Socialism at Play

Radical game designer Paolo Pedercini on what video games can teach us about capitalism — and socialism.

Matt Chan / Flickr

Though frequently written off as indifferent to anything beyond their own pleasures, many fans of video games recognize and even bemoan working conditions in the game industry. For the most part, though, they’re not inclined to see this as a political problem, let alone one with political solutions.

One recent essay, “Gaming Under Socialism,” is an attempt to change that. Written by Paolo Pedercini, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon and the founder of the radical games project Molleindustria, the piece is not so much a critique or a manifesto as a sorely needed exercise in “radical imagination.” It tries to take seriously the question of what socialism can do for games (and, by extension, what games can do for socialism).

The game industry, Paolo argues, is a particularly useful lens for examining capitalism in the information age — and thinking about how we might make things better. As he puts it, “we can imagine a [near-future socialism] without resorting to fictional technologies or elaborate space exploration allegories.”

Paolo and I recently spoke about his essay and its criticisms, gaming in the Soviet Union, and the role that games might play in articulating alternatives to capitalism today.

Will Partin

Let’s start with the obvious question. In an age of unprecedented inequality and right-wing reaction, why should socialists care about video games at all? Don’t we have more pressing things to worry about?

Paolo Pedercini

The Internet and social media have enabled a proliferation of niches and consumer tribes, and I think it’s important for socialists to create something more than another subculture with its own filters and idiosyncratic signifiers. Let’s not become another kind of nerd.

If we’re actually proposing a radical and comprehensive transformation of society, we should be able to project our socialist ideas onto a variety of spheres and envision alternatives at all levels. We have to counter the incredibly common argument that all our high-tech gadgets and modern amenities are gifts of capitalism, and not the result of organized labor. We have to work against black-and-white images of a miserable “actually existing” socialism.

Moreover, the game industry has been and still is a laboratory for crucial tendencies of capitalism. It anticipated the rise of the “prosumer” and the collapse of the boundary between productive and unproductive time, play and labor. The game industry is a good vantage point to understand the dynamics of late capitalism.

Will Partin

Video games sit — uncomfortably, I’d say — at the border of creative and tech industries and, in many ways, suffer from the worst parts of each. In both production and distribution, what are some of the primary issues workers in the game industry face? And how should socialist politics respond to these?

Paolo Pedercini

Traditionally, the game industry leveraged its appeal and playful aura to exploit its workers. Young “passionate” developers were hired, worked until they burned out, regularly laid off, and replaced with younger, less-demanding ones.

But in the early 2000s, these unfortunate working conditions, along with the lack of individual agency for developers on increasingly large teams, collided with the wider availability of game-making tools. This gave rise to a lively independent games movement.

Like their counterparts in other culture industries, indie developers pursued more experimental and personal projects, rejecting dull and hierarchical corporate structures. They strived to build more inclusive communities of players and developers. (I talked about this in a 2012 lecture at Indiecade called “Toward Independence.”)

Alas, it turns out that the crucial component of informational capitalism is distribution. Conglomerates like Apple, Sony, and Microsoft quickly adapted to this peaceful seizure of the means of production. They opened their markets to indies and even supported some of them, while consolidating control over the vectors along which content — previously known as culture — spreads in order to get a cut at every transaction. The result is a saturated market in which small producers take all the financial risk and rarely succeed financially, while platform capitalists make handsome profits while producing basically nothing.

McKenzie Wark detected this trend more than a decade ago in A Hacker Manifesto. In it, he describes what he calls a “vectoralist class,” which doesn’t control the means of production but instead mediates connections and access to information.

This model, which was generalized by Google and is now increasingly applied by non-informational services like Uber and Airbnb, presents daunting new challenges for socialists. Traditional responses like unionization may become less effective given the interchangeability of the productive units. Workers may see this new, precarious autonomy as a satisfying alternative to underpaid nine-to-five jobs.

And if not the factory or the office, where exactly is the primary site of class conflict? Can these platforms constitute the first primitive infrastructure for a democratic, non-centralized socialist economy in which I can be a driver one day and a game designer the next?

Will Partin

In your essay, you point to how crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter offer a way for indie developers to step outside of the traditional system of production. For me, maybe that was once true. But there are plenty of examples now of corporate studios using Kickstarter itself, or combining it with traditional venture funding. How can we ensure that whatever alternatives we come up with aren’t simply coopted by the same forces we’re trying to get away from?

Paolo Pedercini

I always try to use the term cooption carefully. There’s this defeatist idea that any change that doesn’t culminate in total revolution somehow ends up in capitalism’s arsenal, making it even more sophisticated and subtly oppressive.

In an autonomist Marxist view of history, the workers’ struggle for self-determination and justice is the engine of history. It’s what forces capitalism to restructure itself.

Today, we are freelance bullshit designers and precarious hamburger flippers because the previous generation opposed the drudgery of factory work. They asked for raises, or they asked for their bosses’ head. Capital did not respond by compromising, but by moving sideways — automation, outsourcing, reallocation of added value of branding, finance, and communication.

It may not be the best outcome, but we have to acknowledge that the terrain changed. I don’t want these factory jobs back. I don’t even want to see them in China — or anywhere, for that matter!

Kickstarter and the like were never trying to be an alternative to capitalism, but they did capture a desire to sidestep financial institutions and provide a somewhat more democratic alternative (while, again, exercising vectorial power over these microfinancial streams). The fact that investors use Kickstarter to assess the demand and viability of a product is not enough to disqualify it as a whole.

So, to reformulate your question, does Kickstarter, etc. contain a kernel of the socialist future we actually want to see?

Will Partin

Well does it?

