Biopolitics of Civilization V
In the previous section, this paper argued that gameplay in Civilization V can be thought of as taking place in discrete “units” of governing. The player engages in governance by physically choosing what buildings to construct in their “cities,” where to send their armies, and what resources to have their citizens “work,” or produce, outside of their cities. The player never actually engages in any of these activities— does not “play” warfare in the style of a first-person shooter or even a turn-based role-playing game, does not construct buildings in the style of Minecraft or even SimCity, and does not physically harvest resources in the style of Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing— but rather plays the game purely by directing the various facets of the civilization on the most macrocosmic, ‘state’ level.
This base ludic function— the various units of governing that the player engages with and completes by playing a game of Civilization V— is far from a benign custom. As Huizinga says, “the function of play…can largely be derived…as a contest for something or a representation of something.” In the case of Civilization V, play is at base both a contest for population and a representation of a modern state’s means of population control. All gameplay activities are ludically dependent upon the player’s abilities to control demographic and city growth. A civilization’s “scientific” development exists in relation to a player’s population size. A civilization’s ability to grow through the production of new “cities” and provinces is directly dependent upon a player’s population size— the “settler” character the player must create to found new cities can only be built in existing cities once they reach a certain population level. The size of a civilization’s military is always bounded by the civilization’s population, so that military growth eventually becomes dependent upon population growth. Thus, even while the player of Civilization V is ostensibly seeking out ways to achieve “Domination” or “Cultural” or “Scientific” victories, what they are in fact contesting are demographics and populations.
Moreover, the player’s in-game ‘actions,’ their active participation in Civilization V’s units of governing, all manifest themselves as activities of modern population control. The governance of cities functions as choices of what resources to have certain percentages of your population produce, be it by directing “citizen” numbers to work as “scientists” to produce extra science yields for the city or to work on farms to produce more food yields, and by micro-managing the city’s own physical and demographic growth. A preponderance of the gameplay is thus centered on the player inducing his “citizens” to produce more life and preserve life in the game’s cities.
These dual attributes of the game— its contest for population and its representation of population control— mean that in playing Civilization V, the player is in fact simulating the wielding of biopower. The player, embodying the state, literally enacts the transition that Michel Foucault highlighted as occurring in Early Modern Europe, “taking charge of” their subject population’s lives “through continuous regulatory and corrective mechanisms” presented in game as ludic fun. In the basic gameplay of Civilization V, the simulated human beings of one’s state are reduced to the bare life of biology. The game erases traces of the individual subject, forcing the player to see the populations of humans she is ostensibly controlling as demographic numbers, both in the meta-sense of computer code but also in ludic sense of representing a city or civilization’s population with merely a number. The population one controls is utterly homogenized and normalized, so that biological or social variance within a civilization is preemptively obscured. In this manner, the game teaches the player-as-state to view her subjects as zoe, as “bare life.” What’s more, the player’s active decisions to regulate their population’s activities— to make citizens farm, or write, or mine— teaches one to view the state’s regularization of populations and bodies— described by Foucault as at the center of biopolitical projects— as both proper and natural. The ludic functions of population within the units of Civilization V thus ensures that the game encodes a biopolitical vision of human populations themselves.
The biopolitical aspect of Civilization V extend past its units of governing. The player’s ability to induce population growth and preserve the lives of her citizens remains functionally the same from the first few turns of the game, 3000 or 2000 BCE in its historical timeline, to the last, potentially 2015 or 2050 CE. Perhaps unwittingly, the game therefore intervenes in one of the crucial debates present within the study of biopolitics: the validity of Agamben’s claim that “the production fo biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power” contra Foucault’s argument that biopolitical technologies arose in Early Modern Europe. In the virtual world of Civilization V, the state power’s base activity is always the production of “biopolitical bodies,” from the “Classical Era” to the “Information Age,” and one is encouraged to envision the real world as having functioned in the same manner. The contest for population which drives much of the ludic activity of the game only underscores this fact— “the highest political task” for the biopolitical (and in the example’s case, fascist) state that Agamben locates in answering “the question ‘[w]ho and what is German?” is the same task that the player-as-state undertakes in-game by claiming new territory and founding new “cities.” The game’s very timeline and game-space thus operate to encode the biopolitical body into its virtual world.
The biopolitical heart of Civilization V renders the game’s central impulse towards the re-creation of the contemporary world deeply troublesome. Players who wield biopolitical technologies within “the magic circle” of the game find those practices and technologies naturalized in the contemporary world that it mirrors. Indeed, visions of people in the real world as zoe, as merely demographics pop-up quite frequently in players discussions of contemporary politics; there are entire forums dedicated to discussing real international political events in terms of Civilization and although they are ostensibly humorous, it becomes difficult at times to differentiate the jokes from the real opinions. Evidently, there is a dialectic here, one in which the game inscribes biopolitical technologies onto its players and the contemporary world while at once having said technologies inscribed within itself by the same forces. The game's single-player nature and proscription of alternatives render this force all the more potent.
Games studies scholars have passionately argued that the Civilization series can be a vital tool for teaching students world history. As this analysis reveals, that would be a misguided effort, one more likely to teach students about presentist visions of the past than the historical realities themselves. Indeed, though, this paper would like to argue that playing Civilization V would ultimately teach them to embrace, accept and utilize the modern state’s biopolitical technologies, rather than to critically consider them.
Civilization and Its discontents. Virtual History. Real Fantasies. Milan: Ludilogica Press.