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The Microserfs Are Revolting: Sid Meier's Civilization II

Computer games which do have the potential to address social issues, by placing the player in the responsible position of managing a society, generally assume that colonization, economic expansion and the suppression of internal dissidence are good things.
William Stephenson

Issue #45, October 1999

Computer games are an often neglected aspect of popular culture. They carry connotations of isolation and social inadequacy, and are stereotyped as the province of the technologically literature but emotionally stunted adolescent nerd. As a branch of theory which links man's consciousness to his social being, Marxism might appear to have little time for such an apparently antisocial piece of software. A further difficulty is that those computer games which do have the potential to address social issues, by placing the player in the responsible position of managing a society, generally assume that colonization, economic expansion and the suppression of internal dissidence are the best means for a culture to develop; the accent is on domination of enemies and of one's own citizens rather than co-operation.

This, though, does not tell the whole story. Despite the antisocial image of computer games in general, and the genre's tendency to promote bloodthirsty combat, they can be used to expose the arbitrariness of ideologies of nation and culture, and to experiment with alternative forms of government. A type of consumer software seemingly allied to conservative, repressive values thus has unexpected resources.

For reasons of space, this essay will deal with one game, the popular strategy program Sid Meier's Civilization II, (referred to from here on as CII), though much of what I suggest here could apply to others, such as Microsoft's Age of Empires. CII begins in 4000 B. C. The player starts with one unit of settlers, whose task is to build a city somewhere on a largely unexplored continent. As this city grows, more units are produced, and more cities are built, until the player begins to encounter other cultures, which are controlled by the computer. The player's culture can coexist peacefully with these, or enter into war, depending on the player's own inclinations and those of the computer- controlled opponents. There are two ways to win the game; either the player can conquer all other cultures, or can be the first to build a starship to colonize Alpha Centauri (which generally happens at some time close to 2020 A. D., when the game ends).

The initial way to gain a foothold in the game, and the only way to stand any chance of eventual victory, is through colonization, where the player builds new cities at a distance from the original settlement. In CII, colonized peoples do not exist except as barbarians, whose occasional, randomly generated intrusions keep the player's garrisons occupied. The processes of production, food accumulation and trade remain exactly the same as for one's original city. This accords closely with Marx's sense of the role of colonization as a reproduction of capitalist ideology, as expressed in The Communist Manifesto: The bourgeoisie "compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e. to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image. The bourgeoise has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities." The only other way to expand one's empire is to conquer the cities of an existing culture, which is usually achieved through a combination of bribery and superior military technology.

At first sight, then, CII would seem to be a classic demonstration of the logic of imperialism outlined by Marx. In keeping with the game's focus on foreign policy, the role of the separate classes within a culture is minimized. The main manifestation of class conflict within the game is a negative one, civil disorder, which interferes with the culture's progress. To quell such disorder, some citizens must be taken away from productive work and turned into entertainers, the player must divert more of the revenue from trade into manufacturing luxuries, or military units must be stationed in the city in order to impose martial law. Thus the class struggle is regulated from above by means of the carrot and stick principle.

This is a far cry from Marx's depiction of the dialectical evolution of culture through "the history of class struggles," most notably, of course, that between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Citizens can become scientists or tax collectors as well as entertainers, but apart from this, there is no separate sense of a working class or of a capitalist class. Revolution is possible, but only as a temporary obstruction to victory, either chosen by the player to enable a change of government type, or imposed on the player if his/her foreign policy is too warlike. Communism does feature in the game, but as one of several government types available to the player (rather than as the goal of revolution, as in Marxism); it has several handicaps, most notably restricted industrial production and trade revenue, due to the stifling rule of the Party.

Thus CII would seem to be a means of reinforcing bourgeois values. Players are shaped ideologically by the game, which requires them to abide by its conditions of victory, and exerts pressure on them to accept its capitalist logic of colonization and economic domination. Players are encouraged to progress through the game with a series of rewards or Wonders of the World, which when successfully completed, not only give significant advantages to a culture, but are announced with a small clip of real-time video generated from the game's CD-ROM. These clips are of high quality and provide a pointed contrast to the colourful but eventually slightly monotonous world map of the usual game screen. Players, like alienated workers, are thus given distractions which prevent them from becoming too fed up with their work (i.e. the game). To use a term borrowed from Louis Althusser, the game makes players into subjects. This word is used both in the grammatical and social senses; players are capable of seemingly independent, unforced action, but are also subjected to a higher authority (in this case, the mechanisms and ideology of the game). Like a Western democracy, CII paradoxically offers players a sense of independence, but on the condition that they obey the rules. Their relationship to the game is analogous to their relationship to capitalist society.

This applies especially to those players who become "lost" in the game and cease to think of themselves as victory-orientated manipulators of their cultures. Ted Friedman, in an article on SimCity, has argued that when playing, one "thinks of oneself less as a 'mover- and-shaker' giving orders from on high than as an extension of the logic of the system" citing the testimonies of players and writers on the genre, he claims that in long sessions of play, there is a temporary loss of identity, a merging of organic and machine. This loss, despite its seeming promise of a liberating postmodern interaction with technology, would seem to work in a socially conformist way. If the logic of the system is basically capitalistic, then players who experience a partial fusion with that system are bonding with a construct dominated by the logic of acquisition, however unaware they may be of this.

