everything i need to know about life, I learned from Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise.

December 24, 2010

Hi! I’m Miranda. I’m new around here (Geek Buffet, I mean, not the Internet). I’m excited to be part of this blog, since I like buffets, and I also like some geeky stuff. That’s all you need to know about me for now. Today I’m going to talk about what I know.

But, like the title of the post says, everything *I* need to know about life, I learned from Sid Meier’s Civilization. I don’t mean any individual title, I mean the entire franchise. My life can be neatly chaptered according to its installments; it has formed my understanding of, you know, Civilization Itself. My involvement with it goes back to the fall of 1991, when I was 8 years old and in the third grade.

*flashback noises* Or, wait, scratch the flashback noises, let’s start how Civ starts: “In the beginning, the earth was without form, and void…” Pretend Leonard Nimoy spoke that. OK!

During recess one day, my friend Brendan pulled a computer game out of his backpack. Remember how they used to come in gigantic, quality cardboard boxes? It was one of THOSE. And everything he brought was really good.

“This game is so great! You should copy it!” he said.

I thumbed through the instruction manual (dude, you guys, do you remember when those were like, analog?). This sentence struck me: “And if you use a pirated version of this, may your citizens flay you in the electronic streets.”* I thought, “Cool! Pirates!” (My father and I would find Sid Meier’s Pirates! in a bargain bin two summers later). Then I asked Brendan what “flay” meant, and he didn’t know, so we went back to the classroom to look it up. I was pretty sure at that point that this was actually the coolest game ever. I could not WAIT to get home and find the pirates!

(Dear Sid Meier: a) I was 8 years old and b) I have bought so much other stuff I probably paid for at least 2 tiles in your guest bathroom, or,  like, the equivalent of 2 board squares in the board of your house. At this late date, I make no apologies.)

I don’t remember actually learning a whole lot in elementary school, but I do remember learning systems in the games I played. I spent that fall sitting in my parents’ garage using my dad’s computer to play Civilization and wage wars and build spaceships, though like I said, it took a couple years to really find the PIRATES!.

How did the world work? You built little cities on squares, and you hit enter, and time passed, and the cities made little shields, that you used to build stuff so eventually you could take over the world. It was also good to have little wheat plants. And beakers. Beakers meant you could get technology so you could build spaceships, and also better weapons with which to thwomp your enemies.

A more serious reflection on this game convinces me that it is a product of its time: Civilization I tells us more about culture and politics in 1990 than it tells us about military or science history or anything else.

In 1990, another media object central to my childhood premiered (50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth). In 1991, Civ debuted, complete with what was later referred to as “whack-a-mole” pollution. You build too many tanks? Uh oh, send your settlers to clean it up, fast! A few months after Gulf War I and just a few years after the end of the Cold War, two victories are imagined: one, a peaceful-enough path of rational technology and colonization of Alpha Centauri (another later title). the other, conquest of every other civilization on your planet. At the dusk of Bush I, Civilization I used limited computing resources to circulate an environmental, relatively Eurocentric ethos, and presented two types of success: one militaristic and one technologically imperialistic. You get extra points for turns without wars (3 for world peace), but you lose 10 points for each square of pollution. When I was 8 years old, I thought pollution was about 3.333333 times as bad as war.

When I was in 7th grade, I lived in a new house and went to a different school. Sid Meier very nicely came out with Civilization II. All the good features of Civ I but better, with that fancy CD-ROM technology and video clips. Leonardo Da Vinci would obligingly upgrade your military and it was really important to build both Women’s Suffrage AND Cure for Cancer. Instead of creating settlers to wander in and irrigate your desert for the whole of human history, you had ENGINEERS! I was getting to the age when kids have to hear a whole bunch of suggestions about what they should do when they grow up. Gifted kids all got told to be engineers and oh god, can’t you please at least pretend to care about algebra? I was a gifted kid. I took great pride in outsourcing menial tasks to MY engineers, but that’s just me. Anyway, during those Information Superhighway Days, when the onramp was metaphorically, I don’t know, that one shot out of Godard’s Week-End or something, Civilization II deployed some pretty sophisticated multimedia with its wonder movies and advisory council. In the post-Republican Revolution and pre-9/11 world, you could establish your government as “Fundamentalism” and recruit “Fanatics” to fight for you. The game, like Civ I, still circulated a strong faith in technology, particularly the development of technology that fought wars or enabled colonization of other worlds.

