(But first, the video game equivalent of the obligatory
plot description that accompanies any film review: what exactly is the
game like?) Behind the hype of packaging—and behind this superficial
ambition, which is its own packaging—Civilization seems less like
a case of a giant, than a case of gigantism—a vast, computer-rendered
landscape whose scenery, over time, looks suspiciously monotonous, balloonish,
lacking of any soil or grain deeper than the illuminated pixel. Civilization
III, in this respect, very much resembles the Lord of the Rings film adaptations.
Both works—landscaped primarily by computers and fan enthusiasts—drag
a previous work (the original Tolkien novels and the original Civilization)
into the digitally generated present. And both are epics that throw something
resembling the broad quest of history onto their screens, but end up being
epics about nothing but effects, works that are always grand but rarely
special. I have probably never seen a ‘bigger’ movie than
The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers, in the same way that I have
never played a ‘bigger’ game than Civilization. But both are
big the way that a chart can represent the solar system but exist on a
single piece of paper: although the worlds of fantasy and history loom
before the viewer in Lord of the Rings and Civilization—neither
of which can be as thick as what they signify—they end up being
as two-dimensional as a map.
1 Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones, a popular success in a simultaneously more esoteric and mainstream medium (books), has three times as many reviews but none of the review-ratings. This is perhaps suggestive of how bloggers (one video game-buying constituency) will rush to comment on comments of books, while most people will merely read them.
2There is a new expansion pack—that is, a software package that adds options to the original product and thus would not work without the product (perhaps similar to genre novels that perpetuate the novels of a dead genre author but invent no characters of its own)—called Civilization III: Play the World. This pack, not discussed in this essay, offers different map controls, additional civilizations and, most interestingly, the ability to play with other people on the Internet.
Why we like video games even
though they bore us
The first Civilization, created by Sid Meier for MicroProse in the early
‘90s, now carries the kind of nostalgia that people my age usually
associate with Transformer cartoons and, when playing it, the level of
commitment usually associated with organized religion. By now, Civilization
has acquired enough viewers (or devotees)—it is hard to say which
term is more accurate for this genre (whose current vocabulary would describe
me as someone who ‘plays’ a civilization)—to be generally
recognized as the greatest strategy game of all time. Why has Civilization
been so successful? Is it actually fun?3 I would suggest that contrary
to the typical claims used to propagandize great art—the idea that
we’ve sustained the canon because of how it instructs and delights—that
Civilization has been an extremely popular work specifically because it
is not fun at all.
In both the Freudian and the Marxist traditions… “boredom” is taken not so much as an objective property of things and works but rather as a response to the blockage of temporary energies (whether those be grasped in terms of desire or of praxis)… Even taken in the narrower realm of cultural reception, boredom with a particular kind of work or style or content can always be used productively as a precious symptom of our own existential, ideological, and cultural limits, an index of what has to be refused in the way of other people’s cultural practices and their threat to our own rationalizations about the nature and value of art. Meanwhile, it is no great secret that in some of the most significant works of high modernism, what is boring can often be very interesting indeed, and vice versa: a combination which the reading of any hundred sentences by Raymond Roussel, say, will at once dramatize. We must therefore initially try to strip the concept of the boring (and its experience) of any axiological overtones and bracket the whole question of aesthetic value. It is a paradox one can get used to: if a boring text can also be good (or interesting, as we now put it), exciting texts, which incorporate diversion, distraction, temporal commodification , can also perhaps sometimes be “bad” (or “degraded” to use Frankfurt School language) (Jameson, 71-72).
