Let’s Play a Game

At one company where I worked, we had a few deliberately stupid conversational games that we would sometimes play, just to fill silence.

“Pirates, Ninjas, Giant Robots” – who wins? It’s a pointless argument, and it became a signal that “we are having a pointless argument” if someone in a meeting said, “I think giant robots would win…” everyone would take a pause and re-assess whether they were just arguing for fun or whether it was worth it. Another game was the “Zombie Outbreak game” that was an exploration of software engineers’ tendency to pick at eachothers’ solutions to problems. The outbreak game was played by going around the room and each player would put forward a zombie outbreak response plan. Then, everyone would shred it, and we’d go on to the next. There may have been alcohol involved, sometimes.

Lately, I have been daydreaming about how nice it would be to not live in this world – a world where half the population seems to be living under authoritarian rule, and the rest are eagerly wishing for it. The leaders of humanity seem dead-set on turning the planet into an experiment in runaway heat-feedback. I’m getting old, too – my joints hurt every morning, my memory is getting worse, I have a row of kidney-stones waiting to rip loose, and my teeth are starting to crumble. Eventually the wheels will come off the bus and the whole mess will wind up skidding and smoking in a ditch – which is what I think the US and Great Britain are working on: the mop-top authoritarian crowd are in the drivers’ seat, put there by mountains of dark money, and they’re leading a chorus of “Drill, Baby, Drill!” as the bus goes faster.

I fantasize about if I could go somewhere else. And I wonder where you’d go. If you could step into a computer game that you’ve played, and not have to come back out.

I found it a difficult challenge. For me, there would be 3 possibilities, and it’s really hard to pull them apart. World of Warcraft, Elite: Dangerous, and Fallout: New Vegas. Let me explain. Then, I’d love to hear where you’d go, in the comments below.

Someone find that orchestra and shut them up or get them to play some Bohren and Club Der Gore

World of Warfcraft: Flying mounts, great big castles, and gankable bosses, with great design sensibilities and lots of cool places to explore. Since I slapped down Arthas, The Lich King, I don’t think it would be inappropriate to take over and renovate his high seat at Icecrown Citadel. It’s cold up there but nobody seems to care about cold. Meanwhile, it’d be great to fly over to Halfhill in Pandaria for dim sum on Sunday mornings, or to go fishing in Stranglethorn. Brexit’s got nothing on Azerothian politics, though, but at least in World of Warcraft you can raise a raid team and go clean house on bad politicians. That’s how we got Garrosh Hellscream out of Orgrimmar, after all. Wait… Did I just admit that I’d be taking over The Lich King’s throne in the name of anti-authoritarianism? There may be a problem, here.

Elite: Dangerous – to me, the main appeal of living in the universe of Elite is something utterly unrealistic about it: every individual has the power to liberate themselves completely from politics. All you have to do is beg, borrow, steal, or earn the money to buy a big ship and then you can leave human space and never come back. The ships are huge – my Imperial Courier Ship M/V Now Look What You’ve Gone And Made Me Do is basically a flying New York City block with an independent fuel collection system (and if I run out, there are always the Fuel Rats) – you can load the basement hangar bay with supplies and a workshop, hire a professional cook and perhaps someone who’d keep the place clean and a shop assistant, then go somewhere where you’d never have to come back into the human power-structure ever again. In the world of Elite, politics are super-unrealistic: nobody would put up with politics unless they wanted to play – they’d just leave and find someplace pretty to hang out for the rest of their lives. In-game I have enough resources, which are honestly acquired through exploration and mining, that I’d be able to live comfortably until I died, working my projects and enjoying the view. If I got tired of the view, I’d spin up the friendship drive and change it. Basically, an Imperial Courier ship is like a really really big very plush trailer home with missile racks and a jump drive and you never have to empty the poop tank. Hell, yeah, baby!

