Acceptable Losses

Composed on the 26th of March in the year 2012, at 5:45 PM. It was Monday.

In a pathological act of self-destruction, I bought Skyrim the same week that several hard deadlines were set on the sooner portion of my otherwise sparse schedule. Maybe life didn't seem hard enough. Or I just have no ability to fight impulse buying. Or impulses in general.

For those of you in the wrong demographic or just returning from missionary work in Antarctica, Skyrim is a fantasy adventure game. A truly awesome fantasy adventure game. It trumps its competition with its scale and its open-ended structure: you can spend a hundred hours playing out a narrative that has nothing to do with the primary plot line. It is to the usual adventure game what the X-Files is to Star Wars. There's at least one cave that takes upwards of seven hours to thoroughly explore.1[1] Thousands of characters with names and personalities produce thousands of variations of experience, replete with intrigue, well-written dialogue, and histories. For me, it's better than online adventure games, because you don't have to deal with legions of teenagers who usually have less personality than the average computer-generated goblin.2[2]

The lack of actual human intelligence behind the characters I interact with in Skyrim does less than you might think to prevent me from creating enough neural constructs around them to care about their fates. Not everybody suffers from the curse of empathy as acutely as I do; many people are happy to play the game as an assassin, a thief, and a bully. It's arguable that it's a lack of rationality on my part, or at least an inhibited ability to suspend my disbelief. The fact remains that if I've befriended a scripted algorithm, and another algorithm scripted to espouse mores dissimilar to my own orders me to kill or threaten the former algorithm, I can't do it. Despite knowing that the magnetic switches in my Playstation's hard drive don't care in any meaningful sense whether they're flipped to a one or a zero, I prefer to keep them flipped in a pattern that preserves the illusion of a given friendly shopkeeper.3[3]

My friend Viking Shaft—who is simultaneously among the nicest and the most intimidating people I know, served in the Israeli military, and incidentally looks much like the six-foot-plus viking character I play in Skyrim—has the same problem. He recounts attempting to complete a mission that required him to kill someone (an algorithm in Skyrim, mind you), and he couldn't do it. He turned down all the rewards that could have come with this deed because he empathized with a computer-generated personality. And despite the excellence and complexity of the game, these personalities are not even particularly complex: once they're out of useful or picaresque information, their script loops, and they say the same thing every time you attempt to talk to them, to the point of annoyance if it's someone like a blacksmith, with whom you must deal unto the ends of the game. The ones you don't have to talk to serve no other purpose than to break the illusion of the game as they repeat one or two lines when you get too close, yet Viking Shaft and I can't bring ourselves to reduce their data bits to a less excited state.

Aside from being an instant refutation of the belief that you need a god or a consequence to be moral, this behavior starkly contrasts the behavior I displayed in another game.

You thought I was going to say Grand Theft Auto, didn't you? I wasn't, but since I know at least twenty percent of my readers probably thought I would, I can use it to flesh out the point. Despite the ultimate social evaluation of my behavior in GTA, I went to great lengths to keep my electronic family and the occasional friend alive. The innocent bystanders that get caught in the plot line are so faceless and obnoxious they don't register as willful beings in our—admittedly misfiring—empathy sensors. Even on the inevitable berserker sessions, murdering the faceless masses are just a way to get the attention of the real opponent: the police. In a social setup where you are already on the wrong side of the law with no way to get back, the police are your opponents the same way zombies and giant spiders are your enemies in Skyrim. The fact that between Skyrim and GTA I've slaughtered thousands upon thousands of cops, monsters, and other data sets with the "enemy" bit switched on, I always tried to keep anyone with non-explicitly-threatening dialogue alive. Even though they were the same digital illusions as the faceless and the murderous, I just felt bad for them. GTA, as a point-of-view action-adventure game, is not that different from Skyrim; the only difference is that Skyrim lets you choose your overall moral allegiances.

The troubling game in question has an entirely different character.

Several times during the highly dysfunctional living situation I shared with my heterosexual life mate, Jake, we would drag our computers into one of our rooms and embark on a six- to twelve-hour session of Rise of Nations. This is a real-time strategy game in which you pick a few stereotyped ancient cultures and drop them onto an improbably small chunk of the world and see who wins. There are several ways to win, including building the most ancient wonders and reaching the population or educational limits first, but as anyone who plays these games knows, the complete genocide of every other culture is the most satisfying, and leaves little room to doubt who will write the history books.

Since Jake was so much better at this game than I, we settled on us playing against four computer opponents of varying ability. Once we hacked the source code to increase the population limit by a factor of ten and let us build cannon-bearing elephants the size of small villages, we played out wars that—if scaled appropriately and fought in the real world—would have reduced the Earth to a bleeding cracked egg, notably outside its usual orbit.

