Introduction: New Paradigms, Old Lessons
There was a great Nintendo commercial a few years back in which a kid on vacation with his Game Boy starts seeing everything as Tetris blocks. Mount Rushmore, the Rockies, the Grand Canyon - they all morph into rows of squares, just waiting to drop, rotate, and slide into place. The effect is eerie, but familiar to anyone who's ever played the game. The commercial captures the most remarkable quality of video and computer games: the way they seem to restructure perception, so that even after you've stopped playing, you continue to look at the world a little differently.
This phenomenon can be dangerous - as when I finished up a roll of quarters on Pole Position, walked out to my car, and didn't realize for a half mile or so that I was still driving as if I were in a video game, darting past cars and hewing to the inside lane on curves. More subtly, when the world looks like one big video game, it may become easier to lose track of the human consequences of real-life violence and war.
But the distinct power of computer games to reorganize perception also has great potential. Computer games can be powerful tools for communicating not just specific ideas, but structures of thought - whole ways of making sense of the world. Just as Tetris, on the simple level of spatial geometry, encourages you to discover previously unnoticed patterns in the natural landscape, more sophisticated games can teach you how to recognize more complex interrelationships. The simulation game SimCity, for example, immerses you in the dynamics of building and developing a city, from zoning neighborhoods to building roads to managing the police force. In learning how to play the game, you develop an intuitive sense of how each aspect of the city affects and is affected by other aspects of the city - how, for example, the development of a single residential area will affect traffic, pollution, crime, and commerce throughout the city. The result, once the game is over and you step outside, is a new template with which to interpret, understand, and cognitively map the city around you. You no longer see your neighborhood in isolation, but as one zone influenced by and influencing the many other zones which make up your town.1
Any medium, of course, can teach you how to see life in new ways. When you read a book, in a sense you're learning how to think like the author. And as film theorists have long noted, classical Hollywood narrative teaches viewers not just how to look at a screen, but how to gaze at the world. But for the most part, the opportunities for these media to reorient our perceptions today are limited by their stylistic familiarity. A particularly visionary author or director may occasionally confound our expectations and show us new ways to read or watch. But for the most part, the codes of literary and film narrative are set. We may learn new things in a great book or movie, but we almost always encounter them in familiar ways.
Computer games, by contrast, are a new medium, still in flux. While game genres have begun to form, they remain fluid, open-ended. The rules and expectations for computer games are not yet set in stone. Each new game must rethink how it should engage the player, and the best games succeed by discovering new structures of interaction, inventing new genres. What would be avant-garde in film or literature - breaking with familiar forms of representation, developing new modes of address - is standard operating procedure in the world of computer games. Every software developer is always looking for the next "killer application" - the newest paradigm-buster.
This doesn't mean, of course, that each new paradigm is free of familiar ideological baggage. Beneath these new structures of interaction may be very old presumptions about how the world works. SimCity may help us see cities with new eyes, but the lessons it teaches us about cities - the political and economic premises it rests on - are conventionally capitalist, if somewhat liberal. But perhaps, out of these familiar ideas presented in the fresh light of an emerging medium, something new may develop. At the least, as computer games discover new tools for communicating ways of thinking, new opportunities are opened for more radical visions.
A closer look at the semiotics of a specific computer game can help specify in what ways these new texts teach us to look at the world differently, and in what ways they tell the same old stories. In this paper, I will look at one game which typifies the medium today in all its contradictions. Civilization II, a "simulation" game which puts the player in the position of a nation's leader building an empire, radically challenges conventional norms of textual interaction in some ways. Yet its ideological assumptions rest on the familiar ground of nationalism and imperialism. Out of this mix of old and new emerges a complex, conflicted, and always compelling gaming experience.
Booting Up Civilization II
Civilization II is the sequel to Civilization, which was first released in 1991 by MicroProse Software. Civilization II appeared five years later, in 1996. (Civilization II adds new features and spices up the graphics from the original Civilization, but the basic dynamics of gameplay remain unchanged. Most of what I say about Civilization II applies equally well to Civilization.) Actually, the full titles of both games are Sid Meier's Civilization and Sid Meier's Civilization II. Meier, the co-founder of MicroProse, is the game's inventor and original designer. Meier is known in the computer gaming world for his skill in designing absorbing, detailed simulations. His early games Pirates and Railroad Tycoon each helped shape the emerging genre in the 1980s. Civilization was hailed on its release as one of the greatest computer games ever; Civilization II has been similarly honored. In a 1996 survey of the history of computer games, the magazine Computer Gaming World named the original Civilization "The Best Game of All Time" (1996). Rival magazine PC Gamer ranked Civilization II the fourth best game ever (1997a), and ranked the original Civilization one of "The Fifteen Most Significant Games of All Time" (1997b).