Fallout: New Vegas The path of The Courier is complicated and hard in Fallout: New Vegas. You have choices that sort of matter, a lot of baddies to kill, and you start the game with a nasty wound and memory loss. As the game story evolves, you wind up in the middle of various factions that want to reconstruct human civilization in their image. Most of them are nasty. So, I decided to role-play the game in my own anti-authoritarian way, by wiping out all of the leaders of all of the factions. Then, I left and retired to my suite at the top of the Lucky 38 Casino. As it happened, I had completely forgotten to play one of the DLC modules so I saddled up and hiked into the sunset, bent nearly double under a load of firearms and ammunition, and inhumed the rulers of the Big MT, then went back to contemplating the view. In Fallout, there are a lot of interesting leaders: a sort of president, a Caesar, a collective of robots, a bunch of mormons, an immortal casino operator. It took a lot of work but I finally put some bullets through Caesar, had the president thrown off the Hoover Dam* and used my silenced .22 on the casino operator. In other words, I became a counter-balancer of sorts to all the authoritarianism that was arising to crush the human spirit after an admittedly soul-crushing nuclear war. I am less sure I’d want to live the rest of my life in that world, but what I am really sure about is that they’d be pretty happy to see the end of me.

A runner up would be the world of Dishonored, except that cleaning up that place would be a lot of work.

I note, after some thought, that what I really don’t want is a world where I am constantly having to deal with other people’s politics and mess. That means that an endless tour as “Savior of Azeroth” would probably turn me into an authoritarian sort of cross between the Lich King and Marie Kondo. Unfortunately, the Azerothis always have their equivalent of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump (only better looking) who want to genocide someone, and you have to leave your frost-palace and take up your dual-wield instances of Gar’Tok, and go sort them out. Same as in Fallout. That leaves me with Elite: Dangerous. In the universe of Elite, you can morally opt out of civilization, choosing to swoop in sometimes and fire fuel at a person who needs it, but otherwise can spend one’s time in contemplation of the vistas of icy planetary rings, or the accretion disk of a black hole. Compared to Brexit and Trump, a black hole seems cool and organized. I’ll take it.

Sometimes I head in for sushi at I Carinae

What about you?

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* Well, his general, anyhow. I imagine the president was sent down as a chaser.


  1. says

    What about you?

    I wouldn’t want to live in any of the game universes. I assume you have heard about Rawls’ “veil of ignorance,” right?

    Video game universes are designed to benefit a single person, the protagonist, who gets to become whatever they want. The rest of the people, NPCs and mooks, live under miserable conditions. If I were transported to some video game universe, statistically I would be much more likely to end up as the janitor washing player character’s space ship than a protagonist who gets to buy a spaceship.

    So, no, I wouldn’t like the idea of living in a video game universe just because of how unequal these societies are. One person gets to be the hero who takes whatever they want, everybody else is expendable and can be killed at any moment.

  2. errantmoon says

    I can completely understand the allure of living in a video game reality, is one sucks. I’m sitting in the middle of England wondering whose side my neighbours would be on if WWII happened again right now. Unfortunately I don’t play enough games to have a favourite to vanish into, but I do remember a terrible Star Trek one I played once…can I go to the Star Trek universe instead?

  3. komarov says

    Did I just admit that I’d be taking over The Lich King’s throne in the name of anti-authoritarianism? There may be a problem, here.

    I don’t see it.
    You may submit to the Throne if you so choose, but we’d rather you make up your own mind and take responsibility for yourself. If you want the Throne to submit to you, however, please be prepared to join its former occupant. Finally, if you’re just here for the sights and the view, please feel free to stay and roam around at your leisure. Rooms are available at the reception and the kitchen is open from six a.m. to midnight. Enjoy your stay!

    As for choices, hum. As Andreas pointed, most of the “open world” games are built on the backs of a trillion NPCs waiting on you. These worlds are basically feudal societes. As nice as it must be to be a noble (minus the intrigue and politics, please), I’d feel bad for the lower classes. At least I hope so, otherwise, off with my head.
    Besides, for all their freedom these worlds are so grindy that even the actual games feel like work. I really wanted to get into Elite, thinking there was finally a nice space game after a long gap. But all I did was mine stuff so I’d get some cash to finally buy a proper ship. I’ve done too much grinding already (effing Freelancer..) so I won’t do it again. Usually by the time I finally get somewhere I tend to tire of the game in question anyway.

