Dwarf Fortress: A Marxist Analysis

by Henry on January 7, 2014

It is telling in this regard that previous versions of the game used to have an internal monetary economy, with dwarves receiving payment for labor and buying commodities collectively produced in turn. But contradictions occurred between the dwarves’ collective possession of the means of production and the commodified basis for such an economy, and it became unworkable within the game. The game’s designers have abandoned it, and its only remnant is the ability to produce coinage, fulfilling no real purpose. (Indeed, this right of monarchs only achieves true significance beyond questions of prestige in the mercantilist period of absolutism, arguably.) Trade exists, of course, as it does in all feudal societies. This takes the classically feudal form of long distance trade undertaken in dedicated seasons with definite trading partners, the trades themselves taking place at the equivalents of the yearly fair-sites of high medieval France and Italy.

With additional Durkheim and Bloch too! (via David Auerbach on Twitter)

Update: It’s catching

{ 31 comments }

1

Billikin 01.07.14 at 5:04 pm

“previous versions of the game used to have an internal monetary economy, with dwarves receiving payment for labor and buying commodities collectively produced in turn. But contradictions occurred between the dwarves’ collective possession of the means of production and the commodified basis for such an economy, and it became unworkable within the game.”

That verbiage has become a little too jargonified. Can someone please say what it means? Thanks. :)

2

soru 01.07.14 at 6:35 pm

I think it boils down to you have goblins attacking, and swords, and skilled swordsmen. But the swordsmen can’t afford the swords, so the goblins kill everyone.

I’m afreaid I can’t give a page reference for Keynes where he covers that scenario though.

3

SusanC 01.07.14 at 6:45 pm

@2:

I was assuming that the over-use of Marxian jargon was part of the joke. I think I understood what it meant up until “commodified basis”.

I’ll try and explain what I think it means, with reference to Ultima Online (which I think has the same issue, and has the advantage that I’m more familar with it). In UO, the equipment your character needs to use to make things (like a spinning wheel to make thread etc.) is available free for anyone to use in some particular buildings in the towns that (the game fiction says) are owned by trade guilds. Groups of players can also form their own private trade guilds which have their own buildings and capital equipment, which they can restrict to use by members of their own guild if they feel like it.

The basic model assued by UO is that guilds are like a co-op, in which members jointly own the capital equipment they use to make stuff. This is different from a capitalist model in which a factory owner owns the capital equipment, employs some workers to operate the equipment, and keeps (for later sale) the stuff they make. I can see that being inconsistent about which of these two models is in operation would result in something that didnt even work as a game.

4

Scott P. 01.07.14 at 6:55 pm

Looking at the dwarf fortress wiki, it seemed like one of the problems is that dwarves would spend more and more of their time moving around piles of money rather than actually working, lowering productivity dramatically.

In addition, noble dwarves were outside the monetary economy, and could acquire any good they wanted; this would mean they would accumulate objects that were useless to them but might be needed by the fortress as a whole (such as arrows needed to defend the fortress).

5

Plume 01.07.14 at 7:07 pm

Looking at the dwarf fortress wiki, it seemed like one of the problems is that dwarves would spend more and more of their time moving around piles of money rather than actually working, lowering productivity dramatically.

This, of course, is one of the inherent deficiencies of capitalism itself. Its radical shift from “use value” to “exchange value” leads naturally to the festishism of money itself and memory loss as to the things humans actually need for high quality of life.

Money as the goal, instead of good health, longevity, art, a social life, safe food and water supplies, adequate clothing, secure homes, etc. etc.

Money. And money making money. And people taken away from teaching, science, health research, nursing, the arts, social work and so on in order to help money make money, count the money money makes, manage the money money makes. Etc.

It’s a disgusting system.

6

Donald A. Coffin 01.07.14 at 7:52 pm

So, Plume…subsistence agriculture? (Yeah, I’m snarking a bit.)

7

GiT 01.07.14 at 7:54 pm

If @4′s understanding is accurate, that’s just a fantastic bit of emergent behavior.

8

Gabriel 01.07.14 at 8:32 pm

This is fabulous, an elaborate in-joke that the eleven other people on the internet who understand it must find hilarious. I’m an avid video gamer and an ardent leftist; even so, at first glance, I’m not one of those eleven people. The Marxist jargon is just a bit too thick.

For those who are unaware: Dwarf Fortress is a bit of outre video-game art, the most extreme example of auteur simulationism that the video game community has yet coughed up. The creator first went about trying to create a game about dwarves mining. He did this by attempting to model every single bit of minutiae that might affect such an endeavor. he modeled the items, the people, the environments and, here’s the kicker: he then began modelling all of their qualities and interactions. This spiraled out of control until he was modelling social systems and, indeed, an entire world. It’s ludicrous. It’s insane. It’s completely opaque and very difficult to understand, and only a very few people have any interest in playing the damn thing.

