To the Newbies, To Make Much of Time

Who needs Kierkegaard or Sartre when you have Civilization 5? Jonathan Gourlay thinks about videogames as modern philosophical texts.


Some mornings I am a bisexual elf named Terry Gross. It’s a Kierkegaardian mask that I wear to cover the empty core of my being. Terry Gross, the elf, is an immoral aesthete and ass-kicker. Other mornings, I am Commander Shepard and the galaxy spins upon my every choice. I have chosen to be moral, like the dull judge in the ethical realm of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. This morning, however, I have a god’s eye view of the planet and I move its people around at my whim. I start and end wars. I create epic famines and great works of art. The once-proud Iroquois bow before my new Roman empire. I have reached the end of Civilization®. The apocalypse according to Sid (Meier).

Outside a winter wind blows through central Kentucky, chilling Tea Partiers and meth-heads alike. The townhouse is asleep. The latest Civilization game is a memento mori I mix in my morning coffee. Civilization V throws a mirror up to my mortality. I confront the accruing years and the iterations of Civilizations past: Civilization I-IV, Alpha Centauri, various add-ons and mods. Unless we create enough science points to discover life-giving future tech, I will not be around for Civilization X.

On my Civilization screen I see the Hegelian view of history playing out. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, dead but googleable, found some end, some purpose, to history’s traumatic churn. He encapsulated this march of history in his dialectics.

  • Thesis: Years of war between my Romans and the feisty Iroquois. Spearmen and Horsemen on the march. Cities devastated. Finally I capture their capitol, Onondaga, and we make peace.
  • Antithesis: A hundred years (ten turns) of peace. It is a time of building: roads, farms, mines, and markets.
  • Synthesis: I now rely on the Iroquois to provide aluminum, for which I supply them with gems and furs.

There will come a time, I believe, when philosophers will no longer attempt to read Hegel and will play Civilization instead. Those who have actually read Phänomenologie des Geistes and Wissenschaft der Logik can no longer carry on a normal conversation anyway. They can speak to you in theory but not in practice. This is not unlike my mental state after three hours of “speculative reason” in Civ V, slowly moving my new Roman Empire towards the end of history. Forget Robert Frost’s fire or ice, there are actually five ways for the world to end: acquiescence to a military power, peaceful supplication to the UN, migration to Alpha Centauri, coca-colonization of the entire planet by one culture, or running out of turns.

There will come a time when philosophers no longer need Kierkegaard or Sartre, they will only need to fire up The Sims. In the post-reading future, philosophers will be followers of Civ creator Sid Meier or Sims creator Will Wright. One side will argue that life is a sandbox game where we create the meaning, even if that meaning is empty hours attempting to achieve woo-woo. The other side will argue that each life is another step forward in the great cosmic story. A thread in what Modern English described as “Life’s Rich Tapestry.” (A popular song from the Civ I era.)

Here’s my problem with Civ V: the developers have removed religion and pollution from the game. No longer can I mount a Confucian holy war or create an industrial giant that turns the earth black with soot. There is less urgency, therefore, to get the fuck off the planet and travel to Alpha Centuri. It’s less bleak. In previous Civs I spent hours trashing the planet, then “won” by taking off to go infect another planet. We know from the 1998 game Alpha Centauri, that the human race won’t learn any lessons on their next planet. Alpha Centauri is probably the best expression of Sid Meier and co-creater Brian Reynold’s thought: given a new planet, the human race would just screw it up again. (Item: Battlestar Galactica totally stole this idea, then made it stupid. Discuss.)

The future is bleak on Alpha Centuari unless you play as Prime Function Aki Zeta-Five of The Cybernetic Consciousness. Aki is a hot Norwegian woman who has been infected by a sentient algorithm. Like other science-fiction babes, she is emotionally distant and half-alien. This is exactly how actual hot Norwegians seem to guys who play Alpha Centauri.

The sun is now full and gazing down upon the hexagonal shapes of my same-same sub-division in central Kentucky. We are all deciding our next moves. Mine seem pretty Sims-like: unclog the toilet, get my daughter to school, go to work, dream of woo-woo. As I turn off Civ V, I am confronted with an ad for the next role-playing game from BioWare, Dragon Age II. Dragon Age II promises even more free will than Dragon Age I. With each Dragon Age (fantasy role-playing) and Mass Effect (space opera) game, the programmers at BioWare come closer to developing a sentient, free-will, Norwegian-infecting algorithm. They have set themselves the radical philosophical task of programming a game that allows players to both “make complex moral choices and engage in bone-crushing visceral combat.”

In Mass Effect 2, for instance, you play as Commander Shepard. If you choose to be a female Shepard, you can tweak her make-up. If you choose to be a male Shepard, you control the length of his beard. Thus, as in de Beauvior, is the gulf between gender and biological sex illustrated. (Perhaps Mass Effect III will be transgressive enough to allow for a bearded lady.) Whichever Shepard you decide to be, you will be presented with a string of moral conundrums that make the character either a “paragon” or a “renegade.” Should Shepard kill the sexy blue Ansari who destroys those with whom she mates (it’s not her fault, it’s part of her “facticity”) or kill her sexy blue mother. Attempt fornication with the insane blue-being with glowing cat eyes and hair that looks like a nest of pythons or remain the chaste friend of her meditative blue mother. What would Nietzsche do? In a godless universe, does the choice even matter?

In a move towards more more mature moral choices, Dragon Age attempts to program relationships into the world. Instead of a crazy blue Ansari, Dragon Age boasts Morrigan, a crazy bra-less witch. Frustratingly, when she removes her tunic, a bra magically appears. The way to achieve crazy-witch sex with the shape-shifting Morrigan is to ply her with presents and talk at length about her feelings and childhood. (Her mother, by the way, is Captain Janeway.) When this bliss finally occurs, it looks like a child mashing Barbie and Ken together. Coitus achieved, Morrigan claims to have “no designs on your independence.” This is a pretty good approximation of exactly how relationships don’t work.

In Dragon Age you can even choose to be gay. I play as Terry Gross, a male, bisexual wood-elf. I had to stoop to paying for sex, however, since my conversation and gift-giving skills were not enough to sustain a serious romantic relationship any male characters. If you’re a bicurious elf, go to “The Pearl” in Denerim and ask for Sanga. Pay your gold and then… the screen goes dark, because elves — think Legolas, not Keebler — are shy like that. You are left to imagine what the elves are grunting about. It is an axiom of the universe that it is at this moment when your daughter/wife/mother will walk in the room. And you will, as in Sartre, suddenly feel shame at the gaze of “the other.”

Free will, moral ambiguity, the purpose of life, the meaning or lack of meaning in history: these concepts are being quietly played out in complex thought experiments across America. We have quietly become the most philosophical, though boob-obsessed, culture since the ancient Greeks. My daughter is getting ready for school by moving gems around in Bejeweled, a casual-game in the Tetris mold. As in Tetris, you can move and match and gather ye rosebuds while ye may but sooner or later there will be no more moves. When I was a child, I played Space Invaders like a child — with a preternatural ability to fend off impending doom, with quick reflexes and with zen-like calm and coordination. Now, I have put away childish things. I am a father whose daughter no longer needs him to clear levels of Super Mario Bros. And so the lamp of heaven begins its daily race across the sky. Like simulated ants in SimAnt we go about our petty business, rarely stopping to savor what woo-woo has come and what woo-woo may be left us. Until one day we lay dying and call out to the Great Programmer, “Wait! Just… one… more… turn…”

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.