Rumfoord and Friends: Awful Game Masters; A Reflection on Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan | Castronova on The Sirens of Titan

Ted Castronova


Who’s in charge, anyway? We believe that we have free will, but perhaps we are under the control of a higher being. What if that being is under the control of another being? Who is under the control of another, and so on and so on? Andrew Dabrowski of Indiana University’s mathematics department has developed a metaphysical theory in which any metaphysical order is nested within a higher metaphysical order—“turtles all the way up,” as he puts it.1

So be it; perhaps we are in the hands of someone or something greater. Vonnegut gives Winston Niles Rumfoord (WNR) the power to see the future and the past. Being a sadistic, heartless, madman, WNR sets out to impose a new religion on all humanity. How can this be? If WNR sees the future, how can he also shape it? Well, if he can conform the future to his will, then he both makes it and sees it. Whenever he changes his mind about what the future will be, it changes. Or perhaps he perfectly forecasts his own choices. In one case he is the master of the universe; in another he is the slave of fate, just like everyone else.

In Sirens, the alien Salo’s ship is powered by the “Universal Will to Become,” which sounds vaguely fascistic. Salo is a small town in northern Italy and was at one time the capital of a fascist state. In 1943, in the depths of World War II, Italy dumped Mussolini and switched sides. Hitler occupied the northern half of the country and made it into the Italian Socialist Republic. Il Duce ruled from Salo for about eighteen months before being captured and shot by partisans.

WNR thinks he is the master of the universe, but it turns out that there are masters above him, the machine beings of Tralfamadore. Their actions seem entirely deterministic, dictated by their code. But then the ambassador of the machine race, Salo, violates the code and somehow exercises free will. Soon after, he destroys himself.

This all seems puzzling until we think about the relationship between the player and the game designer. The designer makes a game and, in doing so, pays great attention to the choices of the player. A game without a player is not a game, and the first choice any player makes is to play. The designer keeps this in mind as he crafts his work; it is like a statue that does not come into being unless a person chooses to view it. This does not imply that the designer has the interests of the player at heart; he needs only to attract the player’s activity, which may or may not be good for the player. Most times, however, the player’s well-being is indeed looked upon fondly by the designer, simply for reasons of empathy as well as protection of the designer’s long-run reputation. The player, meanwhile, faces a glittering paradise of options for his attention, of which the designer’s game is only one. If the two come together, if the player plays what the designer has made, they are generally being nice to one another.

The mutual care that players and designers generally have for one another implies, among many other things, that all good games involve meaningful choices. Players like to have meaningful choices. In fact, they usually insist on them. The attraction of interesting choices is that they validate our belief in our own freedom. There’s no freedom in an uninteresting choice, such as the choice between eating pie and eating mud. There’s also no freedom in a fictitious choice, such as, “You may eat either one cup of mud, or eight ounces of mud.” There’s obviously no freedom in the lack of choice, such as “Roll the dice. Move forward that number of squares. Do what it says in that space.” Freedom happens only when the player has options that lead to different payoffs. Options like this also make a game enjoyable. Freedom is a necessary condition for fun. Good designers therefore build freedom into their games.

From this perspective, Sirens of Titan is a tale of two horrible game designers. WNR’s game gives players no choices. Some of his players are directly controlled via antennas in their heads. Others are controlled through cunningly placed messages, rituals, and symbols that induce the behavior he desires. The latter can be just as effective, and cruel, as the former, as anyone who has lost minutes if not hours to “just one more level” of Candy Crush can attest. The Tralfamadorians are just as bad; they use mass hypnosis to coerce choices.

There’s no freedom in these games and, predictably, nobody likes playing them. The Martian slaves, having been the main players in WNR’s first few levels, thereafter express nothing but disgust for the world WNR has made. WNR himself falls into his own depression when he realizes that his game design was induced by the designs of Tralfamadore. Worse, whereas WNR honestly believed his scheme was for the good of all mankind, the Tralfamadorian game isn’t good for anything. Tralfamadore has designed Earth’s history so that humans will assist them in sending an absurd message to an unknown race of beings in another galaxy. While WNR enslaved players to march off on a crusade, the Tralfies enslaved them for no good reason at all. The only non-Martian humans who discover this—Beatrice and WNR himself—are made quite unhappy.

