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Almost Infinite Posts

One More Turn

Fourty-thousand nine hundred and twenty minutes, that’s how you measure my life playing Civ.

Although I have been able to stay off many of the hard drugs in the world of video games (WoW, Everquest, LoL, EVE), one game I have invested a ludicrous number of hours into is Civilization. The sixth instalment in the series was announced three days ago, so I will take a few moments to explain why this is significant to me. I don’t have a tally for Civilization 2, 3, or 4, but I currently have 682 hours and counting in Civ 5 (that is since October 2012). There is a reason for this, and it’s not just too much time on my hands. It’s because the game does such a wonderful job of keeping its boundaries just out of sight while providing new experience each time.

The core rules never change: there are movement rules for each unit, building costs, cultural and economic points to collect, victory conditions, a defined beginning and end to the game, all those characteristics of finite games I talked about last week. Unlike many games, Civ 5 allows a great deal of customization during game setup to tweak those rules, while others are fixed unless you are playing an explicitly modified game (for which there are many, many, options too). There is nothing infinite about it, as the number of permutations and combinations is vast but limited. Throw in a randomly generated world map, and the possibilities seem endless (even though they’re not). There are just too many possibilities for a human to be able to “solve” the game.

That is what distinguishes Civilization from the games where I can clearly see the boundaries. Another game I picked up recently is called Antenna. I was casually browsing Steam’s free-to-play section for something that isn’t a pay-to-win online multiplayer grindfest. Antenna was really good. I have 41 minutes logged in that game, and that is all I will ever have. Even that is a little bit longer than it needed to be, since I had to quit and restart the game in the middle due to a technical glitch (the sound cut out, and if you go play this game, you will find that is a fatal error). I had to start out from the beginning. But hey, I’m not going to complain about a single hiccup when the game was made available to me for the same price as a typical Canadian is willing to pay to watch HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Antenna has very clear boundaries, and one way to win. Each puzzle is solved by matching sounds and pressing the right buttons at the right time. You solve the puzzles, you win the game. I had a fair amount of fun playing it, and loved the feel of the atmosphere, but I won’t be playing it again because there is nothing more I can get from it. It’s perhaps a better example of a finite game than a game like Skyrim, which is every bit as limited, but is big enough that it’s harder to see from inside the game. Civ, on the other hand, always offers a new possibility: even with the same game settings and intended strategy, what kind of world am I going to explore? Am I on a huge continent or an island? Will my neighbors be Mahatma Ghandi and Haile Selassie, or will they be Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun? Will I be able to finish my world wonder before some undiscovered nation on the opposite side of the world builds it first, causing my fine workers to bust the whole thing up for scrap? (No hint of familiar frustration in my voice on that last point.)

+2 faith, +5 gold, +25% gold from city connections... Machu Picchu is a pretty good deal if you have a city close enough to a mountain.
+2 faith, +5 gold, +25% gold from city connections… Machu Picchu is a pretty good deal in Civ 5 if you have a city close enough to a mountain; especially if you’ve got Gustave Eiffel on standby to rush it.

So it’s that measured uncertainty that keeps the game fresh and replayable. The rules are limited, but with so many possible ways to play and win the game, the boundaries seem obscured by the same fog that covers unexplored tiles. That is what keeps me coming back to Civ 5 over newer games. As big as Skyrim is, I find it really easy to fall back into doing the same things in the same places on each playthrough, and it starts to feel the same. That just isn’t the case with Civilization, where the game is always just a little bit different. Beyond Earth, the “in space!” offshoot of the franchise missed the mark because despite the beautiful terrain and similar mechanics, it just did not have the same feel. Each game I played seemed to become routine more quickly (explore, run from aliens, develop tech, build improvements, choose affinity, kill aliens, never worry about other players), so I lost interest in it and went back to Civ 5. I just can’t seem to leave that game alone.

While I was writing this post, I had a friend ask me if I wanted to play a multiplayer game. Given that it is often hard to find people to commit to getting very far in a game of Civ 5, I accepted. We started a game. And then it was 4:00 AM. It was then I was reminded that across all of its iterations, Civilization is still the game built to stand the test of time.


