A Small Part of Middle America

I came across a Facebook post from a digital marketing consultant that contained what she claimed was advice for "Middle American" municipalities looking to attract good jobs, of the type that she might fill, presumably. Here it is if you haven't read it. As bad as it is, it did get me thinking about what life is really like out here in Middle America, what dynamics really regulate jobs and development, and whether these dynamics are positive or negative, and what they have to do with our history, that is, the history of Middle America.

How to Build a Data Center

Earlier this year Facebook decided to build another data center. One of the sites that was seriously under consideration for a while was in West Jordan, Utah, on some farmland. Another site that was under consideration was somewhere in New Mexico. Facebook demanded, as a condition of their investment, not the removal of the entire West Jordan city council, or the opening of new wineries, bars and concert venues, or the fixing of the state's systematically underfunded, deeply racist public school system. They demanded a tax break that would amount to the equivalent of ten years worth of property taxes at the current West Jordan rate. In exchange they offered employment for a few hundred construction workers for two years, and at the end of that jobs for about sixty IT professionals, who make far less than IT professionals elsewhere mainly because of the low cost of living in the suburbs of Salt Lake county.

The West Jordan city council and the county council, headed by a Democrat, Ben McAdams, who is presumably not an open racist, turned down the proposal. This infuriated the leadership of most of the local building trades unions, who depend on long-term commercial jobs like data centers to keep many of their members employed. This was not a case of the leadership selling out the rank and file to make money for Facebook either - the possibility of the data center being built here was discussed hopefully at lunch tables for weeks.

What killed the plan was the terrible deal Facebook was offering. No Utah municipality I'm aware of collects income taxes, so sixty new jobs have only a residual impact on tax receipts. Utah's water infrastructure is also under strain from overuse in agriculture and industry, and abnormally low snowpack. And Facebook demanded a property tax break that would mean the city and county would only collect any money after about a decade.

Utah was under consideration for the site mainly because of our cheap power, which comes disproportionately from local coal, natural gas and dammed rivers, and our cheap labor. Wages in the construction sector are about half of what they are in big cities like New York, and Utah is one of the least unionized states in the country. And educated IT professionals don't need to be paid much to live in a big house here, although the real estate market is heating up thanks to precisely the kind of relocation from places like California that should not be occurring, given our backwardness.

Other firms that have successfully relocated to or opened up shop in Utah include Adobe, Ebay, Electronic Arts, and Goldman Sachs. What they like about Utah is how cheap and docile the labor force is here. The governor openly advertises this to prospective investors, alongside the proximity to great recreation and our obviously higher-grade moral fiber.

So, to summarize, what attracts investment to Utah is the low cost of skilled labor, land, and power, and the willingness of the government to entertain all but the most ludicrous tax writeoffs.

The Battle of the Road Home

As recently as the 1980's most of Salt Lake City's currently 'desirable' neighborhoods were half-vacant and dilapidated. The area around the old train station (called the 'Rio Grande' district, after the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad that operated it) was particularly 'sketchy.' The local alternative bookstore, called the Cosmic Aeroplane, and the first gay bar in Utah, the Sun Tavern, were in the area. The homeless shelter (called the Road Home) was also nearby. Since the 90's the area has been targeted for re-development. A mall occupies the former site of the rail station, the bookstore and gay bar were torn down to make room for the Jazz stadium, and old produce warehouses in the area have been remodeled into upscale condos and retail space, with the typical exposed-brick "old industrial" architectural fetish that people who work in marketing or software or marketing software apparently enjoy. Even the anti-homeless spikes on one office building a block over from the Road Home look authentically rusty and craftsmanlike, as if they'd been forged in a cute pioneer-era smithy.

The Road Home now exists uncomfortably in the middle of what it suddenly valuable land. Accordingly it's been targeted for demolition by a wide array of loathsome city councilmen, police chiefs, and developers. The aggressive policing creates the crime statistics, the city council comes up with a plan to 'replace' the one large homeless shelter with several smaller ones scattered throughout the city (with half of the beds getting lost in the shuffle), local residents resist the transfer of the homeless to anywhere near their homes, and developers cash out the charity that operates the shelter and force it to move further west, where it has another ten or twenty years before the wave of redevelopment catches up with it again. And the homeless population, consistently increasing right in step with the surging prices for real estate and rising rents, is effectively cleansed from the area and banished beyond the nicer districts of the city. And no one is guilty - not the residents who had 'legitimate concerns' about crime near the relocated shelters, or the city council who came up with a half-assed plan that included a drastic reduction in beds, or the police who were just doing their jobs, or the developers who were just responding to the signals of the market. And certainly blameless are the people who would shop in or move into the block that will be redeveloped after the exodus of the homeless. All of these people - the developers, the city council, even the police chief - can comfortably claim to be progressive.

