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December 2007
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Game Developers Choice Award Nominees Bland as Ever

Once again, the Game Developers Choice Awards are basically a popularity contest between the games with the biggest budgets, most of which I find myself profoundly neutral towards. At least this year I have a title I can support in a few categories - That Game Company's flOw is up for Best Debut and Best Downloadable Game. But seriously, what am I going to pick for Best Visual Art in a field that contains only the obvious shiny rubbish, and nothing much with creative art design? Must I vote for Super Mario Galaxy - a game for which I have severe criticisms - in Best Game Design, simply because the alternatives underwhelm me? (Yes, even Portal). I'll abstain in Best Game Audio, and don't get me started on Best Writing.... Well, good luck Jenova and co., at least!

Civil Disobedience

This serial deals with the history of the concept of civil disobedience, and its development and refinement into modern campaigns of non-violent resistance that have successfully brought democracy to many nations. It provides both the theoretical and practical foundations to civil disobedience, and reinforces the idea that citizens of democratic nations have a duty to dissent against injustice.

The serial ran from December 6th 2007 to January 24th 2008, in six parts, and was timed to end in the week of Martin Luther King Day, and to correspond with a piece on the Ethics of War, which explains why war, if it is ever to be considered just, must be a last resort. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on part one, below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the six parts:

  1. Thoreau
  2. Gandhi
  3. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  4. A Theory of Justice
  5. The Velvet Revolution
  6. The Duty to Dissent

Pope versus Pope!

This minigame means no disrespect to the venerable Catholic pontiff - it's just a fun little popularity contest for the players here at Only a Game. Please accept any apologies in advance for any inadvertent offence caused.

Popebenedictsaturnohat It's the Catholic Pope, that is Benedictus XVI nee Joseph Alois Ratzinger (pictured wearing a saturno hat), versus the Discordian Popes, that is everyone else on the planet. The question before you is the ancient popularity contest query:

Do you like Pope Benedict XVI?

Vote now! One vote per player. Scoring is as follows:

  • If you are Roman Catholic and respond in the affirmative, begin your comment "Yay Pope!" and give your reason. Score 1 point (and a side point for the Catholics).
  • If you are non-Catholic and respond in the affirmative, also begin "Yay Pope!" and give your reason. Score 2 points.
  • If you are a Discordian Pope and respond in the negative, begin your comment "Nay Pope!" and give your reason. Score 1 point (and a side point for the Discordians).
  • If you are not a Discordian Pope (and do not become one, or do not know if you are one or not), and you respond in the negative, begin your comment "Nay Pope!" and give your reason. Score 2 points.

If it's not clear how you are identifying, you will score the lower value (i.e. only 1 point) and will not contribute to the side contest. I'll update the score as regularly as I can. Voting ends at a predetermined but undisclosed time. Remember - this is a popularity contest about a person, not a referendum on the Catholic Church. Try to stay on topic as best you can.

Victory in the popularity contest is entirely separate from the side contest between Roman Catholics and the Discordian Popes for the spoils of war. Prizes in honour and spoils in glory!

This minigame is now concluded, and comments are disabled.

Final Results

Benedictus XVI is unpopular, score: -6 points (3 points yay, 9 points nay)

Side contest:  Catholics: 1, Discordians: 5

Sexual Beliefs

Img_6227_perfect_butterfly_450 Sex has long been established as a first rate means of getting people’s attention, yet very little discussion takes place about sexual beliefs. Different ethical traditions, both religious and nonreligious, have diverse attitudes to sex, drawn in each case from different underlying beliefs about sexual relations. Some individuals even believe simply talking about sex in public is inappropriate – to such people, I advise not reading onwards, for here I intend to talk quite candidly about this delicate subject.

In the United States, sexual beliefs represent a particular volatile battleground where bitter conflict occurs between a traditional Christian approach, and what may be called Liberal sexual beliefs. (I shall treat the Liberal position as if it were a coherent tradition, while in actuality it is, at best, just a generalisation of certain opinions). Of course, a great many Christians support Liberal sexual beliefs, so these two camps should not necessarily be seen as disjunct, so much as distinct. Both belief systems have problems worth discussing.

The Liberal sexual belief can be summarised by saying: do what you like, with who you like, as long as it’s consensual. In other words, the Liberal sexual belief permits having sexual relations with anyone irrespective of their gender (or indeed any other factor), and in no way limits the options for allowable sex acts. I am a great supporter of some aspects of this belief system – especially since I believe where consent exists between two people, anything that does not cause significant harm is perfectly acceptable.

But the Liberal sexual belief system has a savage downside, which can result in the degradation both of sex acts, and of sexual partners. When people view the Liberal stance on sex as freedom to rut without consequence, it damages our society at a fundamental level, as anyone who has been a victim of involuntary sex can attest. By this I do not necessarily mean rape (which is inherently non-consensual), as one may find oneself unable to halt a sexual act already begun, even though it is not one’s conscious choice to be having sex, especially when drunk or a youth incapacitated by rampant libido. That the Liberal stance may also lead to a greater incidence of abortion is another mark against it.

However, there are equally problems with the traditional Christian sexual beliefs. These can be generalised as: have sexual relations only when you have formed a permanent relationship, and only with a partner of the opposite sex. Or, more tersely: no sex before marriage (often accompanied by the assumption that marriage is only allowable between partners of different genders). The essential problem here is not with the belief system itself – I happen to think that it is a wonderful thing when two people forge a strong bond, cement it with a commitment ceremony, and only then give their bodies to one another (although, that said, I see no reason at all to follow ancient Jewish customs vilifying homosexuality in the light of Jesus’ ministry of universal love). The problem is with the attitudes towards sex education that result.

