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Freud, Video Games, and “The Virtual Class” – an essay on civilization (and Civilization VI)

Gamingtodaynews1e - Freud, Video Games, and "The Virtual Class" - an essay on civilization (and Civilization VI)

In chapter three of Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud attributes to civilization a large portion of human unhappiness in the form of the “inadequacy of the regulations which adjust the mutual relationships of human beings in the family, the state and society” (Freud, 2015, p. 15). He questions why, if this is such a major source of unhappiness, and one not inherent to our existence as individuals, do we not simply throw ourselves back into the wild? Let’s put a pin in that – I’ll circle back to it later. First, let’s go over how Freud defines civilization.


Freud begins by defining civilization as “The whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serves two purposes – namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations” (Freud, 2015, pp. 17-18). From there, he begins to describe what he considers to be the elements which indicate a high level of civilization, and how they can be found.


The first stage, as he calls it, is “all activities and resources which are useful to men for making the earth serviceable to them, for protecting them against the violence at the forces of nature, and so on” (Freud, 2015, p. 18). To put it plainly, tools and technology. To put it less plainly, “auxiliary organs”, which allow us to become “a kind of prosthetic God” (Freud, 2015, p. 19). Freud describes examples of different technologies which are found in our civilization and finds as a common thread that each one in some way either perfects and improves upon our natural capabilities or removes limits upon our functions. “They are an actual fulfilment of every – or of almost every – fairy-tale wish” (Freud, 2015, p. 19). These technologies, from eyeglasses as solutions to visual defects to homes as a replacement for the mother’s womb are, in Freud’s estimation, progress towards an ancient ideal of godhood formed long ago as a reflection of that which we found unattainable. We have not made complete progress, of course, but we continue to move towards that goal of godhood. Freud does, however, end this explanation with the addendum: “in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character” (Freud, 2015, p. 19)


On the scale of nations, this “godhood” translates to ultimate control over the land. He describes a nation that has attained a “high level of civilization” as one where the rivers are controlled to prevent flooding and drought, where resources can be easily mined and exploited, where communication has become “rapid and reliable”, and animals are domesticated (Freud, 2015, p. 19). But he is emphatic that, in what he considers to almost be a contradiction to this first rule, civilization in some sense requires an interest in the impractical.


“We welcome it as a sign of civilization as well if we see people directing their care to what has no practical value whatever, to what is useless… green spaces necessary in town as playgrounds… flower-beds… if the windows of the houses are decorated with pots of flowers. We require civilized man to reverence beauty wherever he sees it in nature and to create it in the objects of his handiwork so far as he is able” (Freud, 2015, p. 19)


Why beauty is so important, Freud is not clear, neither in his writings nor in his own mind, by his admission. “Psycho-analysis”, he admits, “unfortunately, has scarcely anything to say about beauty” (Freud, 2015, p. 14). He places beauty in the same category as cleanliness and order in this sense – things which we deem necessary to civilization, but this necessity cannot be attributed to utility. He acknowledges the use value of order and cleanliness, in terms of efficiency and hygiene, but does not consider that sufficient justification for their place in society (Freud, 2015, p. 20).


The feature that Freud claims best characterizes civilization is “its esteem and encouragement of man’s higher mental activities – his intellectual, scientific, and artistic achievements – and the leading roles that it assigns to ideas in human life” (Freud, 2015, p. 20). These are, in order of importance, religion, philosophy, and ideals. While he describes them separately, he stipulates that they are not independent. Furthermore, he warns against “judgements of value concerning any particular religion, or philosophic system, or ideal” (Freud, 2015, p. 21). The quality of these things is not important to the question of the presence of civilization, only their presence.


The final characteristic is that of social relationships, and their regulation. “Perhaps we may begin by explaining mat the element of civilization enters on the scene with the first attempt to regulate these social relationship. If the attempt were not made, the relationships would be subject to the arbitrary will of the individual” (Freud, 2015, p. 21). This process of transformation-qua-mediation of the individual into an aspect of the collective is integral to Freud’s understanding of both the structure of civilization and the forms in which human unhappiness in civilization is brought into being. In terms of the first, this abandonment of the individual will can be summed up in the idea of law, where the individual subjects their own desires to the rule of law, sacrificing their ability to do what want in favor of social oversight. “The first requisite of civilization, therefore, is that of justice—that is, the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favour of an individual” (Freud, 2015, p. 21).


