Capitalist Propaganda in Video Games

Hey y’all!

I recently played through Forager, an indie game that released last year, and have been thinking a lot about capitalism in video games. In Forager (and the Civilization game series) capitalism and colonization are skills. They give you buffs. In one of the Civ games it actually increases your society’s happiness from banks and the like. That might seem tame, but for a game released after the 2008 financial crisis in the US, it seems a bit ridiculous to me.

This had me curious, are there any good examples of non-obvious propaganda in games y’all have noticed? I wrote an article about this on Forager and shared it on my Facebook and my grandmother (of all people lmao) commented this: “[This] game reminds me of Suess’s The Lorax! I can see how that game would brainwash young people in to getting greedy, you know, more more, never enough!” which made me realize that genres of game could even potentially be propagandist. Most Minecraft, Stardew Valley, and Animal Crossing-likes fall into this in different ways. The exploitation of the land, constantly needing more resources, needing to sell things your friends give you for money because you need money to survive. Maybe we’re trained to not engage with those topics in games.

But at the same time, should we be concerned about exploitation of the land in Minecraft? In my opinion it’s good to, at the very least, attempt to critically engage with it. Past that though I’m unsure if we should be saying “Hey, Minecraft is all about exploiting the earth for resources and not facing any consequences, maybe play something that critically engages with that instead?”

Here’s the Forager article I mentioned above if anyone is interested in some longer-form thoughts on it: https://medium.com/vistas-mag/forager-is-a-capitalism-simulator-without-consequence-cf8145f8ca

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Honestly, I think video games would just be a drastically different medium if the Soviet’s won the Cold War

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I don’t think anyone really ‘won’ the cold war. I just think the U.S. is about to collapse later than the Soviet Union did…

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Stardew Valley is interesting to me because its text is explicitly anticapitalist, yet its mechanics assume the same core assumption that underlies capitalist thought — that resources are infinite, and therefore you’re not actually exploiting anything as you engage with it.

This is a really common thing in video games: that assumption of infinite resources that enables a theoretically infinite experience. Grinding in JRPGs for example. And now this is making me thing about games that subvert that assumption, that limit your resources in interesting ways.

And now I’m thinking about Dark Souls II, because that game is deeply concerned with imperialism and the decay of empire (Austin talked about it a bunch in last year’s year-end pods), and it subverts the expectation set by all the other Fromsoft games by making its enemies finite. Eventually, Drangleic could actually be well and truly empty. And while that will almost never happen for an average player, I definitely felt the prospect of that as I was playing — it made the resources you did get feel a lot more important, and the world always felt lonelier whenever an enemy finally disappeared.

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Very tired from work but discussions around this remind me of Mark Fisher writing that “the role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief. It is impossible to conceive of fascism or Stalinism without propaganda - but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it.”

Even in fantasy worlds I normally have to do labour to receive money that I can then spend on trinkets.

Maybe the most fantastical element of games like Skyrim is that by simply working hard I could own my own home.

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See also: Breath of the Wild

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(very good takes thus far!!! really loving the conversation that has arisen out of this)

This is making me consider, what would a game look like if the world was more socialist? Would we think of game progression entirely differently?

I’m sure many people would look at this and joke “free bread simulator” but really, what would it be like? Less power fantasies? More finite experiences? Shorter games in general?

And with that too, I’m almost certain labor would be different in a different world. I think we could definitely say there would be shorter/more finite games out there as crunch hopefully would be nonexistent, or people would at least be compensated well for it.

Or, what if we people don’t even earn money from developing games anymore, but from helping their community? What if games were entirely projects of passion and art, where people didn’t have to worry about theirs making them money in any way? I believe we could still see some games made by multi-person teams, but the giant, hundreds of people operations would be, I predict, almost nonexistent.

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Yea, I remember having this argument with a (former) friend who was a big Jordan Peterson fan that claimed we wouldn’t be able to play games without capitalism as if most of the annoying features in games weren’t there because of a need to generate profit.

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My experience with Forager was that it very much was this capitalist dystopian “I will exploit every and any resource available to me so the numbers go up” game…

…until the game crashed because my numbers were going up too quickly. I felt that was such a fitting metaphor for how this sort of capitalist greed will inevitably spiral out of control until tragedy strikes that I never picked the game up again. No new content or actual ending could beat what I had found.


The hardest thing to come up with examples of capitalist propaganda in games is finding its in the subtext, not just text in either the business model, mechanics, or story of the game.

