Code of Conduct

Platforms are taking over capitalism, but code convenes class struggle as well as control

In 2013, Gabe Newell, the CEO of the medium-size video-game maker Valve, gave a talk at the University of Texas, where Yanis Varoufakis, Valve’s former resident economist (and future Greek minister of finance), was a lecturer. Newell described what the future of capitalism looked like to him, discussing how Valve was opening up new markets within games like Team Fortress 2 and CounterStrike: Global Offensive. For instance, in Team Fortress 2 (a game that is now free to play) you can find, buy, sell, and trade all sorts of items (many of which are hats that modify gameplay), whereas CounterStrike has sustained an entire gambling economy based on “skins,” visual augmentation of the game’s weapons. In this discussion I heard echoes of Julian Dibbell’s 2003 piece in Wired cataloguing the first “unreal estate boom,” in which people bought and sold digital castles in Ultima Online and Everquest for thousands of dollars.

But then Newell began to talk about Steam. Valve first developed Steam in 2003 as a means for distributing updates for one of its most popular multiplayer games, CounterStrike. The aim was to streamline the game’s playability, ensuring that everybody would have the same version at the same time. It didn’t remain merely a software-update portal for long, however. Starting with the highly anticipated Half Life 2 in 2004, Steam became a retail platform selling direct downloads online. Eventually, Valve opened Steam’s store tab to third-party publishers and developers; thousands of games are now on sale there. Different estimates have suggested that Steam controls anywhere from 50 percent to 70 percent of all digital game sales on PCs. In short, Steam became a platform, and it’s this, and not the games themselves, that gives life to the markets Newell was describing.

If you look at video games, capitalism stares back at you. They idealize experiences of individual freedom (through code or play), while exploiting uneven global development

Platforms have been around for a while in the video game industry, in the form of consoles. The Atari VCS of the late 1970s was the first gaming platform to have wide market success, but it also lost control of the marketplace the console’s popularity created because it lacked what we now call “digital rights management.” With a relatively open platform, there’s an incentive for the well capitalized to make a quick buck on suckers, and so they did, flooding the market with a glut of games. There were too many games and not enough consumers —what Marxists would describe as a crisis of overproduction — and it led to the video game industry crash of 1983. Atari declared bankruptcy, buried a bunch of ET: The Extra Terrestrial cartridges in the desert, and the video game fad was presumed over.

Learning from this, Nintendo launched the NES in 1983 (1986 in North America and Europe) with much stricter regulations on content than Atari and its contemporaries. Its console would not play games that were not approved by Nintendo’s internal vetting system, which was set up to control quantity and quality. This approach laid the essential groundwork for platforms today: control through code. With this form of control, Nintendo turned video games from a fad into an industry again (and in the process got investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for antitrust activity in 1992).

Consoles like the NES are platforms for consumption. In his talk, though, Newell described Steam as a portal not just for consumption but for a kind of productive labor: “Our job is to maximize productivity of users in creating digital goods and services,” he said. “The markets will determine what the marginal value add of each of those activities are. The kinds of ways in which people create value and creativity and creating frameworks for that are gonna vary.”

What Newell is talking about is constructing a social space in which users create value — a sort of factory. But unlike in traditional factories, the workers are tasked with self-management in an entrepreneurial meta-competition, seeking new ways to craft or sell virtual items for profit. This is an elaboration of the platform logic of the NES: Nintendo welcomed third-party developers but gave them a false choice: either submit yourself to the strict dictates of the platform or find a different platform. This allowed Nintendo to build their market share on the back of ostensibly independent, self-motivated coders.

Operating online, Steam extends this logic further, not merely to third-party business but individual consumers. This makes it like the bigger digital distribution platforms like YouTube, which has more than a billion hours of video inventory available, much of it contributed and organized through the unpaid labor of consumers. But because Steam comes out of the games industry, it has the gamification-based incentive schemes central to the mechanisms of video games already baked in.

If you look at games, capitalism stares back at you. In 2003, Greig de Peuter, Stephen Klein, and Nick Dyer-Witheford argued in Digital Play that video games were the “paradigmatic” capitalist commodity of our era. Among their reasons were these: Video games are made with high-skilled labor, in line with the fetishization of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields; they conform to the worldwide division of labor where workers in the global north provide the high-skilled labor to develop the code while the material parts of computers are manufactured (and later dismantled) in the global south; and their digital nature makes them subject to different and increasingly pervasive forms of control. Video games open ideological space in which freedom and choice can be reconfigured. In their production process and in how they are consumed, video games exemplify the material conditions of neoliberalism: They idealize and structure experiences of individual freedom and self-empowerment (through code or play), while exploiting uneven global development.

Media conglomerates and industries have long sought monopolies on production or distribution by owning things like rail yards, movie theaters, and arable land. But digital platforms internalize consumption as well, turning it into a form of subtly incentivized labor. Previous forms of labor organization depended on managerial overseers and workers who were rendered into “docile bodies” by, in Foucault’s account, social institutions like factories, prisons and hospitals. Platforms, by implementing code as control, introduce flexibility and mobility to the process, akin to the logistical and managerial innovations brought on by just-in-time production processes popularized by Toyota in the 1970s. Productivity is ensured not by the fear of punishment but by a series of techniques and technologies that allow workers to experience agency even as they are guided toward the expected productive activities. Gamification is central to this.

