Culture

'A Good Video Game Sparks my Imagination in the Same Fashion as a Good Book.'

Editor’s Note: Since March, PJ Lifestyle has been highlighting some of the most innovative fiction writers at the recently-launched new media publishing platform Liberty Island, featuring interviews and story excerpts. Click here to see our collection of 27 so far. To learn more check out this interview Sarah Hoyt conducted with CEO Adam Bellow: “It also has a unique mission: to serve as the platform and gathering-place for the new right-of-center counterculture.” Also see COO David S. Bernstein’s recent essay here in which he defines Liberty Island as, “an imaginative playground where brilliant and creative people can test their ideas without being harassed or threatened by the new breed of ‘community activists’ who police thought and speech in the media.” Also see Bellow’s cover story at National Review: “Let Your Right Brain Run Free.” 

Who are some of your favorite writers, books, movies, and intellectual influences?

I always find it difficult to come up with a list of my favorite anything because I am very much a man of “feasts and seasons.” One day I will find myself raving about a certain book or movie, and the next day I am off in a completely different direction.  I don’t know what that precisely says about me, but there you go.  However, having said that, there are certain constants in my entertainment life.  For movies, I would have to say the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy is definitely near the topFrankly, this surprises me because I never was much of a fan of the fantasy genre (until I saw this movie franchise, anyway!), and I certainly wasn’t a “ringer”. However, after watching the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, I completely fell in love with Tolkien’s vision as had so many others before me.  It is just a wonderful tale about faith, friendship, and the importance of perseverance during difficult times. So that is definitely near that top.  Second, I guess would be the masterful war movie, Gettysburg.  In many ways, Gettysburg truly delivered on the idea that the American Civil War was “America’s Illiad.”  It is a suitably larger than life, sweeping, and almost mythical account of the most pivotal battle in that conflict, with the key historical figures wonderfully realized by their respective actors (most notably Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, and Martin Sheen).  It also helped that my family and I just happened to visit the actual battlefield a mere week or two after shooting for the film had wrapped up!

Lastly, I would have to say I always enjoy the dark science fiction of Ridley Scott, particularly his two masterpieces: Alien and Blade Runner. In this day and age of theaters being filled with farcical science fiction, both movies are reminders that the genre can provide a mature, sober experience as well.

As for books – wow, that would be a long list.  I don’t really stick with any one writer anymore; the world of e-publishing has so opened the literary world that there isn’t time to just stick with one author or series when so many others are out there deserving of equal attention (Liberty Island is proof of that!).  Having said that, I do have ever increasing respect for the great works of mankind, be it the Bible (I prefer the Douay-Rheims translation), or the great philosophical and theological works like Plato’s The Republic, or Augustine’s City of God (currently slugging my way through the latter!).  Of course, I am always on the hunt for some good science fiction.  I particularly like some of the sci-fi novelizations and anthologies that have grown up around popular games, such as the Warhammer 40K or Shadowrun universes.  Such settings can be really refreshing because of their “getting back to basics” style of just plain fun storytelling in refreshingly dark and gritty settings.

As for intellectual influences, well, certainly my parents.  Our many kitchen table discussions about the issues of the day was what really awakened an intellectual curiosity in me.  I was also fortunate to have some very good political science professors who emphasized the classics, such as the aforementioned titles, as well as Hume, Locke, Aquinas, et cetera, and always reminded me that there was “nothing new under the sun” when it came to politics, advice that has served me well over the years.  And, of course, talk radio has served as a type of continuing education.  In many ways Mark Levin sounds just like some of my professors – his Ameritopia might as well be a Poli Sci 101 textbook!

How do you describe yourself ideologically?

Lifelong conservative.  Even before I really knew what that meant I instinctively knew it was my political philosophy.  I am old enough to have experienced the transition from the Carter years to the Reagan years, and even as a young man I could see the profound difference in the governing philosophy, and the resultant outcomes, of the two men.  As soon as I heard Reagan describe himself as a conservative, I knew that I was that too – despite the scorn of my high school teachers.

Which thinkers/commentators have influenced you?

