Wednesday, June 27

History, agency and games

How is history used in games?

One of the simplest and most obvious ways is the use of historical settings and historical personalities. There are a wide variety of games to take this approach, ranging from strategy games to role-playing games and so on.  The popular Dynasty Warriors series is just one of many to use the Three Kingdoms period as backdrop, and many of the standout personalities from this era - Cao Cao or Zhuge Liang - serve as characters in the game. It should be no shock that these games’ take on these characters has more to do with the historical novel Romance of Three Kingdoms than with a more cold-blooded approach to historical events. Any historical change that occurs is to be limited and is hardwired into the gameplay. The novel and the games use the setting in similar ways – they reference characters and events that open up storytelling possibilities due to their very familiarity.  Civil War era strategy games are fundamentally similar. Once again the setting and characters provide a familiar backdrop that allows the player to concentrate on other aspects of the game: action, or strategy, or fantastical or humorous riffs on well-known events. In either case, historical dynamics do not play a major role in the gameplay itself; history is a motif or a backdrop to the action. The fact that these are “historical” games has little bearing on anything. I had initially been dismissive of this approach to history games as superficial. “History,” to my mind, was fundamentally about plumbing the roots of temporal change, and therefore approaches that fail to handle dynamics dynamically were uninteresting. I have since come around  somewhat on this position; I will return to it in a bit.

A more complex and involved way of approaching history through games is to attempt to portray historical dynamics through game dynamics. Rather than the player acting out a drama or planning strategy on a static background, the game dynamics shift in response to temporal change - including changes wrought by the player, by non-player actors, and in the background. This approach has generally been limited to strategy games, although these nonetheless encompass a relatively wide range of variations. An example par excellence of a dynamic approach is the Civilization series.  These attempt to portray large-scale historical change – in fact the main point of interest of the games is the ability to play through all long timescales and  experience and affect dynamic change. There are a wide range of imitators and variations on this approach, from Age of Empires to Total War to the many Paradox games. I grew up on these games, and can probably to them some of my interest in history.   Nonetheless, I have grown dissatisfied with both the in-game experience and the broader portrayal of historical dynamics. I have been trying to figure out why.

Monday, April 9

学儒序: Learning from Scholars Preface

This will be the first entry in what might become a series (if I feel like it, and I'm not too lazy), in which I look for a grain of personal truth and importance in Confucian philosophy - primarily the last millennium of Confucian scholarship that is generally termed "Neo-Confucianism." I come to this topic as at best "half a bottle of vinegar" (banping cu 半 瓶醋): I am not a philosopher, nor an intellectual historian, nor - until recently - particularly interested in this realm of thought. "Until recently" because three separate epiphanies/habits of mind have since drawn me to think on and write on this topic:
  1. Lots of things that are generally seen as ridiculous or malicious must have some substance of value. Most "bad" things that persist in human society must have been considered "good" at some time or in some place. Probing the history of how they came to be seen as "bad" is interesting, but I am more concerned with first establishing the core of value that was once seen in them.
  2.  People will pay more attention to your (my) writing if you (I) write about things that are useful to them. I've realized that my writing has veered into the abstract, the meandering, and (too frequently) the uniformed. Better I write about something I know and that might be useful to people.
  3. But if I wait until I am an expert in something to write about it, I will never write anything.

There are lots of things that have attracted my attention because of the first reason. Everything from sins (which I have written on, if poorly) to eating meat (which I am still attempting to write on) to feudalism, superstition and venality (which I hope to write on) have come to be seen as generally "bad."Confucian scholarship in general, and Neo-Confucian orthodoxy more generally, also fall in this category; they have been blamed for everything from oppression of women to the failure of China to develop "science." Yet for much of the past 2500 years of history, this system of thought and belief was at the core of the most consistently successful civilization on earth.

