How Iain Banks’ The Player of Games got it all wrong

, | Book reviews

For someone (i.e. me) who hasn’t read any of the Culture series, or even any Iain Banks, Player of Games is a real eye-opener. Banks is a deft and imaginative writer. This is a series I’m eager to explore further.

But as a commentary on games from thirty years ago, it doesn’t have much to offer.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with science fiction getting it “wrong”. Blade Runner is no less compelling because we still don’t have flying cars, much less life-like replicants walking among us. But when science fiction is used as a lens for social commentary — absolutely the case with Player of Games — it’s worth investigating what we see through that lens. What, if anything, does it reveal? How sharp is the focus? Does it distort the picture?

In the case of Player of Games’ perspective on games, I’d say the picture turned out the be pretty blurry. The main character expresses what seems to be Banks’ basic premise:

…Gurgeh never ceased to be fascinated by the way a society’s games revealed so much about its ethos, its philosophy, its very soul.

That simply wasn’t true in 1988 the way it’s true now. I suppose you could argue that point holds true for sports, but this is not a book about sports. It’s about games. Games that come in boxes, that use cards or playing pieces. Boardgames. The paradigm is chess. He imagines two people staring down at a board while an enrapt and hushed audience watches the way it would watch golf.

Banks’ games are entirely abstract. Mechanical. Dry. He has to use metaphor to make them sound dramatic. Here’s an example of gameplay:

Gurgeh beat the young man easily. He even finessed the finish a little, taking advantage of Fos’s confusion to produce a pretty pattern at the end, sweeping one piece round four diagonals in a machine-gun clatter of rotating pyramids, drawing the outline of a square across the board, in red, like a wound.

I’m imagining someone winning a game of Go by spelling the words “u suk”. That person would be really good at Go.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Banks imagining a universe in which chess is the expression of a culture’s ethos, philosophy, and very soul. But he’s a bit early for what will eventually be a really good point once videogames take off. And many of the observations in Player of Games are spot-on, but not as they relate to games. For instance, when a couple of characters are out at a bustling nightclub, games are a part of flirting. This bit is meant to show how deeply games are embedded in day-to-day life.

Za, on the other side of the table, was playing small games of forfeit with his two giggling ladies, handling tiny, almost transparent slice-jewel-cards and laughing a lot. One of the ladies noted the forfeits down in a little notebook, with much giggling and feigned embarrassment.

Substitute Instagram or Twitter in that passage, and Banks is a veritable Nostradamus. But you will never find giggling ladies in nightclubs playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I don’t care how portable the Switch is. You could also say Banks anticipates streaming.

Gurgeh [switched] on the screen again, sitting down to watch it. He brought up the game-player’s channel on the imperial waveband and flicked through to the draw for the single matchs in the second round.

Okay, it’s more like watching sports, but the idea of game replays on channels made me think of Twitch and YouTube.

Player of Games was published in 1988. Back then, boardgames were either Monopoly or complicated wargames with hexes. Videogames were barely a thing. They aped coin-op arcade machines or they were designed for nerdy-man wargamers like me. The exceptions laid the foundation for what was yet to come: Zelda, Ultima, Maniac Mansion. But these were still “just” videogames. There was no such things as games with mainstream appeal because the mainstream didn’t know about videogames yet (it’s worth noting EA launched their Madden football franchise that year, so the writing was on the wall, but the lettering was small and there probably weren’t many jocks around to read it).

What happened with games and what Banks didn’t anticipate is that the mechanics will take a back seat to storytelling. No one is interested in pure mechanics. They have to be adorned. The rule set is the starting point and the adornment is the objective. That stuff about drawing a pattern that resembled a bleeding wound won’t be necessary, because there will be an entire genre dedicated to inflicting bullet wounds. It took over a thousand years for chess to evolve into first-person shooters, and Banks barely missed the last step.

That last step wasn’t easy to see if chess was still your frame of reference. The real foundation for game development in 1988, the real harbinger for the place games would occupy in our culture, wasn’t people sitting across from each other at a chess board. It was people sitting at dining room tables or in basements, sharing and creating entertainment as powerful as books and movies. It was people telling each other stories in the context of game rules. It was kids mostly, eagerly watching clattering plastic polyhedrons to see what number would come up. Not for the number per se (the number on the d20 will eventually hide among countless 1s and 0s). But for whether it meant hitting the orc or missing the orc.

