Video Games Rock

03.29.13

Nerdiness from Noah: Alpha Centauri

Some readers of the blog may remember me, but for the newer members of the audience, I will provide a short reintroduction. My name is Noah Kristula-Green. I worked with David Frum on his FrumForum site and the Daily Beast blog from 2010 through August of 2012. For my day job, I work at a polling firm in DC called The Winston Group.

And when I am not working, I am playing all sorts of games, computer games, video games, and board games. Since I spend a lot of time playing them, I felt it was time I started writing about them.

The purpose of this column is not to “review” new games that come out: there are enough websites for that already. Instead I am going to write about the more interesting aspects of games: what sort of politics do they espouse? What do they reflect about the culture they are made in? What do they tell us about our media?

I will cover some games that are new (so Bioshock: Infinite and the new SimCity are definitely on the list) but also many games that are old. Starting with the most ideologically-driven empire building game you can ever play, and one of my favorite games of all time: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.

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Alpha Centauri (available for just $6 on Gog.com!) is a pseudo-sequel to the popular Civilization series, a critically acclaimed classic that unfortunately never achieved broad popular success, and so seems doomed to never get a proper update or sequel.

In the original Civilization series, you simulated human history: starting from a small tribe in the stone age till you eventually build a continent-spanning empire in the modern age. Alpha Centauri sought to write the next part of that story: the game aspired to tell “a history of the future.”

The backstory: in the late 21st century the situation on Earth has become incredibly dire. War, poverty, disease, and political instability have all taken their toll. Human life on Earth seems doomed to face an early extinction. In a last ditch effort to save the human race, the United Nations, the surviving members of the world’s elite, construct a spaceship to send a small band of colonists to our nearest star system of Alpha Centauri, where a habitable planet has been identified.

But disaster strikes the colony ship: the crew is awaken from cryo sleep early due to a technical malfunction and the captain of the ship is assassinated. In the ensuing chaos, the most influential and powerful leaders of the crew gather followers around them to form ideological factions. The faction leaders each take a colony pod and set out to form their own society on the new planet. The player of the game takes the role of one of these faction leaders, seeking to colonize and dominate the new world they have landed on.

An inspired element of the game’s design is its belief that humans in the future will be divided not by national origin, but by ideological predisposition. On the one hand, this is a way of avoiding a much more boring game: it would have been far less novel if Alpha Centauri was being colonized by “Space America”, “Space China”, and “Space Russia”.

The factions don’t just add flavor to the game, they also make the stakes more significant. This isn’t just about whether or not humanity will survive, its about what sort of ideology will define the new human civilization. The game is driven by culture war.

The seven original factions each had a clear ideology:

-The Peacekeepers: Inspired by the principles of the UN and committed to diplomacy, human rights, and democracy.

-The Human Hive: A totalitarian society that suppresses individual expression. A faction with a strong police state and a focus on industry.

-The Spartan Federation: A militarist society that is survivalist in its outlook and averse to extravagance.

-The Lord’s Believers: A religiously fundamentalist faction that is even more militant than the Spartans, but adherence to religious doctrine cripples scientific research.

-The University of Planet: A faction devoted to research, at the expense of those who fail to meet the intellectual rigors of the society.

-Gaia’s Stepdaughters: An environmentalist and conservationist faction that wishes to avoid the mistakes of old Earth and eschews industry. They seek to live in harmony with the new planet they have colonized.

-Morgan Industries: A capitalist and industrialist faction that seeks to maximize the wealth of their faction without regard for the environment. Their affluence and attachment to luxury makes military service unpopular.

(Additional factions were released in later expansion packs.)

As you can see, the seven original factions provided ample opportunities for conflict. The University (scientists) and the Believers (religious fanatics) are frequently at odds. Morgan Industries (capitalists) and Gaia’s Stepdaughters (environmentalists) constantly fight, and the Peacekeepers (human rights supporters) are opposed to the Human Hive (totalitarians) and the Spartans (militants).

But those weren’t the only ways that factions could find themselves in conflict. One innovation in the game was the Social Engineering screen:

Different technologies unlock different social engineering options. In this way two factions that don’t have obvious points of conflict can suddenly find themselves at odds. To give an example: the University and Gaia’s Stepdaughters don’t have any natural points of conflict, but if the University were to decide to have a free market economy or if Gaia’s Stepdaughters decided to be fundamentalist faction, relations could deteriorate very quickly.

There is a lot to be praised about this system. It adds a great level of strategy to the game, while also adding great flavor. The game’s goal of “writing a history of the future” is achieved by making ideological conflict a central focus.

But this premise poses a question: how viable are ideologies in the future? The game gives an answer that is pretty stunning: they are viable right up till the end of the game and the evolution of the human race.

Here is why: at the same time that you are developing your factions you are also researching technology, and the technology in Alpha Centauri seems to have been designed with the predictions of Ray Kurzweil and Iain M. Banks in mind: this isn’t just technology that lets you “build faster vehicles” or “new buildings that provide wealth”. This is technology that deals with the developments that are promised to come once we reach the singularity.

If your faction completes the entire tech tree, your faction will discover how to develop fully functioning AIs, build space elevators, harness the energy from black holes, and ultimately evolve humankind into a race of pure-thought energy beings. Once you develop a true post-scarcity society, is it even possible to still fight wars over political systems or economic systems? How do you fight ideological conflicts over resource scarcity when your civilization has effectively made resource scarcity an obsolete concept?

It is likely that there will still be ideological conflicts in the future, but they would have to be over issues that do not yet define modern day living. The potential conflicts have already been explored in copious amounts of science fiction literature, questions such as: Should AIs be given equal rights as citizens? How much genetic modification is acceptable in society? What rights are granted to those who resist adopting new technologies?

The game setting even provides its own unique conflict: as you progress through the game, you eventually learn that (spoilers!) the planet you have landed on is actually alive, with all the flora and a fauna sharing in a collective neural net that grants the planet a rudimentary level of sentience. That opens a whole new can of ethical worms!

In addition to lamenting the lack of truly futuristic social problems for your factions to fight over late in game, it is also worth asking why your faction has to take an ideologically extreme position. With only a few exceptions, none of the factions embody any principles of “moderation” or level-headed pragmatism. Sure faction leaders may cooperate with each other and there are peaceful paths to victory in addition to violent ones, but at the end of the day, none of the factions every critically reevaluate or moderate their stances: if a relentless focus on research at the expense of ethics was great in the year 2100, it is great in the year 2300! Same for free market economics, religious fanaticism, and a survivalist outlook.

While it sounds like I am being harsh, I want to be clear that I love the game and consider these sorts of questions example of why I love it. No simulation is perfect, but if they ever do make a sequel or reboot of the game, these would not be bad changes to consider. Ideologies are not static. They change and grow with the civilizations that bring. Marxism may have developed in the middle of the 19th century but it has since evolved into the social democracies of Scandinavia. Edmund Burke and other grandfathers of conservatism would be perplexed (to put it gently) at how their philosophy has been “adapted” by the modern-day Republican Party.

If the future has space for fusion guns and human cloning, it should at least have room for new ideological conflicts.