I Tried to Lead an Ethical Star Nation

Using the strategy video game “Stellaris” to better understand what it takes to build international—or intergalactic—solidarity.

The planet Earth, capital of the People’s Republic of Earth (PRE), is beset by crime as it recovers from a recent orbital bombardment from the murderous mechanical hivemind known as the Mechazur Nexus. Almost a third of the planet’s surface is rubble and fused glass. The Slidor Syndicate—a ruthless criminal corporation—has expanded, smuggling illicit goods and using Earth’s population for dangerous scientific experiments (rumor has it that humans are well suited for testing all sorts of cosmetic and medical products). A mysterious alien-bird empire has Just invaded the planet as well. The People’s Republic of Earth Is now at war on three fronts in an unforgiving galaxy…

We on the left pride ourselves on our political imagination. As a leftist, I’m in the business of imagining a different, better world, and I often use games to explore these ideas. In two decades of gaming, I’ve noticed that the creators of games—who tend to be overwhelmingly white and male—often have limited political imaginations when compared to their inventiveness in other realms. Game developers, like all artists, are deeply influenced by the norms of the society they grew up in. Virtual worlds (don’t make me say metaverse) often share features of our own world, whether those features are intended as satirical commentary or are simply unconscious reflections of the particular perspectives of their creators. Modern games often feature explorations of imperialism, militaristic aggression, “law and order,” and racism. At best, these depictions can help us better understand our own social context in a new way. At worst, these games promote the many injustices that exist in society (even if their creators didn’t consciously intend to make political statements through their games).

Stellaris is a grand strategy space exploration game in which you start on a home planet (Earth in this case) in the year 2200. At the start of the game, humanity has already made two major advances. First, the many nations of Earth have come together to form one world government, the characteristics of which are up to the player. Second, humanity has developed faster-than-light travel, enabling us to travel outside our solar system, visit neighboring systems like Alpha Centauri, and spread our species (and our way of life) across the galaxy as we interact with various other inhabitants of the Milky Way. You play as an ageless central planner guiding your home civilization through the future centuries in times of peace, war, economic development, and diplomacy. You must avoid total annihilation at the hands of empires led by war-prone aliens, artificial intelligence gone rogue, creatures called “assimilator species” that can absorb and incorporate the DNA of their victims, massive swarms of microscopic space robots, and even space whales—mostly placid interstellar life-forms that have evolved to thrive in the vacuum of space. You choose your nation’s policies and starting government structure, deal with internal factions and elections, then select how your people will interact with space and its inhabitants.

Stellaris stands out from its peers in the genre, as it allows a communist or social democratic form of government—a rare thing in modern science fiction or gaming, in which it’s much more common to find hyper-capitalist hellscapes like Blade Runner, Cyberpunk 2077, or The Expanse than any kind of true social democracy. Even Star Trek, the original space utopia, has been partially transformed into gritty dystopia in its recent incarnations as Discovery and Picard. Such stories would seem consistent with reality, with billionaire oligarchs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos hungrily eying our solar system and our government practically begging them to start the process of capitalist exploitation of space. Even now, Bezos hopes to eventually outsource heavy industry to the moon and Musk has his heart set on a Mars colony (I wonder what labor standards would be like with kilometers of vacuum between these operations and any Earth government).

It’s very tempting (and easy) to play Stellaris with an expansionist and militarist mindset—this also happens to be the default mode for most grand strategy games, from the board game Risk on down to its many imitators. But when I set out to play Stellaris, I decided to see what would happen if I created a socialist society based on internationalist principles. If the humans of Earth could transcend our differences and unite together in a socialist society, how would our principles be challenged as we attempted to explore space? Could space communism persist—even thrive—under pressure? I created a custom civilization called “The People’s Republic of Earth,” an egalitarian society in which all people’s needs were met and the focus was on peace and justice, not war and aggression. From the beginning, I decided I would compromise as little as possible. For the first few decades of the game, I built nothing but Science Ships, which are strictly for exploration and research, outfitted to boldly go where no person had gone before. Even after meeting my interstellar neighbors, I was able to focus almost exclusively on building research facilities to uncover the secrets of the universe, and sending envoys to make new friends with various alien civilizations. As other interstellar governments waged war on each other, PRE territory was a safe haven for refugees of all species, including androids (synthetic life-forms like Data from Star Trek). I made sure that all my people had access to housing, food, and the most technologically advanced healthcare available.