What Banks didn’t predict, what was born on those dining room tables and in those basements, what has become the incontrovertible truth about games in our culture, is that games aren’t about abstract mechanics determining who wins and who loses. They are narrative experiences. They serve the same function as books and movies. Sometimes even the same function as art. What future architects and sculptors are making something in Minecraft at this very moment? E-sports, which are a subset of videogaming, might bear a slight resemblance to what Banks imagined, but that owes more to the “sports” than the “e”.

Thirty years after Player of Games, many of the kids who played Dungeons and Dragons and Legend of Zelda grew up to make games, and to have children who played the games they made, and those children are now growing up and making more games. The best of these games — the most relevant, formative, enduring, and creatively vibrant — create worlds. “We Create Worlds” was the motto of Origin Systems, a wellspring for modern videogame design. It could be the motto of videogames today.

Banks didn’t anticipate games as worlds, although he did play with the idea.

“All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games.”

(A real futurist would have said visceral, immersive, and visually stunning!)

“By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules. Generally, all the best mechanistic games — those which can be played in any sense ‘perfectly,’ such as grid, Prallian scope, ‘nkraytle, chess, Farnic dimensions — can be traced to civilizations lacking a relativistic view of the universe (let alone the reality).”

This passage — which was written somewhat facetiously as the dialogue of a bloviating blowhard — is followed by commentary on free will, and that bit fits very neatly into Player of Games’ story. In fact, rereading that bit after knowing how the story shakes out makes me appreciate Banks as a writer even more. This is one of those books that’s not about what it’s about until it ends, at which point it’s about things you might not have realized.

But it’s telling that among Banks’ imagined game titles of the future, there’s not one reference to dragons, guns, spaceships, zombies, superheroes, Middle Earth, or Marvel Comics. Not a single one of those faux games could be taken for a book or movie (although I can imagine “Farnic Dimensions” as the name of a Dr. Who episode). His titles are an extension of a list that includes mancala, pinochle, cribbage, and Go. Banks didn’t anticipate that games would be more than rule sets. He didn’t anticipate that they would be the stories created by the rule sets. He didn’t anticipate that games will be intertwined with elements of culture like action movies, fantasy, and — of course– science fiction. He didn’t anticipate that they would be systems for collaborative storytelling, whether it’s a collaboration between the developer and the player or a collaboration among the players themselves. When Ian Bogost says videogames would be better without stories, he couldn’t be more wrong; videogames are stories.

Around the time Player of Games was written, William Gibson had vividly imagined the idea of a shared online space. But as the idea developed in popular media, it got bogged down by overuse of the word cyber, gaudy TRON color schemes, and people who had no idea what they were talking about so they used Stephen King’s story about a killer lawnmower as their source material. It was a confusing and uncertain time. The internet was barely even the internet yet. Who knew what the actual internet would become? Who knew BBSs and MUDs would give way to Facebook and World of Warcraft? Back then, we had to squeeze through a 2400 baud modem to get into cyberspace. For some reason, we even listened to the noise of it happening.

It’s no surprise Banks didn’t anticipate how connectivity across the internet would be an integral part of games and culture. He was imagining two people staring down at a chess board. He didn’t have the slightest inkling that kids would be be playing Call of Duty with each other on the PS4 without even visiting each other’s houses. Or that I’ll be looking at my friends’ Steam achievements to see what they found that I didn’t. Or that we’ll be engaged in a heated discussion about our varying experiences with Horizon: Zero Dawn on this very site. He couldn’t conceive of a future in which games are part of our social connections because our social connections are online. Of course they shape our culture. Of course our culture shapes them.

But you can’t fault Banks for failing to predict the future, because the point he does make is fascinating and even relevant. The Player of Games imagines a civilization which is ruled not by merit, not by ability, not even by birth. It is ruled by whomever wins a boardgame. A really complicated boardgame. A boardgame so complicated it’s not played on a board; it’s played on multiple boards. And really big boards, too! A boardgame that informs every corner of that civilization. In fact, the game is the name of the civilization, and vice versa. What if the Super Bowl, American Idol, and the Presidential election were all the same boardgame and the boardgame was called United States of America? What if United States of America was so complicated it took years to learn, and weeks to play, and sometimes resulted in players sustaining grievous injury?

