Well Played: Passive Attack

The interactivity of games impoverishes our concept of activity and participation

Well Played is a monthly column about video games and how they both reflect and shape capitalism’s development. What role do they play in reproducing society, transforming ideology, and sustaining capital’s pool of labor? The answers suggested here are meant as openings for debate rather than comprehensive, conclusive statements; exceptions to some claims may be obvious, but these don’t nullify the general trends, which must be met with social resistance. This series is offered as a contribution to a map of the territory for those who would join that conflict. is a monthly column exploring the social-reproductive role of video games in contemporary capitalism. Why are video games growing in value and popularity while earlier visual media forms are stagnating? How has the medium reflected and shaped the ways capitalism has developed? What role do video games play in reproducing society, transforming ideology, and sustaining capital’s pool of labor?

The answers proposed here are meant as openings for debate rather than comprehensive and conclusive statements. There will be obvious exceptions: Many games and much game writing will fall outside of or work against some of the claims made here. While such counter-hegemonic works are often to be celebrated, they do not in themselves overcome the general trendlines, which must be met with social resistance. This series is offered as a contribution to a map of the territory, to offer those who would struggle against the power described here some potential tools and routes to its destruction.

Video games, it is known, are an interactive medium. That is to say, they are praised for their ability to respond to the player’s touch, the player’s choices, even their desires and fantasies. Game descriptions often tout the extent of their interactivity, frequently appearing as the promise of players’ “having so much to do.” The critically acclaimed Super Mario Odyssey, released last fall, was celebrated widely for the fact that you could interact with everything you could see onscreen. Echoing the tone of many reviewers, Dave Their in Forbes magazine wrote, “There oftentimes feels like there’s no great way to describe Mario … This thing is Mario.” That’s because Mario Odyssey is a (charming, fun) series of environments whose pleasures come down to the fact you can manipulate and interact with them.

If you could see yourself as passively receiving rather than affirmatively watching and endorsing, you could absolve yourself of the consumerism you were participating in

Similar praise falls upon a game that on its face couldn’t be any more different: Red Dead Redemption 2. Seven years in the making, this fall’s megahit open-world cowboy game is so chock full of life, character, and individualized micro events as to be utterly awe-inspiring. Although much more story-filled, adult, and “prestigious” than Mario Odyssey, one of its biggest selling points remains its scope of interactivity: Look how much there is to do! And look how responsive the world is to you doing it!

At least this time, thanks to video-game-worker organizing and an increasingly large group of critical games journalists, this massive amount of stuff to do is being talked about for what it is: the composite result of hundreds of thousands of hours of often brutal, undercompensated, and unappreciated labor.

Nevertheless, the video games industry and many of the artists, writers, and academics who interact with it claim interactivity as a hallmark and laurel.  Interactivity tends to be central to how games are studied, as if it exempted games from the ordinary rules of political economy. Game conferences with such names as the “International Conference on Interactive Digital Media” abound. In Australia, students that pursue courses in games studies will major in “Games and Interactivity.” The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on video games defines them as “an electronic game that involves interaction with a user interface…”  While debates around interactivity interior to game circles have gone much further and deeper than this simple gloss, any discussion of what defines video games must begin with or challenge their presumptive interactivity.

The idea that interactivity is a constitutive factor of video games has become so commonplace, in fact, it has even made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. As Timothy J. Welsh noted in reference to a 2010 case about restricting violent video game sales, “Justice John Roberts explained what he saw as the difference between games and books or movies by saying, ‘in these video games the child is not sitting there passively watching something; the child is doing the killing. The child is doing the maiming.’”

The child, of course, is cradling and stroking a piece of plastic in her hands. Here we see that the idea of video-game interactivity is typically opposed to the (false) idea of purely “passive” watching or, for that matter, reading. The contemplating, relating, laughing, crying, or screaming that brings us pleasure in watching movies or TV; the active daydreaming, imagining, and fantasizing that marks deep engagement with a novel — these are treated ideologically as passivity. Of course, the “active-passive” dichotomy is itself a commonsense notion, an almost purely ideological construction which works to downplay our experiences of sensations, desire, and pleasure: Our internal lives are “passive” compared with something which responds to our touch.

The idea that you watched television passively was crucial to its ideological work. If you could see yourself as merely passively receiving advertisements rather than affirmatively watching and endorsing them, you could absolve yourself of the consumerism you were participating in. This supposed passivity of consumption helps make sure you stay watching the ads — which work on all of us, after all — while helping create subjects who feel superior to the medium they’re consuming. The individual thinks everyone else watching is a dummy; advertising works on someone else, not on us.

TV’s association with feminine pleasures of domesticity and passivity allowed it to function as a reparative salve

Active/passive is also a deeply gendered construction: passivity is the expected behavior and role of women, it is a “female” affect. Feeling, caring, and reflecting are “passive,” creating (except for gestation), destroying, moving through the world is “active.” This gender myth was equally crucial for the functioning of TV, as it was women and children, isolated in suburban homes while the patriarch commuted into the city, who watched by far the most TV. And its association with feminine pleasures of domesticity and passivity allowed it to function as a reparative salve of comfort to the worker returning home at the end of the day.

