Planet Interactive Fiction

May 18, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

The Game of Everything, Part 10: Civilization and the Limits of Progress

by Jimmy Maher at May 18, 2018 04:41 PM

To listen to what Sid Meier says about his most famous achievement today, my writing all of these articles on Civilization has been like doing a deep reading of an episode of The Big Bang Theory; there just isn’t a whole lot of there there. Meier claims that the game presents at best a children’s-book view of history, that the only real considerations that went into it were what would be fun and what wouldn’t. I don’t want to criticize him for that stance here, any more than I want to minimize the huge place that fun or the lack thereof really did fill in the decisions that he and his partner Bruce Shelley made about Civilization. I understand why he says what he says: he’s a commercial game designer, not a political pundit, and he has no desire to wade into controversy — and possibly shrink his customer base — by taking public positions on the sorts of fractious topics I’ve been addressing over the course of these articles. If he should need further encouragement to stay well away from those topics, he can find it in the many dogmatic academic critiques of Civilization which accuse it of being little more than triumphalist propaganda. He’d rather spend his time talking about game design, which strikes me as perfectly reasonable.

Having said all that, it’s also abundantly clear to me that Civilization reflects a much deeper and more earnest engagement with the processes of history than Meier is willing to admit these days. This is, after all, a game which cribs a fair amount of its online Civilopedia directly from Will Durant, author of the eleven-volume The Story of Civilization, the most ambitious attempt to tell the full story of human history to date. And it casually name-drops the great British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, author of the twelve-volume A Study of History, perhaps the most exhaustive — and certainly the most lengthy — attempt ever to construct a grand unified theory of history. These are not, needless to say, books which are widely read by children. There truly is a real theory of history to be found in Civilization as well, one which, if less thoroughly worked-out than what the likes of Toynbee have presented in book form, is nevertheless worth examining and questioning at some length.

The heart of Civilization‘s theory of history is of course the narrative of progress. In fact, the latter is so central to the game that it’s joined it as the second of our lodestars throughout this series of articles. And so, as we come to the end of the series, it seems appropriate to look at what the game and the narrative of progress have to say about one another one last time, this time in the context of a modern society like the ones in which we live today. Surprisingly given how optimistic the game’s take on history generally is, it doesn’t entirely ignore the costs that have all too clearly been shown to be associated with progress in this modern era of ours.

Meier and Shelley were already working on Civilization when the first international Earth Day was held on April 22, 1990, marking the most important single event in the history of the environmental movement since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring back in 1962. Through concerts, radio and television programs, demonstrations, and shrewd publicity stunts like a Mount Everest “Peace Climb” including American, Soviet, and Chinese climbers roped together in symbolic co-dependence, Earth Day catapulted the subject of global warming among other environmental concerns into the mass media, in some cases for the first time.

Whether influenced by this landmark event or not, Civilization as well manifests a serious concern for the environment in the later, post-Industrial Revolution stages of the game. Coal- and oil-fired power plants increase the productivity of your factories dramatically, but also spew pollution into the air which you must struggle to clean up. Nuclear power plants, while the cheapest, cleanest, and most plentiful sources of energy most of the time, can occasionally melt down with devastating consequences to your civilization. Large cities generate pollution of their own even absent factories and power plants, presumably as a result of populations that have discovered the joy of automobiles. Too much pollution left uncleaned will eventually lead not only to sharply diminished productivity for your civilization but also to global warming, making Civilization one of the first works of popular entertainment to acknowledge the growing concern surrounding the phenomenon already among scientists of the early 1990s.

In fighting your rearguard action against these less desirable fellow travelers on the narrative of progress, you have various tools at your disposal. To clean up pollution that’s already occurred, you can build and deploy settler units to the affected areas. To prevent some pollution from occurring at all, you can invest in hydroelectric plants in general and/or the Wonder of the World that is the Hoover Dam. And/or you can build mass-transit systems to wean your people away from their precious cars, and/or build recycling centers to prevent some of their trash from winding up in landfills.

Interestingly, the original Civilization addresses the issues of environment and ecology that accompany the narrative of progress with far more earnestness than any of its sequels — another fact that rather gives the lie to Meier’s assertion that the game has little to do with the real world. Although even the first game’s implementation of pollution is far from unmanageable by the careful player, it’s something that most players just never found to be all that much fun, and this feedback caused the designers who worked on the sequels to gradually scale back its effects.

In the real world as well, pollution and the threat of global warming aren’t much fun to talk or think about — so much so that plenty of people, including an alarming number of those in positions of power, have chosen to stick their heads in the sand and pretend they don’t exist. None of us enjoy having our worldviews questioned in the uncomfortable ways that discussions of these and other potential limits of progress — progress as defined in terms of Francis Fukuyama’s explicit and Civilization‘s implicit ideals of liberal, capitalistic democracy — tend to engender.

As Adam Smith wrote in the pivotal year of 1776 and the subsequent centuries of history quite definitively proved, competitive free markets do some things extraordinarily well. The laws of supply and demand conspire to ensure that a society’s resources are allocated to those things its people actually need and want, while the profit motive drives innovation in a way no other economic system has ever come close to equaling. The developed West’s enormous material prosperity — a prosperity unparalleled in human history — is thanks to capitalism and its kissing cousin, democracy.

Yet unfettered capitalism, that Platonic ideal of libertarian economists, has a tendency to go off the rails if not monitored and periodically corrected by entities who are not enslaved by the profit motive. The first great crisis of American capitalism could be said to have taken place as early as the late 1800s, during the “robber baron” era of monopolists who discovered a way to cheat the law of supply and demand by cornering entire sectors of the market to themselves. Meanwhile the burgeoning era of mass production and international corporations, so dramatically different from Adam Smith’s world of shopkeepers and village craftsmen, led to the mass exploitation of labor. The response from government was an ever-widening net of regulations to keep corporations honest, while the response from workers was to unionize for the same purpose. Under these new, more restrictive conditions, capitalism continued to hum along, managing to endure another, still greater crisis of confidence in the form of the Great Depression, which led to the idea of a taxpayer-funded social safety net for the weak and the unlucky members of society.

The things that pure capitalism doesn’t do well, like providing for the aforementioned weak and unlucky who lack the means to pay for goods and services, tend to fall under the category that economists call “externalities”: benefits and harms that aren’t encompassed by Adam Smith’s supposedly all-encompassing law of supply and demand. In Smith’s world of shopkeepers, what was best for the individual supplier was almost always best for the public at large: if I sold you a fine plow horse for a reasonable price, I profited right then and there, and also knew that you were likely to tell your friends about it and to come back yourself next year when you needed another. If I sold you a lame horse, on the other hand, I’d soon be out of business. But if I’m running a multinational oil conglomerate in the modern world, that simple logic of capitalism begins to break down in the face of a much more complicated web of competing concerns. In this circumstance, the best thing for me to do in order to maximize my profits is to deny that global warming exists and do everything I can to fight the passage of laws that will hurt my business of selling people viscous black gunk to burn inside dirty engines. This, needless to say, is not in the public’s long-term interest; it’s an externality that could quite literally spell the end of human civilization. So, government must step in — hopefully! — to curb the burning of dirty fuels and address the effects of those fossil fuels that have already been burned.

But externalities are absolutely everywhere in our modern, interconnected, globalized world of free markets. Just as there’s no direct financial benefit in an unfettered free market for a doctor to provide years or decades worth of healthcare to a chronically sick person who lacks the means to pay for it, there’s no direct financial harm entailed in a factory dumping its toxic effluent into the nearest lake. There is, of course, harm in the abstract, but that harm is incurred by the people unlucky enough to live by the lake rather than by the owners of the factory. The trend throughout the capitalist era has therefore been for government to step in more and more; every successful capitalist economy in the world today is really a mixed economy, to a degree that would doubtless have horrified Adam Smith. As externalities continue to grow in size and scope, governments are forced to shoulder a bigger and bigger burden in addressing them. At what points does that burden become unbearable?

One other internal contradiction of modern capitalism, noticed by Karl Marx already in the nineteenth century, has come to feel more real and immediate than ever before in the years since the release of Civilization. The logic of modern finance demands yearly growth — ever greater production, ever greater profits. Just holding steady isn’t good enough; if you doubt my word, consider what your pension fund will look like come retirement time if the corporations in which you’ve invested it are content to merely hold steady. Up to this point, capitalism’s efficiency as an economic system has allowed it to deliver this growth over a decade-by-decade if not always year-by-year basis. But the earth’s resources are not unlimited. At some point, constant growth — the constant demand for more, more, more — must become unsustainable. What happens to capitalism then?

Exactly the future that believers in liberal democracy and capitalism claim to be the best one possible — that the less-developed world remakes itself in the mold of North America and Western Europe — would appear to be literally impossible in reality. The United States alone, home to 6 percent of the world’s population, consumes roughly 35 percent of its resources. One doesn’t need to be a statistician or an ecologist to understand that the rest of the world simply cannot become like the United States without ruining a global ecosystem that already threatens to collapse under the weight of 7.5 billion souls — twice the number of just thirty years ago. Humans are now the most common mammal on the planet, outnumbering even the ubiquitous mice and rats. Two-thirds of the world’s farmland is already rated as “somewhat” or “strongly” degraded by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Three-quarters of the world’s biodiversity has been lost since 1900, and 50 percent of all remaining plant and animal species are expected to go extinct before 2100. And hovering over it all is the specter of climate change; the polar ice caps have melted more in the last 20 years than they did in the previous 12,000 years since the end of the last ice age.

There’s no doubt about it: these are indeed uncomfortable conversations to have. Well before the likes of Brexit and President Donald Trump, even before the events of September 11, 2001, Western society was losing the sense of triumphalism that had marked the time of the original Civilization, replacing it with a jittery sense that humanity was packed too closely together on an overcrowded and overheating little planet, that the narrative of progress was rushing out of control toward some natural limit point that was difficult to discern or describe. The first clear harbinger of the generalized skittishness to come was perhaps the worldwide angst that accompanied the turn of the millennium — better known as “Y2K,” a fashionable brand name for disaster that smacked of Hollywood, thereby capturing the strange mixture of gloom and mass-media banality that would come to characterize much of post-millennial life. The historian of public perception David Lowenthal, writing in 2015:

Events spawned media persistently catastrophic in theme and tone, warning of the end of history, the end of humanity, the end of nature, the end of everything. Millennial prospects in 2000 were lacklustre and downbeat; Y2K seemed a portent of worse to come. Not even post-Hiroshima omens of nuclear annihilation unleashed such a pervasive glum foreboding. Today’s angst reflects unexampled loss of faith in progress: fears that our children will be worse off than ourselves, doubts that neither government nor industry, science nor technology, can set things right.

The turn of the millennium had the feeling of an end time, yet none of history’s more cherished eschatologies seemed to be coming true: not Christianity’s Rapture, not Karl Marx’s communist world order, not Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel or Francis Fukuyama’s liberal-democratic end of history, certainly not Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley’s trip to Alpha Centauri. Techno-progressives began to talk more and more of a new secular eschatology in the form of the so-called Singularity, the point where, depending on the teller, artificial intelligence would either merge with human intelligence to create a new super-species fundamentally different from the humans of prior ages, or our computers would simply take over the world, wiping out their erstwhile masters or relegating them to the status of pets. And that was one of the more positive endgames for humanity that came to be batted around. Others nursed apocalyptic visions of a world ruined by global warming and the rising sea levels associated with it — a secular version of the Biblical Flood — or completely overrun by Islamic Jihadists, those latest barbarians at the gates of civilization heralding the next Dark Ages. Our television and movies turned increasingly dystopic, with anti-heroes and planet-encompassing disasters coming to rule our prime-time entertainment.

The last few years in particular haven’t been terribly good ones for believers in the narrative of progress and the liberal-democratic world order it has done so much to foster. The Arab Spring, touted for a time as a backward region’s belated awakening to progress, collapsed without achieving much of anything at all. Britain is leaving the European Union; the United States elected Donald Trump; Russia is back to relishing the role of the Evil Empire, prime antagonist to the liberal-democratic West; China has gone a long way toward consummating a marriage once thought impossible: the merging of an autocratic, human-rights-violating government with an economy capable of competing with the best that democratic capitalism can muster. Our politicians issue mealy-mouthed homages to “realism” and “transactional diplomacy,” ignoring the better angels of our nature. Everywhere nativism and racism seem to be on the rise. Even in the country where I live now, the supposed progressive paradise of Denmark, the Danish People’s Party has won considerable power in the government by sloganeering that “Denmark is not a multicultural society,” by drawing lines between “real” Danes and those of other colors and other religions. In my native land of the United States, one side of the political discourse, finding itself unable to win a single good-faith argument on the merits, has elected to simply lie about the underlying facts, leading some to make the rather chilling assertion that we now live in a “post-truth” world. (How ironic that the American right, long the staunchest critic of postmodernism, should have been the ones to turn its lessons about the untenability of objective truth into an electoral strategy!)

And then there’s the incoming fire being taken by the most sacred of all of progress’s sacred cows, as The Economist‘s latest Democracy Index announces that it “continues its disturbing retreat.” In an event redolent with symbolism, the same index in 2016 changed the classification of the United States, that beacon of democracy throughout its history, from a “Full Democracy” to a “Flawed Democracy.” Functioning as both cause and symptom of this retreat is the old skepticism about whether democracy is just too chaotic to efficiently run a country, whether people who can so easily be duped by Facebook propaganda and email chain letters can really be trusted to decide their countries’ futures.

Looming over such discussions of democracy and its efficacy is the specter of China. When Mao Zedong’s Communist Party seized power there in 1949, the average Chinese citizen earned just $448 per year in inflation-adjusted terms, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. Mao’s quarter-century of orthodox communist totalitarianism, encompassing the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, managed to improve that figure only relatively slowly; average income had increased to $978 by 1978. But, following Mao’s death, his de-facto successor Deng Xiaoping began to depart from communist orthodoxy, turning from a centrally-managed economy to the seemingly oxymoronic notion of “market-oriented communism” — effectively a combination of authoritarianism with capitalism. Many historians and economists — not least among them Francis Fukuyama — have always insisted that a non-democracy simply cannot compete with a democracy on economic terms over a long span of time. Yet the economy of the post-Mao China has seemingly grown at a far more impressive rate than they allow to be possible, with average income reaching $6048 by 2006, then $16,624 by 2017. China today would seem to be a compelling rebuttal to all those theories about the magic conjunction of personal freedoms and free markets.

But is it really? We should be careful not to join some of our more excitable pundits in getting ahead of the real facts of the case. China’s economic transformation, remarkable as it’s been, has only elevated it to the 79th position among all the world’s nations in terms of GDP per capita. Its considerable economic clout in the contemporary world, in other words, has a huge amount to do with the fact that it’s the most populous country in the world. Further, the heart of its economy is manufacturing, as is proved by all of those “Made in China” tags on hard goods of every description that are sold all over the world. China is still a long, long way from joining the vanguard of post-industrial knowledge economies. To a large extent, economic innovation still comes from the latter; China then does the grunt work of manufacturing the products that the innovators design.

Of course, authoritarianism does have its advantages. China’s government, which doesn’t need to concern itself with elections every set number of years, can set large national projects in motion, such as a green energy grid spanning the entire country or even a manned trip to Mars, and see them methodically through over the course of decades if need be. But can China under its current system of government produce a truly transformative, never-seen-or-imagined-anything-like-it product like the Apple iPhone and iPad, the World Wide Web, or the Sony Walkman? It isn’t yet clear to me that it can transcend being an implementor of brilliant ideas — thanks to all those cheap and efficient factories — to being an originator of same. So, personally, I’m not quite ready to declare the death of the notion that a country requires democracy to join the truly top-tier economies of the world. The next few decades should be very interesting in one way or another — whether because China does definitively disprove that notion, because its growth tops out, or, most desirably, because a rising standard of living there and the demands of a restive middle class bring an end at last to China’s authoritarian government.

Still, none of these answers to The China Puzzle will do anything to help us with the fundamental limit point of the capitalistic world order: the demand for infinite economic growth in a world of decidedly finite resources. Indeed, the Chinese outcome I just named as the most desirable — that of a democratic, dynamic China free of the yoke of its misnamed Communist Party — only causes our poor, suffering global ecosystem to suffer that much more under the yoke of capitalism. For this reason, economists today have begun to speak more and more of a “crisis of capitalism,” to question whether Adam Smith’s brilliant brainchild is now entering its declining years. For a short time, the “Great Recession” of 2007 and 2008, when some of the most traditionally rock-solid banks and corporations in the world teetered on the verge of collapse, seemed like it might be the worldwide shock that signaled the beginning of the end. Desperate interventions by governments all over the world managed to save the capitalists from themselves at the last, but even today, when the economies of most Western nations are apparently doing quite well, the sense of unease that was engendered by that near-apocalypse of a decade ago has never fully disappeared. The feeling remains widespread that something has to give sooner or later, and that that something might be capitalism as we know it today.

But what would a post-capitalist world look like? Aye, there’s the rub. Communism, capitalism’s only serious challenger over the course of the last century, would seem to have crashed and burned a long time ago as a practical way of ordering an economy. Nor, based on the horrid environmental record of the old Soviet bloc, is it at all clear that it would have proved any better a caretaker of our planet than capitalism even had it survived.

One vision for the future, favored by the anarchist activists whom we briefly met in an earlier article, entails a deliberate winding down of the narrative of progress before some catastrophe or series of catastrophes does it for us. It’s claimed that we need to abandon globalization and re-embrace localized, self-sustaining ways of life; it’s thus perhaps not so much a complete rejection of capitalism as a conscious return to Adam Smith’s era of shopkeepers and craftsman. The prominent American anarchist Murray Bookchin dreams of a return to “community, decentralization, self-sufficiency, mutual aid, and face-to-face democracy” — “a serious challenge to [globalized] society with its vast, hierarchical, sexist, class-ruled state apparatus and militaristic history.” Globalization, he and other anarchists note, often isn’t nearly as efficient as its proselytizers claim. In fact, the extended international supply chains it fosters for even the most basic foodstuffs are often absurdly wasteful in terms of energy and other resources, and brittle to boot, vulnerable to the slightest shock to the globalized system. Why should potatoes which can be grown in almost any back garden in the world need to be shipped in via huge, fuel-guzzling jet airplanes and forty-ton semis? Locally grown agriculture, anarchists point out, can provide eight units of food energy for every one unit of fossil-fuel energy needed to bring it to market, while in many cases exactly the opposite ratio holds true for internationally harvested produce.

But there’s much more going on here philosophically than a concern with the foodstuff supply chain. Modern anarchist thought reflects a deep discomfort with consumer culture, a strand of philosophy we’ve met before in the person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his “noble savage.” In truth, Rousseau noted, the only things a person really, absolutely needs to survive are food and shelter. All else is, to paraphrase the Bible, vanity, and all too often brings only dissatisfaction. Back in the eighteenth century, Rousseau could already describe the collector who is never satisfied by the collection he’s assembled, only dissatisfied by its gaps.

What would he make of our times? Today’s world is one of constant beeping enticements — cars, televisions, stereos, computers, phones, game consoles — that bring only the most ephemeral bursts of happiness before we start craving the upgraded model. The anarchist activist Peter Harper:

People aspire to greater convenience and comfort, more personal space, easy mobility, a sense of expanding possibilities. This is the modern consumerist project: what modern societies are all about. It is a central feature of mainstream politics and economics that consumerist aspirations are not seriously challenged. On the contrary, the implied official message is “Hang on in there: we will deliver.” The central slogan is brutally simple: MORE!