The first is easy to see because so many games are hindered and bogged down by a thick crusty layer of shit for the entire reason to squeeze the dollars out of you.

The second is so pervasive that we barely even notice it. So many games put you in a state where a constant goal in the game is to make more money.

  • Make more money in a JRPG to have better equipment to beat enemies that drop more money
  • Make more money on your farm in Story of Seasons games to make your farm bigger and more efficient to make more money.
  • Hoard everything you find in Fallout to sell all the junk to a shop until they’re out of bottle caps.
  • MMO endgames end up being almost entirely based around juggling acquiring several different currencies that you can exchange for gear to make getting those currencies easier.

et cetera et cetera et ecetera

As for story? Well, just…

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The Sims series is definitely one of the most blatantly capitalist games out there. Huntress x Thompson has this interesting video that goes into it and I definitely recommend watching it in full, but here’s a quick summary of some of her main points in regards to The Sims being a capitalist propaganda:

  • In these games, the system just works: there’s no debt, everyone gets livable wages etc. Anyone can access the capitalist utopia if you work hard enough (and in order to get promotions btw, your Sims are expected to work on themselves during their own free time);
  • Consumerism is the fun reward for your Sims labor. The more expensive the items, the better they are, and the happier are your Sims;
  • The Sims’ universe is presented as fair and meant to be “aspirational”, so as of now there’s no portrayal of discrimination, exploitation, etc. If you fall outside of the middle class lifestyle portrayed in the games, you’re not fully represented in the game, just as you can be shut out of the capitalist system in real life (for instance, there’s no welfare in the game);
  • The lack of historical context in the game outside of random flavor texts adds to the myth of capitalism’s fairness.
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I mean if you want an example of this look at the modding communities around video games which is why I think you end up with so many interesting things in that scene. To me gaming peeked when I was in high school and the first two years of college. It was the time in my life when I was heavily involved in a specific mod and a server. It was when the people who were there just wanted to make things and it was because we were all in high school and college and did not need to justify investment of our time into a project without monetary gain.

I still put my time into nonprofit work but I can’t put as much as before without calling it a job and needing to further justify the time investment with some kind monetary gain. It’s why you see a lot of modders become indie developers. You can still make fun nonoridinary games but now you can get paid for it.

Sadly even the modding scene is not safe from peoples desire for money. The Gmod scene is honestly incredibly interesting to look at because it’s diverse with it’s own cliques, rivalries and plenty of drama. If you want some real juicy drama go look at what happened around Gmod Tower and how the people behind that switching to an indie project destroyed an entire community or the people who are actively trying to recreate paid mods as free open source alternatives. It’s a community full of creators and thieves who never stop to ask themselves if they should before they do for better or worse. It’s a place where running a server is “Serious Business” and a 14 year old will email you asking for you to create their RP server the sickest HUD and in exchange you can be admin and get 10% of the profits as long as you sign an NDA and non-compete boiler plate doc they spent 20 minutes researching and downloading off the internet. If you are interested at all in debate with teens to people in their thirties over derivative work and should you be held accountable for modifying someone else’s work without permission even if you heavily modify it to the point that it no longer resembles the original the Gmod community is for you. The Beginners Guide might as well have been a love letter to the engine it was built on because that game sums up the community to the point that levels early on are seemingly created with the same mistakes a beginner mapper makes if you decompile the levels and examine them.

At a certain point though I get it. Modders in general have to put up with a bunch of people who aren’t paying them yet are willing to make outrageous demands and treat them like the lowest trash possible. (CW: Talk of self harm and suicide) It’s real easy to reach a point where you look around and go “Wow I make all this free stuff for people and 80% of the comments I get back is demanding more or demanding changes get done immediately as if I only live to make them content”. It doesn’t help that the few times actual big named studios try to help out by offering avenues to make some money back is met with outright vile and murderous intent. Basically what I’m saying is fuck gamers and if you want the system to get fixed you need to fix the end user first.

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A more socialist game world is Tetris. Tetris is a uniquely communist game in that it views the accumulation of goods as being burdensome with the goal being to minimize the amount you have. For anti-capital, first imagine games where the point is not to own. Otherwise, you have capitalism and the accumulation for the sake of having more baked into its bones.

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I like this take, but what about the accumulation of points?

Also, a popular Tetris strategy is to have many blocks on the screen, then be able to get rid of them quickly to score combos. You could draw a parallel from that to having lots of stock to sell quickly, or manufacturing. Are we doomed to have a progression or scoring mechanic just because we need that gratification of making the numbers go up? If we lived in a more socialist/communist world, would we find that as satisfying?