Thinkers from Confucius and Mencius to Han Yu and Liu Zongyuan to Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi to Wang Yangming were among the smartest, most driven intellectuals of their times. Their importance to Chinese thought and civilization rivals that of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, Jesus, St. Aquinas, Descartes and Kant to the West. Reading the decline of the China in the 19th and early 20th centuries as an outgrowth of their thought strikes me as ridiculous. If the fall of the Qing Dynasty is Zhu Xi's fault, then Jesus is equally to blame for the European Dark Ages. It seems to me that if eight centuries of (mostly) men in the biggest civilization in the world (not to speak of the influence in Korea, Japan, etc.) saw something of value in Zhu Xi's writing, we probably should try to figure out what.

This brings me to the second point, which is that there may be some utility in my writing about this. Much of what has been written on Confucianism focuses on the early developments, particularly the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius and the Book of Changes. This makes some sense - as with the Bible or Plato, much later writing focuses on interpreting or responding to the classics. Nonetheless, Confucianism as it comes to be known to us today is largely the product of the 11th and 12th century renaissance and reinterpretation, particularly as transmitted through the work of Zhu Xi. While there is some substantial scholarship on this movement, much of the specialized work is highly uneven. More importantly, this development of "Neo-Confucianism" is handled reductively if at all in books for the wider audience. Therefore, I think there is some utility in explaining and addressing these ideas in plain language and in terms of more specific questions.

Finally, as mentioned above I am far from an expert on this topic. Nevertheless, I have read relatively widely and spent some time trying to understand these ideas. In some ways, it is probably better that I am not an expert: I will avoid highly technical discussions of nuance in large part because I don't really understand with that much nuance. In another respect, I think my experience of learning Neo-Confucian thought is somewhat similar to many historical scholars. For most students in imperial China, Confucian and Neo-Confucian texts were part of the orthodoxy that they needed to learn to pass the examinations that would lead to government service. Similarly, I was first driven to study these texts for pragmatic reasons: because I need to know about them to pass the general examinations for my PhD. At the same time, many former scholars became interested in the Confucian cannon for personal and philosophical reasons - they saw the classics as a set of tools to help them interpret and respond to the world. Somewhat despite myself, I too have become interested in the perspective offered by these texts: I recently cited the Doctrine of the Mean to a family friend interested in psychology, and I quoted the Great Learning to my grandparents in expressing my thanks for all they have done to provide opportunities for our family. In both cases I, like my Chinese predecessors, was using the language of these books to give structure to my thinking. More to the point, generals are coming up and it seems as good as any way to study.

Tuesday, April 3

Gods, demons and historical agency

In seminar this week, we are discussing the following question: "Do animals have historical agency?" This strikes me as one of the great red herrings of environmental history (see also “commons, tragedy of the”). Agency carries so many different meanings in such different contexts that this question seems aimed at prompting knee-jerk opposition from a historiographical constituency that may not actually exist.

Let us try to unpack what this question might actually mean:

A. Do animals effect history? I think we would be hard pressed to find a contemporary historian who does not think that non-human actors can have a role in changing the course of events. Even the most anthropocentric must concede that horses had a role in the course of warfare, or that people care about national symbols like the bald eagle.

B. Do animals effect history (independent of humans)?  Many historians have never particularly considered this question, and to me it seems a moot point. In the modern world, there are effectively no animals that exist independent of anthropogenic interventions. Everywhere, animals are interdependent in a web that includes humans. In the rare contexts where this is not the case, I am not sure that we (as historians) especially care what animals do.

C. Do animals effect history (in seemingly unpredictable ways)? This is how I would interpret Brett Walker (sometimes, especially in Toxic Archipelago) and Timothy Mitchell (in "Can the Mosquito Speak?"). It is a more productive phrasing of the above question, that avoids the problematic [modernist] assumption that factors can be manipulated independent of one another. The answer is yes, clearly animals display what might be mathematically termed “chaotic” or “nonlinear” behavior. Wolves that had coexisted peacefully with humans suddenly start attacking them. Or conversely, humans that had previously coexisted peacefully with wolves suddenly start attacking them. But if this type of agency extends beyond humans to other animals, surely it also extends to phenomena like weather, currency markets and machines. If we begin talking about all of these phenomena as having “agency” it lends them equivalence that harkens back to the days of ghost in the machine and money demons coexisting with gods and men. This may carry narrative power, but I do not think it is analytically coherent.

