24.7.14

Price Theory and Videogames

A price theory is at the core of economics. The question of 'what is produced, and for whom' is decided, under capitalism, by prices. The signals prices send to producers and consumers coordinate economic activity. You can pick Marx, who argued that producers set prices based on the cost of variable (current labor) and fixed (past labor) costs, you can pick Walras, where a hypothetical auctioneer unites people at agreeable prices for both producers and consumers, or some flavor of one of these basic types, or someone totally different like Sraffa. In all cases your goal is (or should be) not just to fit reality in the sense of fitting a curve to data but fitting the psychology of the people involved in the transaction, and the real process itself. That's why Marx's theory makes much more sense to me- he says that businessmen set prices based on their costs, which are determined by labor, and attempt to capture a greater share of the social surplus via the medium of money prices. Mobility of capital leads to a uniform rate of profit, changes in the organic composition of capital (more machine, less human) lead to a decline in the rate of profit because the social surplus that is available to be appropriated is gradually less and less because only current labor can produce real value, etc. etc. down to the final crisis.

Additionally, Marx is more useful for video games because video games, unlike academic papers or data summaries, are all about the process. If the process of an economy growing and producing things feels weird even if the end results are similar to what we observe in the real world (as with some of the games we're going to talk about below) then the theory has no explanatory power whatsoever, and this is obvious. It is less obvious in a paper or book where a theory that has little relationship to reality appears to have the same conclusion as reality: we sort of gloss over the process and skip to the results, and if those are justified we ignore the 'sausage making' that led to them. In a video game this bad science is put to the test. The results are almost meaningless- we're spending all of our time in the middle of things, in the real process that produces those results. And we spend a lot of time thinking about that process and picking it apart. If it has holes they are ruthlessly exploited. That's how video games can serve as a crucible of economic theory in general and price theory in particular. Let's look at a few video games and how they deal with price, and what the consequences are for the mechanics of the game.

Video games that deal with economics even in a grazing way have to make a similar choice. In the first Victoria there was a fixed list of prices: however many canned goods were being produced, they would all be sold to the computer and tossed into the sea (deleted from memory) at a fixed price which would change over time according to a table. Machine parts in 1836 are absurdly expensive and if you're lucky enough to be in a position to build a machine parts plant (lucky enough to be Britain, basically) your national treasury will go buckwild. But towards the end of the century, the price declines, coincidental with, but not because of, the fact that more countries can produce machine parts. Even if only one machine parts factory were ever built, the price would follow the same path.

Age of Empires 2 has a market where the player can buy scarce resources from the computer- they are added to his stockpile out of thin air. And the price changes over time depending on how the player uses the market. If you need a lot of stone in the Castle age, the price of stone will go up every time you buy some of it (all prices are in gold, by the way, and gold can be mined or gained in trade with other players, by sending carts to them) and will go down every time you sell. Prices are more than 'sticky' - they are completely permanent absent direct intervention by the player. And every player has his own set of prices for stone- there's no opportunity for arbitrage, unless during multiplayer you were to coordinate a sale of stone or something else using the 'tribute' function. But that's not what the tribute function was intended for and I've never seen it used that way, even in competitive AOE2. And of course the labor units in AOE games are slaves and require zero upkeep, so the 'value' of gold or stone can be expressed in the seconds it takes to mine or gather it, because the cost of the laborer's upkeep is nominal (a flat one-time 50 food payment). Additionally, there is a fixed amount of stone, wood and gold on the map, and only food can be regenerated indefinitely (as long as you can get wood to build farms over and over again). So after everything's been mined and chopped, an entirely different economy comes into force, with food as the basic commodity that determines the production of all the others. I've never played a game long enough to investigate this, I think, scientifically, it's impossible to get this far because you would pass out from boredom before you got there.

The second Victoria added global supply and demand to the game. Now, the price of canned goods and machine parts would be determined by the supply for those goods and the demand for them in the game. This requires minute tweaking of 'needs,' however. If the capacity of an individual plant to produce cement and the global demand for cement are out of wack (as they almost always are) then your cement will go unsold and the factory will go bankrupt. It's also interesting to note that there was no way to scale down production except in a drastic fashion: as long as a factory is open it will produce as much as it possibly can, and the factory owner (if it's the state, or an individual capitalist) has no power whatsoever to set their own price. They don't even submit possible prices to a theoretical Walrasian auctioneer: they get the price that the computer figures out a priori.

It's interesting that all of these games, even the ones that have a more 'free-market' veneer, rely on the autonomous and unaccountable actions of a computer. Agents (even simulated ones, like AI) have no effect whatsoever on their ability to run the economy. This actually mirrors the Walrasian auctioneer, who functions like a computer in matching mutual price desires automatically, with no input beyond an initial list from actual producers and consumers. But nobody has tried to give producers and consumers autonomy and the freedom to set their own prices for commodities, like Marx (and the real world) does.

It's also interesting to note that only one of these games, the Victoria series, deals with debt, but in a really bizarre way: debt is automatically public regardless of the economic system in place (laissez-faire capitalism, state capitalism, communism), and is not connected to the factories or RGO (farm, pasture, mine, etc). Capitalists save for factories and plop down their money in big chunks, but never go bankrupt, and never take out loans: they can only run out of money to fulfill their commodity needs and then demote to other types of pops, none of which are able to save towards the construction of factories like capitalists are. Your national bank can make loans to other countries but these (and the loans you take yourself, if your country is not state-capitalist) can only be used to pay for schools, the army, etc. When you build factories in foreign countries you do it out of state coffers, as well, or individual capitalists pool their funds and do it themselves once they've saved up enough.