Paolo Pedercini

I think we have to look at these capitalist formations with the same eyes that Marx and Engels used to look at early factories. They saw the misery of the rising industrial working class and the contradictions of the free market. But they also saw the unprecedented opportunities that the bourgeois organization of labor offered, namely the liberation from a world of scarcity and underproduction.

Will Partin

Something you mentioned in passing that struck me was that there wasn’t a rich gaming culture in the Soviet Union, despite access to comparable gaming technologies. Can you say a little more about that?

Paolo Pedercini

In English at least, there’s very little research on gaming in the Soviet Union. We know from surviving arcade cabinets that what titles did exist were somewhat derivative of Western products.

I’m guessing that’s because they were produced in the aftermath of the infamous 1959 “Kitchen Debate,” in which Americans showcased models of middle-class homes in Russia to claim the superiority of the capitalist lifestyle. That prompted Khrushchev to direct more resources to consumer goods and modern amenities. So these early Soviet games were probably more of a symbolic catch-up with the West than an organic, heartfelt endeavor.

There are a couple notable ideological features, though. There appear to have been no high scores (supposedly to deter individualism), and the cost per play was very high (supposedly to curb addiction or deal with the limited supply of arcade cabinets). Most games had some kind of military theme and skill-based gameplay, which was probably meant to justify the investment in utilitarian or ideological terms.

In the 1980s, you start to see more independent endeavors in the Eastern Bloc, like games incorporating Eastern European folklore, homebrew games, and early creative software, like demoscene.

And, of course, there’s Tetris, which began as a technical test at a research institution, was developed as a side project, and ultimately spread virally — not at all unlike SpaceWar!, the first video game in the West, did twenty years before!

To me, the fact that it took a British company to turn a self-evidently brilliant game like Tetris into a global phenomenon is indicative of the repressive climate surrounding digital entertainment in the Eastern Bloc.

Will Partin

There are “downstream” benefits for players in a socialized system of production and distribution. What would such a model actually do for people who care about games?

Paolo Pedercini

For starters, a primary goal of socialism is to liberate us from the tyranny of waged labor as much as possible. We want to solve the contradictions that produce masses of unemployed and masses of overworked. Games can be quite cheap, leisure time is a more valuable resource for a gamer.

Secondly, I argue that under socialism a lot of perverse shit we have to put up with as consumers of technology would simply disappear. I’m talking about proprietary systems, stupid dongles, non-standardized hardware and software, platform exclusive content, obnoxious DRM systems, planned obsolescence . . . basically all the tricks that tech companies use to fuck us over or to screw with each other. They’re all tricks that have nothing to do with innovation or the actual products.

Then there’s the promise of the decommodification of culture and compensation for the diffuse labor that fans, amateurs, players, modders, and streamers constantly perform. It’s already a refrain in this interview, but it’s worth unpacking.

The most successful companies in games — let’s say Valve — succeed precisely by detecting and enclosing wealth that is created collectively. They are constantly finding new ways to outsource labor to their user, from the filtering and curation of Steam to the creation of content. The popular esports Dota 2 and League of Legends, for example, are repackagings of “mods” refined by an international community of amateurs over a decade.

It may seem like a win for gamers to see their obscure hobby get recognized and become professionalized, but when you generalize that modus operandi you start to understand how you end up with a couple of incredibly profitable industries and an entire generation of young people who can barely pay their bills.

Will Partin

As a corollary, there’s been a lot of conversation — much, though not all, of it overblown — about the role that games and gaming culture have played in aiding the rise of an online reactionary right, or at least a certain segment of it. How would you respond to other leftists who have written the medium off as a lost cause?

Paolo Pedercini

Yes, there’s a whole genre of think pieces morbidly investigating Trump’s meme army and portraying Gamergate as a precursor/accelerator of the “alt-right.”

The patterns are similar: mediocre white dudes are afraid that women and minorities are out there to take their toys away and threaten their already precarious social status; they react violently but mostly anonymously, so it’s hard to get a sense of their actual numbers; they have the troll-like realization that the more they push the envelope, the more they outrage liberals, and the more their “message” spreads.

There’s no doubt that Gamergate truly ruined many people’s lives for a couple of years. The alt-right is a concrete threat to a lot of groups. But we’ve gotta get over the fact that the fascists are on the Internet. We can keep an eye on them without amplifying their crap.

I’ve been immersed in various sectors of game culture for more than a decade, and I still can’t substantiate any claim of a dominant political leaning among the gaming populace. The libertarian magazine Reason tried to claim gamers as their natural constituency, but even their own survey portrayed a profile that is generally more progressive than libertarian.

It’s totally fine to ignore the toxic gamer communities where these Gamergate types hang out. Most people play games without tying their identity to these products. These are the players I’m interested in.

Will Partin

In general, I’d say most of your games are anti-neoliberal rather than pro-socialist. But what role can games play not simply in diagnosing the horrors of capitalism, but also in articulating viable alternatives?

Paolo Pedercini

That’s something I’ve been pondering for a long time.

It’s easy to use video games’ cybernetic bias toward control and instrumental rationality to articulate a critique or satire of bureaucratic capitalists and neoliberal systems. But at the same time, I worry that utopian games may have a cathartic effect, causing players to fall back into easy escapism and power fantasies.

In my games Nova Alea (about gentrification) and To Build a Better Mousetrap (about managerial capitalism), I tried to negotiate these tensions to produce more desirable outcomes, while still keeping the main conflicts within the capitalist present.

But, yes, it’s probably time to come up with dynamic, playable visions of a better future. The key would be to convey that a socialist world is not the end of history — peaceful, conflictless, utopian, etc. Rather, it’s the conditions under which we can actually start working on solutions that work for everyone and for the planet we inhabit.