The computer game is perhaps the fastest growing and most quickly evolving cultural leisure technology in the western world. Invented as a form just under 40 years ago with the creation of Space War at MIT, computer and video games collectively account for hundreds of billions of dollars in sales across the world. And yet critical analysis of this cultural form is still in its infancy. Perhaps the sheer speed of the development of games may account for this. Thirty years ago, strategy games were screens of text instructions and a prompt where you could type a weather forecast. Today pretty much all games are flawlessly shaded and rendered polygons. The technology of film has barely changed at all in the same period. In any case, the critical study of games began in the eighties. The focus initially was on the psychology of the gamer. Most game players were children and teenagers during this period, and the focussing of their leisure time on this new and strange computer technology became a source of extreme moral panic for educators, parents and researchers alike. Later, research into the cultures of gaming would become more nuanced, and begin to detail the semiotics and narrative structures of games. It is in that kind of frame that this article is positioned. I want to look closely at a particular strategy game series, The Settlers.
Firstly, however, a description of the strategy game genre. Strategy games put the player into a simulated inhabited environment and give the player almost total control over that environment and its simulated inhabitants. The strategy game has many genres, including the simulation game and the god game, but the sub-genre I will focus on in this paper is the real-time strategy game. The game requires the player to develop a functioning economy, geared around the production of weapons and armies, which are sent out to combat neighbouring tribes or armies. Real-time games typically give greater tactical control of the armies to the player, and slightly less detailed economic control. The aim is basically to amass as much gold or whatever as possible to buy as many troops as possible. However, the game I am about to discuss is, in addition to being a simple game of war, a very interesting simulation of economic and logistical constraints.
The Settlers is series of fantasy computer strategy games developed by the German game design firm Blue Byte. The three extant Settlers games can be considered an evolution of game design rather than a continuing narrative, so, given the time constraints, for the purposes of this paper I will address only one game in the series, the most recently released title, The Settlers 3.
The Settlers 3 tells the story of three expansionist empires, the Romans, the Egyptians, and the Asians, who have been thrust onto an uninhabited continent by the gods of their peoples to determine who is the fittest to survive. In other words, the game is founded from the beginning on a socio-Darwinian premise.
In each level of the game, the settlers of each tribe must, under their player's direction, build an efficient and well maintained colony with a fully operating economy in order to achieve a set objective, which is usually to wipe out the opposing tribes by building up a large army, though it may be also to amass a predetermined level of a particular resource.
Each level begins with about twenty settlers, a small guard hut to define the limits of the borders and a barely adequate supply of wooden planks, stone slabs and tools with which to begin to construct the economy. The player chooses building types from a menu and places them on the screen. Immediately the appropriate number of settlers walk across the landscape, leaving visible tracks in their wake, to pick up tools and supplies in order to construct the building. Typically, the player will order the construction of a woodcutter's hut, a sawmill, a stone cutter and a forester to ensure the steady flow of the basic construction materials to the rest of the colony.
From this point more guard huts and towers are constructed to expand into new territory, and farms are built to feed the miners. Once constructed, the mine produce coal, gold and ore, which is sent down to the smelters to make iron bars (to make swords and tools) and gold bars (to pay the troops). Luxuries such as beer and wine are produced as a sacrifice to the gods. This results in rewards such as magical spells and promotion of the soldiers. Occasionally, incursions of enemy troops must be dealt with -- if they take a guard tower in battle, the borders, represented by lines of coloured flags, shrink, leading to the collapse and destruction of any building outside the boundaries. Finally, sufficient swords, bows and spears are produced, the soldiers are promoted, and they set off to pillage and destroy their neighbours' territory. If the previously mentioned enemy incursions were frequent enough, the final conflict where the player's warriors brutally annihilate the enemy is tremendously satisfying. The problematics of that particular game construct are left as an exercise for the audience.
When territory is taken, the villages of the enemy go up in smoke and their resources are left lying on the ground, for the settlers to pick up and use for the benefit of the player.
One of the things that make the game so fascinating to play is the complexity of the simulation. It must be said right away that the game employs many abstractions to make it playable and not utterly boring. For instance, only the miners out of all the settlers actually need food, and the mechanism by which new settlers are actually created is a bit vague (you construct a building called a "residence", and when it's completed, new setters simply troop out. And there only seem to be male settlers, unless you play the Amazons). Nonetheless, the game still quite explicitly details things most games of its type gloss right over. Unlike most games, pulling out all the stops in production just leads to bottlenecks where the transportation infrastructure can't get the goods to their destinations. Production levels have to be carefully monitored and throttled back where necessary to ensure the smooth flow of resources from A to B, C and D. Resources themselves -- coal lumps, gold bricks, fish, loaves of bread, swords --are modelled individually: you can actually track the process whereby an individual sheaf of wheat is harvested, picked up by a settler, carried off to the mill, turned into flour, sent to the bakery, made into a loaf of bread, and delivered to the coal miner for consumption. With its attention to the gritty detail of getting stuff from one place to the next, The Settlers is one of the very few truly logistically precise strategy games.