Victoria's incoherent finance and price theory, and the absurdity of most of the rest of video games' engagements with economics, are a product of not doing it the Right, meaning the Marxian, way. Prices in the real world are not computed ahead of time according to a formula, however complex, they are set by people with their own motivations, chief among which is to stay in business and make a profit. Prices have a real basis, not in the completely abstract and useless raw quantity of something demanded but the price of the things that went into that something. An economy where prices really were determined by supply and demand alone would look something like an economy in Victoria II- very weird, not at all like any sort of capitalism any of us would recognize. And an economy based on the one from the Age of Empires series would be a complete hellscape, like I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream except with the player in the place of the malevolent computer and the last remaining tortured humans as the farmers endlessly stabbing the dirt with tiny shovels, their magically appearing product being turned into ever smaller amounts of gold, ever tinier amounts of wood and stone, until building a single barracks takes five years and the construction of a castle would take millenia. A video game that tries to match the complexity of real situations and the decisions that real people face has a better chance of not turning out this way, and being more fun and more engrossing. And maybe even reflecting on poor science in the real world.

8.5.14

Miroslav Tichý's Patreon Page


A Miroslav Tichy original

I like reading about people like this- the life of "losers" behind the Iron Curtain. The latest one I came across is photographer (anti-photographer?) Miroslav Tichý, who lived in the Czech Republic during the communist period.
I often wonder what his life would have been like if the Communists had not taken power. Would Tichý have remained at the Academy or would he have left for Paris? Would he then have ever discovered photography? We shall never know. But, as Harald Szeemann said when he first looked through Tichý’s originals, “Intensity will always find its medium.” - Roman Buxbaum, on his friend Miroslav

Tichy was harassed, sent to state psychiatry clinics and probably subjected to electro-shock therapy, like Limonov in Russia at around the same time. Tichy wasn't executed or sent to a camp, but policemen watched him (and arrested and beat him on one occasion), and he was subjected to a trial where they attempted to convict him of poor hygiene (he got off), and he was tossed out of his attic studio (after it was nationalized...) and forced to live on a meager pension.

One detail accounts of Tichy's life always gloss over is that little pension. The fact that someone was able to not work for fifty years, and was still given chances to participate in the official art world, and rebuffed them at every opportunity, and was hated by the state, but went on creating idiosyncratic art he didn't show to anyone, is all because of that pension. If the Communists hadn't taken over in 1948 there would have been no Tichy to speculate over. He would have had a career in the gutter or in a dead end job. He would have had no education, and no support. In the article above, there is a breathless account of Tichy being rounded up on May Day and driven to a clinic to spend time out of the public eye so he wouldn't disrupt the proceedings. In other words, for one day, he's treated like the homeless or the poor are treated every day in a city like L.A. or Sao Paulo: cleaned out of sight, if they don't resist, and if they're lucky. It's also worth noting that in order to put him on trial the authorities had to try to trump up charges based on his hygiene- and not on the fact that he was behind on his rent, or scamming benefits, or a vagrant. Because most of the traditional legal clubs with which outsiders and the poor are traditionally beaten in capitalist countries didn't exist, because the structure of society was different in a real way.

Of course it's not defensible to harass outsiders or the poor in Moravia or Los Angeles. Tichy should have been left alone. And political control over the arts should have been relaxed, and real democracy should have been allowed to flourish in Eastern Europe. That didn't happen for various reasons, and now all of these states have collapsed. But Tichy's photographs, thanks to his pension, persist.

Tichy's career came during the years of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the stagnation period, when the state's repressive apparatus was relaxed, the growth rate came down a bit, and the economy settled into the ossified form that would sluggishly persist until the plunder of privatization in the 90s. Definitely after the terror, but with many of its remnants still there, and with a socialist economy that was supposed to provide for everyone, but was unresponsive to many new needs. His frankly minor troubles with the law, and the smallness of his pension, are the echo of the Stalinist terror and the Khrushchev-era promise of 'cornucopism,' both of them attenuated considerably.


A portrait of the artist. Lookin good!

A fellow traveler of Tichy's, however, had a more drastic career, with higher highs and a fatal low. Leonid Dobychin was a provincial accountant who aspired to being a writer. He was apparently very well-read, even though he had no formal education in literature and next to no contact with fellow artists. He was private, weird, bitter, all of the things that are not marketable or endearing. His art even has a similar leering quality to Tichy's- his short story "Encounters with Liz" is about a frustrated, alienated protagonist catching glimpses of a beautiful New Woman about town, heading into the communal bath-house (a place where Tichy would have hung out with his camera), buying fruit in the street, shouting slogans with fellow cadres, etc. The protagonist is on the sidelines. Sort of like Olesha's sleepy, unmotivated Kavalerov (cavalier, knight) from Envy, except with a harder edge, less humor and a much more, uh, scattered perspective (when Dobychin was denounced his similarity to Joyce was used as evidence against him!)

Dobychin was trained in statistics and would have stayed a statistician probably his whole life except for the Revolution, which established a writers union and allowed him to relocate to St. Petersburg, write full-time, and gain access to publishing houses and a circle of writers in Leningrad who would keep his memory alive after his stress-induced suicide. His body was pulled out of the Neva river a few months after a meeting of the Writers' Union in 1936 at which he was harshly criticized. Dobychin was in the first wave of artistic purge victims, probably because his obvious depression and cynicism, his discussion in not-entirely-negative terms of the past, as well as his intricate style, were unsuited to the emerging Stalinist society, which would promote trash like Cement over the wilder, more experimental works of the 20s. Again, the Tichy paradox rears its ugly head: we are free to speculate about and mourn over the career Dobychin was prevented from continuing, but we have to acknowledge that the Writers Union gave us a Dobychin to mourn over in the first place. Unconditional support, freedom to relocate, access not only to knowledge but publishers and the time to write freely, the real conditions of freedom of speech, were all possible for that short period after and because of the Bolsheviks seizure of power. Even for someone who was probably opposed to the Bolsheviks and major parts of the world they had created. Someone who refused to participate in the new culture of enthusiasm. This is the socialist form of "I don't agree with what you say, but I'll defend your right to say it" with the added qualifier that "the right to say it" means "the time and the resources and the support" to say it.

Support for the Dobychins and the Tichys of the world is probably the best criteria of how real a society's commitment to art and culture is.

Ultimately, for its immense flaws and short duration, that fuller understanding of the freedom of speech and of the arts is still a powerful idea, worth revisiting in the wretched era of video game music acapella on Patreon, ad-supported 'criticism' and sweet, fawning young artists standing hopefully next to their student pieces at a gallery show.