D. Do animals effect history (through their unique symbolic power)? This seems to be where Harriet Ritvo’s main argument lies. Animals do form powerful discursive symbols. And we know that symbols have sociohistorical power. But this still fails to differentiate animals from other powerful symbols like - again - weather, currency markets and machines.

E. Are animals psychosocial/moral actors? I think this is the provocative position that Walker aims at (in Lost Wolves). The most convincing answers to this question do not come from history, however, but from the zone where evolutionary biology melds into anthropology, and psychology. Walker does make interesting use of this, combined with his personal musings. I would argue, however, that the implications here lie more in the realm of moral philosophy than in history. Walker is making a normative case - that animals should be treated as moral actors - rather than a historical case - that the moral nature of non-human animals changes the way they function historically.

1. Does the psychosocial/moral agency of non-human animals change the way they function as historical actors? To me, this is the position that must be demonstrated before animal agency becomes an interesting question. Walker takes aim at this, and succeeds to some degree in posing humans and wolves as part of the same continuum; but I do not think he succeeds in showing that animal agency E causes animal agency C or D, merely in conflating the three.

2. Why stop at animals? We have seen Mitchel suggest (perhaps) that plasmodia and bugs have agency, and Walker argue that chemicals do as well. McNeill pêre et fils have both written about the historical power of diseases. Elsewhere, Michael Pollan (in Botany of Desire [and see also]) has suggested that plants are agents. But why stop there? Complex machines, markets and weather are chaotic systems. Even abstract phenomena like ideas and evolution behave in ways that are predictable only in retrospect. They may not have type E agency, but it is not clear that type E agency effects the broader course of history. Maybe agency is a useful way of talking about complex phenomena.

3. If we talk about weather, markets, wolves, diseases, concepts and corn as all having agency -  effecting events in seemingly unpredictable ways, being readily anthropomorphized, having symbolic power - aren't we back to a sort of polytheistic religion? And is is a problem if this takes us back to gods and demons? Contemporary theorists - Manuel de Landa and Bruno Latour, to name two - suggest that drawing clear epistemological division between natural and social processes obscures important commonalities and hybridities. This is not to say we should throw up our hands at complexity, or ascribe too much in the way of human characteristics to non-human processes - modern science and social science are not without successes. But it does suggest that we should not be so quick to look down our noses at premodern modes of thought.

Wednesday, March 21

From Jevons to margarine: a conversation on conservation

The idea that “Nature is over” has been in general circulation since Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature in 1989; it has now attained truly mainstream currency, as evidenced by its recent inclusion in Time Magazine’s “10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life.” While the extreme right continues to dispute whether climate change is caused by human action, it is undeniable that we have never had a greater impact on our surroundings. Beyond the vagaries of weather, the majority of the planet is now directly affected by human habitation. How will we provide enough food, water and energy for a population that recently surged past seven billion? The obvious solution is to conserve resources. If we all drive hybrid cars, recycle aluminum and eat a more efficient vegetarian diet, our limited resources will go further.

But the obvious solution is not necessarily the best one. At the end of the nineteenth century, facing the similar question of how to make England’s coal resources last, a young economist named William Stanley Jevons suggested that conservation efforts are actually counterproductive. In his 1865 book The Coal Question, he wrote "It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth." So long as the demand for a good is elastic - if people use more when the price goes down - conservation paradoxically increases consumption.