There were a few artificial limits that went into our gameplay. First, the other cultures were going to attack you, early and persistently. Yes, we turned off the possibilities of our making treaties with them, but we allied them all with each other, so two friendly cultures versus four friendly cultures is actually way ahead of its time given most of the real world's history. There was also a built-in limit to the amount of knowledge you could acquire; Jake and I preferred to set the end of learning at the beginning of the gunpowder age, since it offered a nice mix of melee battles and thoughtful artillery deployment, and because there's just too much shit going on once you have commandos and helicopter squadrons.4[4]

Since there's a population limit, you had to assign your civilians carefully so you had the military power to maintain total war with four angry neighbors. First you need food, so you build farms. Later, wood, followed by metal, becomes necessary to the war effort, so you maintain the minimum number of farms in order to feed your maxed-out population, then as many people as you can spare from the front lines to work the mills and mines. Found a way to work with fewer farms? Send the farmers to the mines, where they will be targeted by enemy troops seeking to cut off your metal supply. Resources are primary, since war is fundamentally economic. If it takes a hundred of my troops to eliminate ten of your troops, it doesn't matter as long as I can build eleven of mine for every one of yours.

The battles often concentrate around key strategic pathways and resources. You set up constant streams of military units to die at these points, and have to focus on maintaining the stream, since a break will create a brief weakness and loss of land that you will have to fight to take back, usually with last-ditch methods like drafting a swarm of civilians to delay the onslaught while you drain your resources to build military units in the population gap produced by the dying miners. All of this is textbook warfare. Once you accept the conceit and the terms, it's not particularly different from the real world.

There's just one tactical decision that always gave me pause, even as I gleefully executed it every single game.

When you start, you work as fast as you can to get to the point where you can build universities. You can build three, and you can fill each of them with six scholars. You save your coins for each one, because having the edge in technology gives you the edge in the war. But, as mentioned, there's a limit to knowledge in the game. You spend everything on reaching that limit as quickly as possible. Then you hit it. Then, your schools are taking up valuable space, that could be better used for churches, which increase the national borders, hit points, and attack range of a given city. So you burn your schools down. You're left with eighteen civilian scholars. Depending on how much of the map you've explored and how heated the war has become, you either turn them into militia and send them to the far reaches of the world to die while revealing enemy structures, or you just right-click and execute them to open up population slots for new cavalry.

The bleak callousness of this action was never lost on me or Jake. But since the scholar algorithms were more faceless than the cops in GTA, we never hesitated. We weren't playing a person interacting with algorithms imitating simple personalities, we were playing a country interacting with other country algorithms. The entire enemy country had no more personality than a nest of Skyrim spiders, and our scholars no more import than the magic potions I drop so I can carry an enchanted dagger back to the first shopkeeper who can afford to buy it.

I am never surprised by the atrocities various governments commit to preserve themselves or grab new resources. I'm more surprised by their restraint, and that restraint only exists because we discovered a way to eliminate all human life and nobody in a position of power really wants to do that. Were I one of the digital civilians I'd moved from a farm to a mine to the front of a war to die so I wouldn't have to feed him anymore, I'd be itching for the technology to break out of my digital prison and burn everything dear to my mouse-clicking overlords.

The technology is arriving for the angry or insane individual to destroy almost as much as a government. A country never seeks to destroy itself, even if it pursues practices with an obvious terminus. A country eats its land, its neighbors, and eventually its own people because it is a system designed merely to persist. A person is designed for the same purpose, but has no statistical average to support their persistence: a couple of faulty wires will end the game.

Subsuming the importance of the individual to a goal is the fundamental fallacy that allows for warfare. The abstraction of this process, be it a god or a country or a corporation, distances the debate from the relationships between people that might engender empathy. Corporations, countries, and gods do not have empathy. They don't even make the pretense. A committee or individual dedicated to the abstraction can eliminate faceless strangers to the tune of millions without blinking, because there's no relationship between them and the soon to be dead.

The fear of biological warfare, ever shrinking nuclear devices, and nanotechnology is justified, because each of these technologies puts the power of a civilization in an individual's hands. Acceptable losses to a country are losses that don't impede its ability to continue as a political entity. Acceptable losses to a person who feels they have nothing left to live for tend to include the whole of the known universe. If every mentally competent person of voting age on Earth were given a button to blow up the world when I started typing this sentence, the world would be gone before I finished it.

If it's not already far too late, now would be the time to start treating our individuals with more respect than our goals and ideals. The moment will inevitably arrive when it will only take one unhappy person to bring human history to a close. Best hope they have relationships and loved ones, and that nobody burned down their school.

1 As a point of comparison, the original Mario Brothers can be completed in less than fourteen minutes.

2 And are balancing so many chips on their shoulders that logging in constitutes entering a game of social blackjack.

3 Personally, I make the same argument for humans, who are organ sacks supporting a pattern of active and inactive neurons that I prefer to keep in patterns that produce what I refer to as my family and friends. If you feel that's a stretch, consider a psychopath will set all those neurons to inactive if it suits them. But I digress.

4 The middle ground was World Way I technology, but, fittingly, WWI games always led to fourteen-hour sessions. We invariably gave up, then discussed the game in a muted, hungry, and vaguely shell-shocked manner.

I open my third eye, then secretly listen to Gordon Lightfoot.

Hi there! You should totally go buy my book for the low low price of 6.66! It's like buying me a beer at an out-of-the-way dive bar in Brooklyn! Not in Manhattan. Manhattan prices are ridiculous, though there are a couple of decent Irish dives where you can snag a drink for five bucks. Otherwise, you're looking at a two or three book beer.
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