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

The Genesis of an Internet Subculture

The previous path of this paper considered the ways in which the video game Civilization V encodes bio (and necro-)political technologies within its gameplay and the manners in which this inscription impacts the player both inside and outside of the game. In this path, the paper will trace out the manner in which an online community of Civilization V players has crafted a new manner of playing the game, and in what ways this novel form of “play” serves to alternately reinforce and undermine the biopolitical tendencies of the video game.
One of the largest online communities of Civilization V players is found on the American website reddit.com, in the sub-forum reddit.com/r/civ. The sub-forum was created 5 years ago, around the time of the original publication of Civilization V and as of early December 2015 has grown to have over 130,000 subscribers.[1] Although it has an active and persistent user-base, the predominately single-player nature of the game keeps the sub-forum from becoming a virtual game world in the manner in which many game studies scholars are interested.[2] Rather, the virtual space exists in-between a play-space and a chat-room. Forum-goers are equally wont to give each other advice on in-game scenarios, to share game save files, and to upload self-made “mods” as they are to debate out-of-games questions on real world topics and meta-analyses of the game. Even still, the space of the r/civ sub-forum serves to create some similar cultural contexts to those identified in video game virtual worlds; the sub-forum too creates “possibilities for the emergence of new…practices” and new “space[s] for play and experimentation.”[3]
Despite the user-base’s effort to create new practices and forms within the confines of playing Civilization V, though, the finite possibilities provided by the game-world create issues of novelty within the community. Given enough time and a lack of new content, any forum based on any video game faces a kind of ‘Heat Death’ of the community, wherein no new energy (posts) can be created. Given its intense activity and length existence, the threat of the loss of novelty appears especially acute on the r/civ sub-forum. Many comments, like those highlighted in the image on this page, rage against the presence of so-called “shitposts,” frequently recurring comments or submissions which that are symptoms of the novelty problem. As the comment on said image reveals, the issue of “shitposts” was especially prevalent for much of 2015, as the game had last been updated two years previously. Forum posts about "Spanish star[s]" or "pantheon [choices]" were seen as a serious threat to the community.
That climate of worry over a lack of novelty in forum submissions gave rise to one of the most intriguing video game developments of recent memory— the creation of Civilization V Artificial Intelligence (AI)-only matches. The first of these games was created by r/civ user u/thenyanmaster on the 10th of January 2015, and displayed the gameplay features that have come to define the mode: using in-game editing and some mods, the human player places the game’s civilizations onto an Earth map and then recuses themselves from the actual game, merely existing as a spectator of the AI.[4] Rather than actively playing the game, u/thenyanmaster instead narrated series of snapshots of the AI playing into a cohesive story. The system, with the civilizations in their true start locations on the realistic map of Earth, created a sense of ‘world’ simulation for the community. As the game unfolded, the narration and forum commentary served to spin the events and choices of the AI civilizations into an alternate history, one in which North America and Oceania became the centers of global power.  Although the initial AI-only match post was met with little fanfare, by the 10th installment in the match, it was being voted on and discussed by thousands of users.[5]
The rapid embrace of the first Ai-only match by the r/civ community likely related to its complete novelty, its ability to produce new forum energy, its sustained popularity likely has more to do with its innovative take on the nature of ‘playing’ a video game. Mia Consalvo, in her study Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, argues that one should envision a player’s activities in a game “through the lens of gaming capital.”[6] Consalvo is discussing the ways in players gain advantages in-game by utilizing either subversive cheat codes or items that are provided by a “paratextual industry” in referencing “gaming capital,” but her vision of play as being an activity where you gain (either by personal activity or purchase) or lose ludic advantages is just as applicable in spaces like Civilization V where “paratextual industries” are non-present.[7] The AI-only match’s great innovation (in the context of Civilization V) is to entirely reject the concept of gaining of losing “gaming capital,” in fact to reject the units of gameplay that would play into that mold themselves. Although the game continues to be played, the computer still runs, the player must still interact (if passively) with the game even while observing, the player refuses to partake in the activities that are proscribed, preferring his own system of playing through narration and inactivity. Based on the wild proliferation of copycat AI-only matches which followed the original— so many indeed that it engendered a whole new internet subculture (one with it’s own smaller sub-forum)— this anti-play ‘playing’ evidently struck a chord with the greater community of r/civ users and Civilization V players.
The anti-play of the AI-only match form creates a true alterity in a game which generally refuses alternatives. It’s ability to reject the processes of “gaming capital” in their entirety and to side-step the biopolitical technologies that Civilization V’s gameplay inscribes in its functions provides the possibility of intervening in the game itself so as to combat its biopolitical lessons. Rather than being forced to engage in the regularization of the “bare life” of one’s subjects and the preservation of death, one could imagine the potentiality of critically narrating its appearance in-game and spreading said interpretation across the larger community. One could imagine forming connections that could begin to appear similar to a resistant and cooperative “multitude,” both in-game and in the larger community.[8]  On the other hand, the fierce, self-reenforcing dialectic of biopolitical technologies in Civilization V could also inflect even this alternative ‘anti-play’ style,’ rendering its narrative play a biopolitical discussion. Either way, though, the new method of experiencing Civilization V has succeeded in creating a truly new practices and experiments within both the game's virtual space and it's forum spaces.

[1] Reddit, reddit.com/r/civ, https://www.reddit.com/r/civ, (accessed Dec 10 2015).
[2] Tom Boellstorf et al., Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
[3] Boellstorf et al, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds, pg. 1.
[4] U/thenyanmaster, Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/civ/comments/2ryztb/civ_v_ai_only_world_domination_part_1/, 10 Jan 2015 (accessed 10 Dec 2015).  
[5] U/thenyanmaster, Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/civ/comments/2ryztb/civ_v_ai_only_world_domination_part_1/, 25 Jan 2015 (accessed 10 Dec 2015).
[6] Mia Consalvo, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007, p. 83-84.
[7] One could potentially make an argument for envisioning the “modding” community for Civilization V as such a “paratextual community,” rendering the distinction moot, but that is a discussion for a separate work. Consalvo, Cheating, p. 84.
[8] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. 

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