The Strategy Game as Digital Humanities Document, Part III

The actual forms of interaction between the elements of a game are, for the most part, the realm of the designer. A player can only be interactive within a gameworld, in whatever manner made available in the creation of the software. While this has changed in recent times with open-source gaming as well as toolsets for modifying proprietary games, the most common experience of a player will be the game as envisioned by the designer. Civilization is an engrossing game, but it uses some very old anthropoligical ideas… notions that societies tend to develop along technological lines of descent… nineteenth-century view of social politics, where different cultures are merely variations on a theme that naturally seem to evolve toward the European and Western.” The end result of highly-engineered games can, surprisingly, be highly-limited worldviews.

In comparison, “Bunten’s philosophy was that complex games could be based on surprisingly few rules” and Seven Cities still, in its simplicity, provides much more opportunity for the player to influence the dialectic, and therefore produce more varied synthetic worldviews. Wilson acknowledges the importance of this even in the modern, multi-billion dollar game industry: “the withdrawal to low-cost development brings aesthetic and commercial constraints and opportunities”. It may be an issue of semiotic flexibility, wherein the relatively low level of symbols but high level of manipulability allows for more interaction, thus “integrating the meta-theoretical functions within the discourse itself”. All games are, by definition, autopoietic—meaning that they affect themselves through use. But the allopoietic / autopoietic dichotomy should be viewed as a spectrum and not a binary situation, and the strategy game is more than simply syntactically autopoietic, but is actually semantically autopoietic, allowing for the user to make meaningful, dynamic changes within the document.

The Landscape

Since these games have little in the way of characters, the landscape itself needed to be as compelling as the AI and the mechanics. One of the most impressive features of Seven Cities was that it could create, dynamically, a whole new world using geological and cultural models that are, notably, never referenced. In Civilization the importance is more than novel: “The Civ games teach us that geography is destiny.” Long before Guns, Germs and Steel, players of Civilization knew that if your society, by chance, began their game isolated from other societies, it could be disasterous.

The tiled nature of games such as Civilization hearkened back to the “wargames on which it was based… dominated by a hexagonal board.” The maps were huge and detailed but, by design, not so large as to be overwhelming. This was not the case with Seven Cities: “You are sitting there with a 3 ½ inch window on this 12 by 20 foot world. That’s big.” Berry’s purpose in creating such a massive gameworld was to reinforce the emotional impact of such a large and unknown world. Too little attention has been given by game designers and, similarly, by creators of all digital humanities media on the informative nature of mass. ‘Overwhelming the viewer’ is seen as a problem to be fixed rather than a piece of knowledge to be nurtured.

Artificial Intelligence

Specifically, it is not the actors within a game that need to, somehow, act in a compelling manner, but rather the game itself: “A computer game did not have to be colorful, or fast, or complicated to be successful; it had only to act, in some basic, rudimentary way, human.” This is accomplished through algorithms:

I don’t mean a clever solution to a problem, no—what computers are really good at is taking a brute force solution to a problem and running a billion times on something. Basically, solving small problems in a predictable way is something that computers really really excel at, and that drives people nuts. That’s the reason why spreadsheets were the first killer app for personal computers.

Games, like the digital humanities media they resemble, such as digital atlases and socio-cultural simulations, are the demonstration of knowledge related to humanity. If they appear machinelike, then they either lose their informative power or, worse, they teach the viewer that society X or person Y is a machine.

One of the most innovative ways, therefore, to pass along knowledge about morally complex issues is to craft situations wherein the player ends up in situations demonstrating the motivation for historical oppressors. In short: What does it mean when we end up being the bad guy? Berry was clear on this: “I don’t want to preach to the player what is right and wrong… Seven Cities is a process type game… Life doesn’t have ends and wins and things like that. It has processes that you go through…” This was, by all accounts, one of the goals of Seven Cities, to show the intense pressure on Spanish explorers to conquer the native populations and pillage. The realpolitick nature of Civilization is just as clear:

It takes only a few turns of Civ play for me to turn into a combination of Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft. The people—busily hammering, digging and marching on the screen—appear in my thoughts, if at all, only as refractory, ungrateful dolts to be manipulated when possible and sacrificed when necessary. Citizens often riot in Civ world, and when they do I feel nothing but betrayal and contempt. Didn’t I just give you a cathedral just 12 turns ago? Can’t you see that I am in an arms race with Zululand just now?

