May 21, 2008

Encoding Ideology

We finally got to talk about games in my Intro to New Media class, and as expected, it turned out to be interesting and enlightening. We began by reading two academic papers on games, both of which used Civilization 2 (a game that's closer to perfect than any other I've encountered) as an example.

One of them ("You Have Unleashed a Horde of Barbarians!" by Christopher Douglas) made the case that games are "existentially soothing", since unlike the real world, the player of a game can be sure that the game world was intelligently designed with a certain purpose and meaning for him. There is order. Douglas then goes on to argue, on a somewhat different tack, that Civ2 supports an ideology of American imperialist expansion, taming the natives of an uninhabited-yet-inhabited land. The "goody huts" in Civ2, he claims, are represented as people who exist only to be exploited or destroyed (as "barbarians").

I have a number of problems with his specific claims here, but the paper got me thinking about the interplay of game mechanics and narrative. It would be wholly possible to replace the goody huts with, say, goody caves, which might have bandits inside (to replace barbarians) or treasure or scrolls of ancient wisdom or whatever, thereby changing the narrative without changing the game mechanics. It would be impossible, however, to claim through narrative that the Sioux civilization in the game is fundamentally different and should be treated as an enemy; since the mechanics treat all civilizations alike and the Sioux are functionally equivalent to the English, this story wouldn't be consistent.

Narrative thus acts as a sort of mask over the game mechanics. You can swap out certain elements of the narrative freely, and these elements can be important in the end product, but they're ultimately limited by the mechanics. The tricky part is maintaining that consistency. I've written before about Jonathan Blow's critique of Bioshock; essentially, the complaint was that Bioshock's gameplay and its story don't match very well. What the mechanics actually "teach" the player is to shoot everything that moves from as far away as possible. On the other hand, I'd argue that Bioshock's climactic cutscene involves a perfectly consistent interplay of mechanics and message.

Blow also made the argument that games provide a world with an explicitly defined meaning of life. The world has a goal, the player has a purpose, and everything in the world is meaningful only with respect to that purpose. It actually sounds quite similar to "encoding ideology" in gameplay.

So while I disagree with Douglas's argument that Civ2's gameplay has encoded the ideology of imperialism, I think that it's fair to say that Civ2 encodes some sort of ideology. Ultimately, it's a game about expansion, growth, and domination of other civilizations. Whether or not that influences the player, displays the ideology in an artistic way, or has no effect whatsoever is a different question.


1 comment:

Xelaie said...

The ideology in Civ2, and any other ideology for that matter, is in our hearts and in our minds. We are curious to explore it, whether it's bad or good, and games provide a way to do it in a safe manner. The question isn't: "Is the ideology that the game exposes good or bad?" The question is: "What does the player learn through playing the game?"
From Civ2 you can learn that over-expansion can deplete your resources and any war will bring terrible costs. Perhaps you can also learn that sometimes there are ways to win peacefully.
The important part for any game is to provide all these aspects for player to explore and to learn from.