Dwarf Fortress: A Marxist Analysis

Monday, January 13th, 2014

I’ve never played Dwarf Fortress, the supremely complex simulation game, and I’m certainly not a Marxist, but I enjoyed this (somewhat) Marxist analysis of the game:

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. Allowing for the different resources in this or that part of the world, this resembles nothing so much as the colonies of the city-states of the ancient world, or the processes of settlement enforced on pagan Eastern Europe by the Franco-German feudal societies of the high Middle Ages. The goblins and kobolds who regularly harrass your fortress but do not impinge on your world as an equal counter-society are analogous to the more or less loose relations of early Medieval chieftainship that still prevailed in the lands not yet subject to Frankish reconstruction.

Now the organization of labor in a given fortress is essentially revealing of the nature of feudal society. Each dwarf, male or female, can equally be a worker at any task, and who does what is mainly a question of establishing a strict set of social conventions early on that limit each dwarf to a number of possible economic activities reproducing the whole. They live and die within this limited sphere of labor, and are identified entirely by it, being a ‘miller’, ‘miner’, ‘cheesemaker’, ‘planter’, or whatever. Unlike under capitalism, this process is a matter of a more or less organic arrangement enforced by the player as a top-down set of strictures, without the least competition between dwarves, let alone the appearance of such a thing as a labor market. In fact, in the present version dwarves are not paid for their work in money, but rather demand customary rewards in kind, such as high quality food and drink, decent living quarters, and valuable and pleasing decorations and furniture throughout the fortress. This is characteristic of feudal society’s bounding of needs by custom and convention and the strong role of reciprocity in maintaining the division of labor, especially given the technological constraints on mobility and on adjustment of production.

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