Category: politics

Gaming under socialism

In a recent episode of the politics/comedy podcast Chapo Trap House, a listener asked “What can socialism do for gamers’ rights?”. The question was obviously a joke, but the hosts produced a humorous and somewhat thoughtful answer.
Thankfully, there is no such a thing as “gamers’ rights” in the sense of something distinct from consumer rights. The joke was likely a reference to the sense of entitlement and tribal identification that fueled the gamergate campaign. But the question of what gaming would look like in a socialist world has haunted me for days. Not only because I’m a leftist and I care about games, but because of how it relates to many crucial issues of 21st century radicalism.

When imagining socialism it’s easy to picture utopian or dystopian visions pulled from Star Trek or 1984, but a near-future socialist system wouldn’t look so radically different from the one we live in. We can imagine it without resorting to fictional technologies or elaborate space exploration allegories.

Traditionally, socialists have been reluctant to prescribe detailed visions of the society they would like to establish, focusing instead on contradictions of capitalism and providing generic formulas like “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. One of Marx and Engels’ earliest ideological battles was against utopian socialists like Proudhon, who proposed visions of perfect societies without an analysis of class conflicts and historical contingencies.

Utopian socialists, marxists, and anarchists tend to share the idea that once the bourgeois state is abolished, moving toward an ideal society would require a continuous free experimentation of practices, an application of the scientific method to social problems — that is, science as a self-correcting system based on concrete data.

In this view, once the universal ideals of freedom and equality are established as parameters for success, a blueprint for a socialist world is unnecessary because it would emerge organically once truly democratic systems are in place.

However, the lack of images of a socialist future is a huge challenge to the Left because it leaves us only with the failed examples of “actually existing socialism” from the 20th century. Even if the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc demonstrated a remarkable technological prowess, they didn’t seem to have a particularly lively game culture.

Tetris didn’t really take off until it was published in the West. Consoles and coin-ops were essentially rip-offs of American and Japanese products. They were expensive and mostly themed around war.

Since the end of the Cold War, the current capitalist hegemony has not been based on proposing neoliberalism as the best option, but rather as the only possible option. That’s why I think it’s important to exercise some radical imagination.

A game industry without bosses

To put it bluntly, the end goal of socialism is to socialize and democratize the means of production.
This comes from the understanding that much of the injustice in this world is the result of a small class of people leveraging these means of production to exploit other people’s labor, accumulating more wealth and power in the process.
Many corporations are already collectively owned: they are driven by swarms of investors and bound by a ruthless competition that forces them to constantly maximize the exploitation of their workers and the environment. With nothing but atomized greed in charge, with weak regulations and no accountability, capitalism represents familiar contradictions and crisis: inequality, unemployment, bubbles and overproduction, environmental devastation, and so on.
Socialism wouldn’t automatically solve these problems, but it would at least provide a framework to address them, letting citizens democratically decide what to produce, how to produce it, and what to do with the surplus.

 In my kind of socialism, big game companies would be run cooperatively by workers. They would be confederated to allow the sharing of resources while maintaining a good deal of creative autonomy.
The exploitative labor practice known as crunch time, would likely be disappear in a democratic workplace, or be activated only in emergency cases.
Cyclical layoffs are a common occurrence even in successful companies and cause a good deal of stress and instability among employees. The industry has plenty of horror stories of people getting laid off, rehired, and laid off again by the same company, due to poor planning or to the inconsistency of game development cycles.
With a low level of competition between companies and a high level of coordination between projects, such misalignments and redundancies would be mitigated.

Game folks are experts at solving this kind of problem: all management games deal with optimization of limited resources. Imagine the internal management practices of a typical company abstracted to a higher level to coordinate different units around the world.
We are talking about a creative industry which needs a dynamic ecosystem, support for individuals with a vision, and room to experiment and fail. Technological and cultural production is inherently non uniform, fast-changing, and unpredictable. Permanent employment in the game industry, in the classic industrial unionist sense, may not be possible without causing stagnation and inefficiencies.

