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The Necropolitics of Civilization V
In this section, the paper will discuss the ways in which Civilization V’s treatment of territorial conquest reveal the necropolitical paradigms that are encoded within its ludological treatment of population.
In his seminal essay “Necropolitics,” Achille Mbembe draws on the visions of Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille to argue that that the “central project” of the sovereign political spheres of the contemporary world is “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations.” Mbembe extrapolates the logic that undergirded the slave plantation of yesterday and the “war machines” of modern combat to argue that sovereignty in the modern world functions to create “death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.”
In his less-read but equally incisive essay “Necro-economics,” Warren Montag draw on Foucault and Mbembe to read The Wealth of Nations, revealing that Smith’s work argues that modern societies must “let [citizens] die” at times so as to preserve life. Montag argues that the market forces (rooted in Smith) that define modern society’s conception of the economy necessitate that certain members of the population “be exposed to death” so that the maximum demographic utility may be achieved. For example, famines must occur, individuals must be allowed to die, so that the larger mechanisms of the market remain in operation and equilibrium.
In the previous sections of this paper, gameplay in Civilization V was defined was operating as units of governing. This base unit of ludic activity does see significant change at one kind of moment within the game: moments of warfare. While war is never necessitated in a game of Civilization V, it recurs frequently, and there is an entire victory mode— a “Domination” victory— which is dependent upon it. Warfare, like most everything in Civilization V, is generally caused by a contest for population, one in which the capture of cities and territory is vitally important. The action of waging war in-game though is somewhat counter-intuitive, as it necessitates the loss of population (both one’s own and one’s enemies). Any city a player conquers will be considerably reduced in population size.
How, then, is the game to incentivize this ludological about-face? Part of the explanation is rooted in the game’s graphics. In Civilization V, all territory a player controls is strictly defined by colorful borders, both on-screen and in the User Interface’s (UI) mini-map. If the player is playing as France, her territory is denoted by a regular, homogenous blue color, while enemy civilizations are denoted by orange, green, or other shades. While these colors do not necessarily depict racial differences within civilization’s populations (there are no real embodied citizens in the game, after all), they do make immediately clear the cultural divisions between the factions. The expanse of enemy orange on screen represents the greatest threat to the player, and his civilization’s population, in-game. Going to war in Civilization V should be seen as a project of eliminating the other civilization’s population, and color, from the map. When the player conquers an opposing city in game, said city’s territory immediately adopts one’s own color, its population immediately becomes the player’s own population, without any noticeable differences. Thus, the ludic rationalization for territorial conquest and warfare in Civilization V mirrors Foucault’s vision of modern warfare as being “a matter of…destroying the enemy race…destroying that biological threat” one which quite literally “make one biologically stronger” through the death of the opposing civilization’s citizens.
Of course, during moments of warfare in-game, the function of the player’s population drastically changes, so that, rather than attempting to preserve their life, the player is attempting to instrumentalize and weaponize their bodies so as to better destroy the enemy’s population. As mentioned earlier, the player’s military strength is capped in relation to her population, and it is wars that this cap becomes most apparent. To maximize military efficiency, the player will frequently have to stretch his population to the utmost, rendering each number of population in-game into a useful military cog. These wartime ludic activities reflect the central ideas of necropolitics to Mbembe, as the state’s sovereignty is taken up with the preservation of death through the instrumentalization of the player’s population. In this manner, war within Civilization V serves to reveal the necropolitical aspect that shadows the biopolitical control of bare life.
War in-game also often provides the best opportunity to locate those odd moments when the game’s structure counterintuitively rewards player’s for starving or killing one’s own citizens. Because population growth is tied to the resources citizens produce (and thus, recursively, to population growth), a steady demographic increase requires the player to dictate the production of large amounts of food resources. In moments of crises, usually when certain resource yields are unworkable due to invasion or pillaging, the player will often be forced to choose between retaining a civilization productive capacity or retaining its food intake. The crisis itself necessitates the need to retain productive capacities in the city, thereby necessitating that the player starve her own population, letting them die so as to maximize the city’s short-term utility. This perverse ludic embrace of death almost directly mirrors the impulse to “let die” that Montag locates in The Wealth of Nations, implicating the player in the necro-economic logic of the work.
These examples make clear that warfare in Civilization V, like the other aspects of its gameplay, operates as a project of biopolitics. The governmentality the player-as-state must embrace to engage and succeed in territorial conquest is one not of the preservation of life though, but rather the embrace of death and “death-in-life,” the embrace of necropolitics.
Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” in Biopolitics: A Reader, ed. by Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), p. 163-164.
Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” p. 186.
 Warren Montag, “Necro-economics,” in Biopolitics: A Reader, ed. by Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), p. 204.
Montag, “Necro-economics,” p. 212-213.
Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended,” p. 76-77.
The most productive yields to work, mines, generally produce no food, and the best food yields, farms, generally produce no production.
Mbembe, “Necropolitcs,” 170.