Well Played

Video games reproduce the worker’s capacity to continue working

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.

Video games have been around as a form of mass culture for just over 40 years, but only recently have they become so prevalent and so embedded in our lives — socially, politically, economically — that they could be fully taken for granted. In spring 2018, Fortnite reached a level of total cultural saturation in the U.S. that’s usually reserved for TV shows, movies, or Harry Potter. The game appears in virtually every classroom, bus stop, and teenage bedroom in the country and has achieved a level of ubiquity that sees professional athletes and pop stars appear on livestreams with star gamers, and teens doing the floss while they wait at crosswalks.

In the past, even as video games steadily wove their way deeper into the fabric of American culture, they tended to breach the national consciousness only as crazes (Pac-Man Fever) or controversies (the graphic violence of Doom or Grand Theft Auto). Video games were covered as a specialist hobby, and when a game would spark a moral panic, people in gaming circles would more or less accurately point out that the vast majority of people talking about games had never played any and had no idea what they were about. In other words, the rare moments when games become noteworthy also reinforced their marginality — and the subcultural prestige of gamers.

Fortnite is not marginal nor is it being marginalized. It’s a megahit cultural product, like a blockbuster movie or hit single

But lately the grounds have shifted. It’s becoming increasingly indisputable that video games are just a part of mainstream American life, an established cultural medium in their own right, as central as any of the other major entertainment industries. The money doesn’t lie: In 2014, the video game industry was making more money annually than the film and music industries combined. Last year the industry was valued at $116 billion, putting it in the same ballpark as global sports revenue, which is estimated between $130 billion and $150 billion. If growth patterns continue, video games will eclipse that by 2020.

Video games are often seen as a subdevelopment in the broader revolutions in information and communications technology that have marked the “digital age.” And while games have played a crucial role in driving mass adoption and affection for phones and techno-culture more generally, they have also superseded cinema and TV to be the dominant visual medium of our time.

And so games are increasingly breaking through into mainstream discourse. The rise of Fortnite is illustrative: It has become massively popular without controversy or even much moral panic beyond some pro forma “this new thing teens like, surely it’s bad?!?” coverage. The fact of Fortnite’s game-ness is rarely mentioned: that there would be such a hubbub over a video game is not considered a story. With Fortnite, video games have achieved one form of full cultural maturity, namely, ubiquity to the point where mainstream media explanation is beside the point. Fortnite is not marginal nor is it being marginalized. It’s just a megahit cultural product, like a blockbuster movie or hit single.

Given video games’ newly taken for granted prominence, it’s imperative to analyze how they fit into the mainstream of contemporary economic practices and ideology. Why have video games emerged in this moment, growing as the earlier visual media forms have stagnated, losing audiences and drifting toward the margins of culture? What has the medium’s material role been under capitalism? How has it reflected or shaped the specific ways capitalism has developed since 1973, when the series of crises that would lead to the neoliberal era began? (Incidentally, the first mass-market video game, Pong, was released in 1972.)

This monthly column will be aimed toward addressing these questions. They are meant to be openings for debate rather than comprehensive and conclusive statements — there will be obvious exceptions and contradictions. But the intent will be to trace the relationship between video games as a medium and the socioeconomic structure in which they have emerged, and how these have mutually influenced each other.

To perpetuate their own existence, mass media must succeed at representing the violent coercion of capitalist systems as natural laws

However, this account will treat video games specifically and culture more generally as a reproductive technology. That means that their major role in capitalist society is not simply to produce profit — although of course they must do that — but also to re-create the order required for this society’s perpetuation. This column engages seriously with feminist and anti-racist traditions — known broadly as social reproduction theory — that go beyond the pure economy-focused analyses of capitalism and instead looks at all the forms of care, desire, excess, hate, violence, and oppression that do not immediately or directly produce profit on their own but are no less crucial to maintaining current social relations.

Any society must have means for reproducing itself: it must not only be able to physically produce the means for people’s survival (food, shelter, etc.), but it also must produce the ideas by which that production is organized and the rationale for its legitimacy. Where once perhaps mythology, indigenous relationships to habitat or tightly knit communities provided that rationale, under capitalism, mass media — alongside forms of political participation, law, and ownership — have played the role of legitimation. That is, they facilitate the reproduction of class society in general and individual workers in particular. They teach people to know their place and possibly even embrace it.