Harper claims that, as the rest of the world continues to try and fail to find happiness in the latest shiny objects, anarchists will win them over to their cause by example. For those who reject materialist culture “will quite visibly be having a good time: comfortable, with varied lives and less stress, healthy and fit, having rediscovered the elementary virtues of restraint and balance.”

Doubtless we could all use a measure of restraint and balance in our lives, but the full anarchist project for happiness and sustainability through a deliberate deconstruction of the fruits of progress is so radical — entailing as it does the complete dissolution of nation-states and a return to decentralized communal living — that it’s difficult to fully envision how it could happen absent the sort of monumental precipitating global catastrophe that no one can wish for. While human nature will always be tempted to cast a wistful eye back to an imagined simpler, more elemental past, another, perhaps nobler part of our nature will always look forward with an ambitious eye to a bolder, more exciting future. The oft-idealized life of a tradesman prior to the Industrial Revolution, writes Francis Fukuyama, “involved no glory, dynamism, innovation, or mastery; you just plied the same traditional markets or crafts as your father and grandfather.” For many or most people that may be a fine life, and more power to them. But what of those with bigger dreams, who would spur humanity on to bigger and better things? That is to say, what of the authors of the narrative of progress of the past, present, and future, who aren’t willing to write the whole thing off as fun while it lasted and return to the land? The builders among us will never be satisfied with a return to some agrarian idyll.

The world’s current crisis of faith in progress and in the liberal-democratic principles that are so inextricably bound up with it isn’t the first or the worst of its kind. Not that terribly long ago, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan posed a far more immediate and tangible threat to liberal democracy all over the world than anything we face today; the American Nazi party was once strong enough to rent and fill Madison Square Garden, a fact which does much to put the recent disconcerting events in Charlottesville in perspective. And yet liberal democracy got through that era all right in the end.

Even in 1983, when the Soviet Union was already teetering on the verge of economic collapse, an unknowing Jean-François Revel could write that “democracy may, after all, turn out to have been an historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes.” The liberal West’s periods of self-doubt have always seemed to outnumber and outlast its periods of triumphalism, and yet progress has continued its march. During the height of the fascist era, voting rights in many democratic countries were being expanded to include all of their citizens at long last; amidst the gloominess about the future that has marked so much of post-millennial life, longstanding prejudices toward gay and lesbian people have fallen away so fast in the developed West that it’s left even many of our ostensibly progressive politicians scrambling to keep up.

Of course, the fact still remains that our planet’s current wounds are real, and global warming may in the long run prove to be the most dangerous antagonist humanity has ever faced. If we’re unwilling to accept giving up the fruits of progress in the name of healing our planet, where do we go from here? One thing that is clear is that we will have to find different, more sustainable ways of ordering our economies if progress is to continue its march. Capitalism is often praised for its ability to sublimate what Friedrich Nietzsche called the megalothymia of the most driven souls among us — the craving for success, achievement, recognition, victory — into the field of business rather than the field of battle. Would other megalothymia sublimators, such as sport, be sufficient in a post-capitalist world? What would a government/economy look like that respects people’s individual freedoms but avoids the environment-damaging, resource-draining externalities of capitalism? No one — certainly not I! — can offer entirely clear answers to these questions today. This is not so much a tribute to anything unique about our current times as it is a tribute to the nature of history itself. Who anticipated Christianity? Who anticipated that we would use the atomic bomb only twice? Who, for that matter, anticipated a President Donald Trump?

One possibility, at least in the short term, is to rejigger the rules of capitalism to bring its most problematic externalities back under the umbrella of the competitive marketplace. Experiments in cap-and-trade, which turn environment-ruining carbon emissions into a scarce commodity that corporations can exchange among themselves, have shown promising results.

But in the longer term, still more than just our economics will have to change. Because the problems of ecology and environment are global problems of a scope we’ve never faced before, we will need to think of ourselves more and more as a global society in order to solve them. In time, the nation-states in which we still invest so much patriotic fervor today may need to go the way of the scattered, self-sufficient settlements of a few dozens or hundreds that marked the earliest stages of the earliest civilizations. In time, the seeds that were planted with the United Nations in the aftermath of the bloodiest of all our stupid, pointless wars may flower into a single truly global civilization.

Really, though, I can’t possibly predict how humanity will progress its way out of its current set of predicaments. I can only have faith in the smarts and drive that have brought us this far. The best we can hope for is probably to muddle through by the skin of our teeth — but then, isn’t that what we’ve always been doing? The first civilizations began as improvised solutions to the problem of a changing climate, and we’ve been making it up as we go along ever since. So, maybe the first truly global civilization will also arise as, you guessed it, an improvised solution to the problem of a changing climate. Even if we’ve met our match with our latest nemesis of human-caused climate change, perhaps it really is better to burn out than to fade away. Perhaps it’s better to go down swinging than to survive at the cost of the grand dream of an eventual trip to Alpha Centauri.

The game which has the fulfillment of that dream as its most soul-stirring potential climax has been oft-chided for promoting a naive view of history — for being Western- and American-centric, for ignoring the plights of the vast majority of the people who have ever inhabited this planet of ours, for ignoring the dangers of the progress it celebrates. It is unquestionably guilty of all these things in whole or in part, and guilty of many more sins against history besides. But I haven’t chosen to emphasize overmuch its many problems in this series of articles because I find its guiding vision of a human race capable of improving itself down through the millennia so compelling and inspiring. Human civilization needs it critics, but it needs its optimists perhaps even more. So, may the optimistic outlook of the narrative of progress last as long as our species, and may we always have to go along with it the optimism of the game of Civilization — or of a Civilization VI, Civilization XVI, or Civilization CXVI — to exhort us to keep on keeping on.

This concludes our extended close reading of the game of Civilization, but won’t mark the end of its influence on this blog. I’ll have a special announcement about that soon!

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Crick, Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward, Environmental Economics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Smith, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction by Manfred B. Steger, Economics: A Very Short Introduction by Partha Dasgupta, Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction by Robert C. Allen, Capital by Karl Marx, The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche, Lectures on the Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, How Democracies Perish by Jean-François Revel, and The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthall.)

May 17, 2018

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Community College Hero: Knowledge is Power by Eric Moser

by Rachel E. Towers at May 17, 2018 05:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

You survived the fall semester, but things are heating up this winter in Speck, Nebraska! A new villain with mysterious motives emerges to terrorize your city! New professors push you and your classmates harder than ever before! New information is revealed about Zenith-training schools in New York and San Francisco! And if that’s not enough, one of the world’s deadliest villains has promised to return before the end of the semester to finish what she started in the fall! It’s 20% off until May 24th!

Community College Hero: Knowledge is Power is a superpowered 200,000 word interactive novel by Eric Moser, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

• Seek retribution for your classmate’s death or focus on protecting the innocent!
• Pursue Zenith power, study battle tactics, or plan to revive the villainous mantle of Dr. Stench!
• Match wits with a mysterious new non-Zenith villain!
• Travel to other cities to rub shoulders with world famous heroes!
• Prepare with your friends and professors for the return of the murderous Manipulator!

Eric Moser developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.


Keyboard shortcuts in Adventuron Editor

by Chris Ainsley ([email protected]) at May 17, 2018 01:59 PM

It has come to my attention that I have not properly drew attention to the keyboard shortcuts that make editing in Adventuron's editor fast and easy. So here they are.

Adventuron Actions

Adventuron actions trigger adventuron specific events .

  • Control + Spacebar = Context Sensitive Autocompletion Options.
  • Control + S = Save document (to local storage) + refresh game window. NOTE : Currently Adventuron's web UI does not support saving more than one document at a time locally.

Text Navigation Actions

Text navigation options allow game authors to navigate around the document using the keyboard.

  • Page Up = Move up by one screen worth of text
  • Page Down = Move down by one screen worth of text
  • Home = Move to beginning of start of text on current line
  • Home then Home = Move to absolute beginning of current line (before column 1)
  • End = Move to end of current line
  • End then End = Move to end of text on current line
  • Tab = (not after autocompletion has been selected) Insert three spaces into a document. (After autocompletion has been selected) move to next demarcated block of text to be edited.

Text Selection Shortcuts

Text selection allows game authors to select blocks of text without using the mouse (or touch).

  • Control + A = Select all text in document
  • Control + Home = Go to beginning of document
  • Control + End = Go to end of document
  • Shift + (Up or Down or Left or Right or Page Up or Page Down Or Control + Page Up or Control + Page Down or Control + Start or Control + End) ... select additional text between current cursor position and new location - as per descriptions above.

Text Mutation Options

  • Del = Delete character to right of cursor, or delete SELECTED TEXT.
  • Backspace = Delete character to left of cursor, or delete SELECTED TEXT.

Text Actions

  • Control + F = Find text in document
  • Control + F then Control + F = Replace text in document.

NOTE : This list is Windows-centric. Please replace "Control" with "Command" on OSX.


Become an IFTF monthly supporter

May 17, 2018 01:11 PM

Taking a page from the success of IFComp’s Colossal Fund, IFTF offers a new way for IF community members to show their support for the Foundation’s ongoing programs. If you use the PayPal link on our giving page to set up an automatic monthly donation of $5 (USD) or more — an action as easy as checking a checkbox, and as spiritually uplifting as a warm spring breeze — we will salute your generosity with a place of honor among our new list of monthly supporters.

Naturally, IFTF continues to gratefully and humbly accept tax-deductible donations of any size or frequency. We also reserve the right to think of other fun rewards for those who display ongoing or otherwise significant generosity! But for now, giving a public nod to those who think of IFTF every month (or at least instruct a database running somewhere at PayPal headquarters to think of IFTF every month on their behalf) seems like the least we could do. So, we’re doing that.

If having your name printed on a static webpage somehow isn’t enough when it comes to showing off your IFTF support, then may I remind you of our gift shop! It sells an array of IFTF merch, including IF Archive stickers, IF Archive coffee mugs, and IF Archive T-shirts. (Someday we’ll put some more designs up there, but darn it we love the IF Archive.) All profits from these purchases go into IFTF’s general fund.

May 16, 2018

Emily Short

Human Errors (Katherine Morayati)

by Emily Short at May 16, 2018 04:40 PM

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 6.44.13 PM.png

Human Errors is a new piece on Sub-Q, by the author of (among other things) TAKE and laid off from the synesthesia Factory.

Human Errors describes a world in which human attention (and empathy, care, and understanding) are a severely limited resource. The player plays the role of a contractor brought in to triage support tickets on a product that (we quickly realize) has a rather alarming range of functionality. What you’re supposed to do is close as many tickets as possible, while prioritizing only the undeniably critical ones.

You also have the option — not preferred by the company — to follow up with particular users and try to get more of their stories. Here, you can engage either as a nameless QA figure or via personal email.

But engage too much, with too many people, and the company will start to view you as inefficient, or as going outside the proper parameters for engagement, and your access to the system will be cut off entirely. So you’ll have to budget your sympathy, dole it out cautiously, try not to get in trouble too quickly.

A single interaction node looks like this:

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 6.52.54 PM.png

There are, of course, other games out there working through the interface of simulated email or other computer-mediated messaging — I recently covered Grayscale, which puts you in the role of an HR employee resolving complaints, for instance. Several of Christine Love’s pieces act similarly.

But what I particularly like about the system in Human Errors is the way it combines the guided and the open-ended, the effective and the reflective choices. If you choose to close an issue, it goes away, is no longer your problem. If you write an email to a user, you get a brief time — enough to type a short sentence or two — to type whatever you want before the text box fades to “Sent.” It’s not expressive in the sense of a parser input, because you’re not constructing a complex command all of whose aspects will be understood by the game; but it does allow and indeed encourage the player to express something.

To expand a little on how the choice mechanics work here, in light of the categories I define in that old article:

  • Effort: varied: you can choose whether to make something to away in a click or two, or you can type an answer and invite more demands to come in
  • Expressiveness: the illusion of expressiveness only, but that feels important, in context
  • Ambiguity: you’ll learn the system in a bit, and it does act consistently, though it takes some exploration at first
  • Discoverability: high; there are no meaningful hidden moves. (Or, if there are, they’re so hidden that I didn’t find them in five or so playthroughs.)
  • Pressure: low on any individual moment of choice, but you can run out of options overall
  • Embodiment: high; this is very close to being the actual interface you would use to actually perform this job

One of the infamous things about choice-based interfaces is that they permit navigation on autopilot, that you can get into a phase of just clicking your next option without even fully reading all the text that comes before it. (At an IF Meetup on UI design, Joseph Humfrey talked about how 80 Days deliberately fades in the choices just a bit later than the main text, to prevent that rhythm of leaping to give an answer before we’ve even read the question.) Human Errors is about navigating on autopilot, or choosing not to, and it gives us a choice interface that incorporates both of those possibilities.

This theme is present in the content also. Many of the stories of individual users highlight horrors in application of technology, machine learning, or mechanical-turk exploitation of workers who are paid almost nothing to provide information on normative human behavior. Your character, trying to cope with all this, is roboticized and artificially limited. Except for those windows of room to type out an answer — an answer that won’t be interpreted meaningfully by the system, but gives you a space, anyway, to make a reflective choice about what you think should be said at this moment, whether that’s “I’m so, so sorry” or “please tell me more about the manure.” Those moments to type invited me to invest more deeply, to think more about the other characters, to perform my character, before moving on.

The support tickets themselves are extremely tightly written, as they have to be: they need to establish the world’s premise and its horrific spin-off details, as well as the personalities (not always likable) of the ticket-senders, in a very compact space. Sub-Q imposes a tight word limit, but this is a piece that makes the most of every sentence. Morayati requires the reader to do a certain amount of interpretation and reading between the lines — but there’s a lot of material to work with, characters emerging into three dimensions from just a few sentences of email.

Sooner or later, you’ll do something that irritates your supervisor, and then you’ll be warned that you’re about to be kicked off the system. Critically, you’re left with a grace period of a couple more actions — actions that I used to, for instance, send my personal email address to a character I especially pitied. I did feel that this kicked me out of the experience while I still wanted more, and was still curious about the outcomes for the people I was reading about — so I wound up replaying several times to try to learn more.

And I think that was about the ideal experience. On those multiple playthroughs, I came to feel I had a grasp on the nature of this world… and also of the precise limits of my agency in it. Fixing the corporate mess of this world is not possible. Expressing some solidarity in isolated cases is possible; and while that’s pathetically less than one would like to be able to accomplish, it makes for a world that is not completely hopeless.



"Aaron Reed"

Storytelling Meta-Roles in "Downfall"

by Aaron A. Reed at May 16, 2018 01:42 AM

Storytelling Meta-Roles in “Downfall”

Moments Lost

“Moments Lost” is a blog series where I deconstruct a single moment from a narrative game, of any vintage, and talk through how and why it works.

The Game: Caroline Hobbs’ tabletop storygame Downfall (2015) asks three players to imagine a flourishing society based around a fundamental flaw, and then discover the events that lead to its collapse. Each player has equal narrative power: there’s no gamemaster or pre-prepared story. It’s one of the most beautifully designed storygames I’ve ever seen. From the crisp layout of the rulebook to the mechanics that each feel tested and polished to a Zen-like perfection, it’s an absolute joy to both read and play.

Downfall is packed with good ideas. To create a society, for instance, each player secretly picks an Element from a list of evocative words like Air, Empire, Music, or Swarm. These are all revealed simultaneously, and their connections and contradictions used to inspire your civilization and its setting. One idea in particular, though, helps structure stories that focus on the human cause and consequences of your society’s downfall.

The Moment: Downfall is designed for exactly three players, and focuses on a story about three characters. But rather than playing a specific character, all three are designed together, and ownership of them rotates from scene to scene. Each character is invented to fill a particular archetype. The Hero is someone who stands up to the Flaw and fights against the fall of their civilization. The Fallen fights for the Flaw, strengthening (knowingly or not) the forces leading to downfall. Finally, the Pillar represents the ordinary people and the status quo, trying to keep things as they are.

What makes this idea shine is that each of these meta-roles comes with a specific storytelling job which it’s your responsibility, while playing that role, to enforce. The character sheets, passed around from person to person, highlight these responsibilities. For instance, the Pillar’s sheet says:

“You are one of many ordinary people in the Haven. Apologize for or ignore the harm caused by the Flaw. Reflect the average citizen.”
The top of the Pillar’s character sheet (courtesy Downfall’s official site).

So in a scene where you’re playing the Pillar, you’re thinking about the specific character that’s been created and how they would react in the ongoing situation, but you’re also thinking about that character’s function in the story. The beauty of this is that it divides this kind of plotting responsibility between players. No one is thinking exclusively about how to ensure the story reaches a satisfactory climax. Instead each player rotates between thinking about pieces of the narrative machine, and how the tensions and conflicts between the three central characters allow it to function.

I wrote in my Lovecraftesque column how difficult it can be for a compelling story to arise out of a GM-less system when no one has arranged a tidy narrative in advance. Downfall solves this problem in a different way than Lovecraftesque: by letting the structure emerge through the inevitable conflicts that roleplaying each character according to their archetype will produce.

This concept of meta-roles is not without precedent — another game that does this beautifully is Ben Lehman’s Polaris— but it’s still under-explored given how effective it is. In my game Archives of the Sky I also wanted players to be thinking together about how to make the story dramatically compelling. To encourage stories about holding onto one’s humanity against the overwhelming immensity of the cosmos, I created two meta-roles, the Epic and the Intimate, which are assigned ideally to players without characters in the scene. These roles rotate between players, but aren’t attached to specific characters as in Downfall. Rather, they provide players with temporary jobs to focus on parts of the story that tend to get neglected in spontaneous play: the Epic looks for ways to inject a sense of scale and grandeur at the vast cosmic mysteries the characters contend with, and the Intimate focuses on senses and emotions, adding details of smell, texture, and emotion, or asking players what their characters are thinking about or feeling.

Cards tracking characters, traditions, and the Haven during a game of Downfall. Image courtesy ConTessa.

It’s interesting that nothing in either game actually imbues the meta-roles with additional power. Rather, they give permission to take certain kinds of actions that players might otherwise be hesitant to take. Speaking up in the middle of somebody’s scene can be intimidating; playing your character in a way that causes conflict for another can feel socially awkward. Downfall’s meta-roles give players blueprints for how to enact conflicts pushing the story towards its inevitable climax, and permission to think about how that structure works and makes the story what is.

May 15, 2018

Emily Short

Mid-May Link Assortment

by Emily Short at May 15, 2018 04:40 AM

May 16 is the next meeting of the People’s Republic of IF (Cambridge, MA). The agenda is to play something from Spring Thing.

May 19, the Oxford/London IF meetup does a workshop on Tracery and building your own Twitter bots. This is a great introduction to basics of text generation, if you’re interested in that.

Feral Vector is May 31-June 2 this year. This is a joyous, playful indie conference in Yorkshire and has always been delightful when I’ve been able to attend. (I can’t make it this year, alas.)

June 1 is the deadline to vote in the final round of 2017 XYZZY awards.

June 2 is the next meeting of the SF Bay IF Meetup.

June 9, the Oxford/London IF Meetup hears from Graham Nelson about Inform 7’s latest progress, and we look at the parser game space.

June 16, the Baltimore/Washington DC group meets to talk about Grayscale (ideally, play in advance).



illuminismocoverCongratulations to Michael Coyne for winning Spring Thing 2018 with his parser puzzle game Illuminismo Iniziato (my review here, and he has also written a postmortem).

Robin Johnson has a postmortem for Zeppelin Adventure, and Karona for House, also from Spring Thing.