22.2.14

A Year of Corn

I didnt keep track of when exactly I started working on Corn, my game, and when I looked at the files today the earliest date I could find was July of last year, which I know isn't right. For a while last year I was developing the game on my computer at home and in the library, where I would go when there were too many distractions, and I stored the game on a flash drive and would copy the game from that drive to a folder on my computer to keep working on it. I did find a screenshot from late February of 2013 though, which does have a valid timestamp. So the 19th of February, or this last Wednesday, marks the probable one year anniversary of development of Corn: The Game of Classical Political Economy. I will celebrate by doing what I do on Saturdays: drink at the computer and code a bit.

I've been taking screenshots of the game at regular intervals, which, since I've switched LOVE 2d versions, is now the only convenient way for me to see how far I've actually come since I started. The code has been on GitHub since July but if I were to download a snapshot from then I would have to install an old version of Lua and LOVE 2d in order to get it to run and I cant be bothered. So I've been flipping through screens of the game to remind myself of what I've been doing.

I started from an extremely low level, literally copying a tutorial for a scrolling map (I haven't improved on that code). Since that inauspicous start I've done a few major things.

  • Created a UI.
  • Implemented units and Dijkstra pathfinding
  • Created my world, a bunch of towns and mines and forests and ocean.
  • Put together most of the major parts of an economy, from the production side.

The list isnt too long and even though the differences between now and then are drastic, I did hope I would be further along. Specifically, there are some fundamental parts of the game I would liked to have finished by the one-year mark. They are still basically unfinished, some of them are not even properly designed or theoried-out yet.

  • A dynamic map system (as in, not a jpg that stores no information except the type of a terrain tile)
  • A full economy, with a yearly market, physical distribution, the concept of money and input-output relationships.
  • Multiple systems of production and multiple nations on the same map

These are kind of the biggest parts of Corn, even though the AI and the interface and the years-away multiplayer component (which is probably going to require a simpler game focused purely on MP first) are what will determine if these elements have any meaning. I wanted there to be an actual game to play after a year and there really isn't yet. I released a verison of the game in late October, when there was even less to do in the game than there is now, and I planned to release more frequently, as a device to commit me to higher levels of productivity, but I don't really see the point in continuing to do that at this point. People have been extremely supportive of the game and seem very interested, which is a huge help, but they're not interested in vanity builds.

Obviously one reason for the delay is the fact that I work, and that I'm finishing a degree finally, and that takes up a good chunk of my time. Another reason is distractions- I spent several months in early 2013 without internet because I was convinced that it was the only way to make me get to work. The results were pretty good but I have to have internet so the experiment didn't last that long. But the real and most intractable reason why I'm struggling with Corn is the design.

Originally I was working with an academic paper in one window and the code in the other, or with a book open in front of me. Now I do the proper humanities major thing, and churn through books and papers, produce notes out of them, and then design from the notes. My understanding of the history of the 19th century, political economy, and economics generally, has improved slightly less drastically than the game has. The idea of using money and a yearly market, key parts of that second unfinished bullet point above, have only just emerged. I have a number of concrete ideas for the interface. And the other side of the game- the workers side, the colonial side, has come more sharply into focus even though I still think it's going to be weird. The capitalist will probably have all the fun and the player unfortunate enough to be leading a colonial country or a workers movement can only look forward to getting crushed (but that relies on multiplayer, years in the future).

Ultimately though this project has already outlived anything else I've ever worked on by several months. And I recently broke a long stretch of not doing anything with a short productive period. It's exciting to work on and the support of other people (an artist has started working on some proper graphics) is doubly exciting, and there's no timeline or schedule beyond the one I set for myself. Some people at work know I'm about to graduate and they've asked me what my plans are- management, another job, grad school- and I've kind of shrugged my shoulders, but I do have a plan, and it is: work, read and grow Corn.

17.8.13

Still Life With Carts

For Hofmeier, there’s a certain beauty in the monotony of this sort of work, or at least in the way that humans approach and cope with monotony, and it’s this appreciation that provided the theme for Cart Life. “Watch Chinese factory workers sort decks of cards and pack them – it’s mind-blowing how beautiful this act can be. Listen to Ghanan postal workers cancel stamps; they’re working the stamps on the envelopes like drums, and they’re whistling – it’s the sweetest music. Games are especially effective in cultivating very isolated realms of prehensile expertise. What’s funny is how this prehensile expertise has infected so many game makers themselves, and many of them only want to make new games that utilise their own mastery of old systems. I wish I’d [owned] a copy of Cart Life when I was 11 or 12 years old, so I’d have black belts in areas like punctuality, detailed memorisation of disposable information, typing speed, and consumer math.”

From an interview with Richard Hofmeier, creator of Cart Life.

First of all, only someone not familiar with manual labor can romanticize it like Hofmeier does. And only an American can watch a third-world laborer packing consumer goods and get any gratification out of it, after all, who are those playing cards for? The fact that human beings possess boundless, irrepressible creativity makes watching them cancel stamps or pack cards a distressing and not a beautiful activity. What's important is what's being wasted, not the fact that, in doing something that wouldn't challenge an animal or a dumb machine, humans bring a little extra spice (notice the conspicuous location of his two examples, the Orient and darkest Africa) to it. Really not the "sweetest music" at all.

I don't know how many times in the last few years I've played a game with other people and discussed it with them, and our shared response to it went something like: "it was a terrible game, I don't know why I beat it." It's a pretty absurd response. But the nature of addictiveness and self-harm is that you know what you're doing, maybe even curse yourself for doing it, and keep going. The fact that you're aware of it doesn't make it easier to stop but it does make it easier to apply a sheen of self-loathing on top of your already considerable psychological problems. Again, as with Fallout 3, stupid zombie flash games, Angry Birds, monotonous "art" like Papers Please and now Cart Life, I beat it despite myself.