Thesis Statement

“There are at least two kinds of games. Once could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” – James Carse

I want to write about games and philosophy, but before I really get into it, I want to try and explain the rationale. Let’s start by looking at how Mr. Carse distinguishes between finite games and infinite games:

Finite Games Infinite Games
Have a precise beginning, which is important to finite players. Have no clear beginning, and infinite players don’t care about this fact.
Requires players to consent to play within pre-defined rules which should not change during play. Requires players to consent to play, but the rules must change during play to prevent anyone from “winning” and therefore ending the game.
Rules are externally defined and available to all players before play begins. Rules are internally defined as the game is played.
Played within boundaries and with limitations (such as temporal, spatial, and numerical limits). Have horizons rather than boundaries. Play is not bounded by limited by things such as time, space, etc. Boundaries are eliminated through play, and it runs on its own time.
The purpose of playing the game is to win. The purpose of playing the game is to continue play.
The game ends when someone wins (this may include a ranking system). The game doesn’t have a defined end.
Table 1: Characteristics of games, as defined in an obscure philosophy text I found in my house and decided to use as a philosophical basis for writing about my ideas related to games. It’s worth reading if you are a strange enough person to be into this sort of thing.

So, why do I want to create a body of writing about games? The idea to do this was conceived when I was looking for one of my books about writing (if there is one thing writers enjoy writing about, it’s writing) and stumbled upon an old philosophy text. I don’t know how or why this book made it into my collection, as the edition I have is about one year younger than myself. Perhaps the title caught my eye several years ago when I was moving out of my parents’ house. Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse: it must be a book about games, right? Hey, I like games, why not give this a try? It took me by surprise how broadly it defined games because we usually don’t think of World War II as a game, but that’s because it was my first introduction to taking a philosophical look at game theory (the academic and philosophical kind, not the silly hat and sexual frustration kind).

As I read and reread the book, I found that looking at games in this way actually helps to explain a lot about why I like the (finite) games that I do, and how to understand things that are happening in the world, like the Trump candidacy.

This is my central idea: games, as we understand the term in plain language, can be used for social good and to understand ourselves. Games can also be used to reinforce injustice and as a glorified form of mental and emotional masturbation. This is true whether we are talking something serious, like an election, or recreational, like a card game. Infinite games, including finite phases that support infinite play, are bigger and worthier pursuits than finite games. For example, the infinite game of life itself (which Carse asserts is the only infinite game) is much greater and more rewarding than a game of chess. It doesn’t mean chess is necessarily bad or useless, it just needs to be kept in its place alongside other finite endeavours.

Although there are more game states of chess than there are particles in the observable universe, chess is a finite game.

The outcome of a single chess match is unimportant, but a person teaching that game to a child who is gaining knowledge about fair play and logic does matter a little bit. And when you look at the game of chess as a whole, it becomes more and more relevant to the larger picture. My goal, in writing about other games or designing my own, is to see finite games used to promote a mindset of infinite play.

Infinite play, being an infinite player, why do I speak of these as being “good” things? Well, as I said above, it is not necessarily a good vs. bad distinction, but I think there are distinct virtues in infinite play. Who doesn’t aspire to be the kind of person whose view of life embraces horizons rather than boundaries, continuation of play over competing to win, and trying to keep as many people in play as possible? There are people who are obsessively finite, but most of us tend to think they’re jerks (or at least acting like one out of ignorance and/or immaturity). The guys in The Big Short who brag about scamming immigrants because it makes them a lot of money, the egotistical football player who pushes the boundaries of showboating upon scoring a goal, the six year old who just flipped over the checkers board because it became clear he is losing. These are not people I would want to be identified with. I may play football, or checkers, or financial investment, but in all of those I hope I can be the kind of person who supports infinite play.

This post allowed me to get a lot of heavy stuff out of the way so that my reader(s) can understand where I am coming from. I promise more levity and snark in upcoming weeks, but rest assured there is a point in all of it. If this sounds like a good deal to you, come back Saturdays at noon, mountain time. Follow me on Twitter or like my Facebook page to receive regular updates.