Theorising the Web 2014 talk: What does a Materialist Account of a Ludic Century Look Like? Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Counter Strike
This is the transcript of the talk I gave at this year’s Theorizing the Web Conference in New York City. I know there is a video recording from teh conference circulating somewhere, but I had to cut out some of the depth to fit the talk into the time permitting. Consider this the directors cut. It’s an attempt at not going to deep into theory while dealing with a very theoretical problem. A more detailed and “academic” version of this will find its way into a journal article in the next year or so. Hope you enjoy!
So last year Eric Zimmerman, a game designer and professor at the NYU Game Center wrote a manifesto for a ludic century. The points he makes lead one towards a conception of the 21th century as the century defined by games at the cultural, communicative and political level. Games become all.
This presentation is a gesture towards what a materialist theory of a “ludic century” is. The goal here isn’t so much to debunk such visions as “bourgeois fantasies” or “idealist utopianism” but rather to make sense of the tendencies that Zimmerman has seen in our society and what that might mean for both an analytic understanding of such a system as well as a political one. This is then an entirely a priori materialist theory of a ludic century.
The research I have done so far mostly just points towards the hard research to come. Right now I’m relying on my first hand experiences with a whole variety of games, but specifically the one developed by Valve software, CounterStrike: Global Offensive. If you aren’t familiar with CounterStrike, it is quite simply an online First Person Shooter or FPS, for short. CounterStrike is primarily arranged around a two-team 3 minute game format where two teams (terrorists and counter-terrorists) face off against each other in various simulated environments.
What makes this version of CounterStrike interesting is that it was released with full integration into the Steam Marketplace with “real money” transfers, which was first developed with the game Team Fortress 2. Steam is Valve’s digital distribution service that was first created to distribute game updates and patches to Valve games, but was later transformed into a digital rights/distribution service, whose success as a “digital mall” prefigures a lot of other distribution services we take for granted, like Netflix. The reason this marketplace exists is to trade and exchange weapon skins, weapon skin crates and crate keys. While in game marketplaces have existed in online video games for a while now, what is particularly unique, though still not unprecedented, is the real money transfer element of the entire service. The difference between in-game markets and real-money transfer markets is a simple one. In the former, players barter exchange and engage in arbitrage inside the game entirely - often, but not always, with no way to input outside funds into the game. The latter involves the ability to put money into the game, as well as take it out. CounterStrike for me is exemplary of a tendency, rather than a singularity. The goal for me is to use it as this tendency to make sense or draw out the Weberian “spirit of the age”, in some ways. Are the logics of CounterStrike the animating spirit of the Ludic Century? In what ways are the logics of CounterStrike different or exemplary of what Zimmerman described?
Play and Hyperwork
There are two things that I need to address before I go further: the body of literature about work, play in virtual environments and games in the field of game studies and the work of the economist Yanis Varoufakis.
In game studies the problem has been historically posed in Western-centric, humanist (in the philosophical sense) terms. This is baggage left over primarily from the work of Johan Huizinga, who was an orientalist but dabbled in pseudo anthropology and generated a theory of man and play, his Homo-Ludens. Building off this came Caillois’ sociology, constructing more typologies of games and play. These ludologies pose ideal conceptions of what games and play are, rather than historical and specific ones - which in part explains the better part of a decade that was dedicated to arguing about what a game even is and what play even is.
A lot of ink has been spilled over this in my field, and if you want to know more I can direct you to a presentation paper I gave late last year, which gives a bit of an overview of the major positions and theories.
This is something foregrounded by Mark Silverman and Bart Simon in their 2009 article ‘Discipline and Dragon Kill Points in the Online Power Game’. They believe the work/play distinction is critical and unavoidable to think about when theorising games. For them work and play as we know it rise in relation to the class based experiences of industrial society. They say that:
“It comes about that, in modernity, one has to play because one works, and play in this sense, has no significant meaning outside its relationship to work.” (p. 354)
Yet in recognizing that work and play as we know them are products of a class-based society, Simon and Silverman propose a different path towards understanding how games mediate work and play. They think that reducing them only to a new form of alienation is too simple, and that they reflect other tendencies that escape the dialectical relation. For them Foucault’s genealogical analysis is a better to reveal the currents of production, desire, instrumentality and power in games like Everquest, an early Massively Multiplayer Online Game.
