Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks

April 12, 2013

Here’s a review of Banks The Player of Games, written a couple weeks ago ahead of an online book club to occur tonight.  I wrote it well before Banks’ recent health announcement.


I don’t consider myself a gamer.

I mean, I’ve always played computer games on and off  – Choplifter and Falcons on an Apple ][ aeons ago, a text only moon landing simulator on a school PDP-8, and various games on the PCs I’ve built over the years: Castle Wolfenstein, Descent, the early Doom versions, Mah Jong and so on were my favourites.  But I never made the move towards or ever actively embraced gaming consoles such as the Playstations, the Nintendos, the xBoxes, the Wii’s or what-have-you when that sort of specialised technology appeared.   In fact it’s only recently that I’ve allowed one into the house – a now obsolete Wii as it happens – for the girls to use.  I certainly don’t plan to use it myself.

But there is one game I can lose myself in for hours at a time.  That game is Civilization II.  There is something almost hypnotic about sitting there late at night with the rest of the household asleep, watching other competitive civ units moving on the map and manipulating your own to react or to interdict as necessary and to further your own strategic goals.  Indeed, many times I’ve woken still in the chair after midnight having dozed off thinking ‘just one more turn’ to see the last post-turnautosave was an hour previous.I’d stopped playing a few years back when I got a new laptop with 64 bit Win 7 and it would install but not run.  I’ve started playing it again recently because another Civ fanatic (and I use the term advisedly) wrote a patch and put it online.  So Civ II runs again at Chateau Dysfunction and your humble surface tactician can now waste more hours exploring new worlds and trashing aggressor civilisations when they attack (as they invariably do).

Why is this relevant?  Because Banks famously missed a publisher deadline and turned in a novel late(2008’s Matter) because he had got distracted and done no work for three months … he spent the time playing Civilization (though I don’t know which version).  Banks is a player of games, and he knows the subject.  Computer games also feature prominently in a couple of his literary titles – Complicity and A Steep Approach To Garbadale.

Anyhow, more about Civilization later.(Yes, really.)

The Player of Games dates from 1988, and is the second book to appear in Banks’ Culture sequence. 

It has been a long time since I first read it, and in some ways this re-read was almost like reading it for the first time.  It seemed so fresh, and coming back and savouring it slowly this time around has allowed me to actually notice how much detailed information it gives us about the nature and practices of the society of the Culture.  We are given the rationale for the existence of Contact, and specifically for Special Circumstances.  It’s made clear that SC are the fixers for the Minds that ‘run’ the Culture: the ones called in when Contact can’t fit the next problem to their usual solution templates.

(This re-read has also convinced me that The Player of Games is probably the best starting point for someone otherwise unfamiliar with the series.)

Right from the beginning, we are living in the Culture.  Jurgen Marat Gurgeh, our jaded master gamer*  of a protagonist, is one of the Culture’s best games players and games theorists, but he’s getting a bit bored, a bit restless.  He is, as suggested  at one point, a hero archetype yearning for an Age of Heroes to live in.  And he’s a bit of a throwback – a primitive type who hasn’t done the usual Culture thing of playing with gender transition or sexual orientation at all in his relatively young life so far.  We learn that the Culture values the individual mind above the body – society is optimised to facilitate excellence in thinking and creativity.  Gurgeh is a master of his field, driven to be the best, with no capability of toning it down and without the patience to teach others.  His friends know he’s unhappy and try to do something about it – putting him in touch with Contact with the thought that one of the Minds might suggest something to reinvigorate him.

What happens then is that Gurgeh is manipulated into helping SC.  He is sent off on a two year journey to the next galaxy to play a game, a fiendishly complex game that is itself the means and rationale for existence that holds the militaristic Empire of Azad together.

In showing us the protagonistGurgeh’s struggle with the empire and the game of Azad, we also gain an appreciation of the ethos and philosophy of the Culture, as Banks compares and contrasts it with the (evil?) empire.“Strength in depth;  redundancy;  over-design.  You know the Culture’s philosophy”, a drone reminds Gurgeh late in the book.