Freud makes a critical point, emphasizing that it would be a mistake to “fall in with the prejudice that civilization is synonymous with perfecting, that it is the road to perfection pre-ordained” (Freud, 2015, p. 22). It is easy to see how this might occur – as Freud pointed out earlier in regards to our pursuit of the godhood ideal, we perceive our development of “auxiliary organs” such as eyeglasses or telephones as a consolation, a promise that perfection will eventually be possible (Freud, 2015, p. 19).


It is in the fact that Freud considers this prejudice one worth pointing out that an interesting point is revealed, especially if we take it into an analysis of popular cultures perspective on civilization. To do so, there seems to be no better jumping off point than Civilization – specifically, Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, the civilization building video game. The premise of the game is that you, the player, are the leader of a civilization, which you follow through its development from the ancient era into the future.


Civilization VI reflects Freud’s characteristics of civilization to a significant extent. To start, many of the major gameplay mechanics revolve around controlling the environment to mold it to your needs. Low lying terrain will flood if not protected, forests need to be cut down to provide farmland, resources need to be extracted and exploited constantly to allow you to progress and keep up in the game. If you’re looking for “exploitation of the earth by man and… his protection against the forces of nature”, Civilization VI makes this central in the players’ work.


Aesthetics, order, and cleanliness are not left out either. Carefully and strategically planning out your city’s organization, both in terms of efficiency and beauty is mechanically rewarded. Culture is represented in a points system which can be earned through the creation of great works of art, music, or literature, and building world wonders grants a number of bonuses to the player. While it is by no means nearly as complicated as planning a real city would be, there is clear intentionality to the idea that a civilization which is carefully built not only for utility but for aesthetics is going to have more success than one haphazardly thrown together.


But there is a point where the holes in this comparison begin to widen, and nowhere is that clearer than in how the game treats your relationship with others. While it is true that in the game you have relationships with other world leaders, but this is never presented in the way that Freud talks about human interpersonal relationships. The world leaders are not individuals, they are just the picture that you see when you’re talking with the civilization you’re engaged in diplomacy with. Any personality they have is merely a few numbers behind the scenes which are static, unchanging, and at most result in one world leader being slightly stingier on trade than another.



And going back to art and culture, their representation in the game is extremely hollow. Each great work of art and each world wonder in the game is a reference to something that exists in real life, on our planet. In a game playing as the Mayans, I might build the Eiffel Tower, or create Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. And as the game takes the abstract concept of “culture” and distills it down to a number, so to are these works of art represented by flat mechanical bonuses. Artistic and cultural products become achievement milestones, things from real life stripped of cultural context, representing an incremental improvement on a linear scale of intellectual progress. Freud claims that envisioning civilization as a path towards a goal of perfected progress is a mistake, Civilization VI is designed around such a mistaken vision.


Indeed, in Civilization VI, the entire question Freud asks about beauty, why we value it when there is no clear utility for it, is sidestepped. Beauty is not abstract; it is pure utility and has a specific numerical value. The age-old question of how to judge the quality of art is answered in Civilization VI – it’s all the same, a couple points to help you on your path towards victory. The player in Civilization VI is an ahistorical god, developing technology and making decisions without any mediation by culture, historical context, or even morality. In fact, the entirety of Freud’s point about social regulation as a core part of civilization is absent from Civilization VI.


And most importantly, there are no other people. If, as Freud claims, a significant amount of human unhappiness comes from the “inadequacy of the regulations which adjust the mutual relationships of human beings in the family, the state and society”, Civilization VI seemingly offers its players a reprieve from those things (Freud, 2015, p. 15). It is civilization without other people. And, with near-omnipotent control over the environment and their civilization, the player fulfills much of the godhood ideal, becoming a god free from other gods. As Franco Berardi describes in The Soul at Work, we put ourselves in a virtual class. Says Berardi:


“The catalogue of the virtual class is sterilized. It proposes objects whose temporality and physicality have constitutively been removed. The removal of corporeality is a guarantee of endless happiness, but naturally a frigid and false one, because it ignores, or rather removes, corporeality: not only that of others, but even one’s own, negating mental labor, sexuality and mental mortality” (Berardi, 2009, p. 104) 


Video games are almost the perfect example of this. They promise endless happiness, power, and control, but mediated by the shallowness that characterizes power over the noncorporeal reality of the virtual. Civilization VI is the perfect example of our collective ideal of what civilization is because it is in essence a simulation of how we would construct civilization if it were not for those pesky “other people”.


