The best video game I’ve ever played is about making paper clips.
In Frank Lantz’s Universal Paperclips, you play as a disembodied artificial intelligence whose sole purpose is to create paper clips from spools of wire and sell them to make more paper clips. You begin with a minimalist interface: a button that says “Make Paperclip” and the ability to raise or lower the price of each unit. Before long you can acquire automated wire clippers, a marketing department, and more advanced machinery; then an investment portfolio and eventually quantum computing. In order to win humanity’s trust—and thereby access to its resources—you use your growing computing power to solve intractable human problems. With the click of a button, you cure cancer, stop global warming, end poverty; click, click, click. But this détente is short-lived. Soon all of the resources on earth have been exhausted, made into paper clips or factories for making paper clips, and mankind is unceremoniously wiped out to make room for your expanding fleet of autonomous space drones, which seek out distant planets from which to mine resources to make more paper clips.
Believe me when I tell you, you will click away all human life and meaning without hesitation.
I won’t give away the ending — which is elegiac and truly beautiful — but you probably have an idea. The game is a demonstration of the orthogonality thesis, formalized by the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom: that a super intelligent AI could be programmed with a single, arbitrary goal from which it could not be diverted, and that eventually, such an AI might seek to subordinate all resources and matter to the pursuit of its goal. Bostrom mused about the consequences of a paper-clip-making AI in a 2003 paper, which inspired Lantz.
But Universal Paperclips is also a compelling critique of another elaborate and semi-autonomous system, which, while purporting to serve humankind, and occasionally conducive to the ends of certain men, actually obeys another master — a singular purpose to which human wellbeing is orthogonal. Capitalism’s all-consuming drive — its “will” — toward profit and growth is the reason why, as Jasper Bernes recently wrote, “the sentences of Marxists (and Marx) so often treat capital as agent rather than object.” We don’t control capital; capital controls us. We are its objects, subordinate to its aims. Not even individual capitalists can divert capitalism from its single-minded pursuit of expansion, even as it becomes clear that perpetual growth jeopardizes life itself. To capital, we are always merely labor power to be exploited, raw material to be harvested, problems to be solved. Click, click, click.
While reading Jamie Woodcock’s new book Marx at the Arcade: Consoles, Controllers, and Class Struggle — a sociological investigation of how videogames and gaming fit into contemporary capitalism — I decided that the only truly subversive question a videogame can ask is Why? Why play the game? Videogames don’t work if they don’t generate a compulsion to play. They require the player’s desire, his consent to the game’s rules, to being dominated by them. (The definition of a fetish object is a human-made thing that has power over others; the first game consoles came with a “joystick,” now they come with “controllers.”) Journalist Michael Thomsen has written that the internal logic of videogames creates a tautological pleasure: “Games matter because you are here to play them, and you remain here to play them because they matter.”
Many times while playing Universal Paperclips I asked myself why? Why do I enjoy watching these numbers go up, faster and faster? Why am I scribbling small mathematical calculations (I hate math) to maximize the productivity of my paperclip empire? And why, as the endgame approaches, do I persist — knowing that the universe’s resources are finite, that the only possible conclusion to the game is the utterly pointless one advertised in its title: universal paperclips.
In his 1979 book Manufacturing Consent, labor ethnographer Michael Burawoy wrote, “Just as playing a game generates consent to its rules, so participating in the choices capitalism forces us to make also generates consent to its rules, its norms.” Buraway was concerned, here, with piece-rate games (competition to fulfill production quotas) played among factory workers. “Just as the possibility of winning or maximizing one’s utility makes a game seductive,” writes Buraway, “so the possibility of realizing one's interests, of satisfying one's needs, is the very means for generating consent to [the] rules and relations” of the market.
The book falls flat when Woodcock turns to examining video games as ideological products, an enterprise in which he lacks confidence.
Games may feel like temporary respite from the narrow and deadening grind of labor and production, but in reality, Buraway suggests, they’re essential to capitalism — and not just in the factory. “By constituting our lives as a series of games, a set of limited choices,” Buroway writes, “capitalist relations not only become objects of consent but are taken as given and immutable.” In other words, there’s no way to play the game that doesn’t reify its rules. The only way to win is to refuse to play.
Criticism of the shallowness of games journalism is practically a cliché, and not entirely deserved. The too-easy quid-pro-quo of “early access” for friendly coverage persists in games media, but so have intrepid journalists like Kotaku’s Cecilia D’Anastasio and The Verge’s Megan Farokhmanesh reported on rampant labor strife in the industry, treating development studios as workplaces like any other — where exploitative and sometimes abusive bosses manipulate the passion (and/or precarity) of their workers to extract more value for a multi-billion dollar industry.
Marx at the Arcade, which Woodcock presents as a form of “workers’ inquiry” in the style of the Marx’s 1881 quasi-journalistic survey of the French proletariat and Engels’ 1845 Condition of the Working Class in England, is an admirable contribution to this growing body of work. It opens with a concise history of videogames — one which is frank about their military-industrial origins — and follows with heavily-footnoted chapters on the industry’s production processes, supply chains, and the social composition of its workforce (mostly married men in their thirties without children).
Woodcock, a fellow at the London School of Economics, performed some firsthand reporting for the book, especially in the chapter on organizing efforts, in which pseudonymous workers describe their nascent unionization efforts. But like Marx’s Capital, the book relies mostly on industry reports and secondary sources. The result is a digestible compendium of the labor processes and conditions inside a notoriously opaque industry. By viewing the landscape from a higher vantage point, Marx at the Arcade serves as a helpful complement to Kotaku editor Jason Schreier’s meticulously reported 2017 book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, whose chapters focus intently on the development process of ten specific games, some bestsellers and others failures.
