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Confession. I see the East Coast today and feel something (among many other things) unwelcome: jealousy. I moved back West only a month ago, leaving behind Maryland after five years. The landscapes and psychic geography are still fresh in my mind, and, for the past four days or so, the entirety of my online social life has revolved around Hurricane Sandy: stories, photos, worried exchanges; flickering lights, wine, Scrabble. Biking to the bar against solid sheets of water; planning Christmas decorations for downed trees; infrastructure losing the battle. I’m missing out on something, a chance to scratch that ugly itch for doom, to feel the unique and terrible pleasure of catastrophe.

It is terrible, of course. People are dead, at least 17 at last count, while many billions of dollars in damage has been done. That misery is real, and all of the blood and money extracted by any disaster comes from somewhere also very real. But the pull persists. Think of staring at the burning towers of 9/11 — and staring and staring and staring. Or at a car accident or fire-gutted building or train derailment. The feeling isn’t entirely repulsive. I’m not even sure it’s mostly repulsive. Isn’t that awful?

Maybe, but also maybe not so much. There’s a great many reasons why we love disasters, and none of them have to do with enjoying the suffering of others. So take some comfort. We’re not into disasters because we’re secretly evil villains; we’re into disasters (in large part) to connect to others. At the very root of human morality isn’t supernatural dictates — it’s empathy, or the ability to share in the experiences of others.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of gawking at an auto wreck, your eyes passing a little too non-nonchalantly over the ambulance lights and crumpled car-frames and sizzling flares, when, unexpectedly, you meet the gaze of a victim. And you’ve gone cold, like a trapdoor opened in your body letting out all of the warm feelings and comfort in a gush. It’s not the feeling of being “caught,” rather it’s the feeling of connecting. We’re neurologically constructed to do this, put ourselves within the perspective of another.

We don’t enjoy that perspective, but, like a great many creatures, we need it. It’s fundamental to pro-social behavior, or the things we do to help to help others. Those things keep societies together, and societies keep their constituents alive and breeding longer. So, yes: evolution. We stare because we want to empathize and, at the very end of things, to survive.

But before you get to the end of things, you have some great stuff, like community and generosity. Which are things usually pretty well hidden behind a veil of assholedom and routine. But then something happens and people feel impelled to get together into groups — maybe just for boozing and board games — and maybe offer up their couch and electricity to someone they don’t know very well. Or maybe even do something really brave and selfless. The sky’s the limit.

Metro-North plus boat, via MTA

There’s other reasons we love disasters that are maybe more psychological. Perhaps there is a dark side. Psychologist Eric G. Wilson writes:

[Carl Jung] maintained that our mental health depends on our shadow, that part of our psyche that harbors our darkest energies, such as murderousness. The more we repress the morbid, the more it foments neuroses or psychoses. To achieve wholeness, we must acknowledge our most demonic inclinations.

Yes, I took pleasure in my enemy’s tumble from grace. No, I couldn’t stop watching 9/11 footage. Once we welcome these unseemly admissions as integral portions of our being, the devils turn into angels. Luke owns the Vader within, offers affection to the actual villain; off comes the scary mask, and there stands a father, loving and in need of love.

Empathy doesn’t usually extend to things, but our fascination with catastrophe sure does. Some of the most alluring photos from Hurricane Sandy are totally empty landscapes: the waterfalled construction site of the World Trade Center, a flooded FDR, empty Grand Central Station. We’re attracted to these in part because they’re empty. They are vulnerable.

Which is crucial because, in a city, it’s these landscapes that run us. There’s that odd, dull terror of urban claustrophobia, that we’re not in control. All of these buildings and tunnels we’ve created in the general interests of civilization, but we’ve also given up quite a bit to their grid-lines. There’s power and possibility in a big storm. Loss of control is its own power. And sometimes we don’t realize how disempowered we feel in the city, no matter that cities are where we go to feel just the opposite (to find possibilities). To, ahem, paraphrase the Anarchist Cookbook (with a wide variety of apologies), when outcomes are uncertain, anything is possible.

