Critical Theory, Political Economy and Game Studies: A Review of "Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games"by Bart Simon
Nick Dyer-Witherford and Greig de Peuter’s Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games is absolutely essential reading for any game studies or design scholar. There is no excuse for avoiding this book. Occasionally books appear that unintentionally help shape a field and for game studies this is just such a text. I will not credit the authors for this however, Games of Empire, like their previous book Digital Play co-authored with Stephen Kline, has been written with scant attention to game studies as a field and with even less concern for a direct engagement with game studies scholars (though many authors from this journal will find themselves cited). I do not mean to be petty about this and certainly not every games researcher has to be a game studies scholar but I do regret the lost opportunity for mutually enriching conversations. My advice is for readers is to skip over the very small section on “ludic scholars” in the introduction and go directly the political and cultural theoretical inspired arguments of this book. Taken as a whole, the argument sketches a critical political economic analysis of the digital games industry and game culture drawing on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s theoretical concept of ‘Empire.’ It is a perspective that directly implicates academic game studies in a concern with either being part of the ‘problem’ or part of a ‘solution.’
The problem, of course, is ‘Empire.’ This is both a theoretical and descriptive concept used by Hardt and Negri to diagnose the “emergence of a new planetary regime in which economic, administrative, military and communicative components combine to create a system of power ‘with no outside’” (xix). Empire specifies a form of social-economic life under late capitalism that reaches beyond economic exchange. “Capital” now taps its subjects’ energies at multiple points: not just as workers… but also as consumers…as learners, and even as a source of raw materials… exploiting social life in its entirety (xx).” Some of my graduate students have referred to Empire as a “resistance is futile” form of social theory but this is not quite accurate. While it is true that Empire has no outside and therefore no opposition (there is no “place” from which to resist or overthrow Empire) the very nature of Empire’s flexibility and adaptability produces innumerable contradictions and tensions within its confines. Built into the theory of Empire is a theory of its destabilization in the form of what Hardt and Negri call the Multitude. The Multitude is by and large a social force located in the coalescence of new creative subjectivities, new social formations and grassroots mobilizations and concrete cultural economic alternatives produced at the heart of Empire. In vain, I try to tell my students that Empire is an optimistic political theory for making sense of, and acting on and in, the contradictions of late capitalism but to be honest I am not sure Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter offer much help for this interpretation.
In fact, we might be forgiven for thinking that Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter’s version of Empire has all the necessary qualities to qualify it for the next instalment of the Halo franchise. The theory itself is somewhat video game like. From my own cultural theoretical perspective this is a fundamental weakness of Hardt and Negri’s work that is seriously exacerbated in Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter’s expert interpretation. Empire is at root a binary agonistic theory as befits the radical critical theory tradition. The politics of Empire is what might be called a vector politics (rather than an identity politics). That is, you are either with Empire or you are against it (with the Multitude) but this is not a matter of identity (which team you are on) but rather a matter of movement at the level of both individuals and collectives. At any moment do our actions reproduce Empire or do they unsettle it? This is an important reimagining of Marxist class/ identity-based agonistics but it is also somewhat stifling. This vector politics still only has two directions; the extension and stabilization of Empire or the cultivation of a resistant Multitude. The avant-guardist politics of ‘us/them’ sits squarely at the heart of Games of Empire. What is the political vector of the game developer? The gamer? Or the game studies scholar? Wake-up people!
It may seem like I am being sarcastic in my synopsis of the main argument of the book but nothing could be further from the truth. Coming from a cultural studies and cultural theory tradition myself, I argued in the first issue of Games and Culture that game studies would find its most formidable opposition not in the entrenched media effects paradigms of positivist psychology and communications research but rather from a more thorough and careful trajectory of thought in critical media studies and critical theory. In this tradition media and new media production and consumption must be seen in the context of broader social-historical formations and the rise of video gaming in this sense is crucially about new modes of social organization in late globalised capitalism. While the previous work of Ted Friedman, Julian Stallybrass, Alexander Galloway and MacKenzie Wark helped lay the theoretical foundations for a critical theory of gaming, it is really with Games of Empire that we can see a merging of theory with well documented research on the game industry and game culture.
