Remembering J. Hillis Miller (1928–2021)

Screenshot of Skype interview on July 17, 2013. Bradley J. Fest, Pittsburgh, PA; J. Hillis Miller, Deer Isle, ME.

I was deeply saddened yesterday to learn that J. Hillis Miller, at the age of 92, has died.[1] Though I was never his student and only corresponded with him electronically via Skype and email, Hillis had been a powerful presence in my life since 2013 and over the years showed me unflagging (at time flabbergasting) generosity and support. I owe a great deal of my post-PhD intellectual and professional development to his influence, as I probably learned more about late twentieth-century literary criticism and theory from researching his work and conducting and collaboratively editing an interview with him than anything else I did in graduate school or since. Perhaps most importantly, however, in every exchange, Hillis was simply a model of grace and kindness. He represents for me a way of being gently in the world that I still look to as an aspirational ideal. He was not only an intellectual giant and an unparalleled reader and critic, J. Hillis Miller was a torch-bearer for what our profession—and the life of letters—could be at its best. His passing may very well mark the end of an era in United States intellectual culture and is a huge loss for the uncountable number of people he touched with his life and work.

When I think back to what should have been one of the most important memories of my career—my dissertation defense in April 2013—my primary recollection of that day is how it marked the beginning of my correspondence with Hillis. During the defense, in a discussion of my chapter on William Carlos Williams and its engagement with Hillis’s important 1966 edited collection on Williams’s work, along with that book’s recovery of the prose sections of Spring and All (1923), my dissertation chair, Jonathan Arac, suggested, “Why don’t you interview Miller? Would you be interested in doing that?”[2] My mind on many other things, understandably, I think I stammered out a, “Sure, yeah, um, that’d be great,” but I figured it was just an idea that burst briefly into the air during a public conversation, a possibility never to seriously be pursued, something that would fade imperceptibly away. I didn’t really give the possibility much more thought as I then spent the rest of the day celebrating my successful defense with my partner and brother, who had flown in for the occasion. So, it was with some surprise when, later that day, at a talk by Priscilla Wald in advance of her faculty seminar at the University of Pittsburgh’s Humanities Center, Jonathan came up to me and said, “I emailed Hillis and he already got back to me. He’s up for it. I’ll forward you the email and you can go from there.” (So: thank you Jonathan. See Robert T. Tally Jr.’s recent post on Jonathan Arac’s mentorship on the occasion of his retirement.)

Oh my. I had thought I was done with this huge task—writing a dissertation—and all of a sudden, I had what I felt was an even more daunting one: doing justice to the work of J. Hillis Miller. But I was up for it. Hillis and I corresponded and he, knowingly or not, immediately made me feel like interviewing him was something I could actually, like, do. And then I got to work. I read and read. I went on vacation to Rocky Point in Mexico with my brother and his family and spent the majority of the time reading. During my one day on the beach, I forgot to put sunscreen on my feet and they got very badly burned, which rendered me basically supine inside for the remainder of the trip. Which wasn’t so bad, as I spent it reading Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (1966) and The J. Hillis Miller Reader (ed. Julian Wolfreys, 2005) and Theory Now and Then (1991) and a lot of things surrounding his famous essay “The Critic as Host” (1977).[3] I read more, as much as I could, so much, but, as he had authored well over thirty books at the time, I also realized that I wasn’t going to be able to be exhaustive (as I have strived to be in subsequent interviews) if I had any hope of conducting the interview by July. And then I wrote some questions and figured out how to record a Skype call and Hillis and I talked and then I sat down to do the work of transcription and editing. And then he gave me his real gift: I got to see, just a little bit, what it was like for him to write, as we exchanged a couple drafts back and forth, editing the piece collaboratively. That interview, “Isn’t It a Beautiful Day? An Interview with J. Hillis Miller,” published in 2014 in boundary 2, is probably the publication of which I am the proudest and it’s the one I feel might have the most lasting import. It gives a glimpse on an entire intellectual world and speaks directly to many of the present concerns of that summer (the Snowden revelations, the ongoing crisis in the humanities, et cetera). (The interview was also reprinted in a collection of interviews with Hillis edited by Jonathan Y. Bayot, Reading Inside Out: Interviews and Conversations [2017].)

