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HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOB-OMB: Anti-Imperialism, Video Games, & The Quest For Responsible Entertainment

This work was originally a research paper submitted for a class offered by the University of Southern California's Interactive Media & Games Division entitled "Critical Theory & Analysis of Games".

INTRODUCTION: Critical Reflection & Cultural Trends

As a relatively new medium, video games have only begun to inspire critical reflection within the last decade or so. Games evolved quite differently from other forms of art, in that they were initially received with a rather substantial amount of skepticism from larger audiences. As such, there was not a lot of discussion around them in the days of their infancy (other than the claim that they were inherent time wasters and were not deserving of attention). However, the tides have changed as more and more people have realized the potential of this budding medium. Nowadays, video games are heralded as one of the world’s largest forms of entertainment, and their increase in popularity has sparked enormous amounts of conversation both within and without the gamer community. People from all walks of life are now asking questions about the nature of games and their infinite possibilities. We have even begun to witness dialogues about how games are effecting society on a political, economic, and social level. So far, these reflections seem to have done the medium justice by continuing to push it forward.

However, with so many new perspectives in the mix, we are obliged to become wary in terms of what we choose to accept as truth. There are certain trends that appear along the evolution of society that seem to pervade every aspect of culture, including the films we watch, the books we read, and (most recently), the games we play. These trends, if not based in reality and if taken too seriously, have the potential to upset the delicate balance of civilization. That may sound like an exaggeration, but one such current trend, and the primary focus of this examination, is the concept of anti-imperialism, and it would be difficult to overstate its implications. My consideration of this idea was inspired by a book entitled Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games, in which the authors, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, attempt to argue that “video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire” (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, xv). Their claim will be explained shortly, but it is important to note that this statement, and any others like it concerning various forms of art, is reflective of an inherent misunderstanding of the way the world works, and is not only detrimental to the medium, but to society as a whole. We shall see, however, that there is an alternative to anti-imperialism that might just result in the kind of world-saving action that the authors had hoped to inspire.

 

PART ONE: Anti-Imperialism – A Brief Introduction

What I found interesting about Games of Empire was that the authors appeared to only be using video games as a platform to talk about something else entirely. The book is more of an introduction to the concept of imperialism for people who play video games, rather than an analysis of what they refer to as the “ludocapitalism” and “militainment” of the Western world. These terms can be confusing, and so we should begin by explaining the concept of “imperialism” and discussing what Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter were trying to accomplish by their opposition to it.

The authors seem to have been largely inspired by a work released in 2000 called Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. “They claim we are witnessing the emergence of a new planetary regime in which economic, administrative, military, and communicative components combine to create a system of power ‘with no outside’” (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, xix). They go on to assert that “ludocapitalism” (the relationship between playing games and creating economic value) and “militainment” (forms of entertainment that feature and celebrate military endeavors) “display the interaction of virtual games and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market” (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, xiv).

This type of thinking, however, is not restricted to the game industry, and has actually been quite the hot topic in many academic circles over the past half century. For instance, a 1978 book by author Edward W. Said entitled Orientalism chronicled the development of the Western concept of “the Orient” as a means of “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over (it)” (Said, 11). The fact is that the concept of imperialism and the sturdy opposition to it has existed in its current form for quite some time. I would argue that it has in fact existed for a lot longer than that, but that is a claim to be explored further in Part Three. The important thing to take away from all of this is that there seems to be a general consensus among anti-imperialists that the decentralized economic and political power of the Western world is creating upset, specifically for the less privileged members of society. Games of Empire is Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter’s attempt to recognize this and seek solutions to it.

 

PART TWO: The Dangers of Ideological Frameworks

However, in order to fully understand why this perspective of the world is inherently flawed, we must first talk about mathematics. (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?). Mathematics is a good place to start because it is a closed formal system that has no direct ties to reality. It is very similar to games in this respect, and within ludology (the critical study of games, players, and their roles in society) we refer to these closed formal systems as “the Magic Circle” (Huizinga, 10). Imaginary worlds such as these are governed by their own rules which only work because they do not extend to the physical universe. The only reason mathematics is a recognized academic field is because it just happens to reflect the physical universe to a degree that is useful to us. So we use it where we can but, like Plato’s Forms, it exists perfectly and separately from the world in which we find ourselves.

