Miniatures: Control & the Self

by tommy.rousse

This essay originally appeared as a guest article at The Ontological Geek.

“The term miniatures refers to entities that players can fully or partially control, but which do not, in themselves, represent the player. Examples of miniatures would be units of cavalry in Medieval II: Total War (Creative Assembly, 2006), the workers in Age of Empires (Ensemble Studios, 1997), or the falling blocks in Tetris (Pajitnov, 1985). I am using the term miniatures to account for the perspective this form of control encourages in such games. The world presented to the player is a miniature one, with the player occupying the position of an external, omniscient1 controller.”

—Gordon Calleja, In-Game.

I. In the early ’90s, a new strain of games that asked players to peer down from a great height on their digital subjects were dubbed “god games.” In Molyneux’s Populous (Bullfrog, 1989) and Black & White (Lionhead Studios, 2001) series, this nomenclature is particularly apt— the player is explicitly given the fictive role of a deity and treated as such by his or her subjects. Yet the player in the “god game” is generally not omnipotent. In fact, inclusion in the genre of god games usually signifies nothing so much as the relative autonomy of the agents being controlled. They must be appeased, encouraged, treated gently. Consider another Molyneux project, this one late-era Bullfrog: in Dungeon Keeper (1997), players are given free license to punish and torture their creatures, even directly slapping them around with the monstrous-hand-as-cursor. But if they do so, or if their libraries aren’t large enough, or if minions are forced to bed near some jerks they don’t like, or if the chickens don’t flow freely enough, or god forbid if they don’t get paid on time, they get mad and leave, or even maybe go crazy and try to murder all of their co-workers.2

II. How insignificant is this divine might, based on persuasion and appeasement of worshipers & giant flies,3 compared to the unquestioning, relentless loyalty available to the average player of real-time strategy? The RTS is a fetishization of cybernetic control. It is a simulacra of the modern Western military paradigm of command and control; sometimes a more efficient one, sometimes less. It almost always privileges positions of management and control over the autonomy of the individual.  As Calleja notes, the player is a controller from the perspective of miniatures.  By choosing not to simulate the will of the units being directed by the click of the mouse, the RTS is a partial fulfillment of the dream of an all-drone army, with no friendly human lives at risk.  In the absence of even a rudimentary artificial will animating the miniatures in most games, the player’s will steps in to fill the vacuüm.

III. The miniatures under the control of the player might be thought of as slivers of his or her will, even estranged facets of the superego. In the typical blank-slate multiplayer scenario, players start afresh every play session with a few workers and a single point of production. Every single miniature under the control of the player is a direct result of specific intention, outside of a few cowardly or recklessly aggressive impulses provided to lessen the cognitive load required by the game. Miniatures never act in heroic fashion on their own accord.4 They do not plot a brilliant tactical approach and decimate your foes while you tend to training more workers. In many cases, if the player doesn’t interact with these lesser avatars at all after creating them, they will stand still until they are destroyed or the game ends.5 Their proclivity for inaction makes it seem their limited psychology is motivated only by a Freudian death drive, a return towards stasis.

IV. Meanwhile, the player-as-general blithely commits his or her troops to the abattoir. The perspective does seem to have something to do with it, though we are no less bloodthirsty when given the opportunity to commit wholesale slaughter in first-person. Still, that variety of death and destruction seems more localized; the carnage of RTS demonstrates a certain economy of scale afforded by a wider field-of-view. More victims can fit on the screen. Outposts, expansions, bases are callously surrendered to an enemy onslaught; targeting civilians and unarmed workers is a routine and effective tactic. In games featuring the “endless zoom” popularized by Supreme Commander (Gas Powered Games, 2007) players are given the option of zooming out so far that their miniatures lose any kind of representational appearance and are abstracted to the realm of the symbolic, if they don’t disappear altogether. Visual distance correlates with affective distance.6  Consider Orson Welles’ famous monologue as Harry Lime from The Third Man (1949):

V. Miniatures are pawns in the most derogatory sense. Miniatures never volunteer for suicide missions or futile last stands. They go to the point specified by the player’s cursor without question. Likewise, they are never given the chance to surrender. Real-time strategy games always simulate total war. Massacres are tidy— there seems to be little demand for simulating prisoners of war. In games like Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War (Relic Entertainment, 2004) or Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns (TimeGate Studios, 2001), at least the miniatures have simulated morale and will flee when the situation is totally hopeless. Many miniatures stand and die in a fashion that would make the average ancient Spartan envious. The total imbecility of miniatures outside the will of the player occasionally strayed into unsettling territory in the early ’90s. In Blizzard Entertainment’s seminal Warcraft II (1995), unit AI was so bad that orcs would stand motionless and serene in the middle of a raging battle, totally still as their brothers were cut down mere feet away, as if they were struck by the horror of it all and overcome with a nihilistic pacifism. Perhaps they just didn’t want blood on their hands. To avoid having your orcs spectate during a fierce mêlée, you had to click on them, gently prod them back into battle, make them pay heed to the violence raging around them. They needed you, and when you told them to do something, they more or less listened.

