Frostpunk’s Question: Does Power Corrupt?

frostpunk screenshot 06 1024x576 - Frostpunk's Question: Does Power Corrupt?

There's a conventional wisdom, and it's echoed by Lord Craven in the Refugees scenario, that power corrupts. This is the central theme of Frostpunk. The city must survive. What will you sacrifice to see this through?

The answer is also in Frostpunk. I'm not sure if it was put there intentionally or not. I suspect the developers only intended to explore the question without providing an answer. After all, it can come across as presumptuous when a piece of media answers the question it asks.

To be fair, I had already answered this question for myself before playing Frostpunk. Upon finishing all the scenarios, though, I was amazed at how well Frostpunk supported my view and showed how conventional wisdom is fatally wrong.

Power doesn't corrupt; weakness does.

The idea that power corrupts was popularized by John Dalberg-Acton in a letter he wrote that claimed that, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority." It's of note that this letter was to a Bishop of the Church of England. A man of faith who worshiped a deity whose traits also included absolute power. I wonder how this contradiction was overlooked. I'm sure there's some theological hand waving here.

In Frostpunk, the line "power corrupts" is spoken by Lord Craven. It's of note that Craven is a character who lives up to his namesake. It's out of fear that he commits atrocities before the scenario starts, and even if you protect him, it's out of fear of your power that he flees into the frozen wastes. His poor judgment doesn't come from his strengths, but from his weakness; he's a coward.

Yet it's in the game's mechanics that the idea that weakness, and not power, is the corrupting force reveals itself. Frostpunk is about moral sacrifice in the face of survival and it needs a disaster to push you to become desperate enough to sacrifice your values. It needs to disempower you. That's why the game starts at -20 C and only gets colder from there. There would be no need for child labor, public executions, or house raids if you played Frostpunk and the temperature stayed at a constant 20 C.

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Now imagine a scenario where your power is robbed from you almost entirely and you "play" as one of the citizens in Frostpunk. The developers' previous game, This War of Mine, essentially explores that scenario. The result is the same. Survival demands difficult, if not impossible, ethical choices. Just like in Frostpunk, the degree to which you sacrifice your values is proportionate to the degree in which you are disempowered. Set Frostpunk to its highest difficulty and holding on to your ideals demands more mastery of the game; more power over it. Power is what enables you to hold on to your ethics.

So why did Lord Acton, a critic of Napoleon and supporter of the Confederacy during the US Civil War, claim that power corrupts? Because he was, like Lord Craven, afraid. Afraid of government. When the South lost the Civil War, Lord Action wrote General Lee and said, "I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo." Lord Action represents a trend we see to this day. Just look at the leadership in the United States now.

Why Lord Acton was afraid of government immediately follows his claim that power corrupts. He states, "You would hang a man of no position, . . . but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason." His complaint is one of accountability, not power. He wants those in power to be held accountable for their actions. His fear of centralized government comes from a fear of those who don't have to answer for what they do. Yet isn't being able to face the consequences of your actions in itself a display of power? Isn't hiding behind your police or your military a kind of cowardice?

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That's what Lord Craven is talking about when he tells you that you'll end up like him. He's assuming that you're going to go down that purpose tree all the way to the final law that makes you immune from criticism. That you're going to hide, like he did, behind your weapons. Yet you can prove him wrong. You can beat the scenario without sacrificing your values. You can stay accountable for your actions all the way to the end. But it's hard. You have to be powerful to do it. You can't depend on your military or your clergy. You have to be powerful all on your own.

Power doesn't corrupt. Weakness does.

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