Dwarf Fortress: A Marxist Analysis

One of the centerpieces of Marxist theorizing about history, that philosophy of history generally known as ‘historical materialism’, is the succession of modes of production. Each mode of production is essentially a more or less integrated totality of social relations, one that has a stability and continuity determined by its particular division of labor and techniques of production. Each is reproduced on the basis of the ‘laws of motion’ of that particular division of labor and that particular set of technologies, never mind the mental conceptions of society and the role of each functional part within it that form such an essential part of the continuity and stability the material process of social reproduction has.

The classic periodization of history according to this model in Marx’s own day was the succession from savagery (or ‘primitive communism’) to ancient society, feudalism, and then capitalism, with the non-European societies making a detour via the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. After a century and a half of historical analysis and refinement, little of this edifice is now standing. But the two most studied modes of production are perhaps also the most generally accepted and most stable concepts: feudalism and capitalism. But how to understand these? For capitalism, one need look no further than Capital itself and the vast literature that has followed in its wake. Feudalism, on the other hand, is much less well described in its own characteristics – the central point of contention in the literature has been the debate of transition from feudalism to capitalism, much less describing feudalism itself with anything like the rigour of Marx’s masterpiece on capitalism.

Nonetheless, the game Dwarf Fortress is amenable to a Marxist analysis precisely by understanding its relationship to the central characteristics of the feudal mode of production.(1) This can be grasped by looking at the main dynamics of the game: the division of labor, the reproduction of dwarven society, the economic system and trade, and their integration. The first characteristic is the organization of dwarven labor. Starting out with a small exploratory team of settlers, one takes a particular section of the world that is more or less taken as terra nullius and makes it amenable to dwarven homesteading and regular life. This is the beginning of every game in Dwarf Fortress (assuming fortress mode), and it already gives a clear indication of the nature of social expansion under feudalism. The fact of the low population density of the world allowing such expansion is one such observation, but more important is the purpose of settlement itself. Continue reading “Dwarf Fortress: A Marxist Analysis”