The Player of Games : why learning to win at games can make you a loser

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks makes a powerful argument for peace as the ultimate strategy.

Incredible thanks to my patrons for making this essay possible. And to my beta readers, in particular Sarah Imrisek and Joshua Newman, for challenging my arguments.

Games have always been seen, to a greater or lesser extent, as models of life. Monopoly makes its social metaphor explicit; he who owns the most of London wins at capitalism. Chess has long been called the “game of kings” because its dynamics are a close parallel to courtly intrigues and human politics. Poker is favoured by gamblers and economists alike, both professions that study the interplay of probability and human psychology. It’s a commonplace assumption to say that people who win at games tend to win at life.

Games as models of life took on a new importance in the 20th century with the development of game theory, a branch of mathematics pioneered by John Nash, whose life and work were popularised in the movie A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes Nash schools his math nerd friends on the dynamics of chatting up girls; never talk to the most beautiful girl first because her less attractive friends will then reject you. Nash’s insight was that human relationships and transactions could be understood as a game, a game in which those who understood the “mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision makers” would have a major advantage. You may not know it, but the principles of game theory are today a driving force in economics, politics, military strategy and many other areas of modern society.

“Today’s top players of games like DOTA 2 can be almost as famous and well remunerated as sports stars.”

The marketing industry quickly adopted game theory. When you’re persuaded to buy a new Mercedes by a barrage of advertisements, it’s your tendency to value objects as symbols of status in the game of life that is being exploited. This marketing technology reached its apogee in the late 2000’s concept of “gamification”. If you’ve ever found yourself returning to the same supermarket, petrol station of coffee shop again and again to fill up your loyalty card, you have been “gamified”. Reward Schedules, Behavioural Momentum, Countdowns and Disincentives are just a few of hundreds of documented “game dynamics” that are now routinely employed by marketers to capture your attention and manipulate your behaviour. Games evolved these dynamics to keep you playing, now businesses employ them to keep you shopping.

Games have leapt from the parlour to the big screen, as computers have replaced board games with the high resolution spectacle of modern video games. Today’s top players of games like DOTA 2 can be almost as famous and well remunerated as sports stars. By even the most modest estimates, video gaming is the world’s most popular entertainment. But all that gaming isn’t just a distraction. We are, as a society, becoming experts in the dynamics of gameplay. Game designer and commentator Jane McGonigal argues that videogames are training a generation of “expert gamers”, masters of game strategy with over 10,000 hours game play experience, an army of high level problem solvers ready to reshape society as an Epic Win.

I call the pervasive influence of games in today’s world “ludification”, derived from the Latin term “ludus”, meaning game or play. While gamification implies the many positive applications of game play in today’s world, ludification reflects on the problematic aspects of that same process. Ludus means game, but it also means deception. Games seem to offer a model that allows as to triumph over many of the problems the world throws at us. But while it’s clear that games can make us winners, too often we overlook how they also make us losers.

PlayerofGames
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

The Player of Games is the second novel in Iain M Banks’ science fiction sequence the Culture. Banks’ science fiction novels fit loosely into the genre of Space Opera – epic adventures and battles fought between the stars. As a story The Player of Games sits well alongside novels like The Hobbit and Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy; a comfortable, somewhat naive human is forced to journey into a strange world and discover their true self. Like much of the best science fiction, Banks’ work also reflects on the real world, and as the title suggests, games are at the centre of the allegory that Banks weaves.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is the Culture’s most famous game player. Board and card games, as the Culture is oddly lacking in computer games, despite being a super advanced galaxy spanning civilisation. Gurgeh’s life, in common with all citizens of the Culture, is utopian. He lives in a beautiful estate on an “orbital” artificial world. Nobody in the Culture works, unless they get bored. There is no poverty, sickness, violence or indeed any real suffering of any kind. There is no discrimination, people can change their gender or any aspect of their identity however they wish. This utopia is made possible by Minds, artificial intelligences who do all the real work in the Culture, an issue that is central throughout the sequence.

Gurgeh faces one of the few problems imaginable in a true utopia. In a world of absolute equality, how does a human satisfy their need to be special? Gurgeh’s solution is his mastery of games. While citizens of the Culture can have anything they want, Gurgeh’s status as the greatest living player of games is uniquely his. However, Banks hints that this makes Gurgeh something of a throwback, a man too rigid to even swap his gender (Gurgeh has always been male and only sleeps with females) who needs to win dominance over others to feel complete. In another world, perhaps even in our world, Gurgeh might have been a great general or king, a business leader or CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But in the Culture, he’s simply a player of games. Famous, but ultimately no more significant than any other individual.

