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🎮 Humankind and the rhetoric of tech trees

(Part of a series on games and models)

If you're at all interested in technology, you've probably come across the “Gartner hype cycle” model of technology development. Here's an example from last year:

Emerging Tech Hype Cycle 2021 from Gartner

The hype cycle argues that innovation matures in stages, but the result is a bit like the Hero's Journey of the tech world — it's well known, narratively compelling, but… as a model of the real world, it misses many things, and its assumptions simply don't bear out.

For example: the model suggests that the cycle is the same for every technology, or that the stages are fixed and that criticism is followed by eventual adoption. But these ideas don't stand up to historical review. In fact, real technologies mostly don't follow such a cycle at all.1

But the hype cycle, as a model, also tells a narrative.

It's a narrative of progress in the face of adversity. The path goes from rejection towards eventual adoption, and there is no off-ramp from the cycle — failure is not modeled. People looking to this model for guidance might understandably forget the myriad ways in which technologies fail all the time.

It's therefore useful as a rhetorical device that argues for a point of view. For example, a startup that needs to buy time from investors or the press, can use this framework to argue that every great idea goes through a rejection phase on the way to mass adoption. All they need is a little bit more money and patience, and they'll surely get there.

Because in this model, that is the only path.

In games we have our own version of a predestined technology model.

The venerable tech tree is a way to describe how the player's technology will grow over time. Tech trees are as old as PC games, and we've all seen them in countless titles: for example, as a series of technologies that unlock upgrades or units.

Tech trees are a solution to a very mundane problem: how to give the player a feeling of progression, of getting better, of learning new things and discovering new abilities.

There are many ways to do this (e.g. progression mechanics, levels, XP), but the tech tree has some nice advantages: unlike abstract progression mechanics, tech trees make it easy to fictionalize progress (e.g. you “just discovered nuclear power! electricity costs are reduced”) — and also, since it's a graph, it's easy to visualize how technologies depend on each other (e.g. you can't discover nuclear power unless you've discovered physics first).

But for games that are situated in the real human world, tech trees end up also commenting on human advancement, and that's where things get interesting.

For example, here are two screenshots showing a fragment of the tech tree in the game Humankind:

Humankind tech tree, ancient era, 1/2

Full-size link

Humankind tech tree, ancient era, 2/2

Full-size link, CC images from Humankind Wiki: Technology

Since Humankind is a strategy game with a broad historical sweep, the tech tree similarly follows the contours of human technical achievements. In the “Ancient Era”, the player can develop 12 techs like irrigation, writing, or organized warfare. As we go through the ages, this continues: the “Classical Era” allows for 12 more including philosophy and rhetoric, as well as standing army or siege tactics; similarly with other eras from medieval to modern. At each point, new technologies unlock new buildings, improvements, armies — and other future technologies.

But a tech tree that describes human progress through history can't help but embody some specific historical perspectives. Simply put, the choice of which technologies to include, and which not to include, is a perspective on what's important to humankind (and to Humankind).

For example, the game's tech tree includes 93 technologies of various types, from irrigation to the fusion reactor. But of those 93, fully 31 techs are military innovations dedicated to warfare (e.g. heavy infantry, or siege cannons), while most other non-military ones unlock secondary military capabilities (e.g. bronze working unlocking spearmen).

And also, consider what's excluded. In Humankind, a number of human innovations simply don't exist. Poetry as such never appears in antiquity, and neither does theater, religion, or mathematics. Renaissance never sees architecture or astronomy; industrial age has no chemistry or physics.

Instead the tech tree offers other options: organized warfare, standing armies, conquest, siege tactics, military architecture. And in industrial times, guerilla warfare and military coordination claim equal importance to electricity and the scientific method.

In this tech tree, the arts and sciences are simply not a part of the model. They don't exist in the game world, they can't be researched, they're not part of human history at all. Instead, war technologies are first-class innovations, and must be researched in order to progress through history.

This is a very martial view of history, of what kinds of human developments are worthy of rememberance.

But this isn't the only way this could have played out. For instance, if we look at another game like Civilization 5 (which was a clear inspiration behind Humankind), its tech tree is very different. All the items I mentioned as missing, the various arts and sciences, show up there.

