Please Don’t Go. The Drones Need You. They Look up to You.

Reading this nuanced and thoughtful piece over at the wonderfully named Nuclear Unicorn was something of a jolt for me. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, made by Firaxis when the cosmos was still a seething mass of primal forces, is a game that always seems to elicit fond memories from those who have played it, and I am no exception. The (relatively) good writing and voice acting; thoughtful and detailed world building; MIND WORMS; gorgeous concept art for the cities of each of the factions, from the Gaians’ wood fungoid hippie berths to the Hive’s abyssal mounds; and proper old-fashioned Microprose-style tome of a manual, whose strange inky smell has suddenly returned to me, are all fresh in my mind, though I haven’t played the game for many years.

Looking at the screenshots, though, I am struck by things that I was faintly aware of but would have had great difficulty expressing at the time. When I read this:

But, freed as it was from the constraints of a game with actual historical figures, Alpha Centauri’s speculative sensibility allowed for “faction leaders” for each nation you could play that had their own fully developed philosophies, ideas, personalities, and histories. What resulted was a diverse pantheon of leaders who taught me more than a little about the political tapestry of our world. […]

The genius lay in their seduction—every philosophy, be it radical environmentalism, uncompromising scientism, religious fundamentalism, or collectivist authoritarianism, was given a worthy exponent who argued for her or his cause with unparalleled skill. They were credible as world leaders and philosopher monarchs ruling kingdoms that orbited distant suns. They made you believe in their causes—or seriously consider it.

I am brought up short. Quinnae’s piece is thoughtful and worth reading, but there is something missing here. SMAC‘s factions have always filled me with disquiet; they just felt wrong. As much as I loved SMAC, I think it is worth pursuing these doubts. Indeed, the things we like are the most deserving of critique.

I’ll dispose of the stereotypes first, since these are low-hanging fruit. We have a Latin American paramilitary leader/dictator, a wan, wistful hippie woman with a ‘Celtic’ (and therefore a kind of white noble savage) first name, a greedy, unscrupulous and myopic African nouveau riche, a plain-looking Christian fundamentalist fanatic, a Chinese ‘collectivist’ totalitarian dictator, a detached academic technocrat, and an ineffectual, ‘ethnic’ humanitarian peacemonger. None of these characters is reducible to a stereotype, but the character design clearly invokes stereotypes associated with their respective factions.

More significant is the way in which these ideologies are ‘framed’. By which I mean: a crucial thing, when reading depictions of politics, is not just the ideologies depicted but the ideology doing the depicting. By defining the terms in a certain way, even an apparently thoughtful and evenhanded approach (and SMAC is both, as Quinnae shows) is necessarily biased. Or, in the French Philosophese of Louis Althusser:

As is well known, the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself (unless one is really a Spinozist or a Marxist, which, in this matter, is to be exactly the same thing). Which amounts to saying that ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality).

The Mass Effect games are a good contemporary example of this sort of disingenuous neutrality, something I’ve touched upon previously. By comparison with Mass Effect‘s racist neoliberal warmongering, SMAC is a miracle of scrupulous self-consciousness, but there are some threads I can’t help but pull. Let’s start with the word ‘collectivist’. Astute readers will already have noticed my use of scare quotes around that word. The reason is this: ‘collectivism’ is a term popularised by the neoliberal Ur-intellectual Friedrich Hayek. It’s putative antonym is ‘individualist’. Hayek insists that the only political/economic choice is between unfettered capitalism and ‘socialist’ or ‘collectivist’ unfreedom, meaning anything else.

Quinnae is absolutely right to use the term ‘collectivist authoritarianism’ in this context: Chairman Yang’s Hive is right out of some lurid Hayekian cautionary tale, planned economy, thought control, underground bunker/cities, Yellow Peril (well, ok, this is not Hayek per se, but there are strong racial undertones to a lot of fulminating against ‘collectivism’, readily apparent in someone like Ayn Rand — but this is a topic for another time) and all. To Faraxis’ credit, the Hive is also about as sympathetic and nuanced as a totalitarian dictatorship can be; but nuance only goes so far. As an aside, I should also note that, in SMAC, a planned economy is great for early development but accumulates various problems as you progress in the game, which may be the most nuanced and accurate depiction of Soviet-style central planning in any medium of popular fiction, ever. Firaxis gets a gold star along with the red pencil.

That said, the Hive is still egalitarianism as imagined by its most hostile opponents on the political right. There is little room in SMAC for a democratic society without economic hierarchy; or, indeed, for egalitarianism in general. The other choices on offer are academic technocracy, bureaucratic technocracy, hypercapitalist exploitation, theocracy, military dictatorship, and the Gaians. The latter are a pro-democratic environmentalist movement, but while they make a lot of sympathetic noises, it’s never really clear where they stand or how ‘green economics’ relates to issues like class and political power (and in the game).

SMAC‘s aversion to giving ordinary people a role in building the world of the future is emphasised by the category of a faction’s population known in the game as ‘drones’. The drones, a plague that afflicts the Gaians just as much as the hive, are reminiscent of old sociological and eugenicist concepts of the ‘underclass’ or ‘residuum’, or for that matter the urban plebs of Rome, an inevitable sump of malcontents who resist education or improvement, contribute less to a city’s productivity than their social superiors, and cause it to descend into a chaos of violent rioting and unproductive anarchy if they become too numerous. Mechanically, the drones are just like the ‘unhappy’ people in Civilization. In Civ, the solution to this ‘problem population’ has always been luxury imports, bread and circuses, and military garrisons (the former is very odd, given that most imports have historically been for the consumption of the elite, but I digress, again). In SMAC, solutions to the drone problem range from an array of holographic circuses to mind control, ‘punishment spheres’ and ‘nerve stapling’. In other words: carrot and stick. The drones are always an ‘other’ to be pacified, not included. The corollary to the game’s depiction of egalitarian philosophies as a single form of dystopian authoritarianism is a social Darwinist or Spencerian depiction of social class as an inevitable seperating of the wheat from the chaff, with the chaff forming a social problem that afflicts all societies equally.

The expansion to SMAC, Alien Crossfire, did broaden the available ideologies, introducing a host of rebellions against Planet’s powers-that-be: two technophile factions, one a sort of hive mind and one composed of quasi-anarchists, and the Free Drones, a sort of unified labour union movement in the style of a declawed IWW or anarcho-syndicalist group. The latter, strangely enough for a faction composed entirely of engineers, suffered an innate and enormous faction penalty to technological research, again redolent of Hayek, who insisted on the importance of a superannuated elite in driving invention and social change through heroic acts of personal brilliance. How will they build the amazing world of the future if the masses won’t shut up and do what they’re told?