And then there are the Premises – the ‘philosophy’ that each Player in the great empire games must furnish to the adjudicators to describe their style and manner of play – the principles that they would apply to running the Empire or their part in it.  It’s no wonder that the Azadians find Gurgeh’s to be laughable – it is obviously completely different and inferior to their own, in their assessment.

We look at the effect of cultural context and language on Gurgeh’s play and behaviour – his descent into brooding silence and the apparent incomprehensibility of his game-play in the eyes of Flere-Imsahoand the Limiting Factor, as he resides exclusively in the language and mindset of the Azad empire.

And then, in mounting horror, we are given a glimpse of how the Minds that actually run the Culture might use the language, Marain, as their invisible means of control.  In that sense, it unashamedly invokes Orwell’s 1984 and Newspeak.

“My respect for those great Minds which use the likes of you and me like game-pieces increases all the time.  Those are very smart machines.”

I found it laughingly ironic that the final section of the book was called ‘The Passed Pawn’.  By this stage, Gurgeh has been played (pwned?) by almost every character he has encountered, both in the Culture and in the Empire up to and including Nicosar himself.  Did the Azadian Chief of Naval Intelligence really just have an off day on the game boards when playing Gurgeh, or was he ordered to lose to let the Culture representative through to the final match?

How deep was the conspiracy to draft Gurgeh in the first place?  WasChamlisAmalk-ney part of the overall plot to ensnare him or just the doddering ancient old drone it appeared to be?  It is over 4000 years old (a significant portion of the age of the Culture itself) and it did provide the initial referral to Contact after all.  And there’s an early exchange where it disagrees with Yay who thinks an entity can have too much experience.

Was its rivalry with Mawhrin-Skel real or just an act?  Was Chamlisex-Contact itself or perhaps a sleeper or an observer?  Why had it retired to an orbital known for its eccentric population?  Was the orbital shaped bracelet a simple gift or a subtle reminder of what Gurgeh was playing for?

Anyway, back to Civilization II.  It was when I was reading the bit where Gurgeh, playing on the penultimate board of the final game, suddenly realises what Nicosar has done, that I had a minor epiphany of my own.

“In all the games he’d played, the fight had always come to Gurgeh, initially.  He’d thought of the period before as preparing for battle, but now he saw that if he had been alone on the board he’d have done roughly the same, spreading slowly across the territories, consolidating gradually, calmly, economically … of course it had never happened; he always was attacked, and once the battle was joined he developed that conflict as assiduously and totally as before he’d tried to develop the patterns and potential of unthreatened pieces and undisputed territory.”

That’s exactly how I play Civ II.  I explore constantly, expanding my holdings and developing resources from the centre outwards in all valid directions, automating production in a balance between military and domestic capabilities. I end up with more military capability than I probably need and I always develop a large navy, all the better to explore the world with.  I play as one of the purple civilisation alternatives, as it gives me a tactical advantage – the purple civ always moves last in a game turn, allowing me to react immediately to another civ’s moves.  And there’s a form of government in Civ ii that, while it slows down scientific development slightly, defies human nature and eliminates the losses due to corruption that would otherwise occur in a large widely distributed civilisation.

My epiphany was simply this: the closest I’m ever likely to get to living in the Culture is to continue to play Civilization II as the Mongols under a Communist government.


*You do know about Banks habit, when plotting, of using character trait acronyms as a shorthand to identify characters and then using those acronyms to actually name them later, don’t you?  I will often amuse myself when reading Banks to try to work out what those acronyms might have been.

My suggestions for this Book:

Jernau Marat Gurgeh                     Jaded Master Gamer

Yay Meristinoux                                               Young Minx

ChamlisAmalk-ney                          Cunning Ancient

Mawhrin-Skel                                    Machiavellian Schemer/Spin-doctor

Professor Boruelal                           Peer Bedmate

RenMyglan                                         Replacement Minx

FlereImsaho                                       Fake Innocent

Trying again

March 22, 2013

Laughs maniacally at the fact it has been 4 years since I set this up and I’ve done nothing with it yet.  I’d better get the vacuum in here to clean out the cobwebs.

Hello world!

January 13, 2009

Well, I’m back.  Luckily I didn’t lose much in the Journalspace meltdown.  I hadn’t really posted much there.

Let’s see if I can be a bit more prolific over here.