I’ve been playing the Civilization games for nearly twenty years. You select a nation, and a leader (say, Russia, with Stalin, or America, with Washington). Different versions of the game let you select certain social policies (in Civ IV, slavery has its benefits). Some let you raze enemy cities, essentially allowing for ethnic cleansing (though you only see basic icons for things like cities, ships and armies). When Civ V came to PAX 2010 – especially offering an, “Addiction is Uncivilized” full-sized poster for visiting their preview – I had to see it. I waited in line with a buddy named Jamison. It was Sunday, the show was nearly over, so the line only took a few minutes. Once inside, I immediately disliked the PR douchebag up front. His script involved showing us how clean and pretty the animations were, when armies attacked cities, and armies attacked armies. At one point, with a city under siege, his script had him call on an ambiguously Asian woman to drop a nuclear bomb.
Everyone in the room gives a fake plastic chuckle, or head lilt. As if to say, you're so funny, PR Man, now give me something nice to take home. The woman playing gives the practiced but tired smile you'd expect after rehashing her script dozens of times in the last few days. We’re all so completely disconnected from the meaning behind these semantics, that nuclear war gets a chuckle.
Maybe it means we’re all cosmopolitan enough to understand our human history of nuclear detonations in a hip postmodernist sense. This room full of slightly overweight white American guys, with their hoodies and neckbeards, we all hate war and suffering, man. And like, in games, breaking taboo is totally the point. Each and every one of us is a reasonable adult, so bring on the fuckin’ nukes already!
Judge me as you will: I’m okay with that view, if that’s the reasoning.
Civilization is a game about war, culture, politics, and the systems behind them. Nuclear war is part of that, and it belongs in that kind of game. There are games, say the Saints Row franchise, where you get naked and car-surf in traffic. Both have Interesting Things to Say (SRIII is a good comment on the impunity of fame). It’s just, Civilization leaves a lot to the imagination. In previous Civ games, nukes left all kind of obnoxious cleanup. They were mechanically interesting, but neither giving nor receiving them was ever very fun. At this PAX, nuclear war was clearly just a laughable commodity, a weapon we launch for giggles. A weapon we launch to launch a game. So the script went on, the maybe-Japanese woman clicks to launch nukes at the bidding of this professional salesman. And then he'd tell the same two empty jokes about how funny that was. I guess I was being a bad fucking sport and a buzzkill when my gut churned. It’s just, I wasn’t convinced that my fellow nerds had actually read into what the game meant. The problem with Civilization is that – after enough bombs have dropped, enough tanks have rolled, and you’ve presumably reigned supreme – the player may or may not recognize the cost of their victory. The implied cultural, racial, religious, and idealistic annihilations. Winning the game is triumphant, but almost always a little tragic.
In games, I’ve cut down thousands of folks heedlessly, with lightsabers, AK-47s, coat hangers, whatever was handy. My fission nukes in Alpha Centauri – a sister game to Civilization – had killed billions in a single strike. Dropping nukes is bad news in almost any playthrough of Civ. This hired actor seemed oblivious. This setup was completely disconnected from the essence of the game. It was a release meant to bolster the stock prices of the company 2K Games, and we all smiled like good little Oppenheimers so we could have our pretty “Addiction is Uncivilized” posters.
If a game developer can draw oppression in sharp relief, evoking the difficult emotions and situations involved, then great. Good job, game developer. Whether it’s torture, slavery, rape, genocide, gross appropriation, institutionally-sanctioned violences – or any of the other shit inflicted out of the ignorance of privilege – games have unique, novel gifts to give these dialogs. Unfortunately, just as often they take.
When a work uses oppression as a scintillating zing, a tool to move product, it’s attempting to profit from the anguish, dehumanization, and/or wholesale murder of others.
Unique identities and weird shit? Great. I’m not saying life ought to be the some curdled bottle of homogenized milk, toning it all down at all times on the fear of offending groups we don’t know anything about. Artists have enough filters to worry about, like “what’s going to get me banned at WalMart?” Maybe even, “What’s going to feed my two-year-old?” Cultural and intellectual diversity, like genetic diversity, gives the human race a broader toolkit for surviving the universe’s fickle apocalypses.
Just, you know, listen. Now and again. Listening may or may not be, as Jesse Schell suggests, the most important skill for a game designer (though I suspect that it is). It just behooves every human to be aware of our natural proclivity for fucking each other over. We do it, it follows a few patterns, but can always come in new and unique flavors. It’s right to challenge this when we see it, and be aware of the tremendous amount we’ll be blind to. Even those who understand the value of empathy will be completely oblivious now and then.
bell hooks wrote of her Ain’t I a Woman?, “Although the focus is on the black female, our struggle for liberation has significance only if it takes place within a feminist movement that has as its fundamental goal the liberation of all people.”
Games – at the very least – could be safer places. We could do that.
Start reading from the introduction to In Play