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"Dwarven society is more egalitarian than… human feudal societies were"
October 25, 2013 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Dwarf Fortress: A Marxist Analysis
What one does in Dwarf Fortress is create a colony of an existing dwarven fortress – you’re always sent out as a team from a much larger existing stronghold elsewhere, and your foreign relations with other dwarves are limited to that particular fortress, on the whole. Even though your settlement is independent and self-governing, and the relations with the mother fortress mostly those of trade, the purpose of the game in all its open-endedness can be nothing other than to create oneself in the image of the previous fortress. In other words, fundamentally in Dwarf Fortress you reproduce the existing structure of dwarven society on a merely quantitatively expanded scale.
"The player in Dwarf Fortress fulfills the Durkheimian role of the collective mental structure and representation of society and its division of labor, whether religious or in some other ideological form, that makes possible the society itself as a totality and structures it."
"In fact, a sufficiently large fortress will obtain the right from the mother fortress to appoint a baron, who is purely parasitical and has correspondingly greater consumption demands still – and in fact, refusing to make this step towards the deepening of feudal relations (essentially corresponding to moving from the early to the high Middle Ages) on the part of a colony is offensive to the home fort!"
posted by Eideteker (29 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Good stuff, but I fear the academy is always drawn by the essential glamour of dwarven affairs when we might be better served by some cogent analysis of the state of the social wage in The Sims.
posted by Abiezer at 11:45 AM on October 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


hmmm. I just had a skim but... there isn't any analysis of "strange moods" and what it says about the fate of inspired individualistic genius craftsdwarfship and its relation to insanity in the age of collectivist dwarf production?
posted by Bwithh at 11:49 AM on October 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Bit off: I highly recommend the O'Reilly Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress book. Even if you don't play the game.
posted by bdz at 11:51 AM on October 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is quite long, and I am only partway through, but I love it so far.

I eagerly await the followup, "On the Dialectical Materialism of Kerbal Space Program".
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:54 AM on October 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


there isn't any analysis of "strange moods" and what it says about the fate of inspired individualistic genius craftsdwarfship and its relation to insanity in the age of collectivist dwarf production?
Would this bit count?
It is however the player who appoints dwarves to the noble roles and who coordinates the military efforts as best she can, and the player who needs to make sure dwarves are sufficiently happy within their existing and essentially static cultural-normative framework that no excess of alienation or anomie might destroy the fortress – as indeed happens if conditions deviate too strongly from the dwarven expectations about their customary rights and positions!
If I'm right in assuming anomie is being linked to strange moods.
posted by Abiezer at 11:57 AM on October 25, 2013


Anomie might be an explanation for a strange mood afflicted/gifted dwarf falling into an insane depressed suicide spiral / berserk murder rampage , but "strange moods" are rare and only affects the occasional dwarf - it is a "gift" of inspired talent and yearning to use that talent to create a singular artefact of genius.
posted by Bwithh at 12:10 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am uneasy with this analysis. The writer sees the fortress as assuming a feudalistic structure, I've always seen the fortress much closer to the "from each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] need" ideal of communism. The fruits of a dwarf's labor go to the stockpile, and are taken by another dwarf according to their need. The nobles in the fortress do not collect rents in a traditional feudal sense, but do place mandates on certain goods... however fulfillment of these mandates isn't requisite to engage in other in-game tasks. Indeed, in the most recent version a player can simply opt out of receiving nobles (with the penalty of not being able to request imports from the parent civilization)

There are certain material requirements that certain dwarves have to complete their tasks, however there is nothing preventing the designer of a fortress from socializing the privileges held by the bookkeeper et al.

Also, FTA "There is no slow transition towards a capitalism emanating from the urban trade according to the views of the world systems theorists..." True, but that is because the accumulation of capital is held in common by the fortress, not by any specific dwarf. Capital investments are made as a communal, not individual act. Comparative advantage due to trade is a common mechanic of accruing capital in game. It is common to have dwarves who have been laboring for decades making piles of masterwork stone goblets so the fortress can more effectively acquire weapons, armor and food.

