Gaming Uber Alles

Gaming Uber Alles
Culture Wargames

Kieron Gillen | 12 Jul 2005 12:04
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The conclusion we can draw from this is that simulators aren't, by their nature, neutral. They're as prejudiced as their creators. Simulators say something about the world they describe. Simulation is expression.

In fact, simulation is a cornerstone of the history of most cultural forms. Putting aside the obvious history of representation in visual art, even literature demonstrates the pattern of simulation as art. What is Anna Karenina other than Tolstoy's simulation of society life in 19th Century Russia? "Simulation" is just another way of saying this is life, and this is how it works. The only difference is, in games, the representation created isn't static; the player is placed inside and left to explore its contradictions and limits.

Restraining ourselves to classical simulator games, it's easy to pick out examples where a developer's beliefs, philosophies, prejudices or priorities reveal themselves in a game. Remember how it proved impossible to construct a decent functioning city in Sim City without an extensive public transport system? Imagine how the game may differ if created by an advocate of the automobile industry. Staying with Maxis games, consider the egalitarian sexual politics which permeates The Sims, with sexual orientation being a matter of choice and all decisions being equally respected. At the other end of the seriousness spectrum, until relatively recently Sports Interactive's incredibly thorough management simulation of the football/soccer leagues, Championship Manager (now Football Manager), had a terrible tendency for Everton to perform above what their statistical abilities should suggest. Eyebrows will remain unraised when I reveal that the Collyer brothers support a certain Liverpool-based team.

Implicit decisions in design can reveal similar thought processes in general. I remember an early review of Civilization written by British games-writer-turned-developer Gary Penn, well before it was enshrined as a modern classic. He was only luke-warm towards it, being disappointed by how it presented a world where everything was inevitable. You had to invent the wheel. You had to invent religion. Rather than being free to experiment in possible civilisations, it implies we live in a Liebnitzian Best of All Possible Worlds. The world is what it had to be, and to Gary Penn, it was a shame. I've no idea whether Sid Meier believes in something like the inevitable march of history, but Civilization certainly does.

In other words, a simulation is never just a simulation. Equally, freedom is rarely actually free of designer- imposed desires. Even in games with the most self-expressed mandates of "choice" for the gamer, it doesn't mean that there isn't a message. In Deus Ex, the generally politically liberal Ion Storm Austin created a world where you could choose between violence and pacifistic approaches, but the charismatic characters urged you towards peace while the monsters suggested violence. To be praised by someone actually worth liking, you had to restrain your more scarlet impulses. Deus Ex's central tenet was freedom of choice for the gamer, but it's clear what choice Ion Storm wanted you to make.

At the other end of the ethical scale, Postal 2 is a genuinely monstrous game. You are positioned as an everyday Joe, going about everyday tasks, whose everyday frustrations lead you to entirely atypical, grotesque violence. Most troubling - and it's this that reveals there's something more than lizard-hind-brains at the developers, Running With Scissors - it's a choice by the player which leads to the slaughter. You are presented with the choice of sitting through a tedious delay or short-cutting it by pulling out a shotgun and starting to blast away. It's a nihilistic, sick gag, but it's only really funny because you've been made entirely complicit. They may have wanted you to, but it was you who pulled the trigger. It's a game which plays games with you.

But that moves beyond the strict "simulations" which our Senator was referencing, which only illustrates by how great a distance she missed her mark. Most games bear no relation to military simulators at all. In fact, what games mostly choose to simulate bears no relation to reality at all. Most of these games can't be called a simulation except in the very broadest sense. You could argue the base laws of physical causality, which form the majority of games, make most games simulations. However, it sits awkwardly when you're describing a simulator of something that simply doesn't (and never will) exist. Describing Ocarina of Time as a boy-with-fairy simulator fails to really convince... or do justice.

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