Many people who ascribe to a traditional Christian stance on sex are vehemently opposed to the teaching of contraception (or, for that matter, masturbation) in schools. The logic proceeds on a line something like the following: to teach contraception is to encourage sex before marriage, therefore we must not allow it. There are three serious problems with this view. Firstly, it denies freedom of belief by assuming that the traditional Christian sexual belief can be imposed upon everyone, even against their will. Secondly, it assumes that teaching the knowledge and skills of sex increases the incidence of sex, while in fact countries with restrictive attitudes towards sex education have been demonstrated to have a higher rate of incidence of both sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy. Finally, it assumes that married couples shouldn’t use contraception, an issue we shall examine shortly. 

When a prohibition on non-procreative sex is linked back to the Bible, the story of Onan (Genesis 38) is quoted as justification, although interpretations of these verses vary considerably. In the tale, which is mentioned only in passing, Onan must fulfil his obligations under Levirate marriage customs – namely, he must marry his brother’s widow and give her a child who will become his brother’s heir – but instead he “spills his seed on the ground.” Religious conservatives use this story as evidence that any break from sex-as-procreation is against God, but it is well established that Onan’s sin was a selfish failure of his duty under the marriage customs of his people. Thoughtful Christians cannot help but wonder in this respect: if God had intended non-procreative sex to be sinful, why reference the subject in the Bible solely in such an ambiguous context, especially when the Ten Commandments provided apple opportunity for a more explicit directive?

Catholics have much clearer rules to accommodate. Through the Papal mechanism of a single interpretive voice for its doctrines, the Catholic Church has greater potential to adapt than Protestant churches (which must generally ground their beliefs in the Bible), but in practice the Vatican usually lags behind popular culture by about a century. It has tended to set the stage for modern Christian sexual beliefs, since having a single Pope as spokesman allows it to take a firm stance where Protestant Churches often must either remain silent, or at least be unable to make a collective assertion of any significance. With regards to sex, the current point of doctrine is the Humanae Vitae encyclical, written by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth”, it not only establishes the Catholic Church’s position, it has been vastly influential in Protestant sexual beliefs as well – as indicated by the fact that many Protestants follow this teaching even though it is Papal and not Biblical in origin. 

Crucial to this doctrine is a prohibition on the interruption of procreation, except when this happens tangentially (for instance, a hysterectomy to prevent cancer). Sex is allowable for pleasure – it is seen as a great gift from God – but it is expected to occur within the sanctity of marriage. However, the encyclical claims that sex must “retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” Only one form of birth control is permitted: the rhythm method (in which intercourse takes place when a woman is least fertile), and this is justified as being a natural faculty, and therefore God-given.

It is important to be clear that the Catholic Church’s position is not that people must breed constantly, like demented Christian rabbits. As Pope John Paul II clarified in 1994: “when there is a reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary.” It is solely artificial contraception which is denied, and this prohibition is accompanied by the assertion that allowing such measures results in a lowering of moral standards as a result of sex without consequence, and a danger of a man reducing a woman to being “a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his desires.” 

The Catholic Church, of course, holds its position within the general framework of the traditional Christian sexual beliefs, formulated mostly by the apostle Paul, that marriage should precede sex. Many Catholics view artificial contraception, therefore, as in effect encouraging adultery. While the idea that reducing the consequences of sex can be demeaning to women may have its merits, it completely omits the fact that many people will be engaging in sexual acts under the Liberal framework – not everyone believes that sex should be constrained to being between married couples. In this context, to not use contraception can be seen as demeaning to women. However, it is not unreasonable that the Catholic Popes constrain their concern to the behaviour of their followers, and not to alternative belief systems beyond their purview.

Since the Catholic Church cannot allow for extra-marital sex at all, it can have no viable position on the use of contraception in sex acts that occur outside of marriage (beyond considering it to be sinful). It follows that – even within Catholic doctrine – anyone engaging in extra-marital sex is free to use a condom or other form of artificial contraception – since they are already sinning in Catholic terms, they “may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb”. The Pope may be unable to say “if you’re going to sin by having sex outside of marriage, use a condom”, because to do so would be to endorse matters the Papacy opposes, but this is a logical conclusion in terms of integrating Liberal values into Catholic sexual beliefs (although not, needless to say, the position of Pope Benedict XVI).

Furthermore, I believe the Catholic Church’s position omits an important aspect of the facts of the matter, that once included would provide the basis for a reinterpretation of its doctrine, and a significant shift of position on the subject of contraception.

Tantra is a diverse collection of beliefs, including sexual beliefs, found in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions. The sexual component of this system – known as Tantric sex – is a set of meditative practices by which a married couple can deepen their emotional connection. Tantra in this context is practiced exclusively between couples, and its goal is purely spiritual. However, part of the benefits that Tantric couples experience is heightened sensual pleasure and, in the case of men, a method of muscle control that permits more intense and sustained orgasms without ejaculation. 

Ejaculatory control, like the rhythm method, is entirely natural – it is, in Christian terms, a God-given faculty – and it can be found in many cultures throughout history, including the aforementioned Tantric traditions, Taoist “sexual kung fu” and the Cherokee “fire breath” technique. By exercising conscious control of ejaculation, practitioners experience deeper, longer and more numerous orgasms (as can their partners), and also take conscious control of the procreative process; some Taoist commentators also claim the technique leads to longer life. (Of all these different practices, only Tantra is explicitly practised between couples, and thus Christians interested in Tantric sex should probably approach the topic from this angle.)

