Meltwater is not in any way a deep mathematical simulation of the viability of Antarctica. I’m neither a demographer nor an ecologist; I’m a housewife with a history fetish. It was always meant to be first and foremost a game. But games are a form of narrative art, or at least a form of narrative media. Each game conveys, if not an outright message, a frame to view its subject through. And frames, perspectives, biases have added weight when we tackle historical and sociological subjects. We have a responsibility as creators to understand what our work says, even by omission.
I’ve made a game about starvation. Which means I need to talk about Thomas Malthus.
Thomas Robert Malthus, 1766-1834, English cleric.
Thomas Malthus is a man who was wrong. Deeply, horrifyingly wrong, with tragic human consequences. More specifically, he was an influential economic and political theorist who published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. Observing a sharp rise in urban poor in England, Malthus drew parallels to wild rabbits, and the forces that kept their numbers in check. Malthus believed that, like rabbits, human populations naturally grow exponentially through breeding. Agricultural production, however, could only grow arithmetically with new arable land. He claimed that, left unchecked, humans would inevitably exceed their food supply. At some catastrophic point, he conjectured, humans would need to starve until the population died back down to manageable levels, with great suffering in the interim.
Malthus also viewed human acts of compassion as a unique detriment to our species. He asserted that starvation has immediate impacts on unthinking animals in the wild, but humans engage in charitable sharing in desperate circumstances, which could only extend the period of hunger and desperation before the necessary deaths could dip the population back to manageable levels.
To the British government in 1845, faced with the Great Famine in Ireland (aka the Irish Potato Famine), Malthus’s writings seemed prophetic. A massive crop failure pushed Ireland into a spiral which would lead to the deaths of one million Irish citizens and create the Irish Diaspora as it exists today. The government initially provided relief in the form of corn shipments from the United States, but the English-controlled Parliament eventually cut all aid to Ireland, and permitted English merchants to continue exporting food out of the starving country.
Malthus’s essay provided a “scientific” justification for these policies. Aid would only prolong the suffering, after all. The population of Ireland had swelled during the 1700’s, which surely must be responsible for the crisis. Relief would simply cause the Irish population to grow further out of control, and result in an even greater catastrophe down the line. Of course, this logic relied heavily on English stereotypes of the Irish people as stupid, inferior, and incapable of self-control or self-governance. To quote Sir Charles Trevelyan, then-minister of famine relief:
“The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
Let’s be clear however: Malthus was mistaken. In his essay, he failed to understand two key things. First, the surge of urban poor in Britain was not the result of mathematical population strain. The Enclosure Act of 1773 permitted private landowners to claim and enclose common land, disenfranchising peasant farmers and driving them into the cities for employment. Second, despite writing near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Malthus completely failed to account for the rapid advancement of agricultural science, which completely upended his arithmetic projections.
Malthus wrote his essay in 1798, when the world population was estimated at 800 million, and he didn’t believe it could grow much further. The world population today exceeds 7 billion, and quality of life has drastically improved in many, many sectors. Malthus was deeply, demonstrably wrong in his conjectures. Yet his theories on overpopulation remained popular, and heavily informed the later “study” of eugenics.
These ideas still persist in 2018, and hold a certain seductive power. In Marvel’s The Avengers: Infinity War, the villain Thanos cites Malthusian ideas as the motivation for his genocidal actions. Despite being the explicit logic of a monster, we can once again observe the rise of pop analysis that defends Thanos’s position as “terrible but necessary.”
I did not, and do not, wish for Meltwater to perpetuate this awful myth.
In Meltwater, I wanted to emphasize the engineered nature of the catastrophe. First, we have the inciting incident; nuclear winter is ultimately a manmade disaster. But even inside the game’s post-nuclear mathematical constraints, conflict and starvation aren’t actually necessary. In the course of one game, there will be at most 64 units in play, between initial forces and arriving refugees. Meanwhile, depending on optimal stockpile placement, the game map can support up to 124 units. If both players were to theoretically call a truce on turn 1, Antarctica would comfortably support everyone.
But the rules of the game, and the ideology of the Cold War, tell you to fight it out instead. I’m not the first to use this idea, of course. Many competitive survival games, like Bohemian Interactive’s Day Z, give the players abundant resources to survive if they cooperate. But these games use distrust and psychological urging to convince players to waste these resources fighting each other instead. Starvation isn’t an inevitable tragedy here. It’s a weapon that you choose to use.
In 2008, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that it would require $30 billion USD annually to end world hunger. Economists continue to debate this particular figure, but it serves as a useful ballpark estimate.
The US defense budget for 2017 was $587.2 billion. Russia, fourth highest, spent $61 billion.
In a post-industrial world, starvation is an act of either negligence or deliberate malice. Meltwater reflects this.
Please enjoy some additional links:
- Crash Course World History #215 - Population, Sustainability, and Malthus
- Extra Credits S15 E12 - Day Z, The Tragedy of the Commons: The Game
- Extra Credits S3 E14 - Ethical Game Design
- Extra Credits S3 E15 - How Lazy Game Design Hurts Everyone