Getting All Meta

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.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Getting All Meta”

  1. “Or even: the ideology hidden in the rules.”
    You’re doing a poor rendition of Galloway’s “Allegories of Control” and (in extension) Friedman’s “Semiotics of Sim City”. You’re handling the same understanding developed there of gamic narrative (dubbed here as procedural rhetoric) but using it in an extremely limited scope. Yes, ideology is present in the algorithm but Civilization as game doesn’t begin and end with the distinction between civilized and uncivilized.

    “(note the way that colonisation prevents rather than incites native uprisings).”
    Barbarians represent unincorporated tribes. It might be misguided to portray them as perennially hostile (or even label them “barbaric”), but they’re not the same thing as a “native” rebellion. There is nothing for them to rebel against, they are independent factions. Colonization does in fact incite uprisings in the game; rebellion only exists in owned and unhappy territory.

    And I would argue that despite the terminology used, the distinction is less between civilization and barbarians than states and non-states.

    “Since every civilisation has the same goal of global supremacy,”
    Untrue. Diplomatic, Cultural, Military and Scientific victories each represent entirely different modes of “global” supremacy. One civilization can lead in the race for military victory while still ultimately lose to another Civilization’s diplomatic victory. In other words, the goals are not mutually exclusive. It’s true that when the game ends, there will only be one winner but the relationships you actually have with other Civilizations during normal gameplay (ie not at ‘endgame’) do not always ultimately come down to a single winner of the race. Or to pacification, America can let Germany dominate Europe unchecked because they’re about to finish the space program anyway, because they’re both racing towards different goals.

    And I think the moral hierarchy you describe is exactly as procedural as the Civilization-bound traits. Mongols are only a warmongering threat, as opposed to the appeal of Britain and Morroco’s emphasis on trading, when you’re playing America. When you are the Mongols, the relationship of all the other Civilizations revolves so that China becomes a familiar (though not necessarily an ally) and America the scientific threat. America becomes the parasite and China the virtuous. The player makes a decision on which moralistic lens every factions is viewed through each time he begins a game, it would only be an implicit hierarchy if you could only play from an American point of view, or if America was programmatically biased.

    To return the designation of State and Not State, I don’t believe Civilization glosses over the nature of war-economy seen in Imperialism less than it embodies an abstraction of the Western state machine which, drawing from Pierre Clastres’ “Of Ethnocide,” would be defined as the elimination of sociocultural differences (the State) and the endless accumulation of workable resources (the Western State).

    From this definition, Civilization’s problematic historicism is not so much in drawing a global Mongolia personality from a local period in history than the implicit projection of the western capitalist mode of State onto a non-capitalist Mongolian State, as well as the rest of world history and civilization.
    It suggests that all the State factions in the game are essentially the same (only differentiated by minor historically inspired traits), when an ultimate impulse towards accumulation of productivity (which I believe is a more accurate description of what the game’s “procedural rhetoric” boils down to than pacification) is a specifically modern mutation of the State developed in the West. Civilization prescribes the modern Western State horizontally and vertically, across the globe and through history.

    This is of course most evident in the very problematic technological timeline of Civilization, directing a very clear line of progress towards the end-goal of contemporary network technology, at least I believe that’s the last stage for Civ V.

    While I don’t believe that the game is at all at fault for making narrative decisions, it’s easy to read Alpha Centauri’s post-history setting, ideologically satirical factions and less linear (and multiple) tech trees as an attempt to address Civilization’s mode of prescriptive history.

    1. “Yes, ideology is present in the algorithm but Civilization as game doesn’t begin and end with the distinction between civilized and uncivilized.”

      I’m not arguing that the game is reducible to this distinction; only that it is important.

      “Barbarians represent unincorporated tribes. It might be misguided to portray them as perennially hostile (or even label them “barbaric”), but they’re not the same thing as a “native” rebellion. There is nothing for them to rebel against, they are independent factions. Colonization does in fact incite uprisings in the game; rebellion only exists in owned and unhappy territory.

      And I would argue that despite the terminology used, the distinction is less between civilization and barbarians than states and non-states.”

      Yes, I should have said ‘colonisation civilises the natives by suppressing their warlike barbarism’, but I though the meaning was clear enough. I imply the distinction later when I note that the game defines civilisation literally.

      ” “Since every civilisation has the same goal of global supremacy,”
      Untrue. Diplomatic, Cultural, Military and Scientific victories each represent entirely different modes of “global” supremacy.”

      Exactly. Different. Modes. Of. Supremacy. The point was that competition to win is a contest for supremacy, regardless of whether it involves direct violence. The goals are always mutually exclusive, since there can only be one winner.

      “The player makes a decision on which moralistic lens every factions is viewed through each time he begins a game, it would only be an implicit hierarchy if you could only play from an American point of view, or if America was programmatically biased.”

      America is programmatically biased, in that it exhibits traits that are valorised outside of the game. When I play as a rampaging mass-murderer bent on global conquest, I do it for fun, not because I think it is a defensible moral position. Players of America (and the other mercantile or scientific civs) can pursue victory while knowing that their goals are more desirable in Real Life.

      “To return the designation of State and Not State, I don’t believe Civilization glosses over the nature of war-economy seen in Imperialism less than it embodies an abstraction of the Western state machine which, drawing from Pierre Clastres’ “Of Ethnocide,” would be defined as the elimination of sociocultural differences (the State) and the endless accumulation of workable resources (the Western State).”