So the violent expulsion of the most distressed people in the city occurs exactly because of the expansion of a New Urban downtown core and the relocation of progressive high-tech creatives from the coastal cities, and under the aegis of the most diverse and progressive city government Salt Lake has ever had, which is vocally committed to LGBT rights (except the right to a home), productive police-community "relations," and the full and free expression of all imaginable cultures so long as it comes in the form of food and dance at a yearly festival. If a racist mayor is what we need to ward off this kind of development maybe we should look into the idea. Its not like there has been any discernible change in development policy from the stodgy white, straight and male administrations of the 1960s and 70s. Nor has there been any fundamental break with the more distant past of Great Salt Lake City, which was founded by a white supremacist theocracy as the nucleus of what was supposed to be a vast distributist kingdom.

How Many Times Can You Steal A Hot Spring?

Discussing gentrification always seems to involve a personal connection, typically the person writing about it is a participant in some way in the dynamic. As someone who can presently afford rent in another re-developed area of Salt Lake, the Marmalade district, my connection to this dynamic is clear. I'm a part of the clear-and-hold operation conducted in this part of the city since the 80s which has gently tossed the underwealthed across the freeway.

The Marmalade district is named after the different fruit trees that the pioneers planted on the hillside below the Capitol shortly after they moved in. The hot springs just up Beck Street (read this wonderful essay on the area for some background) were among the first things those pioneers unambiguously stole from the tribes of the area. The Mormons were incensed that natives would sometimes appear when their women were bathing. The springs were converted into "public" baths in the late 19th century. The old trolley system, which was torn down intentionally to make way for the automobile, made the hot springs one of its first destinations. The baths were closed down some time ago but there were open springs right nearby that locals, including the homeless, would make use of for recreation or hygiene. A couple of years ago the springs were completely plowed over for reasons of public health.

So how many times, and for how many similar reasons, can the same spot be stolen? The answer seems to be that there's no limit as long as place is physically valuable. The final theft, which ruined a unique habitat for birds as well as soakers and the indigent, turned out to be environmental as well as social. The Final Crisis, the Final Accumulation of Capitalism, might look similar on a global scale - the only areas that will get to be outside of the circuit of endless conquest and destruction are those too ruined by climate change or war to be used for any purpose. And by the way, the Tesoro refinery across the street from the plowed-under spring continues to leak weird substances into the ground and dirty the air.

Socialist Redevelopment

I haven't worked at a refinery yet but I probably will someday. Electricians get a lot of work in refineries. I'm looking forward to it in a weird way, because as disgusting as refineries are I am honestly impressed by them. Not only are they huge, complex and imposing structures which it will be a challenge to understand but they are also nice to look at, at least from a distance. Huge metal towers with flares on top of them, clouds of steam pouring out of scrubbers, hundreds of lights in strange arrangements, strange sounds like train horns and the whine of air handlers. Very interesting, far more interesting than the stucco condos and offensively reclaimed warehouses of the former Rio Grande. In the future when the refineries are gradually shut down under the five year plans that are hopefully coming to save us, we should leave the lights on and tap into one of the springs to produce a couple of steam geysers. The flare towers and storage tanks could be covered in garish paint, the ground could be reclaimed and people could live in apartments built in the superstructure surrounding the old refining pipes and power cables. That's the sort of quirky, creative redevelopment I'm looking forward to.


Import Substitution and the Pioneer Ethic Today

Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a ganner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.

Leon Trotsky - The Struggle Against Fascism In Germany

A constant target of ridicule in Utah among 'free thinkers' or 'ex Mormons' is the strange affinity of Mormons and other religious conservatives for alternative remedies like essential oils, and an antipathy towards certain parts of modern medicine, like vaccination. This comes along with the rest of the anti-intellectual baggage of Utah conservatism, including Mormon apologetics (the Limited Geography Thesis, criticism of the fossil record, etc.), opposition to sex ed or even public education in general, and relentless ignorance/apologism about the history of their country.