Dyer Witherford and de Peuter’s extension of Hardt and Negri’s work is to illustrate the ways in which the political economy of video game development, game culture and the practices of gamers mark an epitome of Empire in many ways and potential alternatives and resistances to Empire in somewhat fewer ways. Their work foregrounds media and especially interactive media production and consumption as a key component of Empire and the starting point therefore is not Huizenga and Caillois on the social functions and values of games and play but rather critical media theory, Althusserian notions of ideology and interpellation, Foucauldian biopower and governmentality, Deleuze and Guattari on machinic subjectivity and an overall Frankfurt School perspective on video games as ‘culture industry.’ As the authors argue, “game making blurs the lines between work and play, production and consumption, voluntary activity and precarious exploitation, in a way that typifies the boundless exercise of biopower.” (xxix). At all levels, video games as the quintessential media of Empire produce and reproduce the dominant social order through the generation of more or less docile neo-liberal citizen-subjectivities.
These terms may be social theoretical but the forceful idea here is this latest form of domination under capital can be seen in the conjunction of the exploitative labour conditions of game making, in the discursive-representational layer of games consumed by players, and even in software code, game mechanics and conditions of interactivity that typically mark digital games as distinct media (for game studies scholars). The fact that all this is all cynically arranged under the cultural heading of ‘pleasure’, ‘fun’ and ‘desire’ is simply the latest icing on an old Marxian media studies cake. Not only do we learn to accept exploitation and alienation under capitalism but we learn to enjoy this acceptance and even seek it out.
I am simplifying the matter somewhat for the sake of provocation but in fact the major strength of this book does not come from its theoretical apparatus but rather from the well presented and coherent account of the political economy of the industry. Game studies can only survive on journalistic and industry biased accounts of the history of game development for so long. The book itself is divided into three sections. The first section is mostly dedicated to a presentation and analysis of game production focusing on the concepts of “immaterial labour’ (chapter 1), “cognitive capitalism” (chapter 2) and “machinic subjectivity” (chapter 3). The second section is less illuminating. It is most convincing when describing the socio-economic context for a game’s production and weakest when the argument falls back on a much older tried and true form of critical discursive analysis of media representations in Full-Spectrum Warrior (chapter 4), World of Warcraft (chapter 5) and Grand Theft Auto (chapter 6). The final section is important if somewhat perfunctory. The authors’ deploy the concept of Multitude to seed their own reading of varieties of ‘counter-gaming’ (a term coined by Alexander Galloway) as object lessons for designers, gamers and game studies scholars in how to cultivate the Multitude.
Game studies should be grateful for section one of this book. The section opens with the requisite history of video games chapter but it is an astutely revisionist history focusing on the increasing precariousness of the game development labour force directly correlated with the ascendancy of the game industry as a multi-billion dollar engine of digital economy in the post-industrialized West. Following Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter’s argument we can see the organization of labour practice in the games industry (the analysis is mostly focused on the U.S. and not Japan) as an extension of the ideology of dotcom labour in the 1980’s (as represented in Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, for example) in which ‘boring work is made fun.’ The credo for the games industry is more like ‘fun work made fun.’ The game development labourer in this story is an appropriated hacker, artist and player that helps cultivate a culture of ‘playbour’ where voluntary excess is seen as a virtue. It is when this model of voluntaristic excess becomes a vision for all post-industrial knowledge work that we can see how game development is a model of Empire itself. Chapter two extends this in a closer analysis of the business strategy of Electronic Arts. Focusing on the public case of EA Spouse, the authors highlight the relative disengagement, gender inequity and exploitation of the industry as a whole while at the same time illustrating the ways in which game workers are beginning to resist. Since the story of EA Spouse originally appeared in 2004 it has become matter of general knowledge that at the core of the industry is the conflict over the issue of control and autonomy between publishers and developers. The economic scene and global scope of this conflict are laid bare by Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter and they make a convincing case for how creative control, workplace equity, cognitive capitalism (or knowledge work) are entwined.