It looks as though the paper is meant to meet Dwarf Fortress the other way ’round. Bravo.

9

Palindrome 01.07.14 at 8:54 pm

The economy of a dwarf fortress is centrally planned, so it’s not uncommon for new players to accidentally create their own Great Leap Forward, with too many dwarves working on industrial and trade goods and not enough farmers. This is typically referred to in the community as “fun”.

Interestingly, a fortress without alcohol will collapse almost as quickly as one without food. Another Soviet parallel?

10

Jeff R. 01.07.14 at 9:02 pm

There is an (I think yet-unresolved) bug regarding coins in Dwarf Fortress in that stacks of coins only divide and never recombine. (So you start off with a 100-coin object, then the dwarfs split it up into two 50-coin objects, and so on until each individual coin is an object that the system has to keep track of and the dwarfs have to move around individually, until the entire simulation is slowed down to the point of unusability.)

11

Consumatopia 01.07.14 at 9:33 pm

I think it boils down to you have goblins attacking, and swords, and skilled swordsmen. But the swordsmen can’t afford the swords, so the goblins kill everyone.

No, that sounds like the much simpler Majesty series. That a real time strategy game about a kingdom fighting off monsters in which the player builds and controls the buildings, but the units doing the actual fighting choose their own targets based on the rewards the player chooses to give them (you give them money for defeating a certain monster or exploring certain territory). It’s certainly no where near as memorable or noteworthy a video game as DF, but it did seem to escape the contradictions that this blog post is trying to me are inevitable.

12

Jerry Vinokurov 01.08.14 at 12:52 am

This is fabulous, an elaborate in-joke that the eleven other people on the internet who understand it must find hilarious.

Actually, if the author of that blog post is who I think it is, I wouldn’t bet on it being a joke.

13

Ed Herdman 01.08.14 at 1:37 am

I lose it at Point One of the first (real) comment on the original piece:

1. Dwarven culture is marginally protected from capitalism by the cultural desire to work ones craft.

14

Lasker 01.08.14 at 4:25 am

@ Ed Herdman

That comment is indeed gold, but to my mind you stopped before the best part:

4. Each weapon can be seen as a craft, and you can become a lord of that craft to never be expected to do anything for the rest of your life besides filling that role.

BUT if the whole fortress has been poisoned by a forgotten beast that makes your blood boil until you explode, and the only people left is a Spearlord, metal-worker and 8 kids.

The Adults would get to work fulfilling their new roles as food providers. (And not be very happy about it)

That article made me kind of sad that I didn’t discover the game until after the monetary system had already been discarded.

15

lacero 01.08.14 at 1:35 pm

crooked timberites (timberians?) may be amused to learn that when the economy was in game players would prevent unskilled dwarves from having nowhere to sleep by building great banks of levers and ordering them to be pulled day and night. The game set wage for this activity meant they could rent a room and even afford luxuries like socks to decorate it.

It’s not quite burying money to be dug up, but for obvious cultural reasons digging isn’t suitable as a low stairs activity.

16

Gabriel 01.08.14 at 2:06 pm

“Actually, if the author of that blog post is who I think it is, I wouldn’t bet on it being a joke.”

Oh, it’s a joke, whether the author realizes it or not.

(And once again, via Death of the Author, PoMo pushes Marxism to the curb and shouts, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’)

17

Adam Bradley 01.08.14 at 2:29 pm

“Actually, if the author of that blog post is who I think it is, I wouldn’t bet on it being a joke.”

It’s in the blog’s silly category, alongside “The Lord of the Rings: An Unreliable Narrative. Part I”. Though I suppose a piece of silliness isn’t necessarily a joke.

18

Jerry Vinokurov 01.08.14 at 5:15 pm

I may not have been entirely serious in my previous post.

19

Karl ❤ Rosa 01.08.14 at 6:11 pm

I have it on good authority that Herr Krul is deadly serious and the article quoted constitutes the foundation of his Doktorarbeit. Or at least that is what he indicated in his remarks to the Roguelike RevCom marxist gamers’ conference “Struggle Session 2013″ held last fall in Trier.

20

Billikin 01.08.14 at 6:48 pm

@SusanC

Thanks. :) But it’s still Greek to me.

21

Edward 01.08.14 at 7:01 pm

This almost makes me want to play Dwarf Fortress again. Almost. I didn’t realize that the monetary system had been discarded, but good riddance. One of the problems with it was that once the miners got skilled enough, even a 2 x 1 dwelling would be too expensive for a lot of the dwarves.