Congratulations also to all of the finalists for 2017 XYZZY Awards, including Best Game finalists

  • American Angst (m3g1dd0)
  • Eat Me (Chandler Groover)
  • Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
  • The Owl Consults (Thomas Mack)
  • The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson)


Katherine Neil has written up a medium post comparing a lot of basic features between Twine 2 and ink, for those who are curious about what it’s like to write in each of those systems.


Aaron Reed is Kickstarting a new tabletop storygame called Archives of the Sky. He also talks more about the game on DelveCast.

May 14, 2018

The XYZZY Awards

XYZZY Awards 2017 finalists

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 14, 2018 06:41 PM

The first round of voting for the 2017 XYZZY Awards is complete, and we have our finalists. Congratulations, all!

Voting for the second round is open. Once again, you need an IF Comp login to vote - go here to get one, or if you already do, just log in and vote. Voting will remain open throughout May, ending at 1 AM Pacific time on the first day of June.

Canvassing for votes in the Awards is strongly discouraged, and you may not vote for your own work.

Best Game

  • American Angst (m3g1dd0)
  • Eat Me (Chandler Groover)
  • Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
  • The Owl Consults (Thomas Mack)
  • The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson)

Best Writing

  • Absence of Law (mathbrush)
  • American Angst (m3g1dd0)
  • dripping with the waters of SHEOL (Lady Isak Grozny)
  • Eat Me (Chandler Groover)
  • Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
  • Will Not Let Me Go (Stephen Granade)

Best Story

  • 1958: Dancing With Fear (Victor Ojuel)
  • American Angst (m3g1dd0)
  • Harmonia (Liza Daly)
  • Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
  • Will Not Let Me Go (Stephen Granade)
  • The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson)

Best Setting

  • 1958: Dancing With Fear (Victor Ojuel)
  • Absence of Law (mathbrush)
  • Eat Me (Chandler Groover)
  • Tuuli (Daurmith & Ruber Eaglenest)
  • Voyageur (Bruno Dias)

Best Puzzles

  • Absence of Law (mathbrush)
  • A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey)
  • Eat Me (Chandler Groover)
  • The Owl Consults (Thomas Mack)
  • The Wand (Arthur DiBianca)
  • The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson)

Best NPCs

  • Eat Me (Chandler Groover)
  • Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
  • The Owl Consults (Thomas Mack)
  • The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson)

Best Individual Puzzle

  • discovering the rest of the game in The Wand (Arthur DiBianca)
  • getting past the dragon in The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson)
  • getting through the undersea vent in Measureless to Man (Ivan R.)
  • Learning the Cycle in The Wand (Arthur DiBianca)
  • Milking the cow in Eat Me (Chandler Groover)
  • Navigating the swamp in Crocodracula: What Happened to Calvin (Ryan Veeder)

Best Individual NPC

  • Anja Kaczmarek in Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
  • Kaz Kaczmarek in Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
  • The narrator in Eat Me (Chandler Groover)
  • Olivia Kwon in Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
  • Squire Tuck in The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson)

Best Individual PC

  • Amelia Derringer in The Owl Consults (Thomas Mack)
  • Fred Strickland in Will Not Let Me Go (Stephen Granade)
  • Kareene Veet in Word of the Day (Richard Otter)
  • Lev/Lyubov in dripping with the waters of SHEOL (Lady Isak Grozny)
  • Nadia Nazari in Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
  • Salomé Vélez in 1958: Dancing With Fear (Victor Ojuel)

Best Implementation

  • Absence of Law (mathbrush)
  • Eat Me (Chandler Groover)
  • Harmonia (Liza Daly)
  • Seedship (John Ayliff)
  • Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way (Bob Bates)

Best Use of Innovation

  • 10pm (litrouke)
  • Harmonia (Liza Daly)
  • Unit 322 (Disambiguation) (Jonny Muir)
  • Voyageur (Bruno Dias)

Best Technological Development

  • Vorple for Glulx

Best Use of Multimedia

  • 10pm (litrouke)
  • Absence of Law (mathbrush)
  • Harmonia (Liza Daly)
  • Known Unknowns (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
  • The Rats in the Bulkheads (Bruno Dias)
  • Salt (Gareth Damian Martin)


Zarf Updates

A partial solution to the Slack problem

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at May 14, 2018 03:42 PM

A couple of months ago, you may recall, I wrote an open letter to Slack saying that they shouldn't shut down their IRC and XMPP gateways.
Slack sent me a nice reply saying that they had passed it along to their product team. I am sure that their product team read it, and nodded sympathetically, and then didn't change their minds. Slack is still shutting down those gateways on May 15th -- tomorrow.
This is not great, but I have a partial solution.
"...Holy beefwaffles, Zarf just wrote a Slack client?!" Yes! Sort of. Ish? I wrote a very small Slack client -- the most minimal app that could still be called an interactive Slack client.
Before I describe it, let me point out a few alternatives that already exist:
These are cool! They are not quite what I want. I want something that will sit in a terminal window and show all my favorite Slack channels -- just the important ones -- in chronological order. Yes, interleaved.
The point is that I never have to type in this window; I can just keep an eye on it. Conversations flow by. If I want to jump in, I can type a reply there (to any channel).
Of course, my client doesn't handle any of the fancy Slack features like threading, reactions, search, or file attachments. It's just a plain text stream. If I want to do anything more than that, I fire up the official Slack client and go to town.
This sounds like extra work. Okay, it is extra work. But I like having lightweight and heavyweight solutions to the same problem. I use three web browsers, for example, from plain-text Lynx up to full whiz-bang Javascript-enabled Safari.

But you're not here for my computer usage habits! You're here for the Slack client, so here's the repository. (Python3 code.)
The install procedure is a little bit annoying, because of the way Slack handles apps. You can't just distribute a Slack client as source code, because the client needs a Slack client ID, and those are supposed to be secret. Each user has to create their own client ID on Slack's developer page. (This is also true for the open-source alternatives I linked above.)
It's a hassle, but it just takes a couple of minutes and then you can fire up the client.

This is, obviously, both a work in progress and a work highly tuned to my own needs. I may extend it in the future. I may not. I may add personal features. ("Gag Slackbot" is high on my list.)
People are of course welcome to use it, modify it, and build on it. I may or may not accept pull requests -- see "highly tuned to my own needs".
Future directions? I am strongly tempted to throw away the current Python Slack API. It was handy, but it's not a good fit for what I'm doing; it tries to handle too much of the protocol. (There are internal lists of channels and users which I'm ignoring, because I handle that stuff myself. Admittedly, not very well!)
Also, my client uses both threads and asyncio. Yeah, the worst of both worlds. It's because the Slack API library (and its dependencies) are all blocking calls. I have to run that in a background thread, while the main thread is all async. If I wrote my own client API module, it would be pure async and then the whole thing would be much cleaner.
But, of course, what I've got works fine and further rewrites would just be faffing around.
Mm, faffing around. Very tempting.
Anyway, this is what I've got. Enjoy.

May 12, 2018

Lab of Jizaboz

Slowly but Surely

by Jizaboz ([email protected]) at May 12, 2018 10:05 PM

Last year I had tried to get the DPRK interactive fiction game completed by Christmas. That didn't happen. Besides my job still chugging along at a pretty grueling pace, other things just pop up. Foundation work to my house, repairs and appliance replacing at the trailer I inherited near the coast; it's always something! This is the first year I didn't even take the time to play and rate the Spring Thing interactive fiction competition games. It honestly came and went before I even realized it.

 On the bright side, things are a little less stressful now and I haven't taken on any new time-consuming projects. A friend of mine is working on a new MMO type game and I've assisted here and there.. but now he's hit a wall with the networking of the Godot engine that can't be solved until there is a newer version of the engine it seems. I've made a couple of electronic tunes you can listen to here, but that isn't time consuming either. I only sit down to try to make music when I have an idea for a song or am in a certain mood, which is rare.

 Today I'm working on DPRK again and wanted to update this blog before I forgot about it again for a few months (heh-heh). Over the past year I'm probably averaging about 3-5 hours a month total of adding bits of code here and there, testing things, and adding new graphics. That isn't great but I suppose it's better than nothing. I've had to tell myself to basically not force myself to try to do things that will be too time consuming just for a gimmick or puzzle feature. The time came long ago where I just have to focus on the content itself as the game isn't meant to be very puzzle intensive anyway. Instead, it should be fairly easy cruising to get an ending, wonder if things could have ended differently, and then hopefully play the game again and try different things for different results.

Zarf Updates

Even more Myst Kickstarter stuff

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at May 12, 2018 01:08 AM

A couple more things happened this week. I know, I know, I promise my next post won't be Myst-related! But for now...
On Wednesday, Cyan announced a stretch goal. But it's not pegged at a dollar level. Rather, they want to hit 3750 backers at the "Writers" tier. That's the $250 level, where you get the metal inkwell and pen (modelled after the one in Gehn's office in Riven). That tier now also includes the three old Myst novels and additional Riven design documents. If they hit the 3750 mark, they'll throw in the Uru soundtrack for all backers, plus some bonus tracks.
When they posted that, they had 1875 backers at that level; they're aiming to double that. Fans seem to be into it. In the past two days, the KS has gotten 450 new backers (or upgrades) to that level, and about $125K in new donations -- an impressive spike.
(They were also featured on the Kickstarter home page for a day, which certainly helped.)
They're asking for another 1400-ish high-tier backers, which is ambitious. But I'm tempted. (I didn't buy in at that level originally, but for design documents...) I'm also tempted to start speculating on the economics behind the move. Maybe the inkwell has a higher minimum order than they expected? Or the fancy box has a higher per-unit cost, so they're trying to make it up with the inkwell money? I'm just juggling ideas here, I have no way to tell.

We have a little more solid info, because Rand Miller did a live ask-me-anything session yesterday. I've transcribed a few of his comments here.
On the Kickstarter:
We are higher than we thought we would be. Granted, we started with a kind of a barebones amount.
We are on the plus side. Not as much as you guys think we are, but we are definitely on the plus side.
We don't make a lot of money on these things... we do make some money, yes, but we try to keep the prices [of physical rewards] low as well.
On getting the rights to release Myst 3 and 4:
We have a good relationship with everyone we've worked with over the years, and it's just a matter of getting people's attention [at UbiSoft, etc.] It's a big deal for us but it's not a big deal for them. [...] It's not free, but luckily we've paid that bill with our Kickstarter. That was our goal... the original amount [$250k] we put in there, we would not have paid that bill.
(Together with the comments above, this indicates that the whole KS is on a pretty thin margin. Remember that they talked about not breaking even until the $500k mark. The Myst 3/4 rights are clearly the "hump" they were trying to get over.)
On not updating the old games to add new localizations or other new material:
We're dealing with versions of the software that are very hard to modify. We're trying to wrap them in real efficient ways, make them play well, and be transparent to you guys when you play them. But what that means is that we can't go back in and edit the assets.
On future Myst games:
"Will there be other Myst stuff?" The answer to that is yes. But again, it has to do with my age and grey hair and how long I live. [...]
(This is Rand's slightly morbid-humor allusion to the fact that the company has limited resources; they have to focus on the next project. They can't think about games they might do in the far future.)
We have to try to plan based on how successful our last project was. Obduction was great, but it took a lot out of us, and it didn't quite pay back what we needed it to. So we've had to pull back and let the natural ebb and flow take place.
(That refers to the layoffs they had a couple of months ago.)
On Firmament:
"Will you release the Firmament demo publically?" No. The Firmament demo was a mixture of us proving some concepts for ourself. [visually, performance, interface...] It was really difficult, much harder than we thought, but it turned out really cool. But it's a small snippet and it's not ready for public release.

Rand's session had a lot more information, particularly about material they've found in their archives. Watch the whole thing. I'll just mention a couple of interesting details.
They have a lot of the original production files from Myst, albeit in ancient versions of Strata3D which take a lot of effort to bring up on modern machines. But they have almost none of the original files from Riven. All of that work was done on SGI workstations, and is now buried on storage media which they can't access at all.
And a cute one: as everyone knows, Robyn and Rand Miller played the parts of Sirrus and Achenar in the original Myst. It turns out that for Atrus, Sirrus and Achenar's father, they originally filmed their own father Ron Miller! But it turned out that the senior Miller wasn't all that natural on camera -- he was a pastor, and was better at declamation than at acting. So they redid that part with Rand in dad-makeup.

UPDATE, May 18th: Rand Miller followup AMA!
Rand did another KS Q&A session. Unfortunately, something went goofy with the stream page. You can still watch the recording, but the progress bar isn't calibrated, so you can't skip around arbitrarily. So my quotes are imprecise -- sorry, I couldn't check them.
Bits I scribbled down:
The video test of Ron Miller (Rand's father), is now up on Youtube. Just a few clips of it, but you can tell that it wasn't the right stuff. Heh.
On easter eggs:
All of the games have easter eggs. [...] The original RealMyst has a Pong game in it.
On a remastered Cosmic Osmo: Rand noted that they started work on a color version, but it was never completed.
We had some artists colorizing Osmo in really meticulous and detailed way. [...] We love Osmo. We'd love to remaster that somehow.
Do they have the full publication rights for Myst 3 and 4, or just for this collection?
We have the rights to continue selling them. Which is great, that's what was missing. The timing was perfect for this collection.
Encyclopedias of D'ni language and culture: maybe.
Back in the day, for Uru, we wrote reams of information about the D'ni economy and their religion and their schooling and their marriage traditions... You guys have seen some of that.
In Myst 5, the tablet used a neural net for symbol recognition.
We decided we would use machine learning for the tablet... [To train it] we got everybody at the company drawing those symbols over and over again on the tablet. We spent the whole day doing that.
(The neural net is why it recognizes your drawn symbol a lot of the time, and then sometimes utterly fails. No way to diagnose this, the algorithm is a black box.)
The idea of removable red and blue pages in the book-box: Rand says they talked about it, but the box project already has a lot of complexity. Cyan talks to IdeaPlanet, IdeaPlanet talks to manufacturers in China. There's always a tradeoff between quality and speed. They're currently leaning towards quality over speed, although they'd really like to have the rewards out for the holidays (end of 2018).
On the community goal of 3750 high-level backers: Rand implied that they're angling to get a better deal by doing a larger production run on the inkwells.
There are some goals we're trying to make which lower our cost of goods.
Would they consider doing a non-puzzle game (more in the "walking simulator" genre): yes!
Puzzles are not something we consider essential to our style. We've almost been misconstrued as a puzzle company... Yes, we have considered doing games which are much less difficult, which have less friction.
(In the first chat, Rand talked about treating puzzles as a pacing mechanism, a way to add friction so that the player doesn't zoom through the story very quickly.) (I entirely agree, by the way. If you ask me to define "puzzle", I'll shrug and say "any pacing mechanism".)
On Linux ports for the anniversary release: they've looked at the numbers, and Linux ports would be "prohibitively expensive". They'd have to contract out that work, they couldn't do it in-house. This KS wouldn't come close to covering the cost.
On Myst in VR:
MystVR is a no-brainer, but it's also something tht has to be done really really well, and I don't think a Kickstarter would give us the budget for that.
On the high-detail screenshot at the end of the Art of Cyan book (also viewable here): Apparently this was done in just one week, as part of a Myst VR test. But it's not a full VR version of the island. It only looks good from a couple of spots.

May 11, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

Commodore: The Final Years

by Jimmy Maher at May 11, 2018 04:41 PM

This blog’s good friend and supporter Brian Bagnall is in the home stretch now of his extended history of the late and lamented (?) Commodore Business Machines. Commodore: The Final Years, the third book in what has turned into a trilogy, is entering its last weekend as a Kickstarter project. I’m happy to say that it’s already demolished its minimum funding goal, but more will help to make the book that much better, with color photos, an embossed cover, and other goodies.

Brian is doing a great service in recording aspects of computer history that would otherwise be lost forever. I know that researching, writing, and self-publishing a book like this one is a huge task, but if the last book is any guide it’s one he’ll handle with aplomb. If you haven’t already, please think about joining me on the rolls of his backers!

The Game of Everything, Part 9: Civilization and Economics

by Jimmy Maher at May 11, 2018 04:41 PM

If the tailor goes to war against the baker, he must henceforth bake his own bread.

— Ludwig von Mises

There’s always the danger that an analysis of a game spills into over-analysis. Some aspects of Civilization reflect conscious attempts by its designers to model the processes of history, while some reflect unconscious assumptions about history; some aspects represent concessions to the fact that it first and foremost needs to work as a playable and fun strategy game, while some represent sheer random accidents. It’s important to be able to pull these things apart, lest the would-be analyzer wander into untenable terrain.

Any time I’m tempted to dismiss that prospect, I need only turn to Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich’s ostensible “strategy guide” Civilization: or Rome on 640K a Day, which is actually far more interesting as the sort of distant forefather of this series of articles — as the very first attempt ever to explore the positions and assumptions embedded in the game. Especially given that it is such an early attempt — the book was published just a few months after the game, being largely based on beta versions of same that MicroProse had shared with the authors — Wilson and Emrich do a very credible job overall. Yet they do sometimes fall into the trap of seeing what their political beliefs make them wish to see, rather than what actually existed in the minds of the designers. The book doesn’t explicitly credit which of the authors wrote what, but one quickly learns to distinguish their points of view. And it turns out that Emrich, whose arch-conservative worldview is on the whole more at odds with that of the game than Wilson’s liberal-progressive view, is particularly prone to projection. Among the most egregious and amusing examples of him using the game as a Rorschach test is his assertion that the economy-management layer of Civilization models a rather dubious collection of ideas that have more to do with the American political scene in 1991 than they do with any proven theories of economics.

We know we’re in trouble as soon as the buzzword “supply-side economics” turns up prominently in Emrich’s writing. It burst onto the stage in a big way in the United States in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan as president, and has remained to this day one of his Republican party’s main talking points on the subject of economics in general. Its central, counter-intuitive claim is that tax revenues can often be increased by cutting rather than raising tax rates. Lower taxes, goes the logic, provide such a stimulus to the economy as a whole that people wind up making a lot more money. And this in turn means that the government, even though it brings in less taxes per dollar, ends up bringing in more taxes in the aggregate.

In seeing what he wanted to see in Civilization, Alan Emrich decided that it hewed to contemporary Republican orthodoxy not only on supply-side economics but also on another subject that was constantly in the news during the 1980s and early 1990s: the national debt. The Republican position at the time was that government deficits were always bad; government should be run like a business in all circumstances, went their argument, with an orderly bottom line.

But in the real world, supply-side economics and a zero-tolerance policy on deficits tend to be, shall we say, incompatible with one another. Since the era of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have balanced these oil-and-water positions against one another by prioritizing tax cuts when in power and wringing their hands over the deficit — lamenting the other party’s supposedly out-of-control spending on priorities other than their own — when out of power. Emrich, however, sees in Civilization‘s model of an economy the grand unifying theory of his dreams.

Let’s quickly review the game’s extremely simplistic handling of the economic aspects of civilization-building before we turn to his specific arguments, such as they are. The overall economic potential of your cities is expressed as a quantity of “trade arrows.” As leader, you can devote the percentage of trade arrows you choose to taxes, which add money to your treasury for spending on things like the maintenance costs of your buildings and military units and tributes to other civilizations; research, which lets you acquire new advances; and, usually later in the game, luxuries, which help to keep your citizens content. There’s no concept of deficit spending in the game; if ever you don’t have enough money in the treasury to maintain all of your buildings and units at the end of a turn, some get automatically destroyed. This, then, leads Emrich to conclude that the game supports his philosophy on the subject of deficits in general.

