Measures of Excellence, Gospel Hobbies, and Civilization 3


A “measure of excellence” is a metric of comparison. Measures of excellence are what we use to say that one person is “better” than another. Money is another measure of excellence. In fact, beauty (for women) and money (for men) are the two historically dominant measures of excellence (at least, that’s the case in the history we tell each other today).

In ancient times (1991, that is) there was a popular computer game called Civilization. You, the player, guided a civilization from 4000 BC to AD 2020. In the game there were two paths to victory. The first was to destroy all of the other civilizations and become the ruler of the world. This is a typical victory condition in gaming — defeat all your opponents and you win. The second path to victory was to be the first civilization to build a spaceship and colonize another planet. This was pretty innovative — in the combat-dominated gaming ecosystem of the day, Civilization provided the player with a peaceful, “enlightened” alternative.

To stretch this into a metaphor about feminism and measures of excellence, the “enlightened” alternative feminine measure of excellence is traditionally intelligence. This advancement allowed smart girls to feel some of the smug superiority that beautiful girls had been enjoying and exploiting for millenia. Now you’ve got a three-faction game where the smart girls could call the beautiful ones shallow, the beautiful girls could continue to ignore the smart ones, and the rest of the girls could vie for “nice” (or “sweet spirit”, in Mormon parlance — it’s kind of the door prize).

So while this is something of an improvement, it’s still got some pretty major problems. First off, intelligence, like beauty, isn’t evenly distributed. Intelligent people don’t deserve their intelligence any more than beautiful people deserve their looks. It’s all kind of part of the spiritugenetic lottery. Introducing a second measure of excellence into the system didn’t fix the system, but it did improve life for some players in the system.

Fortunately, in 2001 Civilization 3 was released (Civilization 2 was released in 1996, for those of you keeping track). Where the original Civilization had two win conditions (defeating the opponents or winning the space race, remember?), the new Civilization game had six win conditions! You could win through diplomatically uniting the nations, through establishing the most enduring culture, through controlling the most land, etc.

Suddenly the system was broken wide open. Rather than having their measures of excellence dictated to them, men and women began to discover that they could define their own terms of victory. So you’re neither cute nor smart? That’s okay, because you can be:

  • capable
  • arrogant
  • witty
  • professional
  • geeky
  • sexual
  • fun
  • righteous
  • understanding

or even more specifically,

  • an animal lover
  • the Frank Herbert fan
  • an early-morning mall walker
  • the friend who hosts movie night
  • a darn good cake decorator

Most importantly, you get to be in charge of which measures of excellence you recognize as valid. This is the inversion that breaks the system — it’s the switch from object to subject, from actor to author.

So here’s my gospel connection. A while back I wrote this post on a monastery for families, and it received this comment, with its great quote from Victor Hugo. I’ve thought a lot about those “veiled beings in the shadow below weep, their sides bruised with the hair shirt and their iron-tipped scourges, their breasts crushed with wicker hurdles, their knees excoriated with prayer”. Who are they, and what are they doing there? They exist not solely in the Spanish cathedrals; their spiritual brothers and sisters inhabit the meeting houses of every religion. They represent all that disgusts me in religion — the uncalled for and needless sacrifice and suffering it imposes on believers.

But, if I wonder long enough to look through their eyes, there’s something more than that. They are ones who have chosen their own measure of excellence — neither beauty nor wit, but suffering. They can suffer better than any of the rest of us, and that is a consolation and an identity.

veiled beings in the shadow below weep, their sides bruised with the hair shirt and their iron-tipped scourges, their [bleep] crushed with wicker hurdles, their knees excoriated with prayer

20 comments for “Measures of Excellence, Gospel Hobbies, and Civilization 3

  1. Heh, just realized that I never got to the “Gospel Hobbies” part that was in the title of this post. That’s okay, I think the connection is pretty obvious.

    Also, one more measure of excellence to add to the list:
    • good at understanding the KJV bible

  2. In the game, you can seek the measures of excellence which are already recognized as valid (whether that be two options in the original game or 6 in the Civ 3)…but you can’t make an invalid measure valid. No matter how hard you try, you can’t “choose” to win a cultural victory in the original Civilization.

    I guess the question is: what is a valid measure of excellence in life? In the gospel?

  3. Um, how about:

    Be all that you can be


    Do what you love and the money will follow

    But, when I hear these maxims, I have to wonder: Aren’t there some standards somewhere that are absolute?

    Relative or self-directed standards are great if you want everyone to win, a la Special Olympics. [Is it possible in Civ 3 to have more than one winner because of differing measures?] And I do think that way of viewing lief is more gospel like.

    But there certainly are times in life when you have to chose just one winner according to a set of established standards. Perhaps that comes from the limited resources and scarcity we face. In the eternities does scarcity still exist?

  4. Andrew, that’s right. Fortunately life has moved beyond even Civ 3, and there are plenty more valid options available. In fact, we may have even moved into SimCity territory where all of the options are valid.

    Kent, okay, good point. Not all of the options are valid — some approaches are unrealistic or just dumb. The Civ games don’t allow multiple winners, and I think multiple winners is the ultimate key in the plan of salvation (or, to paraphrase Carol Lynn Pearson, God doesn’t grade on a curve — the failures of others don’t imply our success, and the successes of others don’t lessen our achievements). And I’m sure that there is scarcity in eternity. I base this on my assessment that scarcity management is at the root of every problem we deal with in life, and we believe that life is a place for us to prepare for eternity. What would be the point in training billions of people in scarcity management if scarcity management isn’t a useful skill in the celestial kingdom?