Obviously this makes great Facebook fodder if you've got nothing better to do but I was thinking the other day about what the source of this particular mindset could be. Before I explore that I'll lay out what I think are the key elements of the mindset so people know the specific profile I'm talking about. This profile might not be as prevalent in other parts of the country. Here it is:

The Profile

  • Opposition to and/or distrust of the federal government. Sometimes this is just taxation, sometimes it extends to libertarian goals such as auditing the Fed (a huge demand at Occupy Salt Lake, by the way) and in the weirder subtypes it can go in the direction of outright conspiracy theories or (very rarely) actual opposition to police violence and the American Empire.
  • Skepticism about modern medicine or science generally. Again this runs the gamut. A guy at work told me they cured his wife's autism via a special diet. The essential oils and homeopathic remedies industries are frequently headquartered in Utah and do tons of business here. A lot of people are against vaccines. This oftentimes crosses over with the first characteristic.
  • Faith in the particulars of the Book of Mormon and an attempt to justify it using pseudo-modern methods (e.g., "yeah they figured out that the Indians are actually related to the Israelites via DNA analysis").
  • Profound racism and sexism. Almost unspoken. You hear offhand genocidal remarks from complete strangers constantly. although there are exceptions.
  • A revolting self-pity. In Utah this takes the form of complaining about anti-Mormonism and 'attacks on people of faith.'
  • The 'tendency to truck and barter' and lose tons of money on stupid scams without learning anything. Everyone is constantly trying to sell something to someone else, or find a get-rich-quick scheme, or trade stocks like the big boys, or flip houses, or start a new business.

The Story

When the Mormons reached Utah they were seeking a way to set up their own community in a way they'd been unable to before. When they settled in a state with its own legal system and government they found that they couldn't control things as much as they wanted to, even when they could elect the entire town government themselves and pressure outsiders to leave or acquiesce. Salt Lake Valley, which had been seen by only a few white people before, seemed ideal. The fact that it was even outside of the United States (in Mexico technically but the only visit to Utah from either the Spanish empire or Mexico came in 1776 and only reached Utah lake) sweetened the deal. And the Salt Lake valley, providing the Saints could come together and create irrigation works, seemed like a great place to live.

The Saints were capitalist. They came either from English factory towns (the Saints recruited heavily in England, providing incentives for skilled workers to emigrate) or the farm hinterlands (like upstate New York, where Joseph Smith started his divining and Bible-cribbing business) of the eastern seaboard. They understood the economy in terms of private ownership, exchange in markets, financial instruments, corporations etc. Their task in Utah was to create a capitalist economy that would benefit the community, from scratch. The path they chose, outlined in Leonard Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom, has been called 'socialism' (Arrington, writing in the forties, attempts to position it as Keynesian, in line with what US policy was seen to be at the time) and been compared to utopian communes popular around the time of the Second Great Awakening, but it bears more similarities to the developmental states of East Asia: they started with farming and worked their way up the import-substitution ladder, producing more and more complex goods with the goal of self-sufficiency and later, economic dominance.

The Saints built irrigation works first. Property was parcelled out in precise lots based on family units. Speculation and squatting were banned and carefully policed. Salt Lake's gloriously wide and straight streets, and its grid system, were possible because of this centralization. Polygamy had its own economic role as well. Polygamous men worked several plots, each with its own wife, children, chickens, cattle and farm implements. Most polygamous marriages were consecrated in the early years of near-famine in the Saint's community, when men were encouraged to marry widows to provide for them and their children. The Bishop's Storehouse, where Mormons tithed ten percent of their increase either in currency, or most often, in kind, functioned as a state construction firm and charity all in one. Most of the public works in Salt Lake, including the temple, were built by labor paid in food from the Storehouse, not by private contractors paid using money. Outside observers said that the Saints were "building a temple with bread." The Church, using resources collected by the storehouse, also conducted trade for capital goods the Saints needed to make things they wanted.

A constant worry of the Mormon leadership was that they would become dependent on the "Gentiles," the non-Mormons, who had betrayed the Saints time and time again and must never be allowed dominance over the community. Gentile merchants were especially hated by Brigham Young, because the money they made by selling Saints sugar or coffee (neither of which were produced in Utah) or farm implements, flowed right out of the territory. Most of Brigham Young's "anti-capitalism" can be chalked up to this hatred of merchants. In other ways he acted exactly like a small business owner, for instance making volunteer labor build a huge wall around his compound and saying "if I can put someone to work I can make them do whatever I want." This isn't something you'd expect to hear from a leader who was expected to justify the expenditure of labor with reference to the public good.