In Civilization 5, the human civilization discovers poetry and drama and mathematics and architecture; the history of humanity is filled to the brim with accomplishments of the human spirit. And out of the 83 techs, only 8 are dedicated to war; instead, military upgrades come as side-effects of other innovations.

In short, Civilization seems to be more interested in civilization construed broadly, rather than focusing on its military passions.2

This rhetorical shape of the tech tree changes the tenor of the game.

And I don't know whether this particular rhetorical shape was intentional. The tech tree is a utilitarian beast, meant to guide the player through the game's systems — and if the game is primarily a military strategy game, oriented around territory and offense and defense, it seems natural that the tech tree would match that, to guide and reward the player accordingly.

But consider the player fantasy that comes out of that.

As a player, you're no longer playing a game where your civilization discovers poetry and religion and democracy. Instead you're playing a civilization that discovers mounted warfare and naval artillery and trench warfare. And once you start playing a game, you have no choice, you have to submit to the model it presents.

In the end, the two games, Humankind and Civilization 5 present starkly different visions of humanity's history — one focused on warfare and conquest, and the other celebrating the joyful and innovative human spirit. They tell very different stories of humankind.

And what's amazing, is that they tell these stories entirely through game systems.

  1. Re hype cycle, here's a fun-yet-charitable analysis: LinkedIn - and a more theoretical and detailed one: ResearchGate.

  2. But this is not an invariant across all Civilization games. Older games like Civ 4 included ideas like democracy in the tech tree, which later games represent as orthogonal civic innovations. And by the time we get to Civ 6, things change towards the martial again - out of the 77 techs in Civ 6, 12 are military; poetry and drama and theology are out; military engineering and siege tactics are in.

Sunday, February 20, 2022 - Contact: @rzubek

🎮 It's Just A Game

(Part of a series on games and models)

"It's just a game," we sometimes say, meaning: this is not real life, don't take it so seriously.

True enough. But games do communicate things about real life. And that's where their power and their problems begin.

Communication is not unique to games, of course. Books and movies are equally not real, and yet they tell us things about our world all the time. That's why we seek them out, because they offer us perspectives, they let us experience the world through another's eyes, through another's life. If they didn't, would we even pick them up?

Games are more circumspect. Some games are insistently abstract, and no amount of coaxing will cause tic-tac-toe to offer up new perspectives on life. But as soon as we turn to even just board games, things start to change. Even with simple go and chess, we start getting hints of communication — their model and their very vocabulary, full of “movement” and “surrounding” and “winning” and “sacrifice”, communicates a certain way of being. Their language is taxed by war.

And with computer games things get even more interesting. These don't have to resort to abstraction, they don't have to be austere-yet-explicit like board games. They can be narrative and metaphorical, they can speak in stories and parables. A video game like Bioshock or Detroit: Become Human is an interactive story kind of a game, which rivals movies not just in visual fidelity — but also in an ambitious story that uses similar devices as movies, and speaks to us just as clearly.

But games don't need a story to communicate, because games are primarily about doing things, they're a medium that traffics in agency. So games like SimCity or Civilization or The Sims can communicate a vision of the world without invoking any story at all.

Instead, these games speak by shaping agency: by moulding the world just so, shaping the rules of the world and specifying what can be done, and what can't — and then dropping the player in the middle of it and leaving them to their own devices. And the player, like an emigre in a foreign land, will start to learn to live in their new adopted home. They will start to pick up on its rules and values, they will learn how the world works.

And if things go well, they will think back, and the experience of novel agency will illuminate how life works back home, in the real world.

But games doesn't have to be truthful, or even charitable.

Games can present their own chosen set of ideas about how the world works, in the form of a limited model or simulation of the world. And the player, like a fish unaware of the ocean, might not realize the shape of the model and its boundaries — what the game represents accurately, what it editorializes, what it omits or sweeps under the carpet.

And this is where our rhetorical problems begin.

So while a lot has been written about how games communicate as stories and media, in these posts we'll instead focus on that other form — how games communicate via rules and agency.

This is a new rhetorical technique, unique to games.

