Power and Freedom: Individuals and Societies

The other day I saw the following quote on a bumper sticker:

“A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.”
Gerald R. Ford

It got me thinking about the relationship between power and freedom, and how that relationship applies not only to governments but also to businesses, authority figures, laws, programming languages, and even games.

The first interesting thing about the relationship between power and freedom is that it works very differently for individuals by themselves than it does for individuals working with groups. For the lone individual, freedom and power are synonymous: the more power you have, the better you are able to do the things you like and avoid the things you don’t like, which is as good a definition of freedom as I’ve ever heard. An individual’s best strategy for maximizing their own happiness and well-being is to maximize their power.

The same is true of groups working with other groups–when things get interesting is when individuals working in groups try to manage each others’ power. For the individuals within a group, it’s still in their best interest to try to get as much power as possible. However, an individual’s power over others in the group is zero-sum: the more one individual has, the less everyone else in the group can have. The best strategy for the group as a whole, then, is to try to maximize the absolute power of everyone in the group (thereby making the group as a whole more powerful), while minimizing differences in relative power.

This is where president Ford’s observation comes in: all else being equal, governments, corporations, and other large organizations benefit by deliberately limiting the amount of power that any one individual within the organization can have over other individuals (as opposed, say, to their influence over the group as a whole, which may necessarily be much greater for some than for others). This extends to the power the organization itself wields: ideally, it should not be much greater than the power any given individual can wield, whether through government processes themselves or by other means. This is the purpose of checks against governmental power (such as due process, the three branches of government, term limits, and the fact that every government official is still subject to the law): they prevent the government from being able to wield too much power over any given individual, while still ensuring that the individuals themselves don’t wield too much power over each other.

Needless to say, the US government could stand some improvement on all those points, but that’s a subject for its own essay or ten. What I find interesting is that this dichotomy seems to manifest itself in programming languages as well as bureaucracies: the most powerful programming languages for working alone or in small groups also tend to be the most flexible, while programming languages for working in large groups are more restricted. On one end of the spectrum, languages like Lisp and Smalltalk are notorious for having dozens or even hundreds of incompatible “dialects,” most of which were created by some lone hacker who wanted to do things just a little bit differently than everyone else. Such languages allow and even encourage this kind of thinking by letting you tinker and meddle with their insides in ways that other languages don’t–they start from the assumption that the programmer knows what they’re doing, and that the language’s job should be to get out of the way as quickly as possible. “You want to be able to access arbitrary bytes in memory and manipulate them directly?” says C. “No problem!” “You want to be able to redefine and extend control flow operators like if, while, and equals?” say Lisp and Smalltalk. “No problem!” Languages like these give the greatest possible freedom and flexibility–and hence power–to the individual programmer.

On the other end of the spectrum are languages like Java and C++ that continue to use inherently limiting features such as compilation, static typing, “special-case” primitive data types, and enforced encapsulation. Even though other features like functional programming, duck typing, run-time modification, and macros lend individual programmers much more power, such “group work” languages shun them. The first reason is simply that programming languages are not just technologies, they are conventions, and nothing changes slower–but the other reason is that for large groups of people, it is more advantageous for them to limit the power of any given individual working within that group. An individual working alone benefits from having the entire source of the language open and available for tinkering, but allowing individuals working in large groups to tamper with each others’ code, let alone the language itself, is asking for trouble.

So how does this relate to games? What would it mean for a player to have more or less freedom in a videogame, and how would that translate to playing a solo game versus playing in a group? Not surprisingly, it turns out that the same principles apply: the most successful single-player games are the ones that allow individual players as much agency, power, and freedom as possible. Consider, for instance, the open-form plot of Mass Effect, the sandbox mechanics of Grand Theft Auto and The Sims, or the one-man-army player characters of games like Uncharted and God of War. On the other hand, successful multiplayer games strive to eliminate differences in relative power between players (except those due to skill), while still retaining each individual player’s sense of power and freedom.

What intrigues me most about this dynamic is the flexibility single-player games have in catering to it. The necessity of either explicit competition or explicit cooperation in multiplayer games means that the game’s goals must be explicit as well. In single player games, however, a player’s “power” can come in an infinity of different flavors, some explicit, some implicit. It could be the narrative freedom of Grand Theft Auto or Mass Effect, or it could be the power fantasy of God of War–but it could also be the interpretive freedom afforded by games such as Braid and Every Day the Same Dream, the intellectual puzzle-solving freedom of games like Portal, or the freedom to explore in games like Gone Home and Proteus. It’s an important lesson: “power” doesn’t just mean “the ability to kill tons of dudes,” power means freedom. I’m inclined to believe we haven’t even begun to explore all the different ways in which games can make players feel powerful, without giving them a sword or gun.  What do you think?

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Filed under Games, Politics, Programming

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