Saturday, March 12, 2011

You Are Not A State (Or A Gadget Thereof)

This is in response to a recent article on Futurismic by entitled "Seeing Like A State: Why Strategy Games Make Us Think And Behave Like Brutal Psychopaths".While I agree that human beings experience a degree of perspective shift when they assume a position of power, I disagree that it is necessarily a shift into the "state's” perspective and I think that the situation is more complex than suggested.

Firstly, I don’t think it’s a feature of strategy games in particular that causes gameplay that might be abhorrent if the pixels were real people, because it’s not just strategy games in which people do appalling, repulsive things. There are enough FPS clones to fill a Pentagon mainframe out there, wherein the sole purpose of the game is the wholesale slaughter of other human beings, in photo-real detail. There are games where you play serial killers, rapists, sandbox games where you can become either the Campbellian mythic hero, saving humanity from certain destruction or the ultimate “bastard”, enslaving the entire human race, and every other race too, under your all-seeing eye, a la Fable. The key element here is that a game is fiction, it’s entertainment. Mundane goody-two-shoes worlds where people just tie their suits, go to work and make money to maintain their 1.4 kids and 10,000 square foot lawns, where states live in eternal utopic peace and harmony, where war-room roundtable meetings consists of quarterly reports on the increase in sales of sporting footwear or guantlets in Germany and continuing sunny relations with BRIC countries, these worlds make poor games because they lack conflict and drama. They’re boring. They make poor fiction. And most people are capable of separating entertaining fiction from serious reality, so I feel that it’s not entirely fair to say that people playing games are “behaving like brutal psychopaths”.

Nearly everyone and their pre-boomer grandma I’d wager has viewed a fair share of movies, played games, read books full of genocidal warlords, ruthless Machiavellian autocrats, serial killers, pro-torture gangsters, murderous housewives, et. al., yet we don’t see any empirical evidence suggesting correlations between psychopaths and experience of violent media. People don’t make decisions in games based on what they’d do in reality, either. As in Fallout 3, where people can play through as righteous Megaton-saving, kitten hugging paladins of righteousness, and on another run-through, play “bad” characters, nuking Megaton for profit, killing anyone who gets in the way of completing a quest and scoring loot like psychopaths. They’re roleplaying characters, not making life-changing moral decisions in reality. By your logic, these people should all go out and kill their coworkers secretly to bump themselves up in line for promotions.

Having your SCVs sit around, hug and kiss, read poetry to one another, and make snow angels in their collected minerals and vespene gas is not only not possible due to the programming of Starcraft II; even if it was, it would be boring. If your dev team starts pumping out Kumbaya-Craft, you can bet your ass your investors will flee like financial corporations from a European tax hike, your capital will soon succumb to its burn rate, and you’ll be yanked forcibly by the collective hand of the market.

Pleasantville is boring. It defeats the purpose of entertainment, such as games, a subset of which includes strategy games, and that purpose is not to fill the yawning void in some post-industrial existential crisis of meaning or resolve some metaphysical yearning for “truth”. No, the purpose of a game is to give you something fun to do for a couple hours in between filling out excel spreadsheets or waiting to pick up the kids after soccer practice. I and my Civ and Starcraft 2 buddies certainly are not “constructing fictitious worlds where meaning has a place” as we’re lolling at each other over failed “tyrannical” zerg rushes or fighting for bragging rights in.

Quiet 1st world cushy conflictless society is suited well for reality where consequences have real adverse impact. We all love murder mysteries and “getting in the shoes of” people in horrible life-threatening situations such as wars for the emotional and cognitive rollercoaster rides they take us on. But the hell if any of us would really want to be chased by a serial killer or stuck in Iraq or Afghanistan in real life. And we humans have the capacity to separate the two (most of us anyway, that’s why we have media ratings systems limiting consumption of films and games for the younger minds who have yet to fully develop that capacity.

“This also explains why strategy gamers tend to be far more psychopathic than even the most ruthless of real world tyrants; tyrants cannot see the human consequences of their actions because the state does not see them. Game players do not see the human consequences of their actions because there simply are none to be seen.”

This suggests that the condition of psychopathy and/or immoral decision making is an artifact of one’s environment — be it behind a mouse and keyboard in a game of C&C or behind a mahogany desk in the oval office — as opposed to some neurobiological defect of the individual or weakness of character. The problem with this line of thought is that it absolves responsibility for decisions made by political leaders such as the Cambodian massacre, or the oppressive regimes of Egypt, Libya, and the host of other revolutions set to party like it’s 1989 in the Soviet Bloc. “It’s not my fault, it was the nation-state worldview-puppeteer in my brain making me pick up that phone and order warplanes to carpet-bomb my own people into oblivion!” Claiming “temporary perspective-insanity” in a trial for Gaddafi’s war crimes. “It’s not my fault we done smoked out the ‘Raqi’s based on fabricated evidence of WMDs that wound up in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, and burying the US in mountains of debt… Rumsfeldt, Cheney and I, we was just ‘spiritually communing’ with the state and trying to find meaning in our lives!”

This is not only a disservice to the victims of atrocities caused by state leader war criminals, I think it unfairly paints politicians, and especially the good ones, into these sort of choice-less cages of sub-human politico-borghood. It’s not unlike the recent pop-psych riffs going off in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that it’s not that CEOs and bankers and the ultra rich are bad, they are just “held hostage” by their own power which turns them into sociopaths.