I think that’s true. Last night, in the depths of the storm, maybe you didn’t know how today would look. You had some idea, of course, but compared to last Tuesday, today was wide open. That’s pretty important. Even if your life in New York City is perfect and awesome and every day is ice cream and puppies and big fat checks, without possibility — even if most of them are bad — something isn’t quite complete.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

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This is big on the internet today: some dude on Reddit announced that he’d been playing the same game of Civilization II for the past 10 years. If you’re not familiar, Civ II (released in 1996) is, like the rest of the Civilization series (we’re at Civ V now), an empire-building game that takes place through world history and into the future to infinity. You don’t necessarily win through military might, but through a variety of different avenues, like technological might or cultural superiority. They’re some of the best games ever. After 10 years, the aforementioned Civ II player — Reddit handle: Lycerius — has reached the year 3991 A.D. and Earth is basically a hellscape of scant natural resources supporting vast armies, while the people starve and fallout poisons everything.

His conclusions are worth sharing:

I’ve been playing the same game of Civ II for 10 years. Though long outdated, I grew fascinated with this particular game because by the time Civ III was released, I was already well into the distant future. I then thought that it might be interesting to see just how far into the future I could get and see what the ramifications would be. Naturally I play other games and have a life, but I often return to this game when I’m not doing anything and carry on. The results are as follows.
The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.

There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.

- The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn’t a mountain is inundated swamp land, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.

- As a result, big cities are a thing of the distant past. Roughly 90% of the worlds population (at it’s peak 2000 years ago) has died either from nuclear annihilation or famine caused by the global warming that has left absolutely zero arable land to farm. Engineers (late game worker units) are always busy continuously building roads so that new armies can reach the front lines. Roads that are destroyed the very next turn when the enemy goes. So there isn’t any time to clear swamps or clean up the nuclear fallout.

- Only 3 super massive nations are left. The Celts (me), The Vikings, And the Americans. Between the three of us, we have conquered all the other nations that have ever existed and assimilated them into our respective empires.

- You’ve heard of the 100 year war? Try the 1700 year war. The three remaining nations have been locked in an eternal death struggle for almost 2000 years. Peace seems to be impossible. Every time a cease fire is signed, the Vikings will surprise attack me or the Americans the very next turn, often with nuclear weapons. Even when the U.N forces a peace treaty. So I can only assume that peace will come only when they’re wiped out. It is this that perpetuates the war ad infinitum. Have any of you old Civ II players out there ever had this problem in the post-late game?

- Because of SDI, ICBMS are usually only used against armies outside of cities. Instead, cities are constantly attacked by spies who plant nuclear devices which then detonate (something I greatly miss from later civ games). Usually the down side to this is that every nation in the world declares war on you. But this is already the case so its no longer a deterrent to anyone. My self included.

- The only governments left are two theocracies and myself, a communist state. I wanted to stay a democracy, but the Senate would always over-rule me when I wanted to declare war before the Vikings did. This would delay my attack and render my turn and often my plans useless. And of course the Vikings would then break the cease fire like clockwork the very next turn. Something I also miss in later civ games is a little internal politics. Anyway, I was forced to do away with democracy roughly a thousand years ago because it was endangering my empire. But of course the people hate me now and every few years since then, there are massive guerrilla (late game barbarians) uprisings in the heart of my empire that I have to deal with which saps resources from the war effort.

- The military stalemate is air tight. The post-late game in civ II is perfectly balanced because all remaining nations already have all the technologies so there is no advantage. And there are so many units at once on the map that you could lose 20 tank units and not have your lines dented because you have a constant stream moving to the front. This also means that cities are not only tiny towns full of starving people, but that you can never improve the city. “So you want a granary so you can eat? Sorry; I have to build another tank instead. Maybe next time.”

- My goal for the next few years is to try and end the war and thus use the engineers to clear swamps and fallout so that farming may resume. I want to rebuild the world. But I’m not sure how. If any of you old Civ II players have any advice, I’m listening.

I love that he’s not done, nor does he seem particularly tired of the game. Me, I have no advice. I’m sure you could have fun for days with the analogs between our world and his Civ II history, but he’s still playing a game. I can’t say how many times I’ve pushed the red button, so to speak, to launch all-out nuclear war in this or that game. That said, we live in privileged times — still — and a whole lot of brutality is going to have to go down over the next 1,979 years.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.

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