Wednesday 17 December 2008

Playing God

When I'm not doing university work or party stuff my relaxation time is divided up between blogging, flapjacks, reading, oatmeal and raisin cookies and (occasionally) the classic seven-year old computer game, Civilisation III. For readers unfamiliar with the game, the player begins at the dawn of human history with a single settler. You found a city, build military units, erect an infrastructure, build more settlers, found more cities, and so on. For you to succeed in winning the game the player needs to successfully combine the roles of chancellor, scientist, diplomat, cultural patron, and general to ensure you retain that competitive edge over your rivals.

Assuming almost God-like powers over your civilisation, building an empire over 6,000 years of human history can be completely absorbing. Each victory condition requires different strategies to win, and all the opponents are pursuing their particular take on world domination. You might want to build cultural artefacts and great wonders in peace, but you'd better be prepared for enemy armies snaking over your borders ...

What is interesting about Civilisation III are the things it says about the nature of the nation, its gendered division of labour, the character of history and bourgeois consciousness. Who knew computer games could brim over with all manner of not-so-obvious ideological goodies?

Beginning first with gender, the first point of interest is the graphic representation of population in the game. These come under two broad types: the units and the citizenry. The former are characterised by their mobility and manipulability. There are dozens of different units capable of particular functions and tied to a certain level of technological development. Workers and settlers respectively build infrastructure and found cities, while military units provide the means to defend the home territory or attack the neighbours on land, and later sea and air. The second kind of representation is more or less passive. These are the population of the cities themselves. Here the player directs the citizenry to produce whatever is required, be it units or infrastructure that increases the city’s performance. The population is graphically rendered by a row of faces along the bottom of the city screen indicating whether they’re happy, content, or sad. The player has to ensure that the latter do not outnumber the enthusiastic citizens or the city will fall into civil disorder, ceasing production and tax contributions until the balance has been restored. Finally, the player is provided with five advisers whose responsibility is to oversee the domestic, military, trade, diplomatic, cultural, and scientific aspects of the civilisation. Their function is to provide advice.

What is significant to note is that all units are either male or gender-neutral. The settlers are men with backpacks and the workers go from bare chested loin-clothed slaves to men in dungarees. Up until the discovery of motorised transport all land military units are discernibly male, from Conan the Barbarian look-alikes to extras from Saving Private Ryan. Then they come to be replaced by tanks, mechanised infantry, and modern armour. On the sea and in the air boats and planes represent the military. The only female unit to have appeared in the
Civ franchise – the spy – did not survive the cross over from the second to the third game. Women however do have equal graphical representation on the domestic front. The gender split in the cities and on the advisors panel is 50/50. Yet it is the positions occupied by women and men on the latter that is most telling. The domestic advisor, alongside the trade and culture representatives are women. The men on the other hand are responsible for the military, science, and foreign affairs. In terms of the game mechanics, the ‘female aspects’ are concerned with the internal operation of a civilisation whereas the aspects that explicitly attempts to provide a competitive edge over rival nations is the preserve of men. Therefore Civ III sets up a privileged binary in which men perform the active and visible role of exploiting the land, conquering new territories whereas women are effectively privatised and invisible, relegated to the boring tasks of advising the player on the budget or recommending the building of more temples. Yet despite this graphical privileging of men over women, the game engine does not deny the importance of the domestic space. A civilisation with a well-run economy, high cultural rating, and happy populace in all likelihood implies a powerful and technically advanced military. The male/female binary operates at the surface of the game, at the level of graphical representation whereas the actual mechanics itself recognises their dialectical interdependence.

There is a more fundamental ‘forgetting’ that is located in the way the game plays: a repression of conflict. At first glance this appears an absurd claim to make. One of the chief pleasures of
Civ III is amassing an army and sending it over the border to annex a juicy city or territory, repulsing the counter-attacks as you go. The game encourages this style of play; three out of the victory conditions depend on military action. But what the game does is perform a ruse similar to that found in bourgeois philosophies of history: conflict is externalised. Using my most recent game as the English as an example, it began at 4000 BC with a settler, a worker, and a scout. The first act was to establish London, then found more cities and eventually colonising/conquering a good proportion of the world’s surface. In that time the English went from spear-chucking cavemen ruled over by a despot to a vast metropolitan democracy with a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Despite these dramatic changes, the civilisation was as English in 2000 BC as it was in 2000 AD; it remained orange on the territorial map, and the rule of Elizabeth I was uninterrupted. In other words, the game evokes a discourse of the nation and constructs it as an essential continuity. This is reinforced by the way the player has to relate to their chosen civilisation. Civ 3 positions the player as a god-like manager who has to guide their nation through 6000 years of history, therefore the essential continuity is also established at this level, through the act of playing the game.