But that wasn’t the end of our correspondence. Year in and out, he supported me on my seemingly interminable quest to find a tenure-track job and also kept me in the collaborative loop, suggesting me as a respondent for a special two issues of the journal CounterText devoted to his book with Ranjan Ghosh, Thinking Literature across Continents (2016). That essay, “Reading Now and Again: Hyperarchivalism and Democracy in Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller’s Thinking Literature across Continents,” was published in 2018, and it represents for me an opportunity to think through his body of work (somewhat obliquely, admittedly) while also trying to respond directly and specifically to a small moment in that corpus.

And let me be clear: I was not a student, not a colleague at Johns Hopkins or Yale or the University of California Irvine, not a Victorianist nor a modernist; I was just a kind of random person he didn’t really know or have any connection with whom he graciously invited into his working world and kept supporting after the immediate work of the interview was over (and whom he could have reasonably told, at any point, “Alright, thanks, that was great, goodbye,” or even, “Go jump in a lake!”). I can only imagine the impact he has had on so many students, critics, scholars, and writers over the past sixty plus years if he was able to play such a large role in my life. And, as I’m writing this, I am also realizing that I’m in the midst of finalizing my spring 2021 syllabi (the semester is starting a few weeks later than normal because of the global pandemic) and just remembered that I had already, of course, put one of his essays on a draft of my ENGL 190 Introduction to Textual Analysis syllabus. I know that, for as long as I’m writing and reading, I will continue to think with him.[4] COVID-19 has taken so much from so many. I look forward to a time when I can again be in a classroom (without masks) sharing Hillis’s work with a new generation of readers. And I sincerely hope that one day I can look back on this particular moment as another turning point, when life went off in a new, unexpected, positive direction, a direction that, once again, changed everything.


[1] Eric Hayot, in a moving memory of Miller from Hayot’s first year at Yale, reports the cause of death. There has also already been an outpouring of grief, memory, and gratitude on Twitter: see Merve Emre, Harris Feinsod, @V21collective, and many others.

[2] See J. Hillis Miller, ed., William Carlos Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966).

[3] I still feel a burning, aching pain on the tops of my feet when I think about Hillis’s discussion of Wallace Stevens in Poets of Reality. See J. Hillis Miler, Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966), 217–84.

[4] There are so many of his books that should be required reading, but I have definitely thought on multiple occasions that Reading Narrative (1998) is perhaps criminally under-read.

More from Ferguson, the Earth Is Doomed in 2880, and Other Links

Nuclear and Environmental

Nick Blackborn, “How to Hide a Nuclear Missile.”

Paul Rogers, “California Drought: 17 Communities Could Run Out of Water in 60 to 120 Days, State Says.”

Seth Borenstein, “Recent Glacial Melt Mostly Caused By Man-Made Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Study Finds.”

Jeff Spross, “Meet the First Pacific Island Town to Relocate Thanks to Climate Change.”

Katie Valentine, “The Longest River in the US Is Being Altered by Climate Change.”

Isobel Markham, “Huge Asteroid Set to Wipe Out Life on Earth — in 2880.” Continue reading

Edge of Tomorrow and the Gamification of Being


As Jon Stewart commented to Tom Cruise on The Daily Show the other night, Edge of Tomorrow (2014) resembles a videogame. Cruise’s character, William Cage, dies over and over.[1] Each time he dies, he is resurrected with the knowledge of what transpired before he died, and so, much like a videogame, he is able to get “further” than he did before with each “play-through.”[2] Also, like videogames (in general), there is something deeply nihilistic and doomy about this kind of ontological state, this state of being “reset” (often intentionally) so that a better outcome can transpire, again and again, for ends that seem largely unobtainable, and, after a while, not even desirable or coherent.[3] This representation of human life as infinitely repeatable, as a “gamified”[4] set of conditions and procedures to be mastered, as a teleological striving toward a singular objective, a boss battle at the end of every single life for the survival of humanity . . . I would like to suggest that such a vision of Being signifies a deep and abiding despair with contemporaneity, a hopelessness with life as we know it, an acknowledgment of the finitude of human life (and, indeed, the species), and an insight into the brutal logic of the gamification of the world in the twenty-first century. It also, of course, holds out a weird hope that the gamification of the very things that make us human (our experience of time, our finitude, love, knowledge, et cetera) might allow us to access transcendent, messianic, heroic existence. This hope, however, only reinforces the audacious despair at the heart of the film.