In doing so, the self-reflective (And, therefore, the responsible player from a dialectical sense) acknowledges, “Perhaps this says something more about ourselves than we’d care to admit.” It should be noted that the designer has written all the rules and the player must act within them, but the environment in which games are marketed—competitive and valuable—ensures that the player’s desires are targetted. Ultimately, though, the player does not have to take any role demanded by the designer, as the player has the power to turn the game off at any moment. The ability, then, of an interactive experience to coax a player into the role of oppressor and oppressed could perhaps afford more understanding than a simple linear explanation.

More than appearing intelligent, a game must appear simply alive. The environmental details of life receive the most obvious benefit from the performance of modern hardware and software:

What is it that computers are good at? Let’s think about that. What is it that the CPU really can get us? Computers are fantastic as simulation. They’re very good at modeling things. That’s a good thing for us, because games by and large tend to be simulated models of problems, simulated mathematical situations. There’s a reason why mathematicians like to break down games in order to figure out the math behind them.


Already, if you play a contemporary game, odds are very good that the trees you see in that game are not all modeled by hand. Odds are they were generated by a computer using an algorithm, using middleware, products such as NatFX and SpeedTree, for example.

But the creation of realistic physics and fractally-produced trees only reinforces how limited such conceptions of life are.

Seven Cities provided a purposefully clumsy interaction between player and digital representation of native peoples to reinforce the fact that, “You are an alien in an alien world… You share no common language.” In that way, the simple game on 64k was providing an accurate, ‘living’ environment. This lack of language and interaction between outsider and indiginous community drew the attention of later critics as well as contemporary reviewers, who noted: “you don’t share a language… the potential for missed cues on both sides is enormous.” It was a very small detail that required little in the way of processing power while improving playability. Another, small reminder of the life a player had in Berry’s masterpiece was that “It sufficiently captured the sense of panic that comes from being lost in the wilderness and running out of supplies.”

The living world of Civilization is more of an ongoing social conversation. The game itself becomes the study of history from the perspective: “If an enlightened leader had been in charge of Sumeria or Great Zimbabwe—if we, that is, had been in charge—could sheer wisdom and goodwill have shattered the cycle of shortage, war, and collapse?” The answer is apparent from an analysis of the rules of the game: as long as you focus a command economy on improving your infrastructure, military and technology along Western lines, you can break that cycle. Sumeria and Great Zimbabwe can win, as long as they become the United States. Nowhere is the argument made that a society or culture is more than a logo placed on a social product of unilinear cultural evolution.

As a digital humanities scholar envisions building an interactive historical world similar to a historic strategy game, the aspect of gameplay becomes problematic. But for historical strategy games, there is already in existence the concept of cooperative opposition, in contrast to competitive opposition. Growth and interplay in gaming can be a cooperative process, again in a dialectic fashion, between artificial intelligence and the player:

the deadly dance between Russian and German forces in Eastern Front was as cooperative as conflicting; a realistic war “drama” was created only when both opponents acted properly in concert. Indeed, the nagging problem with the Eastern Front was that the Russians did not cooperate on repeated play: they didn’t get better, as the player wished they would.

The analogy Myers uses is that of a dance partner who refuses to learn the most complex steps and therefore limits the enjoyment. Ryan describes the same process: “The ludic pleasure of deciphering the logic of the system – what game designers call reverse engineering- cannot be separated from the narrative pleasure of watching the story unfold. Without playing skills, the player would be unable to create interesting stories.” High-level synthetic understanding will, likely, never appear in commercially-produced entertainment software. It requires too much time spent on academic subjects and, more importantly, it requires too much investment with the same piece of software. Gaming companies want their customers to buy new software, and thus we can assume a constant level of planned intellectual obselescence to mirror planned technical obselescence.  One break with this model comes from the community of users that play these games, with their attempts to build historical realism into older game engines.

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