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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Urge to Dominate

Destroying each other is both satisfying and futile.

I recently re-discovered a P.C. game I wasted many of my teenage hours on: Age of Empires II, a war strategy game in which you play as one of several dozen civilizations (mostly from the Middle Ages) and attempt to conquer other peoples. In the basic gameplay, the player is given a group (the Mayans, the Britons, the Saracens, etc.) and builds a little town from scratch using dutiful isometric villagers. Your townspeople collect boar meat and put up mills and farms and mines, and gradually you build a flourishing economy. Once the economy is up and running, you must build a giant army and conquer some other society at the other side of the map, maneuvering knights and swordsmen and archers and pikemen and trebuchets and monks, and marauding through enemy territory, battering down fortifications, burning castles to the ground, and turning the other players’ glorious civilizations to piles of ruins. It is, I have to confess, tremendous fun.

Age Of Empires II is now 20 years old, and I hadn’t played it since high school, but it has apparently maintained a huge fan base for years—there are still thousands of multiplayer games happening all around the world at any one time. I can see why. The dozens of different civilizations and locations and types of military units mean that there are endless permutations of possible games, and there are whole YouTube channels that show nothing but videos of Age of Empires II games. (It has been called “the game that keeps on giving.”) The sound effects are also tremendous, with monks chanting, villagers grunting, wild animals roaring and snarling, and swords clanking. 

After playing for a few hours this week, and re-becoming my high school self for a bit, I remembered just how engrossing the game could be. Even though my mind is now generally occupied by loftier thoughts, I quickly found myself getting wrapped up in Age of Empires strategy questions. Is it better to aggressively send small raiding parties early in the game to hobble the opponent’s infrastructure, or fortify one’s defensive position, build up one’s own economic might, and then swarm in with a giant occupying force later on? What is the correct ratio of civilian to military population? Which bits of siege equipment are most useful in which contexts? Why are all my mounted camel archers dying so rapidly during the first wave of my incursion into enemy territory? Do they need new armor? How many castles should I build? My Current Affairs colleague Oren Nimni and I became temporarily obsessed with trying to beat the computer on “moderate” setting (there are three harder modes, but we are not very good at the game). We kept losing and re-strategizing. Would an army of elephants do the trick? (It did.) 

But in addition to feeling anew the thrill that comes with being a successful simulated historical military commander, playing Age of Empires again gave me another sensation I remember from high school: a sense of futility and numbness, even boredom. Every game of Age of Empires is astonishingly different but also drearily the same: build an army, tear across the land, slaughter the enemy, declare victory. If you do, congratulations, you’re the No. 1 empire. A trumpet sounds to celebrate you. The words “You are victorious” appear on the screen. Then it turns black.

In Age of Empires, you carefully build a huge civilization brick by brick, but every part of its society exists to support its desire to conquer and destroy. You may build monasteries and universities, but universities simply research new technologies that will help you attack and defend against other civilizations, and monks are a weapon of war, healing soldiers and converting enemy units to your cause. What cause? The cause of the red team winning instead of the blue. 

Objectively examined, the empires in Age of Empires are bleak places indeed. They have no culture, no values. They are worthless societies, dedicated only to work and war. When they are not building your castles and markets, villagers chop wood, tend farms, and mine gold or stone. They are all dressed identically and toil nonstop, without sleep or leisure. They are pure resource maximizers. Everyone in your civilization obeys your commands without question. There are no politics; legislatures are absent. You are a dictator and if you order a pack of a dozen knights to cross a forest to their certain death, they will do so without complaint. You may even order units to kill themselves, if they are a burden on the population. 

I am not one to apply moral standards to video games, but something does depress me about playing this kind of simulator for too long. It is like going to live in Sparta for a while. Everything on your mind is related somehow or other to the question of war. Are my farms doing well? Good, then I can build more cavalry. Have we advanced our learning? Excellent, then we may equip our ships with cannons. This game is a competition, and the aim is to beat the other guy, not to achieve enlightenment or establish democracy or give everyone a good life. 

Age of Empires is highly reminiscent of chess, a game I have never liked, because it consists of finding a million different ways to win a pointless tabletop war. I see why people do like it, and can spend their entire lives thinking about almost nothing but chess, because as with Age of Empires there is so much to think about logistically and victory can be very satisfying. But there is something that makes me queasy about both games. They seem so spiritually hollow. All you do is kill the other person’s pieces, elaborately. Personally, I can only find this fun about four times, because I can’t be passionate about logistics devoid of values. (This is also why I could never find satisfaction working for a company that did something pointless no matter how much interesting “puzzle-solving” was involved in my job.)

In fact, I confess that I don’t like competitive games generally. That covers everything from darts to football to Halo. Nor do I like prizes or the Olympics or capitalism or card games or anything that involves pitting people against each other to see who is better. It always seems to me to be somewhat arbitrary, given that much of the outcome is predetermined by the random distribution of privilege, money, talent, and free time. And I don’t see why it should be of any interest who outperforms who in any context. I get the same feeling playing a game of Scrabble that I do playing Age of Empires: what on earth am I doing putting my energy into figuring out who can beat the other person at a random task? 

Competition occurs “whenever two or more parties strive for a common goal which cannot be shared—where one’s gain is the other’s loss.” Nearly every terrible thing that humans have ever done has involved competition. But most of it is unnecessary, in that there is no reason people could not have common goals that can be shared. This is why a great amount of competition is constructed artificially—two basketball teams could collaborate to see how many times they could get a ball in a basket, but this would be considered pointless and boring, so they compete. Board games are competitive because cooperative board games are, generally speaking, dull—I once played an obscure board game called Rainbowland in which players work together to collect raindrops to build a rainbow. I understood immediately why it did not catch on. Age of Empires is much more exciting.

Exciting—but also a tedious dead end. Age of Empires is in many ways impressively historically accurate in its recreation of ancient battles, costumes, and architecture. It’s also accurate in depicting the tragedy of the real “age of empires” itself—of the thousands of Ozymandiases who strove to be the king of kings, pillaging and destroying in an effort to achieve immortal recognition, only to end up dead like everybody else. The endless warfare that has taken up so much of human history has, in part, been intractable because there is something exciting and appealing about the nationalist drive to dominate, to be the Greatest Country On Earth, to be Exceptional.

The competitive urge is a destructive and sociopathic urge—it means total dedication to one’s own success and a desire to prevent that of others. The spheres in which this is useful need to be carefully delimited; in foreign policy it is deadly, in economics it creates ceaseless exploitation, in education it puts students under constant pressure to outperform their peers, though on an Xbox or chess board it is relatively harmless. But I certainly do not want to spend much of my time coming up with new ways to try to be better than other people, whether at canasta or at maneuvering pixelated paladins across 15th century Europe. The pleasures of simulated mass murder are hard to replicate. (Although they seem to be felt mostly by men; I would guess the Age of Empires player community, like that of chess, is overwhelmingly male—a suspicion not disconfirmed by the demographics of the AoE YouTube broadcasters I have watched.) However empty their inner lives may be, being a king or a dictator is much more satisfying than being an ordinary human being who has to make constant compromises to get along with others. If the desire to hold and exercise power over others is innate and ineradicable, then let us confine it to empire-simulators and football games. But personally, I grew weary of playing Age of Empires again quite quickly, and I doubt I will return to it. I am no longer in the mood to compete with anyone. Not when there’s so much we need to work on together.

More In: Editor’s Notes

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