My theory is that in a society where the "knack" is all that is required of most people working for a living, in a society where a billboard company can advertise by saying "billboards are the perfect employees, they don't call in sick, they don't complain, they're always working," people have to fight to overcome adult-onset occupational autism. In order to get through the average day at even a well-run company you need horse blinders, gloves, repetitive-motion therapy, and music, in other words, things to take your mind and body off the inhuman scale of the labor you're performing. If you don't have those things then occupational autism, the ability to focus on stacking boxes or making coffee to the exclusion of all else, is as marketable a trait as being a "team player" and not talking about unions. Cart Life, and games like Cow Clicker, play off this tendency uncritically, and the bleed-over of this occupational autism is the reason behind my seemingly unreasonable ability to finish games I dislike: I do what I dislike for most of my day anyway, what's the difference between doing work I do not enjoy and playing a game I do not enjoy?

Cart Life elevates this tiny insight to a guiding principle: because games are typically fun, because they typically offer some level of control to the player, who not take all of his control away, make him press left through interminable pixel-art skyline walkby sequences, or count exact change, or watch unskippable cutscenes between waking, eating, working, and sleep (which is another press-left-for-college-journal-reject-poetry sequence). Because life, if you really think about it, is the ultimate unskippable cutscene. This is deep.

At the bottom of the one negative review I came across of Cart Life there were a string of comments attacking the reviewer for, uh, saying that the game wasn't fun. The most common insult was "go back to COD," and as someone who wouldn't touch Call of Duty with a ten foot pole and also doesn't like Cart Life, I'm in the awkward position of either having to defend a game I don't like from a game I really don't like, or make a stab at something different.

In a society like the one I described above, the idea of escapism has to be examined politically. What does it mean, exactly, when people want to get away from it all? The gamification people claim that the collective withdrawal from society that video games represent is a given, that it means that life sucks, and instead of examining what has led to people spending a hundred hours a week on World of Warcraft, we should use their already-existing addiction to make people brush their teeth or "educate" them, not, presumably, about things like alienation and class struggle, but about interpersonal relationships, self-selling, basic hygiene and trivia. Real video games, not bs created to tweak people's psyches or to prove a 'point' that doens't need proving, like Cart Life does, simply provide people what they desperately want without even realizing it: an outlet for their creativity given their severely truncated time and resources, a way of feeling as if they have some control over a world that they have no control over, and a way of competing that doesn't lead to crushing misery. They want freedom, not freedom within the world as it is, but freedom from the world as it is. And Cart Life missing the point completely, comes into this wonderful realm with all its boundless possibilities- will I save the universe? will I command an army to victory? will I defeat the minions the evil shogun have sent to destroy me? will I actually be asked, for once, to demonstrate some sort of higher-level thinking, some sort of real creativity? - and says "hey guys, what if we made a game where you do bullshit you don't want to do until you realize, because you don't already, how much the world sucks?"

It is not enough to say that Cart Life lacks a critical dimension entirely. As another reviewer put it, even the dreariest work leads to connections with other people, and is at least punctuated with moments of humor, and can be mined for something like the insight that Hofmeier has in the paragraph I quoted at the top. Cart Life, which masters the bleak, boring, agonizing sameness of everyday life by being a bad video game that is not fun to play, refuses completely to rise to this more complex level. Celine, in describing the poverty of his upbringing, the misery of war, industrial civilization and colonization, makes use of his famous 'delirium' (he claims that he rode to America from Africa in a galley) but also humor. Celine having a discussion on nationalism with his friend and then impulsively joining the army, Celine crossing the English channel and vomiting along with his entire family over the side of the boat, etc., is very funny and very bleak. There's a reason people read him. And nobody would read him if he had done what Hoemeier has done with Cart Life, make the entirely useless point that life is really a bummer, to absolutely no effect whatsoever.

Everything about the game from the tiniest details to the overarching premise is grating, the fact that you have to hunch over and squint to see it, the crunchy, god-awful music, the way in which Andrus' walking animation doesn't match up with the speed he travels, the way people queue up at your stand on top of one another as if they had no mass, the cheap, tired combo of bad controls and ruthless timing, the stupid dream sequences, all the way up to the elephant in the room of Hofmeier's creativity: nobody wants to play a boring game about things they wish they weren't so familiar with, video games are based on exactly the opposite premise.

10.6.13

Fixed Bug: Capitalists Were Refusing to Pay Their Workers

The way that Paradox has implemented copy protection reflects the way that they build their games. If you don't have access to the patch forum (which you have to posess a legitimate CD key to access), or if you don't buy the latest expansion, your game rapidly becomes tiring, and then boring, and then agonizing, as all of your friends are off somewhere playing with the new subsystem and you're left with a product which is clearly incomplete.

Compare this to a game like Company of Heroes, where the opposite situation is in effect: people frequently talk about how they only wish they could go back to a time before the expansions, when the Brits and PE were not in the game and all multiplayer ladder games could only be between what are considered the most balanced, interesting sides: Americans and Wehrmacht.

In both cases the question is complexity: Paradox games can't possibly have enough of it, and Company of Heroes would probably benefit from the simplification of a situation that was made more complex. In the case of CoH the additional sides would have been more welcome if they'd been better designed... but the point stands, the game was 'good enough' back in the day. Nobody has ever said that about a Paradox game. Even if a new system isn't designed exactly correctly, it's still a welcome addition (I'm leaving the worst Paradox game, Hearts of Iron, out of the equation entirely cos it's lame).

Which situation is better? I think Relic has made the better game, overall. Most of the time when Paradox fixes or upgrades something, like the colonial system in the new Victoria II expansion A Heart of Darkness (finally, a Conrad reference in video games that's actually appropriate!) it just gives you something else to worry about. Now you need to build a navy and micromanage your colonies more intensely to do what you were able to do in a simpler way in the last expansion, to basically no effect. The aspect of 'colonial competition' is still there, the Scramble for Africa in-game is still crazy and highly competetive, it's just more busywork. And gradually, like the enhanced factory system in Victoria II which vastly improved on its predecessor by featuring actual supply and demand, it will become part of the background noise that seasoned mapgamers take for granted.