    The Star Trek universe seems like a nice, fairly peaceful choice. Although, do you get to choose where and when you move? If you hate politics but end up a Romulan you’ll probably not enjoy life at all. A Cardassian anarchist and anti-authoritarian would have a very unpleasant life, indeed. But you just want to grab your own ship and explore away? Fine, except in most places, which are crawling with bandits, opportunists or ruled over by authoritarian regimes who, best case, want you to get your paperwork in order, or, worst case, execute or assimilate you. And even if you avoid trouble from the living, you’ll probably still get eaten, mangled, un-existed or generally (meta-?)physiced to death by some spatial anomaly.

    Under the tacit assumption that you can always move somewhere else when you get sick of the place, I think I’d like to move to Kerbin for a while. Kerbals are as apolitical as they come. All they care about is doing whatever the hell they like, so long as it involves building spacecraft (and related contraptions), just to see what happens when the countdown reaches zero. They also enjoy rebuilidng launchpads, cleaning up rocket debris and occasionally get some exploration done or land people on distant planets. Very occasionally they even get those people home again. Their monomania makes for a simple, yet interesting place to live – provided you share in their interest.

  4. Janstince says

    I’ve seen a few interesting series based on this premise, mostly done in the WoW style. Recently saw a live-action one called AFK, which, though it has pretty bad production values and the acting isn’t all that great, provides a take on what would happen should a whole bunch of people get literally sucked into an MMORPG fantasy game. I love how they deal with the alt-characters.
    A good anime series about this is .hack/sign. Of course, I guess only one character is actually pulled into the game, but the premise is there, and it was very well done.

  5. says

    A world of infinite resources and constant travel? Sign me up for FtL ships, though I’d rather have robot “employees” than living ones that might not like their fate.

    If you really can amass those resources in a reasonable time frame, I think I’d want to amass further resources that would make collecting such resources more efficient in the future and then set up robots to give away the new ships/ self-reproducing factories to as many people as possible.

    In other words, I want to set up a von Neumann machine that siphons off a portion of its production to supply others with self-contained happiness, increasing that share as the number of vNMs reaches a critical production value until eventually the production levels off to self-replacement levels.

    Whee! Everyone gets their own little utopia – of endless resources and endless exploration.

  6. lanir says

    I recently emmigrated from Azeroth to Eorzea. If I reply without thinking then hands down it’s Final Fantasy XIV’s Eorzea. But if I put the slightest though into it, I have to admit the reason has a lot more to do with the people I’m around than the world.

    The problem with most game worlds is they NEED a hero. The one singular benefit the real world has over any game is that someday the Time magazine person of the year can still be the entire population of the Earth, because we’ll have finally made up our minds to reverse the trajectory of carbon proliferation in the atmosphere. Where even in an MMO a hero is a singular personage for ease of storytelling, in the real world all of us can have some influence on the future.

    And besides. Most game worlds are nearly unliveable unless you get some equivalent of the standard isekai anime power boost.

  7. dangerousbeans says

    If we’re talking fiction in general it’s obviously The Culture. Maybe after a few hundred years of peace everything will feel like a bad dream

    If we’re talking computer games, probably some of my late game stellaris civs. Or abbeycadabra’s Minecraft server

  8. ColeYote says

    Honestly, once you remove all the dystopias and worlds where you’re constantly at high risk of death, there aren’t a lot of options left. So I’m gonna be boring and say Pokemon. And before any of you go around saying that’s not technically a computer game, screw you, I’m counting fan games.

  9. voyager says

    The Sims, but I’d want to be the author and creator of worlds, and not just some schmuck of a Sim who sets himself on fire while cooking. I know a few cheat codes to make (steal) money and I could quickly build the home of my dreams, then retire and pursue my hobbies. I’d populate my neighbourhood with interesting, agreeable people of all sorts, along with a few cats and dogs. I’d create well-built homes and give them away mortgage-free, and I’d make sure everyone had enough food, money and access to free healthcare and eductaion. I’d add in some forested areas, a park with a pond, a skateboard park, a public pool, .a museum, a theatre plus some good schools and a well-equipped and funded hospital.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Seconding The Culture. The Sprawl is probably OK if you’ve basic resources.

