I'm sure after my last post you were all desperately hoping I would shut up and stop comparing video games to political theories. Well, jokes on you, losers, I'm back, and this time it's about Tetris 99 and what it can tell us about the social contract which theoretically binds us all.
What is Tetris 99? You should hopefully all know of Tetris, the Soviet game about moving tetrominoes down a board so that you can create lines, and you keep going like that until you run out of space or you run out of patience and throw your Game Boy 1986 or whatever against a wall. Tetris 99 takes the traditional Tetris game and puts a latter-day spin on it by making it battle royale, which as a category of game is popular for some reason. I tend to be of the opinion that games in this mould - the Fortnites and PUBGs of the world - are rather extraordinarily gauche, but the invisible hand of the free market appears to disagree, and who am I to stand in the way of the invisible hand of the free market?
In any case, Marxist criticisms of the video game industry aside, something I found rather interesting while playing Tetris: Battle Royale - besides the fact I have a crippling and I'm fairly sure incurable addiction to it that invalidates everything I said in the previous paragraph - was how decent of an allegory for Hobbes' state of nature it is. I have lots of friends and have a very active social life.
Before we get into the philosophy, though, how do you play The Tetris Games?
PlayerUnknown's Tetris is set in the mysterious inky blackness of the void that exists at the precipice between life and death. As a player in Tetris Legends, your objective is the same as in the original Soviet invention: you are handed a series of tetrominoes, and your objective is to use them to create lines ten strong horizontally so that you can remove them from the board. 2001: A Space Tetridyssey differs from prior entries in the series by implementing multiplayer: that is, every time you hit a line, or multiple lines, you can add lines to another player's board and force them ever closer to the inevitable, the unavoidable: the end. Naturally, other players can also do this to you, which makes the game a quickfire game of trying to remove your own pieces as fast as possible and deal damage to your opponents at high speed.
Call of Tetris: Black Ops also allows you to specifically target a category of people, in case you want to break the Tetris equivalent of the Geneva Convention, I suppose. One setting allows you to hit back at specifically those players targeting you, which tends to be my go-to because I fear death, another allows you to attack players that are close to being knocked-out (or "K.O.d"), still another lets the game choose targets for you randomly, and the fourth is labelled "badges". I don't know what "badges" means and I can't be bothered to do the bare minimum of journalistic investigation to find out.
(NCTJ if you're reading this, that was a joke: "badges" allows you to target whichever player has the most kills.)
So that's the game. But what does a Nintendo Switch game in 2020 have to do with a philosopher from the 17th century?
Thomas Hobbes, who, Google him, is the epitome of "you may not like it, but this is what peak male performance looks like" energy, is considered by Wikipedia to be one of the foremost early philosophers and one of the forerunners of modern political theory. Bear in mind, and I want to be as transparent as journalistically possible, while I do find his work interesting I got a D in A-level Philosophy (though I am also on course to get a 2:1 in politics, so read into that what you will. God this is the weirdest flex). In his book Leviathan, which is nowhere near as good of a political treatise as President Cabbage, he writes of what's known as the "state of mere nature". This is the default state of humankind prior to the introduction of what he calls a social contract, which we'll get to later.
These are a lot of words: the state of mere nature, or just "the state of nature", is the position of humankind on our introduction to the world. There are no norms, rules or laws, cultural or legalistic, to stop us doing exactly whatever we want whenever we want to. Unsurprisingly, despite the overwrought adage that it isn't merely laws that stop people from randomly killing each other, in Hobbes' telling, it in fact is laws and rules that stop us from killing each other, because the state of nature creates lives that he terms "nasty, brutish and short", warning perpetually of the "continual fear, and danger of violent death". god I wish that were me
In any event, in order to avoid the continual fear and danger of violent death that he claims is inherent to a society existing entirely within the state of nature, humanity created the social contract system. The social contract system is itself inherently contradictory and there are a number of criticisms of it, but I get ahead of myself: basically the upshot is that humanity mutually agrees that a civilisation based on the foundational principles of everyone does whatever they want all the time and probably end up killing each other is probably not a civilisation built to last, and so they form a contract between themselves and what Hobbes calls a sovereign: an individual entity granted absolute power to ensure that everyone else follows the rules. Naturally it follows that, if all people are entirely interested in improving things for numero uno exclusively and that they will screw over anyone and everyone to get their way and that's why we have a state of nature, it stands to reason that the sovereign would just, you know, do that? Lord Hobbes is annoying, anyway, that's not important - what's important is the state of nature bit.
Back to Tetris: Reloaded.
Tetris: The Revenge of the Sith is an interesting video game because it is a near perfect example of the Hobbesian construction of the state of nature. Your life in the game is nasty, brutish and short, characterised as it is by the everpresent Sword of Damacles hanging over you at the top of the board, waiting for you to slip up and cross the line so it can cut off your head, and consequently the need to kill every other player to avoid a fate that is characterised, I argue, by the continual fear and danger of violent death.
Winning is no escape, either; victory is brief, ephemeral, a quick buzz of endorphins for a second followed immediately by being thrown back into the meat grinder and probably killed along with 97 of your Tetris-playing fellows (or, like me, the battery dies after playing for, like, five seconds).
I Know What You Did Last Tetris is, in other words, the perfect analogue for the state of nature. A state of nature that we have, in Hobbes' telling, actively constructed a social contract system that governs our lives to avoid. Yet Much Ado About Tetris has numerous players, and no matter what time of day you pick it up, even four in the morning at one point (don't ask) the lobby is full.
To be clear, I don't think anyone involved in the production of the game explicitly set out to imitate a political theory from the 17th century, which makes it all the more interesting that it parallels it so perfectly. The only conclusion I can draw from that most bizarre phenomenon is that we, as human beings, have an animalistic attraction to the state of nature, to the prospect of violently murdering our fellow man for the briefest taste of victory and domination. Is that because, in a world where increasingly we feel we are surrendering control to powers far beyond our means to comprehend, we desperately desire some indication that we are still in charge? Are human beings inherently just psychopaths who would kill but for the fear of legal retribution? Do I just take political theory too seriously and I should really just stop and focus on playing the games for fun?
Just something to think about.