July 20, 2002
Never Build the Manhattan Project Unless You Have To

"Never build the Manhattan Project unless you have to!" said the twelve-year-old from the backseat of the car. The remark was completely unrelated to any previous conversation. Indeed, there had been silence for about five minutes.

He was running his mind back over his experience with a computer game: Civilization. In Civilization, if you--or anyone--builds the Manhattan Project, everyone rapidly acquires the ability to build nuclear weapons. Since in the world of Civilization many civilization leaders are unbalanced nationalist militarists (think "Genghis Khan--literally--with ICBMs") the existence of nuclear weapons means that the nuclear war threshold is likely to be crossed, with the expected consequences.

Both the kids have been spending a lot of time playing Civilization in the past three months. They can now both discourse learnedly on the advantages and disadvantages of different forms of government, on how to conduct foreign relations and how to read the true intentions of foreign leaders, on the mechanisms of technological and economic development, and on the tactics and strategy of imperialism in different technological ages.

I think that most of what they are learning about history is, in some sense, "true." Simulation games are, however, a somewhat insidious form of learning. It happens to you. It feels like experience when after the discovery of monotheism it becomes possible to hold a larger and more rapidly developing civilization together. Things that you have done and suffered--even as the leader of a virtual Civilization in a virtual world--or more real than things you have just read about. "Fools learn from experience," said Otto von Bismarck. "I prefer to learn from other men's experience." But what do you do with something that is neither the observation of others nor one's own true experience, but instead the result of Sid Meier's judgments coupled with the requirements of making an addictive and playable game?

Posted by DeLong at July 20, 2002 08:53 PM | Trackback

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after civilization my son matteo started reading newspapers, following with great interest politics, national and world. I'm not entirely comfortable with this. But entirely is maybe asking too much ?

Posted by: Hans Suter on July 20, 2002 11:37 PM

My father likes to say that the one constant all thru history is that the young are going to hell in a handbasket. You just want to be sure your children hang out with the right games.
How many children had their world view mis-wired by Monopoly(tm)?

One of the parent's challenges is finding experiances that give children an intuition for all kinds of processes. Some of them are particularly hard; e.g. the distribution of wealth for example, or the critical nature of hubs in social webs.

Of course simulation games can be a big help with these.

Welcome to the Diamond Age.

Posted by: Ben Hyde on July 21, 2002 11:07 AM

I don't know how old your kids are, I imagine they're young if you are this concerned. However, I'd like to point out that it is a game, and most kids understand that.

My brothers and I enjoyed playing Civ II a couple of years ago (we were between 15 and 18 years old), and the fact that at some stages of the game Communism was a sure way of keeping corruption down (AND waging war against the other players), while at other times Fundamentalism could help (by keeping everyone happy and increasing your revenues via tithes, at the cost of less technological advances) didn't prevent us from being deeply democratic. We care about international politics, and we found the "ideal types" of regime that Civ provides quite amusing.

At the same time, our youngest sister (around 7 at the time) only cared about winning. Therefore, she played in the easiest level (called Chiftain, if I'm not wrong, as opposed to the tougher level we preferred, called "deity"), and never questioned the deeper political meaning of what she chose. Now, 11 years old, she doesn't seem to think that Communism is an aswer to the problems of the world. It was just a game, and she just wanted to win.

It'd be nice to know if your kids actually know what the Manhattan project was about, or why Democracy brings about more trade. But I wouldn't worry that they'll turn out to be Stalin, just because as kids they chose to be a Communist leader in Deity mode.

Posted by: Maria Eugenia on July 21, 2002 12:50 PM

I'm not *really* worried: they aren't going to get a taste for Khomeini's brand of Islam because in Civilization Fundamentalism removes the possibility of civil unrest.

It's more that the kids are getting a certain kind of education in human history through the game that hits you at a very deep, experiential level that is then hard to argue against. Acquiring knowledge through interactive simulations has struck me as like taking "deep tape," as a character in a C.J. Cherryh novel might say.

But I clearly need to think about this further...


Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on July 22, 2002 03:11 PM

you might not have to! alex burns does it for you :)

Posted by: kenny on July 24, 2002 05:16 PM

Is Civilization suitable for a bright, but not very patient, eight-year-old? Thanks.

Posted by: Dave on August 30, 2002 07:38 PM
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