The main task of mass culture is to create, reproduce, and manage particular kinds of subjects — workers, consumers, individuals, citizens —required for current conditions. To perpetuate their own existence, mass media must succeed at representing the violent coercion of capitalist systems as natural laws: Of course you have to pay rent to live inside; of course you have to buy food to eat; of course you have to work if you want to survive. The production of a fungible, disposable and migratory working class requires the alienation and atomization of communities into individuals, which involves destroying the village, kinship structures, indigeneity, and many other previous forms of meaning-producing structures, leaving a gap which ideology must fill.

While the fundamental structures of domination — racism, patriarchy, heterosexuality, etc. — form the bedrock of this ideological apparatus, the complexity of the always expanding and changing capitalist system requires an equally flexible set of subsidiary tools capable of rapidly adjusting ideology en masse. In general, media emerge not to meet the demands or desires of individual users but to accommodate what the predominant mode of production requires. For example, cinema — a dark place of rest and contemplation away from streets and factories — emerged at the turn of the century not merely because it was a novel way to reproduce moving pictures but because it served to redefine and unify the crowds produced through industrialization and the concentration of population in cities. Without a collective sensibility, these crowds would (and still often did) form their own modes of culture based in older forms of collectivity and knowledge that showed no respect for the norms of the factory or the city. But the cinema gave them a sense of shared culture and identity across the alienated and impersonal urban spaces that had replaced the village for many. Films made city life and, crucially, earning a wage seem attractive while offering accessible and glamorous fantasies of a better life to be won through bourgeois living. By selling the fantasies necessary for coping with modern life, movies themselves became a profitable product.

Then, in the 1950s, as post-war wage growth in the colonial center meant that personal consumption could become the engine of capitalist growth, the far more personalized and intimate medium of television emerges. Where cinema formed crowds, TV justified nuclear families. Cinema is a technology of cities; TV of suburbs. If cinema unified a mass proletariat, TV defined from within that mass a middle class of consumers and salaried homeowners. The television, along with the automobile, became not only engines of consumerism but prized possessions in their own right.

Video games are a safe, controlled space of growth, learning, and repetition: a desirable fantasy version of the fractured, precarious, ever shifting workplaces most of us find ourselves in

Video games have come to fruition as that middle class — and the social safety nets and capital-labor bargains that defined it — has begun to collapse. Automation, globalization, financialization, just-in-time production, precarious and part-time labor and the rise of service economies mean workplaces are constantly shifting and workers, even white collar ones, need to constantly hop from job to job, technology to technology, trying to stay one step ahead of automation and obsolescence. Workers have been forced to bear more economic risk as individuals, and they have been placed into more direct competition with each other, working ever increasing hours and monetizing more aspects of their lives to try to make ends meet. Often this is disguised as a kind of “entrepreneurship” because it involves desperate self-exploitation.

Video games emerge as workers need to engage creatively in the most mundane of tasks to get an edge over fellow workers, glamorizing the violence of competition and the otherwise mundane process of learning arbitrary information and gestures through play. The arc of most games involves getting better and better at recognizing a particular set of patterns and deploying a particular set of skills — activated by button presses — to the point where the actual controls become second nature and the player experiences the fantasy of seamlessly inhabiting the character or scenario she plays with. Often once this mastery is achieved, a game is nearly over, its pleasure nearly spent: Major studio games are frequently criticized for being too long, padded out with senseless repetitions that merely delay the conclusion of that learning arc.

Workers also need to constantly manage their increasingly anxious and fractured mental health. For this, video games provide a soothing domain of control, power, guaranteed progress, order, and orderly narrative in a world of work and daily life where such guarantees are in short supply. Good game design usually involves rewards being directly accrued by time put in — progress is basically guaranteed for effort, as reflected in leveling up, new areas, skills and achievements unlocking, new bosses encountered, and so on. No other cultural medium could support the idea of pleasurable “grinding” in which you play a particular section of a game over and over again, purely to watch your numbers and stats tick up enough to advance to the next section. (Marathoning a particular TV program — another innovation of the current era and a transformation of the way TV is consumed — only approximates this.) Video games are a safe, controlled space of growth, learning, and repetition: a desirable fantasy version of the fractured, precarious, ever shifting workplaces most of us find ourselves in.

Video games, then, are the (highly profitable) media of consolation specific to neoliberalism. They reinforce a vision of a world entirely grounded in competition, and they provide the gratification of experiencing that framework as satisfying, just — we get to win with it, we get to escape through it, we get to experience a sense of mastery even as our lives are even more shaped by larger and larger forces and increasingly unfathomable networks.

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.