But the more entertaining of Emrich’s arguments are the ones he deploys to justify supply-side economics. At the beginning of a game of Civilization, you have no infrastructure to support, and thus you have no maintenance costs at all — and, depending on which difficulty level you’ve chosen to play at, you may even start with a little bit of money already in the treasury. Thus it’s become standard practice among players to reduce taxes sharply from their default starting rate of 50 percent, devoting the bulk of their civilization’s economy early on to research on basic but vital advances like Pottery, Bronze Working, and The Wheel. With that in mind, let’s try to follow Emrich’s thought process:

To maximize a civilization’s potential for scientific and technological advancement, the authors recommend the following exercise in supply-side economics. Immediately after founding a civilization’s initial city, pull down the Game Menu and select “Tax Rate.” Reduce the tax rate from its default 50% to 10% (90% Science). This reduced rate will allow the civilization to continue to maintain its current rate of expenditure while increasing the rate at which scientific advancements occur. These advancements, in turn, will accelerate the wealth and well-being of the civilization as a whole.

In this way, the game mechanics mirror life. The theory behind tax reduction as a spur to economic growth is built on two principles: the multiplier and the accelerator. The multiplier effect is abstracted out of Sid Meier’s Civilization because it is a function of consumer spending.

The multiplier effect says that each tax dollar cut from a consumer’s tax burden and actually spent on consumer goods will net an additional 50 cents at a second stage of consumer spending, an additional 25 cents at a third stage, an additional 12.5 cents at a fourth stage, etc. Hence, economists claim that the full progression nets a total of two dollars for each extra consumer dollar spent as a result of a tax cut.

The multiplier effect cannot be observed in the game because it is only presented indirectly. Additional consumer spending causes a flash point where additional investment takes place to increase, streamline, and advance production capacity and inventory to meet the demands of the increased consumption. Production increases and advances, in turn, have an additional multiplier effect beyond the initial consumer spending. When the scientific advancements occur more rapidly in Sid Meier’s Civilization, they reflect that flash point of additional investment and allow civilizations to prosper at an ever accelerating rate.

Wow. As tends to happen a lot after I’ve just quoted Mr. Emrich, I’m not quite sure where to start. But let’s begin with his third paragraph, in particular with a phrase which is all too easy to overlook: that for this to work, the dollar cut must “actually be spent on consumer goods.” When tax rates for the wealthy are cut, the lucky beneficiaries don’t tend to go right out and spend their extra money on consumer goods. The most direct way to spur the economy through tax cuts thus this isn’t to slash the top tax bracket, as Republicans have tended to do; it’s to cut the middle and lower tax brackets, which puts more money in the pockets of those who don’t already have all of the luxuries they could desire, and thus will be more inclined to go right out and spend their windfall.

But, to give credit where it’s due, Emrich does at least include that little phrase about the importance of spending on consumer goods, even if he does rather bury the lede. His last paragraph is far less defensible. To appreciate its absurdity, we first have to remember that he’s talking about “consumer spending” in a Stone Age economy of 4000 BC. What are these consumers spending on? Particularly shiny pieces of quartz?  And for that matter what are they spending, considering that your civilization hasn’t yet developed currency? And how on earth can any of this be said to justify supply-side economics over the long term? You can’t possibly maintain your tax rate of 10 percent forever; as you build up your cities and military strength, your maintenance costs steadily increase, forcing you back toward that starting default rate of 50 percent. To the extent that Civilization can be said to send any message at all on taxes, said message must be that a maturing civilization will need to steadily increase its tax rate as it advances toward modernity. And indeed, as we learned in an earlier article in this series, this is exactly what has happened over the long arc of real human history. Your economic situation at the beginning of a game of Civilization isn’t some elaborate testimony to supply-side economies; it just reflects the fact that one of the happier results of a lack of civilization is the lack of a need to tax anyone to maintain it.

In reality, then, the taxation model in the game is a fine example of something implemented without much regard for real-world economics, simply because it works in the context of a strategy game like this one. Even the idea of a such a centralized system of rigid taxation for a civilization as a whole is a deeply anachronistic one in the context of most societies prior to the Enlightenment, for whose people local government was far more important than some far-off despot or monarch. Taxes, especially at the national level, tended to come and go prior to AD 1700, depending on the immediate needs of the government, and lands and goods were more commonly taxed than income, which in the era before professionalized accounting was hard for the taxpayer to calculate and even harder for the tax collector to verify. In fact, a fixed national income tax of the sort on which the game’s concept of a “tax rate” seems to be vaguely modeled didn’t come to the United States until 1913. Many ancient societies — including ones as advanced as Egypt during its Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom epochs —  never even developed currency at all. Even in the game Currency is an advance which you need to research; the cognitive dissonance inherent in earning coins for your treasury when your civilization lacks the concept of money is best just not thought about.

Let’s take a moment now to see if we can make a more worthwhile connection between real economic history and luxuries, that third category toward which you can devote your civilization’s economic resources. You’ll likely have to begin doing so only if and when your cities start to grow to truly enormous sizes, something that’s likely to happen only under the supercharged economy of a democracy. When all of the usual bread and circuses fail, putting resources into luxuries can maintain the delicate morale of your civilization, keeping your cities from lapsing into revolt. There’s an historical correspondence that actually does seem perceptive here; the economies of modern Western democracies, by far the most potent the world has ever known, are indeed driven almost entirely by a robust consumer market in houses and cars, computers and clothing. Yet it’s hard to know where to really go with Civilization‘s approach to luxuries beyond that abstract statement. At most, you might put 20 or 30 percent of your resources into them, leaving the rest to taxes and research, whereas in a modern developed democracy like the United States those proportions tend to be reversed.

Ironically, the real-world economic system to which Civilization‘s overall model hews closest is actually a centrally-planned communist economy, where all of a society’s resources are the property of the state — i.e, you — which decides how much to allocate to what. But Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley would presumably have run screaming from any such association — not to mention our friend Mr. Emrich, who would probably have had a conniption. It seems safe to say, then, that what we can learn from the Civilization economic model is indeed sharply limited, that most of it is there simply as a way of making a playable game.

Still, we might usefully ask whether there’s anything in the game that does seem like a clear-cut result of its designers’ attitudes toward real-world economics. We actually have seen some examples of that already in the economic effects that various systems of government have on your civilization, from the terrible performance of despotism to the supercharging effect of democracy. And there is one other area where Civilization stakes out some clear philosophical territory: in its attitude toward trade between civilizations, a subject that’s been much in the news in recent years in the West.

In the game, your civilization can reap tangible benefits from its contact with other civilizations in two ways. For one, you can use special units called caravans, which become available after you’ve researched the advance of Trade, to set up “trade routes” between your cities and those of other civilizations. Both then receive a direct boost to their economies, the magnitude of which depends on their distance from one another — farther is better — and their respective sizes. A single city can set up such mutually beneficial arrangements with up to five other cities, and see them continue as long as the cities in question remain in existence.

In addition to these arrangements, you can horse-trade advances directly with the leaders of other civilizations, giving your counterpart one of your advances in exchange for one you haven’t yet acquired. It’s also possible to take advances from other civilizations by conquering their cities or demanding tribute, but such hostile approaches have obvious limits to which a symbiotic trading relationship isn’t subject; fighting wars is expensive in terms of blood and treasure alike, and you’ll eventually run out of enemy cities to conquer. If, on the other hand, you can set up warm relationships with four or five other civilizations, you can positively rocket up the Advances Chart.

The game’s answer to the longstanding debate between free trade and protectionism — between, to put a broader framing on it, a welcoming versus an isolationist attitude toward the outside world — is thus clear: those civilizations which engage economically with the world around them benefit enormously and get to Alpha Centauri much faster. Such a position is very much line in line with the liberal-democratic theories of history that were being espoused by thinkers like Francis Fukuyama at the time Meier and Shelley were making the game — thinkers whose point of view Civilization unconsciously or knowingly adopts.

As has become par for the course by now, I believe that the position Civilization and Fukuyama alike take on this issue is quite well-supported by the evidence of history. To see proof, one doesn’t have to do much more than look at where the most fruitful early civilizations in history were born: near oceans, seas, and rivers. Egypt was, as the ancient historian Herodotus so famously put it, “the gift of the Nile”; Athens was born on the shores of the Mediterranean; Rome on the east bank of the wide and deep Tiber river. In ancient times, when overland travel was slow and difficult, waterways were the superhighways of their era, facilitating the exchange of goods, services, and — just as importantly — ideas over long distances. It’s thus impossible to imagine these ancient civilizations reaching the heights they did without this access to the outside world. Even today port cities are often microcosms of the sort of dynamic cultural churn that spurs civilizations to new heights. Not for nothing does every player of the game of Civilization want to found her first city next to the ocean or a river — or, if possible, next to both.

To better understand how these things work in practice, let’s return one final time to the dawn of history for a narrative of progress involving one of the greatest of all civilizations in terms of sheer longevity.

Egypt was far from the first civilization to spring up in the Fertile Crescent, that so-called “cradle of civilization.” The changing climate that forced the hunter-gatherers of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to begin to settle down and farm as early as 10,000 BC may not have forced the peoples roaming the lands near the Nile to do the same until as late as 4000 BC. Yet Egyptian civilization, once it took root, grew at a crazy pace, going from primitive hunter-gatherers to a culture that eclipsed all of its rivals in grandeur and sophistication in less than 1500 years. How did Egypt manage to advance so quickly? Well, there’s strong evidence that it did so largely by borrowing from the older, initially wiser civilizations to its east.

Writing is among the most pivotal advances for any young civilization; it allows the tallying of taxes and levies, the inventorying of goods, the efficient dissemination of decrees, the beginning of contracts and laws and census-taking. It was if anything even more important in Egypt than in other places, for it facilitated a system of strong central government that was extremely unusual in the world prior to the Enlightenment of many millennia later. (Ancient Egypt at its height was, in other words, a marked exception to the rule about local government being more important than national prior to the modern age.) Yet there’s a funny thing about Egypt’s famous system of hieroglyphs.

In nearby Sumer, almost certainly the very first civilization to develop writing, archaeologists have traced the gradual evolution of cuneiform writing by fits and starts over a period of many centuries. But in Egypt, by contrast, writing just kind of appears in the archaeological record, fully-formed and out of the blue, around 3000 BC. Now, it’s true that Egypt didn’t simply take the Sumerian writing system; the two use completely different sets of symbols. Yet many archaeologists believe that Egypt did take the idea of writing from Sumer, with whom they were actively trading by 3000 BC. With the example of a fully-formed vocabulary and grammar, all translated into a set of symbols, the actual implementation of the idea in the context of the Egyptian language was, one might say, just details.

How long might it have taken Egypt to make the conceptual leap that led to writing without the Sumerian example? Not soon enough, one suspects, to have built the Pyramids of Giza by 2500 BC. Further, we see other diverse systems of writing spring up all over the Mediterranean and Middle East at roughly the same time. Writing was an idea whose time had come, thanks to trading contacts. Trade meant that every new civilization wasn’t forced to reinvent every wheel for itself. It’s since become an axiom of history that an outward-facing civilization is synonymous with youth and innovation and vigorous growth, an inward-turning civilization synonymous with age and decadence and decrepit decline. It happened in Egypt; it happened in Greece; it happened in Rome.

But, you might say, the world has changed a lot since the heyday of Rome. Can this reality that ancient civilizations benefited from contact and trade with one another really be applied to something like the modern debate over free trade and globalization? It’s a fair point. To address it, let’s look at the progress of global free trade in times closer to our own.

In the game of Civilization, you won’t be able to set up a truly long-distance, globalized trading network with other continents until you’ve acquired the advance of Navigation, which brings with it the first ships that are capable of transporting your caravan units across large tracts of ocean. In real history, the first civilizations to acquire such things were those of Europe, in the late fifteenth century AD. Economists have come to call this period “The First Globalization.”

And, tellingly, they also call this period “The Great Divergence.” Prior to the arrival of ships capable of spanning the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, several regions of the world had been on a rough par with Europe in terms of wealth and economic development. In fact, at least one great non-European civilization — that of China — was actually ahead; roughly one-third of the entire world’s economic output came from China alone, outdistancing Europe by a considerable margin. But, once an outward-oriented Europe began to establish itself in the many less-developed regions of the world, all of that changed, as Europe surged forward to the leading role it would enjoy for the next several centuries.

How did the First Globalization lead to the Great Divergence? Consider: when the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama reached India in 1498, he found he could buy pepper there, where it was commonplace, for a song. He could then sell it back in Europe, where it was still something of a delicacy, for roughly 25 times what he had paid for it, all while still managing to undercut the domestic competition. Over the course of thousands of similar trading arrangements, much of the rest of the world came to supply Europe with the cheap raw materials which were eventually used to fuel the Industrial Revolution and to kick the narrative of progress into overdrive, making even tiny European nations like Portugal into deliriously rich and powerful entities on the world stage.

And what of the great competing civilization of China? As it happens, it might easily have been China instead of Europe that touched off the First Globalization and thereby separated itself from the pack of competing civilizations. By the early 1400s, Chinese shipbuilding had advanced enough that its ships were regularly crisscrossing the Indian Ocean between established trading outposts on the east coast of Africa. If the arts of Chinese shipbuilding and navigation had continued to advance apace, it couldn’t have been much longer until its ships crossed the Pacific to discover the Americas. How much different would world history have been if they had? Unfortunately for China, the empire’s imperial leaders, wary of supposedly corrupting outside influences, made a decision around 1450 to adopt an isolationist posture. Existing trans-oceanic trade routes were abandoned, and China retreated behind its Great Wall, leaving Europe to reap the benefits of global trade. By 1913, China’s share of the world’s economy had dropped to 4 percent. The most populous country in the world had become a stagnant backwater in economic terms. So, we can say that Europe’s adoption of an outward-facing posture just as China did the opposite at this critical juncture became one of the great difference-makers in world history.

We can already see in the events of the late fifteenth century the seeds of the great debate over globalization that rages as hotly as ever today. While it’s clear that the developed countries of Europe got a lot out of their trading relationships, it’s far less clear that the less-developed regions of the world benefited to anything like the same extent — or, for that matter, that they benefited at all.

This first era of globalization was the era of colonialism, when developed Europe freely exploited the non-developed world by toppling or co-opting whatever forms of government already existed among its new trading “partners.” The period brought a resurgence of the unholy practice of slavery, along with forced religious conversions, massacres, and the theft of entire continents’ worth of territory. Much later, over the course of the twentieth century, Europe gradually gave up most of its colonies, allowing the peoples of its former overseas possessions their ostensible freedom to build their own nations. Yet the fundamental power imbalances that characterized the colonial period have never gone away. Today the developing world of poor nations trades with the developed world of rich nations under the guise of being equal sovereign entities, but the former still feeds raw materials to the industrial economies of the latter — or, increasingly, developing industrial economies feed finished goods to the post-industrial knowledge economies of the ultra-developed West. Proponents of economic globalization argue that all of this is good for everyone concerned, that it lets each country do what it does best, and that the resulting rising economic tide lifts all their boats. And they argue persuasively that the economic interconnections globalization has brought to the world have been a major contributing factor to the unprecedented so-called “Long Peace” of the last three quarters of a century, in which wars between developed nations have not occurred at all and war in general has become much less frequent.

But skeptics of economic globalism have considerable data of their own to point to. In 1820, the richest country in the world on a per-capita basis was the Netherlands, with an inflation-adjusted average yearly income of $1838, while the poorest region of the world was Africa, with an average income of $415. In 2017, the Netherlands had an average income of $53,582, while the poorest country in the world for which data exists was in, you guessed it, Africa: it was the Central African Republic, with an average income of $681. The richest countries, in other words, have seen exponential economic growth over the last two centuries, while some of the poorest have barely moved at all. This pattern is by no means entirely consistent; some countries of Asia in particular, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan, have done well enough for themselves to join the upper echelon of highly-developed post-industrial economies. Yet it does seem clear that the club of rich nations has grown to depend on at least a certain quantity of nations remaining poor in order to keep down the prices of the raw materials and manufactured goods they buy from them. If the rising tide lifted these nations’ boats to equality with those of the rich, the asymmetries on which the whole world economic order runs today wouldn’t exist anymore. The very stated benefits of globalization carry within them the logic for keeping the poor nations’ boats from rising too high: if everyone has a rich, post-industrial economy, who’s going to do the world’s grunt work? This debate first really came to the fore in the 1990s, slightly after the game of Civilization, as anti-globalization became a rallying cry of much of the political left in the developed world, who pointed out the seemingly inherent contradictions in the idea of economic globalization as a universal force for good.

Do note that I referred to “economic globalization” there. We should do what we can to separate it from the related concepts of political globalization and cultural globalization, even as the trio can often seem hopelessly entangled in the real world. Still, political globalization, in the form of international bodies like the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, is usually if not always supported by leftist critics of economic globalization.

But cultural globalization is decried to almost an equal degree, being sometimes described as the “McDonaldization” of the world. Once-vibrant local cultures all over the world, goes the claim, are being buried under the weight of an homogenized global culture of consumption being driven largely from the United States. Kids in Africa who have never seen a baseball game rush out to buy the Yankees caps worn by the American rap stars they worship, while gangsters kill one another over Nike sneakers in the streets of China. Developing countries, the anti-globalists say, first get exploited to produce all this crap, then get the privilege of having it sold back to them in ways that further eviscerate their cultural pride.

And yet, as always with globalization, there’s also a flip side. A counter-argument might point out that at the end of the day people have a right to like what they like (personally, I have no idea why anyone would eat a McDonald’s hamburger, but tastes evidently vary), and that cultures have blended with and assimilated one another from the days when ancient Egypt traded with ancient Sumer. Young people in particular in the world of today have become crazily adept at juggling multiple cultures: getting married in a traditional Hindu ceremony on Sunday and then going to work in a smart Western business suit on Monday, listening to Beyoncé on their phone as they bike their way to sitar lessons. Further, the emergence of new forms of global culture, assisted by the magic of the Internet, have already fostered the sorts of global dialogs and global understandings that can help prevent wars; it’s very hard to demonize a culture which has produced some of your friends, or even just creative expressions you admire. As the younger generations who have grown up as members of a sort of global Internet-enabled youth culture take over the levers of power, perhaps they will become the vanguard of a more peaceful, post-nationalist world.

The debate about economic globalization, meanwhile, has shifted in some surprising ways in recent years. Once a cause associated primarily with the academic left, cosseted in their ivory towers, the anti-globalization impulse has now become a populist movement that has spread across the political spectrum in many developed countries of the West. Even more surprisingly, the populist debate has come to center not on globalization’s effect on the poor nations on the wrong side of the power equation but on those rich nations who would seem to be its clear-cut beneficiaries. In just the last couple of years as of this writing, blue-collar workers who feel bewildered and displaced by the sheer pace of an ever-accelerating narrative of progress in an ever more multicultural world were a driving force behind the Brexit vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. The understanding of globalization which drove both events was simplistic and confused — trade deficits are no more always a bad thing for any given country than is a national tax deficit — but the visceral anger behind them was powerful enough to shake the established Western world order more than any event since the World Trade Center attack of 2001. It should become more clear in the next decade or so whether, as I suspect, these movements represent a reactionary last gasp of the older generation before the next, more multicultural and internationalist younger generation takes over, or whether they really do herald a more fundamental shift in geopolitics.

