The New York Times this week ran a bizarre column by MIT sociology professor Sherry Turkle which decried the male-dominated computer culture and blamed JRR Tolkien, of all people, for its limitations.
The major criticism that Sturkle offers of both the computer culture and Tolkein is that, according to her, they both entail worlds bounded by extreme absolutes. Sturkle writes that, “In many ways, Middle Earth, the universe of “The Lord of the Rings,” is like a computer program, rule driven and bounded.” Of course, one of the reasons for this is that the ethics of Middle Earth are largely Christian, although this is nowhere near as explicit as it is in something like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles.
Turkle may be uncomfortable with moral absolutes, but in a world where people feel justified in hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings, young readers could do a lot worse than Tolkien’s vision of right and wrong (and especially, Tolkien’s warnings about the corrupting nature of power).
Turkle connects this obsession with rules in Tolkein, computers and role playing games, writing,
Like the rings, the inhabitants of Middle Earth behave according to a set of rules. This is part of what makes it so easy to translate Tolkien’s work into game worlds. In “Dungeons and Dragons,” for instance, character attributes like charisma or strength are assigned according to a point system. There is little room for psychological ambivalence or complex motivations in such a personality.
Frodo, the hero of “The Lord of the Rings,” is part of a fellowship, although it is more properly called a fraternity: in Tolkien’s world, the men bond. The few females are loved and feared as icons or charms.
And the computer culture, by and large, is a world built by engineers for engineers, by men for men. (This is a culture that found it natural to have “abort, terminate, and fail” as three choices on a screen prompt.) Like Tolkien’s world, most computer games are about mastery through violence; they serve as a socialization into the computer culture for adolescent boys.
Before proceeding to dissect this nonsense, note that not only does Turkle object to a lack of moral ambiguity, but she also has an ambiguous relationship with truth and accuracy. There was never a screen prompt with the three options, “abort, terminate, fail.” The actual prompt, given by MSDOS when a file could not be located on a disk, was “abort, retry, fail.”
In addition, it is absurd for Turkle to claim there are 856,000 web sites devoted to Tolkien. She seems to have arrived at this number by simply typing in “Tolkien” into Google’s search engine. That indeed returns 856,000 search results, but that in no way represents 856,000 distinct web sites devoted to Tolkien.
Most of her other claims suffer from similar problems — it is not that they do not contain a grain of truth, but rather that they are nothing more than one person’s biased observations not backed up by any data.
For example, she complains that since characters in role playing games like “Dungeons and Dragons” are assigned numerical attributes that this leaves “little room for psychological ambivalence or complex motivations in such a personality.” But, in fact, such numerical abstracts allow a lot of room for psychological ambivalence and complex motivations. In fact, such numerical ratings are rarely seen as the end-all be-all of a character’s motivations (and, of course, one could also point out that this is meant to be a game, which by definition must be simplified in order to be playable. Monopoly does not incorporate many of the complexities of real-life real estate markets, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable way to spend an evening).
Similarly Turkle complains that “most computer games are about mastery through violence.” You have to wonder exactly what she means by “most computer games.” Here is a list of the 20 top-selling computer games of 2001:
1. The Sims (EA)
2. RollerCoaster Tycoon (Infogrames)
3. Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone (EA)
4. Diablo 2 Expansion: Lord of Destruction (Vivendi)
5. The Sims: House Party Expansion (EA)
6. The Sims: Livin’ Large Expansion (EA)
7. The Sims: Hot Date Expansion (EA)
8. Diablo 2 (Vivendi)
9. Sim Theme Park (EA)
10. Age Of Empires 2: Age of Kings (Microsoft)
11. Black & White (EA)
12. Frogger (Infogrames)
13. Roller Coaster Tycoon Loopy Landscapes Expansion (Infogrames)
14. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 (EA)
15. Backyard Basketball (Infogrames)
16. SimCity 3000 Unlimited (EA)
17. Backyard Baseball 2001 (Infogrames)
18. Age Of Empires 2: Conquerors Expansion (Microsoft)
19. Max Payne (GodGames/Take 2)
20. SimCity 3000 (EA)
Of those 20 games, only 6 (Diablo 2 Expansion, Diablo 2, Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, Age of Empires and Max Payne) involve “mastery through violence.” The really odd thing is that Turkle complains that computer games and players are excessively rule bound with no ambiguity, and yet half of these games are so-called “god games” in which a major feature is that there is usually not set winning/losing condition.
There is, for example, no way to “win” playing The Sims. There are no victory or loss conditions and the game can be played pretty much however the player wants. Some people, for example, play it by imposing such conditions — i.e. they try to have their characters accumulate the most money possible, etc. Others focus on extensive social relationships. Still others don’t play the game so much as use it a backdrop for telling stories about the characters. The game has some constraints, obviously, but contains a tremendous amount of ambiguity as far as what the goals (if any) of the game are.
Turkle’s claim that the computer culture, computer gamers and role playing gamers are rule bound binary thinkers is nothing more than an inaccurate prejudice of Turkle’s. In fact you could say that it is a rigid oversimplification that does not allow for any ambiguity. It is Turkle who apparently insists on seeing her world in black-and-white with no shades of grey.
Just as Turkle claims that “Tolkien’s work says more about us than it does about Tolkien,” so Turkle’s comments on computer culture seem to say more about her than they do about the computer culture.
Lord of the Hackers. Sherry Turkle, The New York Times, March 7, 2002.