Empire and Quarantine: The Public/Private in Games

More than just unprecedent times

It has been a few months, now, since I flew on a near-empty plane from Los Angeles to Toronto and my mandatory fourteen-day quarantine ended. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, I have shifted between heightened anxiety that the world is doomed and a depressed detachment. The world is as topsy-turvey as ever and games, those fun things with systems, rules, structures, have provided me space to ground myself. They are a means of a temporary avenue ‘out’, but they also give me the time and space to reflect on the current complexities of the world. 

There are two video games that have allowed me a great deal of time to process: Sid Meier’s Civilization VI and Forager. These games provide two lenses with which to view the world: that of empire and that of an individual; the public sphere and the private sphere. It is the overlap, in the way tectonic plates overlap, between these two that I’ve been musing on.

While intimately linked, I have found that most construct the public and private as oppositional categories. Doing so merely foregrounds their isolated differences, obscuring their mutually interacting transformations.

What, you’re now asking, even is the public and the private? Great question and the answer is it depends on which philosopher you’re privy to. Aristotle saw the public sphere as that of political activity, whereas the private sphere is associated with family and domestic life. Various others argue that the public means the appropriate realm for government authority and the private means that which is reserved for self-regulation. The public seeks to maintain an overlapping consensus, a sort of general agreement, between different conceptions of the private. In other words, the public seeks to form rules which every citizen will want to abide by, even when those citizens have opposing conceptions of the good and contrasting belief systems. 

Yet the distinction between the two is as messy and muddled as ever. “The private is public for those whom the personal is political.” (1) While this comes from a feminist critique arguing that there is effectively no private sphere for women, the personal has become political for pretty much all of us during this quarantine. Where empire used to mean the control of the territory of lands under its political grasp, now it is control of the territory of individual bodies therein. This has, of course, always been the case of the empire: look at prisons, migrant detention facilities and blacksites. Now, however, this extends to all but the extremely affluent (see: Pence and facemasks). Whereas before it was only those minority groups that we could easily forget about, or maybe even think to deserve it, now it is all of us. It is unavoidable.

Civilization VI

Civ has never been a game about the individual. The closest you get to managing an individual in the game is managing your citizen slots (if, say, you want to focus on production). Instead, it’s managing an entire society: dictating what they will learn culturally and scientifically. You play as an immortal emperor, and you farm, build, learn, trade, convert, and conquer.

As this immortal emperor, you acknowledge no superiors in your realm, your rule is absolute, and there is no appeal to a higher power. Depending on what victory condition you choose to aim for, you fulfill the requirements of empire: an imperial policy towards the rest of the world. Sometimes this is religious, sometimes it’s cultural imperialism, sometimes you just wanna boot-stomp your neighbors and go for the domination route.

During this quarantine we have all been subjected to rules which infringe on our autonomy

Intellectually and politically there is a retreat of empire after World War II. The interest in the specifics of empires —their principles of operation and their goals— disappeared as empire became a thing of the past. Yet, beginning in the late 1980’s, there was a resurgence in its study that continues today. That’s due to current issues, such as that of multiculturalism; empires were inherently multicultural, so perhaps by studying them we can find answers to our current-day dilemmas.

Empire, in my mind, focuses on rules rather than its subject peoples. So, too, does Civ. In the Rise and Fall DLC there is some amount of need to pay attention to the people beyond their basic amenities. Cities have loyalty: have your loyalty fall too low, and the city rebels, becoming free. It may then join other civilizations around you. This is dealt with, however, by governors; in other words, by putting the people under specific rule sets.

During this quarantine we have all been subjected to rules which infringe on our autonomy. The movement of people is managed through travel restrictions. The body is dictated by social distancing protocols. Public space has been closed. I see this as empire re-rearing its head through a new imperialism of the body: corpus imperium.


By contrast, Forager focuses on the individual. You have to feed your chibi sprite, but otherwise it’s all about the potential that this individual has, stranded on a small island with nothing but a pickaxe. The potential to mine and forage, to craft, to build, and to buy new lands.

