That idea of the state as a ship and its ruler as the helmsman or captain is a very old one in European culture. It is frequently used by Cicero, and indeed our word ‘governor’ comes from the Latin for ‘helmsman’ – gubernator. Even more enticingly, the root of gubernator is the Greek kubernetes, which is also the origin of our word ‘cybernetics’; so the notions of ruling, steering and robotics all coincide in our language – and in this galleon.
Observers repeatedly stressed the precision, the orderliness, the grace of mechanisms like this one, which embodied the ideal of the early modern European state as it ought to have been and rarely was, with everything working together harmoniously under the control of one guiding idea and one beneficent sovereign. Its appeal went far beyond Europe: automata like our galleon were presented as gifts to the emperor of China and the Ottoman sultan and were greatly prized. What ruler, from Dresden to Kyoto, would not gaze in delight as figures moved to his command in strict and unswerving order? So unlike the messiness of the real world.
— Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects; corresponding entry at the BBC
Attractive as it is, it’s not really a great metaphor for a state, or even politics at all, is it? There’s no divergent interests, no arguing or lobbying, no betrayal, assassination and backstabbing, and as a result, no trust, no faith no opinion: just harmonious movement. And if it seems naive, now that we carry more sophisticated automata around in our pockets, I don’t think it’s any less seductive. This is essentially how Sid Meier’s Civilization and all its throwoffs work – you have absolute power to push the buttons and pull the levers of not just a state, but an entire Samuel Huntingdon-grade civilization.
The Crusader Kings series shows one way to turn that on its side, with the key mechanic beng to have the player control a dynasty, rather than a state. (Entertaining Rock, Paper, Shotgun review and interview.) The offices and trappings of the state are then resources to be fought over, prestige is a currency like money, and organizing weddings and sending gifts become important game tokens rather than flavour. This is not to discount the wealth of historical detail the makers then hang on that frame; the mechanic makes the game compelling, the detail is what makes it feel right. In a way, the makers have made all the state diplomacy an extension of domestic political squabbling, and that dissolving of the facade of corporate consensus seems bang on, especially for the European middle ages. Its easier to understand Richard the Lionheart if you see him as pursuing dynastic interests on both sides of the English channel than as chief executive of the Eternal Albion. (Echoes of Coase’s The Nature of the Firm here too: companies aren’t monolothic either.)
The original Crusader Kings was released the same year as Facebook launched, in 2004, and the chosen model for the dynastic game mechanic is a social network between thousands of European aristocrats. As much as possible, the developers use historical figures, and even link to their biography on wikipedia. The CKII user interface is definitely influenced by social networks as well, with it being simple to navigate between photos of related individuals. I almost wish they’d taken it further. A history of viewable actions by a character would look rather like the stream of activity on a facebook wall, after all.
Now we have orderly (and brittle) automata as routine tools in our lives, we use them to simulate the messiness of the Holy Roman Empire for kicks. So keeping in mind that The Social Graph Is Neither, a messy network of individuals and competing dynastic interests is a rather more satisfying model of a state to my twenty-first century sensibility. Rather than a ship, perhaps a fleet of nautical automata, all with different captains, would be more suitable: that’s what the Internet is, after all.