But how can rules and agency be used to communicate anything at all?

✒ (To be continued in next part)

Thursday, February 17, 2022 - Contact: @rzubek

🎮 Educated by SimCity

There was a point in my life, when everything I knew about cities and urban planning, I had learned from SimCity.

It sounds like a setup to a joke. But what's funny is that what I learned was not nothing. 😃

Rather the opposite. Back in high school I knew basically nothing about urban planning, transportation engineering, or green transit (it was the 90s). But in retrospect, it feels like I had learned a little bit about it operationally.

For example, that rail lines seem better than highways. But why? I got the broad strokes from the game. After all, I had built cities with them and without them, and experienced the difference — I saw rail lines deliver so many more passengers, faster, produce less pollution, and make surrounding neighborhoods very happy. They had none of the smog and unhappiness producing aspects of traffic-snarled highways, which made them highly appealing. So while I hadn't read much about how rail lines worked, I had experienced some of it, in a very specific sense, in SimCity.

But, of course, my experience was only that of playing with a simulated model, and only now with the benefit of hindsight, I can see how this kind of learning also produced interesting blind spots. It wasn't a matter of huge errors, or mistakes in the simulation, more of a collection of barely noticeable sins of omission. For example, building a brand new rail line to connect well-heeled suburbs made them very happy, and reduced traffic — but what about all the poor neighborhoods that I had flattened, Richard J Daley style, to make this vision happen?

On that topic SimCity was silent. It never even entered into calculation. Rail brought uniform happiness and reduced pollution, and razing entire neighborhoods was never an issue — the little computer people didn't care about their communities were getting torn apart, about being evicted from the homes they grew up in. That particular kind of human cost was not simulated. And so the player would never even learn about it — and never realize what they didn't know.

Looking back, this is an interesting power of games. They open a window into a new world, they give the player a chance at agency in a new simulated setting, they speak about the world not just by portraying it, but by shaping player's abilities to act. But what they say about that world is never truly neutral and objective — because it can't be. By deciding what to model, and how, and what not to model, they say things about the world.

And so it is with models. They are always editorial. They are always rhetorical. They say things about their subject by choosing how to model it. And what they say is not always obvious.

So in the following few posts I'm hoping to explore this a bit more. Games present themselves as playful models of a world — but what do they say? And more importantly, how do they say what they say?

I'm going to look at it from a few different angles. I don't know where it's going to take me, but as I turn these ideas over in my head, I'll try to also do this in public, on this blog, and I hope you'll ping me back with your feedback. Please do. 😃

I'll add forward links in this post as the articles show up:

Saturday, February 12, 2022 - Contact: @rzubek

The blog is back

When I had started it back in 2020, it was a fun goal to try to contribute new writing on a regular basis. An excuse to share some thoughts while also exercising some writing muscles that don't get used on short-form social media.

But the global pandemic had other ideas. And in a world turned upside down, blogging no longer seemed fun.

Fortunately, we're all turning the world back right-side-up again.

So let's retry this as well. 😃

Tuesday, February 1, 2022 - Contact: @rzubek

WallStreetBets as a Massively Multiplayer Game

(This is a recap of my twitter thread about WSB resembling MMOs - condensed into a single page and slightly edited. Enjoy!)

Jan 27, 2021 A lot has been written today about the $GME pump on /r/WallStreetBets from a financial angle (e.g. CNN)

But I think there's another angle - this it also works as a multiplayer game and one with an interesting design.

Don't believe me? Let's look at it structurally!

WSB pump of $GME exhibits a number of gamelike elements:

  1. resource mechanics
  2. multiplayer social mechanics
  3. progression mechanics
  4. multi-system interactions
  5. prediction complexity, and
  6. a powerful player fantasy to tie them together


  1. Just by itself, the stock market is an engrossing game (for those who can afford the time and money). It's got a variety of simple resource mechanics (buy / sell stocks), more complex mechanics (buy / sell options), super complex mechanics (would you like some futures?) and a very high analytic complexity (which mechanic should I apply to maximize return, short term or long term?). Like in chess, this analysis is very hard but therefore interesting. And the system gives somewhat clear feedback about how well you're playing ($$$).