As for the game of Civilization: to attempt to glean much more from its simple trading mechanisms than we already have would be to fall into the same trap that ensnared Alan Emrich. A skeptic of globalization might note that the game is written from the perspective of the developed world, and thus assumes that your civilization is among the privileged ranks for whom globalization on the whole has been — sorry, Brexiters and Trump voters! — a clear benefit. This is true even if the name of the civilization you happen to be playing is the Aztecs or the Zulus, peoples for whom globalization in the real world meant the literal end of their civilizations. As such examples prove, the real world is far more complicated than the game makes it appear. Perhaps the best lesson to take away — from the game as well as from the winners and arguable losers of globalization in our own history — is that it really does behoove a civilization to actively engage with the world. Because if it doesn’t, at some point the world will decide to engage with it.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, Economics by Paul Samuelson, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker, Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction by Robert C. Allen, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction by Manfred B. Steger, Taxation: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Smith, and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.)


Adventuron 0.5.7 released - Fixes for Chrome 66

by Chris Ainsley ([email protected]) at May 11, 2018 02:21 PM

Adventuron 0.5.7 has been released with fixes for the new audio blocking features of Chrome 66

See Article:

A Google Chrome update breaks the audio in numerous web-based games

Unfortunately, in adventures exported (via HTML5 export) with 0.5.6 or earlier engine, any Adventuron adventures using a BEEP command will hang on Chrome (66 or greater).

This happens because Google appears to have broke web standards in it's implementation of blocking audio on autoplay media.

Google's heart was in the right place, but it just broke thousands if not hundreds of thousands of web based games, many of which were and are absolutely standards compliant.

Adventuron sequences game events using callbacks, so a sequence of commands is structured as a chain. You can think of this as a game of pass-the-parcel, with each task that Adventuron executes, being aware of the person they will pass control to next.

Tasks such as "set the value of a variable", "create a game object - such as a lamp or a shovel", "make a beep sound", "clear the screen", "display an image", etc.

With Chrome 66, the audio playback policy changes created an issue when playing a beep instigated a non-handled error that meant the next command in the callback sequence was not being executed, therefore the person at the end of the chain that is responsible for re-displaying the prompt, never performs their task.

This lead to a hang of any games that used a BEEP command (on the Chrome 66 or above browser).

The fix for 0.5.7 was threefold:

  1. To create the JavaScript AudioContext ONLY when the first beep is played. This is usually after the first user interaction (touch, mouse click, or keyboard press). It's possible that games that start with a beep will still hang (I haven't fully tested it yet), but this should be a fix for 99% of scenarios, which is better than nothing for now. It'll be 100% in the next release, just thought it was better to get this out there.
  2. To call AudioContext.resume() prior to any any beep. This is near-zero cost (in the grand scheme of things).
  3. Strengthen exception handling in the audio playback - this should hopefully mitigate bugs that might occur on games that start with beeps before user interaction.

Future fixes (not in this release):

  1. Detect when games start with beeps before user interaction, and force a "Click to start game button" to appear first.

"Aaron Reed"

Expressive Input

by Aaron A. Reed at May 11, 2018 12:41 AM

Changeful Tales

“Changeful Tales” is a blog series where I rework my dissertation into more bite-sized, readable, and visible ideas.

I have defined storygames as artifacts that require an understanding of both a narrative and a system to make meaningful progress. It follows that a way to interrogate that narrative and those systems, such that both may be better understood, is vital for players. “Expressive input” is one approach towards enabling that interrogation.

My use of “expressive” here comes from Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s 2009 book Expressive Processing. Imagine considering a complex system (such as a digital game) from two perspectives: a surface which the player sees and interacts with, and the processes and data underneath that respond to those interactions and send new content to the surface. We can call a system’s processes expressive if authorial intent can be recognized in them. Such recognition might come from studying their output (interacting with the surface of the work) or through direct study of the processes themselves. An expressive process might be an intentional statement about the way the world works, as in Vi Hart and Nicky Case’s Parable of the Polygons, or it might be unintentionally revealing, as when a designer of a social simulation leaves out elements that others find essential. Regardless, we learn something about the designer through interacting with the processes and data they leave behind.

If we apply this term to the surface of an interactive work, we can likewise say the work offers expressive input if the user can express something through the affordances provided by its surface. “To express” in both case signifies something more individualistic and distinctive than voting or choosing off a menu. An expressive process demonstrates distinct authorial intent (not one of three or four possible intents), and expressive input likewise implies the space of possible interactions allows for unique expression. Its potentialities are not easily enumerable, and its possibility space large enough that a player might rightly feel a sense of discovery, surprise, or even ownership over their input.

To illustrate, imagine two character creation systems for a role-playing game. The first, Class Picker, offers players a choice between five character types, including Rogue and Wizard. The second, Skill Creator, lets players assign a pool of stat points among five possible skills, including Sneaking and Magic. I would posit that Class Picker does not offer expressive input, while Skill Creator does. We can say the following things about Creator’s expressive input that don’t apply to Picker:

  1. The range of outcomes implied by the possible inputs may not be immediately obvious to the player, allowing for “discovery” of options not at first considered: for instance, equally splitting points between Magic and Sneaking to make a mystical assassin.
  2. Some possible inputs might even surprise the system’s designer (such as splitting all points equally to make a generalist).
  3. While the set of possible inputs is technically finite and enumerable (each possible distribution of points), it would not be practical or useful to present those possible inputs to the player as a comprehensive list of options.

We might therefore say that systems like Photoshop, Adventure, or the Spore Creature Creator, about which players might proudly tell stories of their unique interactions, have expressive input. Systems like Pong, a Choose Your Own Adventure book, or your bank’s phone tree, all with easily enumerable inputs and little support for surprising or discovered actions, do not.

The character creation in “Mass Effect: Andromeda” offers expressive input, even if the game has few expressive processes responding to that input.

This is, of course, a subjective distinction. Two people might disagree about whether Myst has expressive input. But generally speaking, this term can be helpful to distinguish systems that tend towards offering the potential for discovery and surprise from those that do not.

It’s important to note that expressive input does not require a corresponding expressive process under the hood. The RPG attached to Skill Creator might not actually implement all of the listed skills; or perhaps no matter what skills the player picks, all outcomes are determined at random, because of a bug or even intentional design. This does not change the input’s perceived expressiveness.

Of course, the player is likely to be disappointed if their expressive input is ignored, one of several reasons why expressive input is not always a good idea nor inherently superior to alternatives. Overwhelming the player with perceived agency can lead to frustration, especially if there are actually only a few — or one! — correct courses of action. This is the classic pit trap of the adventure game.

Assuming you do want expressive input in your game, what kinds of interfaces enable it? Multiplicative input is an obvious example, either simultaneously (as with a verb and a noun, or a skill and a number) or cumulatively (as with a series of choices that build up into something unique). Single-input expressiveness is also possible, as in a color palette selector, or Scribblenauts in which thousands of items can be created by typing in different words, or an open world adventure game where the number of potential objects to interact with across a set of linked screens feels too large to easily enumerate.

“Scribblenauts Unlimited” and other games in the franchise offer both single-input expressivity (individual words) and multiplicative expressivity (adding adjectives or combining multiple objects together).

In all these cases, the interface provides room for possibilities: a space in which discoveries can be made. Most of the storygames we’ll consider as this series moves forward, as well as my work with Character Engine at Spirit AI, have expressive input: the changeful aesthetic implies a degree of control over the story world that’s hard to achieve otherwise, a way to enable genuine conversation between the expressive processes of a game’s designers and the expressive input of its players.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the problem of storygame genre: why designers must make baffling decisions such as whether to classify their narrative game as “Adventure” or “RPG” on Steam, and how we can build a more useful framework for talking about what makes storygames similar to and distinct from each other.

Expressive Input was originally published in Spirit AI on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

May 10, 2018

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! The Kepler Colony: Evacuation by Andy Why

by Rachel E. Towers at May 10, 2018 10:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

It is the year 2090. An asteroid has been found on a collision course with Earth. There is no stopping it. You have been assigned the task of creating an interstellar spaceship to travel the stars to Kepler 62e, the only confirmed life supporting planet discovered. It’s 33% off until May 17th!

The Kepler Colony: Evacuation is a 170,000 word interactive science fiction novel by Andy Why, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

You and your team of advisers will face many challenges along the way. When should you notify the public? How will you allocate tickets on the ship? What sacrifices will you make to ensure your project is successful? Time is on your side—for now.

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay or straight.
• Play as over 40 different countries, or make your own.
• Choose between a cryogenic ship or a generation model. Why not both?
• Trade with other nations as they battle to build their own spaceships.
• Decide who’s gets to be saved—and who’s left behind.

The fate of your nation is in your hands.

Andy Why developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.


Entity Disambiguation Demo

by Chris Ainsley ([email protected]) at May 10, 2018 07:25 PM

Adventuron features engine-level adjective support, and entity disambiguation. A short demo of this feature is show in the video below.

May 08, 2018

sub-Q Magazine

Making Interactive Fiction: Using Generative Prose

by Stewart C Baker at May 08, 2018 10:41 PM

Generative prose is the technique of dynamically generating text from smaller chunks of writing. This can look like the adaptive, variable prose functionality in Inform; like using Twinecery to add procedural text to a Twine story; or like Ink’s text-variation capabilities. Given a deep enough body of text to pull from, generative systems can spit out hundreds or thousands of variations on an idea.


How, when, and where to use generative text is a complicated question. Some IF is built entirely around a generative idea, like Epitaph or Begscape. Sometimes generative prose is used more sparingly or almost invisibly, like the way Savoir-Faire carefully supports the player’s ability to THROW any object in the game at anything else.

There’s a lot of mysticism and misconception, in games, around procedural generation and procedural prose in particular. People who are encountering procedural generation for the first time often approach it as a labor-saving device, as a way of getting a lot of “content” into a game without a whole lot of effort.

This isn’t a very useful way of thinking about it. Procedural generation, really, is a way of getting 200% as much content with 400% as much work. It’s easy to look at something like Spelunky’s level generator and see an “easy” path to giving players “infinite levels,” but this is very misleading. Level generators take an enormous amount of effort to build, tune, and iterate on before they consistently generate levels that are functional, let alone fun and engaging for the player. And levels in Spelunky are still built out of individually-authored “chunks;” often, in procedural generation, you’re still authoring everything that goes into the game, only at a more micro scale suitable for later recombination.

Voyageur, for example, contains thousands of words of hand-written prose. Writing that prose was very different from writing static descriptions in a purely authored game; I was writing loose sentences and phrases that the game would recombine later. This was, however, more work than simply writing descriptions. Each sentence had to operate within a myriad different contexts and variations, and had to come loaded with machine-readable metadata that ensured the game would use it correctly. And that’s not counting the work of programming that system in the first place.

So, given that it’s so much work, why would you use generative prose in your game? Why not just write everything by hand? There are some good reasons. A very direct one is simple responsiveness, the ability to adapt what the game is writing to the player’s actions; THROWing objects in Savoir-Faire is a classic example. This really helps an interactive story involve the player; it makes the story feel responsive to what the player is doing, aware of its underlying reality.

Another reason to use generative prose is replayability. Randomized elements allow for a story that can be run through multiple times with surprising circumstances each time. Generative prose is a way of expressing those variations, making them readable to the player.

But I enjoy using generative text for its aesthetics. Generative text has a specific valence to it; it can suggest a vast space of possibilities, hint at the interchangeable nature of something (imagine a game set in a major city, where you’re constantly bumping into procedurally-generated pedestrians), or simply offer up imagery and subtext, invite interpretation genuinely detached from trying to guess at authorial intent.

This “generative aesthetic,” however, brings up another major caution: Don’t make generative text into a lesser option that competes with fully authored material. Machine writing really flourishes when allowed to stand in its own context; like anything else, it looks better in flattering lighting.

The post Making Interactive Fiction: Using Generative Prose appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Zarf Updates

Keeping an eye on the Myst Kickstarter

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at May 08, 2018 05:17 PM

Running commentary on somebody else's project is probably a waste of keystrokes, but I will amuse myself anyway.
The Myst anniversary kickstarter is tootling along nicely, with about two-and-a-half weeks to go. They're up to $1.5M and almost 10000 backers as I write this.
The good news, announced yesterday, is that Mac versions of the games will be available. With some caveats: Myst Masterpiece is "giving [them] trouble", and they probably won't get the Mac versions into the physical DVD package.
The Mac conversions are being done by Codeweavers, so they'll use a Windows emulation layer rather than being native MacOS apps. Sigh, but that's the cost-efficient solution. (To be clear, the Windows 10 versions are themselves going to be some kind of emulation layer wrapped around the original ancient binaries. This project has no budget for any ground-up reimplementation work.)
The other good news, albeit not about this KS, is that the PSVR port of Obduction hits the streets today. Big news if you have a Playstation or get excited about VR! I'm neither, but go for it.
It's instructive to compare the Myst KS with the Obduction KS in 2015. (See KickTraq charts for Myst and Obduction. Gaze only upon the Daily Data tab -- projections will cause you naught but sorrow.)
Obduction finished out at $1.3M and 22000 backers. That means that Myst has already beaten it, but with fewer than half the backers. So we can say that some people will pay a lot for Myst nostalgia and physical artifacts. The most popular reward level is the fancy linking-book package.
Obduction had broader appeal; a lot more people will pay for a brand-new game. But they won't (in general) pay a huge premium for it -- the price level is set by the expectations for software. (Obduction offered a physical box reward tier, but the vast majority of backers just wanted a Steam key.)
Another difference: Obduction's KS had the usual dead patch in the middle of the donation period, but picked up towards the end. Myst, in contrast, kept a remarkably steady $25k flow rate through its first three weeks. (With a spike on 4/19 when they blast-emailed their customer mailing list.) It's only in early May that the pace has slowed. I'm not sure why backers keep trickling in like this. Maybe Myst fandom is highly dispersed, Internet-wise, and there's no common news source they all read?
Or maybe I'm looking at the wrong number. The two kickstarters had similar numbers of backers per day in the middle stretch -- it's just that Myst backers are putting in more money each.
I'm tempted to go off down a side trail of "Should Cyan have done a Firmament kickstarter instead?" (Or in addition.) But there's really not much new to say on the subject. One can reasonably predict that a Firmament KS would look like Obduction -- lots of backers, but relatively few going for the high-level rewards. Remember, the Obduction KS didn't cover all of Obduction's development costs, so this might not be an attractive path.
Anyway, that's the state of the excitement. If the backer curve continues on its current slight decline, the project will come in a little under $2M. If there's a big spike at the end, then higher, but this doesn't seem likely without a stretch goal to generate excitement. (And the company hasn't made any noise about stretch goals beyond "we're thinking about it.")
Other game kickstarters I'm backing or just backed:
  • Archives of the Sky: A tabletop RPG book from my IF pal (and coworker) Aaron Reed. It's a GM-less system; a group of players collaboratively create intimate human stories in a epic far-future setting. Think Alistair Reynolds or Iain Banks.
  • Paradox: The Rusty Lake / Cube Escape series has been trundling away for years on web and now mobile. I enjoy it, in its creepy and slightly gross way, but it's never been splashy enough to talk about much. Now the designers want to make a film short which is linked to their next game. Transmedia! I have no idea if this is going to work, but I'm down to give it a try.
  • Dystoa: Atmospheric walking simulator, what's not to love?
  • The Good Life: I've never played a Swery game, but my videogame friends can't shut up about him, so I threw in a few bucks. This KS just wrapped successfully.
  • Genesis Noir: This wrapped a few months ago, but I'm still excited about it. Noir tropes at the Big Bang, plus William Blake and jazz. I'm there.

Emily Short

Mailbag: Applying Filters to Character Dialogue

by Emily Short at May 08, 2018 11:40 AM

The following letter fits right into this month’s topic on procedural generation. I’ve edited (just a little) for length:

Hi Emily! I read your chapter in the Procedural Generation in Game Design book, and was really impressed. I tried to follow up on some of the sources you mentioned (e.g. the Spy Feet game) but I wasn’t able to get a lot of details, and we have a pretty specific use case, so I’d love to beg a moment of your time to get me pointed in the right direction. Or, if answering my question properly takes more than a moment, I’d be happy to talk about a consulting fee…

We’re doing a bunch of what I’d call dynamic writing, which you can read more about here or on our wiki if you’re interested in the specifics. We have procedurally generated characters (heroes in a fantasy setting) with personality stats tied to their histories, and our system allows writers to take those personalities (and other details) into account in 2 main ways. The first is by picking who takes what role in any given story, (e.g. the highest goofball stat in the party might be picked to be telling the joke in a particular story) and the second way is by inserting markup in the text to add variations for specific personality traits (or relationship status, class, age, etc..) For example we can say things like, if the leader is more bookish, they’ll say something academic, but if they are more hothead, they’ll say something aggressive. This markup is also how we handle gendered words and attraction.

One of the things our game supports (due to the 2D art style and just the stories we want to tell) is really dramatic character transformations, like, to take a simple example, you might find a wolf shrine, and make a deal with the wolf god, and get your head replaced with a wolf head. Now you have a bite attack, cool. But it would be great if we could alter the character’s speech to reflect their condition. Likewise for other conditions or origin stories, or frankly (eventually, maybe) personality quirks.

Clearly, modifying all of our stories to deal with wolf-head characters is not going to be a winning approach, or, we could do it for the wolf, but then what about the crow, the cat, the tree, the snake, etc.. So that leads us to procedural language. And that’s where I was, reading your chapter a couple weeks ago, where you talk about token replacement for things like gestures, exclamations, and hedges, and the “drunk filter” for modifying text after the fact. 

I’d love to go the extra mile and integrate this level of personality into our game. I think it would feel really special to players. The filter approach sounds the most promising to me, for our game. We’re already fairly far along in production, and while we could talk about tokenizing our text, I’d be concerned that it would take a lot of training, be bug prone, and would cramp our writers’ style. On the filter side, I can imagine some simple approaches, find-and-replace schemes and such. For example the wolf might have a rule to 60% of the time, replace a single ‘r’ with a double ‘rr’.

So I suppose my question is this. Is there some existing research on this sort of thing? Can you recommend an approach, or best practices? On the other hand, is there an open data set (computational linguistics??) that you know of that would be of interest? I don’t really know where to start in this field, I just ended up here :-) So I am looking for some guide posts. It seems like a problem that’s in your wheelhouse?

— Nick Austin

In my own projects, I’ve most often used filter effects to reflect transient states like the character being cold, drunk, nervous, etc., so that I’m layering that over their other word choices at the very end of the text generation process. For instance:

  • Slurring or lisping
  • Stuttering
  • Adding disfluencies, pauses or hesitation words (“Uh, …”)
  • Sprinkling in the occasional cough or bit of barked laughter

Those are all pretty easy to do, and in line with your r/rr replacement idea. For cases where characters might be communicating through social media, it’s also possible to sprinkle in expressive emoji that put their own twist on dialogue choices. It looks like that would be less suitable for your project, though.

Another effect that works decently well on written text is to swap out just the punctuation sometimes — having a punchier character upgrade instances of “!” to “!!”, or a more uncertain character turn “.” into “…”. Using those modifications some of the time can subtly inflect how the reader perceives your characters’ speech without actually changing any words.

If you’re running filters, you could also swap out particular phrases even if your dialogue isn’t tokenized — for instance if your characters mostly invoke a particular deity when upset, you could replacement-filter all the “Oh Thor!” invocations to a specific crow deity, for instance. I mostly don’t do that on my projects because I’m usually controlling whether “Oh Thor!” gets generated at all. But it’s an option for cosmetic retouching when the core writing has already been done.`

Finally, I’ve also worked with instances where we were adding more complex phrases into dialogue — e.g.

