Austin Walker has recently posted a response (and in the process, A Really Important Piece of Games Criticism) to Stephen Beirne's recent post' Level 99 Capitalist'. Beirne's piece was a direct attack on the ideology of games, insofar as that through their mechanics and ludic strategies, they distract, depoliticize and exploit players. In the world of games criticism it is a relatively new take on games that has been brewing for a while – going beyond purely textual readings to understand how games reflect and structure meaning in their mechanics. He then (following Lana Polansky) makes an interesting and surprisingly uncommon distinction: games that work on the “soul” of the player and encourage real development of skills (Demon Souls or Portal) are preferable to those that only result in more levels and more objects. Games that embody the subject position of capitalism vs. the subject position of the social development of human capacities.
Austin’s contribution is an act of critique in the vein of Marx – it takes this argument more seriously than it takes itself. He pushes these arguments into their logical fallacies, and in the process makes the polemic better. Austin wants to show how tactical distinctions between “capitalist levelling” and “epiphanic” development of the player’s soul can occur simultaneously and in contradictory ways, seriously troubling the general critique of levelling up.
For me the question, building on my recent presentation at the Canadian Game Studies Association is this: why does this matter? Right now when I’m not reading about the philosophy of technology or the division of labour I’m thinking through the problems of “how exactly, are games political?” Insofar as while as critics we can point to narratives and mechanics and say “this is political because it reflects an ideology” either narratively or ludicly, there is still the question of of this ideology having any causal relationship to the world. This means that we know ideology goes into cultural objects but how does this ideology come out.
Knowing that ideology goes into culture isn’t a new observation, it’s a fundamental principle of Marxism: the economic base of society – that is, the way society organizes its own reproduction and growth – determines the superstructure of culture, arts, ideologies and the like. The question in cultural studies, roiled over since the end the World War II, is “does this mean we are all victims of production, saps to its tricks, rhetorics and reifications?” The answer provided by Stuart Hall and others was that while capitalism produced culture, culture couldn’t necessarily be counted on to reproduce capitalism. The problem was that there is an epistemological gap between whatever ideologies and logics are embedded in culture and the ways in which those ideologies were interpreted by people. There is no silver bullet to communication – political or otherwise. And it is this gap that complicates any straight formalist reading of media and culture as being fully, irreproachably, a slave to its own conditions of production and ultimately an effective activist for its own reproduction.
The material reality of the reproduction of capitalism is much simpler. While it clear that there are certainly classes that are quite happy to consume culture in its preferred mode, there are many who aren’t and those people are kept in their place by other systems of control and brute repression. Capitalism and its servant, the state, are much better at calling in the army when things are threatening to its continued existence rather than relying on rhetoric or propaganda.
This being the case, I wonder again about about why we should care about levelling being “capitalist”. Sure, some people will think of levelling in the same way they see their ideal life path: go to school, listen to authority, go to university, get a degree, get a job, submit to workplace authority, get a raise and a promotion, become authority, retire, submit to authority, die. In the process there is supposedly an accumulation of objects, much as my many avatar’s filled inventory slots can attest.
One reason we can care about levelling is if it distracts us from more important things, distracting us from Real Politics. Certainly a possibility but often we play games when we aren’t busy working ourselves into the ground. Even the most privileged of wage workers suffer during work as they increasingly work longer and longer hours – so a retreat into a game when one has a few hours to relax isn’t that much of a surprise. I think it’s safe to say that the end of capitalism isn’t being stymied for the lack of those two hours of free time after work spent playing games. As this piece over at Jacobin points out, one of the most important things for any kind of radical organizing today is just getting some free time to actually do stuff. David Graeber recently said something similar, in that one of the biggest problems of the 20th century workers movements was that instead of following the traditionally Anarcho-Syndicalist demand of reducing hours, they took higher wages, resulting in the now normal 45-60 hour work week we now “enjoy”. Our demands, if there were to be any, should be “we want more free time to play video games AND set up union meetings.”
So I’m skeptical of speculating too deeply on the “effects” of media, especially considering that most effects research is limited in scope, and the ability of proving any kind of causality on human subjects is difficult at best. The epistemological problems of culture are here to stay, for the time being. Content is not king, and it is quite likely the ways in which media structures our lives in the McLuhan-esque sense of reorganizing our social and technological ecology is more important than any political message. It’s not “video games with levelling are capitalist” but that video games are capitalist.
This is why I come to rely on assemblage theory to work through these problems, or at least give an analytical reasoning for why the answers are difficult to find. I think games are best spoken of politically when they are discussed as the results of sociological phenomenon – they are artefacts of assemblages of production that materially and expressively reflect the process in which they were wrought. If we want to speak of media effects I use DeLanda’s concept of expressive relationships to begin to describe not a causal relationship but rather a catalytic relationshipo(a process that serves a signalling, communicative function, rather than a blunt material one) could begin through representation. Catalytic processes are epistemological problems in that human subjects still have elements of agency to interpret what they confront in media which could have a variety of causal, material consequences. It requires, as Austin stresses in his last paragraph, ecological thinking.The question of levelling can then be spoken of in these terms: what expressive relationship does levelling have to how we see the world? To answer this question would take a lot of interviews and a lot of money to build a coding schedule and hire TAs to toil away. And even then, the answers would have to be taken in a very specific context, limiting us to any kind of strong claim about what levelling does to us. The same could be said about the epiphanic game where I’m invited to work on my own skills. Without positing a kind of fundamental human essence or a neuroscientific claim (as the Game Evangelists do) about what taps into us in some universal way, the claims we can make are limited to thinking about the impacts of economy and culture.
What this all means for me is that as critics we have to be careful about the kind of claims we make. It’s very within the scope of the critic to draw lines between the processes of our world and the ways they are concretized in games. That’s what makes ideology critique material. That’s what we should take away from thinking about levelling or any other ludic process in games. The other claims we can make about games are subjective and theoretical. We can posit an ideal subject but it must always be that – a theoretical endeavour and our claims should be justifiably couched in such terms. In a sense then so much of what we do is a priori theory, and posterori analysis of already existing processes. Without boatloads of money and a whole sociology department behind us, the internet critic is in some ways limited to these modes of inquiry. This being said, there’s a whole lot cut out for us, and that’s a good thing.
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