  2. Now WSB specifically adds social mechanics. Being a lone wolf timing the market is one thing - but banding together to see what you can do together, now that's something else! Specifically WSB allows not just socializing/meta, but also for coordination and more.

    If we were to apply Bartle's player archetypes, I think there's enough variety on WSB to satisfy all four player types (achievers, socializers, explorers, and killers). And the social mechanics are themselves gamified by Reddit with upvotes and comment theads.

    But there's something extra in the $GME pump - the social mechanics are guild-based and cooperative. Like when you join a guild in MMOs, WSB hints to people that if they band together, they can make an impact on the game world, in a way that they never could if they were playing solo.

  3. All this relies on having feedback about how well the player is playing, which is simple: players work together, stonks go up!

    Or that's the promise at least, and most of the time it doesn't work, but sometimes it does. And figuring that out is an interesting challenge.

    Like in chess, which also has very weird progression mechanics - most of the time you don't get a lot of feedback, until the very end. But with experience, you can start to learn how to read the game board. Trying to “figure out the game” is part of the allure.

  4. On top of that we have multi-system interactions. $GME pump doesn't exist in a vacuum, it relies on there being a network of other participants, especially rational self-regulating actors who are trying to maintain a consistent risk exposure. And those actors can behave in somewhat predictable ways (like buying back stock when its price goes up to decrease risk).

    You know where else we can find non-player boss characters who have predictable behaviors, and can be kited around by a coordinated team?

    MMOs. 😃

    Which is not to say that WSB is nearly as coordinated or successful as a guild raid. Just that predictable systems invite game-like experimentation. And zero-fee brokerage accounts made MMO-scale stock market experimentation very very cheap.

  5. Then analytic complexity and uncertainty mechanics come in. There's a lot of uncertainty in price movements, but they're not random per se. And game players are used to making and testing causal theories about what works or doesn't, and what large-scale rules of the game are.

    This is not specific to games - people inherently enjoy figuring things out and learning about how things work (cf. Koster). And markets are uncertain but not random, so you can go really deep into trying to figure them out. (Who here has seen the movie “π” ? 😃 )

  6. And finally, but not the least of these elements - let's not forget player fantasy. Players aren't just doing it for the money. They're doing it to stick it to Wall Street.

    (And let me clarify that by “player fantasy” I mean this in the technical sense, of what is the role presented to the player by the rules of the game. For example, in Risk, the player fantasy is that of being a general; in Monopoly, they're an ambitious landlord, etc.)

    I mean, money is not unimportant. WSB in general is full of clever money making hacks, and they're mostly bets with very long odds. But in the case of $GME, there's an extra component: sure, it's a bet, but even if you lose, you're sticking it to the hedge funds that prey on weak companies, to market intermediaries who somehow make a profit no matter which way the market turns, etc.

    So what's the player role presented by the rules of this game? It's not Gordon Gekko (although I'm sure some players would respond to that). It's much more ambiguous and ambivalent.

    It's a player fantasy of exploiting a corrupt machine using the tools of its own creation. And maybe that's not so surprising? Campbellian-style monomyth has been a touchstone of pop culture from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to the X-Men.

    But in any case - a good game needs a good player fantasy, and this one delivers. 😃

So… where does this go? Some very immediate ideas:

One, a mania like this puts GameStop in bad position. What can GameStop do with this? How can they respond, when everyone knows this rally is divorced from fundamentals? This is going to be massively disruptive for them. And when market participants threaten the market itself, this attracts attention.

Two, now that we have existence proof of dirt-cheap MMO-scale market pumps, we're going to see more attempts to replicate it. But, just like MMOs, the more of them there are, the smaller population in each, and the faster they'll peter out. So I don't think we'll see $GME again anytime soon, but there could very well be a number of other, loosely coordinated pumps, under the general aegis of WSB.

And points one and two feel like this whole situation is just begging for regulatory intervention. It demands attention, it screams for attantion, and it's going to get it.

But for now, we get to see what it would look like if someone started playing a game with low-cost stock market mechanics.

And it turns out, the game gets pretty weird. 😃

Sunday, January 31, 2021 - Contact: @rzubek