In chapter three and the next few chapters the analysis takes an important turn. Rather than focusing on the Empire’s appropriation of developer subjectivities (and their burgeoning resistance), Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter turn to the issue player subjectivities. Chapter three focuses on the console wars and the ascendancy of the Xbox as a “machinic” system producing hardcore gamer subjectivities (and resistances). “The Xbox configured who would play it, and how… by affirming that a machine for youthful male players should be a big black box with a huge, complex controller, providing a virtual imaginary of racing cars and cyborg warriors, embedded in aggressive put-downs and trash talk, Microsoft circularly corroborated presuppositions about youth, masculinity and digital play: it reproduced hard-core subjects” (84). In this argument, hardware and software as technical machines are understood as part of a larger and more abstract machine assemblage (following Deleuze and Guattari) that constitute the social formations and subjectivities of Empire. While I find myself at odds with the authors’ tendency to favour the structural determination of machines over the diffuse agencies of players in the production of those machines there is no doubt that their perspective is an important corollary to Ian Bogost’s and Nick Montfort’s much thinner conception of cultural politics in their conception of platform studies.
The middle section of the book picks up the analysis of player subjectivities in case studies of the political-economic context of three game franchises (Full Spectrum Warrior, World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto). I will not go into much detail of the arguments here but rather suggest that in this section the authors have all but abandoned the nuanced and multivalent aspects of the Multitude in favour of the determination of production and representation over play. Readers who wish to more carefully examine how and why digital games might be importantly different from other media should concentrate on these chapters which, in my view, overly stress the ways in which games as discourse interpellate players into subjectivities with Empire-friendly affinities for war and violence, bureaucratic self-discipline, and racial and gender stereotypes. I am not sure an analysis of typical television or Hollywood movie fare would bring conclusions that were much different unless the authors were intending to make more than they do of the interpellative function of interactivity and simulation. Perhaps game studies scholarship has not been critical enough of the implication of games and therefore players in the military-industrial complex, global flows of labour, resources and capital and race and gender politics that frame gameplay. But my more micro-sociological perspective prefers this analysis to come out of close attention to specific forms of gameplay (and there are numerous forms of this kind of analysis to be found in the work of TL Taylor, Mia Consalvo, and Helen Kennedy amongst others). There is almost no discussion in this middle section about how the games in question are actually played.
The last chapters on games of Multitude and alternatives to Empire’s ludocapitalism will be familiar to most game studies readers as it is a summary of many of the examples of counter-gaming practices that have appeared within mainstream, independent and subversive game culture. On the production side are a host of ‘art’ and ‘political’ games and the rise of the independent game movement while on the player/consumption side are examples of simply playing ‘against the grain’ or what the authors call “counter-play” (195), ludoactivism, MMO protests, and the like. It occurs to me that most game studies scholars have identified myriad counter-gaming practices at the core of their research from values-in-design to studies of recalcitrant and cheating players, and even Edward Castronova’s ideological opposition to being Horde in WoW. The question ultimately comes down to how resistant play is realized, accounted for and theorized, but also it will require that players, scholars and designers more collectively engage with the question of what resistant play amounts to and why it matters in specific instances.
I am not sure if the moral of the story in the last chapter differs from what most game studies scholars and designers aspire to. As I read the last chapter it would seem simply that the more power and control that rests (or is wrested) in the hands of independent developers in collusion with players the more digital games may contribute to the realization of better worlds (as possibility or in actuality). Failing that, perhaps the moral of the story is for gamers to better know the machines of their enslavement, and that perhaps of all media, games allow for that possibility more than any other.