What does this continuity have to do with conflict? Earlier it was noted how the player must manage the happiness of their city dwellers otherwise the city would fall into disorder, temporarily suspending the contribution it makes to the civilisation. From the standpoint of game management, when it does occur it is usually a small inconvenience. However, when the player wishes to progress to a more efficient kind of government the whole civilisation tends to fall into anarchy. This is the most threatening moment in the game. Being unable to adequately feed the population, raise money, or build anything; it is a potentially life-threatening situation that other civilisations could take advantage of. Though order is eventually restored and the game continues, the moment of anarchy is where
Civ III’s discourse starts to unravel. Despite trying to repress internal conflict by programming it as a transient phenomena and not allowing it to alter the distinct identity of the civilisation, it nevertheless erupts out of this moment and begins to destabilise the discourse of national continuity that the Civ III game engine evokes. It suggests that not all interests are identical with that of the nation and that there are always struggles that cannot be assimilated by a frame that reads history through nationalist spectacles. Therefore from this ‘inconvenient’ moment in play, the beginnings of a repressed history of patternless conflict between classes and groups begins to infect the national-continuity metaphysic, threatening the discursive foundations on which Civ III is based.

Then there is the standpoint of management itself, which is the distillation of the individual bourgeois point of view. As we have seen time and again in the various posts to this blog on Lukacs'
History and Class Consciousness, reality confronts the bourgeois individual as an unalterable and alien set of laws that can nevertheless be plotted and responded to to satisfy one's egoistic needs and accumulate capital. All the elements - levels of resources, luxuries, entertainers and specialist citizens, production - are so much objects to be managed. There appears to be no qualitative differences between them. The game engine of Civ III confronts the casual gamer in much the same way as any other computer game - one acquires a feel of the game, an understanding of its mechanics and develops strategies that can makes the best of the situation. But control is illusive (unless you dig into the game code) and there is always a possibility your opponents could turn against your carefully-crafted position, you suffer several nuclear meltdowns, or the world slides into runaway global warming.

All that said, it does not mean one cannot enjoy games like
Civ - it just means keeping your wits about you and realising the habits of mind so-called God-games engender ...


Jim Jepps said...

The thing that gets me is how is easy it is to transform society - basically at will.

Now I'm all for instaneous and pain free revolution, natch, but I think it's more difficult than that. Partly this is because the society you control is not one of differing interests (which brings about social change) but your tactical will to become, say, feudal because it suits your needs.

It would be better if there was a game where your population was part of the problem and persuading them to throw off backward religious ideas, or simply switch from feudal serf to mobilised industrial labour was as difficult a problem as invading foreign nations...

Anonymous said...

Great post Phil.
I've been a Civ addict since 1996.

The gendered division is spot but to be honest I think a game engine that can play out internal and external rivalry is a pretty tall order.
I think with those limitations in mind Civ III does a pretty good job. Don't forget about that bete noir for a warmongerer, war weariness that can bugger up a perfectly planned invasion operation of your hated enemy 'cos the home front gets cold feet.
Stabbed in the back by the civilians I say! :)

Anonymous said...

As a post script to the most un Marxist thing I've ever written on a blog:
The Celts, best civilization EVER, they just can't stop breeding.

Paul said...

I'll like to give this a bash, is it as much fun as 'virtual sex' with Jenna Jameson? The gender divisions in that one are notable too for their complete absence!

Anonymous said...

Great stuff Phil. I really like Civ and got IV for the Mac recently but haven't had a moment to play it. To be honest I preferred I and II to III. I'm not sure how one could get over the conceptual hurdle of a discreet narrative centred on you or me the player, but I think you're dead right about the artificial seamlessness of that narrative and how it's rooted in a faux nationalism - however unrefined.