Most of the time the Mormons had to buy what they needed from the outside at steep prices (and truck it to Utah themselves, for which purpose they set up a freight-hauling company along the same route they'd taken to Utah). But sometimes the Mormons caught a lucky break, as when the US Army sent to occupy them during the Mormon War was called back to fight the Civil War. The Army sold all its wagons and iron tools to the Saints at a steep loss during a time when the Saints had almost no way to make their own. It was the first of many crucial gifts, welfare, from the federal government that the Saints would gladly accept, their stoic facade and apparent commitment to self-reliance somehow remaining intact.

But sugar, iron and clothing weren't going to fall from heaven. The Mormon leadership sent several 'missions,' including one to the California gold fields, to secure things the Saints had to buy from other people. Southern Utah was first settled (ethnically cleansed) by 'iron missions' sent to mine and smelt metal so it wouldn't have to be imported. Coalville, over the Wasatch range from Salt Lake, was settled to provide coal to Mormon households. But the biggest challenge was sugar. It was one thing the Mormons couldn't make in Utah and it was a huge drain on the community's currency reserves. And, unlike coffee, which was banned around the time Brigham Young decided he didn't want Saints importing it anymore (later on Postum would come to the rescue), sugar couldn't be done away with. Brigham Young was determined to climb this rung. Machinery from France was imported, French sugar-beet specialists were sought out and converted, a water-powered building was set up in the present-day Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake (aha) and farmers in Jordan were ordered to plant beets. In the end they couldn't figure out how to make it work. Western-grown beets wouldn't be a source of sugar until the early 20th century, when the complexity of the soil was better understood and chemistry was able to break the beet pulp down better. With other things such as cloth, they were more successful. Brigham Young, like Sankara a hundred years later, even made a point of wearing only locally produced clothing, and requiring Saints to do so as well, as a point of pride and of practical economic necessity. The Provo Woolen Mills firm that was established during this time was one of the most successful Mormon church/state enterprises, and the last Church-owned enterprises to be wound down, in the early 20th century.

Another object of Brigham Young's ire was eastern-produced medicine, especially Ephedra, which the Saints used. Brigham Young identified a local variant of Asian plant, today called 'Brigham's Tea' and ordered the Saints to switch. It worked, despite the fact that the two variants of Ephedra are totally different: the Asian one actually has the active ingredient, and the Great Basin variant doesn't.

Eventually the Mormon economy with its unique features of constrained (but still private) property, controlled (but still capitalist) market relations, and the large role of state development, was dismantled. The Mormons couldn't have their utopia in the desert after all. They would have to settle for statehood, no more (open) polygamy, and with only controlling the entire state government of Utah, and not of a huge nation stretching (as Brigham Young originally intended) from Southern Idaho and Colorado to Baja California. But the unique features of Mormon settlerism, including the distrust of 'outside' forces, especially the federal government which had sent Mormon leaders into hiding for years (and even repossessed the Temple!!!), hasn't diminished too much. The virtues of self-reliance (if not the reality) persisted during the Depression period when the Mormon church campaigned against the New Deal and then presented the fruits of the federal money that eventually came to Utah as its own doing. The current state government, rejecting a fully funded Obamacare program purely out of spite, shows that the roots of the pioneer era are not totally ripped out yet. The tragedy-farce dynamic is visible in the Church itself as well. Today the Church, which once operated industrial firms and built rail lines and guaranteed all (white settler) inhabitants food and shelter, is a real estate firm and political lobbying organization that also happens to own the trademarks to the Joseph Smith brand. In the past the Mormons cravenly recruited French and English craftsmen who were specifically needed for industries the Saints were attempting to develop. Today the Church dangles its meager food bank and assistance programs in front of desperate refugees, this time to shore up its brand image as diverse and inclusive. And it goes almost without saying that the capitalist features of early Mormonism have been brought to the fore. The social base of Mormonism, then as now, is the settler, yesterday on a farm, today in a grotesque suburban parody of the homestead, conducting irrigation of roses and home-spinning cures to complex diseases, pulling money out of home equity thanks to the insane federal subsidy of home ownership, and LARPing the agonizing handcart journeys every Pioneer Day. Trotsky was right. Today, the nineteenth century lives next to the twenty-first.