There is, though, another way to view such a piece of popular culture that is governed by the logic of capital. What if the player, in the spirit of this journal, elects neither to strive slavishly after victory, nor to become "lost" in the game, but knowingly to be a Bad Subject? The power of the computer can be harnessed by the sceptical, dissident player. Given the memory space of a typical PC, one can easily save a game any number of times. So one could, for example, begin a game as the Americans, then save the game just before inciting a revolution which turned the nation Communist; the two versions of the state could then run in parallel, so to speak, as separately stored games on the player's computer. By storing several games in this way, players can refuse to follow the rulebook's logic of teleological thrust towards colonization, conquest and starship development in 2020 A. D. Instead, they can constantly explore alternative government types or differing foreign and domestic policies.

CII reveals that nation and culture are arbitrary labels. The rules are the same, whether one begins as the Chinese, and one's first city is Beijing, or as the Americans, building Washington. It shows that there is nothing intrinsically superior in any nation, despite patriotic claims about "national character" and the racism that they often conceal. One can, literally, play with national and cultural history, inventing a peaceful, enlightened Mongol democracy under President Genghis Khan, or a United States of America ruled by a rabidly militaristic, despotic overlord. (These fake nations may sometimes bear an uncomfortable, albeit comic, resemblance to the real ones.)

From this standpoint, the game can be read in a dissident way, as a means of showing how the infrastructure of the cash economy and of material production operates regardless of national ideology or government type. Despite the relatively minor differences between government types, the player still feeds his/her citizens and builds harbours, factories, etc. in the same way, whether he/she is a despot, a communist leader or the president of a capitalist democracy.

One could argue that this levelling of the nations limits the game's use for educational purposes, because it flies in the face of history and elides the vital material differences between world cultures. To state the obvious, Washington was not built in 4,000 B.C., and the Chinese did not begin evolving as a culture at the same time and under precisely the same conditions as the Americans. Nevertheless, the game demonstrates how our consciousness of ourselves as Americans, or Chinese people, or Russians, or whatever, is related to our dependence upon our nation's previous colonization of peoples arbitrarily labelled barbarian, and/or our conquest of other "civilized" cultures. A player taught through CII that national and city titles are labels for nodes in economic networks may develop a cynical view of the world economy, and one perhaps reductively skewed towards the material infrastructure (ignoring, say, the very real effect of ideological constructions of nationhood discussed by such left-leaning academics as Benedict Anderson), but may well come to develop a sceptical, critical attitude towards that very economic and military history which has helped to mould his/her sense of citizenship within a nation.

The game's hidden sense of a lack of national identity, which can be picked up by the sceptical player, is further promoted by the fact that players are confronted by computer opponents. One's enemies are automatons who often play better than one can oneself, especially at the higher levels of difficulty (these begin at Chieftain, the easiest, and finish at Deity, the hardest, and can be set by the player before the game). Thus players may be confronted with their own alienation from the economic and industrial processes which drive empires along. A culture in CII rarely responds well to human government, as opposed to the best that the program can offer; this implies that the model of the great individual, influencing social processes by sheer force of personality, may be flawed. Players may then resort to the program's cheat menu, which enables them to swap cultures in order to rule the one which has done the best under the computer. This is equivalent to the completely impossible, but nevertheless intellectually fascinating, idea of leaders swapping nations -- imagine, say, Reagan and Gorbachev made to change places in the 1980s. CII's cheat menu offers very exciting ways for players to manipulate entrenched ideologies, by ceding their own power to the program (and often watching the governed culture perform better as a result!) or moving like a chameleon from, say, Communist America to Democratic Russia. The effect is equivalent to an absurd but fascinating masked carnival of governments, in which the High Priest Mao Tse Tung might rub shoulders with Comrade Abraham Lincoln, only for either culture to be eliminated entirely, or have its leader's personality rearranged at a click of the mouse, using the "Edit King" facility (something many British readers may wish existed in real life).

So even as the game tries to turn players into alienated workers, slaving after eventual victory but estranged from the machine-controlled mechanics governing what happens on the monitor screen, they can actively refuse to join in CII's linear narrative of domination, and can experiment with alternative ways of playing. In doing so, they are implicitly criticizing the common sense claim that the leadership of great individuals and the domination of capital over labour are all part of "how the world works."

Perhaps the most fundamental contradiction that can be uncovered by the dissident player of CII is that between modes of leisure and work in contemporary society. If, as I have argued, the game tries to turn the player into a worker, then how can it be enjoyable? The player has presumably paid good money for the game and expects some fun. As Douglas Coupland puts it in Microserfs, his novel of the computer industry, "a multimedia product has to deliver $1 per hour's worth of entertainment or you'll get slagged by word of mouth." Most players do enjoy the game; it has sold a huge number of copies, and received very good reviews. Nevertheless, CII shows that leisure in a capitalist democracy is often organized along the same lines as work. One puts in the hours and produces a product (oneself) except in this case, the worker is paying for the privilege.

It is up to the Bad Subject to construct alternative types of labour and leisure which make the distinction more meaningful; CII can, ironically, be the starting point for just such a project, when it is played in the dissident ways I have outlined, and the self-conscious manipulation and rejection of bourgeois goals is substituted for the thirst for victory. Dissident play is helped by the fact that this is a computer game; the very power of the technology means that there is room in the machine's memory for alternative government to be explored, for cultures to be swapped or eliminated arbitrarily. The more the player plays, the more the mechanics of the game are exposed as identical, whatever cultural and national identity is chosen. Thus consumer software like CII, which appears at first to be so at odds with a Marxist view of consciousness as social and intimately related to class, can work as an instructive, even subversive, tool for the Bad Subject.

William Stephenson teaches at the School of Cultural Studies, Leeds Metropolitan University, U.K. He has also taught at the Universities of Hull, Leeds, and Central Lancashire. E-mail him at

Copyright © 1999 by William Stephenson. All rights reserved.