Some people would likely say that it’s within human nature to enjoy such things but I’m unsure that, without capitalism, it actually is.

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People always love to say “oh you’re a communist? So I take it you want to ban competitive sports and games?! Checkmate, tankie” but what is a more beautiful example of cooperation than competing within a tightly specific set of rules in a harmless environment? If anything, trolling, cheating and exploiting in sports and video games is a greater example of capitalist mindset than competing fairly to be the best.

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Yeah: communism doesn’t mean that you can’t attempt to acquire high levels of skill at a task. And in the simplest games, especially, “high scores” are just a measure of your ability at the tasks the game tests. Indeed, at the most basic and quoting of rhetoric level “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” explicitly references and accepts the idea that there’s human variation in capability.

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Let’s say that the choices for alternative economics systems in videogames (and games in general) are depressingly limited. Other than the good examples provided you can find a lot of games based on barter systems (change 1 stone for 3 woods, change 10 iron for a sword, etc.) but, in a shocking twist, even barter economy is just a myth invented by the capitalist system: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/02/barter-society-myth/471051/

It’s really difficult to find games that incorporate alternative economic systems: based for example on favor, community or environment (right now i can only think of https://www.molleindustria.org/ which are explicitly political ones).

Buy yeah the general landscape hasn’t evolved much since “Landlord’s Game” vs “Monopoly”.

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Incredibly glad to see a refutation of the barter model, and an expression I read earlier tonight of the “gift” model that was instead practiced in a number of Indigenous, pre-colonial societies made me think of a certain youtuber’s description of the economy in Darkwood, where exchanges of goods with merchants are more or less favorable depending on your social cachet with those merchants. Of course, this is a sort of “gift-lite” expression of what is still, fundamentally a barter system, never mind the fact that Darkwood is, naturally, dark, and therefore doesn’t seem particularly interested in outlining more ethical economic models.

I ask that anyone refute this claim if there is grounds to do so, but it’s possible that videogames–as a medium that is fundamentally mathematical (or numeric, or statistical)–will have a harder time accurately representing the non-numerical aspects of alternative economies than non-mathematical media, like, say, literature.

Where this can be challenged is in building games that allow human actors to override internal economic constraints. Imagine an MMO like Fallout 76, whose internal economy is governed by capitalistic presuppositions like 1 Stimpak being worth 2 razorgrain, but then imagine that a human shopkeeper can at any time, for any reason, override the base presupposition in favor of simply gifting the item to a favored customer.

The “reward” for this could be a better relationship with the customer if they were another player, or a better relationship with the customer if they were a character represented by a greater degree of access to their backstory; more dialogue relationships; etc. Fundamentally, I think, an exchange in favor of getting a return is being described, but that has less of a problem to do with games, and more of a problem to do with the expectations of gamers for their games being Skinner Boxes where X input is met with Y reward, and at that point, it is less the failure of a scientific system on a small scale (the game) to depict an alternative system, and more a failure of the player to engage with the system outside of a capitalistic framework of expectations. @Wazanator points that out really well in their comment, which could be a deep-dive article of its own, as someone with fond memories of trawling gmod addon websites for years before I could even play the game, just as an aspirational exercise.

Finally, we can discuss games that do depict non-capitalistic states of play. Picture a game like Mountain, that does not seem to have any kind of win or loss state, or Journey, within which the “reward” for play is purely experiential. At that point we’re no longer describing capitalism–we’re merely describing use-value as it results from labor (if we treat play as a kind of labor, maybe a pseudolabor). Wanting (and getting) a value from your labor, of course, isn’t capitalistic either–it’s fundamentally human–even if the value is knowing you helped someone else through your labor. Allowing ourselves to reconfigure our expectations through art is an amazingly useful (and fun) way to begin to allow ourselves to think outside of a capitalistic framework.

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While poetic, not entirely true, some enemies do spawn forever. And ascetics are obtainable to the point of infinite respawning enemies effectively

Hmm I thought ascetics were technically finite in a particular cycle? Though I may be misremembering

I really like this take. Didn’t even think about Journey or games like it. Could we say that walking simulators are also generally not capitalistic? Like Firewatch? Admittedly I haven’t played as many as I’d like, but when I google a list of walking simulator games, many have some anti-capitalist ideology from what I know of them.

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