Two Years of Corn

Download: Corn 1 Year Ago

Download: Corn Today

WARNING: You need something called love2d installed to run these files.

The 19th of February 2013 is the official day that I started working on Corn: The Game of Classical Political Economy. That was a while ago now. Enough has changed since then that 2013 seems like longer than two years ago somehow. Last year around late February I provided a short summary of what I'd worked on in the last year since the start of development. For a number of reasons, there's less to report this time around. Even by this time last year I'd slowed to a steady crawl but the pace these days is every-once-in-a-while. My most recent productive period was the 16th of April. I'm working on another free-time coding project now that should be wrapping up in the next couple months so after that I'll be able to bring my attention back to Corn

What's Changed?

I actually had to look back over my own changelog to be sure. I've added a lot of little things- factories work completely differently now and their GUI elements have been re-designed. Goods can take any number of seasons to be produced, and consume any amount of inputs. Production can require power (only river power so far) or not. Or it can take multiple workers to produce one good. Even this isn't fully finished yet, as the build above demonstrates (try brewing some beer and see what happens just before it completes its production cycle). Other stuff: forests can be clear-cut, goods are stored in the region where they were produced, there are theoretically several player roles possible (only one works at all), the graphics are totally redone (I didn't draw them, thanks to my pal prinny for that. especially those trees god damn...), the way maps are handled internally is new and hopefully more data-driven, etc. Actually looking back I spent the last year tearing apart and half-rebuilding basically one small part of the game. There's the executive summary of the last year plus.

I have made progress on the design front. A few things are a lot clearer than they were before, partially because of all the reading I've been doing on the side while the code languishes. In particular I've written a document that lays out a few of the key ideas and the things I'd like to do to implement those ideas. I'll end this rather meager progress update with that document. See you next year hopefully with something more exciting.

Corn Design Outline February 2015

1: what is corn supposed to be?

corn is a strategy game set during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, in a game world that is not strictly modeled on any particular time or place but is designed to simulate the overall dynamicss of the Atlantic world during the early modern period through the age of industrialization.

there are several key concepts in the game.

- the concept of modes of production: different areas of the game world are run differently. town-centered areas produce goods in factories or shops for sale at a market, for a price. individuals then take the price they recieve for whatever they produce and attempt to re-produce themselves: hiring labor and buying goods to keep themselves and their businesses alive. areas centered on feudal manors operate along lines of custom instead. peasants own the land they till and it cannot be sold, but they owe a portion of their produce to their lord. the lord in turn maintains an armed retinue to battle against other lords and defend/repress his peasants. other possible areas include those run by a church and those which are owned by a tribe.

- the concept of a real economy: key to the idea of modes of production is that people produce things in specific ways in specific places, trade them/tribute them, and ship them either to a market in their own area or to a market elsewhere. goods are not automatically stored anywhere and everything must be paid for and tracked until it is consumed. eventually, once the basics of production, sale/tribute and consumption are finished, the goal is to have an economy that includes things like credit, shareholding etc.

- the concept of role-playing: the game is strategic but the player has to pick a certain historical role. there is no 'guiding spirit' ala age of empires or 'eternal monarch-president-premier' like in victoria or eu. players pick from several classes and based on which class they pick they have access to certain responsibilities and rights according to their role. merchants can sell but can't run a fief. feudal lords can't kick their peasants off their land- easily. the idea is similar to mount & blade: a wide-open semi-historical world with multiple interlocking systems that players enter at different points. no one is forced to be a feudal lord the entire game. they can change their role (just as in mount & blade you can support a pretender or become a vassal) but this involves a lot of hard work and careful planning. also, the world is changing around the player as new areas are discovered and modes of production shift, rise and disappear over time.

there's a lot more but that is the basic goal.

2: what is the plan for corn?

the plan is to build each 'mode' along with its corresponding player-class, one at a time, until all of em are finished. right now the focus is on the merchant class and the town-centered area with a more or less capitalistic mode of production. that means that labor can be hired or fired, nobody owes anyone else anything because of customs, property is totally alienable and the product belongs entirely to the owner of the thing that produced it, and trade can be conducted freely between different towns. later on the feudal mode, the slave mode, the tribal mode and maybe a couple others will be fleshed out. longer term, things like map discovery, governments and flourishes like an age-system (advancing ages ala age of empires, but based on key events like 'discovering the new world' or 'founding a totally capitalist nation') will be added. none of these systems are supposed to be very complex. the idea is to keep things simple and uncomplicated but have rich interactions between different areas of the game.