That Jameson notices boredom is one of the more idiosyncratically interesting moments in the early parts of Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson, however, still explores the boring in a fundamentally negative way; he gives, for example, the example of a piece of video art where the audience is forced to stare at an expressionless face for twenty-one minutes. The initial feelings of boredom give rise to less innocent feelings of kitsch: ‘[T]he videomaker’s choice was a deliberate and conscious one,” Jameson writes, “and… therefore the twenty-one minutes of this tape are to be interpreted as provocation, as a calculated assault on the viewer, if not an act of out-right aggressivity. In that case, our response was the right one: boredom and panic are appropriate reactions and a recognition of the meaning of that particular aesthetic act” (72-73). First, we can see from this example—and Jameson would presumably group this video with Godard’s seemingly infinitely long highway-pan (or for a cinematically younger group, the similar pan in Spaceballs) or the aesthetic flatness of pop art or Polaroid photos—that Jameson still sees boredom as something we are only allowed to talk about when it assumes the same methodology as interestingness: the deferral of, let us say, fun in the video work subverts our expectations in the same way that Wordsworth subverted our class expectations for poetic content or the early free versifiers subverted our expectations for rhyme and meter—what interests us then isn’t the boring but the subversiveness of the boredom. Because of this, we are only interested in the boring because of its specific context rather than its usefulness as a general category, its slot in time that allows it to be subversive: it is a historically specific boredom, the kitsch period style in which boredom becomes “appropriate” because it is an antithetical intellectual tactic. Secondly, boredom is not really a characteristic of the art—it is a reaction of the audience when it realizes that its yearnings for delight will be endlessly postponed. This is consistent with our common understanding of boredom: consider why people often say “I was bored to tears” to describe a negative reaction to a film but “It was really good” to describe a positive reaction. Boredom is seen as a response of the viewer rather than, like quality, a characteristic inherent in a work of art.
I would like to tear the brackets away from the aesthetic and propose the boring as a useful aesthetic criterion. The boring shares certain characteristics with the boring but has its own non-normative designation in the same way that terms like “metrical” or “metaphorical” identify specific tropes without indicating favoritism. The experience of boredom in Civilization is neither subversive nor historically appropriate—it is an inherent quality of its genre and its principle way of achieving its artistic effects. The boredom that Civilization inspires is directly proportional to its addictiveness. Civilization lacks the aggressive affect, the loops of reflex and response that are at the center of Pacman or Super Mario Bros. (what most adults think of when they hear the words “video game”)—in comparison to these first generation computer games, Civilization is almost not a ‘computer game’ at all. It is almost more like gardening—for like gardening, the game is enjoyable not in the moment but in the culmination of successive moments. The joy is paraphrased—it occurs when looking back at the created artifact rather than at the moment of creation. This category of accretionary games would include: The Sims (and all the other games in the Sim-line, a series of games that are essentially about method rather than content, maintenance rather than action); the experience-building aspects of role-playing games (where the hero becomes stronger the more he kills enemy creatures); and strategy games like Civilization and the once popular Koei games in which the player managed the fiefdoms of ancient China. A boring experience, therefore, is one that draws us away from thoughts and pushes us towards experience. Video games, because they are works of art that blur the distinction between secondary and primary experiences, are often boring because when we play them, we do not become more ourselves—we do not become deeper, we merely go deeper into the experience of the game. I am not arguing that primary experiences are automatically boring—after all, the immediate point of so much great art is to make our hearts beat faster. I am instead arguing that there is a correlation between the boring and works of art that seek to provide only a primary experience. The boring work seeks to usurp the world. It desires to enact experience more than it desires to use that experience to change one's relationship with the materials of the medium (the way the modernists destroyed the materials of theirs) or one's relationship with the world. An infinitely escapist experience would therefore be an infinitely--and wonderfully--boring one. For what would you escape from but your own life? But having escaped your life for some immersively novel new world--the movie that makes you forget your own troubles, for example--you have nothing of your own life to bring to the experience. You have none of your own thoughts to apply to the boring work. And because thought is what a work of art leaves behind, our immediate experience of the work becomes synonymous with the work itself. Our engagement with boring art ends the moment our experience of it ends. The boring is traceless.
The boring is a self-abolishing form—first, in the way it offers a generic relationship with the self (in fact, what is most comforting about boredom is how inherently unsubversive it is) and secondly in the sense that its existence in our thinking is inherently impermanent. Novels have a greater tendency towards being boring than poetry since they try to mimic life more than they try to mimic art; they are saved by their length—we must necessarily cease reading and go about our lives, the smell of the novel staining our thoughts. As T.E. Hulme once described the “rope of letters,” “The prose writer drags meaning along with the rope. The poet makes it stand on end and hit you” (Hulme 17). We see non-boringness at its most intense in the aphorism, defined as a vague lie with universal applications. It is the tool of Wilde and Valery, Bierce and Barnes, because it is the propositional equivalent of poetry. It gives nothing to experience aside from a thesis.