Vonnegut is poking us to reconsider whether we are free, but we already have worries about that; he has only added yet another item to the set of all the possible ways that we might not be free. I tend to think that the best argument against freedom is evolutionary: we are programmed by our evolutionary past to behave in certain ways. Is this any different from the idea that a faraway alien race has programmed us? On the one hand, we say that evolution made us who we are. On the other, we say it was Tralfamadore. Operationally, they are the same. Both are cold machines that appear purposeless to us. But this state of affairs is not puzzling or novel. It has long been understood that purpose does not exist in the material world. It doesn’t emerge from atoms or energy. Any attempt to locate purpose in the material world leads to an infinite regress: I do what I do because . . . Tralfamadore made me do it . . . and Tralfamadore did that because their creators programmed them so . . . and the creators programmed them in that fashion because . . . because . . . because . . . and so on. Vonnegut hasn’t given us a new perspective on the purpose of human existence; he has merely inserted an odd step into the well-known infinite chain of material causation. The question of purpose lies beyond that chain; it lies beyond Tralfamadore.

A good game designer creates in-game purposes that players enjoy pursuing. These are usually analogous in some way to the immaterial purposes that people generally perceive as they lead their lives. To survive, to live, is certainly deemed important by just about everyone (with the notable exception of some twentieth-century French philosophers). Surviving is a matter of gathering resources, husbanding them well, perhaps competing with others; many games feature this kind of economic activity. Many people perceive life as a race; many games ask players to race one another to some arbitrary finish. Hunting and killing seem to be especially rewarding to men, and there are many such games, played predominantly by men. Good game design is sensitive to the deepest purposes people feel, and good games create action metaphors of those purposes. What I mean is this: an action metaphor is an action in a fictional environment that mimics or otherwise triggers emotions related to some action in the real world. Throwing a baseball, for example, is an action metaphor for throwing a stone or a spear. So we can say that good games have good (effective, relevant, satisfying) action metaphors, and good game designers create good action metaphors.

Now we can see why WNR and the Tralfies are such horrible game designers: their action metaphors are not effective, relevant, or satisfying. People who become dedicated to vast physical monuments are generally understood to be wasting their lives unless their building has some other purpose, such as, to proclaim Love, express Truth, or venerate the Sacred. Building a monument to express one’s own devotion is also meaningful. What’s not meaningful is to toil away for the express purpose of making a great big monument. That’s just vanity. And so, if we look at history, humans eventually learned that building pyramids (as commanded by the Tralfies) was not a meaningful use of their time. That action metaphor was not effective—it didn’t generate strong emotion, over the long haul.2 It was not relevant—it didn’t bring to mind anything related to deeper meaning. It was not satisfying—eventually even leaders stopped finding joy in big stone monuments. Whatever control the Tralfies had over us through their game design burned away; we stopped building the things they wanted us to build.

“Hell” is not just a curse here, but rather a proper word. The Thomist conception of perfect evil, and thus hell, could be described as the place where nothing is and nothing happens. Thus Hell is the ultimate boredom. “Boring as hell” means really, really boring.

Similarly, WNR’s religion is a hopelessly bad game. Vonnegut makes little effort to portray why the entire world joined WNR’s church, and this seems a weak point in the narrative. His maintained assumption seems to be that people will fall for anything in the religious sphere. Not so. People will fall for a lot, but only for certain kinds of things, and an Indifferent God is surely not one of them. Worship in WNR’s church is portrayed as an effective, relevant, and satisfying action metaphor, but that’s not convincing. Who would find it relevant or satisfying to go through the motions of worshiping gods without motives? I don’t know if such a thing would be theologically appropriate, but as a game designer I do know it would be boring as hell. All events, even my own choices, are accidental. What a dull universe.

These aspects of the novel—the descriptions of people gleefully playing such awful games—are ultimately unconvincing for a game designer. In these parts the novel feels less like satire and more like fakery driven by uncontrolled authorial emotion. This makes me guess that when Vonnegut did design a board game, he probably made one that is intricate and beautiful but not very fun to play.


1. “Turtle Metaphysics,” available at Why turtles? Well, the myths of a certain tribe held that the world was carried on the back of a turtle. An anthropologist asked the villagers, “Where does the turtle stand?”
They answered, “He stands on the back of another turtle.”
“And where does that one stand?”
“On another turtle,” said the villagers. “It’s turtles all the way down.”

2. Big monuments do generate emotions even today, but those emotions are confirmations of what I am saying: when we see the pyramids today, we think of them tragically, as monuments to human vanity.