Distraction, Consumption, Identity: The Neoliberal Language of Videogames

In passing I’ve referred to the videogame industry as neoliberalism’s hideous nephew. Artist Liz Ryerson has gone into more depth on this sentiment; she’s written at length to this effect on her blog, and tweeted that “the language of videogames is neoliberalism” not long ago. It’s an easy observation to make, so plenty of critics have made it, but there seems to be some confusion over what we mean when we say “neoliberalism.” Far from being an empty buzzwordand lord knows, videogames surf on a constant wave of empty buzzwordsneoliberalism refers materially to a set of economic policies predicated upon austerity, tax cuts to the wealthy, free trade (or free movement of global capital toward cheaper sources of labour) and deregulation. The logic, or at least the pretext given to justify this machinery was that the “market”, unfettered by federal regulations or taxes, would lead to more competition and innovation and therefore stimulate job growth and global wealth that would, in theory, trickle down. This machinery has so obviously and irredeemably failed over the past three decades to produce such a reality that even the International Monetary Fund, made up of some of the erstwhile architects of neoliberalism, have begrudgingly admitted it.

Videogames, despite springing from a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry and enjoying increased cultural saturation, are clearly a minor facet of the devastating global economic project of neoliberalism. But I think they’re nonetheless interesting as commodities in that they’ve matured as a medium entirely within the framework of neoliberalism. More than entertainment, games and pretty much all the discussion around them are spectacle. That doesn’t mean that the people who participate in these intrigues don’t take them seriously. Quite the contrary: embarrassing though it is, games have become something of a cultural battleground for a certain vintage of aggrieved nerd. What it does mean, though, is that the industrythe entertainment outgrowth of Silicon Valley and its brand of tech-utopianismis one with no history of a labour movement, and boasts a profoundly alienated and largely precariat workforce that is regularly exploited, abused and discarded by the cartel-like oligopoly through which most surplus value is generated and re-absorbed. Where there may be less labour mobilization in other sectorsfor instance, in terms of union participationthan in previous generations, the tech industry hasn’t even really had to contemplate the question until very recently. (See, for example, Montreal cab drivers striking to force Uber to comply with taxation and regulatory standardsand winning.)

The spectacle functions to conceal these things, but also to convince people that symptomatic tensions, inequalities and even creative shortcomings can be resolved without actually addressing them. A right-wing gamerthe world’s pettiest traditionalistwill of course tell you that nothing needs changing, and that any intervention to right any wrongs constitutes not only a waste of time but also some kind of cultural invasion. His target is, of course, a jumbled and confused mass of monolithic identities and left-of-center values that he believes are invading the last refuge he is allowed to dominate.

The joke, of course, is that he was never really master of his domain. His ego has been stroked, his id pandered to, and his identity as a gamer completely fabricated by marketing people. The real masters, it almost goes without saying, are the executive and managerial class that run tech and gaming multinationals, their company shareholders, and a few rockstar developers who’ve achieved enough of their own celebrity that they’ve leveraged it for membership into that tiny community. Although the male gamer nerd identity was first invented and then pandered to with far more gusto than any other brand of nerd, the (mostly) petty-bourgeois guys who bought into the narrative of their own exclusivity are starting to suspect they aren’t really in charge. Like any aggrieved conservative, their first instinct isn’t to fight the underlying conditions that lead to this predicament, but to offload blame for the problem onto some undeserving foreign otherwomen, queer people, “cultural marxists”, people of colour, and othersfor robbing them of their hobby.

Much of what this contingent reacts to has to do with the representation of non-”default” identities in stock, conventional videogame media. A story about teen lesbians or the idea that a character might be trans or wear some kind of non-Christian religious insignia sends them reeling. That energy is predictably captured, generated into a scandal, and used to direct more notoriety to the game itself. Not every creator who finds themselves beset by angry nerds is this cynical, but I have no doubt that corporate entities looking to capitalize on the zeitgeist of “wokeness” fully exploit the tensions that arise over often thin attempts at inclusion. This, naturally, is what fuels the conservative gamer nerd’s assumption that the power they once had is now in the hands of cultural interlopers, and this is the conclusion they draw exactly because they don’t know how to articulate a political value outside of their relationship to consumption. They worship the most powerful actors in the industry a bit like a cargo cult, and hope to see themselves vicariously through them.

