…the unbridled lust for absolute power.
I first saw the birds flying against the Zulus in the early ’60s (or early ’90s – depending on your view of reality). And I did it, and why not me? I was afterall the President of an English Democratic Empire that spanned three continents (and some strategic offshoots). I went downstairs and made a tea. I went back to ops room 386 and unleashed more horsemen of the apocalypse than St John could count at Royal Ascot.
I issued the order with some mouse clicks from a garret on Lenton Boulevard in Nottingham. I bet you didn’t know that was where the English Empire had it’s secret command post?
I was still getting to grips with the social and economic effects of the destruction of my fifth city, Hexham and I rapidly had my cruisers in place to defend against the expected amphibious assault on the mauled port-city. I had known Shaka was cutting-up nasty so I already had subs and four carrier and four landing (loaded with Mech Inf, Armor, Artillery and “diplomatic” units) battle groups within range to almost immediately exploit the wreckage of Ulundi, Bapedi, Hlobane, Umtata, Umfolozi and even avenge the earlier retreat from Isandhlwana. The nuking wrought havoc and the bombers and artillery and battleships would do the rest of the softening-up both before and after we had secured our three bridge heads and cut the main island of Zululand in three thus preventing strategic reinforcement – plant some well fortified Mech Inf where the railroads pass through the hills and the remains of Shaka’s Riflemen were only fit to be eaten by the strayest of cats. Yeah, I had planned this as a contingency but my plans weren’t fully ripe and the ultimately fruitless first strike almost caught me off guard. The destruction of Hexham was a major blow though. But we could rebuild it’s Sistine Chapel and Shaka would shortly be spending the rest of his (artificially) prolonged puff in a pain amplifier. For when Nick plays Civ at top level he is a vengeful deity.
I ended that game utterly maxing it out before colonising the Centauri System for England.
Do I dream of that? Well, it was a great game and I recall it vividly. Oddly enough though it was during that game that I figured an important thing out. We’ll come to that in a bit. We’d best mention something else first. Playing Civ was enormous fun because like every other computer game I had ever played which was good (and not utterly abstract) it was an opportunity for make believe to be real. I have shot down MiGs over the Yalu and nursed a crippled Sabre back to Kimpo and dead-sticked the landing (I imagine the virtual crew chief wasn’t happy with the state of the kite). I have driven racing cars and run body-parts across Downtown on Titan under withering fire from the Klamp-G gang. I have stormed the beaches of Normandy and I have not only seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion – I was the one who launched the missiles…
So what was I going to say? It is not that I know it’s “make believe” or that it “doesn’t matter” – it does sometimes – for some of the flight sims I actually did things like download the genuine North American Aviation flight-training manuals. Considerably a better read than the manual you get with a Vauxhall Corsa! But I guess the Corsa is handier for a trip to Sainsburys. The Corsa sucks mind for a turning fight at angels 45*) but that’s not the point. Not the real one. Around the time I gave a virtual Ulundi a premature sunrise I was figuring out a fundamental thing.
And no it isn’t the painfully obvious (to everyone apart from tabloid gob-shites) that I liked violent games because I was suffering from testosterone poisioning. Or that this gaming behaviour was driven by that, accelerated by it, or made me that way or some other nonsense which is totally empirically unfalsifiable. It is not like, for example, I decided after playing Harrier Attack I had a burning rage to kill Argentinians (except those on a 14″ B&W telly hooked-up to my Speccy that were rather more pixelated than the Argentinians I have met). All that is risible nonsense. My favourite author is an Argentine – regulars will know who. And if I ever pass through Buenos Aires I shall visit his grave and I shall also show suitable respect to the poor guys who died on their side back in ’82 (The Falklands war was formative for me seeing as I was born in ’73). I just wish the Argentinians would acknowledge that that defeat was a victory for them. It expedited the removal of a vile military junta. That I think should be the true memorial for the Argentine soldiers, sailors and flyers who copped it. Kirchner thinks otherwise which is deeply depressing.
Anyway, I’m getting way off topic. My point such as it is that during my playing of Civ (and this utterly unrelated – being turn-based though it did gave much time for reflection and thought anyway and I guess it’s essentially epic nature puts a soul in a reflective mood) I developed my credo:
“I wish absolute power over myself and none over others”.
I put myself in the wilderness. Then a few years later – quite a few – I happened upon a blog called Samizdata and discovered there were others like me. Before that I was, “the only gay in the village”. I discovered the non-aggression principle that is the Jesus pin of libertarianism though I still prefer my own version. Typical libertarian! Herding cats and all that. Chant in full chorus, “We are all individuals”. I’m not.
I mention the games because they were (and are) fun though they have absolutely nothing to do with this. Except maybe being able to play alone did help. Yes, my childhood geekery fostered an independent spirit. But also a social one – I didn’t buy all those games now did I? I got a taped copy of Harrier Attack from a semi-retired truck-driver down the road. We’d swap games and of course he’d fondle my bottom in exchange. No he did not! We simply had a shared enthusiasm. No social worker would believe it but considering what they actually do believe fuck ‘em I say! His earlier ZX-81 (with the 16K upgrade!) was the second or third computer I ever touched. It was bloody awful by any standards but it was sheer magic when Maggie was doing her first term. I mean a computer in someone’s own home in the back bedroom of a house in a street belonging to an ordinary chap! I’d only really seen computers before in Bond movies and in this case there was no stroking of Persian cats and pointless rhetoric (sometimes witty – mind – “No, I expect you to reboot!”) involved. It was just, “You played this one?”
