Thursday, November 16, 2017

Defining Culture and Other Things

Five years ago, I wrote a series of posts using the game Civilization IV to describe a methodology for creating micro-infrastructure for the game world.  I wrote posts about food, production, workers and various elements hit upon by the Civ IV makers ... and admitted that other elements, like culture and health, were "problems" that I hadn't solved.

Some problems take time.

I have occasionally struggled with connecting my trade system to other systems that I've proposed, such as the infrastructure system or the more recent tech system.  I have made three attempts on this blog since 2015 to express the tech system as clearly as I can, but it turns out I can't even clearly explain it to myself.  It is a headache of the first order, no doubt about it.  In any case, those "never-too-much-economics" posts are part and parcel of the same problem.

In a sense, with far, far less relevance to the universe than anything Einstein did, I'm struggling right now to come up with a "unified world theory" that would pull these disparate parts of my rules together into a cohesive whole.  I'd like to write a little about that, then write a little about what "culture" might mean in a D&D context.

Here is my thinking, regarding the pulling of these systems together.  The trade system designates the existence of produced goods, tied to regions.  The infrastructure system breaks down a region into smaller and smaller bites, so that we can know the amount of buildings, roads, supplies or production a specific hex has, as small as we wish to go (though I limit my production measure to 6-mile hexes, it could go deeper). The infrastructure, then, could be used as a means to determine the exact points of origin for trade goods, from fish to iron mining to the making of clothing.

The infrastructure also includes a measuring system for available food, labor ("hammers") and wealth ("coins"), stolen from Civ IV.  This measuring system might be directly affected by the trade system, so that if a town produced, according to the trade system, "cheese," then the food supply in that specific town, in a given type of infrastructure hex (remember all those "groups" posts, from 2011?), could be increased because we have a trade reference from that town.

Okay, stay with me here.  This gets complicated.

If we add in the proposed tech system, then we know that a specific level of tech produces an availability of building types: granaries, harbors, theatres, forges, etcetera.  These buildings, then, could also be fit into the infrastructure framework, so that a Type-I hex, with a settlement in it, would mean that the specific building was present, IF the tech were sufficient and IF the circumstances (near the water, say) were right. Furthermore, if we want to steal further from Civ IV, then the improvements that arise from that game could be detemined, in part, by the trade system (which indicates that wheat fields or coffee plantations, whatever) are definitely present in the region's hexes, and in part by the tech system itself, which indicates roads, monuments, city walls, waterwheels and so on.

Those improvements and buildings, indicated by the tech and the trade system, then augment the infrastructure still further, telling us how much additional labor a waterwheel adds, or how much additional food a windmill adds, or how much additional wealth a market adds ~ adjusted according to a long-standing system that has already proven itself.

Places with higher tech will have universities, customs houses and banks, while places with lower tech will not.  These things, in their own way, will affect not only the description of the region and city, but actual details regarding how the city is structured and how that affects what the players want to do.

Part of that means coming up with a meaning for culture.  It's too important to skip over, as the creation of culture by a civilization, particularly as it advances, should be there to define everything about the player's experience as they walk down a street in Paris as opposed to a street in Stavanger.  That has to be measured: and the presence of a measure for culture taken from Civ IV is too damn enticing to ignore.  We have all these marvelous figures to tell us how much culture a specific place creates, due to the presence of its buildings, products, tech and so on ... all that is needed is a meaningful description for what this "culture" actually means concretely.

Not an easy fix.  I've been climbing over Wikipedia for several days, following one link to the next, from culture to social norms to meta-ethics, looking for something that defines the difference between how people with high culture think vs. what people with low culture think.

Fundamentally, humans are ruled by a reward system, which itself is buried in the physical mesolimbic pathways in our brains, something we can't do anything about.  As a species, we are driven towards pleasure and away from fear ... so that culturally, as we've advanced, we've done our best to build systems that contain fear while providing as much pleasure as possible.

Where pleasure is provided only to a few, the system eventually collapses under violence perpetrated by the many, whereupon it is either replaced by a similar system that temporarily provides pleasure for the powerful, or a better system that provides pleasure for a larger proportion of the population.  See, the key to the balance isn't to eliminate misery, it is to reduce the number of miserable persons to a level that they can't meaningfully threaten the number of persons who are living with a tolerable level of pleasure plus those that are living with a lot of pleasure.