  • aggressiveness, like “If you must know…” before an assertion
  • hedging, like “I think” or “I heard”, “as far as I know”, etc

but this soon comes into territory where the effects are repetitive and annoying if done carelessly, and to do them well often requires more markup of the sentence grammar, so that you know where in the sentence you can safely insert these elements. So this sort of thing might not be a good fit for you in general.


If you want to look at some academic research, this paper presents some of Lyn Walker’s research (the same researcher who did the SpyFeet project), associating different language tics with personality traits in the Big Five (OCEAN) personality model.

Then there’s an interesting (if not especially cheap) book called Computational Paralinguistics that looks at markers of speaker traits and status, such as gender, age, personality, intoxication, emotion, etc., in both spoken and written dialogue.

This contains many enlightening and even entertaining segments, like the portion where they describe how they collected enough corpus data to do computational studies on how speech changes as the speaker gets more drunk. It also suggests a number of corpora for specific areas, though some of these, like the promising-sounding “Speaker Personality Corpus,” focus on speaker audio, so it might be more challenging to extract conclusions about straight textual content.


Finally, a bit of advice about approaching this kind of procedure in general. This may be obvious, but: a little bit of filtering/personality intervention often goes a long way, and it’s easy to produce terrible results by overdoing it. Whatever implementation you go for, I’d recommend setting it up so that you can easily adjust probability of firing for each effect separately (maybe wolf R replacements look fine if used 33% of the time but the crow’s CAW! interjections are annoying at anything more than 10%).

Expect to iterate a bunch, and layer in effects one at a time so you can get a sense of what difference they’re making separately.


A few other related resources:

  • Tanya Short’s talk from GDC 2018 about modular character design for procedural generation
  • The Mary Jane of Tomorrow does not do this kind of text filtering, but it’s using a grammar in which for instance her uses of the word “the” may be replaced by “ye” when she’s in her medieval speech mode, something that could just as well have been done via filter after the main generation was complete
  • Liza Daly’s A Physical Book project models alterations on how words are printed on a page — this one’s not about dialogue at all, but it is about procedural filtering to add an additional layer of meaning to an existing text

"Aaron Reed"

Leaping to Conclusions in “Lovecraftesque”

by Aaron A. Reed at May 08, 2018 06:42 AM

Moments Lost

“Moments Lost” is a blog series where I deconstruct a single moment from a narrative game, of any vintage, and talk through how and why it works.

The Game: Lovecraftesque is a beautiful and unique tabletop storygame that starts from a deep understanding of what worked in Lovecraft’s original stories, while challenging and engaging with what doesn’t work. The author’s stories have of course been the inspiration for many other roleplaying games (not to mention media of other kinds). What Lovecraftesque does so well is turn a deep understanding of the genre into game mechanics that help players improvise their own stories in that style, without falling back on lazy tropes or out of its own particular rhythms.

The rulebook generally is a treasure trove of deep thinking about Lovecraftian tropes, successes, and failures: it’s available as a £10 PDF or £20 printed book direct from the authors.

The game has no gamemaster and no story is prepared in advance. Players create a single protagonist, called the Witness, and take turns staging scenes where this character uncovers a Clue: some hint of a sinister lurking evil. Strict rules govern the pace and intensity of revelations, in order to preserve the looming but unseen dread of the original stories. After two phases of Clues with increasing intensity, the Witness makes a “Journey into Darkness” and confronts a terrifying horror, perhaps escaping with their life but never defeating the evil for good.

One of the problems with GM-less games can be the lack of a singular vision supplying a coherent story and pacing it well, and this becomes a potentially even greater problem with plots that hinge around a mystery. Lovecraftesque has a number of great ideas for coping with this problem, but one of my favorites is a device that ensures each Clue is part of a coherent storyline, even though all of them are being made up on the fly.

The Moment: After each scene, players take a moment to do something called Leaping to Conclusions. Each player silently considers all the Clues introduced so far, and secretly writes down a potential answer to the final mystery — a finale it would make sense for all these hints to be building towards. As new Clues are revealed, of course, this idea must be continuously revised. But the genius of the mechanic is that every Clue advances a real story in someone’s head: they’re not just empty fake-outs.

Excerpt from optional player handout for tracking Clues and Conclusions, courtesy the official site.

As play progresses and more Clues emerge, the players’ secret answers to the mystery grow closer and closer together. Often as the climactic scenes begin, everyone is on the same page about what the revelation is going to be, without having explicitly planned this or ever saying so aloud, which can be immensely satisfying and utterly thrilling.

After I first played Lovecraftesque, I loved this idea so much that I tried adopting it for my own game Archives of the Sky. I added a game phase called “Plotting” where characters would silently think about where the story was going. In practice, I found this didn’t work as well in my game, perhaps because Archives puts more focus on collaborative plot-building than on staying immersed in a mystery. The idea stuck with me, though, and eventually evolved into “Reflection”: at the end of each scene, each player makes an out-of-character statement about where they think (or hope, or fear) the plot is going. This works quite well: I often see players self-policing this rule if someone forgets or skips it. It makes this moment of speculation a public process that all players can riff on and take inspiration from together.

But Lovecraftesque needs to preserve more tension, and its moments where you get to sit quietly, the creepiness of the last scene lingering in the air, and think like an investigator grasping towards a solution are some of my favorites. Considering everything that’s come so far, waiting for a light bulb to go on that draws the disparate plot threads of yourself and your collaborators together: it’s a unique and memorable game experience. Leaping to Conclusions is a lovely example of giving players the space and attention to focus on crafting a good story, without the distractions of roleplaying their characters, juggling rules, or worrying about their performance.

May 05, 2018

"Aaron Reed"

The Origin of “Archives”

by Aaron A. Reed at May 05, 2018 03:41 PM

Archives of the Sky, my new tabletop storytelling game, began as research for my PhD in interactive storytelling: attempting to resolve a contradiction I’d seen in certain GM-less roleplaying systems. Often the lack of a single storytelling authority (the gamemaster) led to less coherent and satisfying narratives. Some systems (like Microscope, or indeed my own digital game The Ice-Bound Concordance) resolve this by dropping the notion of playing a character embedded in the story, pulling back to see a bigger picture. I wanted to see whether with the right mechanics, a player could be both immersed in a story while also thinking about its overall structure and direction. In the next few posts, I’ll be talking about how I arrived at this design and how it works.

Archives had its genesis when I first read the incredible book House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds. It’s one of the only books I’ve ever finished and then immediately re-read again. Among many other reactions, I definitely remember thinking, “Damn, this would be such an amazing world to roleplay in!”

The book kept rattling around in my head, so one evening, I sat down just for fun to try to figure out what a game inspired by it might look like.

One of the many incredible concepts in the book is shattering. Long before the story begins, a woman named Abagail Gentian decides to make a thousand clones of herself to spread out and explore the galaxy. Every hundred thousand years, they reconvene in a “Reunion” to share stories of the wonders they’ve seen — for a thousand and one nights, of course. The original Abagail is herself one of these wanderers, and all of the clones have her memories up to the point she was “shattered.” One of them is the original, but none of them know who: not even her.

While the shatterlings all start out as identical people, as they wander for countless eons they each diverge into unique individuals based on their lived experiences, and drift apart in appearance and ideology. And in my first draft of the game, this was the concept I latched on to: what if everyone’s character was once the same person? You’d start by building the “original” together, creating stats, a backstory, a worldview… and then each player would take that template and define how their character had changed since they’d all split apart.

This concept did not survive for long, though it could be an amazing basis for a different game. I especially love the idea of using shared memories as arguments or justifications for behavior among a party: “Of course we have to save them, just like Auntie Dinora saved us from falling off that cliff when we were six.”

Instead, I went back to House of Suns to try to understand what worked about it beyond the details of its plot and setting. I re-read it once again, taking detailed notes about character motivations and plot beats. One of the things I noticed was that most of the tension comes from characters struggling to reconcile conflicted beliefs.

An example of a Dilemma in “Archives.”

The two main characters, both shatterlings, have become lovers despite this being a huge taboo. They meet a character who has reason to hate robots, and then a robot acting suspiciously but in need of their help. When the Reunion makes a decision they disagree with, will they betray their compatriots or trust their own instincts? And bubbling around all this is the constant question: what does it mean to be human? Can a technological civilization go too far and lose its humanity? Can a race of non-humans ever earn that label? What should we hold on to, and what should we let go of, in pursuit of the things we treasure most?

So this became the new bedrock of Archives: the concept of Values and putting them into conflict. I’ll talk more about this in my next design post — but in the meantime, go read House of Suns if you’re a sci-fi fan and you haven’t, and thank me later.

Archives of the Sky is now on Kickstarter. A link to a free version of the rules can be found on that page (and an older, much different version of them can be found as an appendix in my dissertation).

May 04, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

The Game of Everything, Part 8: Civilization and Government II (Democracy, Communism, and Anarchy)

by Jimmy Maher at May 04, 2018 08:41 PM

Democracy is like a raft. It never sinks, but, damn it, your feet are always in the water.

— Fisher Ames

What can we say about democracy, truly one of the most important ideas in human history? Well, we can say, for starters, that it’s yet another Greek word, a combination of “demos” — meaning the people or, less favorably, the mob — with “kratos,” meaning rule. Rule by the people, rule by the mob… the preferred translations have varied with the opinion of the translator.

The idea of democracy originated, as you might expect given the word’s etymology, in ancient Greece, where Plato detested it, Aristotle was ambivalent about it, and the citizens of Athens were intrigued enough to actually try it out for a while in its purest form: that of a government in which every significant decision is made through a direct vote of the people. Yet on the whole it was regarded as little more than an impractical ideal for many, many centuries, even as some countries, such as England, developed some mechanisms for sharing power between the monarch and elected or appointed representatives of other societal interests. It wasn’t until 1776 that a new country-to-be called the United States declared its intention to make a go of it as a full-blown representational democracy, thereby touching off the modern era of government, in which democracy has increasingly come to be seen as the only truly legitimate form of government in the world.

Like the Christianity that had done so much to lay the groundwork for its acceptance, democracy was a meme with such immediate, obvious mass appeal that it was well-nigh impossible to control once the world had a concrete example of it to look at in the form of the United States. Over the course of the nineteenth century, responding to the demands of their restive populations, remembering soberly what had happened to Louis XVI in France when he had tried to resist the democratic wave, many of the hidebound old monarchies of Europe found ways to democratize in part if not in total; in Britain, for example, about 40 percent of adult males were allowed to vote by 1884. When the drift toward democracy failed to prevent the carnage of World War I, and when that war was followed by a reactionary wave of despotic fascism, many questioned whether democracy was really all it had been cracked up to be. Yet even as the pundits doubted, the slow march of democracy continued; by 1930, almost all adult citizens of Britain, including women, were allowed to vote. By the time the game of Civilization was made near the end of the twentieth century, any doubts about democracy’s ethical supremacy and practical efficacy had been cast aside, at least in the developed West. In missives like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, it was once again being full-throatedly hailed as the natural endpoint of the whole history of human governance.

We may not wish to go as far as calling democracy the end of history, but there’s certainly plenty of historical data in its favor. There’s been an undeniable trend line from the end of the eighteenth century to today, in which more and more countries have become more and more democratic. And, equally importantly, over the last century or so virtually all of the most successful countries in terms of per-capita economic performance have been democracies. A few interrelated factors likely explain why this should be the case.

One of them is the reality that as societies and economies develop they inevitably become more and more complex, a confusing mosaic of competing and cooperating interests which seemingly only democracy is equipped to navigate. “Democracies permit participation and therefore feedback,” writes Francis Fukuyama.

Another factor is the way that democracies manage to subsume within them the seemingly competing virtues of stability and renewal. As anyone who’s observed the worldwide stock markets after one of President Donald Trump’s more unhinged tweets can attest, business in particular loves stability and hates the uncertainty that’s born of political change. Yet often change truly is necessary, and often an aged, rigid-thinking despot or monarch is the very last person equipped to push it through. An election every fixed number of years provides a country with the ability to put new blood in power whenever it’s needed, without the chaos of revolution.

The final factor is another reality disliked by despots everywhere: the reality that education and democracy go hand in hand. A successful economy requires an educated workforce, but an educated workforce has a disconcerting tendency to demand a greater role in civic life. Francis Fukuyama:

Economic development demonstrates to the slave the concept of mastery, as he discovers he can master nature through technology, and master himself as well through the discipline of work and education. As societies become better educated, slaves have the opportunity to become more conscious of the fact that they are slaves and would like to be masters, and to absorb the ideas of other slaves who have reflected on their condition of servitude. Education teaches them that they are human beings with dignity, and that they ought to struggle to have that dignity recognized.

When making the game of Civilization, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley clearly understood the longstanding relationship between a stable democracy and a strong economy — a relationship which is engendered by all of the factors I’ve just described. Switching your government to democracy in the game thus supercharges your civilization’s economic performance, dramatically increasing the number of “trade” units your cities collect.

But the game isn’t always so clear-sighted; the Civilopedia describes democracy as “fragile” in comparison to other forms of government. I would argue that in many ways just the opposite is the case. It’s true that democracies can be incredibly difficult to start in a country with little tradition of same, as the multiple false starts that we’ve seen in places like Russia and much of sub-Saharan Africa will attest. Yet once they’ve taken root they can be extremely difficult if not impossible to dislodge. Having, as we’ve already seen, the means of self-correction baked into them in a way that no other form of government does, mature democracies are surprisingly robust things. In fact, examples of mature, stable democracies falling back into autocracy simply don’t exist in history to date.1 History would seem to indicate that, if a new democracy can survive thirty or forty years without coups or civil wars — long enough, one might say, for democracy to put down roots and become an inviolate cultural tradition — it can survive for the foreseeable future.

Ironically, Civilization portrays its dubious assertion of democratic “fragility” using methods that actually do feel true to history. The ease with which democracies can fall into unrest means that you must pay much closer attention to public opinion — taking the form of your population’s proportion of “unhappy” to “happy” citizens — than under any other system of government. Any democratic politician in the real world, forced to live and die by periodic opinion polls that take the form of elections, would no doubt sympathize with your plight. It’s particularly difficult in the game to prosecute a foreign war as a democracy, both because sending military units abroad sends your population’s morale into the toilet and because the game forces you to always accept peace overtures from your enemies as a matter of public policy.

In light of this last aspect of the game, the intersection of democracy and war in the real world merits digging into a bit further. Earlier in this series of articles, I wrote about the so-called “Long Peace” in which we’ve been living since the end of World War II, in which the great powers of the world have ceased to fight one another directly even when they find themselves at odds politically, and in which war in general has been on a marked decline in the world. I introduced theories about why that might be, such as the fear of nuclear annihilation and the emergence of global peacekeeping institutions like the United Nations. Well, another strong theory comes down to the advance of democracy. It’s long been an accepted rule among historians that mature, stable democracies simply don’t go to war with one another. Thus, as democracies multiply in the world, the possibilities for war decrease in rhythm, thanks to the incontrovertible logic of statistics. For this reason, some historians prefer to call the Long Peace the “Democratic Peace.”

Civilization reflects this democratic aversion to war through the draconian disadvantages that make its version of democracy, although the best government you can have in peacetime, the absolute worst you can have during war. As demonstrated not least by the United States’s many and varied military interventions since 1945, the game if anything overstates the case for democracy as force for peace. Yet, as I also noted in that earlier article, this crippling need the United States military now feels to make its wars, which are now covered by legions of journalists and shown every night on television, such clean affairs says much about its citizens’ unwillingness to accept the full, ugly toll of the country’s voluntary “police actions” and “liberations.”

But what of wars that have bigger stakes? Civilization‘s mechanics actually vastly understate the case for democracy here. They fail to account for the fact that, once the people of a democracy have firmly committed themselves to fighting an all-out war, history gives us little reason to believe that they can’t prosecute that war as well as they could under any other form of government. In reality, the strong economies that usually accompany democracies are an immense military advantage; the staggering economic might of the United States is undoubtedly the primary reason the Allied Powers were able to reverse the tide of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and win World War II in, all things considered, fairly short order.

There’s one final element of the game of Civilization‘s take on democracy that merits discussion: its complete elimination of corruption. Under other forms of government, the corruption mechanic causes cities other than your capital to lose a portion of their economic potential to this most insidious of social forces, with how much they lose depending on their distance from your capital. You can combat it only by building courthouses in some of your non-capital cities; they’re fairly expensive in both purchase and maintenance costs, but reduce corruption within their sphere of influence. Or you can eliminate all corruption at a stroke by making your civilization a democracy.

At first blush, this sounds both hilarious and breathtakingly naive. It would seem to indicate, as Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich note in Civilization: or Rome on 640K a Day, that Meier and Shelley’s research into the history of democracy neglected such icons of its American version as Tammany Hall and Teapot Dome, not to mention Watergate. Yet when we really stop to consider, we find that this seemingly naive mechanic may actually be one of the most historically and sociologically perceptive in the whole game.

If you’ve ever traveled independently in a non-democratic, less-developed country, you’ve likely seen a culture of corruption first-hand. Personal business there is done through wads of cash passed from pocket to pocket, and every good and service tends to have a price that fluctuates from customer to customer, based on a reading of what that particular market will bear. Most obviously from your foreigner’s perspective, there are tourist prices and native prices.

The asymmetries that lead to the rampant “cheating” of foreign customers aren’t hard to understand. You can pay twenty times the going rate for that bottle of soda and never think about it again, while your shopkeeper can use the extra money to put some meat on his family’s table tonight; the money is far more important to him than it is to you because you are rich and he is poor. This reality will probably cause you to give up quibbling about petty (to you) sums in fairly short order. But the mindset behind it is deadly to a country’s economic prospects — not least to its tax base, which could otherwise be used to institute the programs of education and infrastructure that can lead a country out of the cycle of poverty. High levels of corruption are comprehensively devastating to a country’s economy — witness, to take my favorite whipping boy again, Vladimir Putin’s thoroughly corrupt Russia with its economy 7 percent the size of the United States’s — while a relative lack of corruption allows it to thrive.

As it happens, corruption levels across government, business, and personal life in the real world correlate incredibly well with the presence or absence of democracy. When we look at the ten least-corrupt countries in the world according to the Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017, we find that nine of them are among the nineteen countries that are given the gold star of Full Democracy by the The Economist‘s latest Democracy Index. (Singapore, the sole exception among the top ten, is classified as a Hybrid System.) Meanwhile none of the ten most-corrupt countries qualify as Full or even Flawed Democracies, with seven of the ten classified as full-on authoritarian states. When we further consider that levels of corruption are inversely correlated to a country’s overall economic performance, we add to our emerging picture of just why democracy has accrued so much wealth and power to the developed West since the beginning of the great American experiment back in 1776.

And there may be yet another, more subtle inverse linkage between democracy and corruption. As I noted at the beginning of this pair of articles on Civilization‘s systems of government, I’ve tried to arrange them in an order that reflects the relative stress they place on the individual leader versus the institutions of leadership. Thus the despotic state and the monarchy are so defined by their leaders as to be almost indistinguishable as entities apart from them, while the republic and the democracy mark the emergence of the concept of the state as a sovereign entity unto itself, with its individual leaders mere stewards of a legacy greater than themselves. I don’t believe that this shift in thinking is reflected only in a country’s leadership; it rather extends right through its society. A culture of corruption emphasizes personal, transactional relationships, while its opposite places faith in strong, stable institutions with a lifespan that will hopefully transcend that of the people who staff them at any given time.

So, let’s turn back now to the game’s once-laughable assertion that democracy eliminates corruption, which now seems at least somewhat less laughable. It is, of course, an abstraction at best; a country can no more eliminate corruption than it can eliminate poverty or terrorism (to name a couple of other non-proper nouns on which our politicians like to declare war). Yet a country can sharply de-incentivize it by bringing it to light when it does appear, and by shaming and punishing those who engage in it.