The manual for the original Civilization introduces the game this way:
How does this tangle of roles become the smooth flow of gameplay? The answer, I think, is that you do not identify with any of these subject positions so much as with the computer itself.2 When you play a simulation game like Civilization II, your perspective - the eyes through which you learn to see the game - is not that of any character or set of characters, be they Kings, Presidents, or even God. The style in which you learn to think doesn't correspond to the way any person usually makes sense of the world. Rather, the pleasures of a simulation game come from inhabiting an unfamiliar, alien mental state: from learning to think like a computer.3
The way computer games teach structures of thought - the way they reorganize perception - is by getting you to internalize the logic of the program. To win, you can't just do whatever you want. You have to figure out what will work within the rules of the game. You must learn to predict the consequences of each move, and anticipate the computer's response. Eventually, your decisions become intuitive, as smooth and rapid-fire as the computer's own machinations.
In one sense, the computer is your opponent. You have to know how to think like the computer because the computer provides the Artificial Intelligence which determines the moves of your rival civilizations. Like Kasparov playing Deep Blue, you have to figure out how the computer makes decisions in order to beat it. But in this role of opponent, the computer is only a stand-in for a human player. When multiple players compete, either in Civilization II or in the online version, CivNet, the AI isn't even needed. And in terms of strategy, the Pentium-powered processor is no Deep Blue; its moves are fairly predictable.
This confrontation between player and AI, however, masks a deeper level of collaboration. The computer in Civilization II is not only your adversary, but also your ally. In addition to controlling your rivals, it processes the rules of the game. It tells you when to move, who wins each battle, and how quickly your cities can grow. It responds instantly to your every touch of the mouse, so that when you move your hand along the mousepad, it seems as if you're actually physically moving the pointer on the screen, rather than simply sending digital information to the computer. It runs the universe which you inhabit when you play the game. "Thinking like the computer" means thinking along with the computer, becoming an extension of the computer's processes.4
This helps explain the strange sense of self-dissolution created by computer games, the way in which games "suck you in." The pleasure of computer games is in entering into a computer-like mental state: in responding as automatically as the computer, processing information as effortlessly, replacing sentient cognition with the blank hum of computation. When a game of Civilization II really gets rolling, the decisions are effortless, instantaneous, chosen without self-conscious thought. The result is an almost-meditative state, in which you aren't just interacting with the computer, but melding with it.
The connection between player and computer in a simulation game is a
kind of cybernetic circuit, a continual feedback loop. Today, the prefix
"cyber-" has become so ubiquitous that its use has diffused to mean little
more than "computer-related." But the word "cybernetics," from which the
prefix was first taken, has a more distinct meaning. Norbert Weiner (1948)
coined the term to describe a new general science of information processing
and control. (He took it from the Greek word kybernan, meaning to steer
or govern.) In particular, he was interested in studying, across disciplinary
boundaries, processes of feedback: the ways in which systems - be they
bodies, machines, or combinations of both - control and regulate themselves
through circuits of information. As Steve J. Heims writes in his history,
The Cybernetics Group,
There are drawbacks to this merging of consciousness. Connected to the computer, it's easy to imagine you've transcended your physical body, to dismiss your flesh and blood as simply the "meat" your mind must inhabit, as the protagonist of Neuromancer puts it (Gibson 1984). This denial is a form of alienation, a refusal to recognize the material basis for your experience. The return of the repressed comes in the form of carpal tunnel syndrome, eyestrain, and other reminders that cyberspace remains rooted in physical existence.
But what the connection between player and computer enables is access to an otherwise unavailable perspective. In the collaboration between you and the computer, self and Other give way, forming what might be called a single cyborg consciousness. In her influential "Manifesto for Cyborgs" (1985), Donna Haraway proposed the figure of the cyborg - "a hybrid of machine and organism" - as an image that might help us make sense of the increasing interpenetration of technology and humanity under late capitalism . Haraway's point was that in this hyper-mechanized world, we are all cyborgs. When you drive a car, the unit of driver-and-car becomes a kind of cyborg. When you turn on the TV, the connection of TV-to-viewer is a kind of cybernetic link. The man steering the ship in Heims' example is a cyborg. And most basically, since we all depend on technology to survive this postmodern world - to feed us, to shelter us, to comfort us - in a way, we are all as much cyborgs as the Six Million Dollar Man.
