Digital Dominion: Making Order of Chaos

Games often play into our the human desire to make order out of chaos. Does this process of exercising dominion reveal even deeper human longings?

Written by Steven Sukkau / Published on January 29, 2013

The human desire to create order out of chaos is strong some days. Especially when life feels out of control. When my wife has a horrible day as a graphic designer dealing with unbearable clients, she comes home and cleans. Where she cannot control picky clients or bring order to the chaos of their fickle tastes, she exerts her own order on our house. Picture frames are violently straightened. Dishes are cleaned and stacked neatly in their cupboard. Stains are brutally scrubbed into oblivion.

When my life is upside down because of a force beyond my control, when nothing seems to be going right, the competition gets the scoop on a big story, I miss a deadline or a source is just not giving me anything, I come home and play video games.

"This is the great secret to bringing order: the give and take, even the Creator in Genesis felt the sting of betrayal and the wildness of the human will. "
In the dawn of time, I order my Roman scouts in all directions, sending some to their death on an errand to explore the vast, unknown world. My caravan of settlers discovers a shallow bay rich with nearby food and mineral resources, and protected by high snow capped mountains. It is here I end our pilgrimage; it is here we build a humble settlement known as Rome. From my newfound country I begin to develop the knowledge and technology to advance our culture and dominance across the world.

In Civilization, the player’s role centers around shaping and ruling almost every aspect of a nation, from the style of government, the placement of your cities, to micromanaging your individual citizens. All of these decisions expand your civilization to greatness from ancient times to the space age.

It’s exhilarating to bring order to untamed lands, to build towers and roads and watch your people thrive; all of it feeds a deep ache for order. Exercising dominion over the earth. This same human longing for order can also breed tyrants and all forms of oppression. But I wonder, is this only a twisted representation of a once pure desire?

This was a particularly stressful day at work for Steven.

In many creation myths, a deity is described as bringing the cosmos into being from a state of chaos; Genesis 1 describes the pre-creation universe as formless and void. Later God says to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

A game like Minecraft can so acutely scratch this itch for order, to fill the earth and to subdue creation. The sandy beach stretches to the horizon, the green hills are inviting, beckoning to be explored. A sudden awning leads deep into the earth, a dark chasm just begging to be plumbed. Other times, a magnificent valley formed of stone blocks created by the random world generator draws my gaze. I walk between the sheer walls filled with awe and wonder.

Here in Minecraft I can break down any mineral, and build it again any way I imagine. I create an impenetrable fortress surrounded by a lava moat, mine the depths of the earth for diamonds and precious stones, lighting the darkness with a trail of torches, exploring caves or carving my own passageways through the mountains.

But after awhile, I lose interest in my mountain fortress, my Roman empire has truly spread to every corner of the earth, and it’s time to turn the game off. I’ve created beauty and feats of ingenuity in Minecraft. I have forged empires that stretch across continents, bringing roads and cities of light and culture everywhere I turned my gaze in Civilization. I have filled and subdued the Minecraft server and established the Roman empire.

And now I am filled with an equally great yearning: I want to someone to share it with.

Apparently this is Steven’s idea of bringing order . . .

But in these two experiences, one came at the expense of subduing other people, even though my civilization was superior, it required a forceful bending of their will. I was not subduing the earth; I was subduing its people.

There’s a paradox here, a need for order, and living in harmony with other human beings with free will. A house can be cleaned, a mountain can be mined and crowned with parapets, but the human heart cannot be swayed in the same way. As English writer William Hazlitt wrote, “There is a secret pride in every human heart that revolts at tyranny. You may order and drive an individual, but you cannot make him respect you.”

This is the great secret to bringing order: the give and take, even the Creator in Genesis felt the sting of betrayal and the wildness of the human will. This is the great lie of Civilization and the fantasy of absolute control, the world can be tamed, the forests can be cut down, even mountains of Minecraft can be hewn and molded to our will, but a domination victory in Civilization is not the end of chaos. Chaos continues to exist in every heart.

Yet, even dominion over the cubed world of Minecraft begins to pale without the risk of griefing. What is the point of your 40 ft Metroid monolith if there’s no one around to share it with? We long for order, and seek it out in video games when life seems chaotic, but here is the great paradox: creation is only beautiful, only meaningful, when we share it with the chaos that is other human beings.


About the Author:

Steven Sukkau is a reporter at his local newspaper and believes the print medium will never truly die. When he's not uncovering the human stories around town he's writing about videogames. You can follow him on twitter @stevensukkau.