Getting All Meta

by Luke

Wherein I do my usual thing and go ape over the rather lean lice of a perfectly good article so as to advance a tangential idea, and take it too far. Viz: Paul Dean’s compact review of the compact Civilization Revolution 2 and my mashup of Crawford and Derrida.

The Civilization series has always been about conquest and expansion and imperialism. This is where it tells you that success is to be found; this is the secret to a strong civilization, a glorious nation, and it’s certainly the way that many of the real world’s most influential powers have profited. Still, I’m not comfortable when, as my explorers push back the frontiers of the unknown, I’m confronted with the leader of an unaffiliated wilderness settlement who’s presented as a melodramatic black man covered in body paint, bleating and chirruping and shrieking as he tells me he has no interest in “culture”. Suddenly, I feel like I’m watching one of those old Tom and Jerry cartoons from the 1940s, one where the black maid is a caricature, not a character. It looks archaic. I don’t like it.

The mandatory quibble: the Civ games have always been a little bit bigoted. In fact, I seem to recall something very similar from the first Civ. Rev. More interestingly: Paul’s first sentence is perhaps alluding to the procedural rhetoric of the Civ games, and this is the axe whose fettle I find lacking. Let me explain the connection.

Procedural rhetoric is a term defined by Ian Bogost as follows:

The art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures. This type of persuasion is tied to the core affordances of the computer: computers run processes, they execute calculations and rule-based symbolic manipulations.

Which I take to be a fancy way of saying: the way the game plays, rather than what it says with the conventional rhetoric of text and images. Or even: the ideology hidden in the rules.

The rules of Civ are quite straightforward: accumulate and pacify. Armies, technology, wealth, cities and population are accumulated by the disembodied, despotic consciousness that is the player; sufficient accumulation of one of these leads to victory. Barbarians, other civilisations, the masses and the land are pacified in order to achieve this. By ‘pacified’, I mean ‘overcome’, with or without violence. The Civ games usually offer military force, diplomacy and bribery as methods to overcome obstacles like invaders, barbarians  and competitors, but the emphasis is always on overcoming. Barbarians spawn in the unsettled wilderness and mindlessly attack; they are a sign that the wilderness has not been sufficiently pacified by being accumulated into civilisation. Their camps and warbands must be exterminated, and their land settled in order to prevent further uprisings (note the way that colonisation prevents rather than incites native uprisings).

Likewise, other civilisations can be allied with, subjugated or exterminated, as necessary. Since every civilisation has the same goal of global supremacy, peace is always a means to an end in the same manner as war — coexistence is meaningless in its own terms, but might be useful for economic reasons, for alliances of convenience, or merely for buying time. Meanwhile, rebellion-inducing ‘unhappiness’ exerts an inexplicable gravitational pull on your populace, who must be periodically pacified with carrot and/or stick. The barbarians and the unhappy have no particular demands (outside of the laughable staple mechanic whereby democracies are reluctant to fight foreign wars) — they simply tend towards plunder and riot and must be kept in check.

The point I am getting at is not that the series models history as violent and competitive — which it very often has been — but that it paints a picture of history in which (1) all civilisations (literally defined, by the way — only those who live in cities are considered civilised) are and have always been locked in a struggle for supremacy with goals that are mutually exclusive, but are also the fonts of all knowledge, peace and prosperity, and (2) anyone outside of or opposed to ‘civilisation’ thus defined is an uncivilised nuisance to be pacified. Civilisation recreates the civilisation/frontier distinction that seems to recur so frequently in games, about which I have written before, and includes an element of class — the rulers of civilisations are competitors but also, in a sense, equals, while the poor and savages are all beyond the pale and exist only to be pacified.

Pacification, then, is the only ‘verb’ (as Chris Crawford would call it) of the game. It is also, if you like, the name of a binary pair: ‘war’ and ‘peace’ are ultimately the same thing so long as they are instruments of domination, and I call this thing — this ‘meta-verb’, as it were, pacification.