Despite its importance, this concept lay dormant for a century before being effectively rediscovered in the 1970s by another English economist, Len Brookes. This time, it was a crisis in oil rather than coal that prompted the realization. Since then, the idea has resurfaced only occasionally in the mainstream press: a 2005 Wall Street Journal argument against conservationist energy policy; a MacLeans article on how energy efficient housing helped create McMansions. Some environmentalists have argued that the Jevons Paradox, also called the “rebound effect,” is small enough that efficiency gains matter; others have proposed that it could be diminished by adding a “green tax” to counteract its effects.

 Regardless of the size of the rebound, the Jevons Paradox makes clear that not all “conservation” actually conserves. In many cases, conservation is still desirable from an ecological standpoint, even if it does not save energy overall. Recycling now saves energy (it previously did not), which may or may not lead to increased consumption of materials. But even if recycling does not reduce the need for new materials like aluminum and plastic, it at least prevents used ones from ending up in the dump, consuming space and polluting land and water. Energy-conserving buildings, vehicles and appliances are much less clear-cut wins for the planet.  While more efficient cars, windows and air-conditioners conserve on a per-unit basis, they have almost certainly led to bigger engines, bigger houses, and nearly universal “climate control.” They are intimately linked to the growth of suburbs and exurbs at the expense of open space and longer, energy-consuming commutes. Here, “conservation” almost certainly cost more energy; it certainly did not conserve natural environments.

There is also widespread perception that meat and dairy consumption is less efficient than vegetarianism - PETA claims this in their publications, so does the United Nations. In a forthcoming paper in Ethics, Policy and the Environment, bioethicist S. Matthew Liao considers the possibility of engineering humans to be more climate-conscious through ideas like “pharmacologically induced meat intolerance” and genetic manipulation to make humans smaller. The central precept of these projects - from propaganda to bioengineering - is that meat is less efficient, as much as 90% less efficient. The idea that it takes ten pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat was first publicized in an essay by Shelly, the British poet who became a prominent vegetarian in 1813. Simon Fairlie, an English environmentalist and author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, suggests that the ratio is around 7:1 on the worst American feedlots, and closer to 1.3:1 if cows are primarily pastured on grass. Fairlie and Michael Pollan have called into question other aspects of the dictum that eating beef is bad for the environment. They suggest that mono-crop systems - in the quest for “efficiency” - must substitute artificial fertilizer and pesticides for what animals provide naturally. Animals are also a powerful “micro-endowment” of capital; Heifer International has been quite successful helping farm families through gifts of animals.

Imperial China is a powerful demonstration of the hazards of promoting supposed efficiency at all costs. While Jevons’s England depended on extensive colonial landholdings and intensive use of coal to drive its economy, eighteenth and nineteenth century China featured the most land-efficient economy in the world. China fed a larger (and largely vegetarian) population on less land than was possible anywhere until the widespread use of petrolium-based fertilizer in the twentieth century. In fact, China (and neighboring Japan) pioneered the use of mono-cropping, complete with “artificial” fertilizer made from soybeans and fish, and pesticide made from whale oil. This left Chinese farmers subject to Jevons Paradox - with more food available due to efficient farming, the population simply increased. The efficiency in land use led to more demand for land, not less; it also made the system highly sensitive to change. The scholar Mike Davis has shown that shifts in the market and the climate led to widespread starvation; my own research shows that the famine was worst where people owned the fewest farm animals. This seems highly relevant in a world experiencing financial crisis and expecting climate change.

 A coda: when chemical fertilizer did become available, the excess soybeans quickly found a market in “health” foods like margarine and meat replacements; these "health food" companies - generally the arms of major agribusiness corporations - have played a lead role in convincing the world their products are good for us and for the environment. This is ultimately a dangerous and unhealthy fallacy - bad for farmers, bad for consumers, and dangerous to the global climate.

Thursday, February 2

Here is a map...

..that I drew by hand. Ugly, but sometimes the physical act of putting pen to paper helps me think.