Now the commonsense view of video games as particularly “active” has become equally crucial to the reproduction of contemporary precarious worker-entrepreneurs. “Interactivity” as it appears in video games is a form of pseudo-agency that mirrors the pseudo-empowerment of “flexible” gig-economy work. Having an effect on a (black box, mystified) system by following and participating in a series of prescribed gestures and rules is very often promised in job postings, training manuals and career guides these days (“Make more than money, make a difference!” What kind of difference? To whom?) This language quickly migrated from nonprofit sectors to describing all parts of the economy.

If visual pleasure, interpretation, and spectacle mark the experience of cinema; and emotional comfort, boredom, fantasy and deferred desire mark that of TV; what marks video games out from other cultural media is the focus on learning through play, repetition, and gesture. Puzzle solving, trial and error, and “grinding” for experience are common video-game activities that distinguish them from earlier forms of cultural consumption. But the idea that these processes are “more” interactive than others is a lie.

Of course, it is fun to encounter a toybox full of things to touch, prod, manipulate, destroy. And when mediated through the most powerful graphics, simulation, and networking technology on offer, the results can be more than fun; they can be awe-inspiring, stupefying — even sublime. But in that lies one of video games’ most important ideological powers: It is genuinely pleasurable for users to create reactions in a machine, to watch things change in response to our impetus. Such compensatory, mechanical, even solipsistic pleasures seem like creativity when put against the backgrounds of character, story, genre, competition and/or spectacle that makes most video games pleasurable.

While the best games offer space for improvisation and storytelling, the relation is usually one of disciplining the gamer to a set of systematized interactions

And sometimes the way we solve puzzles, find solutions or vanquish foes in games can be genuinely creative! Video games are fun! Just as finding solutions to problems at work, no matter what the work, can be truly gratifying, creatively satisfying. But in the end, all that creativity within games goes toward “completing” the game, often toward the goal of winning. Our creative solutions at work simply help make our bosses richer.

This supposed interactivity of games works to impoverish our concept of activity, of participation, of action. These kinds of limited and repetitive interactions within a rule set are thus easily translated to the more mundane world of computer work in general. Fiddling with a touchscreen register, filling in a spreadsheet, scanning a series of inventory bar codes — of course these are not nearly as fun as a game, but they echo the mechanical repetitions players find pleasurable in Mario. The “gamification” of work, exercise, and many other facets of alienated life shows that making something a “game” can make what would otherwise be a difficult, repetitive, miserable task into a voluntary source of pleasure and achievement.

Under other social regimes, games might offer a window onto liberated play, creativity, and pure joy. But video games under capital are instead used to degrade “creative agency” to rote, controlled manipulations, which allows managers to represent repetitive, deskilled work as a fun and fulfilling competition, while senseless, cutthroat entrepreneurial and corporate jockeying become playful maneuvers and displays of creativity.

It is ironic that video games, this most cybernetic and digital form of entertainment, is reified by a vulgar over-evaluation of its physical, manual attributes. Having a pre-designed material effect by pressing a button or pulling a lever is no more a form of creativity and interactivity than quiet internal contemplation: just ask any factory worker who presses a series of buttons over and over again whether they prefer to escape into their daydreams.

Video games are not more interactive or creative than previous medium; if anything, they are arguably less. Each video game involves a mastery of a series of digital gestures, controls, contextual clues, or modes of seeing and knowing. Playing a video game is largely about learning how to play by its systems and rules, how to get organized and efficient. And while the best games offer space for improvisation, reflection, storytelling, and of course fun, the relation between gamer and game is most commonly one of disciplining the gamer to a set of systematized interactions.

This disciplining, this rule following, as with all ideological inversions, is called interaction, even play.

Such interaction is crucial to our ability to work under the contradictory conditions of precarity: we spend our days in ever-shifting workplaces, where we must repetitively learn new skill sets, new technologies, new rules. Service workers in just-in-time stores must constantly adjust to new inventories, startup employees hop from tech to tech, health-care workers are constantly forced to adjust to shifts in insurance compensation and regulatory processes, educators to new testing paradigms and technological “disruptions.” The work itself is repetitive, its conditions constantly shifting, needing to be relearned, retrained.

We play the same way. We learn the modes, gestures, and rules of a new game — if we like it, we spend perhaps dozens of hours doing so, until we achieve mastery and beat the game. Then we move onto the next, hopefully finding its rules and gestures that much easier and faster to learn, to master, allowing us to play with and within even more intricate systems, gestures, abilities, complexities.

In an unstable, shifting workplace, we must be accustomed to learning arbitrary nonsense and finding it fun and interactive. Video games show us how.

Vicky Osterweil is a writer, editor, and agitator based in Philadelphia. She is the co-host of the podcast Cerise and Vicky Rank the Movies, where they are ranking every movie ever made, and the author of In Defense of Looting.