Capitalist Propaganda in Video Games

I’d like to push back on an undercurrent I’ve seen in general with this kind of criticism. I think making assertions that “certain games are capitalistic”, specifically their systems, ends up often being a false equivalency that often elides a lot of nuances.

There was a moment in game studies where “Serious Games” were the new thing, and the result was that a lot of analysis and design would try to view systems as a way through which to convey an important message. (Molle Industria mentioned upthread was an example of this, frequently.) I think there are a lot of reasons this trend has since changed significantly and has become far less popular. But I do think one of them is derived from the fact that games are highly subjective, and intrinsically so due to their nature, so the meaning derived is much harder to control as a designer.

Which is all to say: I think you could read all games as capitalistic if you wanted. Hell, just last year Ian Bogost (one of the poster-children for the Serious Games movement) wrote an article about the untitled goose game asserting that, since all games are work, you shouldn’t play it:

Whether made from guns or geese, games will always be imbricated with work, stuck in a celebration or a burlesque of labor. The joke, it turns out, isn’t to be found in the goose’s evil pranks, which get the better of his human foes. It’s in the humans’ use of the goose to issue meaning for their empty lives in the first place.

For me, this highlights the ultimate flatness of this methodology of critique when taken to it’s extreme. Like, yeah, Ian, I guess you technically have a point, but what’s the point of your point?

Potlatch is a game developed by indigenous game designers to teach Lushootseed and Coast Salish economics, and one of the creators told me that they felt obliged to put a victory point mechanic in because then people would accuse it of “not being a game.” Tonight We Riot rewards your performance with upgrades and new equipment. Disco Elysium and Dead Cells (developed by an anarcho-syndicalist co-op), as some more popular examples, both have systems of reward. These all have systems through which one can accumulate some form of material “wealth” or reward. But would you really call any of these games capitalist propaganda?

To say that “only capitalism has rewards”, “only capitalism has trade”, or only “capitalism can create incentives for labor” is, I think, naïve. Bringing that to game mechanics, I think it is similarly naïve to say that games that have trade and labor are intrinsically capitalistic. I don’t think anyone here is saying this, but it can be something that comes up and is something to be wary of.

Of course, this is not to say these systems can’t be capitalistic. But I don’t think what marks this is the acquisition of things and the increasing of a number. The kernel here of what could mark a system that I think can be compared to capitalism is more specific for me. Games that are about capital accumulation. Using capital to acquire more capital. Games that are about making the numbers go up so you can make more numbers go up.

This is an extremely common design paradigm right now. Games from Gatcha games to Destiny are geared towards the accumulation of materials. I think the reasons these games are so engrossing shares a history with capitalism. I think this is also dependent on the implementation at hand. It also depends on the fiction, a bit, too. Universal Paperclips is a game exclusively about making the numbers go up, but it is also, if anything, a critique of exponential growth.

These systems of capital accumulation can be found in all sorts of games. I don’t think it is intrinsically propagandistic to have them. It’s all about context. How does this game permit material accumulation? How significant is the emphasis on accumulation? How is that accumulation framed? That’s where propaganda via mechanics can be found.

I don’t know; perhaps I am being contrarian. I guess I just think it’s healthy to pump the brakes a bit once in a while. I know I’m more than guilty of getting so excited about a given comparison or analysis that I don’t ask myself if it makes any sense.

24 Likes

In more line with the spirit of this thread, I think one of the most extreme examples of capitalist propaganda in games is the Civilization series. I enjoy these games and other 4X games a lot, but Civilization is essentially “Neoliberalism: the Game”. (It also has an undercurrent of nationalism, too, but that’s a different conversation.) Colonialism is so baked into Civ that, when Poundmaker was included as a leader, that members of the Poundmaker Cree Nation objected to his inclusion in the game.

Pretty much every win conditions of this game series are mired in this:

  • Domination: destroy everyone else
  • Science: be better at science than everyone else by expanding into space
  • Diplomacy: Make the UN
  • Culture: Have more tourists than anyone else
  • Religion: Have the majority of people follow your religion

These are all founded upon some idea of establishing a global presence and global superiority. Usually by expanding and gobbling up resources.

13 Likes

I don’t know whether it has been namechecked in this thread but MGSV may be the only AAA that reckons with capitalism systemically.

Everything in the game costs GMP, a single bullet has both a value and an opportunity cost. Even going on a mission costs money. As you progress, the best way to accumulate new technologies is to kidnap enemies using non-lethal means, while 80-90% of the technology you’re developing is lethal. You’re alienated from the fruits of your labour simply because they have little practical use for continuing to grow your fortune.

The game also explicitly links colonialism to capitalism as you use resources from proxy-war conflict zones to fuel technology research and development.

It’s also extremely racist and gross in innumerable ways, but that’s Kojima for you. Etsu Tamari was also a writer and producer on the game, and we all know what he thinks about American empire from Revengeance. For all I know the credit for the good political points made by MGSV should go to anyone but Kojima.