If God-given sexual faculties are allowable under Catholic doctrine, and they are as we see in the case of the rhythm method, then it is allowable to practice a form of “Christian Tantra” to serve God’s purpose (in Christian terms) of deepening the relationship between couples – and indeed there are many people who practice just such a system. But if “Christian Tantra” is permissible in Catholicism (which it certainly could be, although no Papal ruling exists that I know of) then it must follow that conscious control of ejaculation is allowable. At this point, can it seriously be contended that barrier-method contraception such as condoms are not permitted for married couples, when all humans have within them the capacity to perform “self contraception” by way of ejaculatory control? We are no longer talking about an artificial capability, but about enhancement of a natural one, which is usually allowable in Catholic doctrine concerning medicine.

Roman Catholic Christians must wait for new Popes to change the rules of the Catholic sexual game, but Protestants are under no such restriction. I can see no reason to presume that contraception is against God, given that (in Christian-terms) God provided us all the capacity to conduct contraception as part of a divine process for deepening the spiritual bond between couples. I suggest that Protestants give up their use of Papal doctrine in this respect, and focus on promoting those moral values they do care about – the formation of strong, loving couples, who may choose when and if to bear children according to the capacities given to them by God, the greatest of which are love and free will.

The rise of Liberal sexual beliefs has in part led to a tendency for Christians of all denominations to condemn “free love”, and this has in part made it easier for non-Christians to avoid thinking about their own beliefs and behaviour in respect of sex. While I deny that contraception has lead to the denigration of women in the terms claimed by the Catholic Church (oral sex already provided a non-procreative option so why would contraception be the critical factor?), I do recognise that the rise of sexual liberalism has created an epidemic of shallow, empty sex that has hurt the self-esteem of both men and women, and also increased the rate of incidence of abortion (something no-one wants to see). 

I suggest that the Liberal sexual belief system could also use something of an overhaul. Instead of focussing on mere consent, perhaps people should consider entering into sexual relations only when there is mutual respect? Instead of pursuing sex as conquest, seeking to engage with as many sexual partners as possible, perhaps people should consider entering into fewer relationships but of greater quality? Most importantly, since those who hold Liberal sexual beliefs have no restriction on masturbation, shouldn’t all such people learn to be the master of their sexual urges through direct, personal action, rather than being a slave to their uncontrolled passions? 

We don’t talk about sexual beliefs often, if indeed ever, perhaps because we disagree so wildly about them, but as we go forward into the twenty first century we can’t afford to maintain this conspiracy of silence any longer. There are serious issues to be addressed, and we will not resolve them by trying to stifle discussion under a veil of ignorance. Let us teach sex education, and contraception, in schools – it need not be (as some Christians fear) against God’s will to do so, and the proven benefits of doing so – including fewer teenage pregnancies, and thus fewer abortions – far outweigh any prudish prohibition on doing so.

The opening image is Perfect Butterfly, by Kazuya Akimoto, which I found here, and whose website and blog are here. No copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Final Fortnight

Can it really be so? Just two weeks remain in the epic "Ethics Campaign" that began in May last year. I never intended this to last nine months, but there was so much to cover that even in this time I have only been able to explore a tiny proportion of the material.

  • Feeling  exceptionally blurry this morning, having screwed around unnecessarily with my body clock this weekend... I hope to get to the comments this afternoon if all goes well.
  • With Friday's piece on drugs, all of the issues raised by players have now been covered. Many thanks to everyone who contributed a suggestion in this regard! You set the tone for the whole of the second half of the campaign.
  • Next week, I'll be putting up the final major topic - Population - which I'm still researching, and then on Thursday that week I'll put up the bookend to close the campaign, so a week on Friday we'll be back in the green room. Can't wait!
  • I finished 100% of the Sudoku puzzles in Brain Age 2. Still can't quite believe that the digital version held my attention so better more than the paper puzzles ever could.
  • Acquired a copy of Link's Crossbow Training since a friend bought two Wii zappers and had a spare. It's a nicely constructed shooting gallery, but I find combo multipliers (also common in rhythm action games) to be extremely stressful these days, as I expect a high degree of performance from myself. I used to love them, once upon a time (it was the reason I loved NiGHTS) - I guess I'm getting old!

Freedom and Drugs

Drugs_are_bad Should people have the freedom to take whatever drugs they choose? 

Let us begin by examining this issue in relationship to the law, then later examine the issue irrespective of the legal position.

Recreational chemicals of almost all kinds – excepting alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals such as anti-depressents, anxiolytics and “sex drugs”  being peddled by corporations (rather than individuals or crime syndicates) – are illegal. Consequently, if one is to make the decision to take drugs, there is the question of one’s relationship to the law. Where there is a conflict with religious freedom, as in the instance of using marijuana as a sacrament, a clear case can be made for non-compliance, but otherwise the position is shaky. 

The taking of drugs for entertainment purposes is hardly a legitimate form of protest – anyone who claims to do so because of the hypocrisy of the legal pharmaceutical industry versus the illegal “cottage industries” is on shaky ground, since unless the drug taking is done publicly there is no genuine claim for civil disobedience. Therefore, one must to some extent hold the law in contempt to take illegal recreational chemicals, although perhaps a Libertarian (or someone similar in outlook) may claim that their core political beliefs are as vital to them as any religious belief, and thus acquire a duty of non-compliance in this way.