Edge of Tomorrow’s cinematic forerunner is obviously the endearing, (still) funny, and (at this point, for me at least) nostalgic film, Groundhog Day (1993). I’m surprised it has taken Hollywood this long to revisit this concept of serious repetition, for there is something weirdly fascinating about the idea of living the same day (or week, or month, or life! the possibilities are endless . . .) over and over again. There are clear “affective” pleasures that this kind of narrative produces. A single human life is littered with regrets, reflections on what could have or should have happened, words that shouldn’t have been spoken, actions taken that cannot be undone, a litany of mistakes, an index of petty tragedies. Groundhog Day takes this regret and funnels it into a single, relatively typical day, experienced by a relatively ordinary bourgeois American subject. The despair at the heart of Groundhog Day is normal: everyday life, with all its attendant regrets and failures. We take pleasure in its comedy—in all senses of the word—because the fantasy it depicts is not, as my students like to say, “relatable,” but because it is wholly other. We cannot undo the past, rework our mediocrity into perfectible “goodness,” living for others, being our best selves, et cetera. We like to imagine that we can be perfect bourgeois subjects, interpolated as Bill Murray is by the end of the film, and we take pleasure in perpetuating the illusion that such subjectivity is possible, but we cannot help but be haunted by our own selfishness, pettiness, despair, complacency, and hopelessness, a state of being that characterizes Murray’s character at the beginning of the film. Groundhog Day is an ideological fantasy that briefly covers over our own dumb, inert selfishness, and for that, it is a balm for everyday life. It briefly holds out a hope that we aren’t all the worst, and as such, we enjoy the illusion.

Edge of Tomorrow, though formally almost exactly the same, is quite different. Yes, Cruise’s character is “unlikable” at the beginning of the film, but not in a genuinely “human” fashion (i.e., Bill Murray: he’s a jerk, a misogynist, a drunk, et cetera). Rather, Cruise doesn’t want to go to war. Sure, he is in the military, performing some sort of military-media duty, but his desire to not go to war (I hope after over a decade of US military adventurism) is not unnatural.[5] At this point the alien invasion seems limited to the area Germany occupied during World War II, so why would one want to go into battle, when there are so many places on Earth that one could still live relatively unharmed (e.g., the US)? Are we really, at this late date, to sincerely accuse Cruise’s character of cowardice at this point? I would hope not. (And, as he points out to the general, he’s playing a legitimately important role in global propaganda! Why would you send one of your chief propagandists into battle?) But of course, the general is nonplussed with Cruise’s cowardice, so (I assume, drugs him? and) Cruise finds himself waking up in handcuffs, his paperwork listing him as a private, being sent into battle on the whims of a sadistic general.

Let me stress how different this is from Groundhog Day. First of all, the physical, material reason for Murray’s repetition is never explained. Cruise’s is explained quite quickly: the alien-hive-mind-Mother-Brain-glowing-thing can transcend space and time, resetting the world every time one of its special-time-whatever-units is destroyed, thus insuring its victory . . . or whatever, and Cruise accidentally got some of that magical alien goo in his blood the first time he died on the shores of, I assume, Normandy, so the Mother Brain thinks Cruise is one of its temporal units. Further, Cruise, unlike Murray, has only been characterized as a media maven with little backstory (family, wife, kids for a man clearly in his forties?[6]) and no discernible character traits. (Murray was able to distill an entire life’s failures into the first twenty minutes of Groundhog Day.) So Cruise is just a tabula rasa, a one dimensional man that, because he finds himself in this extraordinary situation, soon becomes a valiant badass, like we all could (if we were playing a videogame). In other words, Groundhog Day’s repetition does not resemble a game. It resembles the fantasies of what all us poor schlubs would do differently if we had the chance. The Edge of Tomorrow, on the other hand, places us in a (now classic) videogame situation: we don’t know who or what we are, nor why we find ourselves in this extraordinary situation, but through repetition and mastery, we will get to the final castle and save the princess![7]

Just think about the first time you played Super Mario Bros. (1985). Why am I here? What am I supposed to do and why? What are these bricks and question marks? What are these little goombas coming toward me? I doubt anyone pauses to ask themselves such questions. No. The player immediately sallies forth, knowing there is a clear teleological direction (right, always right!) and gamic procedure, and through enough repetition, the gameplay will be gradually mastered. After Cruise wakes up for the first time after having died, he is exactly in the same position as the eight-year-old player of Super Mario Bros. who has died for the first time, maybe even on the first goomba, and finds herself back at the starting position. (And, much like with videogames, his situation is only made clear to him with the introduction of another “player,” Rita, played by Emily Blunt, who also had and then lost Cruise’s ability to play the situation over and over again. She effectively becomes “player 2” in Edge of Tomorrow.)