The Minds that govern the Culture have their own hobbies. The nature of the Minds is explored in all of the Culture novels, but it’s enough here to know that they are benign rulers, who will basically do anything to make human existence comfortable. Minds have unique personalities, but they all have vast intelligence and, importantly, a rather wicked sense of humour. As they continue to explore the universe, the Minds often turn up less advanced and usually more brutal alien societies. While being largely pacifist, the Culture does frequently intervene to make these alien civilisations less awful. In fact, the Minds rather enjoy the vastly complex thinking required to tinker with an entire society. It’s a rather entertaining game to them.

“Gurgeh is the human element, introduced to redeem a society that has replaced all moral freedom with the mechanisms of game play.”

The Empire of Azad is one such alien civilisation. Despite stretching over a few hundred star systems, Azad has somehow managed to retain an Imperial political structure. Banks argues that Imperial systems are deeply inefficient, so civilisations that expand beyond their home planet nearly always transition to far more utopian systems of government. The Azadians have maintained their deeply unjust Imperial system for one important reason: a vastly complex game called Azad, from which the empire takes its name. Azad is used to determine who governs the empire. The game provides the empire with stability by making sure the most competitive and ruthless individuals wield power. The cost, as we will explore in more detail, is that Azadian society is a deeply unpleasant place to live for anyone not in this ruling class.

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Azadians come in three genders – male, female, and apex. Apices wield all power, while males and females have been selectively bred to lower their intelligence. Poverty is widespread in the empire, and lower economic classes can be beaten or killed by the rich without consequence. The many alien cultures conquered by the Azadians are enslaved. In one moment of The Player of Games we are told of a conquered alien being shaved of its fur, in an image that echoes the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people. Later in the novel we discover that the empire has secret broadcasts seen by its elite, broadcasts of live sexual humiliation, rape, torture, and the mass murder of children. Aspects of the empire are glamorous, intoxicatingly so, but Banks leaves us in no doubt that it is a fundamentally horrific place.

Gurgeh is, through a series of machinations plotted by the Minds, sent off to, quite literally, beat the Azadians at their own game, which he duly does. The emotional charge of the story turns on Gurgeh’s own transformation from game player to fully rounded human being, as he is taught the ultimate inhumanity of a society based on games. Gurgeh is the human element, introduced to redeem a society that has replaced all moral freedom with the mechanisms of game play. The allegory is completed when, in the story’s denouement, we learn that while Gurgeh has been making his moves, the real “player of games” are the Minds who have manipulated him into this quest. Mind’s that are machines, but who demonstrate that even a machine can choose to act humanely.

Chess-pieces

Which of Mr Banks’ two imagined societies seems more realistic to you? The utopian vision of a galaxy spanning Culture where humans live lives of pleasure? Or the empire of Azad, where a privileged elite of the most ruthless and cunning oppress and exploit all others? I suspect that, if answering honestly, most of you believe that Azad is more like human reality than the Culture. A brief glance at history shows humans repeating all the same sins as Azadians, over and over again.

Which society would you rather live in? I hope for your own well being that you answer the Culture. But again I suspect many of you will say the question is overly wishful. Whatever we might rather, the real world is like Azad. There are rules, and hierarchies and winners and losers. The world is a game, and given the options, you’d rather be a winner.

Welcome Azadians!

The ludification of our world is the triumph of the desperate hope and belief that we can, we will, indeed we must, be among the winners. And it’s a process driven by primal fears. John Nash, the father of game theory, was a profound paranoid schizophrenic whose fears were so powerful they manifested as crippling delusions. If you saw every human as a player in a game, driven by a selfish agenda, capable of any deception, as Nash’s game theory suggests, you’d be crippled with paranoia as well. Maybe you do. Maybe you are.

“the most heinously violent and morally vacuous medium in human history”

It’s hardly possible to look at the marketing industry’s cynical adoption of “gamification” as anything but the most scurrilous form of manipulation. Yes, the human desire for status and various other psychological traits are easily gamed to sell us everything from Coca-Cola to Coco Chanel. But what good does this do for anyone? Seriously, tell me, because I’m totally unable to think of anything.

Video games could conceivably produce a generation of super skilled Epic Win problem solvers. If game designers like Markus Persson (Minecraft) or Jenova Chen (Journey) are any guide this might happen, but it will be despite the best efforts of the vast industry that has made games, for all their potential, into the most heinously violent and morally vacuous medium in human history. If Gamergate is any measure it seems more likely that videogames are training an entire generation as vacant minded hyper-consumers, entirely lacking in both critical thinking and basic human empathy. Ideal citizens of the empire of Azad.

