Bryan Caplan  

Self-Control and Civilization

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I'm not surprised that Brad DeLong shares my love of the great computer game Civilization:

I'm tempted to jump in and head-butt the libertarian: If you were to ask a compulsive gambler if he really wanted to waste his life, he would probably say no: that the life he wound up with is not the life he really wanted...

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I would certainly agree that lottery tickets are a very low-quality diversion, and that the computer game Civilization packs at least fifty times the diversion-per-buck of a scratch lottery ticket. (Indeed, I find it so powerful and diverting that I have no copies: There was a time when I had to decide whether to be a Civilization addict or an economics professor.)

I've played for hundreds of hours, mostly during my first year of graduate school. And yet unlike Brad, I've never felt like I had a self-control problem. I played a lot because it was a lot of fun, and stayed fun for a long time.

Why do so many people use the language of addiction? I guess it's partly sincere. I realize that I'm unusually self-satisfied; always have been. But it's also worth pointing out that there is a huge social desirability bias here. Part of the reason why people who spend a lot of time and money on socially disapproved behaviors say they "want to change" is that that's what they're supposed to say.

Think of it this way: A guy loses his wife and kids because he's a drunk. Suppose he sincerely prefers alcohol to his wife and kids. He still probably won't admit it, because people judge a sinner even more harshly if he is unrepentent. The drunk who says "I was such a fool!" gets some pity; the drunk who says "I like Jack Daniels better than my wife and kids" gets horrified looks. And either way, he can keep drinking.

P.S. If you've got an early version of Civilization II, I wrote some fun scenarios for it, including a version of World War II where Hitler and Stalin begin as allies, and - for readers with cast-iron stomachs - a horrifying take on World War III...


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Brian W. Doss writes:

Oh man, I loved Civ II, but there's no going back after Civ III's border system. That was the one infuriating aspect of the 2nd game, that enemy civs could build a city in the middle of your country and move all sorts of military into it without a declaration of war, etc. Civ III & IV's formalization of political borders is now too fundamental to play without...

Fazal Majid writes:

Er... Stalin and Hitler did begin WW2 as allies, after they signed Molotov-Ribbentrop non-agression pact. The Russian people's heroic conduct after 1941 should not obscure Stalin's duplicity in 1939.

Omer K writes:

Never really got into civilization myself. Went into Police quest in the old days. Nowadays its FPS like Wolfenstein ET. Closest I got to Civ like games is Rise of Nations and archmage (online turn based empire/war game). And of course theres always Go and Chess.

I have to wonder how many economists or people who think economically are gamers, and gamers of what kind?

Swimmy writes:

I've managed to avoid the social desirability bias in my love for videogames. I've learned to avoid association with typical "gamers," mainly because I talk about games in a completely different way than the majority of people who play them. (After a presentation I gave on the SNES classic Earthbound, a classmate told me, "You know, I used to think people who played videogames were kind of immature, but now I might think differently about them." I, uh, might have an article about that in an issue of this magazine. Cough cough, ahem, etc.)

I do occasionally get friends tell me I need to "go outside" more, socialize more, etc. I usually respond with something like, "My individual preference is to play videogames over those things. Because, to my mind, we are speaking of morally neutral activities, I see no reason to substitute my personal values for yours." That usually ends the conversation quickly. Not because they're convinced, mind; only because it shocks them to get an answer like that to such a seemingly innocuous suggestion.

marko writes:

In the first 3 Civ's free market and democracy were by far the best choice for prosperity and technological dominance. In Civ4 however, the most advanced "economy" is environmentalism??? Why did that happen?

Robert writes:

Continuing with the example of the drunk, however, if he has internalized this evaluation of drunkenness to the point that he feels shame about being a drunk, even when alone (as opposed to reporting that he feels shame about being a drunk, when asked), then it seems arbitrary to call disapproval of being a drunk an external influence, because it now has both external and internal components.

This is to say, such a drunk does prefer drinking to keeping his family and job, and acts on this preference, but would prefer to prefer otherwise.