My point is that anti-imperialists have a warped view of reality because their ideological framework has nothing to do with how the world actually works. Perceptions like theirs are relatively easy to recognize by their manipulation of language to suit their needs. For instance, the authors of Games of Empire begin their book by framing you as the protagonist in a hypothetical, third-person narrative: “Curiosity excited by the massive publicity surrounding Second Life, the virtual world created by Linden Labs of San Francisco, you signed up, hoping in this new society to escape the getting-and-spending spin cycle of your everyday existence” (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, xi). When points are made like this, it is difficult not to feel as though you relate to them, even though you might not at all. Misinformed parties also appear to have a habit of manufacturing words and concepts that do not exist, as evidenced by the use of phrases such as “ludocapitalism” and “militainment” (quick tip: if Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize it, proceed with caution).

This type of word play has its roots in the tradition of rhetoric, as practiced by the Romans, in which individuals would attempt to debate opposing viewpoints with one another, regardless of what they believed to be true. However, empiricists (individuals who believe that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience) have a very difficult time responding to people who approach argument in this way, because they do not have the added advantage of being able to twist a phrase for the sake of proving a moral point. In fact, for the empiricist, the distinction is not between an ethical right and wrong at all, but between how things are and how they are not, for this is the only way to truly understand the world around us and to act accordingly within it such that our values are expressed in a healthy way. I mention empiricism because it is the perspective from which I will be deconstructing the anti-imperialist view point.

 

PART THREE: Alpha Culture – A History

As previously stated, anti-imperialists are concerned that the faceless giants of economic and political power in the Western world are causing problems, most notably for individuals who do not belong to the “elite” classes of society. According to Games of Empire, the two self-declared enemies are “the military and the market”. However, it is crucial to recognize that free market economies have existed since the beginning of civilization, as has the struggle for territorial control. These are not new constructs by any means, and have been a natural result of how humans evolved. Richard Dawkins, in his phenomenal work The Selfish Gene, suggests that humans (and all other species, for that matter) may be thought of as “survival machines” for their genes. He states, “Natural selection favors genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and of different species” (Dawkins, 66).

To be clear, Dawkins is not proposing that humans should act selfishly. As an empiricist himself, he is merely discussing evolution in terms of how things are, and even goes so far as to say “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish” (Dawkins, 3). However, despite the fact that the idea of being “born selfish” is a controversial one, Dawkins does not shy away from it, and it is an important concept to understand if we are to fully grasp how civilization developed into what it is today.

According to Dawkins, “to a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited. It differs from a rock or a river in one important respect: it is inclined to hit back” (Dawkins, 66). This is where we begin to see the origin of the struggle for territorial control. Humans are inherently aggressive animals. This is not to say we should condone violence, but simply that it is a part of our genetic construction, and we are able to see this not just on an individual level, but on a societal level as well. The reasons we wage war on a global scale are the exact same reasons we used to hit our neighbors with sticks hundreds of thousands of years ago.

But what about trade? How does that fit in with our evolutionary imperative for survival? Well, because contrary to popular belief, nice guys actually finish first. Free market economies are a collaborative effort, and game theory demonstrates that when we collaborate with those around us, it can lead to mutual benefit. This is also ingrained in our DNA, as circumstances have favored certain types of seemingly altruistic behaviors because they just happened to be more efficient for survival. Our global economic systems are essentially large scale adaptations of these behaviors, and they are just another way in which we make the best use of our environment.

But while free market economies and the struggle for territorial control have always existed in one form or another, so also have those who are best at taking advantage of their surroundings. These individuals are commonly referred to as “alphas” and they are present in a great many species. They achieve this status by means of superior physical prowess or via social efforts such as building alliances with their group. The group looks to the alpha as the leader because they instinctually know that they are better off with this figure around, but there is always the possibility of a group member’s insubordination. In this case, a fight usually ensues, resulting in either the death of the insubordinate member or in a new alpha figure.

This concept of “alpha” can also be applied on a grander scale. The Western world can be thought of as today’s “alpha culture”, if you will. To put this in context, consider the fact that various countries throughout history have not necessarily been opposed to foreign occupation: When the British invaded Egypt in 1882, the Egyptians put up very little resistance, because from their perspective, having a foreign authority in charge was nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the occupation provided the Egyptians with a level of protection that they would not have had otherwise.

