The Free Drones

Socialists in space.


Well, that was a short chapter. Let’s move on to the next facti-

Hold on. This would be a perfect opportunity to talk about drones and talents, in both mechanical and conceptual terms. Mechanically, drones are the same as discontent citizens in earlier and later Civ games: after a base has reached a certain size (depending on difficulty, number of bases and other factors), new citizens will become drones. If there are at any point more drones than talents, a drone riot will occur, during which no production, research or economic activity will take place. If there are no drones and more than half the population are talents, however, the base will experience a golden age, during which growth and economy are stimulated.

More recent civ games have moved away from these kinds of per-base mechanics in favor of more overall and centralized elements, such as health in Beyond Earth, happiness in Civ 5, and the more nebulous notion of amenities in Civ 6. The purpose of mechanics of this kind is to limit the eternally popular strategy of infinite city sprawl, where you plop down cities everywhere and gain massive bonuses from having cities all over the place. (As the old saying goes: having one base that can churn out tanks in three turns is nice, but having thirty that can churn them out in ten is nicer.) By making it so that new bases require more drone-preventative measures, the city sprawl can be kept somewhat finite.

With this mechanical understanding in mind, we can confront the notion of drones on a conceptual level. However, as soon as we begin to ponder the matter, we immediately run smack dab into the age old debate between nature and nurture. Drones are the outcasts, the poor, the misfits, those who for whatever reason are not included in what we might call polite society. The plebeians, precariats, proletarians, problematic people. The question is not whether they exist – the question is why.

Surprisingly, the mechanics of Alpha Centauri steers towards the nurture side of this debate. The game allows players to devote portions of the economy towards what it calls psych, which I have always read as investments in health and welfare. The easiest way to visualize psych is to think of talents as +1, workers as 0 and drones as -1. Every 2 points of psych adds 1 to this situation. At low levels of investment, psych will convert drones into workers; at higher levels of investment, it will convert workers (or even drones) into talents. This heavily implies that no one is born into dronehood, and that it has more to do with social conditions than anything else. Anyone can become a talent, given enough support, and thus accepting the presence of drones becomes a political choice rather than an economic inevitability.

The Free Drones, as you might imagine, are a reaction to the choice of other factions to accept dronehood as part of their society. Much like the Gaians, the Free Drones see humanity’s new presence on Planet as a chance to get things right from the very start. It is possible to build a society where everyone is healthy and have decent living conditions, and this is what they set out to do. And build it they will, given their massive bonus to industrial production; content and happy workers are productive workers. Especially when the fruits of their labor are readily apparent and distributed all around them.

Attentive readers will no doubt remember the discussion about the Peacekeepers a few posts back, and notice that there are certain similarities here. However, there are important differences that pose as mechanical similarities, and it would be illuminating to delve into these differences. The Peacekeepers gain an additional talent every fourth population point, while the Drones have one less drone per base. Mechanically, this can at times be identical – an additional talent cancels out a drone, turning it into a worker. Ideologically, however, these are expressions of different tendencies. The Peacekeepers wish to give every individual the opportunity to flourish in their uniqueness, while the Drones wish to provide for the material well-being for all of its citizens collectively. The difference, in short, is that between liberalism and socialism.

Depending on whether you are American or European, that last sentence is either going to be perfectly obvious or utterly incomprehensible. So will the statement that the liberal Peacekeepers are right-wing and the Free Drones left-wing. If you find yourself scratching your head at this, know that there are books on history and political theory to read, and that one of the hidden goals of this blog is to get you to read more books, rather than rely on things you half-remember from playing old computer games.

In our discussion on the Believers, we mentioned the inscription on the Statue of Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor / your huddled masses yearning to be free.” It might be tempting to connect this to the Drones as well, particularly in relation to the faction bonus of having bases from other factions which experience drone riots convert and become Free Drone bases. However, there is another quote from another tradition which fit the Drones even better, which I suspect you might have heard once or twice in your life:

Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

The difference is not subtle, especially not when it comes to who is the active subject. Underprivileged individuals seizing the means of production through collective action is a very different thing from uprooting yourself and moving to someplace else because of a vague promise of freedom. While there are bound to be individuals who migrate to the Free Drones spurred by such sentiments, the faction as a whole is a revolutionary project. The fact that they were not included in the base game implies that Earth – or at least the parts that funded the UN mission which built Unity – were predominantly liberal in their predisposition. These sentiments were carried over to Chiron, and thus again arose the need for workers to unite.

The leader quote, ironically, alludes to the reverse of the words found on the Statue of Liberty. It is taken from a song about Jim Jones, a criminal who was sentenced to a prison colony in Australia, the furthest away from human civilization it was possible to go at the time.

Now it’s day and night the irons clang, and like poor galley slaves
We toil and toil, and when we die, must fill dishonored graves
But some dark night, when everything is silent in the town
I’ll shoot those tyrants one and all, I’ll gun the flogger down
I’ll give the land a little shock, remember what I say,
And they’ll yet regret they’ve sent Jim Jones in chains to Botany Bay.

– “Jim Jones”, Traditional

To be sure, there is something to be said for not turning Planet into a penal colony. As the game progresses and humanity ever so gradually begins its preparations towards transcendence, this sentiment is expanded to new domains. As post-humanity become more and more similar to the ecology around it, so too will the egalitarian notion grow to encompass ever more aspects of it: plants, animals, ecosystems. The goal of not accepting dronehood in human societies is transformed into not accepting dronehood on a planetary scale; post-humanity will not be the dominant part of whatever planetary consciousness that is to come, but neither will it be dominated by it either.