VI. Simply using the cursor to command miniatures is a mechanic with autotelic properties: I submit that clicking on little dudes and telling them what to do is one of the chief pleasures of electronic games. Anyone who has attempted to steer an organization knows that games like StarCraft II (2010) present a utopian vision of ego-centric leadership. Alternatively, we might consider this projection of the will as the bizarre experience of embodying a corporation, insofar as a corporation might be thought of as an abstract will (seeking profit, or in the RTS genre, striving for Taylorist efficiency devoted to producing the strongest force most quickly) dominating the actions of a collection of workers with specialized tasks.  Is it any wonder that terms like “micromanagement” flow so easily between the RTS game and the business world?

VII. Like capitalism, the multiplayer experience of the RTS is fueled by competition. Roger Caillois argues that games of agôn, rigorously balanced contests of skill,7 often turn on a single trait: in strategy games, that trait is the skill of manifesting one’s will across a multitude of splinters, allowing parts of intent to be sacrificed, adapting as we progress, shaped by the path dependency of chance and circumstance.  This process is structurally similar to the way our own selves8  develop, mutating new variations, generating novel forms of expression, collecting memory-traces, letting convictions die, shaped by that path dependency known as personal history. In the strategy game, this process is standardized, rationalized, and compressed to manic intensity, honed to a razor’s edge by a system of ruthless competition so engaging that verbal communication is nearly impossible. Instead, opponents communicate with each other in elaborate proxy wars, their only medium of exchange base trickery and zero-sum competitive efficiency to be resolved into a binary end-state that will have no effect whatsoever on the next instance of agôn.  No matter how incompetent their last campaign, no matter how many soldiers are pointlessly lost, the player will once again be confronted with four immobile workers and an idle base through which to enact his or her will.

VIII. The real-time strategy genre has somehow managed to escape notice when the popular press goes looking for power fantasies in electronic games. The typical criteria for deciding which games qualify as power fantasies revolve around virtual embodiment of the heavily muscled bad-ass, i.e. what Duke Nukem is both parody and epitome of. But this standard unnecessarily conflates power with hypermasculinity. We should instead look to Weber, for whom power represents the ability to exert one’s will on others. Real-time strategy games, where miniatures are a manifestation of the will & intellect of the player, are the true power fantasy. The volition of the player is the sole animator, his or her desires more absolute than those of any monarch. In god games, where the player’s lackeys can be kept in line with divine wrath, power is an apt term, but in the common secular form of unending obedience of the player-as-Leviathan, the player’s command goes beyond power to total domination; Weber defines domination as “the probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a group.”

IX. Thus, we might think of the real-time strategy game as a simulation of total domination.  The role taken by the player is the ideal manifestation of Hobbes’ Leviathan, the rhetorical figure representing the whole of a nation controlled by a unitary authority.  Compare Hobbes’ words to your experience of the miniatures perspective:

“The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort as that by their own industry and by the fruits of the earth they may nourish themselves and live contentedly, is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will: which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgements to his judgement. This is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH; in Latin, CIVITAS. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the Commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that, by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad. And in him consisteth the essence of the Commonwealth; which, to define it, is: one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all as he shall think expedient for their peace and common defence.”

Chapter 17

Rather, for miniatures, it is the player who acts as the multitude and forms the will of them all.  Hobbes would no doubt be delighted that our most innovative medium has produced so many variants of games that provide a procedural rhetoric simulating his conception of the ideal state.  But it is a faulty simulacra of Hobbes’ vision, though perhaps not of reality: the unitary control expressed by the player from the miniatures perspective is possible only because the miniatures possess no will to contest that of the player.  No social contract or covenant could compel the obedience made commonplace in real-time strategy games.

  1. However, fog of war & other design patterns mean that many games featuring miniatures do not allow the player perfect information, which makes the use of “omniscient” more of a rhetorical device than a component of a definition.
  2. Is there another game that simulates alienation so well?
  3. A strange reflection of the elected politicians’ relationship to their constituents.
  4. Except sometimes they do. One of the most frustrating experiences in the RTS genre is the incorrect implementation of the player’s will by his/her subordinates. Consider the archetype of the heedless, incapable-of-giving-an-inaugural-fuck miniature whose inscrutable path-finding algorithm prefers marching through most of the enemy’s heavily defended base instead of taking an entirely safe route that is perhaps a few pixels shorter.
  5. Even worse, we occasionally forget or misplace these shards of our personality during the course of an involving game.
  6. See also the lords of finance looking down from their celestial skyscrapers, deluded into thinking they are doing God’s work.
  7. e.g. chess, tennis, wrestling, the multiplayer component of most RTS games.
  8. The unitary self is a naïve self.