Paul V. Tims looks at the games industry from a socialist perspective
It probably won’t surprise my regular readers to learn that I love videogames. What better way to escape the turgid, late-capitalist nightmare-world we all inhabit than by stepping into an entire other life where you’re an infinitely-customisable mass murderer. At their best, videogames are great works of art. Red Dead Redemption II is the story of a brutal outlaw slowly developing a conscience as he confronts his own mortality. Portal 2 is a jet-black and utterly surreal comedy that rivals God Bless America or Thank You For Smoking for both belly-laughs and heart-rending poignancy.
Videogames crafted with love and care by passionate people can be truly transcendent experiences. Unfortunately, videogames crafted by soulless profiteers to make a quick buck are the exact opposite, and encapsulate the very worst excesses of capitalism. Sadly, the evils of many so-called ‘Triple-A’ games companies are often overlooked by otherwise left-leaning, decent people, for the simple reason that interactive media are still new and baffling things, that defy a lot of folks’ understanding. Because I’m both a hard-left pseudo-Marxist type and a massive nerd, I’d like to think that I’m ideally placed to talk to about the problems of the mainstream games industry. Consider this article a primer on those issues.
If you haven’t heard of ‘The Crunch’, be very, very grateful, for you have lived a better life than most games developers. It might sound nothing more menacing than an edgy new breakfast cereal, but The Crunch is actually an appalling and exploitative bit of workplace practice the blights the lives of people working in the modern games industry. You see, game development studios are basically beholden to publishers, and game publishers are unfeeling, lizard-monster-bastards.
These publishers mandate the release dates of the games before anyone knows how long the project might actually take to finish. As a result, as a game’s release date approaches, the game is usually blatantly unfinished. Consequently, developers have to work 20-hour shifts and often go without sleep or adequate nutrition for days at a time in order to make sure the game is ready on time. In many cases, their physical and mental health is seriously affected. You can read a full article on the effects of ‘The Crunch’ in the New York Times HERE. The bottom line, however, is that the Crunch damages and even destroys ordinary workers in the games industry, just because big publishers refuse to factor actual humans into their scheduling, and therefore set grossly unrealistic release dates.
Simply put, Micro-transactions are the method by which game publishers turn games into self-contained market-places, while trampling on the narrative experience they’re supposed to represent. Micro-transactions ‘allow’ – by which I actually mean ‘force’ – players to purchase in-game items with real-world money after they’ve already bought the game. They effectively create a system whereby players can only succeed in a game (or fully experience it), by spending additional money.
That prices a lot of people out of the game and creates a virtual environment that enshrines consumerism and privileges those with the most spending capital. Micro-Transactions are particularly onerous when paired with ‘loot boxes’. Loot boxes are used in a lot of games to randomise the items that players receive. Many games then allow players to pay for loot boxes using Micro-Transactions, meaning that they’re forcing players to waste money on random gear in order to unlock the items they do want through repeated purchases. Obviously, this is scummy and manipulative, but if you want more details I recommend checking out the Youtube channel of games journalist and comedian Jim Sterling. His video-essays on Micro-Transactions are lucid and deeply compelling. They can be found here, along with all his other videos. I particularly recommend this video about how loot-boxes and Micro-Transactions essentially force underage players to gamble to gain access to in-game equipment and bonuses.
The Price Point
If you’re familiar with videogame outlets, you might have noticed how suspiciously uniform the pricing is. Almost all new ‘AAA’ games retail for between £49.99 and £60. It might seem like a minor gripe, especially compared to the exploitative ‘Crunch’ or manipulative Micro-Transactions, but the price of games is a problem for a number of reasons.
Firstly, in most cases it’s too high. If books or films were so expensive that they priced enormous swathes of the population out of the market altogether, there’d be an outcry about how the poorest in society don’t have access to important parts of the culture. Because games still aren’t viewed as legitimate cultural artefacts , however, nobody kicks up a fuss about the obscene overpricing.
Secondly, the price-point remains the same regardless of the length, content and overall quality of a game. Certainly, one could argue that about £50 is reasonable for a game like Red Dead Redemption 2, which takes hundreds of hours to fully explore, features one of the most beautifully detailed and well-realised worlds in game history, and is built around a winding, morally complex tale of a man confronting his failings at the end of his life. One might, however, have a harder time arguing that Marvel’s Spiderman should cost the same price, considering it is possible to breeze through it in about eight hours, the game world is pretty but also completely generic, and the plot involves people in tights beating seven bells out of one another for increasingly silly and melodramatic reasons.
What Is To Be Done?
The games industry is easy to overlook when you’re trying to build a socialist cultural democracy. The word ‘games’ makes it sound frivolous. However, the problems that beset the industry are real and are the result of unfettered, capitalist greed. As such, they have to be addressed, and here are a few proposed solutions.
There’s an argument to be made that, in the grand scheme of things, the videogame industry isn’t particularly important. If videogames ceased to exist tomorrow, the loss to culture would be large but not insurmountable. However, the industry is important to the people that work within it and those who engage with its products. Part of cultural democracy is surely about acknowledging concerns that only affect fringe groups, and taking those concerns seriously.
The games industry may be easy to overlook when you’re trying to build a socialist cultural democracy, but the problems that beset it are real and are the result of unfettered, capitalist greed. As such, they have to be addressed, and here are a few proposed solutions.
‘The Crunch’ is a horrendous, sadistic and exploitative work practice that treats people like machines and it should be banned completely. Games publishers who whip their employees to the point of exhaustion using this practice should face prosecution, and I’d like to see a Labour government pass the laws that would make this possible.
Micro-Transactions turn customers into exploited users who have to pay over and over again to properly engage with a product that they already own. Ideally, they should be banned in paid titles. They’re arguably acceptable in so-called ‘free-to-play’ games where players aren’t expected to buy the game outright and can access the main bulk for free. After all, those games have to make their production costs back somehow. But Micro-Transactions have no place in games that people have to pay for upfront.
The Price-Point of ‘AAA’ games is absurd, but sadly there’s no easy way to make it fairer. No state or government can objectively judge a game’s quality and legislate on how much it should cost. However, funding and grants could be set up for independent studios developing less overblown games with lower price-points. This might make the ‘AAA’ industry think twice about its own pricing, while opening up the games industry to less corrupt newcomers.
Paul Victor Tims is a writer and a magician.