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.