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A Spoonful Weighs a Ton

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By LeftBlank
September 10, 2002

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The dread anniversary is nearly upon here in the city that never weeps, except sometimes, and my mind flits about like a monkey in the high trees, dwelling on this and that.

A couple of years ago, I had an obsession with the best-selling Microsoft game "Age of Empires," which does a good job of teasing out one's inner Genghis Kahn.

It is not the computer game one usually hears discussed in the context of Sept. 11. People rather prefer to note the original version of Flight Simulator, which allowed users to fly a commercial jet directly at the World Trade Center.

But there are deeper lessons in Age of Empires.

The game shows the interdependence of civilian production -- all those little villagers gathering gold, wood and crops -- and military might.

The same connection that our Sept. 11 attackers drew in taking aim at the neighborhood that was the center of our markets. Well, so they thought -- the tenants of the trade center were mostly a ragtag bunch, back office operations and little-known brokers and financial operations. It never really was a center of trade, either. But it was a symbol, a manmade mountain on an island.

But back to Age of Empires. After you play it for a while, no matter how many scenarios you try, it becomes quite clear that the key strategy for victory is the total annihilation of your opponent's civilization. Knock out the gold mines, kill the woodcutters, tear up the farms, destroy all the buildings where the armaments are made, and the food is stored, and you win. The goal is total victory. Even allowing a few villagers to escape means a theoretical possibility that the enemy will rebuild.

The method, essentially, is genocide.

That fact had begun to make me uneasy long before Sept. 11. Now, obviously, each figure on the board represents many hundreds of people, so in real life, no doubt regular folk survived many of these ancient battles. Microsoft could argue it is only looks like genocide because the context is a gem.

And Microsoft's designers do their best to mix things up. Killing everybody is not the only option. Your priests, for example, can convert enemy villagers through a bit of hand waving and magic -- a shorthand, really, for the far bloodier methods of conversion in our history. And there are more complicated goals in some of the scenarios -- reaching safety with an important political figure, surviving a particular challenge, some complicated variations on capture-the-flag.

But they feel forced. The real buzz of the game is in the killing, the death matches. Can you build up enough armaments before the inevitable clash? (Peace is generally not an option, either.)

Religion and mysticism are very much at the center of the game. One of the strategies for victory is to build a "Wonder" before your opponent. The Wonder is usually rendered as a pyramid in the game. But it could as easily be a hanging garden, or a colossus, or a pair of towers.

And in other scenarios, victory comes not from the usual genocide (though it still works as a strategy).

You win when you destroy the other side's Wonder. The theory is that they are utterly demoralized by this, that they lose whatever power they drew from its existence.

Of course, we were not destroyed on Sept. 11, so far as I can tell. We were gravely wounded, perhaps. The cavemen live in another time, closer to age of Genghis Khan's empire than our own. They take their symbols seriously -- why else destroy those old Buddhas in the mountains, wonders in themselves, that outlasted every last vestige of Buddhism itself in Afghanistan?

Our true Wonder of the World is not made of steel or gypsum board. It is an idea of freedom -- political freedom and the economic freedom in our marketplace. And religious freedom, of course, so relevant here. The freedom to believe in something or nothing, to be an infidel, even, who accepts no prophets, and to continue living.

We have lashed back at our attackers. It would be tempting to teach them even harsher lessons, and visit those lessons upon those with even the slightest connection to the murder of 2,800 people downtown. But I'd like to think we're better than that, that we will be the ones who stop the cycle of revenge. Yes, justice is important, and so is security, but we must be wary of becoming like them, like the petty conquerors of old in that silly computer game. We mustn't destroy our Wonder in order to save it.

Manhattan, Sept. 9, 2002


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