Games gone global. (World of Electronic Games)
by Gregg Keizer
Nations rise; kings fall. Some civilizations leave impressive relics of past glories, while others vanish without a trace. But they're all at the mercy of your PC's on/off switch. Press it, and they're only ephemeral bits of magnetic particles on a floppy disk.
Game designers can squeeze the globe and its billions of inhabitants, along with their wars and explorations, their laws and creations, onto a piece of plastic no bigger than your hand.
We may get to play with these worlds, but they're not ours to keep. They're the children of game designers like Chris Crawford, Sid Meier, Will Wright, and others. And they act and think a lot like their parents.
Balance of Power, a geopolitical simulation where you go toe-to-toe with the Soviets, is still one of the best examples of designer hubris. Though Balance of Power evokes the sense of brinkmanship, few other pieces of software are so marked by their creator's hand.
Play from the American perspective, for instance, and you can find yourself going to the thermonuclear threshold because the Russians are trying to push military advisers into Mexico. Not only is it absurd that any Soviet regime would be so audacious, but when they won't back down under pressure, the situation slides to the ludicrous. The only way to survive is to be DPC, Designer Politically Correct. Don't want to play by Crawford's rules, which can quickly force you into a set piece of wimpy behavior? Too bad. All you can do is pack it in (or more likely, spark an atomic conflagration) when you try to get tough.
Crawford's not the sole example of the global game designer point of view. Will Wright, maker of the ultra-popular SimCity and its sequel, SimEarth, abridged cities, then planets. In SimCity, where you manage urban populations, you can quell citizen complaints by simply building a sports palace, a cynical attitude that evokes images of Roman circuses. Mass transit is OK, while automabiles are an evil you need to dispose of as soon as possible. More DPC.
SimEarth, a stunning but often passive model of world building, harbors a bias against nuclear power in its advanced levels. To its credit, though, SimEarth lets you promote any species--even dinosaurs--to intelligence, a remarkably liberal viewpoint.
Sid Meier, MicroProse's premier designer, recently released his newest work, Civilization, a game in which you guide your culture from the pre-Bronze Age to the Space Age. Though your choice menu is impressively long and complex, the race to supremacy is decidedly Western and very technological.
What can you expect? Computer games, after all, are made by people. People with opinions.
Writers bring personal perspective to their work, sometimes inflamed views that are meant as much to sway as to report. All creative endeavors--and game design is just such an undertaking--begin with an opinion.
Perhaps what fools us is that these games run on computers, which brook no shading, only blacks and whites. Or maybe it's the word simulation that tricks us into thinking the genre must be neutral and neutered. But game makers--and thus their games--are anything but objective.
"There's definitely a designer's perspective, but I think of it as more of a question of what you want to emphasize," says Sid Meier. "[Political and economic games] are in the more subjective topics. When you talk about politics or history, of course there are different opinions. But dealing with another level of bias is, in some ways, more interesting."
Chris Crawford puts it more plainly. "I've never claimed that my games are free of bias. In fact, a game designer has a moral responsibility to put his perception of the world into the game. But he'd better make sure that the opinions are as broadly based as possible."
"My view of a city is what's reflected in the program [SimCity]," chimes in Will Wright. "It's very subjective, but . . . so is any form of entertainment. It's not something you find just in computer games. No matter how hard you try to be neutral, you still have a point of view."
It's no surprise, then, that we're not completely content with the PC worlds we borrow, especially those that explore emotional topics like politics, religion, and the environment. The key is this Chris Crawford comment: "Any good piece of art exaggerates reality."
So take Crawford, Meier, Wright, and other ambitious game designers with a grain of salt, accept what they let us play with, and argue with it if you like. Just don't expect games to be as soullness as the computers that play them.