Alas my life has seen computers become things for mere mortals and can be operated without the cat or Mao Suit, facial scar and even more alas, without a bevvy of foxey librarian-types in very short lab-coats. Progress comes with a cost. But despite this it is still my credo and I make no apologies for repeating it:
“I wish absolute power over myself and none over others”.
Because that is what a computer of my own has always given me. I give them all names and whilst I always have a “public access” machine with a guest login my machine is mine and in extremis my wife can use it but no one else. And that is in utter extremis. It is a realm of the mind – my mind.
I guess I’ve believed that all my life. It only crystallized into that slogan when aged like twenty whilst I gave Shaka what was coming to him (he fucking started it!). Some might read this as delusional or that I am mad. In order to do that they would have to believe a number of things about me. I hate Zulus (never met one), I was involved in an epic struggle with King Shaka in a bedroom in Nottingham (God knows how he’d fit in his Impis – struggled with a single bed myself – and Hell knows what Andy directly underneath would make of the kerfuffle). I am assuming here that when two mighty empires come to serious fisticuffs more sound than light is generated.
Except it wasn’t was it? A genuine test of true sanity is to understand the difference between reality and a game however much you get into it. I have always enjoyed games of all forms but have always seen them as separate from reality and indeed that was the reason I enjoyed them. I have played Grand Theft Auto but it didn’t make me want to steal a car. It is only the truly mad (not a genuine psychiatric description – a more true statement) who link bad behaviour to gaming. For me in the clarity of the intellectual exercise of playing Civ (and it’s a game for thinkers, not twitchers) I got thinking. I was thinking that if exercised in reality what I was doing was vile, utterly vile (I killed millions and worked out the plan in the time the kettle boiled) so how could I square doing something vile with myself? Because it’s a game you idiot! I guess what I’m trying to say is that gaming gave me a greater appreciation of reality and why it matters because a game doesn’t in the same way. Civ brought that to me because that particular session had extended over an entire weekend and yeah, obviously, I had invested in it and it mattered but did it matter as much as my degree, my mates, my girlfriend (yes, Sid, I was cheating on you)? Well no. Or rather not exactly because to even compare is to commit a category error.
Because there are two sets of people who worry about the virtual replacing the real. There are lunatics (there have always been lunatics) and there are the soul-less who think that just because someone can voluntarily submit themselves to a consensual hallucination they are automatically subsumed into it. My hypothesis is that, yes some people can get addicted to games but that’s because they are a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic anyway. These are rare and not to be worried about. The ones to worry about are the sort of humourless drones who think every gamer is acting out what they’d really like to do in real life. They almost certainly think the same about other art-forms. Look, playing things like Elite I have traded slaves – it made a lot of unreal money by which I mean money on the screen and not money I could buy trainers with. Obviously I find slavery utterly obnoxious but as a small child gunning for a military class laser… I mean I was also in the first Éored at Pelennor Fields. I was 10 and in a bedroom in Gateshead staying-up way to late but I was there cheering on the shieldmaiden of Rohan. How could I miss that? But that was a book and they’re good and games aren’t. Well, I learned more about history, politics, economics and the art of war playing Civ when I was twenty than some of the twats I knew reading Das Kapital so I consider that a false dichotomy.
But really! 1976 (a bicentennial indeed of words!) in and I still haven’t said what I really need to. The role Civ really played in my life (apart from being epic fun and seeing me through some dark patches) was that the Civ player has a deliberately ambigous role in the game. Yes, you can set the politics so you can be King or President or remain a Despot but you have almost absolute power. You set your cities specific building tasks. A library here, a barracks there etc. Regardless of your political settlement at the time you are… Well, there’s a couple of ways of looking at it. You are either complete grand high poobah or you’re something more like the spirit of the nation – almost indeed – an invisible hand. And I said it was a pondering game. Well, it got me pondering because I almost didn’t like what I saw in my absolute power but the game doesn’t work without it which only means you see more clearly that real reality can’t work with it. Not least because the position you are placed in is utterly un-realistic. You start out with 10,000 tribal types in 4000BC and are expected to guide the realm to glory over 6000 years and ultimately to the stars! At an easier level I once got railways going BC!
Anyway it taught me to worry about absolute power and to know that should only be deployed in a tinker-toy world that isn’t real and goes away when you power-down (usually as the Sun comes up – a great game). And I guess what that really teaches is this:
“I wish absolute power over myself and none over others”.
Or over what happens on my computer – an instance of the same thing. Now I’ve said that three times now so it must be true. But think on this… Whilst I was pondering all that stuff whilst playing Civ some of my arts and social sciences pals thought the game “unsavory” but they only thought that because they were dreaming real. Or to put it yet another way read “The God’s Script” by Borges. When you can wrangle the Einstein Field Equations or do transfinite arithmetic or appreciate the number of accessible microstates in a warm mug of tea the sort of political machinations iDave and the Millipede are up to are the smallest of beer. Nobody who can derive the speed of light in vacuo from Maxwell’s equations gives a monkey’s chuff about their nonsenses. Does iDave even know the first derivative of sin(x)?
But hey don’t trust me…
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?
Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?
Job 38, verses 31-33 KJV.
I bet you have a copy in your home. If not that cunt Gove will be around and you wouldn’t want that to happen! Oh noes! I do have a KJV so I should be immune but if the Govester came round to check there would have to be an epic hoicking involving a profound kicking up the bracket and indeed elsewise.
Shaka indeed would have thought he got off light.
*My wife once got the Corsa – 3 pot and just under a litre – up to 90 on the M6 which was like the closing scenes of 2001. Her sister has managed spectacular feats in a Vauxhall Agila which is beyond human comprehension. I guess she had a brace of fresh AA batteries or something…