It is the racist nature of Dwarven society in the game that causes concern... Dwarves are full members of the fortress which can be assigned labor, while domesticated intelligent creatures such as tiger-men are kept in bondage as intelligent pets, others like elves are segregated from the racial community. There is effective socialism, but only for a certain racial community...
posted by banal evil at 12:12 PM on October 25, 2013 [9 favorites]


I like how some things which are taking the fun out of something are, for others, adding more fun.
posted by shothotbot at 12:13 PM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


too short;didn't read
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:25 PM on October 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


On the topic of complex social sims and theory, I have long thought that the day the guys at Paradox Interactive discover Max Weber, they will literally revolutionize strategy gaming.
posted by R. Schlock at 12:36 PM on October 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


On the topic of complex social sims and theory, I have long thought that the day the guys at Paradox Interactive discover Max Weber, they will literally revolutionize strategy gaming.

omg.. I love the thought of Weberian Victoria... I would never leave the house again. Programming it would be a herculean effort. In effect you would need to create a digitized sociological model... and as much as I love Paradox, sometimes they have a difficult enough time creating a digitized economic one.
posted by banal evil at 12:41 PM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Good stuff, but I fear the academy is always drawn by the essential glamour of dwarven affairs when we might be better served by some cogent analysis of the state of the social wage in The Sims.

I've read that Will Wright originally intended The Sims to be a critique of materialism in which it eventually becomes apparent that you can't make your sims happier just by buying them better stuff because the process of getting them rich enough to afford the nicest stuff will necessarily make them unhappier so the bonuses from the nice stuff only get you back to where you started. In practice, that's not exactly how it worked out.
posted by Copronymus at 1:04 PM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't speak to the programming side of things, but conceptually, you'd have to reconceive how power functions in the game. In the present incarnation of a Paradox sim, the designers are halfway between the direct-command model of Civilization and RTS games, and the passive-guidance model of Dwarf Fortress. But I don't think they've actually thought about the implications of that. They're complex system builders and the reason their games can, at their worst, feel like tweaking dials, is because there isn't a really well thought out rationale for how the variables they're modeling interact with one another. That's why they do such a shit job with religion, for example. Religion isn't just a set of conditions that inhibit or authorize assertions of power, for much of history, religion was a basis for sovereignty itself (along with kinship structures and bureaucratic institutions).

When you play a Paradox sim, you shouldn't be some sort of godlike figure struggling to align the variables of the game in order to optimize an outcome. The decision to wage war, for example, should require you to generate authority in order to sustain the processes of mobilization and structural realignment necessary for creating, directing and maintaining an army. Resistance shouldn't be a semi-random event governed by a player's attention to or neglect of a single "unrest" variable. It should be a function of your overall control of the social processes being modeled by the game.

A Paradox game should feel less like managing a steam engine and more like riding a wild horse.
posted by R. Schlock at 1:07 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


R. Schlock, have you tried Victoria II? Of all the Paradox games I feel like it is the closest to what you describe. And I'm not sure if Max Weber is part of its tech tree, but I know that Sociology certainly is.
posted by Balna Watya at 1:18 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I haven't, but I've been interested in the concept. I feel like I've just figured out CKII, so these comments are basically a response to that experience (and, less so, HOI2 and EU3). Honestly, if Victoria II were available on the mac through steam, I'd have bought it by now. As it is, I'll probably wait until Victoria III comes out and then decide if I have the time and energy to get into it. I've held off on EU4 because...life.
posted by R. Schlock at 1:29 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


The decision to wage war, for example, should require you to generate authority in order to sustain the processes of mobilization and structural realignment necessary for creating, directing and maintaining an army. Resistance shouldn't be a semi-random event governed by a player's attention to or neglect of a single "unrest" variable. It should be a function of your overall control of the social processes being modeled by the game.


I agree entirely. In Paradox's defense, militancy in Victoria is does function as an overall indication of the player's control of the population. A POPs militancy is the result if multiple variables (political party in power, whether they can afford their needs, war exhaustion)... but it's the micromanagement of those variables that causes Paradox to be criticized for making games with too steep a learning curve.
posted by banal evil at 1:31 PM on October 25, 2013


In Dwarf Fortress, mermaid farming is the practice of capturing mermaids, imprisoning them for breeding purposes and slaughtering their babies to harvest their valuable bones. That linked thread is 24 pages long. A large number of players have given a great deal of thought to the technical details of how to construct and automate a mermaid death camp / factory farm.