Civilization III came out at the end of my first semester of college, right after 9/11. Shockingly enough, this edition of the game had neither Fundamentalism nor Fanatics, though you could win with Culture. For the first time, the civilization you played as meant more than the city names and colors. Suddenly, it was possible to dazzle people at cocktail parties by being able to name two adjectives about many historical leaders and cultures. I am sure there were parties I attended in college where I said, approximately, “America is, like, totally expansionist and industrious. I read somewhere that the Persian culture is very…scientific. And industrious! We’re so similar, guys.” As the Bush II era dawned, Civilization III tweaked the system by adding corruption and oil: corruption as a way to shut down city’s production, and oil as a scarce resource that was needed to build plum units. As SUV’s became increasingly common, the game concept of “pollution” was eliminated. As America sought to shock and awe Iraq, suddenly three new paths to Ultimate Civ Victory were presented: Dominance, Diplomacy, and Culture. You can read this in two ways: As a reification of Bush-era politics (you win by being the biggest! And having the most McDonald’s / Mickey Mouses! [Mickey Mice?] And using a Western institution, the UN, to unite the world! Or as a critique, perhaps, of these same politics: Spread the good word of your civilization and its virtues and get everyone on your side. The beauty of Civilization, one supposes, is it can be both and neither to any player.

The year after I finished college, the year I was in Germany, was the year of Civilization IV. Perhaps because I know this installation the best, I feel that it is the best *game* of the franchise. Civilization IV introduces two new sub-systems: religion and corporations, both of which are spread the same way. In the years of the zenith of American consumerist excess, and the “declining years of the long war,” Civilization IV equated religion with corporatism. Oil was still a precious, scarce resource. So was kitsch: Leonard Nimoy was the voice of the game. So were animals: Suddenly, big scary mammals could attack you; the game always helpfully tells you that a “barbarian” wolf attacked and killed your settler, just in case you thought it was French or something. Just like real life, your civilization sometimes had unpredictable Events: natural disasters like hurricanes or scandals like intra-faith marriages. Only months after the rise of Perez Hilton and what I consider the total takeover of celebrity / pop culture, the game introduced the individualistic concept of Great People, units named after Real Historical Individuals who could greatly advance civilization by building special buildings, discovering technology, conducting missions, “creating great works,” etc. Oil is again a scarce resource, and sometimes your “corporate advisors” request that you take it by force. At the zenith of the housing bubble (the final expansion for Civ IV, Beyond the Sword, came out in 2007), the array of things you could build in a city was simply dizzying, and the wonder movies focused on process, depicting the wonder from a blueprint to construction site to final product. This is a game that reflects excess.

This year, the year I finished my PhD coursework (!), Civilization V came out. I’ll be honest: I haven’t had much time to spend with it, and I haven’t been that impressed. Suddenly, in the last gasps of the PC game market, it’s important that the game be all different and like, marketable, and fairly stupid. Gone is the ability to garrison more than one unit in your city; gone is the ability, it seems, to really build up a city. Luxuries aren’t serendipitously found but rather held by city-states, which, according to the Civ chronology, must have existed before the big bang (“the earth was without form, and void” – yet you get notifications about them immediately). I haven’t spent enough time on it yet to really have a full opinion as to How It Tells Us Everything We Need to Know About Year of Our Lord 2010, but I have some ideas that I will expound upon at a later date.

SO WHAT? Did you read all of that? I like to think this is more than a tl;dr nostalgia trip (since I have been mentally composing this essay or whatever for, like, months). I feel that using Civilization, we can see a historiography of the past 20 years and how changed cultural thinking is reflected in a game. Moreover, I think the Civilization franchise is inherently American: essentially, the game is a growth strategy. That’s the most yeah-duh genre thing ever, but let’s think about that for a second: in Civilization, you start with almost nothing, and you leverage your resources to build an empire (as defined, one imagines, in the West). You follow a good old-fashioned bootstrap narrative of building something huge out of nothing. You raise your people from barbarism (loosely defined) to a specific type of victory: a corporatist, Western-rationalist, military-industrial complex type. Ultimately, to win the game, every action or choice you make should help you get one step closer to dominating, destroying, or gaining the technology necessary to dominate or destroy other planets. So in that sense, is Civilization not really AMERICA? Is this game introducing people to the idea of other civilizations but within the rubric of Americanist aims and values? What would a non scientific-rationalist or Western-centric version of Civilization look like? How does Civ V reflect changes in the world since Civ IV came out?

I say this not to be critical. I have spent untold thousands of hours of my life with this game; I’m obviously not going to give it up. However, nobody I can think of has ever thought about it from a critical / cultural standpoint before, and it’s obviously long overdue.

What do you think? About the game franchise, I mean, not how overdue an examination of it is, or how long winded I am.

*Many, many years later, I would pay 50 cents for a copy of the same instruction manual in a thrift store in Sarasota, Florida. That is how I know my memory is correct enough for this quote (Despite the fact that 2 seconds of Googling revealed it online in HTML). And yes, I footnoted a blog. It’s just how I roll.