3: what is done so far?

very little. part of this is because I work and of course suffer from near-crippling levels of ennui and anhedonia induced by our miserable condition as alienated beings under late capitalism. the other part is that a lot of this comes together from reading I do which is a fairly drawn out process. the idea of including slavery, which i now think will be fairly important to the game, just came up a month or so ago and i've been working on this in one form or another since 2013. my initial design for this game bears almost no relationship to the document i've just written. that's not really a problem since nobody's waiting for this game to be finished and i won't owe anyone money for either not completing it or taking ten years to do so. anyway heres a short list of what has been accomplished

- scrolling map and basic ui. - tiles that produce things. coal, wood, wool and corn are produced in tiles. - factories (currently being refactored) that are owned, pay wages, and produce goods with specific schedules and inputs. - basic outline of towns and manors. - military units and pathfinding. - graphics (shouts to prinny dude)

this has taken two goddamn years lol. I am closer today to having something to actually play (when the merchant class is finished). hopefully when that comes online there will be a more gradual and visible process of improvement. until now I've been struggling to establish the basics (which are fairly complicated and have to be in place all at once). when the game is playable it will probably be easier to work on.

4: can I help? can I 'play'?

yes. check out the code from github if you want and poke around. ask me any questions you have. email is pajari at gmail dot com. technically the game needs the latest version of a program called 'love2d' to run. install that, download the source, rar it, then rename the extension to .love and play. i haven't tested it on many resolutions or systems but it should work fine.

5: thanks for reading


B.J. Blascowicz Joins the Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv

When I started working on this post I was going to spoil it but it's been so long and the game has totally faded from the news cycle, so there's no risk in saying: Blascowicz dies.

Icycalm a while ago wrote an essay facetiously titled "Are Cutscenes Art?" which was actually about movies, but, Wolfenstein: The New Order raises the question seriously: it has three hours of cutscenes. I watched all of em and this game is fucking nuts. Here are my thoughts on the cutscenes and the game overall.

two visions

There are two main competing visions of what the world would have looked like if the Nazis had won. There's the apocalyptic version the new Wolfenstein presents, with absurd occult-infused technology, mindless repression, flags flying everywhere, bodies piled in heaps, etc. And then there's the vision from Phillip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle, which is considerably more nuanced. I like Dick's vision better because it's more realistic. It predicts that the outright repression would have lessened after the war and not intensified, it implicitly understands that the Nazi regime made use of slave labor, starvation plans, concentration camps and the rest of it only at the absolute height of its desperation. It implicitly understands that there were actual reasons why the Nazis fired up the ovens, even if it doesn't name them. It makes the Nazis (and Japanese) human beings with motivations and interests instead of cardboard cutouts. The Japanese and their fetish for Old West memorabilia in The Man In The High Castle is a particularly clever example of this. And the careful consideration of human biology, and the possibility of 'passing' as Aryan, is explored, and the parallels to the civil rights struggle being waged at the time are pretty obvious. Dick, even though he was pretty checked out at times, manages to bring the Nazis and their world closer to reality than the new Wolfenstein does.

The obvious protest at this point is that Wolfenstein is supposed to be over the top, and the series has always had a focus on the occult side of the Nazi regime, like Raiders of the Lost Ark and a lot of other Hollywood movies. But whoever is responsible for the writing in this game went well out of their way to humanize BJ and create a Cast of Memorable Characters, something that has never existed in any other Wolfenstein game. There is an attention to visual detail as well, which implies a fair amount of research and a real attempt to think through what the logical result of Nazi architecture and industry would have been, had it been triumphant and had the whole world's resources at its disposal. The game attempts to place BJ in a wider context of 'resistance' to the Nazis as well, whereas in other games the focus was on the lone wolf, secret missions, damp castles, dark corners, etc. The Wolfenstein narrative is intended to be more realistic and the world the developers imagined was supposed to be believable. It's fair to pick out their glaring flaws in historical interpretation.