While there is certainly an amount of distancing effect inherent in taking on a position of power, this is not some universal get-out-of-indictment free card for being a bastard, committing financial crimes, sucking wealth from the population, blowing up economies for profit, etc. etc.. Because there are good super-rich people out there too, the Warren Buffets and Ed Boons of the world who show great empathy and compassion for the “pawns” wallowing far below their 102nd floor corporate towers, who maintain their humanity and altruism in their decision making despite their position. These good business leaders often prove instrumental in generating systemic-level change for societal goods such as eliminating malaria in Africa, jumpstarting renewable energy with investment, providing vital funding for charity work, and putting pressure on the bad blue bloods.

And just as there are good and bad businessmen, there are good and bad politicians, of varying degrees. There are the JFKs and there are the Pol Pots. There are the Churchills and there are the Hitlers. Great leaders such as these didn’t make decisions based on how much more of their RISK pieces they could place on the “board game” of Earth. They did what politicians should do, which is make the often unbearably difficult but right decisions for the good of the people, of their countries, and also of the entire world. I think it’s perhaps more illuminating to view the states not as the controlling viewpoint foisted upon the politician and the powerful, but rather the subservient minion of ulterior human agenda. In the case of Churchill, the state was a vehicle for protecting humanity from a world enslaved to fascism. But if the leader’s goals are more sinister, then the state can be used for that as well.

For example, in the case of the various economic blowups, the biggest of which being in 2008, the accused CEO’s first move is to claim exactly what the article says, some abstract “state view” – in this case “corporate view”, the corporation as some big evil monster forcing their hand to do all these terrible things, ruthlessly achieving its own agenda of survival in a Darwinian concrete jungle of survival of the business-fittest. In reality, corporations are blowing up all the time; a mere 20% of biggest corporations in the US still *exist* today. Subprime derivative games, insider trading schemes, derivatives shenanigans and the like are directly *opposed* to the interest of the corporation as an entity as they inevitably wind up killing the corporate organism off once the toxic waste is revealed as in Lehman, AIG, Enron, et. Al.. But at the same time as the supposedly self-preserving corporation is dying off, the human CEO at the top gets away from the burning corpse with millions or even billions in bonuses, sailing off in a golden parachute to the Caymans. No, the corporate view does not shanghai the human perspective, the human agent here is using the corporation as a puppet, a scapegoat, a wealth-siphoning vehicle to enrich themselves, then discarding the wolf costume as soon as they’re safely away from the scene of the crime. To say that their “field of view” as a CEO (of Enron or Lehman or Madoff, say) “caused” them to commit these horrible acts is pure apologism. It’s a false evolutionary metaphor originally incited by the neoclassical school of economics and perpetuated by the Wall-Street owned academic field of economics.

And likewise, the Bush Administration claiming it in “The National Interest ™” of the United States to invade Iraq is not some usurpation of Bush’s undying humanitarianism and Mother Theresa-like compassion by the inescapable “communion” with “the state”. It was a calculated, media-controlled, exploitation of mythical concept of “the state” in order to further the specific *human* interests of involved parties including Cheney and the band of war profiteers, oil moguls salivating over Iraqi black gold, Black Water & friends, and every CEO, croney, and gangster in between. As for the US “state”? Well.. a decade later we’re several more trillion in debt, thousands of brave men and women lost, rest of the world hates us a whole lot more… it’s the opposite of what is good for “the state”. No, I think it’s a whole ‘nother strategy (game).

If politicians really cared about the state, they would not throw it trillions of dollars in debt, heist away billions of dollars through war profiteering during the Iraq war, fail to make investments in green technology, let the financial system turn into a vampire squid latched onto the face of the state (Deregulation, zero interest rates, bailouts, blind eye to shenanigans), killing the US slowly and causing it to fall into bankruptcy. All of these things have left the US far worse off than it was ten years ago, economically, geopolitically, socially. Politicians, bad politicians, help “the state” when it is in their own best interest to maintain a powerful state, such that they get re-elected, make gains for their own companies and friends which they revolving-door back into when they get back to the private sector (Cheney & Haliburton, Goldman Sachs & Henry Paulson), and generally benefit their own *personal* interest. And if they can make gains by hollowing out “the state” and destroying it, then they will take those as well.

There is a counterargument, that “The government didn’t just decide one day that they wanted to make life easier for their citizens. The government decided that a more stable oil price/producion would help the state/economy. It’s just a byproduct that it benefits the people.”

Some argue that the human factors both negative -- war profiteering, securing oil for campaign contributors and croneys -- and positive -- maintenance of oil resources necessary to support 1st world society in the US -- for entering Iraq are secondary to the "state decision" which is to make a demonstration of the insubordinate Iraqi government, and to secure position in the Middle East.

If we’re really honest, a more stable oil price/production that helps the state/economy benefits the *politician* because if they fail to maintain a stable economy, it is the people who will have their head on a platter when it comes to voting time. And states don’t “decide” anything; it is only human politicians who can choose to go to war or take campaign contributions or not. Just as we see reps and dems playing hot potato with the present economic downturn, trying to shift the blame over to the other party, even though they have both taken part in destroying their own state by assisting the financial moguls in slaughtering the economy and pushing their losses onto the state balance sheet, in return for massive campaign contributions..

States are again imaginary entities which don’t actually feel “benefits” or “pain”. They’re construct tools for maintaining social fabric. The only real sentient involved parties here are human beings who are capable of experiencing the pain of being voted out or joy of winning an election, the pain of gas shortages and economic downturns or the joy of a boom, the quarterly losses due to lost oil sources or the quarterly gains due to aquisition, or through criminally generous government contracts. And when we become too convinced of our own fictional shorthands -- communism, 'free market' ideology, corporate organisms, state organisms -- well, the Wizards of Oz can take us for quite an unpleasant ride.

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