In the Age of Empires: Media Monopoly, the Video Game: A Human MindShare Conquest Special

As America Online Inc. and Time-Warner Inc., make final plans to merge their assets into one multi-million dollar empire of Internet services, magazines, movies, music, and cable channels, I can’t help to think about creating a new kind of computer game. A new “God game” for the New Economy, where players, instead of controling empires and natural resources, use multinational corporations to capture as much “human mindshare” as possible.

Nothing like having the yuletide season blaze by and the true millienial transition to take effect to get one pondering the full extent of our consumer culture.

There I was in Best Buy, looking over the “God games,” such as Sid Meier’s Civilization and Microsoft’s Age of Empires–computer games wherein users players control entire military divisions, colonize continents, and are given the omnipresent perspective of world rulers.

The trouble with these games, it occurred to me, is that they’re outdated, based as they are on the old economies, where power was determined by control of precious resources. What we need is a game based on the new economy, the entertainment economy. Instead of conquering far-off lands, we’d battle for Nielsen ratings and box-office receipts. Instead of wearing the power garb of kings, we’d don the virtual vestments of CEOs.

So I thought of developing such a game myself, maybe even selling it to Bill Gates. I’d call it Microsoft Media Monopoly. Has a nice ring, yes?

The objective of MMM would be to harvest as much human “mindshare” as possible. It’s a vague concept, I know. So I’ll have to start the game with one of those multimedia slide shows to fill in the back story.

“In primitive times,” a solemn voice will intone, “people entertained themselves. They fornicated, gazed at stars, competed in sports, or roasted the occasional pig unlucky enough to wander by their grass huts. It took much work on the part of the later Industrial Age barons to shame them from these simple pursuits, pursuits that profited no one. The tycoons gathered the world’s best songwriters, athletes, storytellers, and models, concentrated their entertainments into addictive levels, and shot the results through international distribution channels. Untold amounts of disposable income were reaped.

“But this vein of riches is far from exhausted,” the voice would continue. “It is up to you, my junior VP of marketing, to take it to the next level — to commodify the remaining human interactions. Using newly forged digital tracking tools, you must hustle people’s conversations into chat rooms, their desire for sex into soft-porn cable channels, their pick-up basketball games into multiplayer console games, and charge by the hour for all these privileges.”

And so the game would start.

Each player would be given a multinational corporation — either a television network, telecommunications giant, or software company — and they’d battle it out with competitors real or computer-generated (they’d be about seven or so) to accumulate content and conduits.

Obtaining content should be easy, I figure. Every few turns, a new media property goes up for sale — a television show (South Park, 50 gold bars), a newspaper (Village Voice, seven gold bars), even an entire network (Black Entertainment Television, 5,000 gold bars). Cost is determined not only by audience size but also by loyalty. The more fervent the followers, the more profit from related items like NFL fantasy-football camps and Star Wars action figures.

More dough can be raised by advertising. I would advise players early on to spend a few extra gold bars to collect viewer profiles to maximize results. With assistance from academicians trained in psychological manipulation (three gold bars), they can craft individually tailored ads that unconsciously trigger people’s desires. People with marked pedophiliac preferences would be sure-fire purchasers of Disney videos; those lacking shame can be targeted by Range Rover.

All the while, players should be buying conduits as well: cable companies, Internet service providers, TV stations, ad space on cell phones and computer desktops, and other mechanisms used to deliver content to people. See, as AOL probably figured out in real life, by owning these pipelines, you can make it more difficult for customers to access competitors’ content and you can keep your own advertisers front and center on the screen. Plus, keeping conduits locked down helps prevent an outbreak of renaissance thinking. The last thing you need is another neutral open platform like the Internet allowing people to create “free” content, blowing revenue streams everywhere.

At every turn of my game you’ll face difficult choices. Do you raise Dennis Rodman’s salary so he doesn’t leave and take his fan base with him? Do you buy the extra cable company and risk attack from the slow-moving but deadly Justice Department? If you don’t, will your meager holdings risk being gobbled up in a hostile takeover? Do you fill a Web site with free goodies that draw a big audience but anger shareholders because they cut into profits? A picture of the legendary John Malone appears. He wants to forge an exclusive alliance. Do you trust this Darth Vader-like character not to sack your holdings like a Viking run amuck? Or, instead, do you vow eternal war and risk the worst curse of them all: obscurity?

This is heated stuff, of course, and a few hours of play should get the greed pumping through the veins of even the staunchest of socialists. Of course, the stakes only go up the richer you get. The more properties you buy, the more packs of intimidating legal teams you’ll need to hire to protect these assets. After all, there are still hordes of consumers who don’t see song or sports or humor as somebody else’s “assets,” and will freely appropriate your stuff for such activities as rogue “fan” Web sites. Nothing spooks these creatures like lawyer-crafted cease-and-desist letters. Experts in the First Amendment will also be required to counter religious groups badgering Congress for decency standards. This is important: Your stockholders will demand that content be universally appealing. That means lots of sex and violence and, well, indecency.

Not to mention gold bars.

The game ends only when one player has gobbled up all the other media companies. Only with a true monopoly can you freely charge outlandish fees for crappy content. (By then, there will be no competitors offering better alternatives, and the people themselves will have long forgotten how to make their own fun.) Only then will all companies be beholden to you to sell their goods. As would all politicians — you can nullify any political position by simply not acknowledging its existence on your news outlets. With millions of zombie-fied souls wired into your electronic hive, you’d possess the kind of absolute power that Mao Tse-Tung or V.I. Lenin only dreamed about. You’d control reality itself.

Wouldn’t that make a cool game? I’d play it. Who wouldn’t?

E-mail: cpunk@joabj.com

Author: Joab Jackson

News Service: Baltimore City Paper

URL: http://www.citypaper.com/2000-12-20/cyber.html