Gaming and Culture

Nerdiness from Noah: Iain M. Banks and 'The Culture'

I had planned for this entry to be about the new Bioshock game but current events have overtaken it and demand a course change. While this column supposedly has a focus on games of the video, computer, and board variety, the editors of this blog have given it a title broad enough to cover many aspects of geek and nerd culture. And culture is what I this column is about today, or more accurately, The Culture: the science-fiction society by Scottish author Iain M. Banks.

On April 3rd, Banks announced that he has late-stage gall bladder cancer and has only months to live. More than a few have noted at the irony of Banks’ announcement: while he has only months to live, if he had lived in the universe he created his death would be a non-issue.

I touched very briefly on Banks in my retrospective on Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri last week. Banks has written a lot of fiction but he is most well known for a series of sci-fi novels that take place in setting called The Culture. The Culture is a post-singularity, anarcho-capitalist society, with technology that outpaces our own. In The Culture, all diseases are cured, consciousness can be uploaded into computers, humans live on giant orbitals that circle stars, and the entire society is run by a bunch of hyper-intelligent (and hyper-sarcastic) Artificial Intelligences.

But not all is perfect in paradise. In the universe of Banks, there are wars, galactic intrigue, and the perpetual problem of how to keep yourself amused when you have functional immortality.

Culture citizens come up with for several solutions to this problem: play a lot of games and host a lot of drug-filled parties. This is the central plot point for one of Banks best works: The Player of Games. It tells the story of a game-player who is so amazingly brilliant that he is hired to help engineer a revolution in a far off Empire, an Empire where ones place in society (and ability to become its Emperor) is determined by your skill in playing a large and complex game.

The Player of Games is the most accessible of Banks novels and does a great job of helping readers understand the morality and norms of The Culture. Banks posits that in a society where everyone shares the same post-scarcity values, laws would be irrelevant. As the protagonist of Player of Games explains to a non-Culture citizen:

“But what if someone kills somebody else?"

Gurgeh shrugged. "They're slap-droned."

"Ah! This sounds more like it. What does that drone do?"

"Follows you around and makes sure you never do it again."

"Is that all?"

"What more do you want? Social death, Hamin; you don't get invited to too many parties."

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"Ah; but in your Culture, can't you gatecrash?"

"I suppose so," Gurgeh conceded. "But nobody'd talk to you.”

A society where not being invited to parties is the worst possible punishment you can face! It is a situation that seems to be much better than our own lot in life while also revealing the arguably shallow values that awaits us in the future.

It is well documented that computer games have significantly influenced Banks’ stories. In his novel Execession, the artificial intelligences of The Culture (or “Minds” as they are known) face an “Outside Context Problem” as a large alien artifact emerges on the edges of Culture space. No one knows what it is but the Minds all agree it presents a threat. Banks described how he got the inspiration for this story from playing the popular empire builder, Civilization:

Fun for a Ship, it turns out, is spending time in virtual reality. “Well, I thought, what would they do with all this time? Inventing a world where you have different laws of physics, that would be about the ultimate version of Civilisation.” Banks confesses to plenty of time spent playing that game. “That’s part of where the idea of Outside Context Problems came from, you’re getting along really well and then this great battleship comes steaming in and you think, well my wooden sailing ships are never going to be able to deal with that. But when I started Excession I deleted Civilisation off my hard drive.”

(Banks also famously missed a deadline on a later Culture book because of his civilization addiction, forcing him to delete his saved games and destroy his disk of the game so he could focus on his work.)

Banks fascination with his games shows in his most recent (and unfortunately now, his penultimate) Culture novel: The Hydrogen Sonata. In the middle of the book, there is a short diversion as Banks introduces us to a new sort of ethical problem. Essentially: what if our simulations get too good?

Once you could reliably model whole populations within your simulated environment, at the level of detail and complexity that meant individuals within that simulation had some sort of independent existence, the question became: how god-like, and how cruel, did you want to be?


Sometimes, if you were going to have any hope of getting useful answers, there really was no alternative to modelling the individuals themselves, at the sort of scale and level of complexity that meant they each had to exhibit some kind of discrete personality, and that was where the Problem kicked in.

Once you’d created your population of realistically reacting and–in a necessary sense–cogitating individuals, you had–also in a sense–created life. The particular parts of whatever computational substrate you’d devoted to the problem now held beings; virtual beings capable of reacting so much like the back-in-reality beings they were modelling–because how else were they to do so convincingly without also hoping, suffering, rejoicing, caring, loving and dreaming?–that by most people’s estimation they had just as much right to be treated as fully recognised moral agents as did the originals in the Real, or you yourself.

If the prototypes had rights, so did the faithful copies, and by far the most fundamental right that any creature ever possessed or cared to claim was the right to life itself, on the not unreasonable grounds that without that initial right, all others were meaningless.

By this reasoning, then, you couldn’t just turn off your virtual environment and the living, thinking creatures it contained at the completion of a run or when a simulation had reached the end of its useful life; that amounted to genocide, and however much it might feel like serious promotion from one’s earlier primitive state to realise that you had, in effect, become the kind of cruel and pettily vengeful god you had once, in your ignorance, feared, it was still hardly the sort of mature attitude or behaviour to be expected of a truly civilised society, or anything to be proud of.

A true problem for the future. Right now in our current society, we can’t even make a SimCity game with simulated people who behave like real individuals, let alone fully simulate their experiences and emotions.

Games clearly have been an inspiration for Banks and enrich his vision of the future beyond just the spaceships and aliens. As Banks wrote in The Player of Games:

Generally, all the best mechanistic games - those which can be played in any sense "perfectly", such as a grid, Prallian scope, 'nkraytle, chess, Farnic dimensions - can be traced to civilisations lacking a realistic view of the universe (let alone the reality). They are also, I might add, invariably pre-machine- sentience societies.

Banks will not live to see his post-machine-sentience society games, but he has already given us many opportunities to read about them.