  5. I dunno if I have anything clever to add to the analogy, but I’ll just toss out some ideas from Civ IV, since it’s one of my favorite games ever.

    – It is possible for multiple people to win at Civ if they are part of a permanent alliance. The computer will never form more than one permanent alliance, but in theory you could form permanent alliances with many human players, transforming a competitive game into a cooperative game.

    -Civ IV, with its extreme modding capabilities, allows you to create your own victory conditions to try for. In a fantasy mod that I play, in addition to the standard victory mechanisms, you can also win by converting 80% of the world’s population to your state religion, for example. Other modded-in victory conditions include helping demons transform the entire world into hell, or helping an archmage unit become omnipotent. Some mods even have specific victory conditions for each individual civilization – ie, build certain wonders, have a certain amount of culture or land area, survive til X date without a single city being taken, etc.

    Just a couple ideas. Hopefully the analogies are plain to see. :)

  6. Thanks Duerma, modding is a perfect analogy for what I call “the inversion that breaks the system”. Modding is the claiming the right to say, “I will determine the measure of my own success.”

  7. Dane,

    I have some disagreements about the first half of your post, but those aren’t really the point, so I’ll let them be. I don’t know if I fully buy the notion about defining your own excellence if pushed to the limit (perhaps you don’t either), but I do know that there is something holy about finding understanding in people and activities that revulsed you.

    On suffering, well, flagellation and hairshirts are ultimately a mistake, but the people who embrace them perhaps realize a truth that we LDS don’t always see clearly (which is not to say that they aren’t psychologically disturbed, masochists, or damaged goods at the same time–its not a clear-cut world out there). I can hardly put it into words, but the truth is something like that suffering just is, that all the stuff we say about what suffering is good for is dishwater, and that the ultimate fact of the atonement is that God suffered beyond measure, whatever the purpose may have been.

  8. Thanks for the post on the “Measures of Excellence”. But I am not sure Money or beauty are high on my list.
    But your post did take me to a measure I have always held high ( but never reached). The poem “If” by Kipling. I made sure my son had an understanding of it as he grew up.
    I wonder sometimes how much it is taugh as a man’s measure today?

  9. I am a Civ junkie. I haven’t bought Civ 5 yet though, because it will take over my life. My wife and I will fight over the computer. Cats and dogs will live together. Etc etc. But maybe, if this post is really on to something, I can count it as gospel study time… yeah that’s the ticket!

  10. Dane wrote: “They represent all that disgusts me in religion — the uncalled for and needless sacrifice and suffering it imposes on believers.”

    I’m curious, how do you square that with Joseph Smith’s teaching in the Lectures on Faith? Remember this one? “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”

    There is much of sacrifice which outsiders would describe as needless and which imposes suffering… from Abraham’s sacrifice to the handcart companies. And I can think of many examples I witness weekly in my own ward of people taking their “callings” so seriously that their actions are detrimental to their well-being.

    I’m not criticizing any viewpoint, I just thought I’d emphasize that issue for discussion.

  11. We covenant not merely to give all we have, but rather to give all we have to build the kingdom of God. Not merely sacrifice, but sacrifice with a purpose. Otherwise, if I were to take the Lectures on Faith literally, the most faith-producing religion would be one that required all it’s adherents to commit suicide. I believe in the religion that overflows with muchness, the one that uplifts and ennobles, not one that exalts suffering for suffering’s sake.

  12. Dane L.,
    there’s a pretty strong tendency in the ‘Abrahamic trial’ to emphasize the apparent pointlessness of what you’re being asked to do.
    Your last sentence is rhetorically nice but its way too narrow. I believe in the religion that does both and a thousand other things too.

  13. I am still working on the ideas that suffering and evil are part of the Master Plan. Clearly they exist_ I just can’t see why they are needed around for the growth a man to improve,proof Man.

  14. Adam G., I probably just have a narrower concept of religion than you do.

    raedyohed, I haven’t started playing Civ 4 for the same reason. I own it, but I just haven’t started it.

    Bob, I loved your original text :)

  15. Dane – you seemed to breeze right by #2-Andrew’s comment, which cut to the point of your post: what is a valid measure of excellence in life? In the gospel?

    I am not quite sure how many “plenty more” valid measures of success in a gospel sense as you put it.

    In fact, I see the world increasingly adding various measures, such as some you outlined, and they all boil down in principle to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.

    The gospel perspective is, now is the time to prepare to meet God.

    You can either view this life as a proving ground, in which we (im)prove ourselves in a way that puts us on the path toward exhalation. Or you can look at your life as having a variety of “victories” with no eternal outlook.

    Even the dead religions of the past were focused on the afterlife. Now the religion of the world (which was always there, but only now has more converts) is focused solely on the here and now making merry, filling our lives with stuff, making preparations for the next distraction, etc.

    The victory is when we can make our focus and perspective an eternal one (and sacrifice would seem to play a role in that… being able and willing to give up something we urgently desire here and now because we see the bigger picture). The failure, in my view, is when cut off the eternities from our vision and invent all kinds of measures of success that are just distractions from our eternal destiny.

  16. But Chris, what will you do in the eternities? The mind-blowing message of the restored gospel (for me, at least) is that heaven looks a lot like earth, God looks a lot like us, and the things we do here today are not so different from the things we will be doing after we die. If we want to have joy there, then I believe we must learn to have joy here. That’s what this post is about — discovering within ourselves how we can win from day to day. For me, the answer to that question is one of the greatest gifts the gospel offers. “The religion that does nothing for a man in this life isn’t likely to do much for him in the next.”

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