So there's nothing wrong with increased complexity, but when that's all that's being added to your game- more endless popups for trivial election issue debates that modify one tenth of your pops in one state on one issue, more time clicking 'upgrade railroad' (the most recent patch fixes this!), more newspapers with five cut-and-paste event descriptions from countries you don't care about, etc. the fatigue sets in quicker and quicker. People frequently play the "new" Paradox game, expansion, patch, whatever, continuously for days and then quit entirely. It's been literally years since I've played Europa Universalis. The Anno games are like this too. Totally engrossing once the new material arrives, grating once it's been assimilated. The relationship to addiction ("Ich bin ein Anno-holic!") is clear- and as I mentioned in the first paragraph, it's what Paradox has built its business on.

Meanwhile CoH has remained relatively unchanged for years and still draws a consistently high rate of interest. Part of that is the fact that multiplayer is the main draw of the game, and the community and its strategic camps (called the "metagame") have kept things fresh for the better part of a decade now, with new 'styles' of play becoming dominant and fading away, and the sheer variety of human thought and action, as compressed into build orders, teching strats and micro, standing in for computer opponents and busywork augmented by unweidly interfaces and lists of percentage modifiers that would actually be easier to understand if they were in a literal spreadsheet.

I like these games a lot and to be fair Paradox does what nobody else even thinks about doing, I'm just saying that maybe the Relic approach, as embodied in the early Company of Heroes game, of selecting complexity instead of amplifying it across the board, and maybe going back to basics and designing a new game from principles other than those that guided the first Europa Universalis (when there were 8 playable countries or something and everything outside of Europe was a complete black hole) way back in the day, might be a better approach than emulating Dwarf Fortress and trying to smother boredom by ever-greater applications of shit to worry about.

21.3.13

Locked Down In The Complex

I came across this a few days ago and it kind of pushes all my buttons. I had to talk about it.

The book is about something that I've talked about before, the connection between video games and the military-industrial complex. The book's argument is that modern video games are not just products of this environment but actively reproduce it. Every game is engaged in a war on 'contingency' and has a techno-fascist obsession with control, prediction, logistics, technique, etc. that has to be excised from games before we can really use them as a tool for human liberation.

Bogost doesn't seem to sympathize with the book's left-wing stance which is lame but he does see the importance of a book that exposes the fact that a game like SpaceWar!, the progenitor of all games, was designed on a campus practically bought and paid for by the Defense Department, and by people who had dedicated their lives to making the US military a more effecient killing machine. So far so good.

What the book and the review miss is that all basic research (and electronics and computers and cybernetics were extremely 'basic' during the period the book covers) in the west, and particularly in the United States, was directly funded and overseen by military bureaucrats. Part of this has to do with wartime demands- the need to protect Britain from a novel threat, that of aerial blitz, kicked the development of radar into overdrive, and the need to make effecient use of artillery drove the development of the ENIAC. The excuse of there being a war on loosened the purse strings and put technicians, as long as they produced something relevant to the war effort, in control. The pace of technological discovery was so rapid and the benefits so great that the postwar academic situation in the hard sciences and engineering has never changed. Defense dictates all progress by controlling the purse strings and perpetuating the weird neo-feudal structure of university engineering and science departments, and those departments churn out innovations that make bombs burst better, sattelites communicate quicker, and so forth.

So this is pretty obvious. You could easily say "yeah, well that's his entire point. games are derived directly from military technology and retain its techno-fascism and obsession with control." But the things that Crogan (thats the dudes name) chooses to pick out that have influenced games actually don't have anything to do with militarism specifically, and his extremely limited survey of actual real games (always a red flag) reveal that he's not even aware that games can have militaristic themes, even make use of militaristic technology such as prediction and logistics, and still do things "orthogonal to miltarism," to borrow Bogost's pointlessly complex phrase.

Before I get to games (sorry!) we should take a short detour through cybernetics. As I said above, you couldn't do research in computers after the Second World War without getting money from the government. Does that mean that all research was intimately tied to militarism, and that no alternative tradition was nurtured or could have been nurtured in the belly of the beast? As an academic who, presumably, doesn't get along with the administrators of his college, Crogan is personally familiar on the level of his very own paycheck with the phenomenon of the radical trying to do something with resources appropriated from a non-radical source. Is it so hard to believe that technicians, scientists and engineers, driven by pure devotion to their subject or active hatred of militarism (see the letter the developers of the atom bomb wrote pleading that it never be used) managed to carve out a niche for themselves in an area dominated by something they disagreed with, perhaps by falsifying their research proposals (as everyone does), doing work independently or something else like that? Or, to take it one step further, can something as generic as 'prediction' or 'simulation' posisbly be reduced to militarism and only militarism in any meaningful sense?

One of the three pillars that Crogan's argument rests on is cybernetics. He, conveniently, chooses an Air Force anti-aircraft coordination system as a forerunner of the modern 'predictive,' anti-contingent fetish in computer games. The system was developed to make anti-aircraft guns more effective by estimating the future position of an enemy aircraft based on its last observed position and probable routes of attack. It involved complicated feedback routines, nationwide coordination of data gathering and so forth. Clearly, if this is the only cybernetic example we talk about, then his argument is airtight. Video games descended from Cold War megalomania.

I'd never even heard of this particular cybernetic system before reading about it in this review. A system I have heard of, though, completely contradicts everything Crogan alleges about the biased nature of cybernetics. It is, of course, Salvador Allende's internet, Cybersyn, the half-implemented attempt at using Bayesian filtering, levels of algedonic feedback (I looked that word up, I dont know what it means), and the oh-so-dreaded specter of prediction, modification and control to... implement socialism. When the Air Force uses cybernetics it creates a system that shoots doen enemy aircraft. When Stafford Beer used cybernetics he designed a way of devolving effective control of factories to workers and rapidly adjusting real production to human need. Certainly the CIA and the junta that overthrew Allende present a critique of Crogan in this respect.

The truth is that even if Cybersyn had never been invented, the idea of it is cleary implied in cybernetics. Any technology, however it is developed, can be turned to any use people can make up for it. The fact that innovation in computers was driven by the military industrial complex of a capitalist country means that things like Cybersyn don't get a fair shake or much funding, but without ENIAC, without the mad dash to higher clock speeds and miniaturization and improvements in long-range networked communication, Cybersyn would have been completely impossible.

