Through my teen years, which coincided with that liminal period between the heyday of text-adventures and the rise of MMOs, a period I am convinced history will remember as the golden era of videogames, I did my share of gamewhoring. For a long time afterward I regretted the hours, days, weeks spent in blistery-eyed self-obsessed wanton youth. More recently though, I have made peace with the past and now I view it with something like nostalgia.

One of my all-time favorite games was Sid Meier’s Civilization. The name sums it up: you pick your identity–Alexander, Caesar, Montezuma, Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu, Elizabeth, Charlemagne, Catherine the Great, Washington–each with civilization-specific strengths. You are thrown into a vast, computer-generated terra with a single settler to your credit. The year: 4000 B.C.

You found a capital, build workers, warriors, settlers, you colonize the map, make contact with other civs, establish trade routes, extend cultural influence, spread religion, research new techs, do espionage, plant propaganda, watch your GNP and Mfg. and Sq. Mi demographics rise, your mortality and poverty rates fall, you cripple weaker civs with trade deficits, you wage wars, betraying allies whenever a chink of vulnerability shines through–in short, you do your relentless best to “build a Civilization to stand the test of time.”

April 27, 1521. Midnight. Ferdinand Magellan is leading sixty men armed with corselets and helmets for Mactan, an island at the center of an archipelago he “discovered” a month before. His men had been sick with scurvy but the local people fed them–the island is plentiful with fruit and vegetable–and the men have recovered their strength. Magellan has thus named the islands Lazarus, after the Bible story. Later they will be renamed after King Philip of Spain.

The Spanish have three objectives for the area: to expand their share of the lucrative spice trade, to locate a midway base for the galleon route between China and Mexico, and to spread Christianity. Eventually, through the subsequent 300 years of Spanish rule, all three will be achieved, but there is resistance from the beginning.

King Hemabon of Cebu Island has requested a tribute, to which Magellan has said “the Armada de Molluca will never pay tribute to a lesser ruler.” King Lapu Lapu of Mactan Island has refused to be baptized and is ready to fight. And so Magellan, on the night of April 27, confidently ready to show “how the Spanish lions fight,” is met by 1,500 Mactan warriors, and that is that for Ferdinand Magellan (Nadeau 33; Zafra 21; Bergreen 276).

Late September 2009. A cool and cloudy Southern California morning. I have driven to the Los Angeles Peace Corps regional office for my official interview. I am wearing black slacks, a button-down shirt, a skinny tie. My interviewer, Lindsay, served from 2004-6, teaching English in the Ukraine. Lindsay is pleasant and welcoming and at the end of the interview we will chat informally about her experience. But first, the questions.

Why did I want to serve? What did I expect service to be like? How might I handle life in a culture with different ideas about religion? About gender? About alcohol? How might I handle boredom? Handle living away from family, from friends, away from anyone with a similar cultural background?

Lindsay’s fingers fly across the keyboard, recording my responses.

At the end of the interview, Lindsay asks me to jot down three assignment preferences: what I want to do, where I want to do it, when I want to go, and in what order they matter. I rank serving in China first on my list, working in education second, and finally, departure date: as soon as possible.

October 9, 7:13 a.m. I am reading my morning email. Wedged between spam and work correspondence, there is an email with a @peacecorps.gov address. I open it. Congratulations. I have been officially nominated to serve in the Peace Corps. I am slated to do Secondary Education in Asia. My tentative departure date is June.

Early October 1901. American General “Howling Jake” Smith approaches the town of Balangigi on the Island of Samar. He gives his troops this order: “Kill and burn, kill and burn, the more you kill and the more you burn the more you please me.” When questioned as to the age limit for killing, Smith replies “Everything over ten.”

It is three years since Filipino nationalists almost singlehandedly drove the Spanish out, during which time the US, mired in the Spanish-American War, capitalized on the moment and played the part of allies. When Spain surrendered Manila, America claimed the country as a spoil of war. The Philippines has, for a second time, been colonized against its will. General Arthur MacArthur has nominally ceded governmental control to Filipinos, but President McKinley’s policy of “benevolent assimilation” is, in practice, anything but. One of the few reporters of Howling Jake’s campaign against the resistance wrote, “The truth is, the struggle in Samar is one of extermination.” Historian Thomas Schoonover estimates the U.S. military killed more Filipinos in 3 years than the Spanish killed in 300 (95-6).

Here’s the thing about Sid Meier’s Civilization (which didn’t occur to me till recently, while drafting my first novel, which is about the great American subculture of videogaming): in Civilization there is really only one strategy to win. There are different tactics–land domination, cultural superiority, technological superiority, diplomatic acclamation, and of course, military conquest–but in the end each boils down to one thing: conquer, conquer, conquer. Even if you don’t want to do the warmongering thing, you must outpace other civs in the space race or out-culture them or out-develop them. Even the diplomatic route requires that you manipulate resources to curry favor with other civs to be elected UN Secretary-General. There is no way to win the game simply by coexisting, by maintaining civilization homeostasis.

My first thought was that this is an inherent part of the nature of videogames: the bigger-better-faster paradigm applies to everything from Pong to Tetris to Final Fantasy to Call of Duty.

My second thought was this: is compete-and-control an inherent part of human nature?

July 4, 1946. General Douglas MacArthur has fulfilled his vow to return to the Philippines after retreating from Japanese forces in December 1941. He has retaken Manila, has transferred powers of government to President Osmena, and the United States has officially granted independence to the Philippines, but World War II has left the country broken: 80 percent of Manila has been destroyed, making it the second-worst devastated city of the war, behind Warsaw. Inflation has soared 800 percent. The US promises to return $71 million in coconut oil excise taxes and loan $75 million more, but at a price: “the exploitation and development of natural resources and lands in the public domain and the operations of public utilities shall if open to any person, be open to citizens of the United States.” (Nadeau 62, 67-9).

A short fifteen years later, in 1961, the first Peace Corps volunteers would arrive in Manila, tasked with teaching English, math, and science. The Peace Corps Act of 1961 included 3 main goals: “to provide developing countries with trained manpower, to help promote a better understanding of Americans by the peoples served, and to increase American knowledge of other peoples and cultures.” These, clearly, are worlds different from the aims of the Spaniards and stand in explicit contrast to McKinley’s doctrine of benevolent assimilation, and yet I realize that it is the individual burden of each Peace Corps volunteer to correctly implement these goals.

May 7, 2010. A warm Brooklyn night. I am walking from the Morgan stop in Bushwick to view a loft I’m considering renting for June. My phone rings. It’s my mom, in California. Something has arrived in the mail. A package. A rather thick package.

My official invitation to serve in the Peace Corps consisted of 60 pages of background information on my assignment along with a battery of forms, forms, forms. The country I’d been invited to serve in had the longest history of any Peace Corps program. 7,000 volunteers had logged their 2 years on its soil. Operations had temporarily been suspended in 1990 due to security concerns but recommenced two years later. In 2006 President Gloria Arroyo Macapagal requested assistance in increasing English language skills, and accordingly, I was being assigned to be a teacher of English language fluency. My departure date: August 19. My country of service: the Philippines.

I have ten days to accept.

I send my confirmation the following morning.


Schoonover, Thomas. Uncle Sam’s War of 1898 and the Origins of Globalization.
Zafra, Nicolas.

The Colonization of the Philippines and the Beginnings of the Spanish in Manila.

Bergreen, Lawrence. Over the Edge of the World.

Nadeau, Kathleen. The History of the Philippines.