*Author’s Note: I lied! After writing a whole bunch of words about Mass Effect I didn’t like, I decided to start from scratch and write this instead. Also, I’m far from an expert on critical theory. I’m not uninformed, mind, but if you’re in the know and see any glaring errors, don’t hesitate to inform me!
Justin Keever | Aug 18, 2014
Last week I found myself in Disney World riding through Spaceship Earth, which I’m a bit ashamed to admit is one of my favorite rides in the entire resort. (Is it embarrassing to admit that I have a favorite ride at Disney World at all? Eh.) The reasoning for why was never really clear to me, at least not until this most recent visit. I’ve never been much of a thrillseeker, I admit, and I suppose I’m a sucker for Judi Dench-flavored history lessons, but Disney’s slow journey through historic animatronic hell (if you hate animatronics) always leaves me genuinely emotionally moved: somehow, I totally buy into the ride’s goofy narrative about traveling through time, viewing significant moments in the development of communication technology. I realized, as I watched a crash-test dummy sit motionless in front of an mocked-up 80s computer screen, that I love Spaceship Earth for the same reason I love Civilization: the metanarrative.
A “metanarrative” is a grand cultural narrative that is designed to imbue a people with a sense of meaning; to provide a commonality among a group that gives life itself some kind of overarching meaning. Metanarratives are extremely broad: expansive concepts like science, religion, and progress all function as metanarratives: people turn to these concepts to find meaning within existence, giving us grand goals that humanity writ large can put a concerted effort towards. The term was popularized by Jena-François Lyotard, who essentially argued (I guarantee that I’m absolutely over-simplifying his work) that “incredulity” with metanarratives is a primary attribute of postmodernism, as the overarching narrative characterized modernity, with which postmodernity is (obviously) diametrically opposed. As an example, let’s examine “science” as a metanarrative: the “Science” metanarrative would suppose that the progression of technology is the grand historical narrative that we are all taking part in, therefore suggesting that 1) there is some kind of scientific apotheosis that we are slowly moving toward; and 2) that any development in technology is an absolute good, because it is a step in the direction of that aforesaid apotheosis. This kind of thinking is undone in the postmodern world by looking to technology itself. Take, for example, the atom bomb: the sheer destructiveness of the atom bomb counters the thesis of the science metanarrative by presenting an advance in technology that simply can’t be spun positively. Progress is not an absolute good, and framing scientific progress as a linear stride towards some kind of imagined peak misrepresents the randomness and chaos inherent in scientific discovery and creation. Thus, society learns to reject these metanarratives, entering into the postmodern condition.
Metanarratives are worth rejecting, as they reinforce hegemonic structures by reducing the humanity into one homogenous narrative of experience. They are, however, immensely powerful, given that their purpose is literally to give meaning to individuals by convincing them they are a facet of a grand tale of human progress. When one distances oneself from a metanarrative, one embraces a less orderly, less inherently meaningful (though perhaps more truthful!) view of the world, which can be quite frightening.
I’ve written before on how videogames act as a kind of false corrective to life’s inherent lack of meaning, how videogames give the player a world and a narrative that seems to exist for his/her sole benefit. But these experiences tend to operate on a micro level, focusing on moments in the lives of individual characters. Y’know, like most fiction. Civilization operates on a macro level, telling an emergent narrative of the world as you and your opposing civilizations shape it. But Civ is also a game designed to be won, and thus needs to function procedurally in a way that is comprehensible enough for players to eventually master. As such, Civilization is heavily invested in the logic of the metanarrative. The “win-states” in act as the imagined climax of humanity that grand narratives insist we are striving for, and each cultural policy, researched technology, and battle fought pushes us ever closer to that cultural, science, or military victory. I don’t just find this structure convenient as a player, I find it downright comforting: Civilization takes Earth itself and reduces it into understandable, largely linear models of progression. Spaceship Earth operates in a very similar way: history is literally put on rails, presenting the development of communication technology as a steady, linear progression that encompasses the entirety of human history. Both experiences place you in the center of this narrative. In Civilization, the player is literally in control of the narrative; and Spaceship Earth tells its story with the rider as a main character/inconsequential onlooker. The narrative of the latter, in a sense, is the origin story of the rider: all of these moments you’re seeing lead to you riding this ride, and now that you’re privy to the process of progress, you can contribute to it and earn your place among the people you’ve just seen. Both are dangerous, yet uplifting, assurances of meaning.
Chris Franklin has, on multiple occasions, pointed out the procedural rhetoric at work in Civilization, essentially noting the way in which the games reinforce Western values and hypocritically claim to be a celebration of humanity writ large, whilst simultaneously writing off societies deemed ‘lesser’, like nomadic cultures or smaller, less openly ambitious nations (I’m grossly oversimplifying again, you should really just watch his stuff). And he’s absolutely right, but I feel it’s important to not merely accuse Civilization of hypocritically undoing its supposed mission statement with its gameplay. It does, in a way, but understanding the metanarratives at work in Civ gives us insight into how one is able to negotiate Civ’s privileging of nations with its intent of celebrating the history of humankind. Civilization wholly buys into the grand narrative of progress: Each and every technology in the tech tree precipitates another, and each technology moves a Civ forward, towards the next in a linear series of “ages” (the Classical Age, the Medieval Age, etc.). In the metanarratives of science/progress, this kind of development fully encapsulates humanity. If the destruction of barbarians contributes to this narrative, then the human experience has, in the eyes of the believer, been captured. The focus on national identity ties into this same logic: the national entity allows for a hegemonic notion of culture to perpetuate, giving rise to the mass belief in a linear model of progress that defines the kind of modernist thinking that Civilization embodies. These logics are meant to be imposed on the individual: essentially, the national identity is the identity of the individuals of that nation because the individuals are meant to buy into the metanarrative of progress, which the nation (i.e. the player) is actively working towards. Civilization exists in a reality where the will of the nation is synonymous with the will of the individual, because the individuals believe a hegemonic narrative. Franklin is right: this kind of arrangement is hypocritical, given Civ’s apparent goal of celebrating humanity. It is humanity viewed through a lens. The issue is it is humanity viewed through a lens that colors one’s vision of humanity.
And as I’ve repeated ad nauseam (sorry!), it’s a tempting view of the world to accept, especially when you come from a culture that buys into the same narratives (as I do). Civ provides a space where history is modeled in such a way as to make the world knowable, and where we have agency in these processes. The abstract has been made concrete, and we are given the power to actively take part in these grand tales of meaning, where our singular tale of experience is the tale of experience. And for a little while, it’s not our Spaceship Earth, it’s my Spaceship Earth. You just have to stomach a reductive, regressive view of the world to get there. Too bad it’s easier than it sounds.