For the logic of The Edge of Tomorrow is its banal teleology. The one scene where Cruise steps off the path, goes into London to watch the war on the television and throw back a couple of beers, results only in the alien destruction of the city. The message is clear. There is only one direction to go in. Either kill the final boss or nothing.[8] Being, with this kind of telos and repetition, then becomes mechanized, enframed, controlled, and reified. The only possibility for subjectivity, for a subject’s ontological experience of the world, is to abide by the strict limitations imposed by this experience of repetitive time. Cruise has no other choice than to abide by the logic imposed upon him (or else isn’t imaginative enough to articulate other ways of being within the logic of his gamified existence. He’s like the player of Grand Theft Auto who never deviates from the main narrative path. . . .)

Compare this to Groundhog Day. Murray’s first reaction, unlike Cruise, is a deep realization of the banality and horror of his situation. The endless repetition of the same day over and over is an utter nightmare. And so he confronts this horror not by gamifying his existence, but by playing with it, without parameters, for fun (even going so far as to kill himself in a number of clever ways). He then uses his situation to master a host of tasks, but few of them are blatantly teleological. Yes, he masters the piano, but there is no need in the diegesis of the film for him to do so. Achieving his love relationship does not get him out of his situation. Only by becoming selfless, a better person, caring, et cetera, can he get off his track. And, as we might (hope we) know, there is no clear, easy direction toward such caritas, no telos for this kind of love. Groundhog Day flirts with the gamification of Being, but it is clear there is something very much more at stake with the cosmic loop that has been imposed upon Murray.

Cruise’s situation is more horrifying than Murray’s, for he has to die to reset the “game,” and he dies over and over and over. The experience of such constant death, I have to imagine, is unpleasant, as are all those moments prior to death (he breaks his back, arms, et cetera, at points in the film, usually before being shot in the head). And it is this repetitive death, rather than resurrection or repetition, which is the clearest site of the horror of Edge of Tomorrow’s gamification of Being. In a slightly different context, communications scholar Lizbeth Klastrup has suggested that in videogames, “the experience of ‘death’ is thus not one of termination, though it may definitely cause a player grief. In most gameworlds, ‘dying’ is an activity similar to a number of other repeatable activities that occur as a part of the everyday life in the world.”[9] Death is just another mechanic, part of the aesthetic form of the game, something that ultimately can be “playful and explorative, fun and entertaining, or merely be considered an unfortunate nuisance that obstructs the flow of playing the game.”[10] Jesper Juul has taken his reflections one step further, noting that “I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more,” and as such, “failure in games tells us that we are flawed and deficient. As such, video games are the art of failure, the singular art form that sets us up for failure and allows us to experience and experiment with failure.”[11]

This is all well and good. Failure and death in games are fundamental aspects of the medium’s form, its aesthetics. Death is not an ontological condition in videogames, but a structural one, like a law of physics, a mechanic, a limitation that, by limiting one’s experience, creates meaning and pleasure. If one could not die in, say, Super Mario Bros., it would be drained of whatever (perhaps limited) meaning or pleasure it may have or produce. (This is the same reason that, though cheat codes are initially fun to use because of how they transgress the boundaries of the game mechanics, players quickly get bored with being invincible, or whatever, in games.)

Let me be clear. Death in Edge of Tomorrow is not “playful and explorative, fun and entertaining . . . an unfortunate nuisance.” It is death, clear and simple. Yes, it isn’t really death, because Cruise comes back over and over, but there is nothing playful or fun about it. It hurts. It must take a psychological toll upon him. He sees Emily Blunt die over and over again, which becomes more and more painful as he begins falling in love with her (for reasons that are largely unclear; she is also quite one dimensional). When Bill Murray plays with death in Groundhog Day, it is darkly comic, playful, and, at least for the audience, unsettlingly fun. Like videogames, death in Groundhog Day is aesthetic and formal. But it isn’t, really, in Edge of Tomorrow. By the midpoint of the film, Cruise has ceased trying to save his comrades from often grisly deaths, realizing that only the teleological goal of killing the Mother Brain matters (and if the Mother Brain had been where he thought it was in the first place, we wouldn’t have the redemptive ending we do). Death in Edge of Tomorrow never loses its feel of “reality,” with all its attendant pain, regret, loss, and horror. And gamifying death only makes it more horrifying. If the horizon of Being is death, as Martin Heidegger once suggested, and that Being is Being-toward-death, that Being is constructed on the abgrund (or lack of ground) that is death, Edge of Tomorrow only multiplies the anxieties and horrors of human existence, of Being.[12]

