The Player Of Games
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ibsn13: 9781857231465
series: The Culture - Book 2

The ultimate gamer Gurgeh is tired of his life in a post-scarcity society because he’s played every game there is and nothing and no one can put up a challenge.

Another Iain Banks banger. If you’re interested in getting into his Culture series, this is probably the best place to start.

‘Did you meet Yay this morning?’ Chamlis asked Gurgeh. He nodded. ‘She had me dressed up in a suit, toting a gun and shooting at toy missiles which “explosively dismantled” themselves.’

‘You didn’t enjoy it.’

‘Not at all. I had high hopes for that girl, but too much of that sort of nonsense and I think her intelligence will explosively dismantle.’

‘Well, such diversions aren’t for everybody. She was just trying to be helpful. You’d said you were feeling restless, looking for something new.’

‘Well, that wasn’t it,’ Gurgeh said, and felt suddenly, inexplicably, saddened.

Gurgeh has studied and played all the games that exist and none no one can provide him with a challenge. He’s sad because he’s bored. The Culture might be a post-scarcity society but that doesn’t mean that they’ve completely eliminated unhappiness, they’ve just reduced its likelihood.

‘All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games. By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules. Generally, all the best mechanistic games - those which can be played in any sense “perfectly”, such as grid, Prallian scope, ’nkraytle, chess, Farnic dimensions - can be traced to civilisations lacking a relativistic view of the universe (let alone the reality). They are also, I might add, invariably pre-machine sentience societies.

‘The very first-rank games acknowledge the element of chance, even if they rightly restrict raw luck. To attempt to construct a game on any other lines, no matter how complicated and subtle the rules are, and regardless of the scale and differentiation of the playing volume and the variety of the powers and attributes of the pieces, is inevitably to shackle oneself to a conspectus which is not merely socially but techno-philosophically lagging several ages behind our own. As a historical exercise it might have some value. As a work of the intellect, it’s just a waste of time. If you want to make something old-fashioned, why not build a wooden sailing boat, or a steam engine? They’re just as complicated and demanding as a mechanistic game, and you’ll keep fit at the same time.’

Gurgeh reciting his past work on games, specifically talking about his preference for games with luck in them because they more accurately reflect the world we live in. If we’re to believe that the games we play reflect on the societies we live in and vice-versa, games without luck are bad because that’s not how the real world works and it never will. Playing and thinking about games like that will teach us the wrong lessons about the world we live in.

The game went on. People came and went around him. The web held all his fortune; the little spheres, holding their secret treasures and threats, became like discrete parcels of life and death, single points of probability which could be guessed at but never known until they were challenged, opened, looked at. All reality seemed to hinge on those infinitesimal bundles of meaning.

There are times when the game we’re playing, the fiction we’re reading or any kind of abstraction of the real world we’re immersing ourself in, becomes more important than anything else.

Three days passed. He couldn’t settle to anything. He tried to read papers, old books, the material of his own he’d been working on - but on every occasion he found himself reading and re-reading the same piece or page or screen, time and time again, trying hard to take it in but finding his thoughts constantly veering away from the words and diagrams and illustrations in front of him, refusing to absorb anything, going back time and time again to the same treadmill, the same looping, tail-swallowing, eternally pointless round of questioning and regret. Why had he done it? What way out was there?

When I’m reading, I try to clear my mind and focus on what’s on the page but sometimes, no matter what I do, my brain refuses to parse the words on the page, and would rather think about anything else. I acknowledge these moments and try my best to deal with them effectively, either by making a plan to solve whatever problem my mind is stuck thinking about, or by putting the book down and doing some journalling to let these thoughts out onto the page and hopefully in doing so keep them from bouncing around in my mind forever.

‘I think I see Shohobohaum Za in the crowd,’ the drone said as they waited at the exit. Ram’s entourage was still cluttering the far end of the ribbon of path held clear by the two lines of policemen.

Gurgeh glanced at the machine, then down the line of arm-linked police. He was still tensed from the game, bloodstream suffused with multifarious chemicals. As happened every now and again, everything he saw around him seemed to be part of the game; the way people stood like pieces, grouped according to who could take or affect whom; the way the pattern on the marquee was like a simple grid-area on the board, and the poles like planted power-sources waiting to replenish some exhausted minor piece and supporting a crux-point in the game; the way the people and police stood like the suddenly closed jaws of some nightmarish pincer-movement… all was the game, everything was seen in its light, translated into the combative imagery of its language, evaluated in the context its structure imposed upon the mind.

