Like Worms in the Belly of Some Great Beast: Family Values and Crusader Kings II

0.  Video Games as Purveyors of Moral Outrage

There are two main ways in which a work can provoke a moral reaction:

The first is by using the power of narrative to encourage feelings of sympathy for a particular moral view. This didactic form of narrative usually signals its presence through a system of winks and nods designed to make a particular worldview seem far more comfortable and welcoming. For example. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is filled with nostalgic yearning for nobility in an age of encroaching egalitarianism. Waugh’s approval of the past and rejection of the present is evident in the fact that everyone in the past seems to eat, drink, dress and speak far better than anyone in the present.

The second is to embody a set of values so profoundly ugly that audiences feel compelled to react not only against the morality of the work itself but also against real world manifestations of that same more system. For example, Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel features a group of upper class people who attend a dinner party but find it impossible to leave. As the days go by and people begin to starve and die out of what is effectively politeness and fear of being the first person to leave a party, the audience cannot help but react against not only the absurd characters but also the bourgeois morality they so closely cling to.

Video games tend not to be particularly good at presenting arguments or advancing moral perspectives but they are very good indeed at prompting a moral reaction. Indeed, because virtual worlds must be created entirely from scratch, the beliefs and assumptions of the people who develop those worlds are frequently all too obvious. This phenomenon is being extensively catalogued in a thoroughly excellent on-going series of videos by Anita Sakeesian:

Though often entirely unintentional, the moral reactions provoked by these sorts of games are often incredibly enlightening. Indeed, many of America’s racist and warmongering attitudes towards China, Russia and the Middle East seemed half rational until a series of First-Person Shooters attempted to mine that particular set of popular fears and produced what was effectively a series of interactive neoconservative rants. Similarly, few head-on critiques of the culture surrounding rap music are as effective as the Saints Row series’ decision to slowly transform its gangland protagonists from a group of scrappy up-and-coming underworld entrepreneurs to the soda-shilling heads of a vast merchandising empire.

A couple of years ago, I experienced a similar moral reaction after deciding to play Civilization V and Europa Universalis III back-to-back. What I realised was that the reason liberal people behave like psychopaths when playing 4X strategy games is that those games emulate what it is like to see the world through the eyes of the state. Another moral reaction occurred while playing Paradox Interactive’s latest strategy game Crusader Kings II.

Much like Europa Universalis III, Crusader Kings II can be interpreted as a critique of a social institution in that it exposes not only the moral failings of that institution but also of the players who take control of the institution in the context of the game. However, while the Europa Universalis series demonstrates our willingness to surrender our principles for the sake of bureaucratic expediency, Crusader Kings II targets an institution that is much closer to home: The family.

In this essay I shall discuss not only what Crusader Kings II teaches us about what it means to be part of a family, I shall also consider why even the most wretched of families mean so much to us. In order to explore what the game tells us about family life, I must first discuss what it means to see the world through the eyes of an institution.

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Incendies (2010) – The Viscera of History

There are many metaphors applied to humanity’s study of the past. In the opening lines of The Go-Between (1953), L.P. Hartley opines that “the past is a foreign country: they do things different there”. In The Aetiology of Hysteria (1896), Freud likens the role of the psychoanalyst to that of a conquistador or antiquarian:

Imagine that an explorer arrives in a little-known region where his interest is aroused by an expanse of ruins, with remains of walls, fragments of columns, and tablets with half-effaced and unreadable inscriptions… He may have brought picks, shovels and spades with him, and he may set the inhabitants to work with these implements. Together with them he may start upon the ruins, clear away the rubbish, and, beginning from the visible remains, uncover what is buried.

Both metaphors present the process of historical detection as a voyage into territories unknown. Today, these metaphors ring hollow through a combination of over-use and changing attitudes to the wider world. These days, the world is a village and no two parts of the village are ever more than a plane-flight away. However, in the days of Hartley and Freud, the world was a much larger and scarier place. Were one to update Hartley’s dictum for contemporary usage one would most likely say something like “the past is an oceanic trench: who knows what lies buried in the dark?”

Nowhere is the past’s peculiar edge more evident than when it protrudes from the wreckage of a life recently concluded. When a parent dies, the children move in and sort through their things. This process of sorting generally uncovers all kinds of facts from the actively forgotten to the merely mislaid. People lead complicated lives and these lives are seldom fully encapsulated by the short amount of time that people know each other. To look into a loved-one’s past is to uncover things about them that we would rather not know, things that force us to confront unpleasant truths about ourselves. Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies is a film about a voyage into the past and the changes that such a voyage can bring to otherwise blissfully ignorant lives.

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Home (2008) – Images of the Post-Post-Nuclear Family

Civilisation, much like society, is always someone else. Wherever we live and whatever it is we do, it is easy to come to think of civilisation and society as being external forces that we must protect ourselves against lest they impinge upon our autonomy and deny us our Purity of Essence. But the truth is that while civilisation is always someone else, we are just as much ‘someone else’ as the next person and the ills of civilisation follow us because they are the ills of the human condition.

Ursula Meier’s drama Home tells the story of a family that live by the side of a motorway. Though their home is small, the family enjoy an idyllic life by virtue of the fact that the motorway was never finished and so, despite living cheek by jowl with a million tons of concrete, the family lives as though they are the last people on earth: All the joys of civilisation, none of the downfalls. Then, their stretch of motorway is hooked up to the rest of the grid and the beautiful post-apocalyptic silence is brutally replaced with a wall of engine noise, pollution and honking car horns. Home is the story of the family’s attempts to get used to the motorway and how the motorway changes them both an individuals and a family.

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