Before I begin the analysis proper, I want to introduce some key terms that I'll be using a bit idiosyncratically in this paper. I'll be talking about gameplay quite a bit. Gameplay is a bit of a sliding signifier in the discourse of gaming theory -- loosely speaking it's that indefinable something that gets a player heated up about a game and keeps them playing for days on end. But here I want to be more precise. I'll offer a strategic definition. Gameplay is a way of quantifying the operations of a kind of economy of desire that operates between the player and the game itself. This economy has, as its constitutive elements, such factors as attention span, pleasure, ratio of novelty to repetition. These elements are in constant circulation in a game and the resulting economy is responsible for a good deal of the dynamism of the experience: in other words, the gameplay.
What I want to focus on in this paper is what comes from the precise moment where two, quite central impulses of gameplay are in perfect balance, just before the first surrenders its grasp and the second takes over. The first impulse of play consists of two elements -- the visual presentation of the game, i.e. the pretty pictures that draw you in, and the narrative pretext of the story, the thing that gives what you are doing some kind of sense. It is on these two elements that classical ideological analysis of gameplay is typically founded. For instance, the archetypal platform game where all the female characters are helpless maidens who only exist as a way of getting the masculine protagonist into the action.
The second impulse of gameplay is what might be called the "process", the somewhat under-theorised state where the visual trappings of the game and the motivating story line have slipped into the background, leaving only the sense of seamless integration of the player into the game's cybernetic feedback loop.
The visual presentation and narrative pretext of The Settlers draws the player into a familiar fantasy of pre-modern existence. Presented to the player is a beautifully rendered virgin wilderness, filled with rolling hills, magnificent mountain ranges and vast forests, resounding with the sounds of the stream and brook, and the rustling of the wildlife. Into this wilderness the player must project an empire.
That empire will consist of an elaborately detailed network (and I use the term deliberately) of cottage industries, labourers, paths, commodities, resources, defensive structures and places of worship. Real-world economic activities are consummately simulated as complex flows of information. The simulation is always fascinating to watch. Each node in this network, be it a fisherman's hut, a bakery, or a smelter, is exquisitely rendered, and full of picturesque, yet highly functional, animation. For instance, the process of a fisherman leaving his hut, going to a stream, setting his line, and catching a fish is visually expressive and lively, but it also is a specific bottleneck in the production process -- it takes a finite time, during which the carrier settlers stand around waiting for produce to deliver.
This, then, is the game's crucial dialectic. What is depicted is a visually sumptuous, idyllic existence, but on closer inspection is a model of constant, uninterrupted, backbreaking labour. There are not even demarcations of day and night in the game -- life is perpetually midday and the working day will last forever. To put it less simply, perhaps, the game purposefully reifies the human social condition as being a reflexively structured mechanism of economic production under the guise of an ideologically idyllic pastoral paradise. It positions the player as not merely complicit in this mechanism but the fundamental point of determination within it.
The balancing moment then is the point where the player begins to ignore or take for granted the visual lushness of the game's graphics and to focus instead on the underlying system, to internalise the lessons of the game -- the particular ideological and discursive assumptions about how economic and political systems successfully operate -- and to apply these lessons to the correct playing of the game, almost like a transition between REM dream-state sleep and deep sleep. And the analogy to sleep is not entirely specious -- critics and players alike have noted the way time stops when you play a game, with whole nights and days seemingly swallowed up in seconds of game time.
The type of focus I am describing is not an interpretative one -- players are not expected to gain new insights of meaning from the act of playing at this new level of intensity, instead they are simply to blend their thoughts, actions and reactions with the dynamic processes of the game system. In a sense, a computer game is less a textual form than it is a kind of tool: in the same way proficient word processor users becomes so fluent in the operations of their software that the trappings -- toolbars, menus, mouse -- become secondary to the smooth continuous process of churning out words. Such a relationship does not exactly inspire thoughtful contemplation about the repressive qualities of Microsoft's hegemonic domination of office software, and the similar relationship with the computer game makes any kind of reflexivity about the gameplay's cultural referents seem simply counterproductive.
It's an interesting dilemma for the theorist of gaming -- the point at which the underlying structure comes most clearly into focus during the state of play/analysis is also the moment when one is most resistant to the need to draw the wider connections.
In this paper, I've tried to take a suggestive approach, to point out some of the ways that ideological assumptions about culture and production can be actualised in a simulated environment. And hopefully, I've also pointed out some of the pitfalls in a purely ideological analysis of games. Games are never just about the ideology. A nuanced analysis from a cultural studies point of view must also take into account the quite complex ways games not only articulate certain ideologies but they also complicate them. Beyond that, analysis must take into account the ways that games go beyond the paradigm of textuality and begin to take on the aspect of being whole systems of symbolic manipulation and transmission. It is only at this point that any kind of comprehensive and theoretically precise engagement with games as cultural texts and processes can be seriously begun.