“Other people” as the enemy of the individuals feeling of control is by no means a rare concept. Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, uses the experience of seeing another person while walking in a park as an example of the pain induced by being forced to reckon with one’s own decentralization in the world. In Civilization VI, there is no other human being with sufficiently nuanced personality traits so as to be outside the players comprehension. The problem, for Sartre, that occurs when one sees another person is that you no longer have immediate access to all of the world. Where before, you could think about other objects in terms of information available to you, now there are hidden pieces of information that only that other person has access to. When Sartre sees the man, the feeling he experiences is that the man “has stolen the world from ” (Sartre, 2003, p. 255). What he means is that he has no immediate knowledge of the other man’s relationships with other things, and so there are now aspects of those things he cannot access. The world is no longer his alone.


In Civilization VI, this is not the case. The other “people” are not people, they are numbers and information the player can know, that exist for the player. The way that art and culture is distilled performs the same function, giving the player immediate access to that which would evade them in real life. The player is in a civilization where they did not need to sacrifice any individuality. It is not that their will is uninhibited by society, their will is society. The historical narrative of a game like Civilization VI reinforces this as well, applying the idea that the structures of power and disparity which occur from the victory of one civilization over another are the result of strategy and skill by the individual. Structures of power formed by such events are rationalized, becoming aspects of the individual rather than external influences.


Berardi wrote The Soul at Work in part to reckon with the ways in which modern technology influenced our relationship to labour, and to society. He described a perceived of crisis of mental health within what he considered to be a distinct economic class, which he identified as the “cognitariat” (Berardi, 2009, p. 105). He was, in a way, attempting to diagnose a manifestation of depression. “Depression”, he writes, “is deeply connected to the ideology of self-realization and the happiness imperative. On the other side, depression is a way to define through the language of psychology a behavior that was certainly not considered pathological outside of competitive, productive and individualist contexts” (Berardi, 2009, p. 99). Freud positions civilization as a sort of abandonment of the individual, or at least a supremacy of the collective over the individual. But this feels incomplete.


In western society today, the individual has become an ideal. As Berardi identifies, in “the new economy, many are called but only a few are chosen” (Berardi, 2009, p. 99). But this is not the narrative that is told. “There is no competition without failure and defeat”, Berardi goes on to say, “but the social norm cannot acknowledge the form of failure without questioning its own ideological fundaments” (Berardi, 2009, p. 100). And so, while the individual has become the ideal, this does not manifest in the narratives of our economy or society. Capitalism and competition are positioned as the way in which we all as a group will prosper. Freud describes law as a characteristic of civilization which subjugates the individual will to society, but it would appear that this is but a smokescreen, hiding the brutally individualistic competitive society with a veneer of competition as collective good.


The result, according to Berardi, is this mass depression. “With depression we are always affected by a process of demotivation, originated by the loss of an object that used to be the focus of narcissistic attention for the subject. ‘The world doesn’t make sense anymore’ – says the depressed – since the object of his or her narcissistic passion is lost” (Berardi, 2009, p. 102). When one is told that the hypercompetitive system is one which produces success and happiness, and instead they are left alienated and isolated, the world would feel like it no longer makes sense.


Which brings us back to civilization, and to the godhood ideal. When our belief in civilization, when our ability to, as Freud put it, console ourselves with the knowledge that technology will improve begins fails, where does that leave us? Civilization is in a way, an object of our narcissistic passion, and with its loss we would find ourselves demotivated. Alienated from societies call for us to participate, produce, and commit.


And when one turns on Civilization VI, they find themselves confronted with an object of narcissistic passion that makes explicit sense. No relationships are unavailable, no information hidden, no work required from the player that they do not themselves choose and understand. It is pure, unalienated work, it is simulated godhood, a virtual freedom from a society in contradiction.


Freud describes civilization as “The whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serves two purposes – namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations” (Freud, 2015, pp. 17-18). Civilization VI, with its sterile reproduction of civilization, represents a version of this idea untethered from the complicated and unpleasant problem of contradiction; nothing is at odds with anything else, as it is all there for the player, and by the players will.

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