But this structural flexibility doesn’t have to translate to workers’ precarity. The idea of Flexicurity, while still somewhat vague, is meant to address this dilemma. Flexicurity is a set of principles meant to increase adaptability without deteriorating the working conditions. In other words, high mobility in the labor market combined with social security, unemployment services, and lifelong learning. Some implementations of this model already exist in European economies.

Workplace democracy would also create spaces to address more subtle forms of exploitation, such as gender and racial discrimination, which are pervasive in male dominated industries and across the tech sector. Of course, socialism would not magically transform sexist individuals, and, of course, we don’t have to wait for a revolution to fight discrimination: enlightened companies can implement equitable and diverse workplaces under capitalism as well. But the institution of horizontal structures and regular assemblies on the workplace would create a culture of cooperation and participation. Employees will be empowered to call out abusers and express grievances.

Indies of the world, unite!

The rise of independent development already gives us a glimpse of a socialist future in which game makers can define their own labor practices, share revenues more equitably, and be less subservient to publishers and marketers. What is still missing, especially in the United States, are structures to support independent efforts.
Indie success stories typically involve individuals working on multi-year projects without income or health insurance, risking their personal savings or going deep into debt.
We shouldn’t romanticize self-sacrifice and financial risk-taking, and be aware of how survivorship bias shapes our idea of success.

Indies would have major advantages in a socialist country, or even in a more easily achievable social democracy.
Universal healthcare and public education would reduce the pressure to work for a company at any condition just to pay student debt and get health coverage. The possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, already threatens the career of many American indie developers.
Public funding for the arts, despised by free-market fundamentalists and widely supported by progressives, would support the most original projects and help build a thriving independent community. Business stimulus money from industry bodies would help kickstart more ambitious projects. Today, the Ontario Media Development Corporation (part of the Ministry of Culture) offers $250K production grants to Ontario-based indies.
Some form of Universal Basic Income is likely to be introduced in the transition to a socialist economy, and would further empower artists to pursue independent endeavor (more about this below).

Seizing the means of distribution

One could argue that in the game industry the means of production are already in the hands of the people. Making games doesn’t necessary require huge capital or machinery. Game engines, open source code, know-how, and assets are accessible to anybody with enough time and passion. It’s a general outcome of digitalization and the Internet: anybody can make games, almost with the same ease as creating thinkpieces, or shooting funny cat videos.
As I pointed out in the past, this excess of creativity and the democratization of cultural production goes hand in hand with a shift toward the control of distribution platforms by corporate conglomerates. If the “content” is abundant and therefore cheap, then the best way to make money is to control the way it is distributed, aggregated, filtered, and made artificially scarce.

The vectoral class, as defined by McKenzie Wark in A Hacker Manifesto, manifests itself in the game industry with digital marketplaces like Steam, the App store, or Playstation Network. These platforms leverage their exclusive control over hardware, operating systems, protocols, and pre-existing user bases (i.e. the kind of capital that is *not* in the hand of the people) in order to impose a sort of tax on the content that is sold or bought.
At least 30% of what you spend on a game goes to distributors like Steam or the App Store. Additionally, game makers may have to subscribe to developer programs, or acquire costly development kits for the “privilege” of accessing users.
Think about it: developers actually make the games, they promote them, they assume all the risks, they are forced to comply to terms of services that limit freedom of expression. Meanwhile platform capitalists like Steam don’t do shit beside maintaining aggregators and devising baroque anti-piracy systems.

There’s no point in socializing production without socializing distribution as well. Digital monopolies amount to little more than protocols and these protocols can be modified if they lock-in and screw over users and developers. Digital marketplaces can be democratized by instituting full revenue-sharing systems and by allowing stakeholders and end-users decide how much to reinvest in the platform. Much of the work of content filtration and ranking is already performed by the gaming communities (ratings, tagging, curating, greenlighting, etc.). To the gamer, a socialized Steam would pretty much look like the current Steam.

