Ethics in video games (not to be confused with ethics in video game journalism) is a favorite topic of mine. Given my recent interest (“obsession,” if you prefer) in the 4X strategy game Stellaris, it’s an area whose time has come to revisit.
Starting with the basics: if you don’t know what a 4X game is, it is a type of strategy game, so called because of the four main activities that characterize such games–eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate. They are often set in space, as was 1993’s Master of Orion, the first game to be called 4X.
Stellaris is the latest game to follow that pattern. Starting with a single planet and newly-discovered interstellar travel technology, it is your mission to explore the stars, settle planets, gather resources, and eventually conquer the galaxy. You will encounter alien species who are trying to do the same. It is almost inevitable that there will be conflict and war. A good 4X game, then, balances aspects of empire management, resource allocation, diplomacy, and war strategy. Any of these might be worth discussion on their own, but here I want to talk about Stellaris’ slavery mechanic, which is (as of this writing) exceptionally advantageous, with some thoughts on its implications.
Slavery has a long history on Earth, likely predating recorded history. It has been found in almost all cultures at some point in time. Its incarnations and particulars vary, but the basic premise remains the same: a person is owned, as property, and controlled by another. It is the antithesis of liberty. In almost all cultures today, it is considered a repugnant, outmoded institution.
In Stellaris, however, it’s a powerful tool for the management of your populations, called “pops” in-game. All strategy games have resources, and Stellaris is no different. Here, you must manage food, minerals, energy, and three types of scientific research. A given pop can be enslaved at will, assuming you have the proper social policy active. This causes the enslaved pop to produce 20% more food and minerals, but 33% less energy and 75% less research. Because pops are placed on surface tiles of each planet you control (and each planet has a dozen or so such tiles), and since each tile produces only one or two types of resources to begin with, it’s easy enough to manage this by enslaving pops on food and mineral tiles, and leaving the rest free. This gives you the benefit of the enslaved population with no production penalty to the free pops. The effectiveness of slavery can be boosted by 10% or 20% under particular empire types, and another 15% through the use of a planetary governor with an appropriate trait. All of these effects accumulate, so if one is committed to making slavery a major element of their empire, it is not difficult to maximize its effects.
There are definitely downsides. Another mechanic is that of happiness, which is tracked for each pop. Unhappy pops may eventually revolt, though slaves never will. Slaves do receive a 15% happiness penalty as soon as they are enslaved, though, and should they be emancipated, they suffer a 5-year-long 30% happiness penalty. This creates a perverse incentive in which it is better to keep people enslaved than to free them, since slaves are a) not as unhappy as freed slaves and b) enslaved pops can’t revolt. In fact, outright killing (“purging”) enslaved pops you no longer want may be preferable, since the penalties are generally lower than the emancipated slave penalty. Free pops also see their happiness reduced by the presence of enslaved pops, but this can mitigated by using the right ethic type. Fanatic collectivists, for instance, have no empire-wide happiness penalty at all–they are completely tolerant of slavery.
The effects can vary based on the species of those enslaved, as well. Since, in the course of a game, you may conquer alien races, there are types of ethics which favor slavery so long as you’re only enslaving aliens. And due to the way conquered aliens respond to being under a new empire, enslaving them is often the only way to control them. Combined with the purge and resettlement mechanics, a player with no scruples can systematically enslave, ethnically cleanse, and genocide his own people, troublesome aliens, or both.
Such possibilities are not unusual in other games developed by Paradox Interactive. One could chalk it up to a dark sense of humor. But the fact remains that these mechanics, combined with the right empire setup, can be extremely powerful and give you an advantage over your opponents. Imagine: a racist, genocidal regime with rampant slavery might have a significant economic and military edge over a freedom-loving federation, and that federation will only grow more and more disgusted with their slaving neighbors, even to the point of going to war with them.
It’s here that we see a plausible downfall for slave-oriented empires: powerful neighbors who won’t tolerate the practice. Currently, it is not possible for slaves to revolt, nor to be influenced to revolt, but it would be an intriguing twist if that became possible. As it is, strategically enslaving, resettling, and purging doesn’t come with terribly serious consequences so long as you’ve chosen compatible ethics. Is such a gameplay style thus endorsing slavery and genocide? I wouldn’t go that far. But the way such mechanics are employed in games imparts value judgments–mechanics are not neutral. To what extent slavery helps or harms a video game empire is, whether it means to or not, communicating an opinion about slavery. Purges are perhaps even more troubling, given that their happiness penalties can be kept low-to-nonexistent, and xenophobic empires can annihilate aliens with impunity.
Viewed through a serious lens, Stellaris presents anything but a utopian, progressive view of the future. It is decidedly _dys_topian, in the way populations are abstracted and controlled like mindless automatons, enslaved, moved to other planets, or killed at will. Despite the different government types, gameplay doesn’t vary tremendously between them–in each, the player is essentially a dictator who controls the fates of everyone in his domain. The myriad ethics and traits merely help make the game more (or less) amenable to the player’s intentions. Looking at the genre more broadly, 4X space games tend to share a similarly cynical view of a spacefaring future. Citizens in interstellar empires come across as little more than mindless drones, employed in the service of one goal: expanding their ruler’s empire. To stand still is to risk extermination, so the only option is to grow and conquer before someone else conquers you. Included in this recipe are devastating weapons, technologies with the power to raze or even destroy planets. Realistically, these scenarios are unbelievably horrific–it’s hard to imagine a worse fate for the human race apart from being extinct.
Fortunately, this is just a video game, and Space Hitler is safely confined to a save file. I just hope that, should humanity ever reach for the stars, our future is a bit more Star Trek and a bit less Stellaris. (Still gonna play it, though.)