“Socially Responsible” Skylines

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One of the goals of the new elite is to harness the power of games to educate people—or most honestly, to indoctrinate them. They believe that games have the power to impart values and that these values should be socially responsible. This isn’t a terrible position on the face of it, until you see that they are not simply talking about protecting the malleable minds of growing children. In their world not even grown men are capable of standing up to heretical materials. What ideas are currently the most dangerous is constantly changing, but never changes is that there are always people demanding that art become propaganda.

Games do have a potential to educate adults and children alike, and as such I do believe that they have a responsibility to portray the world in a reasonably accurate way. Which is just to say that I prefer my art to be as truthful as possible. Unfortunately for ideologues both right and left, truth isn’t a political concept. So when an ideologue tells you that a game should be socially responsible, what he is saying is that it should be propaganda to suit his ends.

When a game purposefully bends the truth or even simply lies about a real world concept to suit the political ends of the developers or third parties the developers are attempting to please, it’s worth pointing out.

Cities: Skylines arrived in 2015 like a bolt of lightning, bringing the corpse of city building games back to life. The Sim City series was near and dear to my heart when growing up, and the level of affection and nostalgia I have for it is similar to what I imagine a lifelong console gamer must feel towards Mario. It is a brilliant game on the whole, and a fine rebuke to Maxis for their ill-conceived attempts to reboot the Sim City franchise by gutting it and packing the husk full of garbage that no one asked for.

Despite my high opinion of the game, I have a small issue with Skylines in that, unlike the Sim City series, the developers have chosen to make wind turbines completely reliable and to have high wind zones situated basically everywhere. The result is that, rather than portraying wind power as it is used in real life, it is a staple power source from the start of the game. It is in fact the best way to power a fledgling city.

A child playing Skylines or a low-information adult might come away from the game with a false impression about wind power and how it is useful. Gone also is the sense of accomplishment from advancing from cheap and dirty power sources to expensive and clean ones. There’s almost no reason to use dirty energy sources at all—how does that even make sense from a gameplay perspective? How are we supposed to feel good about banishing pollution from our city and overcoming complex green power logistics if it was never an issue from the start?

Since the game is so detailed and well designed in many other ways, I can only assume this decision was made for political reasons. It’s a mark against an otherwise fantastic title. Someone who played Sim City, which portrayed wind power technology in a relatively realistic fashion, knows at least some of the pitfalls of attempting to power a city that way. He comes away from the game with a better impression of how the world works than he had previously. The player of Skylines, however, is worse off on that particular point than someone who knows nothing.

This is what happens when people decide that games must advance a particular agenda—they become less truthful and the gameplay suffers. What’s socially responsible for an artist is to tell people the truth as you understand it, not to manipulate them.

Luxury Opinions

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I’m rich!

I read an interesting paper today focusing on how latter-day aristos (‘hipsters’) market themselves to their peers as wealthy and high status individuals by engaging in conspicuous and costly displays of their environmental consciousness. I was aware of the effect before reading the paper, since it is obvious by looking at them, but it was interesting to see it carefully thought through. The entire paper is worth reading, and the money shot is this:

Thus a paradox of the new status signaling. The group that is the cultural elite of the so-called neoliberal order expends a great deal of resources signaling their disapproval of the neoliberal order so as to elevate themselves higher in the pecking order of that very same group.

Which is of course what makes elite preening so infuriating—they are the very thing they’re claiming not to be. They can afford things ordinary people can’t, and these aren’t simply symbols of wealth but of their moral superiority.

The paper focuses on economics, but there is a social analog which I tend to call worthless opinions. A worthless opinion is when the holder is more or less insulated from the effects of his beliefs for whatever reason.

The reason the opinion is worthless is because the holder will not suffer any negative consequences flowing from holding a bad opinion. Absent negative consequences, there is no reason for the person holding the opinion to devote any real thought to the matter. For the purposes of worthlessness, the opinion holder only has to believe that he is insulated from consequences—not that he actually is.

When there is no real cost to holding an opinion, someone without principles will choose the one that benefits him, increases his status, or is simply aesthetically pleasing regardless of how silly or poorly thought out it is.

Luxury opinions are an especially pernicious variation on worthless opinions. In the case of luxury opinions, the holder selects a belief that apparently harms him as a way of signaling that the cost of holding the opinion is not significant to him. A man who holds feminist beliefs is demonstrating the security of his power and status by adhering to a belief system which devalues him and all men. I wouldn’t suggest this is the sole reason someone might compromise their self-interest, but it is among the more rational and relevant to ostentatious public displays of virtue.

The reason this is an evil form of status signaling is that not all men can bear the cost of those beliefs. A male feminist from the upper middle class may advocate for the enactment of biased laws on domestic violence whose consequences theoretically fall on him but practically fall on lower status men. When I say they may do that, I mean they have done that already.

Hence the blossoming populist anger that is flowing through America and Europe in the current year 2016. The lower classes are tiring of being held in contempt by a gaggle of powdered fops whose beliefs on a wide range of issues are not the result of any care for the health of the nation or concern for its people, but which are luxuries for themselves and their peers.