Given the times in which I’m writing this article, I do understand how strange it may sound to argue that Civilization‘s optimistic take on corruption in democracy is at bottom a correct one. Just a couple of years ago in the Full Democracy of Germany, the twelfth least-corrupt country on the planet according to the Corruption Perceptions Index, executives in the biggest of the country’s auto manufacturers were shown to have concocted a despicable scheme to cheat emissions standards worldwide in the name of profit, ignoring the environmental consequences to future generations. And as I write these words the Trump administration in the Flawed Democracy of the United States, sixteenth least-corrupt country on the planet, has so many ongoing scandals that the newspapers literally don’t have enough reporters to cover them all. But the fact that we know about these scandals — that we’re reading about them and arguing about them and in some cases taking to the streets to protest them — is proof that liberal democracy is still working rather than the opposite. Compare the anger and outrage manifested by opponents and defenders alike of Donald Trump with the sullen, defeated acceptance of an oligarchical culture of corruption that’s so prevalent in Russia.

Which isn’t to say that democracy is without its disadvantages. From the moment the idea of rule by the people was first broached in ancient Athens, it’s had fierce critics who have regarded it as inherently dangerous. Setting aside the despots and monarchs who have a vested interest in other philosophies of government, thoughtful criticisms of democracy have almost always boiled down to the single question of whether the great unwashed masses can really be trusted to rule.

Plato was the first of the great democratic skeptics, describing it as the victory of opinion over knowledge. Many of the great figures of American history have ironically taken his point of view to heart, showing considerable ambivalence toward this supposedly greatest of American virtues. The framers of the Constitution twisted themselves into knots over a potential tyranny of the ignorant over the educated, and built into it machinations to hopefully prevent such a scenario — machinations that still determine the direction of American politics to this day. (The electoral college which has awarded the presidency twice in the course of the last five elections to someone who didn’t win the popular vote was among the results of the Founding Fathers’ terror of the masses; in amplifying the votes of the country’s generally less-educated rural areas in recent years, it has arguably had exactly the opposite of its intended effect). Even the great progressive justice Oliver Wendell Holmes could disparage democracy as merely “what the crowd wants.”

In the cottage industry of American political punditry as well, there’s a long tradition of lamenting the failure of the working class to vote their own self-interest on economic matters, of earnest hand-wringing over the way they supposedly fall prey instead to demagogic appeals to cultural identity and religion. One of the best-selling American nonfiction books of 2011 was The Myth of the Rational Voter, which deployed reams of sociological data to reveal that (gasp!) the ballot-box choices of most people have more to do with emotion, prejudice, and rigid ideology than rationality or enlightened self-interest. Recently, such concerns have been given new urgency among the intellectual elite all over the West by events like the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Brexit vote in Britain, and the wave of populist political victories and near-victories across Europe — all movements that found the bulk of their support among the less educated, a fact that was lost on said elite not at all.

Back in 1872, the British journalist Walter Bagehot wrote of the dangers of rampant democracy in the midst of another conflicted time in British history, as the voting franchise was being gradually expanded through a series of controversial so-called “Reform Bills.” His writing rings in eerie accord with the similar commentaries from our own time, warning as it does of “the supremacy of ignorance over instruction and of numbers [of voters] over knowledge”:

In plain English, what I fear is that both our political parties will bid for the support of the working man; that both of them will promise to do as he likes if he will only tell them what it is. I can conceive of nothing more corrupting or worse for a set of poor ignorant people than that two combinations of well-taught and rich men should constantly defer to their decision, and compete for the office of executing it. “Vox populi” [“the voice of the people”] will be “Vox diaboli” [“the voice of the devil”] if it is worked in that manner.

Consider again my etymology of the word “democracy” from the beginning of this article. “Demos” in the Greek can variously mean, as I explained, the people or the mob. It’s the latter of these that is instinctively feared, by no means entirely without justification, by democratic skeptics like the ones whose views I’ve just been describing. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt defines the People as a constructive force, citizens acting in good faith to improve their country’s society, while the Mob is a destructive force, citizens acting out of hate and fear against rather than for the society from which they feel themselves excluded. We often hear it suggested today that we may have reached the tipping point where the People become a Mob in many places in the West. We hear frequently that the typical Brexit or Trump voter feels so disenfranchised and excluded that she just doesn’t care anymore, that she wants to throw Molotov cocktails into the middle of the elites’ most sacred institutions and watch them burn — that she wants to blow up the entire postwar world order that progressives like me believe have kept us safe and prosperous for all these decades.

I can’t deny that the sentiment exists, sometimes even with good reason; modern democracies all remain to a greater or lesser degree flawed creations in terms of equality, opportunity, and inclusivity. I will, however, offer three counter-arguments to the Mob theory of democracy — one drawing from history, one from practicality, and one from a thing that seems in short supply these days, good old idealistic humanism.

My historical argument is that democracies are often messy, chaotic things, but, once again — and this really can’t be emphasized enough — a mature, stable democracy has never, ever collapsed back into a more retrograde system of government. If it were to happen to a democracy as mature and stable as the United States, as is so often suggested by alarmists in the Age of Trump, it would be one of the more shockingly unprecedented events in all of history. As things stand today, there’s little reason to believe that the institutions of democracy won’t survive President Donald Trump, as they have 44 other good, bad, and indifferent presidents before him. Ditto with respect to many of the other reactionary populist waves in other developed democracies.

My practical argument is the fact that, while democracies sometimes go down spectacularly misguided paths at the behest of their citizenry, they’re also far better at self-correcting than any other form of government. The media in the United States has made much of the people who were able to justify voting for Donald Trump in 2016 after having voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. It’s become fashionable on this basis to question whether the ebbing of racial animus the latter’s election had seemed to represent was all an illusion. Yet there’s grounds for hope as well as dismay there for the current president’s opponents — grounds for hope in the knowledge that the pendulum can swing back in the other direction just as quickly. The anonymity of the voting booth means that people have the luxury of changing their minds entirely with the flick of a pen, without having to justify their choice to anyone, without losing face or appearing weak. Many an autocratic despot or monarch has doubtless dreamed of the same luxury. This unique self-correcting quality of democracy does much to explain why this form of government that the Civilopedia describes as so “fragile” is actually so amazingly resilient.

Finally, my argument from principle comes from the same idealistic place as those famous opening paragraphs of the American Declaration of Independence. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) The Enlightenment philosophy that led to that document said, for the first time in the history of the world, that every man was or ought to be master of his own life. If we believe wholeheartedly in these metaphysical principles, we must believe as well that even a profoundly misguided democracy is superior to Plato’s beloved autocracy — even an autocracy under a “philosopher king” who benevolently makes all the best choices for the good of his country’s benighted citizens. For rule by the people is itself the greatest good, and one which no philosopher king can ever provide. Perhaps the best way to convert a Mob back into a People is to let them have their demagogues. When it doesn’t work out, they can just vote them out again come next election and try something else. What other form of government can make that claim?

Most people in the West during most of the second half of the twentieth century would agree that the overarching historical question of their times was whether the world’s future lay with democracy or communism. This was, after all, the question over which the Cold War was being fought (or, if you prefer, not being fought).

For someone studying the period from afar, however, the whole formulation is confusing from the get-go. Democracy has always been seen as a system of government, while communism, in theory anyway, has more to do with economics. In fact, the notion of a “communist democracy,” oxymoronic as it may sound to Western sensibilities, is by no means incompatible with communist theory as articulated by Karl Marx. Plenty of communist states once claimed to be exactly that, such as the German Democratic Republic — better known as East Germany. It’s for this reason that, while people in the West spoke of a Cold War between the supposed political ideologies of communism and democracy, people in the Soviet sphere preferred to talk of a conflict between the economic ideologies of communism and capitalism. And yet accepting the latter’s way of framing the conflict is giving twentieth-century communism far too much credit — as is, needless to say, accepting communism’s claim to have fostered democracies. By the time the Cold War got going in earnest, communism in practice was already a cynical lie.

This divide between communism as it exists in the works of Karl Marx and communism as it has existed in the real world haunts every discussion of the subject. We’ll try to pull theory and practice apart by looking first at Marx’s rosy nineteenth-century vision of a classless society of the future, then turning to the ugly reality of communism in the twentieth century.

One thing that makes communism unique among the systems of government we’ve examined thus far is how very recent it is. While it has roots in Enlightenment thinkers like Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, in its complete form it’s thoroughly a product of the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Observing the world around him, Karl Marx divided society in the new industrial age into two groups. There were the “bourgeoisie,” a French word meaning literally “those who live in a borough,” or more simply “city dwellers”; these people owned the means of industrial production. And then there were the “proletariat,” a Latin word meaning literally “without property”; these people worked the means of production. Casting his eye further back, Marx articulated a view of all of human history as marked by similar dualities of class; during the Middle Ages, for instance, the fundamental divide was between the aristocrats who owned the land which was that era’s wellspring of wealth and the peasants who worked it. “The history of all hitherto existing societies,” he wrote, “is the history of class struggles.” As I mentioned in a previous article, his economic theory of history divided it into six phases: pre-civilized “primitive communism,” the “slave society” (i.e., despotism), feudalism (i.e., monarchy), pure laissez-faire capitalism (the phase the richest and most developed countries were in at the time he wrote), socialism (a mixed economy which, while still purely theoretical at the time he wrote, actually that isn’t all that different from most of the developed democracies of today), and mature communism. Importantly, Marx believed that the world had to work through these phases in order, each one laying the groundwork for what would follow.

But, falling victim perhaps to a tendency that has dogged many great theorists of history, Marx saw his own times’ capitalist phase as different from all those that had come before in one important respect. Previously, class conflicts had been between the old elite and a new would-be elite that sought to wrest power from them — most recently, the landed gentry versus the new capitalist class of factory owners. But now, with the industrial age in full swing, he believed the next big struggles would be between the bourgeois elites and the proletarian masses as a whole. The proletariat would eventually win those struggles, resulting in a new era of true equality and majority rule. (Here, the eagerness of so many of the later communist states to label themselves democracies starts to become more clear.)

In light of what would follow in the name of Karl Marx, it’s all too easy to overlook the fact that he didn’t see himself as the agent which would bring about this new era; his communism was a description of what would happen in the future rather than a prescription for what should happen. Many of the direct calls to action in 1848’s The Communist Manifesto, by far his most rabble-rousing document, would ironically be universally embraced by the liberal democracies which would become the ideological enemy of communism in the century to come: things such as a progressive income tax, the abolition of child labor, and a basic taxpayer-funded education for everyone. The literary project he considered his most important life’s work, the famously dense three volumes of Capital, are, as the name would indicate, almost entirely concerned with capitalism and its discontents as Marx understood them to already exist, saying almost nothing about the communist future. Written later in his life and thus reflecting a more mature form of his philosophy, Capital shies away from even such calls to action as are found in The Communist Manifesto, saying again and again that the contradictions inherent in capitalism itself will inevitably bring it down when the time is right.

By this point in this life, Marx had become a thoroughgoing historical determinist, and was deeply wary of those who would use his theories to justify premature revolutions of the proletariat. Even The Communist Manifesto‘s calls to action had been intended not to force the onset of the last phase of history — communism — but to prod the world toward the penultimate phase of socialism. True communism, Marx believed, was still a long, long way off. Not least because he wrote so many more words about capitalism than he did about communism, Marx’s vision of the latter can be surprisingly vague for what would later become the ostensible blueprint for dozens upon dozens of governments, including those of two of the three biggest nations on the planet.

With this very basic understanding of Marxist theory, we can begin to understand the intellectual rot that lay at the heart of communism as it was actually implemented in the twentieth century. Russia in 1917 hadn’t even made it to Marx’s fourth phase of industrialized capitalism; as an agrarian economy, more feudal than capitalist, it was still mired in the third phase of history. Yet Vladimir Lenin proposed to leapfrog both of the intervening phases and take it straight to communism — something Marx had explicitly stated was not possible. Similarly ignoring Marx’s description of the transition to communism as a popular revolution of the people, Lenin’s approach hearkened back to Plato’s philosopher kings; he stated that he and his secretive cronies represented the only ones qualified to manage the transition. “It is an irony of history,” remarks historian Leslie Holmes dryly, “that parties committed to the eventual emergence of highly egalitarian societies were in many ways among the most elitist in the world.”

When Lenin ordered the cold-blooded murder of Czar Nicholas II and his entire family, he sketched the blueprint of communism’s practical future as little more than amoral despotism hiding behind a facade of Marxist rhetoric. And when capitalist systems all over the world didn’t collapse in the wake of the Russian Revolution, as he had so confidently predicted, there was never a question of saying, “Well, that’s that then!” and moving on. One of the most repressive governments in history was now firmly entrenched, and it wouldn’t give up power easily. “Socialism in One Country” became Josef Stalin’s slogan, as nationalism became an essential component of the new communism, again in direct contradiction to Marx’s theory of a new world order of classless equality. The guns and tanks parading through Red Square every May Day were a yearly affront to everything Marx had written.

Still, communist governments did manage some impressive achievements. Universal free healthcare, still a pipe dream throughout the developed West at the time, was achieved in the new Soviet Union in the 1920s. Right through the end of the Cold War, average life expectancy and infant-mortality rates weren’t notably worse in most communist countries than they were in Western democracies. Their educational systems as well were often competitive with those in the West, if sometimes emphasizing rote learning over critical thinking to a disturbing degree. Illiteracy was virtually nonexistent behind the Iron Curtain, and fluency in multiple languages was at least as commonplace as in Western Europe. Women were not just encouraged but expected to join the workforce, and were given a degree of equality that many of their counterparts in the West could only envy. The first decade or even in some cases several decades after the transition to communism would often bring an economic boom, as women entered the workforce for the first time and aged infrastructures were wrenched toward modernity, arguably at a much faster pace than could have been managed under a government more concerned about the individual rights of its citizens. Under these centrally planned economies, unemployment and the pain it can cause were literally unknown, as was homelessness. In countries where cars were still a luxury reserved for the more equal among the equal, public transport too was often surprisingly modern and effective.

In time, however, economic stagnation inevitably set in. Corruption in the planning departments — the root of the oligarchical system that still holds sway in the Russia of today — caused some industries to be favored over others with no regard to actual needs; the growing complexity of a modernizing economy overwhelmed the planners; a lack of personal incentive led to a paucity of innovation; prices and demand seemed to have no relation to one another, distorting the economy from top to bottom; the quality of consumer goods remained notoriously terrible. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union, possessed of some of the richest farmland in the world, was struggling and failing just to feed itself, relying on annual imports of millions of tons of wheat and other raw foodstuffs. The very idea of the shambling monstrosity that was the Soviet economy competing with the emerging post-industrial knowledge economies of the West, which placed a premium on the sort of rampant innovation that can only be born of free press, free speech, and free markets, had become laughable. Francis Fukuyama:

The failure of central planning in the final analysis is related to the problem of technological innovation. Scientific inquiry proceeds best in an atmosphere of freedom, where people are permitted to think and communicate freely, and more importantly where they are rewarded for innovation. The Soviet Union and China both promoted scientific inquiry, particularly in “safe” areas of basic or theoretical research, and created material incentives to stimulate innovation in certain sectors like aerospace and weapons design. But modern economies must innovate across the board, not only in hi-tech fields but in more prosaic areas like the marketing of hamburgers and the creation of new types of insurance. While the Soviet state could pamper its nuclear physicists, it didn’t have much left over for the designers of television sets, which exploded with some regularity, or for those who might aspire to market new products to new consumers, a completely non-existent field in the USSR and China.

Marx had dreamed of a world where everyone worked just four hours per day to contribute her share of the necessities of life to the collective, leaving the rest of her time free to pursue hobbies and creative endeavors. Communism in practice did manage to get half of that equation right; few people put in more than four honest hours of labor per day. (As a popular joke said, “they pretend to pay me and I pretend to work.”) But these sad, ugly gray societies hardly encouraged a fulfilling personal life, given that the tools for hobbies were almost impossible to come by and so many forms of creative expression could land you in jail.

If there’s one adjective I associate more than any other with the communist experiments of the twentieth century, it’s “corrupt.” Born of a self-serving corruption of Marx’s already questionable theories, their economies functioned so badly that corruption on low and on high, of forms small and large, was the only way they could muddle through at all. Just as the various national communist parties were vipers’ nests of intrigue and backstabbing in the name of very non-communist personal ambitions, ordinary citizens had to rely on an extensive black market that lived outside the planned economy in order to simply survive.

So, in examining the game of Civilization‘s take on communism, one first has to ask which version of same is being modeled, the idealistic theory or the corrupt reality. It turns out pretty obviously to be the reality of communism as it was actually practiced in the twentieth century. In another of their crazily insightful translations of history to code, Meier and Shelley made communism’s effect on the game’s mechanic of corruption its defining attribute. A communist economy in the game performs up to the same mediocre baseline standard as a monarchy — which is probably being generous, on the whole. Yet it has the one important difference that economy-draining corruption, rather than increasing in cities located further from your capital, is uniform across the entirety of your civilization. While the utility of this is highly debatable in game terms, it’s rather brilliant and kind of hilarious as a reflection of the way that corruption and communism have always been so inseparable from one another — essential to one another, one might even say — in the real world. After all, when your economy runs on corruption, you need to make sure you have it everywhere.

For all that history since the original Civilization was made has had plenty of troubling aspects, it hasn’t seen any resurgence of communism; even Russia hasn’t regressed quite that far. The new China, while still ruled by a cabal who label themselves the Communist Party, gives no more than occasional lip service to Chairman Mao, having long since become something new to history: a joining of authoritarianism and capitalism that’s more interested in doing business with the West than fomenting revolutions there, and has been far more successful at it than anyone could have expected, enough to challenge some of the conventional wisdom that democracy is required to manage a truly thriving economy. (I’ll turn back to the situation in China and ask what it might mean in the last article of this series.) Meanwhile the last remaining hard-line communist states are creaky old relics from another era, just waiting to take their place in hipster living rooms between vinyl record albums and lava lamps; a place like North Korea would almost be kitschy if its chubby man-child of a leader wasn’t killing and torturing so many of his own people and threatening the world with nuclear war.

When those last remaining old-school communist regimes finally collapse in one way or another, will that be that for Karl Marx as well? Probably not. There are still Marxists among us, many of whom say that the real, determinstic communist revolution is still ahead of us, who claim that the communism of the twentieth century was all a misguided and tragic false start, an attempt to force upon history what history was not yet ready for. They find grist for their mill in the fact that so many of the most progressive democracies in the world have embraced socialism, providing for their citizens much of what Marx asked for in The Communist Manifesto. If this vanguard has thus reached the fifth phase of history, can the sixth and final be far behind? We shall see. In the meantime, though, liberal democracy continues to provide something communism has never yet been able to: a practical, functional framework for a healthy economy and a healthy government right here and now, in the world in which we actually live.

I couldn’t conclude this survey without saying something about anarchy, Civilization‘s least desirable system of government — or, in this case, system of non-government. You fall into it only as a transitional phase between two other forms of government, or if you let your population under a democracy get too unhappy. Anarchy is, as the Civilopedia says, “a breakdown in government” that brings “panic, disruption, waste, and destruction.” It’s comprehensively devastating to your economy; you want to spend as little time in anarchy as you possibly can. And that, it would seem, is just about all there is to say about it.