    When they had to pull the bones of my shin back inside the skin a couple of years ago, they gave me ketamine to send me somewhere else. For some reason, my mind chose the world of the indie game “Journey” – all glistening sands and pyramids and people in robes in the distance and creatures made of carpet. I was God there. In the real world I was under for maybe an hour, but I felt like I’d been there seven or eight thousand years. It was the most unpleasant experience of my life, and bear in mind I had mere hours before found out what it was like to land so hard on one leg that your shin bones see daylight. Don’t do ketamine, kids.

  11. lorn says

    Life in video games is far more predictable and manageable than RL.

    I dare say that if you took the headlines over the last three years and made them into a video game nobody would give it a second thought, it would be too ‘unrealistic’, too surreal, too bizarre for credibility in the wildest game worlds out there. If I read it in a novel I would be asking what the author was smoking, and where could I get some.

    Is this what we get when seven billion people make it all up as we go along?

  12. lochaber says

    ooh, good call on The Culture, dangerousbeans and sonofrojblake. That might almost be cheating, since they can also create simulations that would mimic all the videogame and book worlds (as long as the NPCs aren’t actually sentient…)

  13. says

    ColeYote @#10

    So I’m gonna be boring and say Pokemon.

    Have you really thought this through?

    Option #1: pokemon are friendly and harmless creatures who pose no danger to humans. This makes trainers nasty people who engage in animal abuse. Making animals fight against each other for the sake of fun and entertainment is highly unethical.

    Option #2: pokemon are dangerous. Wild pokemon attack humans and can potentially kill anybody who wanders into tall grass without a pokemon of their own that they can utilize for self defense. In this scenario, training pokemon for battle is ethically justifiable.

    My assessment is that pokemon is a death world. I mean, those creatures can spew fire or electrocute a human. Even though the games present the world as kid-friendly, there are numerous indications suggesting that probably this world is very dangerous. A person cannot walk into tall grass without a pokemon of their own. Pokemon fight against each other, but they somehow magically never get killed in combat. How is that even possible? If all six pokemon in a trainer’s party faint, the trainer is miraculously transported back to a clinic. How could that happen in an actual setting? I’d say that if a trainer runs out of tamed pokemon while in the wild, they’d probably get killed by some wild monster.

    A legendary pokemon has more destructive power than an atomic bomb. Yet a single trainer can wield one. Just think about the implications. In the real world, it takes a large team of people working together in order to create an atomic bomb. In the pokemon world, a single trainer can catch and command a legendary pokemon. And some of those monsters are inherently dangerous, for example, Yveltal who kills everything in its vicinity.

    The antagonists are also ridiculously dangerous. In Kanto and Johto the evil team was pretty much something akin to mafia—dangerous, but not attempting to destroy the entire planet. In Hoenn, both evil teams almost destroyed the climate, which would kill most life in the region. In Sinnoh, the evil team almost destroyed the entire universe.

    Here http://daystareld.com/pokemon/ is a pokemon fan fiction, which tries to portray the pokemon world realistically. The protagonists see several other trainers get killed by wild pokemon on the first week of their journey. It only gets worse from there. Some of their own pokemon are killed in combat, named human characters die as well. Never mind pokemon stampedes threatening entire cities.

    By the way, I’m the generation that grew up with pokemon games. I’m familiar with the older ones, I don’t really know what happens in the newer games.

  14. M Smith says

    As an X3 player, I second the idea of “big spaceship flown out to nowhere to live forever”, or just drifting from place to place. I think that’s why I play those games in the first place…

  15. Who Cares says

    X-3: Terran Conflict as well. Or maybe Spreadsheet (AKA EVE) Online. Trade up to capital ships or maybe even make a base that builds capital ships. Then use the space inside one of those capital ships to turn it into your own gazillioniare playground instead of stuffing it full of weapons.

  16. says

    I have to agree with Andreas. The Pokemon world, once you dig past the veneer of cuteness, is pretty horrifying and can only have been created by a mad god.

    I’d like to say something from the Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age, but even with magic I like modern conveniences too much. Also, killer dragons and other monsters.

