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Feb 23, 2011



As an educator whose job it is to "do no harm" and as an openly progressive citizen, I struggled with this same thing initially. And it was the reason I resisted playing games I deemed as reinforcing of a hegemony and ideological value system I deem harmful, destructive, etc.

But when I started pvping I began to question some of my assumptions. Combat takes many forms. In nature, combat is a component of play. Children and animals engage in playfight as a natural part of development. Whether we later go on to engage in actual harmful combat is another matter. For me the question is: what is the value of combat as play - and what IS combat?

A colleague of mine pointed me to a study of boys and throwing. The study posits that boys have a need to enact the physical throwing motion - we see this in sports and, arguably, targeting. I wonder if the predominance of first person shooters may have more to do with primal instincts of physical expression and play than in the cultural or ideological values inscribed in that form of play.

To use James Gee's gaming "small g" and "big G," there's the question of the thing we call the game (the graphics, 'content' etc) and the stuff we DO in that game. What we're doing, enacting, feeling, embodying is not necessarily connected to the surface level thematic or cultural inscriptions - though I think it plays a role it may not always be the focus. I know for myself, when I engage in PVP (like running a marathon or any endurance sport), I'm testing my own limits more so than getting thrills because I "killed" another player. Though it is satisfying to take out a rogue it is far more satisfying to take out a rogue that has taken me out a few times - and feel I developed enough skillful strategy to out maneuver her/him. When it comes to values, for me, it's down to honorable and dishonorable play. Many progressives I know don't seem to distinguish these nuances of motivation and enactment in "violent" gameplay. To them, every person who plays pvp is working out aggression issues, seeks power and enjoys doing harm to others. Surely there are bullies - but I've seen them in academia too. Petty, unethical, cruel behaviour is present whereever there are humans.

But playing games that take us to the "darker" or, perhaps more correctly, elusive, side of our humanity helps us to know and understand that part of ourselves better. I would argue that those of us (progressives) who are engaging in conservatively inscribed games/themes may not be engaging in the surface level Game but in a more primal sort of play.


Huh, I wrote about another article that tried to argue that games were inherently conservative in nature, mostly about imposing order. Interesting that this has popped up in another article as well.

I tend to think of games as mirrors. We see in them what we want to see. Someone (I think Richard Bartle) has argued that in MMOs, we play as an idealized version of ourselves. Reading that article, it seems the author is starting to understand why a "conservative" viewpoint is appealing to some; it's easier to go with the flow and profit early than to go against the crowd or take the long term approach. And, if the game makes it practically impossible to go against the flow, well, you can believe that's the limitation of the nature of the simulation in game, or an expression in support of conservative politics. As a game developer, I'm predisposed to believe the former is a stronger force. :)


I'm unconvinced that 'liberal' and 'conservative' are robust enough terms to use in this context - by 'conservative' do we mean Morally conservative? Fiscally conservative? Tradition-oriented? Favouring family over State? Guns over hugs? There are so many layers of assumptions here to unpack.

What I would say is that most digital games embody materialist/physicalist metaphysics and in this respect very narrow teleological notions of progress. Civilization is the most overt.

As someone who is "part Hindu", albeit in an utterly loose sense, I am greatly offended by the suggestion in Civ II that "Polytheism" is a stepping stone to "Monotheism" since both terms were coined by Monotheists to help delineate something they didn't understand at all (and mostly still don't). When Vedic/Upanishad traditions are described as "polytheistic" it isn't just an insult, it's just plain incorrect... Of course, Civ doesn't bear the brunt of the criticism in this regard, but it perpetuates it.

Similarly, the idea that all religion is a stepping stone to Rationalistic Englightenment is wild... Did Meier never read Joseph Campbell, or Ernst Cassirer or Ninian Smart or... well, take your pick really. The fundamentalist (non-)religious dogma embedded in this kind of perspective of history is shocking - it makes Marxist historiography seem positively balanced! :) (Note that Tresham's original boardgame does not do this sort of nonsense at all).

Anyway, I'm just bitchin' now. :)

All the best!


This makes me think of the board game Imperial. The players are rich financiers in the pre-WWI period. They loan money to nations. Whoever loans the most to a nation gets to control it. While controlling a nation, a financier tries to grab more territory and power, so that the nation will pay off on its loan at a high rate. The financier with the best investments wins.

This is the Marxist view of World War I. Change "financier" to "Jew" and its the Nazi version too.


Yes, I wish in some respects that more people had understood/deployed Ian's "Unit Operations", as these sort of critical interpretations of the ethico-political 'meaning' of games would be a fascinating area of study all in themselves. It's just outside my remit, since I'm preferring aesthetics to criticism at the moment, and like Sontag I see a tension here that kind of forces me to pick sides.

Strategy games in particular seem loaded with these levels of embedded ideology, but that might just be because we're primed to think of political concepts at this scale. I'm sure there are some wild Freudian/Lacanian readings of FPS games out there to be had too! :)



regardless of the game's design or inferred/explicit ideological imperatives, the player is always in a position to transgress. while they may not advance in the game by doing so this doesn't = failure of transgression. the transgression is also a game layer for that player. our culture rewards those who play the dominant hegemony game well but those who resist it often do so via mastering its tools. post colonial literature is a good example of this. as many post colonial scholars argue, using the language of the oppressor (English) to tell stories about oppression is to take the tools of oppression and put them to another use.

I can pvp in warcraft and camp graveyards, playing some sort of dirty, survival of the fittest logic. or I can work as part of a team, follow the rules set for honourable battle and enjoy a match of skills. I can choose to give my buffs to other guildies, friends or pug groups or I can drop a buff on a lower level player who might benefit (as I would) from this show of cooperation and community. We can model whatever values we wish in these games. as a teacher, I model the kind of gameplay and behaviour I'd like to see in others (it works in the classroom - and quite often - works in a pug group or a BG).


Hm... short on time at the moment, but I will point out one thing. Conservative values, however Chris wants to define them, tend to be well-studied and universally acknowledged. Moreover, they agree with a historical pessimism in humanity: the rational man, nature red in tooth and claw, social Darwinism, etc. These things aren't necessarily true, but more interestingly, they tend to be easier to simulate.

The appeal of combat, to take the obvious one, isn't entirely to our baser instincts: it's also an appeal to stupidity. Combat is the most mindless and one dimensional form of interaction a person can have.

Potts points out that a lot of the liberal ideals depicted in The Sims are done so idyllically (is that even a word? Well, it is now). This is also the simplest implementation possible. That's not a slight--if that's not your design goal then okay--but it also points out that none of the values represented in games are fleshed out thoughtfully.

Incidentally, I should note that I never bother with a Domination victory when playing Civilization. This is partly because I'm just not good at it, but also because it's simply more satisfying for me to win by other means. When I played The Guild 2, I found myself utterly disinterested in blackmailing, torturing, or wiping out other dynasties; I simply achieved my goals without harming them and that was okay.

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