All this is to point out that moral preferences are often different from other preferences, in that they are preferences about preferences.

Robert Speirs writes:

Couldn't one say that people like Karl Marx are as addicted to writing as Groucho Marx was addicted to his cigar? And the socially-undesirable consequences of Karl's behavior were worse by hundreds of millions of deaths than those of Groucho's.

Edward O'Connor writes:

If anyone is looking for a CivII-like game with CivIII borders and other such enhancements, FreeCiv is pretty awesome.

Tom West writes:

Civilization packs at least fifty times the diversion-per-buck of a scratch lottery ticket.

I've never understood scratch lottery tickets. I've always figured that the reason to buy a lottery ticket is that for $1 you get the pleasure of imagining just what you would do with your millions.

To maximize the return, I never buy more than one ticket (my pleasure from imagination doesn't improve with increased odds, the odds really are essentially zero no matter how you slice it), and I always buy as far from a draw as possible to maximize the length of pleasure for my $1.

For a few dollars a year I get a lot of idle imaginings. I figure it's worth it.

As for using the language of addiction, it's simply part of the greater question about personal responsibility. If you fly into a rage and kill someone, is it because you really preferred to see them dead?

"Sincere preferences" (whatever that means) change moment by moment. The alcoholic may prefer to remain sober (and will) until liquor is placed under his nose, in which case he prefers to drink (and does), until the next morning when he prefers to remain sober (and does). What is his "sincere preference"?

Many years ago, my preference was to not feel underslept at work every day, so I deleted Civ from my hard drive.

Brad DeLong: "I can quit blogging anytime I want to."

Speaking of guys with no self-awareness, Paul Krugman's column today begins: "The nature of the right-wing attack on The New York Times — an attack not on the newspaper's judgment, but on its motives..."

Matt C writes:

I commonly spend hours reading blogs or playing video games that I regret later. I eat food that I shouldn't. I don't exercise enough. I stay up too late. I don't work hard enough on all the little projects I would like to be doing.

There may be some element of social desirability bias here, but I doubt it is central. I don't account for myself to others much, and most of the things I feel bad about no one is even aware of except me. It is mostly my own ego and self image that give me grief.

It certainly looks to me like I am normal in this respect, at least among middle-classish sort of people. It is strange to me that you have trouble understanding this conflict between your different selves. I *think* I envy you.

Aidan Maconachy writes:

Civilization is addictive on a certain level, as are a number of online games. I have a fairly serious Literati habit.

The problem with all of these compelling pastimes is that they take up a lot of time. Someone on this thread mentioned blogs as a time eater also. There are only 24 hours in a day and other areas of life can and do suffer.

In the summer gardens, beaches and big skies are way more compelling. Which reminds me ... what the heck am I doing in here?

Addiction isn't always obvious. In the case of a drunk and Jack Daniels, addiction is easily determined. However the psychological drives that hook people on gaming, can easily be rationalized and explained away. If someone is allowing more important areas of his/her life to suffer, so that a gaming urge can be satisfied, then I would say that it could be described as a form of addiction.

If a kid is locked in a room battling ninjas for hours and end rather than interacting and developing social skills, he's going to end up stunted. The fact that he has brilliant hand-eye coordination and a high score, does little to compensate for being socially inept and severely challenged when it comes to reading a play by Shakespeare.

That said, I am heading off to Literati to kick some ass.

Luis Enrique writes:

I do have a self control problem, and like Brad had to choose between Civ and the real world. I engage in all sorts of silly self control tricks, like setting up bank accounts to transfer money into to help me save, and having a second alarm clock for when I really need to get out of bed. Without any justification other than the usual lazy assumption that most people resemble oneself, I'd guess Bryan you are in the minority. Certainly plenty of people I know appear to have self discipline problems - it would certainly help explain a lot of behaviour.

Now then, if I am right and most lesser beings find it pretty difficult to do what they ought, to what extent does that justify voting in a third party to compell us to do what we ought?

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