Let's get back to games. Crogan (still his name, lmao) writes about something he calls "gameplay mode" which is the category above categories such as difficulty, the treatment of time, perspective etc. "Gameplay mode" is the idea that games have to be about controlling reality by blending it with simulation. Here's Bogost's summary of Grogan's thing:
Not surprisingly, Crogan’s not terribly thrilled with the gameplay mode that is his subject. He interprets the logistical model of reality as a deliberate if unacknowledged attempt to reduce or remove contingency. Just as military defense is meant to eliminate contingent outcomes in favor of ones knowable in advance, so “computer games play with the playing out of the war on contingency” (p.36). That is to say, left to their own devices, video games retain unassailable traces of the logic of military logistics in their form and function, even if particular games may not take up explicitly militaristic themes.
Elsewhere Bogost says that some readers will "rightly take issue" with Crogan's limited survey of actually existing video games, and here is probably where anyone who has played wargames or any other type of game with any frequency will take some serious issue. We can say that one trend from the beginning of computer wargames to the present has been the continuous addition of complicating detail and the continuous creep of the literal fog of war. The fog of war was actually among the earliest innovations that computer wargame designers implemented, and it was the first major advance that computer games offered that went decisively beyond what was possible with a boardgame. With a board you can always tell what your opponent is doing, generally. Even if his counters don't face you and you can't tell exactly what he has, you can make a guess. Try that in a game like Combat Mission where the only real given is the terrain (and even that might change, with the weather or with events like fires and building collapses) and even when you hear a tank engine, or see a vehicle, you're still never completely sure what the source exactly is. And try playing Eastern Front 1941 on one day and War In The East on the next, and tell me that computer games have shown a fetish for smothering complications and inconvenient possibilities. It is literally impossible to play War In The East without basically throwing your hands up at some point and trusting the AI, or trusting the weather, or trusting something you have zero control over. The trend since the beginning has been to thrust contingency more and more to the forefront to the point that one of the major lessons wargames can now be said to teach is that there is basically no unassailable defense or truly knowable enemy asset. As wargames become more complicated they become messier, more prone to testing the player's ability to see the unforseeable, better tools for educating strategists. And as cybernetics and computer science become more and more advanced their capacity to be used, either to make war or to make the things that people need to live, increses greatly.

2.12.12

Ex Lax

ALthough nobody I've met believes it, in high school I wasn't in the band. I played lacrosse instead (there were basically those two options). One weekend I went to a camp hosted by someone who played in one of the professional leagues back east, and during the opening monologue he gave us before we broke apart into passing, shooting and dodging drills he told us through a thick stoner accent and even thicker shades that "the Iroquah, man, used this game to simulate WAR. I want you to, like, think about that when you're out there today. WAR." Thankfully he didn't have us perform some ritual but it was almost to that point.

There's an old fable about a hypothetical wargame being conducted in the last days of the Battle of the Bulge among German staff officers in France. During the game, the Americans attack the village the game is being played in, and their movements and the positions of the German forces wind up appearing remarkably similar to the movements and positions of the different forces in the wargame being conducted. So, instead of stopping the game, the officer in charge orders it continued, with the 'moves' of the players being translated into orders to the real units outside. This is one example of how simulation passes semalessly into reality under the right conditions, and lacrosse, which as it was practiced by natives is even less of an abstraction from real war, has an even better seamless transition that isn't a fable at all: during Pontiac's rebellion a group of Ojibwas played a game of lacrosse in front of a fort they wished to take, and while the British soldiers were outside watching the game as they had before someone 'accidentally' knocked the ball inside the fort. Since there were no out-of-bounds areas in lacrosse at the time, everyone naturally ran inside the fort, where they pulled out their weapons and killed half the garrison.

I'm making the connection between wargames and sports because someone who read my article on skill in games disagreed with it entirely and said that people choose games as if they were sports, and so games should be judged in the same way sports should. Does the game provide me with a good challenge, does it engage me? If yes, then I'll play it, if no then I don't. He said that my entire analogy comparing understanding of games to understanding of literature is completely baseless, even though he did agree with my conclusion that the only meaningful criterion of understanding of games is skill in them. Most people agreed with my argument and didn't agree with the conclusion, which is more or less what I expeceted. I didn't expect the opposite.

On the surface of it this opinion of games seems to get rid of the possibility of a 'message' or a 'meaning,' reducing games to their sets of rules and closing off the rest of the world- nothing in the game (a ball and a stick, or an asteroid and a spaceship) having any meaning beyond the playing field of the game and its irrelevant outcome. Most people criticized my conclusion along these lines. But what happens when you take the same ball you were playing with and turn it into a gambit to bypass your opponent's defenses, and you take the stick you were using to hit the ball and instead hit someone over the head with it? What do your game rules, which got you into a position to change the world outside of the game, mean then? Can you combine my conclusion, that games are better understood by those that can play them well, with the argument that games are sports and the only legitimate criteria is the complexity of the rules they posess, with games having an artistic purpose, like literature, that cannot be reduced to the sum of the different rules? Let's ask the stoner from my lacrosse camp.

Obviously most games can not lead directly to something as drastic as storming a fort or directing the course of a battle. Tetris can not fold into something real that easily (unless you work a job where you stack boxes of different sizes from the floor to the ceiling) and some games, bad games, pretend to correspond directly to real life via forced 'meaning' while actually preventing the kind of seamless transition that lacrosse offers, which, I think, is the only way in which games as artistic expression can ever refer back to reality in a coherent way.

I still think a game, like a sport that is actually more than a sport (lacrosse was, under normal circumstances, used to prepare young men for war and was conceived of partially as collective worship), can make an argument or provoke a response or affirm something that is connected to the rules while doing something that cannot be traced back piece by piece to the rules. It's just that lacrosse, and not a bad novel, should be the model for games that are supposed to mean something.

16.8.12

The Kickstarter Mode of Production


Which is a more degrading way of making a living?



  
 


I want to see what people think. I also want to provide some of my own thoughts.