Something that is boring need not be considered “bad.” The majority of what is considered “good” art in any given time is inherently boring; these works are considered good because they so embody the period conventions of their time that they draw us in with full familiarity. (Non-boring works require ingestion on more a personal level—we feel like we are always reading them for the first time. This is so difficult and time-demanding, that these works are often neglected or seen as too deviant to be experienced.) In fact, the boring can be a dominant paradigm of art: the goal of haiku and the narrative prose poem (from Williams to Galway Kinnell) is to draw us deeper into the experience of being—as Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” But these works cease being boring to the extent that they signify beyond their boredom: Williams’s enthusiastic flatness, like that of Jameson’s video artist, works to subvert our poetic expectations for Romantic flower petals and abstractions; Basho’s haiku often contain puns, references and syntactic dislocations that somehow fall of the sides of the words on their way into English. But I would argue that our age—in spite of its interest in postmodern formalism—is one infatuated with the boring. Films and television shows—especially action films, Spielberg movies, music videos, and reality television shows—tend to embrace the boring, because (ironically) they are terrified at ever losing our attention and seek nothing more than to drag us further into their experience. Consequently, we have no thought left over to watch ourselves watch the work; our sense of reflection is deferred so that although we may be leashed to the stimuli when we experience it, we do not frame it in our memory—leaving it to evaporate when the work ends. The manic attentiveness to physical objects in Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace, most American poetry involving epiphany and moment-by-moment observation, and the downgrading of writers like Eliot and Woolf, partly for being too “artificial”—all of these literary fascinations start from an automatic assumption that the most direct experience is the most desirable. Even language poetry (as well as Steinian repetition and the way John Ashbery’s sentences swoop around that which they describe) is anti-intellectual in so far as it wants us to have a primary interaction with the words themselves and not the concepts they signify. This is what I mean when I said that Civilization III really teaches you nothing when you play it—its goal is to teach you nothing and to the extent that you learn something from it, the game has failed. This is because any new thoughts could only have arrived by seeping through the gaps in the work’s overwhelming hypnosis. Video games—which one can imagine on a spectrum (a boring scale) with roller coasters on the left and uninvented virtual reality programs on the right—are the central art form of the boring: if postmodernism is boring, then video games are high postmodernism. Like all boring works, they want us to be awake to them while we play them—unlike non-boring arts that wake us to the world when we are away from them.
Why Civilization III—a game about history
and science—is really a Christian video game.
What exactly does someone playing this game of civilization learn about
history? Civilization has always sold itself as a game of history. While
the original Civilization was a more complicated, computerized version
of Risk, this newest update of the game—Civilization III—has
many players talking about historical accuracy and even claiming that
it’s helped them more completely understand history. Here is a game
for the military fetishists and the gun club historians: Civilization
III is a game where some of the truly interesting parts come not from
winning it but from trying out new pieces of weaponry or science—trying
out history, really—the way a teenage girl might try out different
prom dresses. Militarily, you can create Japanese samurai, French musketeers,
bomber jets, nuclear missiles, galleons, invisible submarines, pirate
ships (these can attack enemy ships without revealing their own nationality),
archers, catapults. Infrastructurally, you can build police stations,
the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, temples, the United Nations, Shakespeare’s
theater, coliseums, universities and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. As all
these varieties of things attest to, this is a game that is enthusiastically
materialist: because Civilization is a computer game, every element of
the game must contribute to some kind of point score, some indication
of whether or not you are winning or losing the game. Because of this—and
because this is a game made by Americans in the American era—Civilization
has a Medusan view of history: it turns everything in its gaze into an
object. Every atom of history necessarily acquires some note of utility:
the Heroic Epic creates more leaders for your military campaigns and Police
Stations decrease “war weariness” (which makes people unhappy,
which reduces your productivity). Even “Culture” is measured
in points rather than ideas. There is nothing really different between
Civilization’s French and Japanese cultures, for example, except
for the number of Culture points. The idea of culture is the most provocative
change that separates Civilization III from the last two Civilizations.
The game marks it as the dotted border of your empire, so when you build
temples and cathedrals, the size of your country literally increases.