    So maybe Mass Effect? Earth survives, so I’ll just avoid becoming a colonizer.

  17. Ketil Tveiten says

    Shorter Marcus-on-Elite:Dangerous: It’d be nice to be so filthy rich you could tune out the rest of the world and isolate yourself in luxury.

  18. says

    Ketil Tveiten@#20:
    Shorter Marcus-on-Elite:Dangerous: It’d be nice to be so filthy rich you could tune out the rest of the world and isolate yourself in luxury.

    That’s the biggest flaw in Elite:Dangerous – the governments and stations have no way to compel people to participate in their economy. There is nothing stopping people from opting out. Also, there are no controls in place so that the rich can keep other people from also becoming rich. I find that extremely unrealistic.

    In game, I made vast wealth by mining and hauling valuable metals to places where the price was high. During the re-vamp of 2017 the mining mini-game was improved significantly, with the addition of robotic mining drones: you open your cargo hatch, fire drones, and use your mining laser to knock off chunks of ore. They collect it. Since they are low-level automata, I don’t expect them to unionize. So it’s possible to become very wealthy simply by investing in good mining tech, upgrading it until you have a big ship with a lot of drones, and then you make money hand over fist, no need to exploit any workers.

  19. says

    I dare say that if you took the headlines over the last three years and made them into a video game nobody would give it a second thought, it would be too ‘unrealistic’, too surreal, too bizarre for credibility in the wildest game worlds out there.

    Sort of. Though there are political elements of reality that bleed into games, so there is sometimes similarity.

    I hope they cancel this drama and we don’t have another season of it. It’s weird but it’s also predictable.

  20. says

    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden @#7:

    I’d rather have robot “employees” than living ones that might not like their fate.

    I’m assuming that a billionaire could find craftspeople who actually enjoyed the job, and pay them enough to make it more than worth their while. Spend a decade out in the black making sushi, return with a $100m/cr bank balance so you can open that restaurant you dreamed of. (Which is normal progression in the food service industry) Of course, we can get paranoid: if you leave the staff $100m/cr each in your will, what’s to stop them from feeding you fugu? I guess you actually have to treat people well and respectfully and make interacting with you financially desirable and pleasant besides.

    If you really can amass those resources in a reasonable time frame, I think I’d want to amass further resources that would make collecting such resources more efficient in the future and then set up robots to give away the new ships/ self-reproducing factories to as many people as possible.

    In other words, I want to set up a von Neumann machine that siphons off a portion of its production to supply others with self-contained happiness, increasing that share as the number of vNMs reaches a critical production value until eventually the production levels off to self-replacement levels.

    I love that idea. Instead of “berserkers” you have friendly egalitarian servitors. They are here to help. There are a lot of them. They are self-reproducing and very friendly.

    Of course the rich and powerful would have to implement “negative liberty bots” to fight and suppress your “positive liberty bots” to preserve the status quo. It would get interesting!

  21. says

    I have to say that voyager’s nearly got me convinced by The Sims. After all, if we accept that people keep making games like Sims, eventually the probability gets really high that we’re not really in the world, we’re just Sims.

    Uh… (shakes himself)
    OK, I feel better. That was a momentary spasm.

    The idea of making a little neighborhood in The Sims and making everyone happy, that’s pretty good. I’d step into that.

    Meanwhile I wonder if there are any Randians out there using The Sims to make their own little Galt’s Gulch? I believe that Iain Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata has something to say about this. And, since it’s Banks, it’s not really nice.

  22. Dunc says

    Marcus, @ #21: If mining’s that easy, then lots of people should be doing it, until the price of mined resources collapses and it’s no longer economic for anybody without the very best and most efficient kit…

  23. Ketil Tveiten says

    Of course everyone has a mining-capable space ship at hand to start the climb up the wealth ladder…

  24. komarov says

    As I recall, one way of making money in ED (and virtually every game like it) is bounties. So there’s your control mechanism. If you’re already rich and enjoy your solitude at the top, you “reinvest” some of your money into a network of informants on the look-out for up and coming economic stars. Then, before they get anywhere, put a bounty on them. It’s evidently legal to do so in the ED univers, as is lethal force for bounty hunters, and so, for a pittance, you can maintain the power differential. It’s a crab bucket, and you’re paying the crabs to keep each other trapped.
    Anyone who wanted to avoid that fate would essentially forced into deep space before they’re ready and independent enough. Your (happy) life in deep space presupposes that you’re able to afford a big ship with top notch gear, making it a self-sufficient, one-ship-economy. But what people start with is a single-seater dinghy that handles like a brick, is as versatile as a brick and is probably just as comfortable. I suspect even stretching your legs for a minute would require a space walk. That’s neither sustainable nor pleasant.

