Notes on POST/CAPITALISM: The Base and The Superstructure

POST/CAPITALISM by Colestia (a.k.a David Cribb) is, in short, an inverted resource management sim . Or, it might be more accurate to describe as a kind of socialist SimCity, as Heather Alexandra did at Kotaku. Both approach the underpinning ethic of the game, which, unlike most games of the genre, doesn’t take hours upon hours to complete. This pared-down parody of urban development sims can be played in under an hour, and doesn’t actually require the player to build anything. Instead, POST/CAPITALISM perches the player on a god’s eye view of an already-existing, industrially advanced city. The goal, as the game’s tutorial explains, is less about building up anything on top of the city’s framework, and more about peeling back the layers of ideology that underpin the basic structure of the city. Only by doing this, the game suggests, can real change actually be achieved.

POST/CAPITALISM may be seen as the second volume to Crisis Theory (read my review of it here.) Whereas Crisis Theory is a more caustic and cautionary portrayal of capitalism’s inevitable trajectory (no less than neofeudalism and ecological destruction), POST/CAPITALISM is a more affirmative proposal for understanding how capitalism, industrialization and ecology interact with each other. While it doesn’t explicitly prescribe socialism as the remedy for a Utopian post-capitalist society, the game instead tries to make a materialist case for understanding the relationships between structures we take for granted in, for example, a dense, cosmopolitan city.

The mechanics of POST/CAPITALISM are very simple, though not always immediately obvious, sometimes to the game’s detriment. The tutorial instructs the player to double-click on something in the city (a university, a clothing store, a highway, an office building, a power plant, and so on) in order to change it into something more sustainable. This means converting from oil to green energy, or from homelessness and unemployment to a 100% employment rate and universal housing, or from privatized commercial space to a communal green space. But things aren’t so cut and dry: changing one thing for the better necessitates that something else change with it, and this can mean that putting resources into one thing (say, unemployment) can have a serious effect on another (say, the transit system.)

The trick is to uncover the nexus between these interlocking parts. To find out why changing commercial institutions impacted higher education, the player must drag their mouse between these two things to draw out a brief, written explanation connecting the two. This explanation connects to another, and so on, until the player connects all the dots back to four core assumptions on which the logics of the city are based.

This gets increasingly difficult as the game wears on, since it becomes harder to figure out which areas of the city are connected to one another. This results in a desperate trial and error where players find themselves haphazardly dragging and clicking on things in the hope that it might trigger an interaction. At Game Curious, a recent local event I helped organize, we featured POST/CAPITALISM at our Capitalism and Labour Issues showcase and while many liked the game, the prime complaint was the vagueness of the mechanics toward the end. A few players mentioned that they would have preferred more clarity in terms of what they were expected to click on. I worry that this may compromise the fundamental premise of the game, which is that the relationship between the formal processes of capitalism are themselves often obscured and difficult to demonstrate in their totality, but I’m inclined to agree that not having some kind of late-game visual indicator might have the unintended side effect of dissuading people from actually finishing the game.

Another criticism worth considering—and one I often wonder about whenever I engage with intentionally anti-capitalist media—is whether or not the game is taking these really complex, vague and stubborn problems and simplifying them down too much, thereby undermining the immensity of the revolutionary project. To this I would say, maybe so, but I think this is somewhat unavoidable no matter the subject, and dependent upon the scope of the work. The relationships the game is trying to uncover can be difficult to articulate, and feeding the imagination for a truly radical approach to combating these issues can’t be done through dense academic texts alone. We’re inured to thinking about politics as they center around specific issues and wield at best a social-democratic attitude when it comes to how we organize for them. POST/CAPITALISM makes the case that any organizing we do, even if it must be around specific issues, must take for granted a holistic consideration of the intersecting forces impinging on whatever that thing is. This understanding is something that must guide our politics in all we do.

Both Crisis Theory and POST/CAPITALISM use formal rhetoric and conventions, either of videogames as we know them or of the operationalizing tendencies in modern capitalism (the desire to stuff everything into pseudo-scientific graphs and figures). POST/CAPITALISM recalls the use of flow charts, though less directly than Crisis Theory, which is literally represented as a flow chart. I think this aesthetic, while cold and technocratic, serves a very useful purpose. We’re so used to associating entirely man-made economic constructs with scientific detachment. We tend to think of things as more legitimate—more like natural law, even—when we see them justified with expertly visuals and language. This serves a dual purpose—to justify our reality to us, sure, but also to alienate most people from actually taking part in any conversation about it. There is an entire pundit and academic class whose sole purpose is to rationalize the excesses of capitalism, to gate knowledge and demobilize any seditious activity. After all, most of us aren’t “experts”, meaning we can’t be trusted to provide credible testimony on the forces that bear down on our own lives. Ironic, considering flow charts and the like are nominally meant to simplify complex information.

Colestia, in many of his games but I think most positively in POST/CAPITALISM, demonstrates how ideological assumptions in many of these kinds of games assume that the structure of society is natural law and belongs to a rational order. He does this by deliberately peeling back the layers on those assumptions, and the key outcome of doing this is that as we come to understand how they underpin many things we take for granted. By understanding these relationships we are able to change them, not just in isolated cases but on a society-wide scale.

Other games of its genre may include revolutions or historical periods in aspects of their gameplay or aesthetics, but its uncommon for a game like this to interrogate the design logic that underpins the world. POST/CAPITALISM never puts a name to the specific thing replacing capitalism, but this is the central theme: the idea that not only is total transformation theoretically possible, but actually conceivable and achievable.