Seen in this light, the two-dimensional warmongering of the ‘Civ Lite’ Civ Rev 2 is just what it says on the tin — a return to basics. The relationship between war and peace is complex, though. If Imperialism, whose mustachioed charms I have praised previously, is the Affront, Civilisation is a high-functioning sociopath. If the game’s attitude to human life is basically instrumental, that doesn’t mean that it can’t at least pretend to have a conscience.  Thus far, I have treated the different forms of accumulation in the series — the different victory conditions and problem-solving techniques — as basically the same in that they are equally instrumental. This is true in a procedural sense, in that the game rewards all effective strategies equally, but of course this isn’t the whole story. In the real world, peaceful means of problem solving are clearly more desirable than military force, and Civ has made the distinction from the very first game, with the choice between global conquest and winning the space race.

This is where Jacques Derrida comes in (I did warn you). Without going to far down the linguistic rabbit hole, Derrida’s notion that, as I understand it, linguistic binary pairs are hierarchical might be useful here. In the case at hand: if war and peace are a pair, peace is clearly the more desirable of two. Consider the term pacification. Literally: the business of attaining peace, but a term with violent undertones.

In game terms: while the various disembodied civilisational consciousness in Civ all paint with the same palette, they have very different styles. These differences are innate: each civilisation has its own personality from the very beginning of the game. Initially these were mostly cosmetic (that is, not procedural); in later games, civilisations actually have formal attributes that grant bonuses in certain areas. The Mongols are always better at war, while the Americans are usually some variant of ‘industrious’, and so on. There is a value judgement going on here: an American empire is relatively virtuous and productive, while Certain Other Civilisations are destructive and parasitic.

Thus, while civilisations in Civilization are all equally interested in pacification, there is a moral hierarchy between them. It is also, since difference in the game is innate, implicitly racialised. Civilisations are homogenous blocks, and their attributes do not arise out of historical circumstances; they are simply given. The Mongols will always be dangerous warmongers, and there is nothing you can do about it but pacify them. They’re out to get a conquest victory, and will need to be put down so America can get its scientific one.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. Civilisation, like just about every strategy game ever, is a game about ruthless competition between leaders, and you could argue that its procedural rhetoric is more generic conceit than ideological assumption (to the extent that these are divisible). Consider the way some other strategy games approach these issues, though. Imperialism depicts a world in which commerce and war are interconnected; so far from being given a choice between different modes of victory, it follows the logic of pacification to its logical extreme, forcing you to wage war in order to make money and make money in order to wage war, until the two become inseparable. The Europa Universalis series gives historically specific national objectives, and models conflicts between classes and religions, making governance a matter of choosing between incompatible demands as you attempt to steer your constantly mutating leviathan away from disaster and toward a set of limited goals. Sword of the Stars, and the whole genre of old-fashioned ‘4X’ games from which it descends, is straightforwardly genocidal: war is the entire purpose of the game, and usually results in entire planets being gleefully reduced to ashes. All of these games are about pacification, but none of them gloss it in the same way: Europa Universalis is not always a zero-sum game, and its conflicts are historically specific; traditional 4X games are too hyperviolent to be taken seriously; and Imperialism deconstructs to whole notion.

Compared to EU‘s historicism, SotS‘s tongue-in-cheek (?) fascism and Imperialism‘s Marxist (?) cynicism, Civ and its derivatives (Galactic Civilisations and Endless Space come to mind) represent something distinct: they manage to have their cake and eat it. Civ is about the ruthless pacification of all opposition, but it simultaneously asserts a moral order; both between the civilised elite and the mindless horde, and the virtuous productive civilisations and the warlike unproductive ones. Where other games describe, Civ tries to justify war, giving it the name ‘peace’.

I could expand on the notion of pacification; it might be interesting to read RPGs this way. The procedural rhetorical of economics in these strategy games is also something I wanted to expand on, but this will have to do for now.