Simulation games offer a singular opportunity to think through what it means to be a cyborg. Most of our engagements with technology are distracted, functional affairs - we drive a car to get somewhere; we watch TV to see what's on.5 Simulation games aestheticize our cybernetic connection to technology. They turn it into a source of enjoyment and an object for contemplation. They give us a chance to luxuriate in the unfamiliar pleasures of rote computation and depersonalized perspective, and grasp the emotional contours of this worldview. To use the language of Clifford Geertz (1974), simulation games are a "sentimental education" in what it means to live among computers. Through the language of play, they teach you what it feels like to be a cyborg.6
Narrativizing Geography: Civilization II as a "Spatial Story"
So, what are the advantages to life as a cyborg, to learning to think like a computer? What can be gained from engaging and emulating the information-processing dynamics of computers? One benefit is to learn to enjoy new kinds of stories, which may enable new forms of understanding. Unlike most of the stories we're used to hearing, a simulation doesn't have characters or a plot in the conventional sense. Instead, its primary narrative agent is geography. Simulation games tell a story few other media can: the drama of a map changing over time.
You begin Civilization II with a single band of prehistoric settlers, represented as a small figure with a shovel at the center of the main map which takes up most of the computer screen. Terrain is delineated on this map by icons representing woods, rivers, plains, oceans, mountains, and so on. At the beginning of the game, however, almost all of the map is black; you don't get to learn what's out there until one of your units has explored the area. Gradually, as you expand your empire and send out scouting parties, the landscape is revealed. This process of exploration and discovery is one of the fundamental pleasures of Civilization II. It's what gives the game a sense of narrative momentum.
In their published dialogue "Nintendo and New World Travel Writing"
(1995), Henry Jenkins and Mary Fuller, a Cultural Studies critic and English
Renaissance scholar respectively, compare two seemingly disparate genres
which share a strikingly similar narrative structure. Nintendo games and
New World travel narratives, like simulation games, are structured not
by plot or character, but by the process of encountering, transforming
and mastering geography. Fuller writes, "[b]oth terms of our title evoke
explorations and colonizations of space: the physical space navigated,
mapped and mastered by European voyagers and travelers in the 16th and
17th centuries and the fictional, digitally projected space traversed,
mapped, and mastered by players of Nintendo video games" (1995, 58). Borrowing
from the work of Michel de Certeau (1984a and b), Jenkins labels these
geographical narratives "spatial stories." He describes the process of
geographic transformation as a transition from abstract "place" into concrete
In its focus on the transformation of place into space, Civilization
II seems like an archetypal "spatial story." However, Civilization II differs
from the geographic narratives Jenkins and Fuller describe in an important
way, one which demonstrates the distinctive qualities of simulation games.
In addition to the categories of space and place, Jenkins borrows two other
terms from de Certeau, "maps" and "tours":
In the "spatial stories" Jenkins and Fuller discuss, then, the pleasure comes from two transitions, one involving geographic transformation, the other individual subjectivity. Place becomes space as unfamiliar geography is conquered through exploration and development. And maps become tours as abstract geography is subjectively situated in personal experience. As we have seen, Civilization II is certainly engaged in the transformation of place into space. But in simulation games, the map never becomes a tour. The game screen documents the player's changes to the landscape, but these transformations are always represented in the abstract terms of the map. The point-of-view always remains an overhead, "God's-eye" perspective.
What's the import of this distinction? We might assume that the continued abstraction of the map would indicate a measure of detachment, compared to the ground-level engagement of a tour. But as already noted, simulation games seem singularly skilled at "sucking you in" to their peculiar kind of narrative. The difference is that the pleasure in simulation games comes from experiencing space as a map: of at once claiming a place, and retaining an abstracted sense of it. The spatial stories Fuller and Jenkins discuss respond to the challenge of narrativizing geography by "getting inside" the map - they zoom in from forest-level so we can get to know the trees. Character may not be a primary criteria for these stories, but the stories still depend on individual subjective experience as the engine for their geographic narrative. Geography itself is not the protagonist; rather, the protagonist's experience of geography structures the narrative.
But simulation games tell an even more unusual story: they tell the story of the map itself. Drawing a steady bead on the forest, they teach us how to follow, and enjoy, its transformations over time. We need never get distracted by the trees. Because simulation games fix the player in a depersonalized frame of mind, they can tell their story in the abstract, without ever bringing it to the level of individual experience. The map is not merely the environment for the story; it's the hero of the story.