      Note my definition of the game as ‘accumulation and pacification’. Also, Imperialism isn’t about the war economy, it’s about the peace economy. Or perhaps, the ‘war/peace economy’. Civ shows territorial conquest and economic development as distinct, though interrelated in the sense that one needs territory to develop. Imperialism doesn’t model land grabs so much as represent the global capitalist economy as a land grab. In Civ, you can have your tragic (but necessary) history of exterminating the natives alongside a bright future of peaceful economic or scientific dominance. Imperialism refuses the distinction.

      “From this definition, Civilization’s problematic historicism is not so much in drawing a global Mongolia personality from a local period in history than the implicit projection of the western capitalist mode of State onto a non-capitalist Mongolian State, as well as the rest of world history and civilization.
      It suggests that all the State factions in the game are essentially the same (only differentiated by minor historically inspired traits), when an ultimate impulse towards accumulation of productivity (which I believe is a more accurate description of what the game’s “procedural rhetoric” boils down to than pacification) is a specifically modern mutation of the State developed in the West. Civilization prescribes the modern Western State horizontally and vertically, across the globe and through history.”

      You’re right about the monolithic definition of civilisation, though I think you’re taking it too far if you think that pre-modern or non-western states had no concept of productivity or accumulation. Here’s a thought, though: perhaps Civ’s cultural essentialism and neatly prescribed definition of the state/civilisation are related.

  2. “I’m not arguing that the game is reducible to this distinction; only that it is important.”

    Fair enough

    “The point was that competition to win is a contest for supremacy, regardless of whether it involves direct violence. The goals are always mutually exclusive, since there can only be one winner.”

    Not always. A single game of Civilization will usually consist of a clear beginning, middle and end. Your relationships and goals with other factions are not always going to be defined by the endgoal.
    At the beginning of the game, you’re concerned with whether your neighboring factions are allies or enemies, whether their strategies of play are militaristic or economic focused and what potential threats or opportunities they might pose. You’re not worried about their nearness towards the endgoal, because it is far off for everyone; by the game’s design, where every faction progresses through the technological timeline in loose unison, you can’t really expect anyone to achieve any victory condition until at least the early modern age. Global supremacy is the goal set out from the start but it only factors in to your actual relationships towards the end.

    The barbarians as well only strongly factor in at the beginning. It’s amusing to seem them scale up the technological timeline alongside nation-states:
    “barbarians” operating bombers and tanks. I think this is enough to underscore them as nothing more than a history-inspired mechanic for an early impetus to progress (or read them as luddite terrorism?)

    “America is programmatically biased, in that it exhibits traits that are valorised outside of the game”
    I don’t agree. I look at America in Civ V and see its “manifest destiny” trait and its unique bomber aircraft, and I see a transparently imperialistic nation. Russia’s extra strategic resource and the border expanding “cossack” imply a similar expansionism, but an industrial and possibly (relatively) peaceful one.
    If there is bias, which there very likely is, it’s going to be found in the decisions they’ve made on which singular historical period and figure is used to define the each nation: whether Germany is represented by Bismarck or Hitler, Russia by the Muscovy or the Tsardom. America went through the same reductionism as every other nation. If I had to make a value judgment, I’d place Morocco as the most virtuous: it’s faction trait heavily encourages trade routes which require amiable relationships with all neighbors; their special building is built for defense and industry. If non-hostile, friendly and productive are the most virtuous traits in the Civilization world, Morocco fits the bill a lot more than any first world country you’d assume a creator bias towards.
    This is only a rudimentary look, we could go into more detail using the AI personalities: http://civdata.com/ but it would first require a definition of which traits are ‘desirable’ and which factions are ‘privileged’. I think it’s missing the point, Civilization wears history as a novelty, the factions never pretend to actually represent any country, they’re just used to color the game and add depth to its competitiveness. Very few of the civilizations in history have actually survived through every one of Civilization’s ages; none ever retaining the same identity.
    But even if you don’t believe it’s signaled as clearly as I do (ie tongue-in-cheek world history similar to your designation of SotS as tongue in cheek fasciscm), if you want to discover what ideological implications are drawn from playing the game, you would have to define virtue based on what the game defines it. The most virtuous faction is the one that plays the best in the game: when you play Civilization and realize Attila’s warmongering is the most consistently successful playstyle, you leave believing Attila and warmongering are more virtuous than Morroccan turtling. The values you bring into the game quickly lose relevance, just because you believe diplomacy is better than war, the game’s design can teach you otherwise. So you can’t judge the values of “boldness” or “loyalty” or emphases in “deception” or “diplomacy” in the faction traits without considering them in their actual context in-game. Does America’s programmed boldness actually translate into heroic self-sacrifice, or is it really just irrational rashness? This is what I meant by programmatically biased.

    “In Civ, you can have your tragic (but necessary) history of exterminating the natives alongside a bright future of peaceful economic or scientific dominance. Imperialism refuses the distinction.”
    I just don’t believe this is an accurate description of Civilization’s narrative. Barbarians are a very minor mechanic in Civilization whereas native nations are the foundation of Imperialism’s gameplay. The equivalent emphasis in Civilization is in the technological timeline, which is evidently problematic; your story is progress from the throes of savagery to the enlightenment of the modern age. If Imperialism is a lucid representation of capitalism as land grab, than Civilization represents progress as an arms race.

    In comparison, the barbarians are a minor function. They’re the ignition to the arms race that defines the actual game of Civilization. As I noted earlier, the barbarians are somewhat undermined by their joint progress up the timeline; you’re pushed to reinterpret the “barbarian” not as a tribesman but just an abstract Othered threat. Not a colored colonialist perception of natives but a colorfully dressed function.

Comments are closed.