Back when I did play, and had nobles show up , I figured out that it was useful to be able to kill them quickly: they’d demand that highly-skilled crafters build them things made of unavailable materials, and when the crafters were unable to comply, the nobles would have them locked up, injured, or killed. Also, even when the items could be produced, they just used up labor and resources that could have found better use otherwise. I always wished that the game allowed the crafting of guillotines, and would let me switch my fortress from County or Kingdom to Republic.

22

Erik 01.09.14 at 2:51 am

There’s something a little sad in that critique of Age of Empires II. The AI in most (older) real time strategy games is kind of an afterthought. AoE is meant to be played against other human beings. That the author doesn’t seem to realize this is bizarre, or perhaps it just didn’t fit the argument.

23

Nine 01.09.14 at 7:16 am

In my somewhat limited experience, in-game marketplaces & exchanges, purportedly designed by actual economists these days, suffer from absolutely titanic information asymmetries. In many MMO’s, players can run the same arbitrage play over and over and over again even after some civic minded individual posts a detailed essay on “How to make 1Trillion Quatloos in a week” to the community board.

24

Robert 01.09.14 at 12:26 pm

If you want a bourgeois economist analysis of virtual worlds, role-playing games, try Edward Castronova. If I understand correctly, my name above links to his subpage listing his books and papers.

25

Robert 01.09.14 at 12:27 pm

On second thought, try this link

26

Robert 01.09.14 at 12:32 pm

I once wrote an applet-based game – called Bukharin – that probably is too outdated to now work on your system. You had to try to grow the economy by cutting back on the production of consumer goods (Marx’s Department II) and putting those resources into the production of capital goods (Department I).

You could have too many resources devoted to the production of capital goods, although I did not have a distinction between heavy and light industry. Soviet states tended to put too much effort into high prestige heavy industries, without ever producing the downstream consumer goods.

I had some options for increasing productivity with increasing returns to scale and even productivity associated with the specific vintage of a capital good. But I never fully explored this aspect.

27

Mercy 01.09.14 at 6:53 pm

“That article made me kind of sad that I didn’t discover the game until after the monetary system had already been discarded.”

The main fun of Dwarf Fortress is in seeing bugs play out in a game with that much detail*, I think, and “capitalism invented, everybody is homeless” was by far the best one, especially as the economy came online as soon as you’d made your first coin. It was like something out of a fable or a cartoon montage: you see the coin being minted, then skip immediately to debtor’s prisons and people starving to death next to overflowing pantries.

*It’s been so long since I played I can’t remember if it was an actual official release where all the cats had blood with a below room temperature boiling point, causing them to explode, or if implementing this was a recommended solution to some other bug (fortress filling with blood from hunting cats since decaying hadn’t been implemented, possibly)

28

Ed Herdman 01.09.14 at 6:57 pm

I didn’t really know what DF was really about until I looked up its wiki, which points to this Let’s Play (which also has an excellent short introduction to what it’s about):

http://lparchive.org/Dwarf-Fortress-Boatmurdered/Introduction/

Granted, it seems like newer versions of the game have scaled back some of the persistent sources of negative consumption externalities (i.e., rampaging elephants that cause traffic blockages).

29

Alex_N 01.09.14 at 9:43 pm

I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening than watching a Dutchman play Dwarf Fortress http://tinyurl.com/o5f6mln

I wonder if anyone will do a Marxist analysis of Danielle Bunten’s M.U.L.E., a game written for The 8bit. Apparently, the game was inspired by Robert Heinlein’s ‘Time Enough for Love’, a book I put down after a couple of chapters. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.U.L.E.

30

Erik 01.10.14 at 5:03 am

MULE is a great game, though not that complicated. First you have your land grab, purchase your capital (mules and their “outfit”, which are production specific), produce your goods (energy, food, smithore or crystite), then an auction with your other players. There are probably a million games like it now, though it was the first, or at least most popular. It would be interesting to read a larger critique of how ideas about the economy get translated into games, from Monopoly to MULE and beyond.

31

robotslave 01.10.14 at 8:26 am

I did have a go at playing DF, many (many!) moons ago. At the time, coins were something you could tell your dwarfopolis to manufacture, but you couldn’t do anything with the coins produced, other than stack them up in storage. So basically, they were bitcoins? Har har.

I totally missed the part (years?) where the game designers decided to simulate a market economy based on these coins, and also missed the part where they dumped the whole system. All very interesting, for sure, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe it tells us quite a lot less about political economy than what we might try to read into it.

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