Certainly William F. Buckley, especially via his National Review.  Remember that television ad he used to run where you could sample an issue for free, and if you didn’t like it you could “burn it” (that ad always made me laugh!)?  Well, my parents got me the free issue after I expressed interest in that funny commercial.  I opened it one day and started reading it, really just out of curiosity.  Well, it was one of those moments where the heavens opened and a choir of angels started singing.  I was just so instantly impressed with the quality of NR!  Not just because of how it was addressing a side of the news that I had never encountered before – that was my wake-up call concerning the bias of the media – but also because the quality of the writing was so superlative. It was that magazine that helped me understand that good writing was truly a form of art, and I have been attempting to measure up to that standard ever since…usually unsuccessfully.

In addition to Buckley, certainly the great talk radio commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham have been a continual influence.

What are your writing goals?

To always be a contrarian writer.  I instinctively dislike trends or market-tested “group think”.  I want my writing to always be its own thing, if you will.  Those books, those articles that have always stuck in my mind are the ones that got me to see something in a very different light, or to experience something new, or to visit a familiar setting but in a completely different fashion.  I never want to write something that is “by the numbers,” or that could serve as the next script for a Michael Bay film, if you will pardon my sarcasm.  That will always be my personal goal as a writer.

Where can people find/follow you online?

My primary online presence in the somewhat irregularly kept blog I have on video game news and views called Burke’s Joystick.  Sadly, as of late there is a leftward push in the video game journalism world, so my blog tries to cover video games from a conservative angle, as well as serving as a way to expose new people to the hobby, especially those who wrongly dismiss video games as mere “kid stuff.”   You can visit it here:  http://burkesjoystick.blogspot.com/

What’s your craziest hobby/pastime/interest?

Well, I am pretty sedate by nature, and not much of a lover of the outside world, so you aren’t going to get me to confess to anything truly crazy like cliff diving, or some other extreme sport.  For me, a thrilling evening is a good book and a glass of fine port!  So, I guess my “craziest” hobby would be games, any and all types, but in particular video games because the computer does all the work!  As with my experience with National Review, the clouds also opened for me when I received one of the original Atari 2600s as a gift.  Even as a child I could see the possibility for this new medium of entertainment.  While it has had its ups and downs, the video game industry has been more than a little successful in delivering on that promise.  A good video game sparks my imagination in the same fashion as a good book.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that video games have delivered far more original and entertaining stories and settings than anything I have seen come out of Hollywood in a long time. Even more interestingly, I have seen more than a few video games expose some fantastic if obscure science fiction and fantasy books to a larger audience.

For example, the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic was adapted into the popular Stalker series of video games, and Andrzej Sapkowski’s dark fantasy The Last Wish became the beloved Witcher video game franchise.  In many ways, the video game industry has been far more adventurous in finding fresh material for their medium than Hollywood or television has been, which is why I continue to find it such a rewarding hobby. And, of course, you have had the reverse where a popular game has spawned a popular book series of its own, such as the aforementioned Warhammer 40K – some of its novelizations have already graced the New York Times bestsellers list.  Gaming is long past the days of Pac-Man and Space Invaders! 

Read S.D. Tortorice’s essay, “That’s No Moon, That’s a Free Market” at Liberty Island. Here’s the start:

I am a gray pixel. That is, I am a middle aged video gamer who has been playing games for quite a few decades now, really, all the way back to the early days of the Atari 2600. And I have seen a lot of gaming trends over those years. A lot. But there is one aspect of the video game culture that has remained constant, a guiding “North Star” of the hobby if you will, that has always intrigued me. Simply, it would be the burning love exhibited by the gaming community for space games. And not just any type of space game–I am not talking Space Invaders here–but for games where the player is permitted to enjoy the limitless freedom that outer space provides, particularly economic freedom. Really, when it comes to video games, space simulations have proven to be the hobby’s monument to Milton Friedman.

Huh? What is that? You thought video games were decidedly anti-conservative, like the rest of the pop culture? Actually, no. As someone who has not only been a long-time gamer but has also done my fair share of gaming journalism, I can assure you that a lot of the themes in the world of gaming are actually conservative in temperament. So conservative, in fact, that as of late a number of progressive developers have been attempting to pull the industry leftward. For example, Red Redemption released Fate of the World in which the player is made global dictator and charged with “protecting the Earth’s resources and climate versus the needs of an ever-growing world population.” Molleindustria, a publisher that calls for the “radicalization of popular culture,” offers Phone Story, a mobile game that “attempts to provoke a critical reflection on its own technological platform” by making the player “symbolically complicit in coltan extraction in Congo, outsourced labor in China, e-waste in Pakistan and gadget consumerism in the West.” Video games have now entered the realm of political propaganda.

