February 10, 2014
I’m going to get right to it: any critique or reporting on games that doesn’t include an intersectional perspective on the presence of capitalism in games is incomplete. There’s little else more avoided than the topics of anti-capitalism and class politics in games press and conferences outside of the usual fetishized rags to riches fables. Having money to start with is already a large part of this, but how our societies are organized by valuing people and things by their monetary value above all else structures how we talk about games. It says who gets listened to, who gets noticed, and who is valued.
Why mainstream spaces have a tight lid on these issues is simple: they would be at the very center of critique. There is something unspoken, that of COURSE we’re all run by money. But to say it outloud is taboo, and it’s seen as rudely airing someone’s dirty laundry. That we are aware that the methods of how many institutions make money are unethical but are okay with keeping it just below the surface since we know others are doing it is a cause for extreme alarm.
We, as global, national, and artistic communities, justify a lot of shitty things on the premise of making money. This industry justifies sexism, racism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression because of some unwritten right to make money. Why can’t we have equal representation of minorities in our media? Because someone wants to make money. Why aren’t there more minorities writing about minority issues in a time of heightened social justice on sites that pay fair wages? Because someone wants to make money. Why are the weird free games made commonly by minority artists that play a huge role in changing how we think of the medium excluded from news coverage and conference talks? Because someone wants to make money.
It doesn’t sound nice when it’s constantly called out, does it? Because it isn’t. There is a price tag to participating in games. The mainstream culture of games development demands you are from a class of people who could go into computer science or digital art training and have enough resources to handle an industry that has a terrible track record with labor issues. The standard success story of someone in the games media is a person who can afford to keep up with the newest products and has the resources to write for free or low-wage for about two years. Important conferences, even when you’re invited to speak, often cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to attend. Knowing that poverty and other forms of economic discrimination disproportionately affects minorities, not including anti-capitalist critique effectively erases the struggle people face on the uneven plane we all convene upon in this community. This is why people at the top shrug at their homogeneity; they are unwilling to see the effects of capitalism on their hiring and creation practices, and even more unwilling to enact change, often with a ‘I got mine’ attitude.
Capitalism is informing what creations are considered good and of value, and what are bad form and derivative. Gamers and others see quality in games that show high production value, and defame games that seem to be a waste of money in this model, EVEN IF THEY ARE FREE GAMES. The idea of success outside the conventional method of capitalism, which is intersectional in its effects, is met with contempt. ‘Success’ is also very dubious and misguided; simply having a lot of attention for a period of time is considered successful, even if all that attention is harassment and you are not better off personally or economically for it. As much attention as the DIY ethos had in the past few years, minority creators are still impoverished while indie games that incorporate marginalized themes and design philosophies into the acceptable model receive praise like pets at dog shows. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s that the system chooses what looks like it from the margins to seem adaptive. In the end, the system is perpetuating itself, only allowing games and people complicit with how things are going to thrive.
Now let’s enter in Flappy Bird. For some context, Flappy Bird was a mobile game that became the focus of ire and slander because it had pipes in it, similar to those in the Super Mario Bros. series. Or, more precisely, it was making a lot of money off what was billed as theft. I say was because it’s now removed from the app store after the creator, Dong Nguyen, received endless harassment. Jason Schreier’s article and Twitter reactions best embody how the conversation started, though as you can see from some of the edits, there’s been a change of tone. Robert Yang already did a great summation of what was wrong with how Jason and others handled the issue; what interests me the most is how this extreme situation exposed the capitalistic influence in games and the manner it excludes and defames.