But it doesn’t take a hardline leftist to figure out that the scraps of representation don’t cut it. What about employment opportunities for all of those underrepresented identity groups, such that individuals from these groups are actually present in the creative labour of representing themselves? In “Visibility is Not Enough”, critic Heather Alexandra writes,

“An argument might be made that no level of inclusion in the creative process could properly combat the forces of transmisogyny, racism, or other biases. It is compelling to say that we must settle, if only because these forces can never be destroyed. Yet, by allowing [sic] margialized people to participate in the professional processes they’ve been denied access to, I do believe that these forces can be adequately opposed. By providing authentic representatives, crafted by artists with applicable life experience, we can expose players to our struggles. We can put them in our shoes or make them witnesses to our pain. We can ensure that we are not ignored.”

Alexandra does make the case that representation means little without some material gain, but maybe we can take this argument even further. It would be nonsense to argue that underrepresented groups should not be given equitable opportunity in all areas of the industry and according to their expertise, but what else do these groups stand to gain besides more authentic visions of themselves?

To include more of the actual people possessing underrepresented identities into the workforce is at least an incremental improvement. But is this adequate? Is this “authentic”? If the workforce continues to be nonetheless exploited, I’m not sure that it is. I’m also unsure that representational authenticity can to any degree be assured, unless one is prepared to make the claim that a single individual can stand as an ambassador for an entire oppressed group. This can lead to cynical, checkbox thinking where marginalized groups are only prioritized for how they can mine their identity-specific experiences for content. The forces extracting most of the value from this commoditization of identity only have to make the barest of adjustments. In fact, these forces actively rely on continued inequality in order to keep the stories coming.

At MEANJIN Quarterly, Eleanor Robertson wrote a powerful piece about the seductiveness of the neoliberal myth of liberation via representation, and the need for real solidarity and structural change. Entitled “Get mad and get even”, the piece reads,

“A simple follow-the-money approach is enough to call this lazy embrace of commodity fetishism into serious question: who benefits when a television show is perfectly diverse and responds to the psychological needs of its audience, Tolentino’s ‘extremely woke 12-year-olds’? Ultimately it’s the industry itself, which has now gained the institutional knowledge necessary to extract more profit by appealing to the sensibilities of consumers. This is not just an absence of material politics, but its negation: twenty-first-century feminism’s primary medium, the diversity critique, has as its functional terminus the ‘freedom’ of consumers to purchase a picture of a utopia from a company whose interests lie in preventing any of those utopias from occurring.”

The spectacular dimension of capitalism has a way of defanging and absorbing any form of resistance or dissent which fails to attack it on a mass, material level. All complaint is commoditized and itself converted into spectacle. The veneer of rebelliousness is retained to gratify us and make us feel like we’re all doing something other than intellectual self-love, but on some level we all must know that’s what we’re doing and we all resign ourselves to being partially satisfied with small bits of libidinal and moral pleasure. Any part of us that could have put up a fight is effectively neutered and reduced to mere performance. Some figure or entity within the industry does something thoughtless and offensive, everyone gets mad, the offending party does their darnedest to remove it, and the whole thing starts all over again. What we can expect in return is to be slightly gratified by the inclusion of images or voices in media production which is still defined by low (or no) wages, employment insecurity, questionable working conditions often including discrimination and harassment, and a shameful environmental record. Oh, and the games get worse too.