Let us presume, however, that we are dealing with someone who for whatever reason chooses not to respect the law, and decides to take recreational chemicals illegally. What system of ethics might apply? 

Counter-culture icon and psychologist Timothy Leary devised two simple rules which he felt would be sufficient to denote the major ethical boundaries of drug use:

1) Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow man.
2) Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from altering his own consciousness. 

Leary was also keen to speak out against taking mind-altering substances about which one was not sufficiently informed. His guidelines in this regard came in three parts: set, setting and dosage. In other words, one should be responsible in the context in which consciousness-alteration by drugs was attempted: ensuring a positive mind set, a supportive and safe setting, and an appropriate dosage – thus requiring a reasonable prior knowledge of the effects of anything taken. (It has been remarked that while Nancy Reagan was saying “Just say no”, Timothy Leary was saying “Just say know”).

Furthermore, in the context of powerful mind-altering substances such as LSD (although the provision can be easily extended to similar substances such as cocaine and ecstasy), Leary advised taking such substances no more than four times a year, suggesting the equinoxes and solstices as a convenient way of keeping track. Leary was a researcher who considered LSD a potentially valuable therapeutic tool for rehabilitating prisoners and providing other psychological benefits to the community, and it should be considered that while self-experiment with these potentially dangerous chemicals is the only option while they are illegal,  under a legal framework the use of these drugs could be conducted under clinical supervision.

Leary also advocated  the use of opiates for inducing euthanasia, and indeed used heroin and morphine as part of his own process of dying, having been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.  (I do not believe he suggested the use of opiates in any other context). Morphine is already used by hospitals to ease a terminal patient's final days which, while not strictly euthanasia, is seen by some health care professionals as being tantamount to it. The extreme physiological addictive properties of opiates make them inappropriate for any other use, and there is a sense in which the heroin addict is in the process of conducting a form of lackadaisical suicide.

I question to some extent Leary’s “commandments”, although his suggestion that if you are to take the more powerful drugs you should constrain your frequency is eminently sensible, even if it overlooks the possibility that you might do better to refrain entirely. The trouble with the first commandment is that one cannot help but alter the consciousness of “thy fellow man”: I’m altering your consciousness right now as you read this sentence, and if you choose to leave a comment you will alter my consciousness too. We simply can’t live together and not have effects on each other’s consciousness.

Similarly, should we really not intervene to stop someone from altering their consciousness? When I have seen friends disappear into a drugged-out haze on prescription anti-depressants that have been thoughtlessly given out without the necessary accompanying therapy, I have spoken out against it. Mindlessly patching over depression with personality-disabling drugs is not something I am willing to support – regardless of the legal status of those drugs. 

The decision to take any particular drug – legal or illegal – should rest ultimately upon the shoulders of the individual, but it need not be made in isolation, and it certainly should not be made in ignorance. Learn about anything you might take, and if you choose to proceed in taking a particular drug, do so responsibly. If you are taking a prescription pharmaceutical, ask your doctor or nurse about its effects, or look it up on the internet. (You may also wish to check whether your doctor has shares in the pharmaceutical company that makes a drug they are recommending: doctors cannot be presumed to be impartial in our current circumstances). If taking an illegal recreational chemical, the same general kind of provision should always apply. Never be tempted to take a drug about which you know nothing.

All this said, I do not advocate the recreational use of any drug, even though I have been a recreational user of several – including alcohol, which of all the things I have taken has caused the most damage to me through reckless misuse while in my twenties. I believe, in common with the Buddhists, that it is infinitely better to find happiness without resorting to chemicals. However, in a world as crazy as our own, I feel that there is nothing inherently wrong with people using drugs to help them relax, take them to new mental states, or simply for entertainment, provided it is done with forethought, care, and respect for both oneself and others. 

For Foster Nichols, whose views on this subject may differ from those presented here.

Civil Disobedience (6): The Duty to Dissent

Dixiechicks On March 10th 2003, the Dixie Chicks, then enjoying meteoric success and being called the most successful female band of all time, played Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a small concert hall in London. At the time, the invasion of Iraq by the United States, accompanied by a small international coalition of troops, was imminent. News services were talking about the issue in terms of when, not if.

The Empire, which only holds 2,000 people, is a popular venue for artists to play because of the more intimate atmosphere and quality acoustics. The Dixie Chicks watched the news before going on stage, and were aware not only of the situation with respect to the war, but also of the intense and ongoing acts of civil disobedience being conducted throughout the British Isles in an attempt to stop the war or, at the very least, stop the involvement of the British people.

About six months prior to the gig, some 400,000 people had protested at a rally right there in the streets of London, and at Halloween 2002 the largest act of civil disobedience in British history had been conducted by a loose alliance of groups from different backgrounds, including Stop the War Coalition and a network known as Disobedients. The effect of the protest was marginal. Not everyone was certain what they thought about the situation with Iraq, as there were many unknowns, and the newspapers had mistakenly or deceitfully reported that British citizens were in the firing range of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein was erroneously claimed to possess, further increasing the uncertainty. Furthermore, some of the groups protesting the war had other agendas, including anti-democratic messages, which weakened turn out.

During the gig, lead singer Natalie Maines took a moment to let the crowd know she sympathised with their position, saying:

Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.

