There is a crisis happening every day; it just depends how many people notice it. One of these crises is the state of the triple-A games industry (typically high-budget and highly marketed games) and its trend towards microtransactions such as loot boxes (in-game purchases for uncertain in-game items) and DLC (DownLoadable Content, not included in the standard game but purchased after-the-fact).
Microtransactions have been heavily criticised, with individuals such as videogame reviewer Jim Sterling calling them predatory gambling mechanics, the UK government holding hearings on the subject, and several governments threatening bans. Whether predatory or not, they are certainly profitable, with Rockstar games — publisher of the highly successful Grand Theft Auto series — announcing last year that they planned to include microtransaction mechanics into all their future releases.
In fact, almost all major videogame publishers have recently released games oriented around microtransactions, with Bethesda game director Todd Howard arguing post-release content (DLC) justified the release of Fallout 76, a game almost universally criticised for being unfinished.
It is the predatory, shady nature of microtransactions which had led Jim Sterling to coin the term cAAApitalism; he is not alone in recognising the profit-orientated approach of the industry, as evidenced by the significant player backlash when such mechanics were implemented into Star Wars: Battlefront II. This isn’t surprising; microtransactions can greatly increase the cost of games. See, for example, various incidents of often young children spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on purchasable, in-game content.
What does all this have to do with politics? The clue is in the language. Take the term cAAApitalism, for example. Obviously, the AAA is a reference to the triple-A videogames market, and the mocking of the word capitalism is a recognition of the profit-orientated approach of the industry. But it is deeper than that; consumers (gamers) are increasingly aware of their role in games production — they are not a group to be served, but a group to be squeezed. While it would be tenuous to go so far as to say this is a form of capitalist consciousness a la Marxism, for gamers operating specifically within the gaming industry, phrases like cAAApitalism show a greater appreciation of the capitalist forces at work.
Other phrases abound too; one frequently hears queries such as, “why can’t they just release a finished product?”; “why can’t managers just trust in the creative talent of their engineers?”; “why can’t they just focus on making a good game?”; coming from reviewers and fans alike. These questions, and this whole mindset, is emblematic of wider politics, with the answer to all these questions being: “because they want to make a profit.”
I would not say all gamers are Marxists, but all gamers — whether they realise it or not — are highly critical of capitalism.
Replace the word, ‘gamers,’ in the line above with, say, car factory employees or steel workers, and the argument still holds. The question, “why can’t they just release a finished product?” could be rephrased as, “why can’t they just release a product that lasts?” and the same sentiment will be found. Capitalism, beyond gaming, is increasingly leaving average people feeling — to borrow a Marxist term — alienated, with jobs going overseas, with employment being precarious, and with innovation looking predatory.
The solutions to these issues are similarly paralleled within gaming. Just as some think the solution to capitalism’s present ills are to bring the jobs back, in effect keeping capitalism but returning to a time when it seemed to work, many gaming commentators will argue gaming companies simply need to trust in their designers and focus on quality above anything else — a similar rewinding. This, I believe, is where most gamers and most people reside, not looking for revolution, but simply a fairer form of capitalism.
A major issue is, however, why would moneyed interests ever choose to act fairer? The reason I am inclined to connect videogame commentators right now to Marxist theory is because of the conflict their arguments implicitly recognise at the heart of the, ‘creative industry.’ As Oli Mould’s Against Creativity (I keep citing this book, it’s great, read it) argues, creativity is constrained by the profit motive. If the key to making a good videogame is to give game designers creative freedom — as most gamers seem to believe — the only way to ensure creative freedom is to remove the profit motive.
The ills of the video game industry are the ills of capitalism, and the solutions — a world where one may be a fisherman, or a writer, or a video game designer — are also the same.
Whether gamers realise it or not, the crisis of the triple-A gaming market is a reflection of the crisis facing capitalism generally. And yes, not all gamers are Marxists, but the call for game designers to be liberated from the chains of microtransactions is as much a spectre over capitalism as that cast by the men who wanted the workers of the world to unite.