The alternative distribution channel itch.io is already putting more focus on community building and inclusivity. Itch.io has no submission fees or draconian guidelines, it provides tools for game makers to organize game jams and share assets. More notably, the majority of titles are available on a Pay What You Want basis, which is built upon a meaningful fan-developer relationship. Compare this to to Steam’s manipulative sales that pit loyal fans against opportunistic ones while encouraging a digital hoarding behavior.

No five year game plans

One of the main goals of socialism is to rationalize production in order to avoid under- and overproduction, ensure sustainable development, and address the paradox of unemployment.
But nobody wants a bureaucracy in charge of determining how many and which games need to be made. Video games are non-essential goods at the bleeding edge of technological innovation, their production cannot be centrally planned according the projected “needs” of a population. In these circumstances it may be a good idea to keep voting with our wallets.

Money, or some kind of credit, will still exist in a near-future socialism. Money has a bad reputation among radicals, because it appears to be both the mean and the end of all forms of economic exploitation. But money and price systems can also be seen as mere technologies to attribute value to things. A consumer market functions as a distributed, emergent computing system in which prices are the synthesis of a multitude of ever-changing desires and conditions.
Moreover, letting people determine how to spend money is the most practical way to allow for different lifestyles and work/life balances. The crucial part would be preventing the allocation of wealth into the kind of private property that can reignite a process of accumulation or speculation.

Today, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter allow producers to gauge the demand for innovative products. They eliminate the need of publishers and investors who can front money (expecting a return), and socialize the entrepreneurial risk among the users who believe in the viability of certain ideas.
Peer funding systems like Patreon support the careers of individual artists or projects that don’t fit the Kickstarter model of a flashy, one-off, capital intensive product.

It’s not hard to imagine public crowdfunding platforms that empower both consumers and ambitious creators without extracting significant fees. Admittedly, crowdfunding often resembles a consumerist popularity contest dominated by already established creators. But it wouldn’t be the only way to pitch ideas. Other kinds of grants directed by experts in the various fields would identify and support less populist endeavors, not unlike the many art and science granting initiatives we have in place today.

It’s also possible to imagine a kind of socialism or transitional society in which everything works pretty much like a market economy, with free enterprise in all sectors except for the financial one, which would be socialized.
In this model, financial institutions would loan money according to democratically set priorities and not to mere profitability. Additionally, an entirely public financial system would end speculation, predatory loans, and other unproductive ways of making money from money.
In the gaming field this could affect more structural types of innovation: it is possible that, given the possibility, a population would decide to prioritize green technologies and cancer research rather than sophisticated virtual reality hardware or esport stadiums. Democracy can be a pain sometimes.

Gaming Commons

Capitalism’s inherent drive toward expansion results in the commoditization of more and more aspects of our existence. Relationships are captured and turned into commodities by social media; care work traditionally done by women within the family is increasingly professionalized; abundant resources like water are made artificially scarce and sold for a profit; the DNA of organisms emerging from the labor of generations of farmers are patented; the few remaining public services are under constant threat of privatization.
The promise of socialism is exactly the opposite: to de-commoditize an increasing portion of what we make and do, starting from basic needs such as food and shelter, education, healthcare, childcare, and even access to transportation and information. In other words it’s a struggle for the expansion of guaranteed human rights. The right to life, education, or mobility, for instance, should take precedence over the right of the entrepreneurial class to profit from health services, schools, or ride sharing apps.

Digital games are non-rivalrous goods in that they can be easily reproduced and distributed at almost no cost. Because of their potential abundance, they are perfect candidates for decommodification. The obvious question “how can developers make a living if their games are available for free?” has a variety of answers that intersect with all the issues presented here. Public funding for games can be conditioned to the public availability of the work (as it happens, in theory, with publicly funded scientific research); voluntary support and peer patronage can integrate forms of Universal Basic Income; a reduction of the workday would allow more time for self-motivated activities.