Cool Cats and Dirtchambers

December 22, 2010

Since the 1990s, the boundary between electronic musician, producer and DJ has been a question of pure market distinction:  (supposedly) electronic musicians finely craft soundscapes in their cobbled-together studios, producers provide electronic backing and mixing to “live” artists, and DJs assemble impromptu mixes for parties outside of the studio.  But anyone in the industry could cut these distinctions down as bullshittery in an instant — most people who do one are fully capable of doing all three roles well (or four, if you count the dubious term “remixer”).  In fact, I’d even wager everybody’s an electronic musician of some kind.  Have you ever made a mixtape?  An iTunes music list?  If yes, you’ve engaged in a similar curatorial effort to those employed as DJs or electronic musicians, meticulously selecting/arranging samples.  But doubtlessly some people do have a leg up over the rest of us in terms of quality.

Anyhow, the issue at hand is really the electronic artist-curated mix CD.  Halfway between a DJ set and a personal home playlist, these CDs have more than anything else clued me into the musical origins/influences of my favorite artists.  Every selection becomes a statement, and every mash-up or beat-matched song combo a revelation about musical possibilities.  This is musical education incarnate, live and direct from an artist whom you like and who, like you, was once a kid listening to other artists and so on.  But the rights for an ideal music education are a prized commodity.  Some of those can get expensive, which is why only celebrity DJs/electronic musicians/producers/remixers (okay, awkward neologism time: depremixers!) with deep-pocketed labels can afford to put out their definitive mixes to enlighten and rock out their listening public.  The tension between two mixes in particular intrigues me to no end.

Case 1 – The Dirtchamber Sessions by The Prodigy (1999)

I’m a giant Prodigy fan, from Liam Howlett’s teenage keyboard noodling on the What Evils Lurks EP and The Experience (1991) to the wry samples on Music for the Jilted Generation (1995), from  the aggro-breaks of “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe” on The Fat of the Land (1997) to the laptop mania of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (2004).  Their songs combine rock samples, no-nonsense drum loops and acid synths with MC work by vocalist-dancers Keith Flint and Maxim to form an entirely idiosyncratic and immediately recognizable sound.  There is essentially a “Prodigy style” that they have to live up to on each album, and they continue to do so even with their recent Invaders Must Die (2009). Howlett’s 1999 mixtape The Dirtchamber Sessions thankfully gives us a little insight into the progenitors of his band’s sound.

If you look at the track list, several facts become apparent:

1. No Kraftwerk to be seen.
2. Half the artists are African-American.
3. Nods to fellow big beat artists Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and Propellerheads. The Prodigy *gasp*, too.
4. Mash-ups of hip-hop, punk and funk in equal measure, with some added keyboard action as transitions.
5. Dramaturgy guides the endeavour, with musically scripted highs and lows.

Overall, Howlett appears guided by artists from fairly humble origins who were cutting together pop, jazz and funk tidbits to create an innovative, living sound.  Several successes include his mash-up of Propellerheads’ “Spybreak” with the Beastie Boys’ “Time to Get Ill” or LL Cool J’s “Get Down” with “Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground.  The album actually introduced me to the greatness of Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy in one fell swoop, and got me into the old skool hip-hop sound in general.

In any case, I know of few artists who would have assembled such a mix and put it forth with such confidence.  What’s more, there are definite stylistic breaks from what we would consider the Prodigy sound:  the B-Boys paired with Babe Ruth, for example, or Primal Scream. In any case, the Prodigy successfully conveyed the gems of its generation onto my generation, interesting me in artists leading in divergent directions — but whom I now loosely associate with The Prodigy.

Case 2 – Cool Cats by Justice (2009)

Enter our generation, represented by the French superstar group Justice (who actually only have one major album – † (2007) – to their credit).  The Prodigy actually cited Justice as a major influence on the formation of Invaders Must Die, particularly their glitchy, bass-driven form of French house.  The Ed Banger sound, exemplified by artists such as Busy P, DJ Mehdi, or SebastiAn, reached its apogee under Justice’s watch and is still a major player in the club scene for Europeans in their early-to-mid-20s.

Anyway, they apparently put together a tracklist for the Ed Banger “Cool Cat DJ” crew, which then somebody else mixed for them.  So I don’t actually know who has agency for this thing, but it certainly relates genealogically to the Dirtchamber sessions:  artists publicizing the music that influences them.

Looking at the tracklist, we can make the following observations:

1. Oh, there’s Kraftwerk.
2. Most of the artists are white European electronica artists.
3. Nods to Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, but goes out of its way to prove its edge-y cred: Aphex Twin, Basement Jaxx, and Audion. And Justice, of course.
4. Assorted electronic noise is added to tracks –  in the “Justice” style.
5. Endeavors are made to keep the energy level as high as possible — even older hits are sped up.

