By Doctor Comrade and Comrade Sloth
In 2013, Samuel Sattin wrote for Salon, modern video games “seem as if they’re attempting to insert themselves into our array of storytelling devices with a fervor unlike ever before. And, they’re doing a damn good job at it…. As video games become more cinematic, more capable of delivering emotional experiences as opposed to limiting their terrain to puzzle solving or besting your competitor, they move closer to the realm of film itself, threatening an eclipse.” And it should come as no surprise: video games weave increasingly nuanced narratives delivered by brilliantly filmic and stunningly complex visual imagery.
For many people in my generation, video games occupy a central part of day-to-day life. Many of us get home from work or school and pop on our consoles or PCs, ready to put in a couple hours of gameplay, grinding our characters in roleplaying games (RPGs), winning the championship in sports games, or besting our friends in online multiplayer. For this reason, video games also occupy a central part of cultural transmission, broadcasting the messages of multi-billion-dollar corporations straight into our receptive brains. In essence, video games fulfill three primary roles in our capitalist society: escapism, ideological transmission, and alleviation of frustration. But why, and how?
COMRADE SLOTH: Research suggests that video games activate the brain’s pleasure centers. According to David J. Linden in Psychology Today, video games “offer a very highly effective reward schedule: Just like puffing cigarettes, the pleasurable moments they provide are brief, but they have rapid onset and are repeated often.” Linden observes that brain scans reveal that video games cause gamers’ bodies to release dopamine, a chemical linked to pleasure. And like cigarettes, video games provide comfort and relief from stress. Writing for CNN, Megan Sandel and Renée Boynton-Jarrett argue, “the stresses of living in poverty and sometimes hopelessness also cause people to turn to cigarettes…. In this case, poverty may be as much the symptom as the disease, given how much the chronic stress of poverty drives unhealthy behaviors.”
It’s not a long stretch to argue that video games, smoking, and other forms of chemical satiation are endemic to populations that suffer from the stresses of capitalism: we see these behaviors practiced at heightened levels in the context of economic insecurity, job loss, discrimination, and inequality. Coupled with alienation felt by almost all workers, the picture of many adults who choose to play video games comes into focus.
Video games allow adults to escape—temporarily—the strictures of capitalist exploitation, and to experience unfettered freedom. The bigger games get, the more freedom they allow players to have in their digital environments. Roleplaying franchises like the Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, and Fallout give players the ability to explore, complete quests, gain rewards, and exist in a digital space where the world revolves around their experience.
These games also allow players to create whatever aspirational avatar they want. Character creation in RPGs and sporting games gives players the ability to create ideal versions of themselves in the game, along with magical abilities, fighting prowess, and physical perfection. And then through gameplay, they guide these avatars to glory, fashioning their own destiny with increased skills, in-game currency, and the completion of quests.
In effect, what is extremely difficult or impossible in the “real” world can be accomplished in mere hours in digital space. Players in Grand Theft Auto V Online can become millionaires, buy fancy cars, high-rise apartments, helicopters, yachts, and become VIPs. Players in Skyrim can amass giant fortunes, collections of magical items, houses, property, and even spouses and children. Capitalism has sold us a view of reality that is nearly impossible to achieve, so we turn to digital space to manifest our fantasies. We hoard digital resources, which are cheap, rather than the expensive real-world collection of goods.
In this way, when we escape from the material distress of our lives, we reaffirm that stress digitally. The only difference is that in our digital simulations, we can easily overcome these burdens.
Video games also provide an easy medium for the transmission of ideology.
CS: In a talk for Indiecade East, Paolo Pedercini contended that video games present the reality of the game as a “specific mode of thinking and acting” that compels players to the process of rationalization, or the “quantification and calculation” of human conduct according to “industrial organization of production.” He argues that because games are goal-oriented, their design focuses on means-ends processes, and it tries to eliminate extraneous functions. These processes produce iterative scenarios of extraction, both from the usable environment and from non-player characters. Ultimately, this “gamification” of reality is nothing more than cynical and crude behavioral control.
We can make three arguments from this analysis.
Video games allow players to live out fantasies that are prescribed by capitalist ideology, an ideology which then re-inscribes itself during gameplay. On the surface, games are about collecting points, currency, trophies, collectibles, and rare items. Even superficial analysis would show that this teaches players to conduct the processes of consumerism.