Many independent gamemakers (not to mention artists, writers, or musicians) already produce important cultural work without expecting any significant income from it. What they get instead is social capital, respect within their communities, a sense of purpose that alienating jobs can’t provide.
But operating in a gift economy under capitalism can be privilege. Many aspiring artists simply don’t have the required surplus of income or time, the family support or the environment to work for glory and “exposure”. Moreover, free cultural work is regularly harnessed and exploited by a class of speculators: from platform capitalists harnessing user generated content, to landlords cashing on the desirability of creative neighborhoods; from marketers ripping off emerging street styles, to art world professionals making a career off unpaid labor.
Culture can be conceived as a common good which anybody can access to and remix as long as we are able to compensate prosumers according to the different degrees of participation.

Socialism was theorized before the emergence of the cultural industries, and it is still associated to the early industrial era. Old timey socialists often fetishize the blue-collar working class and are unable to update their analysis and demands to economies centered around immaterial labor and services. It doesn’t have to be that way. Countless of thinkers and activists have been updating, complicating, hybridizing traditional critiques of capitalism to address the ever-changing relations of production.
Ultimately, if a significant portion of society determines that videogames are important, and access to culture is a right, then the productive forces should be organized accordingly, and not left to the whims of an exclusionary market.

Power to the gamers

Due to the tragic parable of the Eastern Block, life under socialism is always portrayed as dull and homogenized, in stark contrast with the cornucopia of consumer choices provided by capitalism. As a matter of fact, we don’t have any historical examples of countries switching to planned economies from an advanced industrial stage, and therefore Cold War-era comparisons are not useful.

I want to make the argument that democratic socialism would be beneficial for our lives as consumers as much as much as our life as producers.
For starters, the most obnoxious byproducts of capitalist competition would disappear under socialism. In gaming, artificial scarcity measures such as preventing backward compatibility of software and hardware would disappear since they don’t serve any purpose other than maximizing the publisher’s profit at the expense of consumers. Intrusive DRM systems would be made obsolete by cultural commons.The exploitative design patterns of free-to-play games, borrowed directly from gambling, would likely be regulated away.

Gamers have different tastes and habits so it would make a lot of sense to have a differentiation of gaming hardware: portable devices, room scale VR, public arcades, etc. On the other hand, I can’t think of any good reasons to have cyclical console wars in which manufacturers of almost identical products compete through intellectual property, exclusive games, patents, or proprietary accessories. The would be no need to choose between Playstation and xBox, Oculus and Vive, PC and Mac.
The most socialistically reasonable solution is to have different classes of general-purpose computing machines sharing a set of open standards.
Technological innovation can still have a competitive element, for example by having a multitude of independent research labs pitching prototypes for mass production, or responding to particular challenges like DARPA’s funding solicitations.

If you come from an economically privileged background, under socialism you may end up owning less stuff but, in principle, it would be better stuff.
Consider how gaming contributes to our throwaway society. Planned obsolescence is an irresponsible, environmentally unfriendly industrial practice, so consoles and computers would be designed to be upgraded in order to maximize their components’ life cycles. Obsolete machines would be repurposed to less intensive duties, and then recycled.
Don’t picture artisanal consoles made of cork and biodegradable cardboard! Recycling electronics would be an advanced system design effort involving an ecosystem of open hardware and standards, mandatory modular architectures to encourage repair and reuse, responsible e-waste disposal methods, government programs enabling and enforcing protocols for sustainable development. The Fairphone project and the Electronics Take-Back Coalition are existing prototypes for this kind of initiatives.

The soul of a gamer under socialism

Growing up as a gamer you may experience a sudden transformation in your relation to time and money. As a kid you have plenty of time to kill but little money to spend on new titles. Young gamers are very vocal when a product doesn’t deliver the expected amount of entertainment so game companies are compelled to stretch and bloat their games, lavishing whiners and completionists with optional sidequests.
However, once employed, a $60 tag on a AAA game won’t burn a hole in your pocket but investing dozen of hours in a single game experience becomes a difficult decision.