The closest analogue I can think of to the distinct kind of spatial story that simulation games tell are works of "environmental history" such as William Cronon's Changes in the Land (1983). Cronon attempts to tell a version of American history from the perspective of the land, turning the earth itself into his protagonist. The limitations of the written word, however, make it difficult to fully treat an abstract entity as a character. You can't easily employ the devices normally used to engage the reader with a human protagonist. As a result, the book - like most works on geography - is still a rather dry read. It may offer a new perspective, but it can't engage the reader enough to give an emotional sense of what this perspective feels like.7
The clearest way to conceptualize space is not with words, but with images. A map captures the abstract contours of space; any verbal description begins the process of turning that map into a tour. This is why any good work of geography is full of maps; the reader is expected to continually check the words against the images, translating language back into visual understanding. Simulation games are a way to make the maps tell the whole story. As a still frame is to a movie, as a paragraph is to a novel, so is a map to a simulation game. Simulation games are maps-in-time, dramas which teach us how to think about structures of spatial relationships.8
In one sense, every map is always already a tour. As geographer Denis Wood points out in The Power of Maps (1992), a map is the cumulative result of many subjective judgments. Map always have a point of view. The ideological work of the "scientific," God's-eye view map is to make the traces of those subjective decisions disappear. Critics of computer games worry that the technological aura of computers further heightens this reification, leaving game players with the impression that they have encountered not just one version of the way the world works, but the one and only "objective" version (Brook and Boal 1995; Slouka 1995; Stoll 1995).
This perspective would leave little room to imagine resistance. But the structure of the computer gaming experience does allow for variant interpretations. You can win Civilization II in one of two ways. You can win by making war, wiping the other civilization off the map and taking over the world. Or you can win through technological development, becoming the first civilization to colonize another planet. I haven't emphasized the military aspect of Civilization II because I don't like wargames all that much myself. They make me anxious. My strategy for winning Civilization II is to pour all my efforts into scientific research, so that my nation is the most technologically advanced. This allows me to be the first to build "Wonders of the World" which, under the game's rules, force opponents to stay at peace with me. In the ancient world, the Great Wall of China does the trick; by modern times, I have to upgrade to the United Nations.
That's just one strategy for winning. I think it's probably the most effective - I get really high scores - but, judging from online discussions, it doesn't appear to be the most popular. Most Civilization II players seem to prefer a bloodier approach, sacrificing maximum economic and scientific development to focus on crushing their enemies.
The fact that more than one strategy will work - that there's no one "right" way to win the game - demonstrates the impressive flexibility of Civilization II. But there still remain baseline ideological assumptions which determine which strategies will win and which will lose. And underlying the entire structure of the game, of course, is the notion that global co-existence is a matter of winning or losing.
There are disadvantages to never seeing the trees for the forest. Civilization II's dynamic of depersonalization elides the violence of exploration, colonization, and development even more completely than do the stories of individual conquest described by Fuller and Jenkins. Military units who fight and die in Civilization II disappear in a simple blip; native peoples who defend their homelands are inconveniences, "barbarian hordes" to be quickly disposed of.
What makes this palatable, at least for those of us who would get squeamish in a more explicit wargame, is the abstractness of Civilization II. Any nation can be the colonizer, depending on who you pick to play. Barbarian hordes are never specific ethnicities; they're just generic natives. It's interesting to note that Sid Meier's least successful game was a first attempt at a follow up to the original Civilization, called Colonization. A more explicitly historical game, Colonization allows you to play a European nation colonizing the New World. In addressing a more concrete and controversial historical subject, Meier is forced to complicate the Manifest Destiny ethos of Civilization. The Native American nations are differentiated, and behave in different ways. You can't win through simple genocide, but must trade and collaborate with at least some Native Americans some of the time. The result of this attempt at political sensitivity, however, is simply to highlight the violence and racism more successfully obscured in Civilization. There's no getting around the goal of Colonization: to colonize the New World. And while you have a choice of which European power to play, you can't choose to play a Native American nation.
Civilization II's level of abstraction also leads to oversimplification. The immense timespan of Civilization II reifies historically specific, continually changing practices into transhistorical categories like "science," "religion," and "nation." Art and religion in Civilization II serve a purely functional role: to keep the people pacified. If you pursue faith and beauty at the expense of economic development, you're bound to get run over by less cultivated nations. Scientific research follows a path of rigid determinism; you always know in advance what you're going to discover next, and it pays to plan two or three inventions ahead. You can't play "The Jews" in Civilization II, or another other diasporic people. The game assumes that "civilization" equals distinct political nation. There's no creolization in Civilization II, no hybridity, no forms of geopolitical organization before (or after) the rise of nationalism. Either you conquer your enemy, or your enemy conquers you. You can trade supplies and technology with your neighbors, but it's presumed that your national identities will remain distinct. Playing a single, unchanging entity from the Stone Age to space colonization turns the often-slippery formation of nationhood into a kind of immutable racial destiny.
