Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Barbarians at the Gate

I was playing Civilization V the other day, going about the day-to-day business of managing the mighty Roman empire, when I started thinking about barbarians a bit more critically. Now barbarian tribes are nothing new to the the massively popular franchise. They harken all the way back from the first Civilization. Yet I had never noticed how comfortably they fit within a somewhat unsettling discourse about civilization and modern progress.

Functionally, barbarians are early-game threats to the player, minor enemies to pester budding civilizations or, alternatively, target practice for those new to world domination. Civ 5's manual calls barbarians "fiendish." It describes them as "roving bands of villains who hate civilization and everything that goes with it." Does this sound like the divisive binary rhetoric espoused by George W. Bush to you, when he stated of terrorists that they "hate our freedoms?" It does to me.

Barbarians are civilization's antithesis, malevolent forces of chaos with no rational for their actions. The game periodically generates barbarian forces in spaces players cannot see - they literally spawn from darkness. Also, unlike other civilizations and city-states, players cannot interact diplomatically with barbarians, they only exist to undermine progress.

Barbarian spawn points are called encampments, which seems to imply they are temporary fixtures of nomadic peoples, a far cry from the settled inhabitants of civilizations. Strangely though, barbarians are also designed to maintain pace with the players, allowing them to spawn a military unit equal to those of the most technologically advanced civilization. This means these backwards barbarians can spawn tanks and bomber planes, and will continue to do so "until the entire world is civilized."
What exactly are we meant to learn here? The term "civilized" is never defined. With only the barbarians as a counter-point, we can only conclude that to be "civilized" is to be geographically fixed and committed to perpetual growth and expansion. Barbarism, on the other hand, may arise at any time period, fueled only by hatred towards civilization proper. Players can eradicate barbarism by force and cut off its source through territorial expansion. In fact, as the game progresses, this almost becomes inevitable. Progress is an unstoppable monolithic force.

What of the barbarous people? Are they simply eradicated, dispersed into the wind? Or does my civilization teach them the error of their ways? Do the Romans give them a bath and a philosophy teacher and thus "civilize" them? While I respond to the procedural imperative of progress, expanding my borders and advancing technology, I can not help but feel confronted by the rhetoric of backwardness and savagery. The Roman empire is following a linear path towards development and growth, one with no room for the barbarous. Forgive them, for it is the only path they know.


  1. Well, they're called 4x games.

    4x stands for "explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate."

    That's why I can't play civ games. I find the premise that the proliferation of civilization and culture occurs through those four x's to be pretty disturbing in this context.

    I did love Alpha Centauri, though. In that game you were fighting with other factions to create your vision of a utopia. I'm willing to kill some greedy capitalists to get the job done, but I'm much less comfortable wiping out the Egyptians.

  2. Ruby Ridge, Waco, libertarians, the Tea Party, hippies, Mormons, fundamentalists, anarchists, bohemenians, gays, Ralph Nader voters. It ain't a right/left thing so much as a counterculture thing. Being against either traditionalism or progressivism leads to thinking like those ugly marginal "cultures" that are impeding social evolution and progress. There's probaly at least one group on the above list that makes someone cringe and shake their head at their "backwards" thinking. Everybody believes in barbarians. They just define them in accordance with their own principles of a proper order or society or state.

  3. New flash! Jorge Albor discovers Civilization games contain a teleological narrative!

    I kid, I kid! =P Very interesting insights into CivV and Barbarism. Terry Eagleton has a chapter in his latest book 'Reason, Faith and Revolution' called "Culture and Barbarism" which touches on some of the islamaphobia stuff you seem to be hinting at with your reference to Bush.

  4. Oh, and here's a link to an excerpt:

  5. @Alysandher

    I have never heard that 4X term before. How very blunt. One strange thing about writing a bunch about the game though, is that it actually makes me want to play it.


    I could buy that. Of course, so of those people on your list are completely backwards. Who could argue with that. ;)

    Ya know, me at Strategy games generally don't mix. Which I why I usually keep Civ games at arms length, that was until I decided to write a twenty-five page paper digging into the game's ideological components. Barbarism being one of the most forthright and unsettling examples.

    Great article linkage too. Although another thing I should mention, me and metaphysics don't generally mix either. I always feel like me and the author/writer/speaker are talking about different things and we just haven't realized it yet. In this case, I'm a little more hopeful that Eagleton. Of course, that could just be because I'm uncivilized.

  6. My first WTF moment playing Civilization IV: the roaming animals that kill your first scout (well, that always kill my scout) are labeled 'Barbarian'. I think historical xenophobia is well-modeled in the Civilization games both with the barbarians and with Civ IV's reputation system, although I wonder what the designers were thinking about this name choice for the animals. Because my civilization has formed into cities and walled itself from nature, is nature my enemy now as well?

    I haven't had a chance to dive into Civ V yet, but I wonder how the new City-States fit in the game. Are they a third world available for the main Civs to dominate/exploit? How different are they in their actions from the Barbarian tribes?

  7. I suggest you take a look at James C. Scott's recent book The Art of Not Being Governed. It looks at the uplands of South East Asia and presents them not as ungoverned barbarian outposts but places that have actively resisted the encroachment of the state.

  8. @ Rik

    City-states are a weird addition to Civ. In my view, they act a bit like "civilized" barbarians, meaning they have their own motivations that do not mirror expansion, but they can also be bought off or mostly ignored. They are also more or less important for certain victories.


    I would really like that. I just recently read James Scott's 'Seeing Like A State' and loved it. In fact, I'll likely write about Civ next week and bring in some of his thoughts.

  9. While _Civilisation_ may rest on some pretty interesting ideological assumptions, the narrative in which 'barbarians' are crushed beneath the iron boots of progress is pretty historically accurate- and not necessarily 'teleological'. This aspect of the game (ironically, perhaps) suggests a kind of dialectic, in which progress is bought by bloodshed, chauvinism and borg-like assimilation. This may be shocking, but then, so is history.

  10. can i quote you on this?

  11. i never played
    civilization, because the time scale is preposterous.