And here is the audacious despair at the heart of the film. Edge of Tomorrow reveals that the horizon of the contemporary fad of gamification, of gamifying increasingly nongamic aspects of life, is the gamification of Being itself. And this is not fun. It is horrific.Indeed, gamification as it is practiced today is not necessarily fun. Who really wants to earn “experience points” rather than grades, or become the mayor of an area because of their savvy shopping? (Well, actually, clearly many people.) But the logic of gamification, extended toward the horizons of human life, of our existence and not just our activities, toward our very Being, our love, knowledge, death, imagination, et cetera, is a threat to ontology itself, a threat to the very Being that is specific to humans. When we gamify human existence, the result is pain, horror, and death. And do not let the ending of Edge of Tomorrow distract us into thinking that it could be redemptive, happy, and fulfilling. It is only by resetting the entire world, by undoing what had been done, by making human activity and life meaningless, that it can achieve anything other than horror.

The ending of the film, and the film’s clear historical references to the Second World War and the invasion of Normandy, point toward a deeper despair than simply the gamification of Cruise’s Being. The film effectively gamifies the existence of the species. It seems to suggest that World War II is a repeatable, recursive activity that humans get involved in, that they will always be fighting evil, landing on Normandy, dying in the thousands (and of course the film cannot help to obliquely point toward the Shoah, another site of the horrific reification of the human). The only way to confront the present alien invasion is to reimagine the site of so much twentieth century trauma. So it is here, with this repetition of the past, the gamification of history, of war, of trauma, of suffering, of militaristic ideology, of American exceptionalism, that the film’s real despair shines through. In short, the film suggest that humanity, unless it figures out a way of gamifying the species, is doomed. Doomed toward a single end. The aliens in this film do not necessarily stand in for climate change, but they might as well. There is no reset button on the glaciers sliding into the ocean, for the disastrous effects of climate change, for the seemingly endless wars of the twenty-first century, for the increasingly nonhuman forces of capitalist exploitation.[13] And the film acknowledges that there is no other way to prevent human extinction other than resetting history. The despair at the heart of the film is this. We are already past the point of resetting anything, and we literally cannot imagine anything else except the fantasy of going back in time to make it right. And we cannot. The gamification of Being covers over this brute reality to suggest that things are alright, we can just try again. By gamifying death, the film obscures the most basic facts of human existence: that we are doomed and repetition cannot save us. And we clearly need something else.


[1] See Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013).

[2] Indeed, there are multiple points in the movie where Cruise says something along the lines of “I haven’t gotten this far before.”

[3] For anyone who has played games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, this frequent resetting of the game, often quite soon after one has started the game, should feel familiar. Cruise’s character is often intentionally shot in the head, or “reset,” throughout the film.

[4] For an outstanding essay on gamification, see Patrick Jagoda, “Gamification and Other Forms of Play,” boundary 2 40, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 113-144. Jagoda says that “gamification,a term that derives from behavioral economics, refers to the use of game mechanics in traditionally nongame activities” (114). So, for example, rather than give out grades in a classroom, students might “level up” and earn experience points. (A quick search of “gamifying the classroom” yields many results.) Gamification is happening all over, from corporate offices, to exercise (see that recent iPhone commercial), to shopping (e.g., Foursquare), to other social media.

[5] In fact, the beginning of the film, with its clear imperative to be “patriotic” in some sort of extra-national sense (i.e., when patriotism is applied to the species), is deeply disturbing. It’s as if the last decade and more didn’t happen. That anything less than “fighting for one’s country” (or something) against a clear “evil” (and it is no mistake the film blatantly recalls D-Day right around its seventy-fifth anniversary) is morally questionable . . . is morally questionable.

[6] Though Cruise is fifty-one now?

[7] So often games begin in media res, the player having little idea of who are what their character is, that this has become a trope of videogames. Think of all the Elder Scrolls games, which all feature characters waking up imprisoned with little or no backstory.

[8] The film implies that Cruise repeated this day many, many times. I couldn’t help but wonder how many “days off” he took. Did he structure his repetitions like a work week? Fighting Monday through Friday, but then doing something different two other days? The banality of dying over and over, I have to imagine, would require a bit of rest and recreation after a while.

[9] Lisbeth Klastrup, “What Makes World of Warcraft a World? A Note on Death and Dying,” in Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, ed. Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 145.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Juul, 2, 30.

[12] This is a radically condensed and oversimplified account of Heidegger. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit (1927), trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996). SUNY has recently issued a revised edition of this book. Obviously this is not the place to get into a discussion of Heidegger’s forthcoming notebooks. . . .