Most of the tracks I actually owned as a mainstream electronica fans, meaning that they are as well.  Rather than absolutely identifying with their taste, I am instead sensing a careerist tinge:  they are profiling themselves with their/our favorite artists, rather than paying homage to them.  In effect, I listen to the Cool Cats mix and learn nothing new about myself as an electronica listener, only an affirmation that A) big beat was/is cool and B) this should rub off on Justice and their Ed Banger friends.  This is disappointing in particular because the Ed Banger Rec. series is otherwise so well conceived.  And though Justice’s sound may have raised the bar with regard to hard-edged dancefloor party-mixes, their inspiration comes from a place that cannot inspire me.

Put another way:  Schoedsack and Cooper created the (horribly colonialist) masterpiece King Kong (1933) because they had been “adventurers” and “explorers” which qualified them to project fantasies about places they had, in fact, visited.  Peter Jackson created the 2005 King Kong on the basis of, well, the fact that he had seen and enjoyed King Kong.  I feel this one level of media remove affects the Prodigy / Justice split as well:  the Prodigy drew on the roots of funk and hip-hop, and communicate the enthusiasm about it; Justice drew on those who drew on those roots, and feel sufficiently divorced from the source material to self-aggrandize as artists-who-rock-the-party.

Listening to them back-to-back prompted this rant, and now that it is done, I’m going to put on The Dirtchamber Sessions again…

Some Glee Clubs Need to Learn the Meaning of “Team”

December 3, 2010

Another Glee competition, another missed opportunity to truly shine as a team.

After the every competition episode, I seem to blog about teamwork and vocal arrangements. (Here’s my post on last season’s sectionals, and last season’s regional competition.)

A good Glee club showcases all of its talent. It can’t just be a star with a bunch of back up singers. That’s not a Glee club. That’s a music video.

This past episode was actually about teamwork and why New Directions needs to work on it! YAY! Mr. Schue finally called Rachel on her massive ego and finally told her that it wasn’t all about her. And he gave the solos to people we don’t hear from much.

But… in the end, concept never met execution.

The soloists were new, but it was still soloist + backup singers. As much as this episode focused on teamwork, when push came to shove, there was a lot more teamwork in their singing in last season’s regional competition.

That competition featured several singers in most of the songs. Solos were only a line or two long and pretty much everyone got one. This week they said they were doing teamwork, but all the did was elevate people who we usually don’t hear from. The only teamwork we actually saw was spoken, when Rachel helped Kurt prep for his audition and when the team cheered for Kurt’s new team.

So close, yet so far.

The Warblers, Kurt’s new Glee club they tied with are just as bad, if not worse. Kurt’s told not to try so hard, to not stand out, that they wear a uniform because it’s about the team, not the individual. But… that’s perfectly fine for Blaine to say because every song we’ve heard the Warblers sing has been all-Blaine-all-the-time, with his backup singers. Now, as a Darren Criss fan, I don’t mind too much, BUT don’t make him say a bunch of lies about teamwork.

The dialogue’s not matching the vocals. Part of me wonders if the writers need to learn what teamwork is, because as much as the characters talk on and on and on and on and on about it, they’re not actually doing it.

They need to stop talking the talk if they’re never going to walk the walk.

No Redeeming Social Value

December 1, 2010

First, some background for those of you who have never lived in North Carolina: We have centralized state control over alcoholic beverage sales. Most “strong spirits” here are sold through official ABC stores. Apparently, all licensed liquor stores in NC get their supply from the state-controlled warehouse. All of which makes for the right conditions for this news story I heard on the radio yesterday afternoon. I have highlighted my favorite line.

North Carolina’s ABC Commission has decided that liquor stores in the state will no longer sell 95% grain alcohol. The state warehouse currently stocks two 190-proof brands, Everclear and Diesel. A recent study by the Mecklenburg ABC board found that most of its grain liquor is sold at stores near college campuses, where the potent spirits are especially popular. State ABC spokeswoman Agnes Stevens says the Commission decided the high-alcohol drinks had no redeeming social value.

Does anyone else get a feeling of time-warp from these sentiments? I mean, I do kind of agree, I have no personal use for high-proof alcohol, (or any alcohol, for that matter,) but do we really need this level of centralized regulation of it? But as the spokesperson went on to say:

Agnes Stevens: It’s really – it’s a decision that the Commission has made with regard to concern for public health, and with an eye toward being protective.

I feel very protected now.

Actually, what I most feel like doing now is making up a longer list of things I think have no redeeming social value. What do you think we should try to get banned next?

-posted by Dana