The end goal of a communist society is not only to take “from each according to their ability”, but also to liberate as much time possible from the tyranny of work. There is a rich tradition of refusal of labor in the libertarian left which animated social unrest throughout the sixties and seventies. The radical opposition to alienating factory jobs is arguably one of the driving forces behind the restructuring of Western economies into more creative, automated, and information-based economies.
Fast developments in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics presage the automation of more and more intellectual and service jobs. The spectre of technological unemployment is regularly evoked in the discourse around self-driving cars.
A socialist recognizes that unemployment is an inherently capitalist contradiction. The solution is not to oppose automation or “bring back” coal and auto-industry jobs but rather to make sure that the benefits of a higher productivity per capita are equitably distributed. Work less, employ everybody.

But if people work less won’t they have less money to spend on trivial things like videogames?
A Universal Basic Income could be a way to gradually enact this redistribution process. The idea is to separate income from labor, giving everybody a minimum income regardless of their employment status. It wouldn’t be enough to disincentivize people from working completely, and it shouldn’t be seen as an expanded unemployment benefit, or a replacement for all social services. I’d rather see the UBI as a way to redistribute the wealth created by all the forms of unpaid labor: the diffuse, intrinsically motivated cultural production accumulating into general intellect, the affective and domestic labor that keeps society going, the socially created prestige of a neighborhood that congeals into rent increases, the emotional costs of an increasingly flexible labor market, and so on. If capitalism commodifies everything and extracts value from anyone, we ought to demand more than a raise.

In the gaming microcosm we have plenty of examples for this kind labor: user generated content and modding, community activity online and offline, amateur reviews, machinima and streaming, free games, open source code, gamified machine learning training like Google’s Image Labeler or Quick Draw.
Naturally, we shouldn’t expect a hobbyist cosplayer to be paid to dress up at a convention, that’s exactly the kind of pursuit that should be decommodified. But at the same time we should be aware that this labor performed for free is systematically harnessed and capitalized. Every Minecraft block, social media update, piece of fan art, interaction in World of Warcraft contributes to the wealth, brand, and potential market value of a company.

In a capitalist economy the UBI would require a lot of taxation and would be fought fiercely, but consider this: from the point of view of the Silicon Valley ruling class, the UBI is a reasonable alternative to having their heads put on a spike by hordes of unemployed.
Outside of tech circles, bosses may not have the systemic thinking nor the long vision to understand the existential threats of technological unemployment. And that’s where politics comes into play: it’s the socialists’ duty to constantly remind them of the possibility of their heads ending up on a spike. Even in a hypothetical peaceful transition to a social democracy, the option of putting the bosses’ heads on a spike should always be on the table. That’s the only way to negotiate progressive reforms.

In a very (very) ideal scenario, a gradual de-commoditization of basic services, combined with increasing automation along socialist lines would result in a graceful extinction of the ruling class.
The post-work society humorously referred as Fully Automated Luxury Communism is both a gamer utopia and an opportunity for artists and entertainers. Without dull jobs (or lack thereof) occupying our minds, we will need more ways to keep us stimulated and chase away our sense of existential dread.

Who pays for that?

Growing up under in the shadow of Capitalist Realism it’s hard to conceive how we could have more while working less. Who pays for a massive expansion of social services when we can barely fund the existing public sector? Wouldn’t socialism grind the economy to a halt and make everybody poorer?