[13] And it is perhaps telling that immediately after seeing this film, I wandered into a bookstore and picked up Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2014).

Repackaging the Archive (Part VII): CIV II and Nihilism

Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

—Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”

So Jesse Miksic’s article and a recent account of a decade playing Sid Meier’s Civilization II (Microprose, 1996), Alexis Madrigal’s “Dystopia: What a Game of Civilization II Looks Like After 10 Years” in The Atlantic, have got me thinking about the profound melancholy one can access in video games, a melancholy that other forms of media simply cannot produce. As Miksic points out, part of this is simply a result of time and repetition, of the experience of continually dying, of the near-catastrophic levels of frustration produced by, say, getting to the end of Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo: 1988), and finally beating the boss only to learn there is another (and another) and immediately dying. Or, more recently, inspired by Madrigal’s article I spent some time playing Civilization II the past few days, and experienced something I perhaps never had when playing in my youth. If you actually put the game on an even relatively low difficult setting (“prince”),[1] one can access an acute and nearly overwhelming sense of their ultimate futility, like, to do anything.

Having guided my group of Spanish imperialists into a prominent global position (this isn’t the futile part, but the opposite. . .), every other nation in the game decided that I was the big, bad aggressor, and weren’t having it. Shortly, in the span of a few turns, I found myself at war with the entire planet. I was behind technologically, if ahead in other ways. Mine was a pre-nuclear military. And Greece, Japan, America, the Russians, and the Vikings all indiscriminately nuked me to an appropriate level of global obsolescence, whereby they proceeded to turn their attentions away from me and nuked each other. I had fought back only b/c there was no choice. A war on five fronts and a production line churning out tanks only to have them quickly destroyed. The scenario was beyond my abilities. After the dust had cleared, and I was in a state of détente with everyone but the Greeks, I found myself still a large civilization, but unable to do anything about the quickly heating planet. I finally launched some nukes at the Greeks, thereby ending my war w/ them, but it was more an act of revenge and frustration than strategic. (I have no trouble admitting such petty human emotions as jealousy, envy, and hatred. . . for a computer.) The Americans were quickly decimating them anyway. I could see that the game could very easily go toward the nightmare scenario described by Madrigal, or else my defeat and erasure from the planet. In another game, I hadn’t even attacked anyone when I got nuked.

The experience of getting nuked in Civilization II, esp. if you have not nuked anyone yet, can be deeply unsettling. There is a brutal game-theory logic to it: if someone doesn’t have nukes, nuke them, they can’t fire back. Last night, my Athens (I was playing the Greeks), a high seat of learning and culture—I had built many Wonders of the World There—got  nuked out of the blue, decimating the city, raising the temperature of the globe, causing famine all over. I had it. I shut off the computer, sick of being so utterly destroyed, with so little agency over anything (I also could probably be a better player). No matter what I did, no matter my peaceful nature, utter destruction, or, what’s even worse, a very obvious continuing inability to do much of anything in the face of a thousand year war marked by broken treaties, collapsing governments, and untold (virtual) suffering, appeared to be the only world I could provide the denizens of my “civilization.” Sadly, this seems to be how best to describe reality.

Perhaps a better title for the game would be Endless Total War. It has obviously been critiqued, and rightly so, for its reinforcement of: a progressive, teleological sense of history and its implicit celebration of Western imperialism. But I feel like the deep logic revealed by playing the game, even for a little while, is the manner in which it continually emphasizes the utter depravity and violence implicit in the course of empire. The world and history, as it is “represented” by Civilization II, is simply horror-show. Any of the “higher” activities of humanity, especially “culture,” get subsumed into the universal violent antagonism the game never relents in emphasizing.[2] Constructing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is just a means to further global domination. Da Vinci, a means of issuing new “versions” of troops: legionnaires 2.0, howitzer redux. Religion is represented as a tool of pacification. Shakespeare a means to an end. Abraham Lincoln a genocidal maniac. Eleanor Roosevelt a demagogue.

Civilization II is, quite literally, nihil unbound.

[1] I never did as a kid, preferring the hubristic grandiosity of conquering the world, building all the wonders, launching the space-ship, not using nukes for some sort of weird ethical reason (even though I slaughtered nations indiscriminately), and etc. winning. I was obviously more well-adjusted as a teenager.

[2] It must also be noted, I was playing the “bloodlust” setting, where you can’t win by going to the stars. We aren’t going to the stars.