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The Hidden Biases of World Building

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Here’s the thing about creating a new world: No matter how hard you try, however much thought and originality you put into its social architecture, you will always bring to it the beliefs of the world that you left behind.

Game developers have been simulating worlds and the history of worlds for decades, but only recently has the computer processing power come close to replicating the most ambitious new civilizations we have in our heads. Up until now, even the best virtual worlds and world-based strategy games have come with shortcuts for simulating society and social progress. These shortcuts often expose cultural assumptions (likely unconscious) that the developers might harbor about the real world -- and often, they’re not very pretty.

To touch on just a few:

History as a Competition Between Distinct Peoples

In countless strategy games of world conquest, players choose a race or nation to represent, each with its own strengths and weaknesses against other races or nations. This may be a good way of lightly educating young gamers about world history, but it also enforces a belief that the world’s peoples are distinct and separate -- not unified or interdependent.

History suggests the latter is more typically the case. Consider the Crusades, a common scenario in war games. Their immediate outcome was largely determined by battle, but their unintended, indirect effects remain with us, nearly a thousand years later. The Crusaders were eventually beaten back from the battlefields -- but not before countless documents of Muslim science and philosophy, and Muslim translations of Greek knowledge, matriculated back to Europe -- documents which eventually helped inspire a flowering of knowledge, science, and liberal humanism in Europe. Seeking to conquer a land and its culture, a portion of that culture came instead to dominate the conquerors.

Has a world simulation game come close to simulating anything like that?  

 Screenshot of Dwarf Fortress - Bay 12 Games

Screenshot of Dwarf Fortress - Bay 12 Games

Military Conquest as Progress -- And Default Form of Conflict

The assumed primacy of military dominance is so deeply ingrained in games, it’s embedded in a subgenre’s name -- with genocidal overtones no less: 4X, for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.

Scott Jennings, a longtime designer and MMO analyst, explains this focus on gaming’s origins: “Strategy games tend to view problems as only requiring one (very well armed) tool to fix because for the most part that's what customers expect and want -- wargames, simulations of the military aspect of conflict resolution (and the more detailed in many cases the better),” as he puts it. “[A] lot of this comes from gaming's history in the pen and paper wargame days of the 1970s.”

Given that background, many game designers miss the opportunity to move beyond combat; however, as Scott points out, there are notable exceptions that have succeeded:

"’Crusader Kings’ for example is one of Paradox's top-selling titles in its list of strategy games, specifically because its focus is less on medieval warfare (although it has plenty of that) and more of the interactions between the political figures of the day -- marriage between factions, intrigue, betrayal, all the things that make Game of Thrones interesting.”

Another classic, ‘Hidden Agenda’, also has little military combat: “It puts the player in control of a Central American country (this was a thinly disguised retelling of the Nicaraguan Contra wars of the time) and has them face the numerous political, economic and military challenges such a leader would face, primarily using the one tool that leader would have -- a Rolodex full of contacts.”  

 Screenshot of Freeciv

Screenshot of Freeciv

Human Knowledge & Technology a Linear Evolution

World simulations often depict technological progress in terms of branching, interconnected breakthroughs -- literally called a tech tree. And from a certain standpoint, there’s logic to that: from the invention of the wheel comes the cart, from the cart comes the chariot, and so on.

Underlying this hierarchy, however, is a rather positivistic assumption that technology evolves in a linear fashion. as a result of careful, concentrated study. But technology’s path often (usually?) is haphazard and unpredictable, the outgrowth of culture or economic necessity -- and in many notable cases, the eccentric creative leaps of its inventors. The advent of popular computers and smartphones is surely among the most important achievements of the last few decades, and it’s usually depicted as such in world simulation games. But it may not have happened at all -- or rather, would have happened in a very different way -- were it not led in large part by Apple. But Steve Jobs doesn’t attribute the success of his company to his expertise in computer engineering -- he credits a calligraphy class he took as a college dropout. (Or for that matter, dropping acid.)

It’s in MMOs where designer intention is most likely to expose biases and mistaken assumptions -- there too many players interacting all at once for any studio to maintain their design, even with their godlike hand. World of Warcraft’s developers once added a “corrupted blood” infection to the game, probably expecting it to enhance gameplay -- and wound up with a worldwide panic and pandemic that is now studied by real world epidemic and terrorism experts.

I’ve seen the mismatch between what world builders hoped for and what actually emerged from its community of players first-hand. I began my career as an “embedded journalist” for Second Life, the user-created online that was inspired not by Tolkien or Star Wars (as most other MMOs are), but by Burning Man, the annual, free-spirited art community in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. Wouldn’t it be marvelous, the inspiration went, if people from all over the world could attend a Burning Man online?

My assignment was to track the emergence of the virtual community of early users -- and beyond some small pockets of idealistic players, much of what I saw was little like the utopia the creators imagined: Full-fledged wars over real life politics. A decadent hookup scene with so much virtual adultery, private detectives flourished. It was anarchic, it was unpredictable… it was more thrilling and multifaceted than a short-term party in the desert could ever offer.

We’re now in a new era of world building, worlds that can work without shortcuts, where millions of players will soon be represented in a single, simulated space. The next generation of creators will bring their preconceptions and biases with them, as all of us do -- but so will the players. And from the sheer mass of their clashing, expect to see new worlds emerge, perhaps as complex and challenging as the one we share.

- Wagner James Au