Notes on Crisis Theory: An Unmanageable Resource Sim

Crisis Theory by Colestia, also known as Australia’s own David Cribb, is a kind of resource management game that subverts every assumption we’re taught to make about resource management games. The game is essentially a capitalism sim represented as a flow chart. Each node in the chart represents some part of the chain of production, including environmental and socioeconomic relations. Primitive Accumulation flows into Means of Production and Labour Power, which are in a tenuous balancing act with each other. Means of Production is fed by an ominously small bar labeled “Nature”, and Labour Power derives from Effective Worker Demand. This last node is connected to The State, Capitalist Reserve and Rate of Profit, through which abstract green circles representing capital flow by way of technology. All of this suggests, at least on a perfunctory level, a closed system. Your job as the player is to manage the flow chart—to keep output high, taxes low, the workers happy, the resources coming in and the waste coming out. The catch, of course, is that this is impossible.

The simple conceit of Crisis Theory is that while the flow chart makes the game appear manageable and straightforward, the system it’s being used to represent is inherently and extremely volatile. The player can try to balance ecological sustainability, worker demand, labour power, capital reserves, the needs of the state, and profit, but it doesn’t take long for the game to make clear the inherent contradictions between these things. Maintaining an acceptable rate of profit falls into conflict with worker demand and labour power, while nature can only withstand so much extraction by the means of production before catastrophe strikes. No matter what the player tries, something will become untenable: workers will gain too much power and cause a so-called profit squeeze, or there will be an natural disaster, or resources will run out, or the rate of profit will fall too low, or any number of other possible pitfalls will entrap the player despite their best efforts.

Things, in fact, don’t flow very well at all. The works are constantly jammed, and as the title of the game suggests, capitalism always falls into crisis.

Crisis Theory may be seen as a sibling game to Cribb’s other work, POST/CAPITALISM (read my review here), which similarly frames its ideas in the language of resource management sims (in this case, it’s more akin to SimCity than to a flow chart.) Where POST/CAPITALISM  is all about taking a familiar formal game structure (the sim) and peeling back the layers of ideology to reveal the ideological base that the virtual city is built on, Crisis Theory is more about poking holes in the idea that capitalism is a coherent system that can be justified by charts. It pulls the rug out from the positivism that pervades much of contemporary economics by actually expressing capitalism according to simple mathematical rules (perhaps too simple—a lot of nuance is left out but I think for the purposes of Crisis Theory this is acceptable. The alternative would be an extraordinarily large flow chart that still gets jammed all the time.) It also pokes fun at the cliche that socialism is something that “only works on paper” by positing that while that may or may not be true, capitalism in fact doesn’t even work particularly well “on paper.”

The clean, modern graphic design is a clever aesthetic send-up of corporate sensibilities. I can imagine some hack in a boardroom presenting a Powerpoint slideshow with exactly the same design choices. There’s a clear undercurrent of sarcasm running throughout the game, but it becomes most apparent when crisis occurs. A loss condition—and there are many—is always mitigated by a reassurance that while capitalism is in a “potentially revolutionary moment”, it may yet survive. White, sans-serif text sits stoutly on a solid red background. Capitalism has fallen into crisis, but it kind of does that. Would you like to try again? Surely this time it will work. 

Crisis Theory is a cheeky but useful beginner’s guide for understanding something many of us take for granted. It does a decent job of taking a very complex subject—essentially the first volume of Marx’s Capital—and condensing it down to its most essential elements. Sure, things get left out (for example, social inequalities concomitant with capitalism aren’t really addressed directly), but Crisis Theory nonetheless does a good job of articulating forces in our lives that can feel abstract and overwhelming. It demonstrates pretty convincingly through easy, accessible gameplay mechanics the flaws in our assumptions that the system we live under makes any real sense, acerbically bidding us to imagine all the different ways it could possibly collapse.

Unlike POST/CAPITALISM , this game doesn’t offer any alternative. There’s no changing the flow chart so you can actually make it work; there’s no room for transformation or revolution. This works as a means to lament the fixed doctrine of prevailing economic theory—this idea that capitalism is some kind of natural law, that it is inescapable and it can only be measured and documented—but it also means that Crisis Theory is a comparatively pessimistic game. The two games taken together, however, tell a story. The first tells a story about where we are, both materially and spiritually. It shows us what our fate is if we stay on the path we’re currently on. The second tells the story of our learning from past mistakes and with that, escaping to a better path.