Miniatures: Control & The Self 2


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, omni­scient* con­troller.”—Gordon Calleja, In-Game.

I. In the early ’90s, a new strain of games, dubbed “god games,” asked play­ers to peer down from a great height on their dig­i­tal sub­jects.  In Molyneux’s Populous and Black & White 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, 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*.

II. How insignif­i­cant is this divine might, based on per­sua­sion and appease­ment of wor­shipers & giant flies*, 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*.  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*. 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, 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*.  Consider Orson Welles’ famous mono­logue as Harry Lime from The Third Man:

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 or Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns, 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, 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 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*, 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 selves* 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.”

A rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Leviathan; the RTS is a sim­u­la­tion of the same.

XI. 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. 
Tommy Rousse is a shame­less­ly inter­dis­ci­pli­nary schol­ar cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing a M.Sc. in Games Analysis at IT University of Copenhagen. Chances are he’s either read­ing a book or play­ing a video game right now.  See the idea sausage get made at www​.lud​ist​.com and play LAZA KNITEZ!! while you’re at it.
  • Alex

    Wonderful essay. It pro­voked many thoughts. You make the RTS genre sound so prob­lem­at­ic! Not unjust­ly, though. I keep think­ing about Dwarf Fortress, in which the play­er can only assign occu­pa­tions to dwarves, rather than give them direct orders. They may or may not do some­thing effi­cient, and this may or may not hinges on an exhaus­tive num­ber of fac­tors. More like­ly than not, they’ll end up booz­ing, sleep­ing, then throw­ing a party in front of a stat­ue. Perhaps this lim­it­ed con­trol ele­vates them to some­thing greater than mere drones, or per­haps it just makes them inef­fi­cient drones. I haven’t quite decid­ed yet for myself.

  • Simon Dor

    What about chess? Is there a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in your argu­men­ta­tion between chess and the typ­i­cal RTS?