The Cultural Gutter

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Vengeful gods and other simulated
life failures

alex macfadyen
Posted March 6, 2014

norn hatchingWhen it comes to raising a child who can use words and interact with other humans, so far I seem to be succeeding, but I have to admit that my track record prior to this was not exactly promising. Aside from managing to keep an egg safe for a week in middle school, my first attempt at virtual parenthood was a joint effort with comics editor Carol Borden in the initial release of the game Creatures in the late 90s. We had fun, but we failed.

The creatures were called Norns, and it was our job to teach them language and help them learn to eat, breed and generally survive on Creature Island. We appeared to our Norns as a floating hand that could move objects around, point at things to draw their attention, type in simple commands, and either tickle them or smack them as positive or negative reinforcement. I confess to using tickling as a method of distraction in real life, but I don’t consider corporal punishment to be a good parenting model. It was, however, the only way we could find to stop them from doing stupid things and hurting themselves, so we hardened our hearts.

Norn learning languageWe hatched our first Norn, Gogo, and began to teach him some words using the giant flash card computer installed in the nursery. Once he seemed to have absorbed all the basics we released him into the wild, but this is where it all started to go downhill. You see, there were weeds, which were poisonous, and plants, which were food, and apparently we couldn’t tell the difference because we accidentally taught him that a particular weed was a plant. Either instinct or the machine had already taught him that plants were tasty, so he immediately ate it and then got sick. He wasn’t smart enough to stop eating them though, so we had to smack him repeatedly to make him stop. He also seemed to be hardwired to categorically recognize weeds and plants as different, so he suddenly developed a fear that all plants would make him sick (or get him smacked), which made it very hard to get him to eat.

We did eventually manage to disassociate the word “plant” with weeds and re-associate it with actual plants, but what we hadn’t accounted for was that Norns were programmed with a capacity for feelings, so we inadvertently ended up teaching him that “plant” was the word for sadness. Whenever he felt sad about anything, he’d turn and crouch down facing toward us with big sad eyes and say “Plant.”  In fact, we had so thoroughly failed him in bibble and plant 3the language of emotions that he was also forced to make up his own word for happy. ‘I feel happy, so I must have a word for it,’  he thought to himself. Then he turned to face us, up on his toes, looking thoroughly crazed, and announced: “Bibble!”

Like mad scientists or careless gods, we prolonged Gogo’s life using injections from our med kit, in part to save him from repeatedly poisoning himself with weeds, and in part to keep him around and breeding so we could create more Norns. What we didn’t foresee was how very long this would make him live, and how senile he would become. By the end, he pretty much just ran around randomly being happy or sad and teaching all of the other Norns the emotional language of bibble and plant. Every last one of them.

When I reminded Carol of our Norns, she told me about her approach as mayor of SimCity where she discovered that bulldozing roads wherever citizens complained about traffic congestion actually stopped them from complaining. Possibly it was something that wasn’t considered in the designers’ algorithm because they didn’t think anyone would approach the problem that way. It’s interesting to consider how you can use creative thinking in games to get around the programming and do things that aren’t accounted for because they’re off the map. Of course, blowing it up as a solution in real life is also kind of a scary fascist approach, but that’s part of what games are there for, to play out things you’d never do in real life.

Much as Carol became a hard boiled mayor trying to run her society with no complaints, in the 2001 computer game Black & White, I became a vengeful god. Once again, I interacted with my world as a giant hand, but in this case it was the hand of god. My avatar was a Godzilla-sized cow that changed aspect from a spotted Jersey to a flaming red bull depending on whether I was perceived as good or evil by the people of my land.

It was really just another example of how I didn’t do a good job of teaching or raising my creatures. I could never control them, even though it was completely possible within the scope of the programming. My black and white spotted cow wandered aimlessly around the countryside, indiscriminately trampling fields or people, thus unwittingly turning itself evil and going on rampages which increased my reputation as a random and terrifying god. Every once in awhile I could get it to help the people chop wood or something, but mostly it just did whatever the hell it wanted. I was a bad parent.

cow avatarAlso, the endless complaining of my tiny ant-like worshippers made me want to control them with fear instead of kindness – I confess, I inspired terror rather than devotion. They had the most annoying possible voices and all they ever seemed to say was, “We need more homes!” and then when I set them to building more homes, “We need more wood!” Eventually I took to picking some of them up by the back of their pants with my giant hand and dropping them in the ocean. Of course, when I did that then my avatar turned to evil and they built huge monuments to placate me, but they’d stop complaining because they didn’t need more wood and homes if there were less of them.

Why did they always need me to get more homes and wood and food? I showed them how to make those things themselves, but they just kept asking me about it! I wonder if that’s what it’s actually like to be a god? If it is, I can’t say I blame the ancient gods for abandoning us. At least the Norns would teach each other things, but there seemed to be no such thing as teaching the peasants to fish. They always had to be set to tasks: “You, chop wood! You, stop chopping wood and start building homes!” How I longed for Trogdor the Burninator as my avatar: “Burninating the countryside, burninating the peasants…”

Thankfully, either due to the wisdom of age and experience, or just the fact that my child never asks me for more wood in that really annoying tone of voice, I manage much better as a parent than I did as a creator or god.

~~~

They say you learn as much from your kids as they do from you. Sometimes alex MacFadyen still says “plant” when he’s sad.

Comments

One Response to “Vengeful gods and other simulated
life failures”

  1. Carol Borden
    March 8th, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

    It’s very kind of you to call “creative” my tyrannical reign as Mayor of Sim City.

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