This is the "bread and circuses" equation, that says that if we provide nominal pleasure to the miserable, in the form of something that distracts them a little while, they will concentrate on their small amount of pleasure long enough that they won't feel the need to rise up and kill all of us who are enjoying massive amounts of pleasure all the time.

Therefore, I think I've hit upon the fundamental definition of "culture" in the measurable sense is that it establishes the amount of social control in the region.  More coliseums, more theatres, more religion, more of anything that is properly defined by the Civ IV structure, less random misery and street-chaos by the population.  We don't need to make the population happy, just complacent, rewarding them with small amounts of pleasure for obeying the law, paying their taxes, fulfilling their duty by fighting for the monarch, turning in anyone conspiring against the state and resisting any desire to change their lot in life.

Thus, the higher the amount of culture, the more viciously and coldly will come down the deadly hand of social control on the hapless player character who stupidly flaunts the law, supposing that everyone here will find it "cool" or "edgy" to speak ill of Queen Juliana the VII.  That may play out in the sticks, where people are miserable, but not here in this Type-I, Tech-13 city where we all LOVE her.  In fact, I don't think we will even give you a chance to apologize.

That doesn't give me an incremental scale, not yet ... but it does provide a framework from which I might evolve an incremental scale, given time.

Anyway, this is what I'm working on right now.  It is bound to spawn all kinds of interesting posts.


Dani Osterman said...

Defining culture as social control is very clever. It neatly avoids all of the essentialist rhetoric that so often surrounds these kinds of discussions and provides something actionable, something gameable. This is fantastic.

Ozymandias said...

Equally Interesting is that you can insert any specific detail you choose. Catholicism encourages confession and regular services because it keeps the layperson subservient to the will of the clergy, while Islam requires daily prayers for much the same reason. And both help reduce the anxieties of day to day life. Religion, then, isn't limited to any one type, it's internal structure and details adaptable to the DM's world.

Ozymandias said...

Sorry, last sentence should be "religion, as a cultural tool or technology, isn't limited to any one specific religion..."

Tim said...

I’m also really into this presentation of culture intersecting with social control, and I agree with Dani’s point on how it avoids essentialism which is good.
Obviously you still need to work out the details, but I imagine part of the value attached to better technology is that you can mathematically scale up your “social control index”. Interestingly, I would figure that since hunter-gatherer societies, while incredibly diverse, often manifest very egalitarian social structures, they sort of give you a baseline for how many people can be relatively control free and then scale up. Once you have a small town, custom and ritual can pull people to follow a leader. When you have bigger regions, you can scale it up by saying “the arena boosts social control by X%”
Nonetheless, seems like it will be an interesting task in determining how to conflate those elements. A colosseum appeases the masses very differently from a theatre (which requires an artistic/bardic class to function) or a military school (which might create an upper or – perhaps? – middle class willing to fight on behalf of that social control system).

Baron Opal said...

Take a look at the TED talk by Johnathon Haidt, The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives. He describes 5 common values and posits that the importance a culture ascribes to them defines the culture. It might be a useful starting point for you.


Alexis Smolensk said...

That was an excellent find, Baron. I think I can use that.

Of course, being a liberal, I want to call you "Opal," as I inherently resent your authoritarian title use.

Drain said...

I don't think social control encapsulates /everything/ about cultural development, but can't contend that it is a damn good point of reduction to make the concept wieldable in a worldbuilding sense.

Would you be looking at implementing this trait on an hex-by-hex basis, per population centre or kingdom wide? All these places would be under the sway of a single monarchy but could be vastly different in terms of social control (borders vs. heartland, separatism, distance from the seats of power, etc).

It would mean you'd need to define a whole 'nother tracker alongside tech (or development) levels, which currently include the _concept_ of different forms of rulership, but which don't necessarily prescribe their use, as even a developed country can regress to atavic forms of government, though they'll likely be repackaged in new clothes.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I do have the "other" tracker built already - the groups/infrastructure system, which redefines every hex ranging from type-I to type-VIII. While a given development might be present in a region, it might only show up in the most densely packed hexes, type-III, type-II or type-I. A type-VII hex, which is mostly empty and nearly wilderness (Type-VIII is wilderness) wouldn't have a theatre, forge or granary in it ... it's just a bunch of backward cotters working poor land for their own food.

I have other subdivisions that I'm working on, as I pull the system together.