It should not be surprising that giving arbitrary power to distant, all-powerful, all-controlling overseers often results in gulag conditions. Dwarf Fortress is Stalinist.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:54 PM on October 25, 2013 [24 favorites]


jstyutk, that thread is amazing.
posted by R. Schlock at 2:03 PM on October 25, 2013


The writer sees the fortress as assuming a feudalistic structure, I've always seen the fortress much closer to the "from each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] need" ideal of communism.

I was just coming in here to angrily insist that dwarf society is actually primitive communism (at least until Toady fixes "the dwarven economy" and turns it back on).
posted by RogerB at 2:07 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


And after a little more thought, I guess the thing is really that in the current 0.34.11 incarnation the dwarves really don't have an economy. They definitely have production and use, but barring trading with foreign caravans (which has only the barest semblance of balance or sense) there's no form of exchange. I appreciate that what's really up here is the comedy of fitting a square imaginary-world peg into a round social-theoretical hole, but I still feel like it might be more interesting to toss the political economy and think more about the dwarven sociology instead.
posted by RogerB at 2:28 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mermaid farming! Huh. Glad to see the DF guys are continuing to come up with hilarious/interesting/horrifying things. It's been a few years, after all, since they came up with WEAPON.
posted by JHarris at 2:42 PM on October 25, 2013


think more about the dwarven sociology instead
You'll want to check out my forthcoming paper Who Ate My Plump Helmet? -- Symbolic Phallophagy And Gender Dynamics in Dwarf Society.
posted by Abiezer at 2:52 PM on October 25, 2013 [7 favorites]


Status: Attending Party — Passive Work Stoppages and Incipient Autonomism Among Skilled Craftsdwarves
posted by RogerB at 2:59 PM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


From that Dwarf Fortress mermaid thread;

« Reply #12 on: October 09, 2008, 05:36:56 pm » Harvesting their offspring will be difficult if they airdrown

.
posted by Jimbob at 4:01 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'll bet Tarn and Zach have read this and are now prototyping a system of evolving political economies. Dwarf Fortress won't be out of beta until can be used as a simulator for every possible political and economic system.
posted by peeedro at 6:10 PM on October 25, 2013


is mermaid farming actually still possible or ever possible? I thought it was just a hypothetical
posted by Bwithh at 7:36 PM on October 25, 2013


One thing they have done they call Dwarven Checkers, at least circa 2011.

What you do is, you explore the deep areas of the map until you find the top of an adamantine spire, the kinds of things that serve as the doorway to the Hidden Fun Stuff (HFS)*. Then, before mining away any of it and starting the Fun, you mine out a checkerboard arrangement of spaces adjacent to it. Beneath the spaces you build magma-safe grates and fluid channels. Above it you clear out the area and build a couple of large tanks, one you fill with water, one with magma, and you construct release valves off of them (magma proof for the one on that tank, of course) that are connected to levers.

You might be able to figure out where it goes from here. You release the demmies, then flood the chamber with magma, then once that drains you then flood it with water. The result wipes out demons quickly and efficiently. Do that some number of times to clean out the demon population, then move in and turn Hell into a dwarf resort.

* When reading DF forum threads, you might sometimes catch references to clowns or the circus. These are spoiler friendly euphemisms for the demons and hell.
posted by JHarris at 7:52 PM on October 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Does anyone else hope that the dwarven economy is *not* reactivated in future versions? Dwarven feudalism is one thing, but I'd rather not see the contradictions of capital introduced into my fortress...
posted by Yesterday's camel at 3:38 AM on October 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


It should not be surprising that giving arbitrary power to distant, all-powerful, all-controlling overseers often results in gulag conditions. Dwarf Fortress is Stalinist.

i'm not sure you understand what stalinism means
posted by p3on at 10:03 PM on October 26, 2013


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