Calvin and Hobbes
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.