The third interpretation of Nazi history, separate from the Hollywood and the PKD ones, is based on comparing the Nazis to other large western countries of the same period. And a third vision of what the world would have looked like if these Nazis, the historical Nazis, had won, can be compared with the Wolfenstein vision. Let's do that for a while.

the Nazi movement

The first problem is that the Nazis were a large movement made up of several currents, some of which were sidelined or suppressed at different times, and not a monolithic force. There were the Albert Speer types, creative, thoroughly capitalist technocrats with a taste for slave labor, there were the farmers, led by Walther Darre, who was probably even more racist than Hitler, there were the Ernst Rohm types, who expected a 'socialist' (for Aryans exclusively) revolution following the Nazi seizure of power, and then there were the careerists who latched on to the party or the SS and swallowed the ideology wholesale out of a simple desire to belong to something and to be comfortable. This was the Hans Martin Schleyer type- not committed, but having no qualms either.

What happened over the course of the Nazi journey to oblivion was that all of these various factions were sidelined, if they had any influence to begin with. Ernst Rohm and his hapless socialists were executed, Darre was kept on as an empty suit after he organized the north German peasantry to support the Nazis and implemented measures like organic farming and co-ops to increase yields and reduce the amount of petroleum needed for agriculture, but his interest in human biology and selective breeding of humans was never popular, and he was opposed to the war with Russia because he feared that the needs of war would dilute the Aryan stock. Even the scientists and engineers who proposed the sort of wild new technology you see in the new Wolfenstein were sidelined. The obsolete BF 109 was produced years after far better designs were available, simply because it was cheap and it was all the Nazis could afford. The spectacular advances the Nazis did manage to eke out - the jet airplane, the rocket, the beginnings of modern armor, the assult rifle, came way too late to make a difference. And as we now know, they never got anywhere near the most critical WW2 discovery: atom bomb. That leaves us with Albert Speer and the careerists, with a thin crust of Aryan tribal-warrior true believers at the very top. But even at the top, their hands were tied. The Nazi army conscripted all sorts of lesser races, the German people actively resisted the euthanasia of the mentally ill (they turned in their Jewish neighbors though), and Darre's almost Jeffersonian utopia of small, local farmers authentically sharing organic vegetables with each other (ahem...) was drowned in a wave of industrialization made necessary to prosecute the war in the East.

Which brings us to the glowing half-electrical metal undead golem-Elephant in the room: The East. The game starts in Poland but rapidly moves west, south, north, any direction other than East. Blaskowitz, understandably concerned about America on waking from his coma, never once asks about the Soviet Union or any of America's allies. There are references to "the African front" and to America surrendering, but the East is a big empty spot on the map. We go literally to Atlantis before we go to the Soviet Union.

This is very appropriate, because the future the new Wolfenstein imagines is sort of like a thought experiment: what if there were no such thing as Communism, or the Soviet Union? The horror of this game partially comes from the complete lack of the radical alternative that actually prevented the Nazis from bringing to fruition most of their horrendous plans. And its gigantic historical blind spot is responsible for most of its problems. Let's examine the real Second World War and the real West Germany to see exactly where the game goes wrong.

the real West Germany and the New Order

One aspect of the game's marketing was to commission a series of covers of popular 60s-era songs done in German to play ironically over footage of people being shot. Here's what I mean:

Happiness perversely contrasted with violence, cheery sentimentality and brutality juxtaposed. It sounds pretty much exactly the same as real West German pop in the 60s. West German musicians such as those involved in the more radical fringes of Krautrock frequently put their opposition to what was called 'Schlager' music and the still-not-De-Nazified West German state in the same terms. Krautrock and the counter-culture in Germany in the 1960s was about smoking dope and free love, but it also had a political tinge that was galvanized by the presence of unprosecuted collaborators at all levels of German (West German) society. The Red Army Faction (many of whom were friends with some of the prominent members of the Krautrock scene) would take this insight all the way to terrorism.

The Red Army Faction were demonized in the popular press, gained no significant political support even from their close friends or the East German state (which, by the way, was thoroughly de-Nazified), and died in prison under mysterious circumstances. The situation of the 'resistance' in New Order postwar Germany is, again, similar: 'squatting' in abandoned corners of the squeaky-clean-yet-murderous city, running from the cops, stealing weapons, being corralled and trapped and harried at every turn, and eventually (in BJ's case) dying. BJ never reads a newspaper but he does hear propaganda directed at him, and he is yelled at by the evil, evil Nazi bosses he's fighting. What they say is that BJ is a terrorist, that he is merely a destroyer whereas the Nazis are creators (job creators, perhaps??), that everyone the resistance has killed has left a family behind, and, most crucially, BJ is also told to "cease [his] criminal activity."