Or is it? It’s worth noting that the related word “anarchism” in the context of government has another meaning that isn’t acknowledged by the game, one born from many of the same patterns of thought that spawned Karl Marx’s communism. Anarchism’s version of Marx could be said to be one Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who in 1840 applied what had hitherto been a pejorative term to a new, positive vision of social organization characterized not by yet another new system of government but by government’s absence. Community norms, working in tandem with the natural human desire to be accepted and respected, could according to the anarchists replace government entirely. By 1905, they had earned themselves an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

[Anarchism is] the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government — harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements, concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilised being.

As a radical ideology advocating a classless society, anarchism has often seemed to walk hand in hand with communism. As an ideology advocating the absolute supremacy of individual freedom, it’s sometimes seemed most at home in right-wing libertarian circles. Yet its proponents insist it to be dramatically different from either of these philosophies, as described by the American anarchist activist and journalist Dwight Macdonald in 1957:

The revolutionary alternative to the status quo today is not collectivised property administered by a “workers’ state,” whatever that means, but some kind of anarchist decentralisation that will break up mass society into small communities where individuals can live together as variegated human beings instead of as impersonal units in the mass sum. The shallowness of the New Deal and the British Labour Party’s postwar regime is shown by their failure to improve any of the important things in people’s lives — the actual relationships on the job, the way they spend their leisure, and child-rearing and sex and art. It is mass living that vitiates all these today, and the State that holds together the status quo. Marxism glorifies “the masses” and endorses the State [the latter is not quite true in terms of Marx’s original theories, as we’ve seen]. Anarchism leads back to the individual and the community, which is “impractical” but necessary — that is to say, it is revolutionary.

As Macdonald tacitly admits, it’s always been difficult to fully grasp how anarchism would work in theory, much less in practice; if you’ve always felt that communism is too practical a political ideology, anarchism is the radical politics for you. Its history has been one of constant defeat — or rather of never even getting started — but it never seems to entirely go away. Like Rousseau’s vision of the “noble savage,” it will always have a certain attraction in a world that only continues to get more complicated, in societies that continue to remove themselves further and further from what feels to some like their natural wellspring. For this reason, we’ll have occasion to revisit some anarchist ideas again in the last article of this series.


What, then, should we say in conclusion about Civilization and government? The game has often been criticized for pointing you toward one type of government — democracy — as by far the best for developing your civilization all the way to Alpha Centauri. That bias is certainly present in the game, but it’s hard for me to get as exercised about it as some simply because I’m not at all sure it isn’t also present in history. At least if we define progress in the same terms as Civilization, democracy has proved itself to be more than just an airy-fairy ideal; it’s the most effective means for organizing a society which we’ve yet come up with.

Appeals to principle aside, the most compelling argument for democracy has long been the simple fact that it works, that it’s better than any other form of government at creating prosperous, peaceful countries where, as our old friend Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel would put it, the most people have the most chance to fulfill their individual thymos. Tellingly, many of the most convincing paeans to democracy tend to come in the form of backhanded compliments. “Democracy is the worst form of government,” famously said Winston Churchill, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Or, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Man’s inclination to justice makes democracy possible, but man’s capacity for injustice makes it necessary.” Make no mistake: democracy is a messy business. But history tells us that it really does work.

None of this is to say that you should be sanguine about your democracy’s future, assuming you’re lucky enough to live in one. Like videogames, democracy is an interactive medium. Protests and bitter arguments are a sign that it’s working, not the opposite. So, go protest and argue and all the rest, but remember as you do so that this too — whatever this happens to be — shall pass. And, at least if history is any guide, democracy shall live on after it does.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, The Republic by Plato, Politics by Aristotle, Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History by Ernest Gellner, Aristocracy: A Very Short Introduction by William Doyle, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Crick, Plato: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas, Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by David Miller, The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan, Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward, Communism: A Very Short Introduction by Leslie Holmes, Corruption: A Very Short Introduction by Leslie Holmes, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Capital by Karl Marx, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker; What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.)

  1. The collapsed democracies of places like Venezuela and Sri Lanka, which managed on paper to survive several decades before their downfall, could never be described as mature or stable, having been plagued throughout those decades with constant coup attempts and endemic corruption. Ditto Turkey, which has sadly embraced Putin-style sham democracy in the last few years after almost a century of intermittent crises, including earlier coups or military interventions in civilian government in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. Of course, we have to be wary of straying into the logical fallacy of simply defining any democracy which collapses as never having been stable to begin with. Still, I think the evidence, at least as of this writing, justifies the claim that a mature, stable democracy has never yet collapsed back into blatant authoritarianism. 

Strand Games

IFI, Strand's Interactive Fiction Interface

by hugh at May 04, 2018 12:00 PM

Strand Games is about history, technology and games. Up until now, our efforts have focused mostly on IF history, but this is the first of a series of blogs revealing new IF technology being developed at Strand.

The architecture is to separate the various parts of the overall problem into components. For example, to separate the GUI from the IF game engine. These components we refer to as the front-end and the back-end.

To connect these two components we've developed a technology call...

May 03, 2018

Choice of Games

Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels – Winning Entries Announcement

by Mary Duffy at May 03, 2018 06:41 PM

We are proud to announce the winners of the first Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels.

1st Place
180 Files: The Aegis Project by Megan Hall
A tense spy thriller full of twists, gadgets, and emotional depth.

2nd Place
Tale of Two Cranes by Michelle Balaban and Stephanie Balaban
An epic story of war, peace, magic, and politics in ancient China.

3rd Place
The Twelve Trials by Douglas DiCicco
A high-stakes fantasy competition judged by the gods themselves.

Honorable Mention
The Aegis Saga by Charles Parkes
A fantasy epic that pushes the boundaries of narrative and ChoiceScript.

Finalists (alphabetical by title):
The Butler Did It by Daniel Jonathan Elliot
The Lawless Ones by Avery Moore
The Magician’s Burden by Samuel Harrison Young

There were 21 qualifying games in all. The author pool included both first-timers and veterans; and the genres ranged from high fantasy to gritty dystopia to steampunk. We were thrilled with the enthusiasm, creativity, and hard work that we saw in all the contest entries—and even more, with the active, engaged, supportive community of ChoiceScript authors that the contest fostered.

We’re still considering the possibility of a second contest in the future.

Thank you to everyone who entered! Completing a full-length ChoiceScript game is an achievement in itself.

If you’ve got a finished ChoiceScript game of your own, please consider submitting it to our Hosted Games label.

We hope you’ll all keep writing and playing!

Emily Short

Expressive Range in Tarot Decks

by Emily Short at May 03, 2018 11:40 AM

I collect Tarot decks, and I’ve been meaning for a while to write about why. Even with a fairly standardized set of cards and suits, Tarot decks demonstrate how a procedural system can be focused on particular domains of meaning and types of significance.

The cards may be dealt randomly, but the card names, images, suits, and interpretive booklets create a space in which certain meanings can be expressed and other types of meanings cannot (or can be expressed only in a veiled and oblique way). This is the expressive range of the procedural system.

The Tarot decks I find most interesting are the ones that go beyond minor re-arting/re-skinning and instead significantly rethink or revise the expressive range of the Tarot, inflecting their decks towards particular problems or meanings — often via conceptual blending between the original Tarot elements and the new theme domain. For instance:


Urban Tarot, Robin Scott. This is my favorite deck, grounded in the iconography of New York City. The images are dense and detailed, providing plenty to think about and read. Most of the cards, not just the arcana, have human figures on them, and many of those that do not are associated with specific landmarks. The Moon is the crescent formed by a displaced manhole cover; the Wheel of Fortune is a ferris wheel from Coney Island, desolate and abandoned. The Tower is — inevitably — the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11.

There’s a lot here about being a human in a society — or withdrawn from a society — and about how we regard justice, celebrity, wealth and poverty. I especially connect with the Aeon from this deck, which shows a woman visiting the memorial at Ellis Island.

At the same time, it’s very personal, with narratives about the card models often forming part of the reading. In this deck you’ll find public defender Verena Powell as Queen of Wands, or the artist’s own grandmother as Queen of Disks. The human reality of these individuals is inspiring — or disquieting, as in the case of the seductive Knight of Cups.

Robin Scott spent many years on this deck, and that shows in the evolution of style from somewhat more stylized and blocky cards like the Fool or the Knight of Souls to the bright realism of Satiety (10 of Cups) or the painterly quality of Art. Arguably that makes the deck less coherent, in some abstract sense, but I like having this evidence of growth and personal change built into the deck.

But I think what I like best about Urban Tarot is the diversity of mood and attitude it contains. Some Tarot decks are predominantly upbeat or predominantly grim; some focus on a small range of human experience or human problems. Urban Tarot encompasses a wider range of human possibility, the dark and the joyful, the healthy and the sick, the personal and the communal.


collectivetarot.jpegThe Collective Tarot is a “collaboratively created, radically-politicked, queerly-revisioned” deck. Its suits are bottles, bones, feathers, and keys — organic and discardable objects, a trash aesthetic, rather than coins and wands and swords. In place of pages and knights, queens and kings, we get seekers and apprentices, artists and mentors — suggesting a hierarchical progression that focuses on experience and obligation to give back to the community, rather than simple dominance.

The colors are often earth-toned and muddy, the line drawings intentionally harsh. The Seven of Bones is a card that just shows seven teeth falling, white on a black background, the embodiment of that common anxiety dream. The Hanged Man is here called Intermission, a man in chains hanging from the ceiling above a stage, while the audience looks on. Justice is supplanted by Accountability.

This is a good deck for thinking about questions like: when is it time to speak and when to be silent? How do we proceed, personally and in community, when we know that the system that surrounds us is broken? What is our balance of safety and truth?


slowhollerThe Slow Holler deck (Branches, Stones, Knives, Vessels / Student, Traveler, Architect, Visionary) is primarily by queer and/or southern artists. As with Collective Tarot, there are different creators for different cards, but unified by a color scheme of black and red, white and gold. Some cards are intricately dense, some are florid.

To me it feels like a somewhat safer version of the Collective Tarot, with fewer startling images and readings, and a stronger dash of emotional pragmatism. But that’s maybe a bit unfair — there are some truly weird moments in this deck. The Two of Branches is a rib cage that turns into a honeycomb at the bottom of the image, with trees growing up through the matrix — a symbol, says the book, of how our new creative energies often come from past loss, death, or decay.


stretchtarotThe Stretch Tarot is a mixed-media tarot deck. The suits and face card names haven’t been changed up, and the accompanying booklet is pretty brief and minimalist, so it feels less dramatically like a re-conception than some of the other decks here. The media in question are mostly 19th and early 20th-century photographs, paintings, and drawings (including some anatomical drawings): an update on Rider-Waite imagery perhaps, but still working with very much historical iconography.

Sometimes it feels like there’s a tinge of mockery in the way these pictures are deployed: the Ten of Cups, Satiety, depicts a very old-school mother and father, each with a fluffily gowned baby on one knee. The Emperor is a painting of Napoleon, but with the head of a deer.

Creation, the Ace of Wands, is at once phallic and gory. At the bottom of the image is Adam from the Sistine Chapel, with a rod placed in such a way that the casual viewer could be excused for thinking Adam extremely well-endowed. Around the rod are dribbles of wax, and the underlying texture looks like  sutured patchwork of skins. So what are we seeing here — the creation of humankind by God, natural reproduction, or some Frankensteinian act? Maybe all of the above.

But at other points, it feels like the images are selected on the basis of some rather outworn and undesirable stereotypes. Guidance is a native American man in headdress, and this feels like a Magical Native trope in a deck with majority white imagery. There are a few other people of color pictured — but that includes three Asian women as Cunning, which again feels like an uninventive choice.

So at its most interesting, this deck stacks together images in a way that calls out both positive and negative aspects of the concept in question. Not all of the cards do that much work, though, and some represent or reproduce an ideology I don’t share.


steampunktarotSteampunk Tarot, Barbara Moore and Aly Fell. At times a little cute or soft-edged for my tastes overall, lush and velvety and materially seductive but sometimes a bit toothless. This is not a deck that’s likely to disquiet you or call you out, and even the Tower here is a magician’s laboratory building that looks like it’s just experiencing a mildly out-of-control pyrotechnic display. The Wheel of Fortune is an interlocked set of gears with symbols, a Llull-esque vision of procedural meaning.

Still, thematically this one covers territory I haven’t seen explored by many other decks. It focuses on design, creation, and building; on the success or failure of complex and challenging projects. It’s also full of images of female artisans and engineers. The Devil is an out-of-control automaton, with a bit of a Sorcerer’s Apprentice implication.

I got this one during my work on Versu.



The Wooden Tarot (Blooms/Bones/Plumes/Stones, Page/Knight/Queen/King/God; standard arcana plus one Happy Squirrel Card). Dreamy and strange, this is a nature-inspired deck with no images of humans, only of plants, fungi and animals — and in some cases of chimerical hybrid creatures, like a femur that’s sprouting mushrooms, or a dog with a sunflower instead of a head, or chrysanthemum-like flower with eyeballs in every petal. It hits the mystical and the disturbing. Many of the animal faces sport a third eye.

Here again there’s no book, so the interpretation depends on the images themselves, and whatever Tarot-reading information you bring to the deck in the first place. Sometimes the nature-based interpretations largely agree with card interpretations found elsewhere — for instance, the High Priestess as a whale under the phases of the moon, or the Hermit as a bear under the mountains.

In other places, the nature-based imagery puts a new spin on the traditional interpretation. The Hanged Man here becomes a hanging bat — but a bat head-down is a bat in its natural position. Death is an owl with a mouse in its beak, part of the food cycle. The Tower as a lightning-blasted tree discards the concept of hubris and overreach from the original card, and (as I read it) refigures the lightning blast as something that just happens to large trees sometimes, a quirk of nature that can’t be avoided and for which no one should be blamed. Where some of the other decks above encourage the reader to consider the personal and communal accountability for bad outcomes, this deck seems to contextualize misfortunes as part of a life cycle of mixed good and bad.

I’d also say there’s less range of meaning with this deck than with some of the others. Cards within a given suit are pretty similar to each other in this deck — all the Bones cards are different configurations of crystals and antlers, for instance — and this makes it feel consistent, at the expense of illustrating the nuances of particular number/suit combinations.


Other mentions, though I don’t own these decks (or, in the digital cases, it’s not possible to own them per se):

  • Dry Erase Tarot is a Tumblr site that posts readings for which the artist creates new, connected images for the cards.
  • Marilyn Roxie’s Generative Tarot Reader is a Twine project that remixes Tarot card descriptions with crowd-sourced descriptors — so you’re seeing pieces of what assorted survey-takers thought the images might represent.
  • Black Power Tarot is a set of major arcana only which casts important African American figures on the cards.
  • Dust II Onyx by Courtney Alexander explores Black identity and the Black diaspora.
  • Ghetto Tarot illustrates card concepts with photography of Haitian scenes.
  • Currently on Kickstarter, the Ancient Epinal Tarot is designed for use in magic routines rather than Tarot readings, and has marked backs; the Threadbare Tarot is decorated with curious drifting scraps of cloth. The Luminous Void Tarot is all in watercolor. The Charles Dickens Tarot has cards like “Yarmouth” and is illustrated with images related to his life and work. There’s a steady stream of these through Kickstarter and other creative crowdfunding sites.


Some of the most effective Tarot re-envisionings I’ve seen come from people or groups who are at a disadvantage in the current political and social systems, and who are reimagining a whole vocabulary to better discuss the issues they need to talk about. (See also politically-inflected conlangs like Láadan.)

Rewriting and re-arting the Tarot is a way of inscribing a worldview. It’s also a way of acknowledging influences in one’s life, reusing and repurposing existing images and concepts.


More on this blog about Tarot and related concepts:

For more on the concept of expressive range:


May 02, 2018

These Heterogenous Tasks

Caregiver Fantasy

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 02, 2018 07:41 PM

One of the key things that videogame stories offer is approval. To some extent all media does this; but in videogames player identification with protagonists is a lot stronger, and more active participation is required – and needs to be … Continue reading

May 01, 2018

The People's Republic of IF

May meetup

by zarf at May 01, 2018 10:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for May will be Wednesday, May 16, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233. We’ll play something from Spring Thing.

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! NE By NW Oz by Ron Baxley, Jr.

by Rachel E. Towers at May 01, 2018 07:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Become a village junk collector with high, magic ambitions to rule in Northwest or Northeast Oz. Multiple cases of mistaken identity involve everybody in Oz from the original Frank L. Baum Oz characters to even yourself. You will be thrust into intrigue and suspense at every turn as you try to replace the dead Wicked Witch of the West and Wicked Witch of the East. It’s 50% off until May 8th!

NE By NW Oz is a 30,000 word interactive novel by Ron Baxley, Jr., where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

You may soon discover that some may or may not want you to have any of this roles but to remain as you are.

Ron Baxley, Jr. developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.

Emily Short

Writing for Video Game Genres: from FPS to RPG (Wendy Despain)

by Emily Short at May 01, 2018 07:40 PM

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 9.20.39 PM.png

I’ve mentioned this book before; it’s been around for a while, published 2009. Writing for Video Game Genres is (as the name might suggest) divided up into chapters by genre, with contributions by writers experienced in different areas.

As the introduction explains, it’s not a book about how to write in general, or even a guide to getting started in games; it’s meant to provide a deeper dive into the specific challenges associated with various genres, which are often very unlike each other. That said, these chapters are often rather introductory: genre-specific observations, certainly, but likely to be most useful to people who are first considering engaging with that genre, or who want an overview of areas where they haven’t worked before.

The book includes a section on parser interactive fiction, written by J. Robinson Wheeler. Some of the other genres covered are what we might think of game genres (MMOs, sports games, action games, adventure games, platformers, casual games, alternate reality games, serious games…); some are book genres (science fiction/fantasy, horror); and some are focused on particular platforms (handheld, mobile). These days, I’d probably expect to see an additional chapter on writing for augmented and/or virtual reality (and perhaps less about ARGs).

Several of the chapters lay out the challenges unique to their own genres: the fact that a MMO can’t focus on a single protagonist and has to take place in a persistent, many-year-long world, together with the difficulty of holding to a consistent tone in a game world that is written by many different authors over the course of years. The way an action-adventure may struggle to deliver story during a fight sequence where the player is distracted. The fact that audiences may not even expect or be looking for a story in a platformer, and that it’s often tricky to put a narrative frame around the “broken” worlds that constitute platformer settings. The often faceless, voiceless protagonist of first person shooters, and the storytelling limits imposed thereby. And (a running theme throughout) that pace is hard to control in almost all of these genres.

Some chapters also offer a bit of a canon overview for their particular field — obviously, necessarily, this canon stops at the book’s publication and therefore is now a few years out of date, but this gives a useful sense of what to play and/or YouTube to get a sense of that genre’s history.

Daniel Erickson’s chapter on RPG writing focuses on choice — writing good choices and delivering consequence — and many of these observations apply to interactive fiction as well, especially IF in the Choice of Games style. The chapter on adventure games (Lee Sheldon) gets into the pairing of stories and puzzles, and might be of most relevance to parser IF fans.

Meanwhile, Maurice Suckling’s chapter on sports games does a deep dive on the game Don King Presents Prizefighter, covering the “misogynistic-sounding girlfriend game” in which the player banters with women, trying to get one to come home. The narrative framing does entirely treat women as prizes to be won, which perhaps takes it out of being merely misogynistic-sounding, but the structure and issues raised in this minigame are not a million miles from issues in dating sims and similar work.

Personally, I found the book most illuminating about the genres I have least experience with. I would recommend this book most if you’re looking to add breadth (rather than depth) to your knowledge of games writing, or if you’re looking for early-stage guidance on a genre that’s been established for a few years.