When you’re really immersed in a game and playing it more than you probably should, it’s common for those same neurons to start firing when you’re not playing the game. The Tetris effect is a common example of this.

Anyway, he was awash with a bitter-sweet flood of new and enhanced emotions; the terror of risk and possible defeat, the sheer exultation of the gamble that paid off and the campaign which triumphed; the horror of suddenly seeing a weakness in his position which could lose him the game; the surge of relief when nobody else noticed and there was time to plug the gap; the pulse of furious, gloating glee when he saw such a weakness in another’s game; and the sheer unbridled joy of victory.

Playing games at a high level and trying your best to win can make you feel like a god.

Gurgeh saw many cripples. They sat on street corners, selling trinkets, playing music on scratchy, squeaky instruments, or just begging. Some were blind, some had no arms, some had no legs. Gurgeh looked at the damaged people and felt dizzy; the gritty surface of the street beneath him seemed to tip and heave. For a moment it was as though the city, the planet, the whole Empire swirled around him in a frantic spinning tangle of nightmare shapes; a constellation of suffering and anguish, an infernal dance of agony and mutilation.

Ah yes. Living in America, an infernal dance of agony and mutilation.

‘Good,’ Hamin nodded. ‘You see, Gurgeh, one can be on either side in the Empire. One can be the player, or one can be… played upon.’ Hamin smiled at what was a play on words in Eächic, and to some extent in Marain too.

Everything is a game, or at least can be thought of as a game. Life is a game, an unfair one sadly, and every aspect of it can be thought of as a game. There’s a set of rules defined by the physical world around us and the societies we live in. You can’t choose to NOT play the game, and if you do you’re likely to get played yourself.

If you start off in a privileged position and you can use the rules to your advantage, you’re winning. Otherwise, you might not be.

We’re all Morat, The Player of Games in our own lives. And, I think that’s part of why this book is so good. We’re all gamers.

Gurgeh watched Groasnachek as it fell away beneath them. The city tilted as he was thrown back into his seat; the whole view swung and juddered as the shuttlecraft powered into the hazy skies.

Gradually all the patterns and the shapes came out, revealed for a while before the increasing distance, the city’s own vapours, dust and grime, and the altering angle of their climb took it all away.

For all the jumble, it looked momentarily peaceful and ordered in its parts. The distance made its individual, local confusions and dislocations disappear, and from a certain height, where little ever dallied, and almost everything just passed through, it looked exactly like a great, mindless, spreading organism.

Iain Banks’s ability to write fantastic prose, bring up interesting philosophical conundrums without being preachy about his own beliefs AND tell stories that hook you and never let go, all within the same novel consistently amazes me.

So far so average. Our game-player’s lucked out again. I guess you can see he’s a changed man, though. These humans! I’m going to be consistent, however. I haven’t told you who I am so far, and I’m not going to tell you now, either. Maybe later.


Does identity matter anyway? I have my doubts. We are what we do, not what we think. Only the interactions count (there is no problem with free will here; that’s not incompatible with believing your actions define you). And what is free will anyway? Chance. The random factor. If one is not ultimately predictable, then of course that’s all it can be. I get so frustrated with people who can’t see this!

Even a human should be able to understand it’s obvious.

The result is what matters, not how it’s achieved (unless, of course, the process of achieving is itself a series of results). What difference does it make whether a mind’s made up of enormous, squidgy, animal cells working at the speed of sound (in air!), or from a glittering nanofoam of reflectors and patterns of holographic coherence, at lightspeed? (Let’s not even think about a Mind mind.) Each is a machine, each is an organism, each fulfils the same task.

Just matter, switching energy of one sort or another.

Switches. Memory. The random element that is chance and that is called choice: common denominators, all.

I say again; you is what you done. Dynamic (mis)behaviourism, that’s my creed.

Gurgeh? His switches are working funny. He’s thinking differently, acting uncharacteristically. He is a different person. He’s seen the worst that meatgrinder of a city could provide, and he just took it personally, and took his revenge.

Now he’s spaceborne again, head crammed full of Azad rules, his brain adapted and adapting to the swirling, switching patterns of that seductive, encompassing, feral set of rules and possibilities, and being carted through space towards the Empire’s most creakily symbolic shrine: Echronedal; the place of the standing wave of flame; the Fire Planet.

But will our hero prevail? Can he possibly prevail? And what would constitute winning, anyway?

How much has the man still got to learn? What will he make of such knowledge? More to the point, what will it make of him?

Wait and see. It’ll work itself out, in time.

Take it from there, maestro…