On Hobbes And Video Games

October 31, 2011

Political Theory


A few years ago I got really into a PC game called Garry’s Mod. G-mod is a modification of half-life 2 that allows players to use realistic physics, object models, and constraints to build machines, make videos, or strap rockets to stuff and watch the game spaz out. Thinking back it was really just a very sophisticated version of Incredibots. Garry’s Mod supported online play and one very interesting aspect of the game is the way in which different people interact with one another in online servers. In many ways online play in this game is a microcosm of our own world and demonstrates many of the ideas we’ve discussed in class.

A state of nature and the formation of a commonwealth

At times, Garry’s mod servers were perfect examples of states of nature.  Servers could be populated by many different players each of whom had their own desires and a relatively equal ability to kill one another – usually by picking up a bathtub with a Physics gun and launching it at several hundred mph – if need be. Without any single holder of power to make and enforce laws, servers almost inevitable turned to a state of war if any kind of friction between players arose. Imagine a large, open, warehouse like room with people tossing random, inanimate objects around with the hopes of crushing one another (or just shooting at each other if the server permits).

As a result of this state of war and the desire for peace – so that they could go back to building things instead of throwing dumpsters and bathtubs at one another – players would often form themselves into teams or groups in order to protect one another from other players. These contracts of cooperation effectively constituted the creation of either independent governments or factions, depending on whether or not you see the server as one state. As you can imagine, however, conflict was still present and these social contracts were flimsy at best.

Many servers though, are managed by players called administrators. These figures are perfect examples of the Hobbsian Leviathan. With the ability to fly, ban and kick players, and basically act like a god in this virtual reality, they represent a force great enough to instill (some form of) fear in the players of a particular game server. By Hobbes’ definition of citizenship, being afraid of the ruler is the same as acceptance of their rule, however, many severs also make players agree to follow the rules of that server or face punishment by the admins. In this way, people playing on a server with admins are members of a commonwealth and are bound by either fear, explicit agreement, or both to uphold the social contract and the rules that the social contract binds them too. However, a server that asks players to agree to follow rules, but has no individual powerful enough to enforce those rules will ultimately fall back into a state of war due to a lack incentive to keep such a contract.

Looking back on this game I find it interesting that I was actually viewing the creation of a government without even realizing it.

What do you all think?

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7 Comments on “On Hobbes And Video Games”

  1. mjgeis Says:

    I honestly want to thank you for that perspective on things. I didn’t realize just how much Hobbes’ state of nature plays into games like that. I used to play one (Star Wars Jedi Academy, for those who are wondering) and they had very similar setups: a set of rules that, when broken, resulted in the perpetrator experiencing a kick or ban at the hands of moderators. It’s incredible to see just how purely the state of nature plays out in a video-game such as this, but I think I have a theory as to why. In society, we are bound to be held responsible for our transgressions. However, on a video-game server, we benefit from anonymity; it doesn’t matter who we piss off because they can’t react in a way that will actually hurt us. This means that everyone in these games can do whatever they want without experiencing actual consequences. Of course, once administrators and moderators come in, one’s ability to play the game becomes a privilege, not a right. By setting this as the penalty for misbehavior, admins are able to create a fairly firm and lasting government.

    I would like to give you props on what I sincerely think to be a brilliant perspective.

  2. benjadler Says:

    That is incredible how a video game can resemble a society in a state of nature so perfectly and follow the ideas of a form of a social contract under a Leviathan (I also like how it is tied to the video game theme like Professor Manty’s grading system).
    I used to be a pretty avid PC gamer myself beginning with all of the Age of Empires, Age of Mythology, to Empire Earth, Battle for Middle Earth, and eventually the Battlefield series. Although I never played Garry’s Mod, I can also see similarities in the games I played that follow the Hobbes’ structure of society. For instance the game types seem to follow these rules. Age of Empires was a RTS (real-time strategy) where I controlled an entire civilization and could command my citizens who gather and build and my soldiers. I was the Leviathan, only as strong as the units I controlled made me – like the chain mail of the Leviathan made from his subjects (they could be converted, thus allowing me to lose my power). However, these characters were not bound by fear of death or punishment, which hurts the credibility of my example.
    However, compared to the Battlefield series, where any character can kill anyone else (even his own teammates) without repercussions in an unorganized world without strategy. I could actually change sides during a game to change the tide of battle. This game lacked any serious rules other than to stay within the boundaries of the map. This lawless battle represented Hobbes’ state of nature where life is brutal, short, and full of fear of death. There was no commonwealth, even amongst members of the same team, who did not necessarily have to work together.
    Hobbes = the father of video games

  3. Brian Hall Says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who appreciates videogames for more than just mindless entertainment (even if that’s usually what they’re best at delivering). I’ve always thought that RTS games, especially larger scale simulation types, as opposed to the more linear starcraft style one on one fight to the death cage match, have great potential for teaching or modelling sociological, psychological or political concepts. In particular, the Medieval Total War, SimCity, and Sid Meier’s Civilization series are excellent (albeit extremely simplified) life simulators. They are also quite fun, as they tend to bring out the Machievelli in people, allowing players to experience the power trip that comes from manipulating large numbers of people with no real world consequences like being assassinated or deposed.