Gig reviewer, Betty Clarke, writing for the British newspaper The Guardian, could scarcely have anticipated the controversy that was about to be instigated by this idle comment. She noted in her review:

The Dixie Chicks are the good-time girls the country establishment loves to hate... And they don’t know when to stop. "Just so you know," says singer Natalie Maines, "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." It gets the audience cheering – at a time when country stars are rushing to release pro-war anthems, this is practically punk rock.

The response to this in the United States was astonishing. People in the US rose up in a giant display of public protest – against the Dixie Chicks. The chief cause of offence seems to be the claim that it was inappropriate for a US citizen to criticise the President of their country while in a foreign country, although many people also expressed the view it was somehow disrespectful of the troops to make such a comment on the eve of war.

Four days later, Natalie issued an apology, saying:

As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers' lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American.

Rather than settle the controversy, the apology caused even greater uproar. Protests against the Dixie Chicks were mounted, including a demonstration at which people were invited to bring Dixie Chick CDs so they could be crushed by a bulldozer, while radio stations were stopped from playing the Dixie Chicks – who only the previous year had been one of the hottest requests – either as a result of threats from listeners to boycott the station, or from pressure from higher up the radio chain-of-command. It seemed that the United States hadn’t forgotten how to protest, they had just forgotten why: while their government was allegedly spreading democratic values such as freedom of speech abroad, the people were busy denying it at home.

The country music community turned on the Dixie Chicks almost completely, despite the band having been the most loyal and honourable ambassadors for the music genre throughout the world at a time when many people considered country music to be execrable hokum. Alone among the country artists to achieve international success in the early 2000s, the Dixie Chicks had refused to alter their songs to remove overt country elements such as fiddles and steel guitars when requested to by VH1 and other media companies, while Shania Twain, Faith Hill and LeeAnn Rimes had gladly betrayed their country roots for the promise of more money.

One of the few voices from within country music to speak out in defence of the Dixie Chicks was Merle Haggard, who was reported in the Associated Press as saying:

I don't even know the Dixie chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.

To the chagrin of those who protested the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines has emerged as something of a non-violent protest hero, despite never once having engaging in an act of civil disobedience of any kind. She simply made a comment that expressed her opposition against the war, to an audience that shared her feelings. But by remaining defiant against a people so blind with rage they were unable to see the savage hypocrisy of their actions, she has come to represent the courage it takes to take that bold step towards dissent.

What would it take for you to defy your government and undertake a public act of civil disobedience, or even to just speak out against it as Natalie Maines did? If you cannot find any reason that would motivate you to do so, you are – in some intangible but important fashion – failing to live up to the ideals of free speech and democratic civil liberty. There must be some imaginable tipping point beyond which you would take action, or else you are admitting that you would support any leader, no matter how depraved the society that they were attempting to forge. Can you really claim to be upholding democracy if you would not stand up and be heard, even in the event of (to cite an extreme instance) state-sponsored genocide, as in Nazi Germany or modern day Sudan?

Dissent is essential to the notion of democracy – it is impossible to imagine a society in which the democratic ideal of government for the people could be achieved without the freedom to disagree with the ruling administration, and to suggest otherwise is absurd – and for citizens of the United States, unpatriotic. It is the duty of the people to demonstrate their dissent when their governments act in ways utterly incompatible with the will of the people.

Parents may baulk at this suggestion, since in many respects such people have to make decisions in the best interests of their children, and the risk of imprisonment (or even death) which accompanies civil disobedience may be a difficult risk to face if it means the loss of the economic means to support offspring. For this reason, it is perhaps for the best that the usual place where foment is instigated is the Universities, where students have the luxury of the unrestrained adventure of youth to invest gainfully in rebellion. Other individuals should always be ready to support a worthwhile cause, while parents can to some extent wait until the optimal moment – when the public tide is rising – before participating in a campaign of civil disobedience. It is all too easy to find excuses to avoid involvement, but any such excuse is tantamount to collusion with injustice.

There must be something – anything – about which you feel so strongly that you would simply have to protest and resist were your government to propose it. And if not, if every conceivable injustice is beyond your ability to care, then how can you know that you have not become the accomplice of evil implied by the Irish Statesman Edmund Burke when he famously declared : "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

What would it take for you?

A new serial begins next month.


This is part of a new sequence of posts shuffling ideas already expressed into a genre taxonomy. All taxonomies are utterly useless, of course, except as an inspiration for discussion, but it should be fun all the same! What I shall term “wargames” is intended to correspond with what the eclectic French intellectual Roger Caillois termed agon. I’ve written a great deal about this subject before, and so to some extent I intend to skip over the details and simply work on the basis of the definition. New readers to this blog are invited to check the posts on agon and fiero if unfamiliar with these terms – visitors and new players are always honoured guests here on Only a Game, but you’ll have to get used to my custom vocabulary and quirky ways. Now read on...

Wargamesbanner_2 Wargames are those play experiences in which the player is expected to enter into competition or violence with other players, whether computer-controlled or player-controlled. There are many different kinds of wargame, depending upon the nature of the competition or violence involved, the medium employed, and so forth. The characteristic emotional states induced by wargames are anger, generally expressed as frustration and fiero, the feeling of triumph over adversity.

So endemic are wargames to the culture of gamers that we often forget that there are other ways to play (which we shall look at another time) and indeed the impression of non-gamers is often that this is what the hobby is all about.

We will look at four different kinds of wargame, based on four categories of skills that are required for play to be enjoyable, and that can be learned from playing this kind of game (which is to say a very similar thing). We will also look at some of the ways in which these forms can be combined.


