wasted hours and days on, but those bloodless pixels are simulating a brutal reality, even for "good" civilizations.
posted by bonehead at 9:59 AM on June 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Motion Twin is also another notable game studio with an anarcho syndicalist organization. Dead Cells is great, too.
posted by _Synesthesia_ at 10:11 AM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Games, like any created and expressive thing, can have a politics, especially if they're narrative. The underlying assumptions of the story reflect a worldview that always comes from somewhere, and that perspective comes with ways of dealing with groups of people, which is what politics *is.*
posted by pykrete jungle at 10:15 AM on June 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

So often, though, video games obscure politics by obscuring the results of decisions. In one of the early SimCities, you could “solve” some of your pollution issues by putting manufacturing against the “edge” of your space, so some amount of your pollution would be allocated to “empty space.” Which doesn’t work well in real cities. Shooting enemies has no consequences, because they are targets, not people. Games will always have shortcuts (otherwise, it would just be life), but it pays to notice the gaps from time to time.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:22 AM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

It's hard to deny that success in any of the core civ games requires the first quarter of the game to be a campaign of genocide against the indigenous inhabitants.
Firaxis are clearly aware of this since the spin off games usually provide good reasons for not being a colonialist maniac.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:36 AM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

you could “solve” some of your pollution issues by putting manufacturing against the “edge” of your space, so some amount of your pollution would be allocated to “empty space.”

That's OK; it was outside the environment.
posted by bonehead at 10:46 AM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

I just watched that Yaz Minksy video a few days ago and thought it was pretty good. I have no idea how Alpha Centauri would hold up now (and he points out that its viewpoint is deeply locked in the late 90s), but it was a hell of a thing to play when it came out and I definitely sank a lot of time into it, mostly playing, but a shocking amount (certainly for a strategy game) just absorbing the flavor and setting. I found the directory with the audio files for the technology and base improvements and would just listen to them by themselves, along with all the videos for whatever they called Wonders in-universe.

I don't have a ton to add about the political and futurism stuff he mostly discusses, but I do think that a really shocking thing for me when I was first playing the game as a teenager was how generous the writing is to the faction leaders. For example, I don't think that the writers actually think that Christian fascism or Maoist totalitarianism are good politics to have, but they did approach Miriam Godwinson and Sheng-Ji Yang from a somewhat sympathetic starting place and tried to explore how someone might become a Believer or a member of the Hive based on a non-radical set of starting premises. Virtually every other piece of media at the time presented viewpoints like those as exclusively held by deranged maniacs whose origins must be totally unknowable depravity, and I continue to appreciate the effort that went in to writing the factions in ways that avoided that mindset, even as all/almost all of the factions committed what the game was clear were extremely depraved acts.
posted by Copronymus at 10:51 AM on June 11, 2019 [12 favorites]

All video games have an ideology, consciously or not.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:32 AM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

Holy crap. What a question. Of course video games have an ideology. They're narrative entertainment! They'd have to be working pretty hard to avoid it. It might not always be coherent, but it's rarely even subtle.
posted by potrzebie at 11:40 AM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

> Games, like any created and expressive thing, can have a politics, especially if they're narrative.

and also

> Holy crap. What a question. Of course video games have an ideology. They're narrative entertainment!

So I think I'm about to blunder into some old debates about narratology vs. ludology or whatever, but the thing that really fascinates me about the ideological function of videogames is that it still exists even if you bracket off narrative. Like, when you are playing a videogame, you are being consistently rewarded for performing a certain set of actions, and punished for performing another set of actions. Through this reward/punishment system, the game trains you to perform the desired actions well. But it also trains you to see the world in a particular way: specifically, it trains you to see the actions you take in the game as things that make sense to do.

What's remarkable is that sometimes the thing that the game is training you to do — the worldview that the game is encouraging you to adopt — runs at right angles to the worldview encouraged by the narrative and the intent of the game's designers. To dig up an ancient example: the narrative of Quake teaches you that frantic ultraviolence solves problems. But the gameplay of Quake teaches you that you can jump really high by firing a rocket at your own feet. By teaching you this, it encourages you to take a sort of hackerly approach to exploring the game world. It teaches you that to get best results, you shouldn't respect the game's theme — its attempts to get you to believe that it's a simulation of being a space marine or whatever under attack by demons — but should instead treat it the game as a system that you can exploit. It teaches you to do things that make no sense whatsoever within the metaphor of the game's theme, just on the chance that they might be useful. In a way, it inculcates the Silicon Valley "move fast break things / it's better to ask forgiveness than permission" ideology.