But ideology goes deeper than just the surface-level capitalist ethos of production and consumption. Underlying capitalist economics are the discourses, narratives, and metanarratives that help sustain capitalist ideology. For example, the American antipathy towards communism during the Cold War supported the expansion of the military-industrial complex, bolstering capitalist control exerted by arms manufacturing companies. Political demonology, as elaborated by political scientist Michael Rogin, allowed the consolidation of power around the twin poles of government repression and capitalist expansion.
Similarly, because video games transmit the cultural narratives of the societies that create them, they often contain messages that, when critically examined, resemble the political rhetoric of the American ruling elite. For example, the Halo and Mass Effect series of video games both take place during intergalactic fights between humans and alien invaders. Changing some of the vocabulary would make the dialogue in either series sound like a Donald Trump speech, in which aliens are recklessly invading Earth and committing atrocities against humanity. The aliens in invasion narratives easily stand in for foreigners in our own political discourse.
The implications can be extended to private property, the sanctity of the nation state, and racial purity. What’s important is that none of these concepts have to be articulated openly (and they never are). Rather, they can be distilled into a simple, conservative message: protect what we have from those who would take it from us.
There is exceptionalism inherent in this formulation as well. When faced by a technologically superior race of aliens, the protagonists of invasion narratives stand in for the embodiment of so-called “human” values: freedom, equality, fairness, self-defense, property, territorial integrity, etc. The heroes implicitly endorse the belief that humanity’s status quo is worth defending from terrible invaders. And unsurprisingly, these status quo values always mirror capitalist, Liberal values enshrined in the American ideological canon.
This also speaks to the centrality of violence in video game narratives. Of course, video games have to be entertaining, and no game about international diplomacy and treaty negotiations could ever become a bestseller. Rather, games teach players that “might makes right,” and players engage openly in imperialism. There are never any repercussions for the hundreds or thousands of slain “enemies,” there are no war crimes tribunals, espionage trials, or courts-martial. Violence is the accepted form of video game narration. (And currently, Ubisoft owns the trademark for the Imperialism line of strategy games. Tagline: “The fine art of conquering the world.”)
CS: Recent scandals have brought other forms of representation to the attention of gamers and critics as well. For example, the Gamergate controversy that began in 2014 concerned harassment against female gamers and journalists, leading to rape and death threats against developers Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and journalist Anita Sarkeesian.
Combining the first two elements of this podcast—escapism and ideology—is the role I believe video games play for my generation. Video games channel creative and destructive energies into nihilistic and endless pursuits. They are the means by which we exercise and exorcise our frustration, alienation, and creativity. For one, video games are fun and expressive. Besides character creation and fantasy play, video games have robust crafting systems, installable modifications, vast communities and forums, fan art, fan fiction, and other outlets for creative expression. Online games have also yielded very real communities offline. Eve Online, which is governed by a complex online/offline hierarchy of users, mourned the loss of prominent player Sean Smith, aka “Vile Rat,” with elaborate demonstrations in-game after he died in Libya.
And our imaginations have unlocked divergent uses of video games for decades. “Emergent gameplay” allows players to play games unconventionally, creating new solutions to puzzles, new game modes, rewriting the game’s narrative, or restructuring how the game is played or won, even going so far as to redefine what “beating” a game or “winning” actually entails. Christopher Livingston blogged about his attempt to play Skyrim without engaging in a single adventure, and others have similarly used games beyond their intended narrative.
Games also offer a kind of radical freedom, especially in open-world simulations that liberate players from social norms. In many games, even the most heinous crimes carry no real consequences. In the notorious Grand Theft Auto series, you can commit spree murders at any time, and rather than going to jail, the player can either escape the police or die and respawn without penalty.
Fantasies of stardom can be lived as well. The career mode in numerous sport franchises like Madden NFL, WWE, MLB The Show, and NBA 2K allow players to create a custom avatar which gains experience and functions like a real rookie would. MLB The Show starts your custom player in the minor leagues, where you have to play well to get promoted to the major leagues (“The Show”).
Ultimately, what I hope I’ve demonstrated is that video games represent a critical nexus of cultural transference and ideological re-inscription. The rise of video game journalism and criticism, which has moved from niche to mainstream, demonstrates the centrality of video games to cultural criticism going forward. Like film, music, art, and literature, video games embody the values of society while propagating the capitalist mode of production. But, also like film, music, art, and literature, video games provide an ideal medium for subversion, counter-narratives, and resistance. What is left is to translate the creative and destructive energies that we expend on video games into a usable form that challenges dominant structures of power.