Ian Williams, who detailed some of the above in his Jacobin piece “You Can Sleep Here All Night”, theorized about the role of unionization in the industry relatively recently. In his piece, “Now You’re Working with Power”, he provides some insights as to why a real labour movement has yet to materialize in the industry:

“So if unions are so useful, why aren’t there any in the games industry? The fact is that forming a union in North America is hard work. Labor law can be convoluted and varies state by state and country by country. But efforts have been underway, at least in terms of discussion, and the hotly debated SAG-AFTRA voice actors action has been on everyone’s mind. Still, that final push never seems to materialize. A lot of it is just that it’s an overwhelming project, particularly when the cross-state nature of American unionization is considered. There’s no infrastructure to tap into and no institutional memory of unionization in the tech sector to rely upon. The IGDA offers space for discussion but they neither can nor will fulfill the role of a union. Montreal, with its critical mass of game developers, has played host to meetings devoted to pro-union discussions, but nothing concrete has materialized as of yet. So we keep waiting.”

The scariest thing videogame industry could ever face up to is a real, inclusive, internationalist labour movement. In the meantime, there are some options for precarious workers—Canadian freelance workers may join the Canadian Freelance Union, and a Freelancers Union exists for American workers as well. The International Workers of the World also boasts its Communications and Computer Workers Industrial Union (560), offering things like organizing expertise and “mutual aid and support”. “This means assistance with problems at work, but it could also mean help with a community project or fighting a landlord,” their website reads. While these organizations can be blind to the specifics of the industry, they still provide forms of support and representation that a lone contract worker likely wouldn’t have otherwise.

But what about a more conscious effort within the industry toward a labour movement? I would add to Williams’s argument that there are a lot of people working on the periphery in games, as independent artists or writers or contract workers, who are in direct competition with each other and often fighting for a pittance. That blinkers you; it makes it hard to even have the energy to collectivize for our mutual betterment. What’s more, people—including children—doing the much more brutal work of resource extraction, manufacturing and electronic recycling  are pretty much absent from the discussion of labour rights despite working in some of the worst conditions of anyone in tech. Much of that invisibility can be attributed to occidentalist bias, since a great deal of this labour is outsourced to the Global South. Some can be attributed to another sort of bias, wherein mining and manufacturing are so far down the supply chain they don’t enter into the discussion of tech labour—that might be like including lumberjacks and bookbinders in the Writer’s Guild of America. Still, manual labour has an enormous impact on tech, and vice versa; there is no reason someone hoping to build a worker’s movement across tech industries should neglect solidarity with the workers who make all our gadgets possible.

I won’t say that some of the social justice outcry in games hasn’t led to some haphazard improvements, because I think it has. The range of expression, ideas and people permitted to operate visibly in the creative space has been expanded a little bit. We’ve somewhat broadened our outlook for what the medium can look like and what it’s allowed to say. But even the most liberal and progressive rhetoric in the industry is still dogged by the same kind of power-worship and consumption politics that define its more trenchantly conservative niches. Videogames are so thoroughly enmeshed in neoliberal thinking that they have a hard time expressing anything else, especially in the mainstream. The conversation around them as an entertainment medium and artform is severely limited by these narrow, small-stakes terms, and it’s stifling the political and creative imagination. But this generates a gobsmacking amount of money for a small number of actors who follow the whims of capital rather than any ethical imperative to help marginalized groups. And who knows where that will go next? A backsliding into regressive values has a history as long as the history of art.  

The popularization of the “diversity critique” might mean more kinds of new market segmentation and a broader definition of identity-based pandering, but those of us who reap the actual rewards of that approach are few and far between. We still thirst to see ourselves represented in the fundamental structures that exist, rather than to challenge, break and change them. This makes us susceptible to thinking there’s no alternative to incremental change, and that the only achievements that matter are the individual ones that occur in proximity to power. It makes us worse at imagining new, different kinds of artistic expression in the medium. We feel a rush of moral satisfaction, maybe, and a real sense of validation through seeing images of ourselves, and we maybe feel for a minute like we actually, as a group, did something lasting. But what would happento the art, the creativity, the sense of our own worth as workers and as peopleif we actually got together, as a group, and did something?