Strategic Wargames

The oldest wargames are all strategic wargames, combining competition and strategic play. These early games were necessarily abstract, for instance, Go and similar variants (between 2,500 and 4,000 years old), Chess (about 1,400 years old), and Mancala games (about 1,300 years old). I have a lovely carved wooden set for playing some kind of Mancala game played in Ghana on my office shelf, given to me by my father and presumably purchased while he was in that West African nation in the early 1980s.

The real flourishing of this genre, however, could not come until electronic computers; indeed, one can argue that the facilitation of new and more elaborate games was one of the subtle yet influential cultural changes that began with computing. In fact, computer strategy games as a genre have been hugely influenced by earlier developments in tabletop games using dice and tables not directly influenced by computing, and even now there is a market for competitive strategic boardgames as well as a niche market for their videogame equivalent.

The boundary characteristic I shall use to define a strategic wargame is that the player has time to make a decision. This time may be limited in some way (it need not be indefinite) but most usually the player has as much time as they choose to make a decision, or at least as long as the other player has patience! A more common description of this is a turn-based strategy game, and to some extent this analogy is sufficient. These are games about pondering complicated problems at each point, and deciding on a course of action that will not generally pay-off immediately.


Tactical Wargames

Conversely, tactical wargames require on-the-spot thinking, a characteristic of tactical play. The oldest is probably pugilism (boxing) and similar combat sports (at least 5,000 years old, and probably older). The most popular modern form is the first-person shooter videogame, which at its heart is a sequence of battles in which a certain number of opponents must be defeated in a particular environment, although fighting games are closer in form to their historical antecedents.

What might be called “true” tactical wargames do not produce exactly the same situation in the same circumstances, such that it is necessary to make on-the-spot decisions each time, but the tiniest amount of variation between similar iterations can be sufficient to produce fresh tactical situations, provided the game paradigm is sufficiently expressive. An example can be seen in the way the outcome of a match of Counter-Strike (less than 10 years old) changes according to the eventual ramifications that result from the early decisions of the opposition.

It is perhaps impossible to eliminate some strategic element from tactical wargames, but since both first person shooters and fighting games are dominated by tactical skills and not strategic skills (and since players preferring strategic play generally look elsewhere) they represent a fair representation of the modern form.


Logistical Wargames

Games in which the success of competition depends upon managing economies or resources can be considered logistical wargames (although in my discussion of logistical play, I also use the term to describe play that is highly repetitive, teaching one particular pattern by re-iteration). I am uncertain how to trace the first, but the first successful modern game of this style was Monopoly (about 70 years old), and a recent success of this form can be found in the RTS (real time strategy) genre which as a result of market forces tends towards logistical play (although it need not).

If a logistical wargame is turn-based, it is impossible to eliminate strategic elements, and if it is realtime it is impossible to eliminate tactical elements.


Diplomatic Wargames

Diplomatic wargames are probably more recent in origin, although the balloon debate (in which speakers compete to win over the audience) perhaps represents a nascent form. They are usually more intrinsically narrative than other kinds of wargame, since they are focussed more on motive than the structure of the contest. Despite the name, the tabletop game Diplomacy is a better example of a strategic wargame than a diplomatic one, although it does have diplomatic elements.

The kind of play represented – diplomatic play – remains mysterious. Probably, it involves working towards ideal situations, but the meaning of ideal can change radically from player to player; this makes it difficult to find competitive versions that would qualify as wargames. It is possible that the storyplay of a tabletop role-playing game (which also occurs in multiplayer online games, albeit more rarely) is a form of diplomatic play, and when these games are competitive or violent (which is exceedingly common) it could be considered a diplomatic wargame of some kind, but these kind of thoughts are largely speculation.

If this kind of play goes on at all in the modern games industry, it does so within role-playing games with human players – either tabletop or massively multiplayer. Even here, the play tends to lurch deeply into logistical territory. Broadly speaking, I would say the perfect diplomatic wargame has yet to be made, but will certainly involve other players or extremely convincing artificial intelligence.


Battlefield Games (Syncretic Wargames)

Of course, most games contain more than one of these elements – the games industry cross-breeds successful ideas much as any marketplace or evolving ecology might. Of particular note are the what might be called battlefield action games, which synthesise strategic and logistical play with a tactical wargame. The archetype for this is arguably the 1985 Midway arcade game Gauntlet, since two of the most striking examples – the Dynasty Warriors franchise and the Star Wars: Battlefront franchise – bear a certain resemblance.

Essentially: enemies appear at generators (which are usually abstracted into narrative terms – a camp, a fortress, a gate etc.) and flood around a battlefield space to engage with forces in the player’s control, or allied with the player. In Gauntlet, there are an unlimited number of foes rendered in top down 2D and no allied forces other than other players, and play devolves to a mindless real-time affair.

However, in Dynasty Warriors 2 etc. (2000 onwards) a more complicated virtual world facilitates both more tactical play, and more strategic play, with simple logistical play represented in the economy of troops that flow from the gates (generators) – troops which are ultimately limited in supply. Later Dynasty Warriors games use bases that can change hand (aping a popular multiplayer FPS style) instead of gates that could be permanently closed like the generators in Gauntlet, a form copied or independently developed (the distinction is largely irrelevant) for Star Wars: Battlefront. The strategic element of these games is extremely limited against AI opponents, but can become critical in multiplayer.

