A gamer’s guide to social reproduction

Video games can be vehicles for a whole range of political ideas – and some can even help us explain social reproduction theory, argues Kate Bradley.

Image by Olichel Adamovich from Pixabay

Anyone who has ever spent any time on video games will know the genre of the ‘city-builder’ game. Classics like SimCity, Master of Olympus and Tropico attest to the popularity of the genre. I believe they have an unexpected value: they can help explain the concept of social reproduction.

As Novara Media’s Marijam Didzgalvyte pointed out, in 2017 the games industry was on track to become more profitable than film, and it has audiences far larger than most popular media. If we want to understand how ideology functions today, video games deserve our attention as an under-investigated influence on people’s lives. They provide a novel and formally distinctive sphere where familiar ideas can be projected and played out. As has been argued many times, for instance, first-person shooters often propagate very traditional ideas of masculinity and individual responsibility with their rugged, lone-wolf lead characters. Many shoot-em-up games also have deeply racist storylines that reek of American imperialism. But not all games have such dismal politics, and gamers are not merely passive consumers. Games can also be used to get to grips with interesting political ideas.

For those of you not versed in gaming, the city-builder genre encompasses games which enable players to build simulated cities and worlds from above. In city-builder games, there are usually overriding economic and political objectives, such as winning a war or creating a functioning economy. Therefore, they’re good tools for understanding how systems work, albeit in a simplified form. Since they offer a top-down view on the structure of society, they can help us understand how those who dream up systems might envision them working.

A good example of this is the Tropico series. Tropico is a popular city-builder first released in 2001 that’s now available in several versions and on multiple gaming platforms. On the island of Tropico, you play a leader (‘El Presidente’) whose government is tasked with building up a small island in the Caribbean. You have ultimate control over how to grow your economy (an overriding imperative on Tropico like it is in any capitalist country) but you have to balance growth with keeping the people contented enough to work and not rebel against your leadership. This means that you are pressured to provide forms of entertainment, healthcare and worship for your population. As the population grows, you have to provide education if you want to diversify your forms of economic production and increase happiness. You must also control migration policies, deciding how many workers of what skill level are let into the country. When you get to the stage of the game where you can choose to privatise your industries, you’ll soon find you’re simply maintaining and looking after your population on behalf of the companies that now run businesses on your island, which starts to look a bit like modern capitalism.

This can really help to explain parts of social reproduction theory. The social reproduction framework is based in Marxist theories of how the economy functions under capitalism. Theorists of social reproduction argue that in order to ensure efficient profit-making, capitalists rely on a steady supply of working-class people who are able to work for them, since they provide the labour which capitalists need to produce goods and services and therefore profit. Thus, it is in capitalists’ interests to reproduce the workforce – through ideological pressures on women to have children, for example, or through managed migration. It is also in their interests to play some role in meeting various basic needs like education and healthcare, or at least to lobby and pressure the government to do so, as this gives workers the skills they need to work and keeps them healthy and functional. These are just a few of the myriad ways that a social reproduction framework can be used to understand the complexities and apparent contradictions of capitalism.

In Tropico, the needs of your industries, which are at first largely nationalised, often mean that you need more workers, so you can choose to encourage immigration to the island. But to deal with the growing population, you must build more housing – cheap enough to house workers on low pay, but good quality enough for the Tropicans to vote you in again next time there is an election. Tropicans get ill, and to treat them you need to build clinics. But clinics require doctors, so you have to either ship in skilled doctors – an expensive business leading to tension with the nationalists at home – or you can provide education to your native population.

While they’re young, pregnant or in education, Tropicans are not in productive labour, but they’re still crucial to the functioning of the economy, a fact that is at the heart of social reproduction theory. Tropican mothers, children and students are vital parts of the island’s working class, since they will ensure the population’s reproduction and so their economic inactivity is a trade-off for your island’s long-term productivity. As you play, you find yourself trying to control them: we need farmers, so why won’t my female Tropicans get married and have kids?! And so you’re drawn to coercive policies like contraception bans – policies which have very real roots in history, and are a very real threat in some places today. Of course, Tropicans are just pixels, economic units. But are we so sure that that’s not how some managers of big corporations see their workers?

City-builder games without an element of social reproductive intervention from the state are hard to find. Even in simple games like Master of Olympus, Emperor or Pharaoh, attempts to create realistic mechanics mean that populations require entertainment, education and healthcare for the economy to stay functional. These games are obviously an immense simplification of real life, and tell us relatively little about struggles from below. Nevertheless, city-builders can serve a useful purpose in explaining the abstract concept of social reproduction.

Whether or not they turn us into bloodthirsty capitalists remains to be seen.


  1. This is funny considering I’ve always valued Tropico for its demonstration of class politics, and how you can build islands that are based around the capitalist class and the military either through repression or propaganda and keeping political power in the hands of the rich, or establishing a socialist government committed to industrialization and expanding the economy for the sake of schools, hospitals, and international participation as the Communist faction wants. In reality the game also is always quite generous with immigrants so you usually just focus on education to fill the new jobs in clinics, water treatment plants, or factories. The game captures the time period well, like education being more about service than self actualization or human capital, the reactionary church, and the threat of invasion by the US and the hatred by the capitalist faction for social programs or workers power.

    Also the game is a completely planned economy, either a capitalist clique or a workers government, always geared towards export. The ability to import people on the scale that social reproduction can be ignored is unrealistic, but the need for growth for a socialist government is not. We should not forget that.

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