For all its faults, MGSV may be the only big game I can think of that contains both a narrative and systemic critique of capitalism. I’d also posit that MG Survive is the perfect sequel because it’s literally assembled from the carcass of MGSV, filled with cool fan-sercivey shit like an actual goddamn Metal Gear Ray. It’s the Kendall Jenner Pepsi-ad of videogames, repurposing the guts of a game with an actual political position to exploit brand recognition.

12 Likes

Fun side note, apparently the families of russian soldiers who were kidnapped/captured during the afghan war were often met with deep suspection and treated as trouble/pariahs by the government. SO yeah, the game’s got this really interesting way of treating human life as valuable and promoting an anti-killing playstyle, but purely insofar as the people are more valuable alive than dead. But the result of that is that those people’s families are all kinda fucked now, and it’s something never touched on. So all the way down, everyone here is getting fucked over in this machine.
I mean shit, maybe the only thing worse than being a threat to power is being a resource.

2 Likes

So while not propaganda per say, I don’t think any game has made me feel worse about playing a greedy capitalist more than Satisfactory.

It’s a very fun and relaxing game on the surface, and there’s definitely a tongue and cheek style of humor to it in terms of the tone of your tutorial AI, and how there’s a bunch of lore inside the HUB about how you’re a useless COG in the machine strip mining this planet. So, it’s self aware.

The issue is when I stripped a forest for biofuel. I recently unlocked the chainsaw, and I set up a collection box to stuff all the wood I found in to be converted into biofuel for my mining machines. Now, I could justify the mining to myself because there’s not really any creatures striving on the survival of the iron ore deposits on the planet… But the forest is different. After I cleared it, I saw a number of bird like aliens wandering around the open field I just created looking for their perch. I don’t think I’ve felt this guilty in a long time in a video game. Like SERIOUSLY guilty. I thought, “Oh God, I’m the evil oozing machine in Fern Gully.” Or I was the corporate machine stripping the Amazon. Killing countless people in video games? EGH IT’S ALL GOOD FUN. Stripping a forest of timber and watching the animals remorse their old home:

giphy (1)

9 Likes

This really makes me consider how the desensitization of violence towards other people is propaganda in and of itself? People aren’t as sensitive to imperialism or even fascists beating the shit out of people or shooting them with guns.

Really wonder if it’s because of imperialism and rising fascism in the united states we have a lot of violent media to desensitize us, or if it’s the other way around?

1 Like

Oh definitely.

I always think about the first stages of big budget open world games, when there’s the initial shock reaction of random violence on pedestrians. There will be some people in the first few days who are like, “This is way too real…” But then it’ll get swept under the rug as the new standard for acceptable violence in games.

I remember how people first reaction to the FPS shooting in GTA V. How it felt too intimate… Now people are over it and moving on.

The most recent case of this is some people’s reaction to the Fallujah map in Squad:

(CW war Violence)

1 Like

Wow ok yeah some of the video I definitely understand that take from.

It also makes me consider what the popular “one bullet not killing the player” system does to desensitize us to violence. I wonder if bullets were more lethal in games if they would have changed anything for how we view guns being used? I guess it’s likely the games wouldn’t be as “fun” to play if that was the case though. Just a thought that video brought to mind.

1 Like

Wasn’t addressing this part of the thematic point of Receiver, albeit from the perspective that shooting people is also a lot more complex than video games make out?

2 Likes

People in the majority have never been shocked by imperialism, and rarely been shocked by the state monopoly on violence–if the the goal of the Liberal Market Economic State is to preserve itself, then it follows that there is an implicit understanding by the average bourgeois citizen of that state that the state monopoly on violence preserves their way of life. I’m not worried about video games being particularly effective or insidious tools of indoctrination because the nature of the state has always been to indoctrinate those beneath it.

That said, I think that video games are particularly good at selling people a false sense of expertise; a kind of false confidence in their own understanding of systems that are so complex that even hours and years spent reading and studying theory will only allow one to scratch the surface of radicalization. Think about this: how many Gamers do you know who love to play armchair general? How many have you known to express an expert’s perspective on the concepts with which they’ve interacted on a daily basis?

Because I went to a university with a reputation for a “smart” student body, and even among the students who you wouldn’t quite expect to be such pernicious pseuds–i.e. FGLIs–I met quite a few students who were quite touchy about their mastery of 16th century Continental politics by virtue of nothing so much as an adolescence spent playing EUIV.

Now, obviously, that’s a stupid tack to take. And obviously, the kid in question took a class or two on contemporaneous history with their favorite video game, so they were a little more qualified to speak to, say, Frederick II’s court than your average Paradox fan. But you can see the same principle illustrated in the average Paradox fan (or Historical Gamer) when they complain about how putting women and people of color in the newest Battlefield or Call of Duty isn’t “historically realistic.”