Culture is so significant that if your border falls over a foreign city,
the city may defect, recognizing your culture to be “superior”
to that of its defective and suddenly barbarian motherland. So, in Civilization,
culture is so neutral as to be invisible—it has no qualitative shape,
only quantitative shape; one merely accumulates it, the way one would
money. The same is true about technology, economies, government, and (for
the most part) military—all are abstracted, to the point that there
are no incredibly significant differences between one culture and another.
Whether you decide to be French or Babylonian allows only a few subtle
differences—the way the ghosts in Pacman are different or the way
that Mario is different from Luigi in Super Mario Bros.—by which
I mean “not very different at all.” The main difference is
material: where your people happen to be born on the map.
The current Industrial and Modern ages in Civ3 reflect a reality: the Western world dominates culturally and technologically. The only realistic exception could be Japan since it has maintained a strong and different identity. Implementing civ-specific developments throughout all ages would make it almost a fantasy game. Although the current game doesn’t let you dominate the world in any culture you want to be (as you pointed out, you always have to follow the Western evolution path) I think the current Civ-game is pretty historically correct. It has it’s [sic] flaws but I think I prefer it this way rather than being confonted with the game designer’s fantasy when playing the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Zulu, etc (Moumouni).
Clearly this paragraph is annoying in about twenty different directions: that the Western world “dominates” now does not mean that it did in all eras or that it was destined to do so now; Japan is not the only country that has maintained a “strong and different identity” (any historian would find this an interesting claim to start with, given Japan’s eager consumption of Chinese Confucianism and Western technology); and so on. What I find most disturbing, though, isn’t any factual discrepancy between his view of history and my own, but between his view of views and my own. I think the historical weaknesses of Civilization III’s shouldn’t be measured in accuracy or inaccuracy—they should be measured in how the game helps us better understand history’s possibilities rather than its certainties. What the game suffers from is not a deficit of multiculturalism but of imagination.
By now, deconstructing Jackie Chan movies and Puma ads has become a distinctively late Twentieth Century parlor game—what we play while our parents sit in the other room or decade, playing charades. So why should this analysis of Civilization III be distinctive? I think that the purpose of a game like Civ is exactly to allow us to explore our historical fantasies, to be able to sit outside of history as though it were an aquarium and watch it unfold in its own chaotic way. The point is not just educational but aesthetic—the game is more fun in direct proportion to how it is different. Imagine a game where technology spirals out—inventing one thing blocks off another and each technology comes with its disadvantages. Christianity might allow an increase in compassion—if the game is going to quantify something like culture, it might as well quantify everything else—but at the risk of religious and scientific intolerance. Because essentialism is unavoidable (the draw of the game for many players comes from more or less re-enacting the Roman empire), the game might as well twist essentialism with contingency: maybe you could begin by choosing percentages from different cultures, allowing you certain technological and cultural choices but not others. Or, maybe your proximity and contact with other civilizations would qualitatively change your own civilization: you would think differently, build different structures, invent different ideas. The point of the game is this difference: Civilization III is a fantasy game not because the options are open but because any interpretation of history is itself a fantasy of the real.
3 Video games critics are uncritical,
they are the opposite of literary critics, for whom joy is a perhaps
interesting but always secondary concern to the consequences of punctuation
and leftist politics. Video game audiences simply do not care. The primary
criterion is not politics or even intelligence and characterization:
they are graphics, sound, game play, and other wonderfully physical
4 For an excellent article on this subject, see Stoakes.
Bitz, Bako. “The Culture of Civilization III.” Joystick 101. 15 Jan 2002. 10 July 2003 <http://www.joystick101.org/?op=displaystory;sid=2002/1/12/222013/422>.
Hulme, T.E. “Notes on Language and Style.” Seattle, WA: University of Washington Book Store, 1929.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham : Duke University Press, 1991.
“Moumouni.” “Maintaining civ-specific cultures.” Online posting. 18 Jan 2002. Joystick 101. 10 July 2003 <http://www.joystick101.org/?op=displaystory;sid=2002/1/12/222013/422>.
Stoakes, Gale. “Why the West?” Lingua Franca. November
2001. 7 July 2003 <http://web.archive.org/web/20011122122053/www.linguafranca.com/print/0111/cover.html>.