They do this with a study of of the Dragon Kill Point system, which was instituted in some online guilds in Everquest through the foil of the ‘Power Gamer’. The power gamer is the most instrumental of all subjects - these are what we might call today Hardcore gamers. These are the gamers that, as T.L. Taylor describes it, have a:
“focus on efficiency and instrumental orientation, dynamic goal setting, a commitment to understanding the underlying game systems/structures, and technical and skill proficiency.” (p. 356)
The Power Gamer is the kind of subjectivity who would join guilds to play “high level content” in games like Everquest, EVE Online or World of Warcraft. The kind of guilds whose application forms often require more information and commitment than most job resumes.
What is key for Silverman and Simon is that power gamers, in dialogue with the institutions of guilds in online games have created interesting and new forms of governance and power, as embodied in the form of the Dragon Kill Point system. While I don’t have time to go into depth about it here, what made it interesting was that the Dragon Kill Point system was designed to incentivise group play without resorting to more autocratic forms of control. By producing a kind of currency inside the guild associated with a certain amount of in game labour, members would trade that currency to increase the likelihood of winning new loot (weapons and items in the game).
But while this might have been the goal of the Dragon Kill Point system that arose it doesn’t mean it produced that behaviour. Silverman and Simon instead prefer to wonder why the activities that power gamers engaged in would be “amenable to economistic analysis”.
While I agree that such a Foucaultian analysis is interesting and productive, I’m still interested in the economics of the Dragon Kill Point system as well as the economics arising in other online game-like contexts. Silverman and Simon return to this question in their conclusions, though. They say that one could interpret power gamers as the logical conclusion of George Ritzer’s thesis of ‘the mcdonaldization of everything’ - that play is increasingly becoming just as awful as the most routine service jobs. But they prefer a different interpretation: that power gamers are not workers nor are they like workers. Rather they are hyper workers.
Key to this argument about hyperworkers is that they aren’t producing value. They produce nothing and consume nothing. Instead they produce a simulacrum of post-industrial work. They play at working in the ways post-industrial workers work. This is justified by suggesting (without a full political economy) that power gamers are likely a sap on the resources of the MMO production studio and that they are consuming - at an accelerated rate - the content which is supposed to be doled out to the rest of the players who play very little.
I don’t think that without conducting a full analysis of Sony Online Entertainment (the developer of Everquest) we could ever really know if these power gamers were resource hogs, but I think that taking into account the ways in which capitalism is functioning today, we can account for power gamers (and all gamers) as value producing workers. While in some sense the “playing at work” element is true, the reality is that video game production captures value at two points in the productive process: the first is in the studio where surplus value is extracted through the wage, and the second is in the production of new forms of affective labour that produce immaterial forms of value that are captured through a variety of mechanisms.
Case in point: the Steam Marketplace
One person who has studied the Steam Marketplace for a while is the economist, and one time Valve researcher, Yanis Varoufakis. His public work there was boiled down into three very interesting blog posts. All of this, by the way, was prior to the creation of real money transfers. The first dealt with with the workings of arbitrage (buying low and selling high) in the steam marketplace. The second dealt with the real quandaries of moral exchanges and “impure exchange” that exist in the Steam Marketplace. Yanis was quick to admit, quite rightly, that while ideologically free market triumphalists would want such digital marketplaces to be pure exchanges, they are often the site of moral systems and gift economies, as well as forms of debt. In Varoufakis’ assessment, the Steam Marketplace has less in common with the ideal types advocated for by Hayek and Adam Smith and more in common with David Hume, whose theory left room to a variety of human passions, the passion to pursue profit being only one of them. His final blog post is also quite interesting, which concerns his political economy of Valve Corporation itself, which has publicized on many occasions that it is a non-hierarchical business with no official bosses.
But I’m more interested in the marketplace and how it is realizing value of a very unique kind in today’s capitalism and how things like real money transfer – where you can take real money, put it into a digital marketplace, and buy and speculate on digital commodities. This is how the Steam Marketplace now works, which is very different than most other (but not all) virtual environments like EVE Online, which allow one to put real money into the game in the form of the PLEX, but not take the money out legally.
Let me explain how digital commodities are produced in CounterStrike: Global Offensive. A game is played and at the end of the round there are a series of drops. These drops can be two kinds of items. Weapon skins (paint jobs for the guns you use) and cases. The weapon skins can be used immediately by the player. For the cases the player must use a key (which is sold by valve at a set price) to open. When the player uses the key on the case a randomized drop is initiated and a weapon skin is produced. The skin could be rare or common. It is functionally a random chance.