What to Do Once You've Conquered the World
If Civilization II rests on some questionable ideological premises, the distinct dynamics of computer gaming give the player the chance to transcend those assumptions. Computer games are designed to be played until they are mastered. You succeed by learning how the software is put together. Unlike a book or film that is engaged only once or twice, a computer game is played over and over until every subtlety is exposed, every hidden choice obvious to the savvy player. The moment the game loses its interest is when all its secrets have been discovered, its boundaries revealed. That's when the game can no longer suck you in. No game feels fresh forever; eventually, you run up against the limits of its perspective, and move on to other games.9 By learning from the limitations of Civilization II while exploiting the tools it offers, perhaps the next round of games can go further, challenging players' assumptions and expectations to create an even more compelling and rewarding interactive experience.
1. I address the semiotics of SimCity in much greater detail in "Making Sense of Software: Computer Games and Interactive Textuality" (Friedman 1995).
2. The argument I will be making here is an extension of my discussion of subjectivity in "Making Sense of Software" (Friedman 1995). In that essay, I describe the experience of playing SimCity as one of identifying with a process - with "the simulation itself" (85). In a simulation game, you don't imagine yourself as filling the shoes of a particular character on the screen, but rather, you see yourself as the entire screen, as the sum of all the forces and influences which make up the world of the game. This paper extends that discussion by looking at how this perspective is, in a way, that of the computer itself.
3. I should clarify that in talking about "thinking like a computer," I don't mean to anthropomorphize, or to suggest that machines can "think" the way humans do. As artificial intelligence researchers have learned, often to their chagrin, computers can only systematically, methodically crunch numbers and follow algorithms, while human thinking is less linear, more fluid. My point is that using simulation games can help us intuitively grasp the very alien way in which computers process information, and so can help us recognize how our relationships with computers affect our own thoughts and feelings.
In describing computers as, in a sense, nonhuman actors with associated
states of consciousness, I'm borrowing a technique of Bruno Latour's, who
in his novelistic history Aramis, or the Love of Technology, tells the
story of a failed French experimental mass transit program from several
perspectives - including that of train itself. Latour writes,
4. Where, one may ask, in this confrontation between computer and player, is the author of the software? In some sense, one could describe playing a computer game as learning to think like the programmer, rather than the computer. On the basic level of strategy, this may mean trying to divine Sid Meier's choices and prejudices, to figure out how he put the game together so as to play it more successfully. More generally, one could describe simulation games as an aestheticization of the programming process: a way to interact with and direct the computer, but at a remove. Many aspects of computer game play resemble the work of programming; the play-die-and-start-over rhythm of adventure games, for example, can be seen as a kind of debugging process. Programming, in fact, can often be as absorbing a task as gaming; both suck you into the logic of the computer. The programmer must also learn to "think like the computer" at a more technical level, structuring code in the rigid logic of binary circuits.
5. Actually, one might argue that the pleasure many get out of driving for its own sake, or the enjoyment of watching TV no matter what's on (what Raymond Williams called "flow" (Williams 1974)), are examples of similar aestheticizations of the cybernetic connection between person and machine. We might then say that just as these pleasures aestheticized previous cybernetic connections, simulation games do the same for our relationships with computers.
6. My reference here is to Clifford Geertz's famous essay, "Deep Play:
Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" (1974), which discusses how a game can
encapsulate and objectify a society's sense of lived social relations:
8. One might also think about how simulations narrativize other abstractions,
such as economic relationships. In addition to being maps-in-time, simulations
are also charts-in-time. One follows not only the central map in Civilization
II, but also the various charts, graphs and status screens which document
the current state of each city's trade balance, food supply, productivity,
and scientific research. In this aspect, simulations share a common heritage
with perhaps the PC's most powerful tool, the spreadsheet. What the spreadsheet
allows is precisely for a static object - in this case a chart - to become
a dynamic demonstration of interconnections. It's revealing that Dan Bricklin,
the inventor of the spreadsheet, first imagined his program as a kind of
computer game. Computer industry historian Robert X. Cringely writes,
9. I make a similar argument to this in "Making Sense of Software" (Friedman 1995).
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