So with the Western world at the helm in the role of “alpha culture”, it appears that anti-imperialists become its antagonists. Within this context, however, it becomes easier to see how their perspective is skewed. Again, they are approaching the issue of decentralized power from a moral standpoint, but that standpoint only holds up within their ideological framework, which appears to be based on the notion that we should be seeking a society in which everyone is relatively equal. This might be an admirable endeavor, but it is not a realistic one, as our discussion of the history of alpha culture demonstrates. Once more, it is not an issue of right and wrong, but of the way things are. And the second morals are imposed on it, we stray from that empirical understanding. This is dangerous because it suggests an agenda, the very thing that anti-imperialists are accusing the West of (which it does not in fact have --- it can’t, because systems of power are not capable of wanting anything; that is a privilege reserved solely for the individual).

 

PART FOUR: Materialism in Today’s Alpha Culture

The main assertion that I would like to make here is that anti-imperialism is essentially the spoiled viewpoint of a generation that has become completely detached from reality. While this may sound harsh, my verdict is not made without reason. Let’s talk about materialism.

Over the past century, we have witnessed a rapidly increasing obsession with material commodities. Dramatic advances in technology have made it possible for large numbers of people to enjoy a much higher standard of living than ever before. The fact that something like the game industry even exists is proof of this, as it is a global enterprise and yet completely unnecessary for survival. But we have become experts at continuing our existence, and now… we’re bored. So we have begun to devote our energies to “excess” in all of its forms: food, clothes, cars, houses, entertainment, etc.

Nowadays, this preoccupation with “status symbols” (as we will refer to them) begins young. When I was a child, it was imperative to me that I have the “right” brand of shoes to wear to school if I was expected to “fit in”. None of the adults in my life seemed to oppose this type of thinking, besides my father perhaps, who went to work every day in hiking sandals, and let’s face it, nobody wants to be that guy. The point is that status symbols like this permeate every facet of our culture today. And while I do not praise this kind of value system, it is important to understand why it exists. The reason is because it always has, albeit less conspicuously. Status symbols date back to ancient times, and have their roots in a desire to eat. But because resources are limited, people were forced to compete for their food. As such, the man with the spear had an easier time than the man with a rock. We can see this type of competition evolve in direct correlation with civilization: the ruler with an army had an easier time than the man without, the country with the industrial revolution had an easier time than the impoverished nation, etc. etc.

The only difference between then and now is that we no longer have to compete to fill our stomachs. Thanks to industrial farming, there is enough food in the world to support all 7 billion people on the face of the planet. And thanks to free market economies, there are comparatively fewer people in the world today without life’s basic requirements (food, water, shelter) than there were a century ago. (As a side note, it is interesting to consider than anti-imperialists are quick to denounce what seem to be all of the things that have allowed society to thrive, and yet ignore many of the world’s biggest issues, like population control, which we will decline from discussing here for fear of being politically incorrect).

So then what do we do with our now seemingly-wasted genetically-ingrained competitive energies? How do we fill the void when there are more people than there is work? What do we do when our appetites were designed for a different world? The problem is that society has evolved a lot faster than we have. Take the obesity issue in the United States, for example. We evolved to crave foods that are high in calories, because in prehistoric times we didn’t know where our next meal was going to come from. But that evolutionary advantage actually becomes a disadvantage in a world of excess food. The same applies to other cravings we might have, such as the desire for entertainment. It was once required of us to spend copious amounts of time acquiring that which was needed for survival. But in a world where survival is no longer an issue, once again excess becomes a disadvantage.

Take video games, for example. Games of Empire attempts to make the argument that “video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire” (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, xv). But video games are less a reflection of imperialism, and more a reflection of what drives people. Games do not incorporate economic systems and warfare because of some ambiguous power structure that overshadows everything. Games incorporate these things because it’s what people want. The beauty of a free market system is that ultimately the individuals that comprise it get to decide what they want to produce and consume. And as part of that system, the video game industry is no exception. People want to play games that allow them to live out their excess fantasies and aggressive natures. However, just because this is a more accurate picture of what is really going on does not mean that it should be commended. In the words of Edward Castronova, “You can’t pull millions of person-hours out of society without creating an atmospheric-level event” (McGonigal, 1). As we can see, the issue is hardly due to abstract political and economic forces, but it is hard to deny that there is a problem that may end up having effects on a global level. Because on a planet where resources are limited and people’s desires are not, we are bound to run into trouble.