Their expertise is not coming so much from video games–at least they wouldn’t openly admit that it is–as it is from a larger milieu of lowbrow or popularly-accessible media–a lot of which, in this new, open season of low-effort video essay channels, is highly subjective, even inaccurate content presented as not only desirable, but objectively correct.

That is, I think, more than anything, the greatest downside of living in the most massive age of mass media that has ever existed: the fertility of ground for people with absolutely no expertise to claim, based on very little, that they are experts or at least have an expert’s eye when judging complex political, social, and economic situations.

There are boxes and boxes and boxes upon boxes more to unpack here: I’m not advocating for a kind of educational elitism, and I’m not saying that games and amateur criticism is bad–but it seems to me that something that has always existed particularly in this country, a kind of radically-individualistic skepticism–has been exacerbated since the rise of the internet to give the average person more ammunition to construct their argument; starting not from the evidence itself, but from the argument itself. And that’s just arguing in poor faith.

4 Likes

The amount of people I’ve seen on Twitter recently who have one weird trick for how Hitler could’ve won World War Two and I know every one of them has hit a four figure runtime on a Paradox title.

2 Likes

Remember when Watch_Dogs launched, and footage came out of players finding NPCs identified as “transgender” (as that was one of the many random singular attributes NPCs could have) and murdering them on sight?

And how Ethan James Petty, one of the lead writers, mentioned how he couldn’t wait to see how “players abused the NPCs”, and when shown the footage of players recording themselves singling out trans NPCs, said that the fact that they included “transgender” as an attribute in the first place was good representation actually?

And then Petty went on to throw his support behind GamerGate?

Yeah. I remember.

8 Likes

It’s a common sentiment, to the point of maybe being a bit of a cliche, that large-scale leadership warps people’s perspectives on human life. The higher up you go in a chain of command, the more prepared a leader (or ruler) is to authorize death and misery in the pursuit of a net-positive goal.

The availability of individual violence in media might result in a kind of desensitization–but maybe more insidious is the availability of statistical violence; not only the availability of games that invite players to throw away hundreds or thousands of lives in the pursuit of win states, but in the availability of media that constantly lecture “normal” people about the necessity and even intractability of throwing away life en masse.

That, on its own, is bad enough, but when you add in other complicating factors–like ideology and propaganda–you wind up with whole generations who are ready to defend wide-scale death and destruction at the drop of a hat under certain conditions, while using death and destruction on similar or even smaller scales to flatly condemn alternate conditions. This principle, on its own, isn’t new, but–at the risk of repeating myself–we now have a polity of pseudointellectuals who endeavor to craft thornier and thornier defenses of their (or their hegemons’) pet ideologies by using whole lifetimes’ worths of mass media and legitimizing pop-rhetoric.

At the risk of derailing, there was a tight little thread on Twitter about a week ago about the generation of Econ pseuds that Freakanomics birthed and the way that all their quibbling, detail-obsessed, contrarian rhetoric as nouveau-intellectualism just boiled down to Hirschman’s reactionary narratives… I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were able to compile an equally compelling case study of neo-imperalism and brushfire-war pseuds that were instead raised on a steady diet of Modern Warfares and Zero Dark Thirtys and other such “hard men doing bad things in the service of a civilian good” pablum.

4 Likes

Heh, he dropped another video. I think this new map makes this guy super uncomfortable.

CW for War Photography

I’m gonna be honest with you that my response to these videos is, “Hey, does anyone else want to get really into SQUAD right now? This level of immersion that apparently puts people in distress sounds rad. This seconds video’s rather trite segway to appreciating the valor and sacrifice of the troops? Pishaw—to the video, not the troops. I want a cinematic moment!”

2 Likes

I stand by Squad being the second best horror game after PUBG.

1 Like

I think that this kind of games and videos are proof of quite the opposite: depicting a complex and troubling historical event only from one side. Not even a frame or a thought is given to the “opposing force”. Not to disrespect but, taken as is it presented, it seems almost that the US army in Falluja fought against very angry buildings.

2 Likes

Yeah I caught that second vid, and paired with the creators comments it seems extremely yikes. Comments amounting to denying and whatabouting war crimes

1 Like

Yeah. Looking at the comments, it takes quite a schmuck to so blatantly show opinions worse than that map could ever be.

But, like, seriously, anyone want to get into SQUAD. It seems like one of those games where going in alone would be a fool’s errand.

Also, if you want RP-ing milsim youtubers who aren’t trash, might I suggest Dslyecxi.

From his own site:

“While I am prior-service USMC, I was not a grunt or anything even remotely resembling combat arms, though I was a rifle/pistol coach and ran an Indoor Simulated Marksmanship Trainer (ISMT) on Okinawa for a little under a year. If you’re looking for an oorah-been-there-done-that hardcore military role model, look elsewhere. I am simply someone who has a passion for what they do and an interest in sharing it with others.”

Also, we’re still talking about capitalism in games, right?

1 Like

Can’t really talk about capitalism in games without talking about empire and state violence. War games inductively justify and support capitalism because they justify and support the institutions that protect and fuel it.

5 Likes