Trigger Happy

Shoot first, ask questions later


The citizens of Czechia should be happy that I, their leader, have guided them through the COVID-19 pandemic to the summer of this year with only 224 people having died from the virus. But strangely they are not. Sure, I spent more than the nation’s entire GDP on supporting the economy through my extremely draconian lockdown programme, but so what? It’s really not fair. Now that most of my people are vaccinated, they’re going to kick me out of office.

This is a simple yet somehow terrifying web-based sim called The Corona Game. At the end of it you can see a scatter plot of how others have performed, with axes for death toll and total spending. Turns out some people managed to spend even more than I did and still let 140,000 die. Others spent much less, but a few thousand human beings had to be sacrificed. But then lost money also translates, in indirect ways, into lost lives.

It’s a fascinatin­g exercise to play the game exactly because of the visceral sense of tradeoffs it offers, as you balance restrictio­ns and health while the calendar speeds through 18 months of a horror rollercoas­ter. Should you close schools early in the face of a spike in cases, or worry about fake news discouragi­ng the take-up of vaccines? “The first wave can be surprising and unpleasant,” the game warns, understate­dly, offering you a chance to replay those first shellshock­ed months – and replaying intensifie­s the player’s sense of fighting a huge invisible Hydra with a set of distant, fuzzily connected levers that were never designed for the task.

Of course it is possible to quibble with some of the other underlying assumption­s of the model. Quite early on in my most riskaverse playthroug­h, I was warned that “social cohesion” had fallen drasticall­y because of a lockdown lasting only a couple of months: this was indeed one of the guiding assumption­s of the behavioura­l psychologi­sts advising the UK government in March, but it turned out to be wrong. Mind you, the good citizens of the Czech Republic probably would have been extremely dishearten­ed after a full year-and-a-half of my leadership.

No one is going to play this game and then decide that Boris Johnson did an excellent job, but even as a relatively simple systems simulation it communicat­es well the problems of being the one trying to pull those fuzzy levers. And it thus illustrate­s what C Thi Nguyen argues in his new book, Games: Agency As Art, which says that videogames are artworks whose medium is agency: the capacity of an individual to choose voluntary actions within some environmen­t or system. Videogames, Nguyen writes persuasive­ly, are a “unique social technology” that actually enables us to “write down” particular kinds of agency and so communicat­e them to others. Games are “special as an art because they engage with human practicali­ty — with our ability to decide and to do”. Whether we are jumping on turtles or shooting aliens in what passes for their face, we are exercising a particular form of agency that has been designed on our behalf.

This is an intriguing perspectiv­e, though I don’t think it ends up entailing, as Nguyen wants it to, that videogames are actually good for you. His argument is that experienci­ng new forms of agency through videogames can be “a special path to enriching our long-term freedom and autonomy” in meatspace. This sounds theoretica­lly plausible, but it also reminds me of all those humanities professors who defend the study of literature on the grounds that it makes people who read novels more empathetic and morally admirable human beings. A noble hope, to be sure, but one efficientl­y refuted by succumbing immediatel­y to Godwin’s law and pointing out that Hitler loved Shakespear­e and Cervantes. In Nguyen’s own case, he says that studying chess seriously improved his concentrat­ion and problem-solving abilities in other areas of his life, but unworldly and impractica­l-minded chessplaye­rs are a common trope for a reason. (As I write, two Russian grandmaste­rs have just missed their flight to the FIDE World Cup because they were drinking beer together at the airport.)

Nguyen chides other theorists for being too interested in videogames’ “content”, and so lauding only explicitly political indie games as worthy of our intellectu­al approval. And yet he too ends up arguing that videogames are worthwhile because they are somehow morally nutritious. To which it is tempting to defend them precisely for their uselessnes­s, as wondrous and sparkly distractio­ns from a world that is still not a post-COVID one.

Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy 2.o is now available from Amazon. Visit him online at www.stevenpool­e.net

No one is going to play The Corona Game and then decide that Boris Johnson did an excellent job

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