Kickstarter presents developers with what appears to be a fair challenge: come up with a cool idea, demonstrate to others that your idea is cool and that you can complete it, and capital shall be allocated to you. We can imagine almost immediately some problems with this model- Kickstarter isn't a really 'free' market, certain products are banned or can be banned, Kickstarter does take a non-trivial amount of money from each successful campaign, it's limited to the United States presently, and, the biggest one: there's no effective legal recourse for people who donate to a campaign and then don't get what they paid for. Kickstarter very carefully avoids calling itself an investment company or framing campaigns as anything other than hobbyist donation solicitations with a possible future payoff equal to or less than the value of ones donation. Which means that nobody will ever be building steel mills or floating muni bonds over the service. Which is probably a good thing.

The most crippling disadvantage of the Kickstarter mode is that it actually gives people (who have money) the terrible things that they really seem to want. It's difficult to properly describe the phenomenon... a reprint of a book based on a webcomic about sticks got over one million dollars, Penny Arcade got fully one half of a million dollars to remove some, not all, ads from its front page, half the most-funded page in the games category has the word 'zombie' somewhere, and people forked over ten million dollars of money that was apparently 'earned' in some sense at some time to a dorky watch. I wish I could describe this stuff better than I could, but the wretchedness of the entire thing kind of chokes off any description of it. It really is the unfettered operation of the nerd mind over the freest yet conceived marketplace of ideas, and the results are stick webcomics, rape card games, and insulting statues.

The demands of the Kickstarter marketplace just replace the demands of the boardroom or the investor or venture capitalist, they don't eliminate them. Kickstarter requires a different kind of self-selling, and different form of prostitution and exerts a different kind of discipline. Even though no one is technically required to deliver the goods, in order to get the money to develop the goods in the first place, every developer using Kickstarter has to carefully manage their product and make it appear to be within acceptable bounds. You must be courteous and respectful when you deal with the people who fund you, of course, but you must also respect their ideas about design and theme and everything else. That means only projects that tickle the right fantasies or present themselves in the appropriate way get funded. If your game has a buzzword in it, like zombie, or if it has a graphical style including visible pixels or blocks, there is a minimum funding floor you will not be able to go beneath no matter how amateur you look or how weak your ideas are. Here's an actual screen grab from recently triple-over-funded zombie project "The Dead Linger" (tagline: "The Dead Linger is an FPS that embodies the gaming community's hunger for a true, open-world, zombie apocalypse survival sandbox.")



If you have an unconventional design or you don't care about zombies or cartoon pornography, you're going to have a rough time.

Kickstarter isn't that far from the ideal funding form. If it were project-agnostic (somehow) and just gave everyone capable of producing something interesting a modest stipend and money for development expenses it would be a more effecient replacement for state funding of the arts and not a grotesque fanservice festival. But nobody currently contributing to Kickstarter would put their money in that kind of pot. It's the control fantasy, more than any specific zombie-apocalypse or high-school-rape fantasy, that makes Kickstarter work the way it does, the idea that the individual can have his effect on the world by making sure the latest epic zombie boardgame gets the three hundred thousand dollars it needs to be printed and shipped.
Update 9 Sept 2012: never mind about that muni bond shit I mentioned earlier...

23.7.12

The Mystifying Hex

I was putting together a game reviewer résumé (laugh out loud) a while ago and in the process I went back and looked at a bunch of my old reviews, including this one. Because I have nothing better to do I also decided to look Elven Legacy up on Metacritic to see which side of the bell curve I was on. Here is the link to that.

A fuctional community is made up of diverse individuals and any abstract 'community opinion' is a summary of diverse opinions. The addition or subtraction of any one member changes the abstract. So conforming to a community opinion means that either the individual is dysfunctional because he doesn't understand what a community is about or it means that the community is dysfunctional because it doesn't allow diversity. Doug Henwood's book on Wall Street partially characterizes Wall Street as this kind of dysfunctional community, where everyone is desperately in search of everyone else's opinion so that they can base their investment decisions on it and profit. If market research, advanced stochastic simulations and MSNBC all point to 'the Street' saying that the Facebook IPO will go crazy, then everyone on 'the Street' will bet against Facebook. But the point is that the community opinion is made up of people guessing what the community opinion is and maneuvering to profit from it. Nobody actually takes stands of their own or reveals their hand.

Metacritic is the same way. They really do 'deal with criticism' in that they reduce it to the same kind of pointless guessing game you see on Wall Street. A score in the seventies, for instance, almost certainly indicates a niche game. A couple people (me, Pelit and Absolute Games, in this case) review it positively, most people don't understand what is going on and don't care and so give it an average score since going either way out of the doldrums would put them at risk, and someone people come right out and admit they don't get it, but, since it's a niche game, think that it's safe to bash without consequence. The average opinion is created (Metacritic averages publications' scores based on an arbitrary and opaque system) by people trying very hard not to stray from the average opinion. By anxious bullshitters' consensus the precise quantification of 'average' has come to rest at somewhere around the mid seventies, and Metacritic obliges by putting these reviews in the middle of the list and giving them a nice neutral color- either green, as if the game were good after all, or yellow, as if it were just kind of alright. For some games this is appropriate, for a game like Elven Legacy it's not appropriate at all.

What I really want to get to is the reviews at the bottom of the list, specifically the very bottom. Here's the money quote:
The whole notion of a scored review seems a little arbitrary in the face of the niche and dedicated fanbase this game will attract, and its attempts at populist window-dressing are virtually pointless because for the rest of us, the whole entity is at its most lenient completely mystifying, and at its most uncompromising utterly impenetrable.
The whole notion of a scored review is actually way more than a little arbitrary when the person doing the reviewing admits in the next sentence that he found the game 'utterly impenetrable.' The bottom side of any mid-seventies game is always a fun place to be because it's the actual object that casts the long shadow of the I-don't-care mid-seventies reviews: people on the bottom just say what everyone else above them was thinking but didn't even have the cojones to put in print. There's no functional difference between a mid-seventies review that says 'it will please fans of the genre' (as in, 'not me') and a mid-forties review that says 'fuck the genre.' The guy on the bottom just has fewer advertising dollars at stake.

