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.