But let me put it to you that Bank’s allegory is more hopeful than you suspect. The Player of Games, the Culture and Azad are a fiction. But the two tendencies that they represent – towards competition and violence on the Azadian side, or towards cooperation and peace on on the Culture side – both exist within the human heart. And they are both necessary to our health and happiness. The real question is how we balance them.

At the climax of The Player of Games, Gurgeh plays a final match with emperor Nicosar. This final game of Azad is played over many days, and for high stakes. Gurgeh’s victory ultimately, as the Minds of the culture calculated it would, topples the entire Azadian empire. But how Gurgeh wins is where the story’s real meaning hides. While Nicosar deploys his pieces as an Imperial army, Gurgeh shapes his forces in the peaceful model of a more advanced civilisation. And over time, Gurgeh’s peaceful society simply absorbs and overwhelms the attackers, and turns them toward peace. Gurgeh wins the ultimate game, by learning not to think like a player.

Its been my lived experience that expert game players are no better at life itself than anyone else, and are often worse. The man who whips his kids at Monopoly isn’t necessarily winning at being a dad. Chess players when they involve themselves in real world politics, like Gary Kasparov’s disastrous tilt at Russian president Vladimir Putin, seem to have learned no transferable skills from the game of kings. Economists proliferate everywhere, just as priests did in earlier ages, and everywhere their influence touches our economic problems rapidly multiply. Games it seems are not particularly good models of reality at all.

Instead many of the great victories of the last century have gone to those who, like Jernau Morat Gurgeh, play by the rules of peace. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent politics succeeded in freeing the entire Indian sub-continent from British rule. Martin Luther King’s insistence on peace as the path towards civil liberties for black Americans triumphed over violent strategies deployed by both sides of the conflict. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s compassionate use of Peace and Reconciliation committees averted the potential of horrific bloodshed in post-apartheid South Africa. Wherever you look, progress is made by those who refuse to play by old rules of violence and bloodshed. And where those rules are still asserted – in Iraq, in Syria, in North Korea and elsewhere, human suffering only multiplies, nobody wins and we all lose.

Did the violent Azadians lead to peace, or to infinitely more skilled players of games in the Minds of the Culture? Ultimately they are one and the same thing. What the Minds understand is that peace is a far more powerful strategy than violence. It’s a lesson we could learn ourselves, with a glance at our own history. Instead the ludification of modern society continues our losing strategy of turning to violence as our first and last resort. Violence might win on the limited scale of a chess board or a Call of Duty map. But in the vastly more complex space we call reality, violence loses again and again. If games are to fulfil their great potential in the world, they need to choose winners who play the strategy of peace.

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3 thoughts on “The Player of Games : why learning to win at games can make you a loser”

  1. There’s been a lot of attention paid to games & violence, but pertinent to this novel, I’d be very curious to see if there’s any significant relation between long-term gaming and a sensitivity to domination in any form. As the Empire (and history) demonstrates, dominance is a drug, very hard to put down once you’ve tasted it. Though my guess is that for many people who spend a lot of their time in games, dominance is something they haven’t tasted much, that games supply it in wish-fulfilment form instead. A kind of antidote to ressentiment perhaps!
    So many interesting questions raised, and relatively few answers at this point.

    Like

  2. “If Gamergate is any measure it seems more likely that videogames are training an entire generation as vacant minded hyper-consumers”

    Yeah, just watch how they open their wallet in a pavlovian way to donate to anyone who stroke their ego by playing damsel in distress, right ?

    Like

  3. Very insightful article, and I agree on almost every point. My only point of contention is that, save for one mention at the beginning, you speak only of violent, competitive games and imply that that style of play represents the entire spectrum. I have been an avid gamer for more than 20 years and have found nearly ceaseless opportunities to treat even games designed to be violent and competitive as opportunities for cooperation.

    I suspect it’s a case of getting out of something what you put into it; even in games where the winners are those who most effectively kill their opponents, one can play cooperatively with friends against the computer. Whether it’s learning to work well as a team, devising an effective multi-faceted strategy against overwhelming forces, or something else entirely, the game need not be nonviolent to be fertile ground for peaceful cooperation among the players. For a great example of this, look at the Rainbow 6 games – they promote teamwork and cooperation against overwhelming (AI) odds better than most other games, and are by almost any standard violent.

    Liked by 1 person

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