But likewise, the existence (and relative discoverability) of the rocket jump trick teaches you to reach out to other players in order to learn or develop other useful illusion-breaking hacks, and this is maybe a genuinely prosocial thing for it to encourage.

Games, man! they're the damnedest things.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 1:03 PM on June 11, 2019 [13 favorites]

This is a good essay, lots of interesting points. This guy has only 700-odd subscribers too, must be new on the scene. I've got to admit I'm loving these long form video essays coming out of lefttube, particularly those examining games on a deeper level. It seems like only recently that games have been approved for cultural criticism, previously they were so much fluff that couldn't possibly have any deeper meaning or lessons to learn. On the contrary, even the low-brow fare has a distinct ideology, and some have definitely achieved "art" status in retrospect.

On his point regarding the inexorable march of progress and its depiction in 4X games: really, I can only think of one other title that sort-of subverted this. Crusader Kings 2 allows you to transition from "tribal" to "feudal/republic" in the earlier start dates, a decision which can definitely make you significantly more vulnerable for a time. And then there's the possibility of the complete collapse of your realm when the insane monarch embraces heresy... but CK2 isn't the usual 4X fare.

My favourite aspect of SMAC was Planet fighting back with sea level rise, climate change, etc. That was unique and still is, I think.
posted by Acey at 2:26 PM on June 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Ideology wise I want my eudaimonic, green, knowledge-seeking democracy. I think Yaz Minksy is right; there are a lot of fears about the future in SMAC but also a lot of hope.
posted by antiwiggle at 2:38 PM on June 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

My favourite aspect of SMAC was Planet fighting back with sea level rise, climate change, etc. That was unique and still is, I think.

The most recent expansion pack to Civ VI added sea level rise, actually, which is AFAIK directly tied to the actions players are taking on the board. I've read critiques that it's a little too easy to mitigate, but it's still the kind of idea that I really want to see out of a modern, nation-scale 4x game.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:47 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

My inner pessimist wonders how many of Valve's mistakes they will duplicate - I generally hear that Valve's "flat", "boss-free" organization is highly dysfunctional, with a very definite hierarchical structure that just doesn't have titles for the bosses. I am sure they have gotten more than a few earfulls from ex-Valve people at this point.

My inner optimist, who is also a socialist, wishes them the best of luck making this work, and raises her fist in solidarity!
posted by egypturnash at 3:41 PM on June 11, 2019

I generally hear that Valve's "flat", "boss-free" organization is highly dysfunctional, with a very definite hierarchical structure that just doesn't have titles for the bosses

The general recommendation in anything larger than a tiny organization is that it's worth having officers/managers/people-in-charge, but that those roles be temporary and possibly picked at random (sortition). The result is to regularly shake up whatever hierarchies are forming and prevent them from ossifying.
posted by thegears at 2:51 AM on June 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

As time goes on, I am increasingly less inclined to attribute Valve's problems to their flat structure than to the fact that their primary business at this point is rent extraction. Not even Half-Life 3 could make them as much money as passively collecting their 30%.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:34 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Tropico 3, and later iterations, had an interesting split between the image it conveyed and the politics the gameplay pushed you into. On the surface, it's a comic opera version of a despot. All the trappings and tools available for being an evil repressive asshole who jails political opponents, fights a cruel war against the insurgents, and is generally a greedy totalitarian. Controlling the flow of information, letting his people live in shanties or substandard ugly public housing while he is robbing the state's treasury.

But the game is a city builder at its heart. City sims get most of their fun by continuously building new things. If you play the part of the despot, the city building side of the game suffers. Less money to build things. Fewer options on what is available to build. The citizens are unhappy which slows construction down to a crawl, and creates more rebels which further restricts building while sometimes blowing up existing structures. And aesthetically suffers with a landscape full of shanties, trash, and rotting concrete apartment blocks.

But, if you concentrate on the good of your people, everything opens up. Build what is essentially a social democracy with fair elections, and your city becomes something beautiful, colorful, and clean. Full of happy, healthy people living in peace which makes advancement much easier and the core mechanics of the game are much more fun. The end game, in that scenario, ends up being almost a utopian paradise.

It's not a perfect game, but I liked the not-so-subtle message. A political morality tale, of sorts, in the form of a city sim.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 6:33 AM on June 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

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