Empire of the Earth (Piece Done in the Hexagonal Style of Sid Meier): The Biopolitical Thought in an Internet Game Culture

Civilization V

"Can you build a Civilization to stand the test of time?"
Sid Meier's Civilization V, the fifth installment in the main branch of Firaxis Games's Civilization series of video games, was released for Microsoft Windows and OS X in 2010.[1] It was widely praised upon release, with positive responses being made both by video game critics and the general population of Civilization players. Following in the footsteps of its much-loved predecessors, Civilization III and Civilization IV, Civilization V attempts to allow players to intervene in and model the growth and development of historical states on fantasy terrains. The game markets itself as an opportunity for the player to embody and combat historical leaders, to wage war on Genghis Khan and to recreate the splendor of Rome. 
The impulse to (re)create history in the confines of a fantastical game renders Civilization V an outlier in traditional game studies, if such a term can even be used. While many of the most interesting publication in modern game studies try to trace the formation and function of fantasy and virtual worlds— researching construction projects in Second Life[2] and lifeworlds in Everquest[3]play in Civilization V is aimed at re-creating the contemporary world, with a few cartographical and superficial innovations. The impulse to play the Firaxis game should therefore be seen as somewhat distinct from the traditionally ascribed motivations to craft virtual worlds. The impulse is derived from a will to re-craft one’s own world rather than to create an alterity, derived from the dream to see “history” rather than “fantasy” or “science fiction.”
The will towards reality rather than fiction, towards Europe rather than Kalimdor, is evident in one of the Civilization V online player community’s most popular downloads— a community-created “mod” map-pack called “Play the World Extended (Gods and Kings Edition)” which allows the player to play Civilization V on a realistic map of the Earth. The “mod” allows players to start their games in the “proper” locations, so that someone playing as the Japanese civilization would be assured of beginning on Honshu and of running into Kuala Lumpur in Southeast Asia. As of early December 2015, the “mod” had been downloaded almost 180,000 times.[4] For context, a “mod” that allowed players to play on a recreation of Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth had been downloaded ‘merely’ 22,000 times.[5]
The impulse to recreate the contemporary world in Civilization V is not a community-driven goal, but is in fact coded into the gameplay of the simulator. To follow Ian Bogost’s formula for ludological analysis, the “units” of Civilization V’s gameplay are units of governing, built around making choices for in-game “cities,” which appear on the map to better resemble imperial provinces, and their military “units.”[6]  The functional choices of the units of governing— the choosing of where they will be placed on the map, what buildings they will construct, what resources they will produce— operate to impart visions of Western state leadership and control upon the player, so that they may experience making the autocratic choices of “Kingship” or being the democratic leader of a state founded on “liberty” (all while remaining in total control of the proceedings, of course). As will be discussed in more detail later, progress in social and scientific development through the game’s units of governance occurs along distinctly presentist lines. To succeed in two of the game’s victory scenarios, the player must create the “UN Headquarters” and/or “the Apollo Program.” In another victory scenario, the player succeeds by persuading other civilizations to “buy… blue jeans and listen[] to… pop music,” to become proper consumers of real-world modern culture, no matter whether they were playing as an American civilization or a Carthaginian one.[7] To play Civilization V, then, is to functionally work to recreate modern state structures, ways of life, and world-views.
The will to re-create the contemporary world that sits at the heart of both the game’s ludological functions and gamers’ experience of the game make it a text that is vitally interesting from a theoretical standpoint. As the next section of this paper will reveal, nowhere is a critical intervention into Civilization V more pertinent than in its biopolitical implications.


[1]In 2012, and then again in 2013, Firaxis Games released expansions to Civ V, named Civilization V: Gods & Kings and Civilization V: Brave New World respectively, that added new features and civilizations to the base-game. All of these titles together, along with a variety of smaller quasi-expansions to the game sold as downloadable content (DLC) on online marketplaces, make up the contemporary conception of Civilization V in 2015. Any reference to Civ V in this essay will refer to the game’s entire corpus, expansions and DLC included, rather than simply to the base game.
[2]Colin Milburn, Mondo Nano: Fun and Games in the World of Digital Matter, Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
[3]TL Taylor, Play Between Worlds, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
[4]Steam Workshop, “Play the World Extended (Gods and Kings Edition),” https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=405224639&searchtext= , (accessed December 7, 2015).
[5]Steam Workshop, “The Lord of the Rings (Terrain Add)” https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=405224639&searchtext= , (accessed December 7, 2015).
[6]Ian Bogost, Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006, p. 53-54.
[7]Firaxis Games. Civilization V: Brave New World. 2K Games: 2013.  

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