The honeymoon ended when the Mechazur Nexus entered the scene. The Nexus was intent on eliminating all organic life and populating the galaxy with drones—in a manner similar to but legally distinct from the Star Trek Borg©. Their war fleets vastly outnumbered those of the PRE. While teaming up with a network of alliances was enough to prevent immediate destruction at the hands of the Mechazur, a century-long Cold War ensued. PRE’s economy was forced to reorient to a permanent war footing, which entailed building massive star fortresses and retooling space stations to produce warships quickly and continuously. PRE workers built alloy foundries and scaled up planetside mining to fuel the forges. They built housing for the constant stream of survivors who sought asylum from the Mechazur advance. Next came the sales agents of the Slidor Corporation, sleazy flim flammers who used bribery, extortion, and theft to expand their massive crime syndicate into PRE space. The corruption they caused led to massive production delays as the people of our many worlds and space stations were seduced by promises of quick profits and the personal accumulation of wealth over the collective collaboration at the heart of the People’s Republic of Earth.

The structure of the game’s built-in trade-offs model the political choices inherent in creating any kind of polity. My decision to avoid offensive wars and prioritize economic development and diplomacy (the ultimate fantasy for a 21st century American) benefited the well-being of the planet’s people, but I had no power to prevent the rest of the galaxy from falling into superstition and authoritarianism. I often found myself grappling with the unspoken goal of the strategy genre: to build an empire. While I felt justified in conquering systems held by rogue AI or aggressive criminal syndicates like the Slidor, I still found myself tempted to wage the kind of misguided ideological wars characteristic of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century (couldn’t I do something about that superstition and authoritarianism and perhaps get some valuable natural resources in the process?) Moreover, the game falls short in accurately modeling the kind of long-running insurgencies such invasions usually provoke. My star society managed to stay true to anti-imperialist values (prioritizing diplomacy, valuing self-determination, and attempting to spread democracy through setting a good example, not at the point of a spear). However, I still felt that the game was not designed to model the staggering (and tragic) costs of endless wars of conquest.

In fact, Stellaris (and gaming in general) was not designed to simulate other societal complexities such as popular uprisings or the diversity of society as a whole. While the internal dynamics of societies include factions which have certain policy preferences (a xenophobic faction will prefer that you don’t welcome any refugees, for instance), these factions are undifferentiated in terms of class composition or racial composition; nor are there factions that are made up of social groups like the military, clergy, or other professionals which occupy strategic sites of power. One of the important insights of the socialist tradition is our understanding that social and economic classes (and the conflict between them) are major drivers of historical change.

illustration by mike freiheit

This concept of class conflict is usually not represented in mainstream modern American conceptions of politics. Instead, Americans of all classes are encouraged to identify with one of our two major political parties based upon social and cultural values, with class conflict largely taking place outside the official spaces of electoral politics (Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are rare examples of national politicians who speak in terms of class conflict: the exceptions prove the rule). The game’s designers buy into the classic American concept that politics are practiced within a “marketplace of ideas’’ on a level playing field, instead of my own more depressing contention that politics can be better modeled as an “arena of constituencies,” complete with blood, gore, and corporate sponsorships. The recent bitter conflict over the Build Back Better Act in Washington showcases this reality, as a multimillionaire coal baron (Joe Manchin) obstructed legislation that would make life a little easier for millions of middle-income and poor Americans and would also start making bare-minimum investments in fighting climate change. Both Manchin’s general interest as a card-carrying member of the 1% and his particular interest as someone with investments in the coal industry are directly opposed to his political party’s signature domestic policy agenda. High-minded discussion of the issues on the merits has little to nothing to do with the ultimate fate of the legislation (not to mention the country).

As of 2400 C.E., halfway through the game, space communism survives (even on the highest difficulty setting) but is far from thriving. The PRE has been forced by necessity to ally itself with a megacorporation run by rock people and a theocratic state of floating brains. The galaxy is divided roughly into thirds, with one third held by a pair of murderous mechanical hive minds, one third held by various kinds of interstellar corporations, and one third held by religious zealots. The star systems of the People’s Republic of Earth stand apart as beacons of liberty and democratic governance, but survival is far from guaranteed.