Despite certain caricatures, socialists don’t want to slow down capitalism or revert back to a pre-capitalist economy. Marx and Engels admired the power of capitalism to organize production and create an unprecedented surplus – they just couldn’t get over the inequality and the inefficiencies of a free market system. This view of socialism/communism as an acceleration of productive forces is being revived by some currents within the contemporary left. Their proposition is not to merely regulate the economy nor to create local, fleeting alternatives to capitalism, but rather to unleash the full potential of technology, to reclaim the modernist idea of collective mastery over society and the environment.
It’s a vision that works against the conservative meme of the economy as a zero-sum-game. Obviously, a comprehensive redistribution of wealth would have to take into account reparations for centuries of racial, patriarchal and colonial oppression, but it can’t be simply reduced to taking stuff away from those who have more than the average.
The expansion of productive potential would be coupled with the recalibration of priorities and with the unlocking of resources squandered in war and surveillance, speculative finance, prisons, or fossil fuel subsidies. Think about the material and spiritual wealth that could be created by the two million able-bodies incarcerated in the US! Think about the resources crystallized in empty McMansions and Tomahawk missiles!

Marxio and Luengels

What about the games themselves? Will violence and competition be banned from socialist videogames? Are we going to play tame educational games about tolerance and social justice?
Hopefully not. Under a democratic socialist regime, freedom of expression would be sacrosanct. Given the traditional role of art as counter-power, we would see a diversity of ideological positions in videogames, including explicitly anti-socialist ones.

More generally, cultural manifestations tend to reflect a society’s dominant values and material conditions. One of the earliest evidence of human play is the family of “boardgames” known as mancala, dating back to the Neolithic period. Mancala games display strong analogies with seeding and territorial management, and can be interpreted as way to conceptualize the emerging agrarian culture. In the same vein, the stylized warfare of chess, or the karmic structure of Snake and Ladders, are unquestionably informed by the concerns and the moral systems of the societies that generated them. It’s not just a matter of providing a familiar metaphor for a series of rules; we make and play games to structure our way of thinking about the systems we inhabit.

Nothing prevents us from imagining and creating socialist games today, but it’s likely that with a radical transformation of the relations of production and with an expansion of the democratic possibilities, we would crave for different games: games that problematize cooperation and collective decision making. If it sounds boring, try Overcooked or Pandemic.
Perhaps the opposite may happen as well: participating in democratic and relational processes every day might push us toward hyper-individualistic, hyper-competitive, sociopathic shooters that can give vent to our repressed primate impulses.

On a more pragmatic level, serious games and simulations would conceivably be used to discuss and unpack complex challenges. Today, framing social issues like poverty or clean energy as “problems” to which we ought to find “solutions” masks the central role of capitalism in perpetuating them. As long as people are allowed to get rich by controlling food supplies and burning cheap fossil fuels, there will be no technological fix that makes everybody happy. But in a classless society predicated on justice and equal rights, technocratic projects like Buckminster Fuller’s World Game would be much less naive and problematic.
The World Game had several different formulations, the most ambitious one was a hypothetical computer simulation fed with real data from all over the world. In a sort of resource management game, players would collectively try to “Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone”. Bucky Fuller imagined the World Game to be played competitively by teams and live-televised globally like an esport. The best solutions emerging from these competitions were meant to be turned into actual policies.

Playing in utopia

In conclusion, socialism is not the promise of a society free of problems and conflicts, but that of a society equipped to address these problems. Global warming will still be a huge existential threat for the human race. Abuses of power, corruption, and discrimination will definitely stick around. Fierce debates about the usefulness of space colonization or virtual reality will keep consuming us.
Gamers and game developers are a perfect constituency for the socialist project: they are good at collective problem solving, they are used to manipulate and think in systems, they enjoy agency and power.

There are many ways to conceive socialism, communism and the all the possible stages between them (not to mention the century-long debates about how to enact such deep transformations).
Regardless, in a profoundly conservative climate, when it’s tempting to just play defense and settle for the lesser evil, it’s a good exercise to think about the kind of world we really want to see. Whether your utopia is a primitivist commune or a Scandinavian-style mixed economy, whether or not it’s achievable in your lifetime, it would at least provide a direction and parameters by which you can define your political goals.