At this point, depending on the kind of skin or case one has received, the player can choose to keep, trade or sell it. If one trades the item, it is an instance of what Varoufakis rightfully points out as the ideal type of barter: the duel accident of wants. If the player decides that waiting for this accidental want is taking too long, they can resort to the universal equivalent (real money) and sell it. She can then set her own price on the steam marketplace. Say somebody agrees to the price and buys it. At this point valve takes a cut of the sale. This is called the ‘Steam Transaction fee’ and it is currently set at 5% of the cost, and is payed by the buyer. The money made from this sale goes into the player’s ‘Steam Wallet’.
The cut that valve takes, that’s what I’m interested in. Think of how value is being produced. I play a game and valve gives me an object whose marginal cost (the cost to produce the next copy) is functionally zero. I then take this commodity and sell it to somebody else who wants it. I am going to assume that this other player put money into their steam wallet to buy a weapon skin that they really have been eyeing for a while now. They pay for it, using money from outside the game and give it to me, with valve shaving off a specific percentage, sometimes as much as 50%. They have captured value without actually selling me anything, nor having bought anything. They profited by being the intermediary of the sale. The only sunk cost was the cost of the artist that Valve employed in creating the skin. But even then many of these skins are contributed, through unpaid labour, by the community in various contests and ratings.
While certainly some players will be able to gain advantage through a deft read of the marketplace and engage in successful arbitrage, they STILL pay the Valve toll. Behold, a blog post from a internet friend’s friend:
“Take this transaction for instance. I bought something for $10 from them. They gave me a mythic in game item as a bonus. When I sell that item for $25, they take approx $3.25 out of that. I then spend $13 of that on a game, of which they take a third. So that’s like another $4.22. That totals $7.57 that they have made back from that already. Now, if I purchase another game with the other 10 that I have left, they take another third. This will give them over $10. Which means I bought an item for $10, but they actually made over $20 on the sale. Fucking genius.”
The Suburbanization of Video games
This is only one example of the direct extraction of surplus from different forms of labour in digital games, but as I said above, I think it’s a tendency that is going to become increasingly widespread. It is a relatively small way of capturing surplus, on top of the already profitable sales of videogames and the cut of all sales that Valve makes from selling video games on the steam service. This is why it’s important to me, because it’s just another instance in the cycle of production and reproduction where value is captured by capital.
One question that’s worth posing is why. Why is this happening now? It used to be that selling the video game as a standalone commodity yielded enough surplus to make video game corporations some of the largest tech companies in the world. The answer is one I’m working on with my colleague Daniel Greene in a journal article right now. We propose a modification of David Harvey’s theory of spatial fixes, wherein the cycles of capitalism continually run into limits, which are then treated as barriers that must be circumvented. For Harvey this meant that capital has most often geographically shifted itself around the world, much in line with Trotsky’s theory of ‘uneven and combined development’. But what the increasing reliance on web based tech start ups in the current economy have revealed is a virtual geographic shift, where capital has fled into the stream of information. Games and things like the Steam Marketplace are the logical conclusion of this.
A Ludic Century Then?
I suppose this means that it’s worth coming back to the general idea of the ludic century. Is the ludic century becoming real as Zimmerman speculates? It could very well be if the current trends in capitalism hold as Thomas Piketty predicts, that is, if the rate of return on wealth outpaces national growth. Economists predict this means a deepening of the crisis and a shift towards low, but predictable returns of all kinds, scraped from any part of life possible. This is exactly what the kind of rents extracted by Valve from small commodities resembles. It isn’t ridiculously profitable, it is just profitable enough. This is the kind of virtual spatial fix Greene and I propose. At the same time Silverman and Simon’s theory of hyperworkers increasingly begins to fade. While once society could play at being postindustrial workers, the trends of gamification (which is the same process in the opposite direction) make work into a game while play is increasingly work-like. What is likely to happen is that wages and the extraction of surplus value will increasingly be as important both during the “official” work day, while an increasing mass will play games for both pleasure and profit (with digital rentiers like Valve picking up 5% each time). Imagine this kind of rentier relationship existing at each level of your work and leisure life - 5% here and there, and it increasingly seems like Valve really has prefigured whatever it is to live in, if not a post-industiral society, a ludustrial society.
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