 

PART FIVE: The Boss Fight

So what is the real issue here? Who is the villain? How can we prevent the world from succumbing to the negligent actions of its most dominant species? Allow me to suggest that instead of looking out the window for an external scapegoat, which as we can see does nothing more than distort the facts, perhaps we should consider looking in the mirror for that which lies within. The building blocks of political, economic, and social systems are, in the end, people --- no single one of which can change the world, and the authors of Games of Empire or other works that seek to spark a revolution are no exception to this. In my experience, however, I have found that one is capable of making their tiny little corner of the world a nicer place to live. Personal responsibility should never be undermined as something that cannot make a difference. Even if the rest of the world refuses to act accordingly, there is still a lot to be gained from living with a sense of integrity.

One suggestion as to how to go about doing this is by trying to understand the world the way it is, and not the way it should be or the way we want it to be. Morals are a human construct, and while they are an important part of who we are, we must be careful not to trick ourselves into believing that the physical universe operates within such a framework.

That being said, ethics should definitely play a role in how we approach our lives. But rather than attempting to make everybody equal (which is impossible to do --- it is a cold, hard fact that some people are better at basketball than others), we should consider speaking instead in terms of “fairness”. Fairness allows us to be unequal, but in a harmonious way, in a way that everyone can gain from without having to make anyone out to be the enemy.

The final suggestion I might make is that we begin being responsible about the types of entertainment we produce and consume. Entertainment is not necessarily limited to things like film, television, games, books, music, or art. It can also include all the various habits we’ve picked up over the years to keep ourselves amused, i.e. eating, drinking, smoking, social networking, and we may as well throw baby-making in the mix as well. All of these behaviors should be carefully self-monitored and kept in check if we are to have a hope of doing our part to make the world a better place.

Within the realm of video games, developers have quite a lot to contribute towards this kind of endeavor. Nowadays, many games are designed to keep the player stuck in place. People waste hours of their lives on these experiences long after they’ve stopped being fun. But a new concept that I recently encountered suggests an alternative to these kinds of games. “Humane design” is a concept that advises game developers “to respect the player and their life outside the game”(Floyd, 0:58), as opposed to treating the player as “nothing more than the meat needed to feed the game” (Floyd, 1:06). Put simply, “we have to stop making it our goal to capture as much of the player’s time as possible, and instead make it our goal to ensure that they have the best experience possible” (Floyd, 2:44).

When we make it our objective to create experiences that open people up to new ways of thinking, feeling, and doing, rather than just trying to keep them glued to our product, then and only then are we able to call ourselves artists. It is this factor of intention behind the making of a game that distinguishes it as art as opposed to a just a commodity. Humane design means always keeping the player in mind (which is not a new concept --- in fact, this is the same idea behind head of USC Games Division Tracy Fullerton’s “playcentric” approach) and making design choices based on what it is you’re attempting to communicate.

 

CONCLUSION

It might strike some people as paradoxical that I began my examination by criticizing the moral standpoint of anti-imperialists and ended it by proposing one of my own. Should I not instead have dug my empirical foot in and refused to make a subjective point? Doesn’t it stand to reason that from the empiricist’s perspective, the market is going to be what it is, and if what people want are violent, addictive games, then there will always be someone to provide them with these? Well, yes. But I am not an empiricist. Or, I should say, I am not merely an empiricist. I am a human being, who has been given the incredible gift of living out her life on this planet within the same social systems as everybody else. And as a member of these social systems, and as an individual with my own personal set of values, my intention is to do the most good that I can with what little influence I have. This is not to say that I presume to know what is best for other people. On the contrary, I do not and cannot know this. And I knowingly accept that what I have written will not ignite a revolution or change the market. But if it has even the slightest positive effect on any single individual, then I will consider it to be a success. For an empirical understanding is only useful within the context of human endeavor. And so “let us understand what our own selfish genes are up, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to” (Dawkins, 3).

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

------ Floyd, Daniel. Humane Design - Games Must Be Good to Their Players - Extra Credits. YouTube.

YouTube, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 01 May 2015.

<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GArkyxP8-n0>;.

 

------ Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Print.

 

------ Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

 

------ Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Greig De Peuter. Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video

Games. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2009. Print.

 

------ McGonigal, Jane. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the

               World. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.

 

------ Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

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