The inherently liberal capitalist frame that undergirds the game’s systems can be seen in all sorts of small and large ways, some of which have implications that are truly heartbreaking. One inherent assumption baked into the game is that more police leads to a reduction in crime, an assumption that is endemic to our society but increasingly challenged by data as the discourse surrounding policing changes. The very concept of “crime” in the game is curious, as the myriad policy options available to you do not include options related to drug prohibition, sex work prohibition, or gun control. While you can outlaw robot workers, institute slavery, or criminalize political dissent, you cannot legalize or prohibit drugs, sex work, or guns. It isn’t that the developers assume all these things will be legal in the far future, because one of the negative events you can get if your planet has a high crime value is that it becomes a hub of the interstellar drug trade. Perhaps the idea is that the drugs of the 23rd century are so potent and dangerous that no government, no matter how libertarian, permissive, or even sinister, could contemplate allowing them. Regardless, the collapse of sex work, drugs, crime, and guns into game features that have a narrow range of possibilities clearly shows that the baseline American prohibitionist mindset is the only game in town for the developers of Stellaris. You can make fungus people who worship space dragons, but they aren’t allowed to get high while doing it. (Perhaps research into the treatment potential of psychedelics was suppressed in the 22nd century just as in our 20th.) You can build police stations, but abolition is largely off the table. (As in real life, police and military budgets can only go up.)

In another example, the “sprawling slums” that you start with on your founding planet act as a blocker that prevents you from improving them or building on the land they occupy. Regardless of your chosen political outlook, the only interaction available is old-fashioned Robert Moses-style slum clearance. The idea that the residents of these “sprawling slums” might actually make up part of the governing constituency in a socialist or communist society is not considered. Even more grotesque, the reward for clearing these “slums” is the creation of a new citizen for your world, apparently from nothing (the game denotes population by giving planets a number of citizens, with each individual representing a much larger group of people). This new citizen has the ability to occupy jobs and produce goods and services for your space society—creating alloys to build ships and space stations, science points to further research, or harvesting food, minerals, or energy from their planet’s natural resources.

This isn’t just an annoying quirk of the programming: it’s pure unfiltered capitalist ideology. Under this framework, the inhabitants of low-income “slums” are inhuman, savage to the extent that they cannot participate in society except as parasites, and the only way to make them “productive citizens” is to bulldoze their already substandard housing to make way for further development. While I would expect such a choice if I had chosen to play as a fascist dictatorship or a liberal capitalist regime, it seemed deeply unfair that, even when I had opted for space communism, the only way I could interact with this game feature was to enact the racist assumptions of 20th century urban planning and just demolish the homes of large numbers of urban poor people. Another telling detail is that these slums are called “The Delhi Sprawl.” (To their credit, the developers edited out the specific reference to Delhi in their latest patch.) The developers of Stellaris, it seems, cannot help but recycle half-remembered capitalist ideas about slum clearance and imperialist condescension toward the nation of India because their assumptions and mindsets, like those of the average person, were formed through the education and socialization of an imperialist and capitalist society. Even when all the world joins together as one nation (already a fairly utopian prospect), the player is still encouraged to think of a major part of the Global South as just one big slum that needs clearing out to be considered productive or even truly human. Personally, I would appreciate the chance to build real, high-quality public housing to house the galaxy’s huddled masses.

I cannot entirely blame the developers for their inability to accurately and sympathetically model space communism. Indeed, the shortcomings of the game’s systems point mostly, for me, toward the limitations of our own society’s political discourse and culture. While some of us may be encouraged to “make our voices heard” by voting for one of two options every few years, (many, of course, are implicitly and explicitly discouraged or prevented from doing this), in practice this results in, for the most part, continuation of the status quo. In addition to living under a narrow definition of electoral democracy, Americans are often told that it is rude or distasteful to bring our political selves into, for example, our workplaces, our streets, or our schools. When social movements do start to shake our governing institutions, such as the abolitionist unrest of 2020 surrounding the murder of George Floyd or the 2018-19 teacher strike wave that rocked the South in response to education cuts, they are often viciously attacked by the corporate media and by the elite practitioners of politics who insist that the only “legitimate” arena of politics is the one they happen to dominate. These politicians likely struggle to imagine popular social movements playing a role in government because they, like us, have grown up in a world where social movements are often crushed by the forces of reaction and at best palliated and co-opted into the ruling status quo. This, of course, does not mean that we should just give up, but it’s important that we all understand what we are up against.