    I didn’t know we could choose to be the gods of the games. In that case,… still Kerbin. Rimworld (a Dwarf Fortress clone) might be interesting, too, but it has a crueal streak I wouldn’t actually want to live. That’s a disqualifying factor for many game worlds, in fact. It might be nice to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world where murder is a casual, everyday thing.

    P.S.: Mining in ED – even with limpets – is just dreadful. I think the worst part for me was that it requires just enough attention that you can’t read a book or do something else to pass the time. Well, that and the intense Freelancer flashbacks. Mine ore, haul ore, sell ore, still not enough, start over and question existence.

  25. dangerousbeans says

    Dunc @25
    If mining is that easy and automated, I would suggest manufacturing is too. The only thing of any value left would be the designs. So it sounds like it’s getting close to post scarcity

  26. says

    You can get a landing computer that will fly your ship; I don’t see why it’s not possible to outfit a mining ship that’ll fly out and just mine for itself. Robotic trade-ships ought to be possible, too.

    The economies of E:D are kind of whacked. It makes a certain amount of sense that you’d need gigantic amounts of aluminum in a system in order to build a starbase. But then why would they pay to have aluminum imported from elsewhere?

    As far as starting conditions: everyone starts with a very low-end inexpensive ship, which can be outfitted for mining by the simple expedient of selling some components that you don’t need, like shields and weapons and kitting it with other gear. You need to be good at evading pirates.

  27. ColeYote says

    @Andreas: I suppose I might’ve under-thought things a bit by taking Pokemon’s game mechanics at face value. I’ve played fan games, Reborn and Insurgence in particular have some dark takes on the universe, but even sticking to the official games there are a lot of world-threatening terrorist groups around. So for a backup answer… I dunno, some furry visual novel or another I guess. There’s a lot of them and most of ’em are light-hearted dating sims. Basically our reality except fluffier and gayer.

  28. dangerousbeans says

    @ColeYote fluffier and gayer sounds like a good improvement to our reality

    @Marcus 29, most computer game and Sci fi economies don’t make sense. The available energy needed for interstellar trade is ridiculous, and all those pirates are sitting in weapons capable of destroying cities if they tried. And what are all the other people doing who aren’t flying ships?
    This is why the best explanation for Star Trek is that its just post scarcity LARPing

  29. Dunc says

    The economies of E:D are kind of whacked.

    Which is very much in the spirit of the original. The thing that I could never quite get myself to believe was the idea that there was a significant amount of interstellar trade, but no information available on prices… (I don’t know if they’ve kept that particular quirk.)

  30. says

    I know you said computer game, but I have to go with paper: World of Greyhawk, Folio Edition from Gary Gygax’s first edition AD&D books.

    It’s a fleshed out world which, unlike what others said, isn’t based around a hero saving everything. There were many lands of different cultures and kingdoms, and while there were evil forces, they weren’t organized and overwhelming. You could live out your life quietly if you wanted to in about as much danger as Earth without environmental or nuclear apocalypse, or you could change it by your actions. Sans democracies.
    – – – – – – – – – – – –
    When people said X3, I thought they meant the real-time strategy game. I must spend too much time in retro computing groups.

  31. says

    World of Greyhawk, Folio Edition from Gary Gygax’s first edition AD&D books.

    I have that; it’s right over on the shelf next to the 3-box set.

  32. wereatheist says

    Being in nitpicker modus, while listening to drone music recommended by one of your fellow bloggers, I say:
    It’s “Bohren & der Club of Gore”
    Now back to enjoying György Ligety

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