Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Absolute Power: Civilization 4 and Morality

I’ve talked about the Civilization series a lot now.  There’s a good reason for that – I really really like them.  One of their best features however, is one of the basic concepts of the game: you get to rule a civilization.  You are the undisputed ruler with no fear of elections or impeachment of an entire race of people.  You make the choices that will shape their lives, help them, hurt them, give them parks or send them to war.  And what is more interesting still is seeing how you react to this.  How do you handle true power?
How deep does your heroism run?

 Morality in video games has interested me for a long time, and I know this will be brought up again, but in Civilization, you get to experience the great mix of video games, morality, and politics.  That’s just dangerous.  My girlfriend started playing Civ 4 the other day, and aside from being really good at it, was also interesting to watch.  She’s a pretty liberal person, so I was a little surprised when, given the option of researching Democracy, she didn’t even check what it gave her and instead focused on Military Tradition and Rifling, exclaiming that it would help her army out.  Awesome.  To be fair, she was at war, and so this made a lot of sense.  Still.  How much of our morality gets put into these games?  Yes, you have the opportunity here to play however you want.  Yes, she also focused on getting Environmentalism and never researched Fascism at all (though she chose Communism before Democracy.  Shocking!).  But I don’t know.  I will be interested to see how she plays the game when she tries properly applying her own morality to the game, rather than just reacting to what the world presents.
A winning strategy

 Every world leader has to respond to reality.  If a country declares war on you, you have to respond if you want to survive.  I agree with enough of Realism to accept that.  But I also think that every leader brings their own personality, their own morality to the table.  Hence, my girlfriend may have focused on war techs, but she also made sure to get Environmentalism.  I play a very set game strategy.  Low-military, high-science expansionism with a strong commitment to peace with everyone.  I suppose this reflects my own morality to an extent – I prefer diplomacy to war and science to economics.  But then towards the end of the game I face the same problem that she did.  As they say in Buffalo Soldiers: “Peace is fucking boring!”  You end up going to war because it gives you something to do other than managing cities and improvements.  Even diplomacy can’t keep you occupied for 6000 years.  War happens out of boredom.

There was a study done of nuclear defence experts and how they talk about nuclear strategy.  The study was horrified that the words “collateral damage”, “acceptable losses”, and similar phrases were used when talking about entire cities.  Millions of people were considered ‘acceptable losses’ in a nuclear war.  The study commented that these words mask the significance of the lives under threat, and said that it was all easier to talk about, easier to plan, because you don’t have to think about the lives at stake.  It’s a difficult question to ask, but even if we played as moral a game of Civ as we could, would we do it any differently if we were in charge of a REAL state?  Would we be less enthusiastic about choosing the option you get after conquering a city to “Burn, baby! BURN!”  It involves the fiery slaughter of thousands of people, and you can do it with a click of a button and no bad press.  Obviously, I think we would, but that’s an extreme example.  What about shelling a city?  It may kill a part of the population.  Or starving a city so that the country will give up the war?  Also possible, also kills people.  What about denying people hospitals and running water because you’re busy building the components for your spaceship so that you build it before anyone else?
It's important!
We don’t see the consequences on people’s lives for any of these actions, because the game isn’t designed that way.  The game creates the abstraction put in by words like “collateral damage” for you.  It keeps the abstraction there so you can have more fun playing however you like without so much consideration for the well being of the people.  So immorality, as it were, is more excusable in theory in the Civilization series because it’s encouraged.  Having thought about this though, I think I’m going to try and be a lot more caring for my population.  And I’ll probably get conquered because of it.
And here's an interesting article that's kind of related:

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