Despite such progressive forays into gaming, most video games remain rather conservative in their outlook. And none more so than open world, colloquially known as “sandbox” space games in which the player is challenged to make a living by trading and mission-running out on what Gene Roddenberry so appropriately termed “the final frontier”. This idea of a game built around the roguish space trader preceded even such iconic space smugglers as Star Wars‘ Han Solo or Firefly‘s Malcolm Reynolds. And David Kaufman coded Space Trader back in 1974. But it wouldn’t be until 1984 when David Braben releasedElite on the BBC Micro that the a space trading game genre would really hit the big time. That game is often considered to be the one of the greatest ever made. Its success was followed by other popular titles, such as Christopher Roberts’ Freelancer, a 2003 mega-hit in the world of would-be space entrepreneurs. The genre had definitely found an audience.

Regardless of the specific title, the theme always remained the same when it came to such economically oriented space sims. Rarely did the player need to acquire a spaceship just to pick up his government cheese at the nearest space welfare office. Rather, gameplay always revolved around the player setting out on a daring new life, free from the nanny state hassles of Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” manifesto, where the player could pursue fame and fortune as he saw fit. This theme continues to be a mainstay of the genre, as evidenced by the latter-day offspring of Braben’s and Roberts’ classic titles. For example, read this official description of EVE Online, one of the more popular contemporary “sandbox” space games:

“Economic power and industrial might are as crucial to the capsuleers of EVE as to any other society that has sought to impose its will on history. The space-industrial economy of New Eden is increasingly controlled by the capsuleers, who produce and use a large proportion of its vast output. Capsuleers mine asteroid belts and moons for vital resources. They exploit planets through their colonies and build starbases and outposts, in order to refine minerals and create exotic new materials. These pilots research their own creations and construct them in nanoforges controlled by sophisticated blueprints. The capsuleer market sees trillions of ISK in transactions every day, with goods ranging from ore to battleships changing hands in vast quanities. This economy is the engine that drives EVE’s never-ending cycle of creation and destruction.”

EVE Online, like many space games, is built upon the notion of a free market–albeit, a sometimes violent, brass knuckles-enforced free market–that serves as the driving engine of a future civilization. The community wouldn’t have had it any other way. Indeed, international gamers, which number somewhere well over 400,000, have so embraced this laissez-faire environment over the game’s eleven year existence that the developer, CCP, needed to hire Dr. Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, an economist, to help keep the game’s economy under control. Dr. Gudmundsson, a newcomer to the world of video gaming, was stunned by the game’s complex economic model. He would write:

“EVE Online is emerging to become a true economic system which is self-sufficient in providing the goods and services required for its own universe, which has several categories of pilots and thousands

of items. The fact that EVE Online is a single universe in which all pilots can trade and share items directly with each other makes it one of the most complex virtual economic systems today.”

This title is not just capitalistic in gameplay, either. More than a few players have declared (in the game’s active forum community) that, having been exposed to EVE Online‘s thrilling free market environment, they chose to pursue real world entrepreneurial undertakings, or even a degree in business as a result. The game is what once might have been referred to as free market “edu-tainment”.

Yet another space game that exemplifies this laissez-faire attitude is the forthcoming title, Elite: Dangerous, the official sequel to Braben’s Elite from 1984 (a BBC Micro is no longer required, fortunately). Here is its description:

“You can trade for profit between systems, ruthlessly pillage and pilfer at any given opportunity, take part in alliances to bring down planetary economies, tipping the balance of power, or simply explore the open world wonders of the galaxy, together or alone….Your first trade is much more than merely padding your bank account – it puts you in the driving seat of your own story. Your choices can make you wealthy, can make you powerful, and can make you knowledgeable, but can also make you the target of every Elite-wannabe from here to the edge of the galaxy.”

Again, is this not the essence of a free market economy in game form? Although Elite: Dangerous may never attain the lofty economic heights of Eve Online as the game is still under development (but eager space traders can buy into the beta program now), it is again heartening to see such free market principles at the core of the experience. Indeed, this game owes its very existence to capitalism, as Elite: Dangerous was the beneficiary of a crowd-sourced funding effort that reached the sizable sum of 1.7 million pounds (around $2.8 million dollars). That’s gamers using capitalism to finance a game about space capitalism. How appropriate.

 Read the rest at Liberty Island here.

image illustration via shutterstock / Mari Carmen G. Dugo