In other words, what if the rules that shaped society were arbitrary to the point of cruelty?

Banks has a lot to say about this idea, and he adroitly uses science fiction to say it. An outsider infiltrates this society, so the book has the luxury of peering in from the outside, of painting an alien civilization that — what do you know — has a lot in common with our civilization. Yeah, they’re barbaric. Oh, wait, does that mean we’re barbaric? Hmm. I just realized “Azad” — the name of the game and civilization — and “electoral college” both start with a vowel. Coincidence?

Some of the commentary is simple. A turning point in the main character’s motivation is right out of the Videodrome playbook. Oh no, there are secret channels broadcasting actual torture and sexual deviance! This society is sick not necessarily because it’s watching that stuff, but because it’s actually doing that stuff instead of simulating it! The rest of the character’s turning point is basically Social Justice 101: ownership, poverty, discrimination, inequality of wealth, homelessness, and crime are all bad. Outrage ensues. But this is a minor part of the story, consisting only of a few pages.

The rest is a science fiction parable about the cruelty of arbitrary rules. And it’s really smart science fiction for how it paints pictures that are both familiar and alien. Take this wonderful paragraph establishing the scene of a party:

One of the people had brought a pet; a proto-sentient Styglian enumerator which padded round the room, counting under its slightly fishy breath. The slim, three-limbed animal, blond-haired and waist-high, with no discernible head but lots of meaningful bulges, started counting people; there were twenty-three in the room. Then it began counting articles of furniture, after which it concentrated on legs. It wandered up to Gurgeh and Ren Myglan. Gurgeh looked down at the animal peering at his feet and making vague, swaying, pawing motions at his slippers. He tapped it with his toe. “Say six,” the enumerator muttered, wandering off.

Banks doesn’t explain what an enumerator is, and he furthermore doesn’t mention it anywhere else in the book. He doesn’t need to. This invented word has served its purpose. It has put into your head another world using a delicate balance of suggestion and description. It has done something no illustrator or filmmaker could ever hope to do so well. This isn’t easy. For a lot of writers, attempts at futurewords come across as technobabble. But Banks is judicious. He knows when to leave his technobabble alone and when to develop it. Player of Games, and I presume the rest of the Culture series, has effector fields, tensor fields, modules, minds (with a capital M), hubs, orbitals. None of these is explained. But they all mean something.

Player of Games is full of memorable ideas. Sentient drones whose moods are color-coded. A justice system that includes mazes and portable prisons. Planets being obsolete as places to live. People using genetically engineered glands instead of drugs or alcohol. A video dress that’s exactly what it sounds like. He spends a few fascinating pages explaining the ecology of a fire-based planet, where most other sci-fi would just say lava and leave it at that.

He also has some unique ideas about gender. Player of Games takes place in a world where people routinely change sex. Not like you’d change hats, but maybe like you’d change careers. It’s a big deal, but by no means unheard of. Pretty much everyone has done it at one time in his life.

“There’s something very…I don’t know; primitive, perhaps, about you, Gurgeh. You’ve never changed sex, have you?” He shook his head. “Or slept with a man?” Another shake. “I thought so,” Yay said. “You’re strange, Gurgeh.” She drained her glass.
“Because I don’t find men attractive?”
“Yes; you’re a man!” She laughed.

A couple of lines of dialogue to establish the sexual dynamics of this culture, throwing shade on conventional morality and biological imperatives. Whoever these people are, they aren’t us. But Banks isn’t done. He has a lot more to say on the issue when the book gets to Azad, where there are three sexes.

I think my favorite thing about Player of Games is the payoff. For a while, it seems like the first third of the book was a bunch of wool gathering about the main character. Why didn’t he just get to the story already? It ends up being a sleight of hand. To paraphrase Banks’ own early gameplay description: “He even finessed the finish a little, taking advantage of Tom’s confusion to produce a pretty pattern at the end…”

And, really, it doesn’t matter whether Banks had any idea that games would become videogames and that videogames would become what they are. That stuff is just an observation from a guy who’s been closely watching games develop in the span of time from 1988 and 2017. What matters is that Player of Games reveals Banks’ science fiction is well written, relevant, and should be read further.

(Special thanks to Joseph Montgomery for sending me a copy of the book and taping the occasional dollar bill among the pages as an incentive for me to read it!)