Also of note is Battlefield 1942 (2002) which also uses the base-capturing mechanic, but as the basis of player respawn and not the delivery of reinforcement troops. Because of this distinction, play is much more akin to other multiplayer tactical wargames (with strategic elements), and economic elements are reduced to ammunition and health considerations, as in most tactical wargames. There are strong reasons for the success of this game over others that are similar, however, including (but in no way restricted to) its use of the most popular implicit license available for any wargame: World War II.

In fact, all three of the games discussed above as examples of battlefield games rely in a great part on their licenses for success (the Three Kingdoms setting being the most popular implicit license in much of Asia, and Star Wars being perhaps the most popular science fiction franchise in the world). This underlines a much overlooked point in the videogame industry: you may want to make up your own setting, but the vast majority of players are more likely to buy something familiar – something they already have an interest in. Of course, there is also a niche market for inventive content, but it is of a considerably smaller scope in part because of the trickier marketing problem.

These are just a few examples of syncretic wargames, which use a more detailed virtual world to provide choices allowing many different types of play to be supported. The trend is almost certain to continue in this direction.



Wargames are a genre of videogames that are inherently competitive, and usually (but certainly not necessarily) depicted within a virtual world by means of violence. There are several key forms currently being significantly exploited:

  • Strategic wargames, which are time-limited or turn-based and involve problem solving.
  • Tactical wargames, which are real-time and involve “twitch” play.
  • Logistical wargames, which focus upon resource economies of some kind, and must involve some strategic or tactical elements depending upon whether they are turn-based or real-time.
  • Diplomatic wargames, which focus on motive and are presumed to be non-violent.
  • Battlefield or Syncretic wargames, which combine elements of the others (particular the first three) in different degrees, but which are almost exclusively based upon an underlying tactical (and thus real-time) interaction model. (Strategic elements in such games are not strictly turn-based, but rather time-limited).

These forms of games present challenges in the form of opposing forces to be overcome in some way, through which the player earns the emotional reward of fiero – the feeling of triumph over adversity – which has been the backbone of the videogames industry up until the dawn of the 21st century, and will probably always provide a sizeable component of its income.

Ethics of War

War The oldest treatise on war, Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War, expresses an essential ethical stance on the practice of warfare: war should be a last resort. He writes: “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.”

As with any subject in ethics, we cannot treat war as if a single set of universal moral principles applied to it. Mindful of the situation of relative ethics within which the modern world finds itself, it is prudent to briefly take stock of the traditional ethical stances on war.

In Buddhism, non-violence is a central tenet and war is never permitted. In Christianity, those who actually follow the teachings of Jesus are also pacifists for whom war is not permissible, while those who instead follow the interpretations of later Churches adhere to a “just war” philosophy we will examine shortly. Hinduism permits war in self-defence, but the Hindu ideal of ahimsa calls for the avoidance of harm, viewing peaceful conduct as a desirable and attainable goal. Sikhism has a “just war” concept called Dharam Yudh (“war in the defence of righteousness”) that specifies that war must only ever be a last resort, and that the minimum force for success should be used. Islam, despite the popular perception, permits war only in self-defence, requiring either that other nations have attacked an Islamic state, or that a state is oppressing Muslims, and war in Muslim terms must use the minimum necessary force, be conducted without anger, and avoid injuring non-combatants or prisoners of war. 

Nonreligious ethical traditions on war present no common pattern, and vary in response from pacifism to warmongering, even within the same ethical tradition. The most war-like philosophies ascribe to a system of Realpolitik which views ethical considerations as irrelevant in international affairs, while the most peaceful nonreligious individuals apply Utilitarian considerations to justify a non-violent stance directly opposed to war.

Before proceeding to consider the case for just wars, it is necessarily to dismiss the claims of political realists that ethical criteria cannot or do not apply at the level of the state. One can certainly believe this, but since any legitimate state represents its people, a legitimate state must reflect the ethics of its citizens. The political philosopher Michael Walzer has argued that because states are the creation of individual people acting collectively, they must represent collective concerns such as ethics, and furthermore that any state that was motivated solely by the pursuit of power cannot sustain the support of its people. Walzer contends that talk of “the necessity” of states pursuing power is grossly exaggerated and ignores the realities of foreign policy choices. 

If the realpolitik position can be dismissed in this way, we are left with just two key positions to consider: that war can be just under certain circumstances (Just War theory), or that war is never just (pacifism). We will examine each position in turn.

Brian Orend contends that “all warfare is precisely, and ultimately, about governance”, viewing war as a violent manner for determining who gets control of a given territory – whether in terms of who gets power, how resources are distributed, or whose ideals will be enforced. He notes that: “war is the ultimate means for deciding these issues if a peaceful process or resolution can’t be agreed upon.” Thus, to have grounding for a theory of just war it is necessary first to have a theory of legitimate governance (something Thomas Aquinas was acutely aware of). 

Under current international law there are three basic conditions of legitimacy, and provided a state meets these conditions it has the right to be left in peace. The conditions are:

1. The state is recognised as legitimate by its own people.
2. The state avoids violating the sovereignty of other legitimate states.
3. The state makes every reasonable effort to satisfy the human rights of its citizens.

This latter point offers some contention, since not all nations agree as to the nature and specifics of human rights. However, a minimal case can be made by asserting that the state must uphold whatever human rights are recognised by the society that it represents. 

Just War theory is a longstanding tradition that dates back to Cicero, and which has been developed by Augustine (who had to find a way to justify war within Christian doctrine, and did so by drawing from Roman traditions), and later by Aquinas and Hugo Grotius. In its most traditional form it consists of two parts – when it is justified to resort to war (jus ad bellum) and what is acceptable conduct within war (jus in bello), although recently a third category has been considered concerning the termination of war, peace agreements and the trying of war criminals (just post bellum).