Let us not talk about Call of Duty IV.

Highlander said...

Played Civ II like an obsessive but the time spent blogging has prevented the same level of commitment to III.

Hadn't given a great deal of thought to the political content before now, preferring to keep it as mind-free enjoyment.

Now I can't help but pick holes in the national continuity you refer to. Damn you Phil and your quality postings!

Anonymous said...

I used to have Hidden Agenda, a game that put you in command of a post-revolutionary state in Latin America. It was Nicaragua in all but name.

The problem is, every time I accepted Soviet aid and Cuban advisers and attempted to export the revolution, I would be overthrown by a US-backed rightist coup.

Can't some of you games-savvy young Trots come up with a world revolution game? That'd keep lots of us busy.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, Phil. I haven't played Civs 1-3, but I am now playing Civ 4 (and all the expansion packs) and are thoroughly enjoying it. The way it uses Religion is particularly good fun - and is, or so I've read, is an improvement on the previous games in the series. I've also played the Age of Empire games, the Total War games, and loads of others.

Indeed, I am quite a computer game addict in general - currently playing Fallout 3 (fantastic!), Dead Space (a sort of Resident Evil-cum-Bioshock-cum-Alien-Event Horizon type thingy) and Far Cry 2 (OK).

For anyone tempted to dip their toe in the world of computer gaming I recommended - apart from the above games - the following: Half-Life 1+2, Far Cry, Doom 3, Prey, Thief 1-3, System Shock 2, Morrowind+Oblivion (ie, The Elder Scrolls 3 & 4), Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Call of Duty, Medal of Honour, Deux Ex (near genius), Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, Max Payne, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. SHadow of Chernobyl, Fear, Castle Wolfenstein, etc etc.

As for games with a 'revolutionary theme', there is the great-but-flawed Republic: The Revolution - where the aim of the game is to organise a revolution in Novistrana against a grim, Stalinist-type regime. Check it out:

Next year I hope to write a half-decent article about this general topic - computer gaming, Virtual Reality, and so on. Any constructive suggestions or ideas appreciated.

Edward Ford

Anonymous said...

I was mightily interested in Republic, but I can't recall was it ported to the Mac...

Leftwing Criminologist said...

Computer games can be weird - like i remember seeing a game (can't remember its name) but it had Che Guevara like/revolutionary imagery on the box yet it was about overthrowing the government of Venezuela.

I like playing stategy games too (although I'm well out of date technology wise), but the points Phil makes about them are onyl too true. There was also an article in the Socialist reviewing a strategy game set around the carribean a while back too that made some good points.

The Sentinel said...

Yip - CIV3 is a great game, in small dose's I find though as its pretty damn addictive. This place here has some custom built scenarios that can be quite fun. Who knows, you might even find one where you control the Soviet Union?

I've had a look at CIV4 too and although it is graphically much better I am not sure if I am as enamored with 4 as I am with 3, but it does introduce some interesting new concepts into the mix, such as religion and corporations.

Phil said...

Hmmm, a strategy game with an engine derived from the insights of historical materialism. Sounds like a good idea, but I can't imagine leading leftist cadres warming to the idea. Still, if you want to 'play' revolution you could always have a go at constructing a revolutionary cell in Second Life or something.

Neil, don't worry, your comments were only seen by the couple of hundred people who visit this blog daily :P I never seem to have any probs with the Celts - in fact they tend to be one of those civilisations who get stuck on a resource-free island in the back of beyond. Is my computer a Paisleyite?

Sorry to rob you of your pleasure, Highlander. Just ruthlessly criticising all that exists!

Eddie and Sentinel, I do have Civ 4 and it's been sat on my computer for ages. I got it more or less at the same time I started blogging, but I haven't allowed myself to be seduced by its charms. I've scarcely touched it because I know it will take time to learn some of the new game mechanics, AND because I don't want to lose myself in it! That's it with these God games, they're just too absorbing!

Sentinel, I used to regularly read the old Civfanatics boards, though only as a lurker. My biggest wish was for a WWI scenario, which I eventually got :) Admit it - I bet your fave governing type is communism! :P

Anonymous said...

I came here via your smash tv post and I just wanted to recommend you check out Hearts of Iron IV and Victoria II (if you haven’t already)