Unfortunately, this settles on what’s considered a ‘real’ game, an obsession many people at the top of the community and industry occupy themselves with. The conversation of what is and isn’t a game is often, intentionally or not, used to assign value to already established gaming conventions that benefit the established system and marginalize works that do not look like it, and therefore threaten it. Mobile games are often slated as ‘casual’ games, which people in the gaming press and development overall side-eye as a genre of games mostly just looking to grab people’s money. Except, well, that’s ALL of AAA games, such as the hype around how much Grand Theft Auto V made despite that it was profiting off of flagrant sexism and racism. Mobile games, on the other hand, do not often pander to mainstream gaming audiences’ tastes, and seeing that they go for mass appeal, obtaining fortune is always seen as a negative thing. Sophie Houlden pointed out this contradiction in a recent confluence of events; King, developer of the viral and profitable Candy Crush Saga, acted in a way that is considered unsurprising for mobile developers by trying to trademark and bully other games that have the words ‘candy’ and ‘saga’ in them. The games community was, of course, quick rise against perceived soulless developers and protest with a game jam. But then, a game makes money off of having a reference, maybe, to a ‘real’ game, Super Mario Bros., and is now perceived as stealing. ‘Candy’ and ‘saga’ can’t belong to developers, but green pipes are rightfully Nintendo’s. A quick google image search of Jonathan Blow’s Braid can not only reveal that the indie darling also uses green pipes, but also uses analogues, very obvious references, to Mario’s enemies, mechanics, and story line. It’s entire premise is predicated on people having played Mario, yet we don’t have publications saying Jonathan stole from Nintendo.
Dong is considered an outsider. Who is he? From Vietnam? Oh, that explains this ‘knock-off’ rhetoric people are using. Indie creators are notoriously capitalizing on the nostalgia of the late 80s and 90s gaming culture, with difficult puzzle platformers and action side scrollers as far as the Steam library can go. No one is accusing these devs as stealing from Nintendo and Sega, despite the lineage being extremely clear and borrowed as homage. It’s because the gaming community set up a success narrative for certain indie, mostly white, mostly men, mostly from English-speaking countries, developers who strive to make smaller games competitive with the big dogs. Ultimately, indie games play into the same capitalist model, to the point where many are attached to big publishers on distribution platforms like the PS4. Most indie games strive to be addictive entertainment just like AAA ones do and employ similar kinds of people with a shared background. Indies can stay because they don’t threaten how big business works; instead, they merged right in with it. To this industry, using those green pipes was sacrilege, with the horrific possibility that, in Jason’s words, “some kids might grow up thinking these are ‘Flappy Bird pipes.’” What, exactly, is so bad about that?
The anxiety the industry is facing pairs with its diversity problems. Video games backed itself into a corner by becoming highly specialized for a very particular audience, ‘hardcore gamers.’ They developed conventions, genres, marketing tactics, merchandise, PR cycles, and an entire culture that serves a very narrow idea so they could easily profit off of it. Because of social justice activism and outside pressure from a society that sees gaming as grotesque, awareness about how exclusionary games are is at critical mass and the industry is scrambling to answer. It has no fucking clue how to market to and include minority members of their community and in the world at large. So when Farmville, Peggle, Candy Crush Saga, and Flappy Bird appeal to this mysterious audience big budget and scrappy indies can’t seem to tap, it’s foul play. They are exploitative and unfair. But this same attitude is applied to more avant-garde work that comes up against what it means to be a ‘real’ game, such as Analogue: A Hate Story, Problem Attic, and dys4ia. If games that came from the general DIY movement represented a new standard, it would reveal the institution of video games to be a huge scam. A scam that exploits its workers, exploits the suffering of minorities, exploits the complicity of consumerism. For money not to affect design and coverage anymore would completely change the landscape of games, both how we interact with and speak about them. Simply dispersing the focus on the conventional game design aimed at certain kinds of players would turn the industry upside down.
Be wary of any piece of critical writing and reporting that doesn’t expose and interrogate how capitalism is at work. Not accounting for how the industry moves money and to whom and why keeps us groggy as to why we have the problems that we do. We know this isn’t a meritocracy, that this system values us by our monetary worth decided by its own standards. If we really want to move forward, if we want to remove oppression and breathe life into games, we can’t take the industry and throw in some brown people and queers, we have to establish a community that is inherently inclusive from the get-go. A community past capitalism.
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