    I remember that researchers a few years ago modelled a disease outbreak in World of Warcraft as a means of studying how society reacts to an epidemic. I think it is interesting that people who play MMORPGs tend to invest so much of themselves into the game that they start to do things that don’t really make sense to most people in the real world(like spending real time and money on in-game jobs and money). Yet these things allow us to see and examine what people do in the real world in ways that would otherwise be unethical. Imagine releasing Ebola virus into the Ann Arbor water supply. This would never work out well, despite the useful epidemiology information one might acquire as a result. Nobody cares if researchers screw with WoW nerds though (sorry, but it’s true).

    My personal experience with Garry’s Mod has been utter chaos. I’ve never seen an effective order in a server before, but then I quit after playing online for maybe 30 minutes due to my lack of patience. Sadly, in real life there is no quitting if you don’t like the chaos surrounding you (except suicide…but really). It always amazes me that society even exists in such a complex form as it does today.

    (As a side note, Garry’s Mod is endlessly entertaining. And Half-Life 2 is the best game ever, I rest my case).

    • William Burton Says:

      I absolutely agree with what you said about the way that RTS games can show the Machiavellian style of rulership that naturally develops when a rulers primary concern is the state. In particular, I think it amazing that when put in the position of a monarch how easy it is to make the decision to have opponents assassinated, to lie and manipulate people, or to attack large numbers of people in the name of benefiting the state when morality is no longer a restriction. I remember once while playing Rome-Total-War having the entire population of a recently conquered city executed because it was easier than leaving an army garrisoned there to prevent the inevitable riots. That is obviously a very immoral decision yet one that may be beneficial to the state and therefore justified in the amoral Machiavellian style of rule. It seems to me that RTS games will generally bring about more of a Machiavellian type of rule because ultimately it is still a game and morality generally does not apply in our decision making when we’re playing a game, the same reason that a person who murders a hooker in grand theft auto will probably not in reality.

      • Michael Zanger Says:

        I cannot tell you how happy I am to find a post about Garry’s Mod. I think the concept of open source servers are a great way to expand ideas and improve the game (metaphor for the world?). As long as there is a merciful and reasonable administrator (legitimate state or authority), the game (the world) can be a positive place to live and develop. But again, this means there would be a more powerful being than others.

  4. ryanjcarney Says:

    Having played so many video games over the years it’s always great hearing new perspectives such as this. I’ve not played GM but it sounds like it creates the open world, “sandbox” environment for Hobbes’ theories to play out. Most games, even while playing online with other people without the “godlike” admins, inherently won’t allow for what you describe as they’re set up with specific goals/quests/checkpoints with every player equal (whether it be speed, strength, firepower, etc), and/or every player working together as a team from the start.

    One game I’ve played that mirrors what you described is Minecraft. When playing online every player is literally dropped onto the map without any items or direction. Players have free reign to collect resources, build homes/fortresses in a land shared by everyone else on the server. The sandbox nature of the game as well as the limited resources and space available to the server creates a perfect example of what you described. In Minecraft players either lie, murder, and steal to acquire as many resources as possible or work together with others and form communities to making living and building on the land easier for everyone involved.

    Also, in Minecraft there are admins and moderators who can choose lord over their servers forcing whatever rules they wish, creating stability through fear of force, very much like in Garry’s Mod and many other online games.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minecraft

    Great post, I’ll have to check out GM to make the wait for Episode 3 of Half Life just fly by…

  5. godzillagti Says:

    People will always try to find some type of structure in chaos. This is why I think that in a lot of online games you can find people trying to join together to create something like a government. In many games such as Star Wars Battlefront II (http://www.lucasarts.com/games/swbattlefrontii/indexFlash.html), the players try to form a clan. Even though the premise of the game was to simply kill everyone you could find, some type of order was usually formed. In one game I played a group of players decided to hold auditions to see if you were good enough to be apart of their “clan.” Once in one of these clans you got the honor of putting their clan tag (name of clan) before your online name. The reason they formed these clans was because they wanted support in future games if it was ever needed. Even though certain versions of the game didn’t allow for teams, they managed to form alliances through these clans. As I said earlier. You can find that no matter what the situation is, people find governments to be helpful and therefore they will try to create one if it benefits themselves. Personally after I was accepted into the clan, the game became somewhat unfair so I rebelled against my clan and started taking out my own clan members. As expected this type of rebellion was deemed unacceptable by my fellow clan members and they told me I should be stripped of my clan tag. This seemed like a pathetic threat to me so I kept the clan tag and continued betraying my own clan members. As Hobbes said, because there wasn’t really anyone to enforce certain rules I continued to break them. There was nothing for me to fear by breaking these rules. I agree with Hobbes, without enforcement, rules are just words, especially in video games.

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