Making Numbers Go Up, or Games and Selfishness

I’ve heard the argument repeated a number of times that games are an essentially capitalist artform. This argument takes several shapes, and focuses particularly on the types of games that are all about “making numbers go up”:

1. Games have developed at a time in human history when capitalism is more in control of the culture than ever before.

2. The modes of gameplay we know are therefore inherently capitalist, especially as they are all about greedily improving our characters, gathering loot, etc.

3. The fact that we enjoy this proves that selfishness is inherent to humanity and so capitalism is the only system that can ever really work. / We cannot overthrow capitalism without games that don’t use these forms of gameplay.

The first point I can’t really disagree with, as I’ve made it myself at times. As one of the most recent artforms, games developed long after the destruction of organized labour movements and their associated intellectual heritage. Context matters, and the context in which games have evolved – especially in the United States, which have such a powerful cultural influence on the rest of the world that people tend to forget there is a rest of the world, and it’s fairly huge – is one of extreme individualism. It’s not a coincidence that what counts as “progressive” in gaming today is identity politics and postmodernism, movements that have propped up capitalism by focusing on non-systemic change for decades now. We’re beset by subcultures, fandoms, identities – and not only by the idea that this type of “branding” is useful, but that there is no other way in which progress and equality can be approached.

The second point is more problematic, since it contains two fundamental errors:

a) The assumption, typical of identity politics, that the product must be judged (solely or primarily) by the producer or the context of its production. This leads almost inexorably to destructive ideas such as that the work of “straight white heterosexual men” cannot contain revolutionary potential; or to the idealist notion that to create revolutionary work, we must “drop out” of capitalism, as if capitalism was a lifestyle rather than an economic system.

b) The suggestion that the drives these games are built on – to collect, to build – are somehow inherently “capitalist” and thus bad. This (historically, if not always consciously) ties into the postmodernist rejection of ideas such as progress (one of those dreaded “grand narratives”) in favour of relativistic, essentially faith-based, inwards-looking, to-change-the-world-you-must-change-yourself individualism dressed up in a layer of pseudo-radicalism that only threatens the most extremely conservative members of the existing social order while providing essential support to the socially liberal elements of the status quo.

The third point, in both of its interpretations, builds on these errors to come to equally erroneous conclusions. Both are based on the premise that what we enjoy in art must somehow reflect what we enjoy in everyday life – note that the emphasis here is on mechanics rather than on meaning (i.e. the equivalent of “the problems of factory workers cannot be altered by changing how factories work, but only by no longer having factories and living free from capitalism”). So either we enjoy these games because we are all secretly capitalists, or we must stop enjoying them because we’re not.

But you know what? Capitalism is fun! So is shooting people! Except these things are only fun when enjoyed as a childish fantasy. In real life, both are horrific – but so are swordfights, and even though I love a good swordfight in the cinema, I’m not particularly looking to get stabbed or to stab someone. Yes, we may make a few snarky comments about how children play “cops and robbers” and how this reflects a society intent on upholding existing property relations… but I suspect that children would play something similar even in utopian communism, because it’s fun. And to believe that making children hold hands and sing Kumbayah (or the modern equivalent) instead constitutes some kind of radical attack on capitalism is precisely the sort of thing that has kept capitalism going for so long despite its catastrophic effects on our planet and our species.

But I have to go back to the second point, because that is the root of the problem. You see, unlike various ideology-based movements and despite what propagandists may claim, socialist theory doesn’t actually demonize capitalism or its achievements. Socialism wants to alter the ownership of the means of production, not abolish production itself; it wants to realign the methods and purposes of industry, not return to the woods; it aims to put technology in our hands and allow us to use it rationally (i.e. productively as well as sustainably) rather than alienate us from it with vague anti-scientific “epistemological” sophistry. Socialism recognizes that capitalism was, at certain times in its history, a progressive force that demolished old systems and contributed, despite its flaws, to the development of our species. It’s not the Enlightenment values of capitalism that have failed, but simply the fact that capitalism is too unstable and too destructive in the long term to be able to maintain those values – which is why it now requires the very people who question those values to uphold it by telling us that progress is a fantasy.

How does this relate to games and selfishness? It’s simple: I believe that the types of gameplay that are often derided as selfish or capitalist aren’t actually that at all. I don’t think they’re socialist, either. I think humans simply enjoy making numbers go up. We enjoy building things, fixing things. Our entire history as a technological species is characterized by the question “How do I make this better?” Sometimes we stand to gain from it, sometimes it’s pure curiosity, sometimes it’s just the feeling that if something can be improved, it should be improved. As you can tell by our fingers, we’re a species of tinkerers and meddlers, compulsive optimizers. That’s something a lot of games tap into, especially RPGs and strategy games. The reason RPG elements are so popular in games is because humans get a thrill out of the idea that they worked and made something better. You know how sometimes you’ll come up with a great idea for how to reorganize your room, and you’ll spend an hour excitedly moving around furniture? When that works out, the feeling you get is magnificent. “I made it better!”

And that’s how the whole world we live in was built. That’s why we have houses to keep us warm, and clothes to protect our skin, and medicine to keep us from dying of a cold when we’re three. And that’s why our lives, no matter how many problems we have, contain infinitely less suffering than those of our ancestors a million years ago.

But context does matter, and much as with technology, the question is what use we put these impulses to. What stories do we tell, what meanings do we attach to our mechanics? To put it crudely: do you upgrade the CEO’s bonuses or the people’s living standards? Do you shoot the Iraqi insurgents or the White Army? Some people would argue that it’s all the same, but that’s precisely what maintains the status quo. The revolutionary violence of the oppressed is not the same as the genocidal violence of the oppressor, and industry in the service of the people is not the same as industry in the service of profit; it does matter which side you’re on, and “dropping out” is tantamount to support for the oppressor.

Does it always have to be about selfishness? Is that the only thing people enjoy? I think the answer to both questions is no. My experience as a game developer is that people enjoy helping others, even when there is no reward other than another person’s happiness. People do enjoy fighting for a cause, upgrading for a cause, even grinding for a cause. People understand that the relief of suffering is a good thing. People like to help. Albert Einstein wrote that “Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.” When people ask for their actions in games to have consequences, very often this is what they’re after: the feeling that what they’ve done has a social context and a social effect. They want to be able to see the family they saved from the wolves going back to their regular lives; they want conditions in the city they saved from the plague to noticeably improve. Some people mistake this for selfishness, but I think that’s foolish; what people are after in these cases isn’t personal gain, but a sense of having contributed – of having improved things. That a social act includes a feeling of personal satisfaction does not make it selfish to anyone but the most pedantic cynic.

So I would ask those who are serious about this artform not do dismiss such a vast part of what players enjoy – from the smallest upgrade-based casual game to something as big as Borderlands 2 – because some people associate it with an identitarian understanding of capitalism. If these games aren’t your type of thing, that’s fine.

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with making numbers go up.