Reviewing a game that has not been designated as niche below the mid-seventies Happy Zone is a totally different thing, however. I did that a few times, because I'm a rough-n-ready maverik who plays fast and loose with the rules and isn't afraid to shake things up, and also because I wasn't being paid. My most infamous moment was with Sins of a Solar Empire. I played for about twenty hours, which I'm almost positive was a longer period of time than half of the rest of the reviews invested, and decided that it wasn't worth it to continue and went back to Company of Heroes.

The most common accusation that people made in the emails they sent me and in the forums thread about my review on the official Sins forum was that I was only reviewing it poorly for the advertising revenue that it would generate for my site. Even when I was getting paid to review (I wasn't at the time and wouldn't be for another couple years) I was making a flat rate of thirty whole dollars per article. Not enough to tempt me to sell out. I would do that for maybe 400 dollars.

But people should have known, from looking at the site I was reviewing for, that I was either not getting paid or that it was so little that trolling for views wasn't really going to make a difference. But because of the Metacritic infection the only way people could justify my behavior was by comparing me to everyone else- to the people who reviewed the game in the Happy Zone for a designated non-niche game, which is in the mid eighties to the high nineties. And if you compare me to people who are reviewing for ad revenue after guessing what the consensus will be, then of course I have to be doing the same thing as they are, just taking a different tack: reviewing outside of the consensus for ad revenue. Some people did criticize me for not playing the game that much, and some people did question my knowledge of RTS 4X games (which is nil, because RTS 4X is a marketing term and not an actual genre). Of course the same scrutiny was not applied to, say, the Cheat Code Central review for the same game, which gave it an absurd 96 out of 100 and didn't say anything concrete about it. The crucial difference in each case is where the Street thinks the Street is going to put the game- in the niche pile or in the non-niche pile. A lot of the calculation has to do with who is making the game (as in, a large developer or an indie studio with a lot of profile) and which switches it flicks (puzzle platformer, visible pixels, story, no difficulty). In no case does the quality of the game enter into the decision. And it goes without saying that after the initial decision has been made, deviation is even more ill-advised.

19.6.12

Ritual, Magic and Gaminess

So a design I'm working on (thinking about while I toss boxes) was giving me some trouble. It's about the American Southwest during the Spanish colonial period and the relationships between the New Mexican settlers, Spanish colonial administrators and the heads of different bands of Indians. It's going to be super small-scale and turn based, and it will involve war but mainly things like slavery, trade, agriculture, seasonal migration and so on. Most of my ideas for historical games come from specific monographs, and this one in particular came from Ned Blackhawk's Violence Over the Land which is a good book as long as you have a stomach for digesting typical academic history. Which I do.

Part of the challenge of a historical setting for a computer game is getting people to behave in hisorical ways. The behavior is measured in a weird way. Wargamers want two things out of a historical game: fidelity to history measured in terms of the result, and fidelity to history measured in terms of the process. Normally they emphasize the first (see this) and ignore the second. Developers like those behind the Magna Mundi atrocity for Europa Universalis III try to game the process by plugging all orifices with arbitrary values, to the point where anti-semitism is quantified as a plus five percent modifier to revolt risk once the Jewish population of a province passes a certain threshold.

At least that's better than the event-driven approach of other mods for other Paradox games, like the Vicky Improvement Project for Victoria, which 'simulated' the rush for Africa not by diminishing the expansionary capacity of Europe but by outright forbidding colonization before a divinely ordained date, as if everyone was really just holding back and toeing the starting line for fifty years before 1880 out of a sense of sportsmanship.

Of course both of these mods and the games they were designed for are on a much higher level than a specific event or a specific intra-province dynamic. Its really not that bad, in the great scheme of things, if anti-Semitism is modeled in an anti-Semitic way in a few provinces if the whole thing kind of holds together on a macro level and produces believable results. Wether or not the Vicky Improvement Project or Magna Mundi (which is now spiraling completely out of control in the form of a stand-alone game) actually do produce believable outcomes or if they do it in a believable way is another question.

But it is important to think about these small things, especially if your game is going to be tiny and built around nuances that grander strategic games would abstract out of existence. Making people think and act like people did in the past doesn't demand that you place restraints on them in a system that should logically not have that restraint (for example: Vicky is built around conquest and colonization, why restrict it?). It demands that you make the conception that people had of their time and their role in the world real by designing your game around it. Wargames can learn from RPGs in this instance. One example that comes to mind is Darklands.

The designers of Darklands said that the starting point for the game was asking the question "what if the world was actually what the average German peasant thought it was?" From this premise adding monsters and magic was entirely logical. And players in the game accept the premise unthinkingly and adapt to rituals (praying to saints, for instance) that would be arbitrary and ridiculous if the game were modeled on real life but required the player to pray anyway because that's what people did back then. Making a game requires giving the average citizen of your imagined world some credit. You have to treat the things he thinks as real as if they were real. It makes for a better game and maybe designing and playing it gives you some insight into the absurd rituals in your own time and place.

Anyway, this led me back to my design. Modeling things like seasonal migration and slavery is easy enough- put resources in different areas of the map, vary their peak availability times and let players figure out when the best time to hunt small game is and when to visit the piñon groves. But modeling something like the relationship between the settlers and the Indians is tougher. Why, for instance, did the Spanish bother baptizing Indians, and why did Indians not immediately kill any settler they came across? From the perspective of the 21st century the existential danger that European colonialism posed to native peoples is blindingly ovbious. But it wasn't back then (Utes initially invited the Mormons to settle near them, for instance), otherwise violence against settlers whould have been the first resort of native peoples and not the absolute dead last (after long periods of hospitality, accomodation, friendly trade, credulous treaty-negotiation, and tolerating increasingly hostile impositions). To natives at the time settlers appeared as a far more neutral force. They occupied some land and deprived natives of access to some resources, but they had trade goods like metal pots, horses and rifles that natives found immensely useful, and in some cases the paternalism of an imperial power was preferable to slave-raiding by your neighbors: when the Escalante expedition passed through Utah, for instance, they promised to establish missions and settle among the Indians they encountered (which is a promise they never kept) and many bands of Indians, who by that time had endured decades of raids from more powerful tribes to the east, were very happy to hear it. That's why the design emphasizes trade and co-habitation and overall adopts the viewpoint of a group of people who did not (and could not) see with perfect vision several hundred years into the future.