Foucault in the Woodland, Part One: The Small Folk
Most people would agree that Cole Wehrle did something magnificent with Root. As a game, it’s no mean feat, a sandbox where any number of truly asymmetric factions can interact with surprising fluidity. But that sandbox only scratches the surface. Root is also the most Foucauldian examination of power dynamics ever put to cardboard.
Does that matter? Well, it depends. To somebody looking to ransack a few of the Marquise’s sawmills, maybe not. But as a historical and cultural artifact, Root speaks to so much more than its folksy anthropomorphs might lead you to believe. In this series, we’re going to talk about why.
Who’s This Foucault Guy, Anyway?
Michel Foucalt was a French scholar who lived from 1926 to 1984, although there’s some difficulty in pinning down what type of academic he was. The easiest answer is that he was a philosopher, since for a time he served as the head of a philosophy department. Then again, while his academic tenure was generally connected to philosophy, it wasn’t an exclusive relationship; he also taught psychology and history, and his interests ranged as far as anthropology, criminology, and critical theory. The broadest descriptor would be that he was a historian of ideas — just don’t tell that to any historians, because they generally consider Foucualt pesky and unrigorous even though two of his books are essential reading for every first-year history grad.
That’s the thing about Foucault: his ideas were so wide-ranging and so unanticipated that it’s hard to find a field in the humanities that went untouched by his work. Literary theory and textual criticism, sexual history, historiography, penal and education systems, feminism, Marxism (real Marxism, not “everything left of a tailgate party” American Marxism), the entire field of discourse analysis — it’s almost impossible to receive a higher degree in the humanities without at least a passing familiarity with Foucault. For all that, it would be a mistake to confuse him with a nebbish and quiet academic. Between his involvement with two Communist parties (and his eventual dissatisfaction with their behavior) and the vocal dispute over his appointment to the Collège de France, he was often controversial, right up to the end when he became one of the first public figures in France to die from complications with HIV/AIDS. And before somebody brings it up, yes, he lobbied in favor of pedophilia and has been accused of abusing underage boys in Tunisia. For all we know, the guy was a sex pest.
But we aren’t here to critique Foucault. We’re here to talk about how Root reflects a Foucauldian understanding of power dynamics. To that end, I’m going to spill the secret right away: The key to understanding Root is through examining the behavior and interactions of the most ubiquitous of the base game’s five protagonists.
That’s right. Five. I didn’t stutter. Five protagonists. Count them on your fingers. Marquise de Cat, Eyrie Dynasties, Woodland Alliance, the Vagabond, and…
The Small Folk
Of the many groups represented in Root, there’s one you’ll never play. Or, more accurately, you’re always playing them. I’m speaking, of course, about the animals that populate the woodland’s clearings and appear on its cards: the bunnies, foxes, mice, and birds that are the game’s suits. The small folk.
These small folk constitute the majority inhabitants of the woodland. That’s obvious through their sheer diversity: herbivores large and small, diminutive predators, and birds are all represented. It’s also obvious through their universal presence, populating and defining the clearings you’re striving to control.
Why, then, aren’t the small folk grouped into a proper faction of their own? It’s possible to consider the Woodland Alliance a faction of, by, and for the small folk, although we’ll eventually discuss why that isn’t the case. The answer is that the small folk are stand-ins for the vast majority of people who aren’t politically “active,” in that they aren’t directly campaigning for one side or the other. This isn’t to paint them as passive. Anything but. As we’ll see, every faction relies on them for nearly everything they do. Production, governance, labor, political support, manpower — if something major occurs in the woodland, it’s the small folk who make it happen. This is often taken for granted. For example, the small folk are responsible for the game’s crafting system. They’re the woodland’s cottage craftsmen, toiling in obscurity behind the gauze of the greater factions’ manufactories.
For whatever reason, however, they’re motivated by any number of factors that place them beyond the comprehensive grasp of those same factions. Survival is the most popular example. Just as ordinary people are wary of losing their lives, careers, or social status, and will contribute to predatory systems as long as they feel sufficiently secure, the small folk aren’t endeavoring to rise to the top of the food chain. They’re trying to escape its bottom rungs. Of course, they likely have preferences, aspirations, and opinions of their own. But like most people, they’re geographically bound to particular clearings, easily cowed by shows of strength, and repeatedly coerced by whichever authority figure has set up camp in their area.
The small folk are us. And Root tells us about its various factions by how they engage with those small folk — and how the small folk sometimes engage back.
A Brief Introduction to Biopower
One of Foucault’s most lasting contributions to our understanding of power dynamics is the concept of biopower. We’ll be discussing it throughout this series, but we might as well introduce the idea briefly before we jump into any examples.
In its crassest form, think of biopower as population control.
I call it crass because populations have always received some measure of control from states. To Foucault, however, that control was historically based on what he called “deductions” — the capacity of authorities to deprive individuals of their rights, liberties, and lives. If you pissed off your feudal lord, they could strip you of your land, lock you in a tower, and have you flogged or beheaded. The same went for larger sections of the population: particular ethnic groups or social classes might be enslaved or deprived the rights awarded to the privileged. In both cases, these deductions could serve as deterrents to undesirable behavior, but they were inherently corrective; they required the direct oversight of state authorities, and any behaviors that escaped notice effectively hadn’t occurred. In Foucault’s view, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, who the hell cares about some stupid falling trees?
Then along comes the modern nation-state with its scientific thinking, psychological insights, disciplinary systems, and information-gathering potential. Rather than focusing on control only through deductive, corrective acts, these nation-states begin to create incentives to channel their population’s motivations. On the whole, these acts are positive — in the sense that they’re additive rather than deductive, not that they’re “good” — and operate by normalizing particular behaviors. There are countless examples. Lionization of the military and tuition assistance for those who serve. Penal programs that aim to reshape individuals rather than merely punishing them. The defining of proper and deviant sexual behaviors. For that matter, who the state encourages to reproduce and who it doesn’t. The formation of workplaces, schools, hospitals, prisons, and institutions as places of conformity and optimization. Formal delineation over what counts as heterodox, insane, unpatriotic, or unfit. The possibility of constant surveillance to encourage a population to self-police its norms. Regarding suicide as a catastrophe far worse than any other form of death.
These dynamics, both deductive and additive, are the realm of biopower. And next time, we’ll be establishing a framework for how that power reflects the values proffered by Root.
Part two, All That Power, is already up on Patreon for supporters! You can read it over here.