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Calvin and Hobbes

June 2nd, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Design

Your favorite cartoon brat and stuffed tiger started as two of the great thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries. John Calvin was the great Reformer whose strong opinions on right, wrong and the inevitable led to Puritanism and Presbyterianism. Thomas Hobbes was one of the first philosophers to put forth that all men were created equal, and that the only way to rein in this equality – which is mind is equality of murderous abilities – was to surrender all of our rights to an absolute sovereign.

What does any of this have to do with strategy gaming? More than you might think. These two men are not only giants of Western thought and civilization, they are the founders of the precepts that underlie almost every strategy game out there.

The link to Thomas Hobbes is obvious. In the Hobbesian mindset, a world without a government to enforce order, his state of nature, meant that people’s lives would be “nasty, brutish and short”. It was a war of “all against all.” In his magnum opus, Leviathan, he pointed out that while we had kings to keep us from killing each other in the domestic sphere; the international arena was still anarchic; no government enforced rules so it was a free for all.

And there we have all strategy gaming. Cooperation is a sucker’s game and conflict is the entire point of the exercise. Conflict is not only inevitable, it’s the rule set. Does anybody in Civ III trade iron or oil to rivals who don’t have them? Of course not, since these are the sinews of Civ-war. Collaborative victory is impossible in most strategy games and is generally unsatisfying.

But if you look around today, you will see that international relations is highly dependent on cooperation, trade and even has a fine amount of generosity and altruism in it. Countries do not live lives that are nasty, brutish and short and interstate war is the exception and not the rule. In fact, war between large powers has reached the point that it seems self-defeating to even conceive of it.

Why are there no strategy games that try to simulate this? Almost all of the large history spanning games make war more frequent at the end than at the beginning and none capture the true friendship that can grow between countries. If the world ever was Hobbesian, it’s certainly questionable if it still is.

Conflict may be more exciting to portray. You get explosions, neat weapons and the like. Trying to make a trade pact look exciting is a challenge for all the great graphic artists of our generation. But it would be something new and give players an interesting way to “win” a game without necessarily beating everyone into submission. Even “cultural” or “wonder” victories require you to either annex others or hold the wonder before an opponent knocks it down.

John Calvin’s connection is less obvious, and has not always been present. One of Calvin’s central precepts was predestination. In his learned theological interpretation of scripture, God – being omniscient and prescient – already knew who was saved and who wasn’t. Therefore, your fate is already decided. Any exercise of free will in this world is also preordained to achieve the God-established decision of who makes it into Heaven and who doesn’t.

Increasingly, developers of strategy games have tried to differentiate between opposing sides with more than just unit descriptions or force compositions. In the original Civilization, there were no differences between the opposing races except in how pretty their leader was. Warcraft had human and orc forces that were exactly the same except for the art. But ever since Starcraft blew everyone away with three wonderfully different and balanced forces, strategy game designers have ordained that certain cultures will have certain tendencies.

So, if you an easy early game in Civ III, you have to choose an “expansionist” race. If you randomly end up with the French, the rush to gunpowder becomes even more important. If you like artillery in Rise of Nations, the Turks are your best choice. If you choose a random race and end up with the Mongols, you’d be an idiot not to spam your empire with stables.

Cultural traits therefore determine the game you will play. And, since race is destiny, you can expect some of these issues to move from game to game because, as I wrote earlier, game designers tend to go back to the same templates for national powers. If you make a Rome that does not rely on heavy infantry, you are not only scoffing at history. You are risking the wrath of ten million gamers who know that Rome conquered the world because its infantry rocked. So it must rock in the game they are playing.

I know why developers do this. It provides a variety of different gameplay styles for the player and allows them to try to win games in different ways. Sure there is a best strategy for the Aztecs or the Egyptians, but they are different enough from each other to persuade the player that some thought went into balancing the game. And, since history is there, developers might as well use it as a baseline for each culture.

I have no major complaint with Calvinizing strategy games, but it does make me wonder whatever happened to the idea of gaming against an opponent with an identical set-up. In chess, the black pieces don’t get +1 moves with their pawns while White bishops can jump a single piece. The whole idea is to beat a force the same as your own without relying on magic powers or special advantages.

Of the two, I think that Hobbes puts greater constraints on developers and players than Calvin. The primacy of warfare and elimination as the endgames of strategy titles does give a perverted view of what international politics is all about. As powerful as Age of Empires is in teaching people about pikemen and trebuchets, are the messages that gamers get about war and politics any less important?

And if Will Wright can make care about making a virtual doll take a shower, don’t tell me that a game about real international politics would surely be dull. All it takes is some imagination and a willingness to move beyond the canon.


One Comment so far ↓

  • roboczar

    This doesn’t have much to do with the gaming aspect of your post, but I would argue that the apparent state of economic and social interdependence between countries is temporary at best, and some would argue (myself included) that it isn’t actually interdependence, but a complex series of arrangements that benefit international power brokers at the expense of the weak, that give the appearance of interdependence between the two parties. The parasite shares the body of the host so long as the host doesn’t die, but the life the host lives is not one to be envied.

    As for gaming reflecting a realist view of the world, I think that the people who make the games have the same understanding of world politics that their user base does. They all have different justifications or reasons for that particular worldview, and some are less logical than others, but they all come to the same issue with human nature and how it appears in things like game theory.

    However, I *do* agree that more should be done to explore positive-sum political simulations, hopefully in a way that does not appear contrived. The real difficulty with exploring such a world is the inherently zero-sum nature of things like military conflict and even something as seemingly benign as political elections. Someone *has* to lose. If you want to explore methods of interdependence, you have to have some sort of obvious advantage to trading with other countries, something that would offset a desire to forego friendly negotiation and get to the invadin’. I personally can’t think of a single reason, other than a deterrent threat of violence, that would make cooperation a viable solution.

    With all that nastiness set aside, one neat idea would be to start out with a world ‘federation’ of member states governed by a representative world organization that decides global policy. Playing the game would entail gathering support among your region’s population for various world government initiatives that you feel advance the human species. Getting people on your side would be the meat of the game, with the vote and the consquences of that vote, your reward. As each set of policies is implemented, problems may arise that didn’t appear beforehand, and you must again work together to garner support in order to reverse said policy or institute other mitigative polcies.

    Getting a bit long-winded here, but it would be quite a neat trick to be able to put together a ‘realistic’ positive-sum game encompassing a grand strategy model, without contriving a scenario where total independence of countries does not exist and rule of law is enforced by an outside body. If you want to maintain that intedependence is not a sham, but a real phenomenon, then you could try to construct game balance in such a way that no single region can produce a product that another region can produce, forcing dependence on trade. Not very realistic, either, in my opinion.

    Really something to chew on, this.