The individual is where the private resides. It is our choice of moral codes, how we answer the relevant questions about the meaning of life, the philosophies we live by, and the spirituality involved in what we believe will happen when we die. Furthermore, the individual is thought to be capable of reason and self-government. 

Yet, during this quarantine, where the territory of empire has been reduced to control of the body, are we thought to be capable of reason and self-government? Or is this not something parallel to colonialism, where the individuals were subjected to stringent rules to “civilize” them? Further, during this time we have seen that not everyone is treated based on the principle of equality. With Trump’s unfortunate naming of the coronavirus was the birth of socially second-class citizens: those of Asian heritage, especially Chinese folx. Racism, especially from a leading political authority, confounds institutional liberal principles (the inherent equality of all people) with personal ones (Trump’s clear belief in white superiority). This quarantine is not the first instance we see this at, with Trump previously targeting Mexican folx, Bush targeting anyone of Middle-Eastern descent after 9-11, Japanese folx after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, those of African and Caribbean descent since Lincoln’s time, and Indigenous folx since European (read: predominantly white) people first saw the New World and thought “dope, I’mma take that, thx.”

Forager, of course, doesn’t deal with any of these heavy themes. I’m only focused on hoarding resources and crafting. The systems in place bring me comfort. I know that if I mine coal and raw ore, I can get gold or iron ingots. I know that by smelting these together, I get steel. There are some small quests, such as filling up a museum with various items — i.e. collect stuff. There are also a few light puzzles. By and large, it’s a very relaxing game with a cute aesthetic. It simply allows me to detach from the tizzy of this world for a little bit.

When the Private Becomes Public

The personal is becoming political, as I mentioned earlier. Now, however, I would like to take some space to talk about what kinds of impacts we’re seeing on people because of that. Effects on the body, such as confinement, have effects on the mind, such as depression. Those who now work from home have a harder time distinguishing the boundary between home life and work life. In many ways, we are being reduced to bare life during this time: do what it takes to survive and no more. We are inherently social creatures, yet during this time we cannot engage in this basic act of self-care. Many of us have turned to the internet as a means of communication, but a care react will not substitute a real hug (sorry, Faceborg).

Now more than ever we are being affected by structure

I mentioned that Forager focuses on potential. In some ways, people like myself with ample free time are capitalizing on the creative potential offered. I’ve been consuming copious amounts of others’ creative materials (reading, watching Twitch streams and YouTube tutorials, listening to podcasts, etc.) as well as having a high output of my own creative content (writing, painting, undergoing an origami project that will take 2160 pieces of paper). Video games are in high demand (which isn’t without controversy). Perhaps this time will show more people the value of the arts.

Yet I feel much more like we’re civilians in a Civ game than Forager’s character. Policies have been put in place to manage us on a much smaller scale than ever before, and this confines us. Something as simple as going to the convenience store is now a political act and a ‘how far is 6 feet/2 metres?’ pop quiz. Now more than ever we are being affected by structure and our actions are more heavily regulated. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against policies implemented to ensure my well-being. I think regulations such as the mandatory wearing of face masks is a good idea, at least until we understand more about the virus. I am merely noting my personal discomfort with my private becoming public. I worry, too, about what “temporary” measures will find themselves as a more permanent fixture of our governments and, potentially, our daily lives (such as what happened with Social Security in the US). 

I can’t help but think of the words that came after a diplomatic defeat in my Civ game: “From the dust to which our civilization first rose, so to shall we return. As the light of our people fades to nothingness, we wonder if one will rise to rekindle our flame.

(1) Catherine A. MacKinnon, Toward A Feminist Theory of the State 191 (1989).

By Ari Hiraeth

Ari is a caffeinated, creative queerdo and PhD kid studying ethics and political theory. In their limited free time they enjoy playing games and collecting bird related objects. @AriHiraeth

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