My experience leading a communist Earth into the 23rd century is therefore fairly realistic. The game reminded me of the principles of internationalism. Internationalism refers to the idea that the truly revolutionary positive change in the organization of society, such as the creation of socialism, cannot be accomplished if it is permanently confined to one country (or one part of the galaxy). Capitalism—which is the organization of society around profit at the cost of the well-being of people, nature, and the planet—is a global force. Any attempt to break its stranglehold will face intense opposition, producing a siege mentality that tends to lead to stagnation and intolerance of dissent. Just as nations on Earth that have socialist tendencies, such as Cuba or China, are beset by international sanctions, the primary experience of attempting to live one’s values on a large scale is an experience of constant, unceasing struggle. In Stellaris, while I managed to avoid emulating the authoritarianism and murderousness of Stalinism, I paid the price in blood and treasure, as the only alternative to repression was full-scale war against my enemies. Perhaps Trotsky’s idea of “permanent revolution” had something to it after all (please don’t cancel me for revisionism). “Socialism in one country,” like most of Stalin’s ideas and initiatives, seems self-defeating and strangely naïve in a world where capital freely moves across borders and the few extant socialist states and local formations are forced into a permanent defensive posture against the international capitalist world order. It seems self-evident to me that the various cells of the growing international socialist movement should attempt to coordinate and collaborate as we build the future together across borders. My strategy to stave off conquerors with a network of alliances in Stellaris had interesting results. Through prolonged contact with the culture of the People’s Republic of Earth, my allies began to converge and change to be more like their idealistic ally on Earth. The theocratic societies became more secular, the authoritarian societies became more open to immigration, and even some of the less hostile megacorporations became (a little) more egalitarian.

The year is 2443. Our border with the Mechazur Nexus has stabilized and we are at peace with them, as well as most of the galaxy (our star fortresses have proved the adage that high fences make good neighbors). The Slidor Syndicate has been dismantled and absorbed by the People’s Republic of Earth, with the corrupt gang bosses disempowered and ordinary Slidor given a voice in interplanetary democratic government. Most of our past adversaries have moderated, becoming less aggressive and engaging in peaceful interstellar trade. Many states that were once theocracies have become more open to other belief systems or instituted limited democratic systems. A transmission comes in from a spider-like species with psychic abilities and an ancient history, but who mostly stay within their heavily fortified system. Emperor Grodsuun of the Vat’na Kaa Zealots has a message for the galaxy. He has watched from his stronghold as the galaxy has fallen from purity and faith into blasphemy, heresy, and sin. His war fleets and forges are active once again, and they will carve a swathe of fire through the decadent unbelievers of this galaxy. He will start, of course, with the most decadent, the so-called People’s Republic of Earth, whose insistence on rationality and questioning everything personally offends him. However, this time, the PRE is ready. People of every species spring into action, ready to defend their way of life once again against an existential threat. This time, they do not fight alone.

In these times, pessimism is unhelpful. What we need is imagination. Instead of seeing only the current impediments in the struggle for justice worldwide, why not practice a radical optimism and imagine the future we want for ourselves? The People’s Republic of Earth faced challenges but made a positive impact on the in-game galaxy, welcoming refugees, defending organic life from annihilation, and spreading democracy through peaceful coexistence. If homo sapiens ever does reach other star systems, how will we appear to the inhabitants? It seems to me that it’s up to us to make sure we make a good first impression. As leftists, we need to be both able to capitalize (wink) on the existing meager power we command and also expand that power to other places and other sites of struggle. We need to contest every area of society, fighting to win elections from the school board to the presidency. We need to be present everywhere, from large cities to rural communities. We need to represent our values wherever we can, in our workplaces, our schools, our unions, and our families. This struggle is difficult, but nobody ever said it would be easy.

Workers of the galaxy, unite!

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