Whether or not this is intended to call into question the morality of terrorism whatever it's inspiration, or to merely serve as a foil for the obvious righteousness of the cause of the resistance, comes down to your interpretation. I think the writers were too clever for their own good. In giving the Nazis a voice to explain themselves and their horrendous deeds, they ended up cribbing from Thatcher: she said "crime is crime, it is not political" and the game obviously disagrees. And in putting the player in the shoes of an insurgent, fighting a monstrous enemy who attempts to shift the blame for violence and destruction away from the violent and destructive system to the individual who fights back, the writers, whether or not they've intended to, vindicate even the most hopeless terrorism. I can't wait for the sequel where an alt-RAF fights the Nazis in a fake 1970s Germany with a Krautrock soundtrack commissioned by the developers. I even have in mind the band they could hire.

the real WW2

The real WW2 was a cynical geopolitical contest and not a clash of opposing ideologies, except perhaps on the Eastern Front. The election of Hitler was recognized immediately and even heralded in the West, whereas the Soviet Union's diplomatic existence wasn't even acknowledged by the United States until 1933. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was only reached at the eleventh hour after the Soviet Union had been told that no alliance would be forthcoming from the western democracies. American companies worked hand-in-glove with the Nazi's rearmament effort, every diplomatic effort was made to placate Hitler, and the British strategy on the continent was balance - not the principle of anti-racism or anti-colonialism. A common refrain during the run-up to war in Europe was "we hope the Nazis murder lots of Communists and vice versa." The Allies were prepared to intervene on either side depending on who seemed to be winning. The grudging nature of their alliance with the Soviet Union is indicated by the fact that they were planning to isolate it globally well before the war ended and saw wartime aid as an extremely temporary, conditional arrangement and not indication of a moral alliance against Hitlerism. And then theres the matter that the western front, where almost the entire Wolfenstein game takes place in, was a side show next to the East. It's inaccurate to say that the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis without any help (not that inaccurate). But it's highly suspect to ignore the Soviets completely like Wolfenstein does. And it's wrong to characterize the west as inimically opposed to the values of Nazi Germany in the way Wolfenstein does incessantly, down to its cloying ending cutscene when Blascowicz recites "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses" as he bleeds out. The actual history was that the west grudgingly went to war with the Nazis and their "occult" capitalism and would have preferred them to the Soviets in almost all cases. And would have even made peace with them. But socialism, the real alternative, had to be fought to the bitter end.

side note: is Wolfenstein anti-semitic?

The west's total indifference to anti-Semitism before WW2 is mirrored in the game in a bizarre way, in that the game is actually anti-Semitic. One of the things that puts the Nazis over the top in Wolfenstein is that they discover a long-hidden cache of ancient technology that has been husbanded by a mysterious cloister of scientists (the Da'at Yichud, in case there was any doubt about the identity of this clandestine global council) for millennia. This is straight-up Protocols of the Elders of Zion stuff, except from the opposite side: it's so good that there are secret Jews manipulating science and technology somewhere. We have to make friends with them! If the Jew representative of the Da'at Yichud that you meet were a normal character and not a hunched-over meek scientist who constantly praises BJ's strength (calling him 'Samson' even), then maybe the developers couldn't be accused of checking all of the anti-Semitic stereotype boxes.

As an aside, this need to construct something like the Da'at Yichud to explain the Nazi persecution of the Jews (by the way, doesn't the existence of the Da'at Yichud actually sort of exonerate the Holocaust and prove a major part of the anti-Semitic narrative from the 20th century correct? is that a smart thing to do?) results from the long-standing liberal confusion over the Holocaust. The fact that the death camps and the drive to the East were eminently capitalist processes, and were presented (and accepted) as solutions to a Germany in a capitalist crisis, can never be admitted or even entertained. The Nazis did what they did to Jews (and Poles, Russians, Roma, the mentally ill, etc) because they were crazy, and that's it. Bordiga's "Auschwitz, or, The Great Alibi" is a good response to this type of thinking.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.