The driving force behind control remains the same as Karl Marx laid out in Capital: the exploitation of labor to produce surplus value. (In other words, platform capitalism and its Deleuzean control society are not qualitative break from the past, as Hardt and Negri, for example, argued in Empire.) But platforms don’t necessarily care about the messy business of exploiting workers directly. This minimizes their expense and risk, but it also makes the broader economy potentially more unstable. It also becomes the responsibility of the entire society to sustain the incentives motivating workers.

In a recent interview, Nick Srnicek (who co-authored Inventing the Future with fellow left-accelerationist Alex Williams, and is the author of the forthcoming Platform Capitalism) described platforms as intermediaries: tools that bring together consumers and producers, advertisers and audiences. In the same vein, Andrew Leyshon calls them “multi-sided markets.” But, to cook these definitions down, you might say platforms are technologies for the production of distribution itself, and if platform capitalism is about distribution, then it’s primarily about space. Platforms create a space in which specific forms of exchange can occur, and set the terms for those exchanges, all while extracting rents. This is true not only in the virtual realms of space-exploration games like EVE Online, where new territory and new forms of goods are created that exist only within the game. but of Uber as well, which overlays urban landscapes with its proprietary dynamic maps of supply and demand.

Code works when it slides by in the background, but if we foreground it, we can look through the obfuscation of programming language and see this social relation for what it is: control

Rosa Luxemburg argued that colonialism was primarily about expanding markets and labor forces, and Lenin, building on the work of Rudolf Hilferding, made a similar case in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Because capitalist economies generate an excess of capital relative to internal investment opportunities, capitalists need to create new markets and absorb new laborers to exploit. Daniel Greene and I have made the case that this process persists not only in geographic space but also in the “spaces” of the internet. The same process of dispossession and enclosure that has characterized the expansion of capitalism happens online. Whereas peasants and serfs were dispossessed of land and forced to urbanize and take up wage labor, internet users are being dispossessed of their time and attention, which are being enclosed through surveillance, then quantified and monetized.

Platforms are the means for this enclosure, mediating activity for the purposes of controlling all forms of exchange around it. The sheer quantity of platforms that purport to be “Like Uber, but for X” shows how this process continues, with the goal of finding pieces of life that aren’t already commodified to bring them into the orbit of capital, taking things that were once free and selling them to us. Marxists call this “dispossession,” and platforms excel at it.

Things never work entirely smoothly during dispossession. There are innumerable instances of people voicing their anger (and revolting) when what they think is theirs is taken from them. The Luddites knew that the “Satanic” mills were robbing them of their livelihood. The computer-hobbyist community knew it too, when Bill Gates wrote his infamous “Open Letter to Hobbyists,” asking them to stop “stealing” Microsoft software, even though it was built on code that had once been the work of a community.

With platforms the same thing happens, but the owners don’t have to write bitter letters, or file lawsuits, or otherwise try to forcibly assert control over the marketplaces they perceive to be their property. They can instigate unilateral updates to the code, changing both policies and the affordances of platforms, throwing communities reliant on them into disarray.

Code works when it slides by in the background, working its numbers while nobody talks about it. But if we bring it up and foreground it? We can look through the obfuscation of programming language and see this social relation for what it is: control.

Several years ago Valve decided to fundamentally alter a small, moderately well known kind of hobby called modding. Mods are user-created add-ons or alterations to video games, often made with the consent of the game developer. Historically the bargain was this: mod makers could tinker with proprietary game engines to build expansions, add new content, and create new games, but they would not be allowed to sell them. But in April 2015, Valve and Bethesda decided to roll out a new feature that would enable the sale of mods using Steam’s mod database as the platform. This was done by changing the platform’s code; there was no choice for the community of users. The mod community then collectively lost its shit.

When Newell started a Reddit thread and asked why the community was so upset about the change, it became clear that the modder community’s way of life was thrown into uncertainty by the commodification of their hobby, which brought a one-two punch of enclosure and neoliberal incentivization. How would they handle intellectual property claims, considering that their mods were build on other mods, sometimes with dozens of authors? What about mods that enabled other mods to be used? Some anticipated a flood of for-profit mods that would overshadow collective projects that prioritized quality over entering the market at the “right” time (and patching the broken mod later). Many worried that it would look like the Apple App Store: a graveyard of game clones all sold for cheap, hoping to grab quick money from rubes who happened to scroll by and buy it without doing any research. It could be the Atari VCS market all over again. And beyond that, the community members would be forced to become consumers, wondering whether mods were worth paying for after having enjoyed them for free for so long.

The community pushback was such that Valve and Bethesda shut down the paid mods program. A collection of hobbyists and community laborers with tip jars (Patreons and Paypal accounts) resisted the commodification and capitalist organization of their labor, revolted against a multibillion dollar company, and got it to back down. They stopped working, and the power enabled by that code fell apart. This wasn’t necessary understood consciously as class struggle, but it could have been under different circumstances.

We don’t really have to wait to see what’s coming down the pipe. Platforms are everywhere now, and struggle around and on them is increasing. Platform capitalism is ramping up. Housing? Public transportation? Banking? Buying coffee? Everything really. It’s already on a platform. Boring stuff. Fading into the background of life. I think we will resent it, though, like the Skyrim modders. Maybe we will revolt too.

Daniel Joseph is a freelance writer and senior lecturer of digital sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University.