The elements of jus ad bellum, the conditions for a just war, are that the war must have a just cause (often defined as recapturing something taken, or punishing wrongdoing) and right intention (solely for the just cause, not for material gain), it must be initiated by a legitimate authority (i.e. a legitimate state, as defined above), there must be a reasonable chance of success, and it must be a last resort – any and all peaceful alternatives can and must be seriously attempted and utterly exhausted before war is allowable (these latter two concerns echoing Sun Tzu). 

The elements of jus in bello, the conditions for just warfare, are that violence be governed by the principle of distinction (i.e. directed towards enemy combatants, and never towards civilians), that any force used fit a principle of proportionality (that any violence employed be weighed next to both the motivations for the war, and the goals of the war) and adhere to a principle of minimum force, with the intent of limiting excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.

At this point, it is prudent to consider a few concrete examples. 

Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland was the crucible of World War II, and violated the principle of legitimate authority by not recognising Poland’s sovereignty (thus no action by the Third Reich could ever achieve just cause). Furthermore, Hitler’s goal was territorial expansion, which violates right intention, and no aspect of his war effort can be considered to have been a last resort. A trickier case of foreign occupation can be found in China’s control of Tibet; although this was not directly attained by war, there are severe questions as to the justifications China provided for the invasion of Tibet, which is couched in terms of a “failure to modernise” that does not appear to fit any of the conditions of legitimacy that currently apply under international law.

Examples that violate jus in bello can also be drawn from World War II, such as the British firebombing of Dresden in 1945, which violated the principle of distinction and of minimum force, causing the deaths of between 24,000 and 40,000 civilians. This is sometimes justified in terms of response to the Blitz – the Luftwaffe’s repeated bombing of London between 1940 and 1941 – which had caused some 43,000 civilian deaths. However, the fact that an enemy’s conduct is unjust does not provide justification for responding in kind under Just War theory. Similar considerations may be applied in respect of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and indeed, to the use of nuclear weapons in general – since such an attack necessarily violates the principle of distinction.

Many people consider the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan to have just cause, namely to topple the Taliban regime which was not a legitimate state under international law, and which had arguably contributed to an act of war against the US in the form of horrific terrorist attacks against civilian targets. However, it is not at all clear that this action was a last resort, neither is it clear whether or not the principles of proportionality or minimum force were met. 

In the case of the following US invasion of Iraq two years later, there is neither just cause nor right intention (as Alan Greenspan has observed, part of the strategic motivation was an attempt to secure oil supply in the Middle East), and the action was not a last resort since weapon inspectors were still confirming the presence or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction that it is now clear did not exist. It fails equally under the conditions of just warfare, failing the principles of distinction (thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi civilians have been killed), proportionality and minimum force. In regard of the principle of minimum force, if the view espoused by British Prime Minister Tony Blair is to be taken into consideration (that the goal was to remove weapons of mass destruction), why were surgical air strikes not used instead of an invasion?

In fact, it is very difficult to find an example of a state that has adhered to Just War theory, with a few notable exceptions such as Switzerland and Iceland. Since we have eliminated the realpolitik position, and the only remaining position is pacifism, we can only conclude that there is a systemic irresponsibility in the application of war endemic among the nations of the world we live in. 

Finally, we have pacifism, or the belief that war (or more generally violence) can never be morally justified. I have great sympathy with this position, but in relative ethics pacifism has no way to justify itself in absolute terms which renders it as a choice for individuals, rather than a universal objection to war. Nonetheless, the existence of pacifists within the world – whether religiously or nonreligiously motivated – provides a valuable counterpoint to both Just War theory and the insidious realpolitik alternative. In the Kantian project of trying to find a coherent balance between all people’s ends, pacifism is far easier to integrate than political realism, which inherently denies both mutual respect and communal autonomy. 

One last thing should perhaps be said in respect of the relationship of war to modern times. A pre-emptive strike against another nation may be permissible under Just War theory, provided its various provisions can be met (which it was not, for instance, in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq), but such an attack is not permissible under current international law. The UN charter clearly states in Article 2:3 that “all members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means”, excepting only the case of an actual attack. Express permission to violate this article would be required for a legal military action; implying a justification from an ambiguous resolution is utterly insufficient under international law, and to defy international law is to give up the claim to legitimate authority.

Many citizens of the US consider the UN as a monstrous bureaucracy (which it may well be) that places unacceptable limits on their rights as a nation to defend themselves from perceived threats, but for the US or its citizens to blatantly disrespect the United Nations is to heinously disrespect US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who strived to uphold the worthy goal of a peaceful coalition of nations, with the ultimate hope that the United Nations he helped to found would be able to intervene in conflicts between states and thus avoid war. Similarly, to violate the Universal Declaration of Human rights is to disrespect his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who continued her husband’s work after his death, and was in part responsible for drawing up of the UN’s original human rights declaration. 

War, if it is to achieve even a thin veneer of respectability, must live up to the ethical standard first observed by Sun Tzu, and later incorporated into Just War theory: war must be a last resort. If and when it is not, war is unjust by every standard except vacuous and nihilistic belief systems such as political realism. Perhaps it is time for the people of the world to hold their governments accountable for unjust wars conducted in their name.

The opening image is entitled War, although I am uncertain of the name of the artist. I found it here, and as ever no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.