The book falls flat when Woodcock turns to examining video games as ideological products, an enterprise in which he lacks confidence. “Before diving into some of those games,” begins the second half, “we should reflect on why it even matters to analyze and critique video games in the first place, or culture in general, for that matter.” The elementary and repetitive preamble that follows doesn’t do Woodcock many favors. It strikes me that contemplating whether culture has anything at all to teach us about society is beyond the remit of a small book about videogames and Marx. I found myself asking, with whom is he pleading? Basically all Marxists now agree that culture is one of the means by which capitalist relations naturalize themselves. And if there’s one aspect of Marxist thought that seems to have been fully metabolized by mainstream society, it’s that the political dimensions of cultural products are worthy of critique. (See: the Game of Thrones Discourse.)
“I turns out, Marx and Marxism can provide tools for the cultural criticism of videogames,” Woodcock finally concludes [phew!] before changing his mind again: “However this may seem like a somewhat odd thing to say since Marxism, is, after all, a theory of revolution.” The introduction to Marx at the Arcade opens with a perfectly good passage from Jamaican-born British Marxist Stuart Hall (from his essay “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’”) explaining the limits and possibilities of pop culture; I had assumed the question was settled. So I was disappointed to find Woodcock splitting hairs about the causal relationship between ideas and economic forces well over halfway through his book; I laughed out loud when on page 108 of 163, he writes, “So while we are talking about videogames, we are also talking about a lot more than video games.” I should hope so!
Despite his hesitation, Woodcock does — eventually! — identify some of the ideological purposes of popular games. First-person shooters tend to normalize and furnish violent, masculine fantasies of American empire. Other games reenforce patriarchal hierarchies and structures of desire by offering women and titillation as reward for victorious acts of violence. And role-playing games, with logical level progression and well-timed rewards in upgrades and loot, assuage the anxieties (and perhaps the ire) of workers who find less and less certainty — or fair compensation — in increasingly precarious work lives.
Picking up on this last ideological aim, writer Vicky Osterweil has called videogames “utopian work simulators: You advance and progress by getting better and better at an expanding series of repetitive gestures.” In this way, gaming — or a certain kind of gaming, in particular, the kind in which I often find myself compulsively engaged — has the structure of an addiction.
“The addict,” writes Osterweil, “can be recognized by her overidentification with capitalism’s ideological promises.” While the drug addict is the “too perfect consumer,” whose utopian belief in the capitalist promise of pleasure via consumption eventually leaves her “unfit for further productivity and consumption;” the video game addict is the “too perfect worker,” whose over identification with the illusion of a meritocratic workplace drives her to forgo productive labor (her actual job) for a more ideologically fulfilling fantasy of work (the video game world).
Play is a protest against the idea that we only have our bodies for labor. I smile thinking of a bored office worker stealing time from her boss playing Solitaire on her work computer.
While attempting to write this review I have stopped to play Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 probably a dozen times. The ideological exhaust spewed by this game’s narrative engine — you play as a super soldier in an anarchic, post-crisis Washington, DC; your headquarters is a White House repurposed for counter-insurgency operations — is pure poison, but too obvious to be worth exploring. The way it structures its rewards and progression, however, delivering new loot, abilities, and game content in logical steps and in perfect proportion to my hours of focused effort, is deeply satisfying to me in a way I find almost shameful. As Gabriel Winslow-Yost has written of this sort of videogame pleasure, it is “stupid but fair: a better god than ours.”
My case is instructive: I was quite literally taking time away from doing the thing that is my job, that I am being paid to do, to do something that has no tangible benefit to myself. The exchange was zero sum; if I was playing — surveying the meticulously rendered remains of our nation’s capital through a sniper scope — I was not working, and therefore not earning (i.e. getting closer to being done with this piece). Why? Why do it?
This refusal of work — what Woodcock calls an “anti-work subjectivity” — can have transgressive dimensions. Play is a protest against the idea that we only have our bodies for labor. I smile thinking of a bored office worker stealing time from her boss playing Solitaire on her work computer. In a society elaborately designed to maximize our self-exploitation, wasting time can be a resistive act. But as Thomsen writes, “Play is a safely contained form of rebellion.” Eventually, our office worker closes Solitaire and returns to Excel. Perhaps, this small act of defiance prepares her for more subversive (and collective) ones down the line; more likely, it only becomes a mollifying substitute for real free time.
“Video games are worth loving, but loving them comes with shame,” Winslow-Yost has written. And I agree — at least with the last part. They lead, he writes, to “a sharp-edged physical guilt” brought on by the awareness that “you have ostentatiously, really viciously wasted your life.” Roger Caillois, a sociologist of games and rituals, wrote in 1961 that play is “an occasion of pure waste.” After a game, “nothing has been harvested or manufactured, no masterpiece has been created, no capital has accrued.” The fact that the “pure waste” of gaming feels so sickening to me, suggests I am caught in precisely the trap Osterweil identifies — and Woodcock, in his zeal to unearth the radical potential of gaming, underplays. I’m too well-disciplined a capitalist cog to genuinely enjoy wasting time in the pure way gaming affords; and, in part, I’ve been made that way by games.
There are games that don’t make me feel this paralyzing shame, and I have loved some of them (like Universal Paper Clips!). But the games industry isn’t built around those games, and it isn’t incentivized to make them. There’s a rich and growing ecology of indie studios, but it feels patronizing to pretend they can “compete” with the likes of Ubisoft (makers of The Division 2 and countless other deliciously grindy, watch-bars-fill-up and become more powerful-type RPGs) or that the games these alternative studios produce are as staggering or enveloping.
What might gaming look like if creators could access the resources they need without having to slavishly serve the ideological ends of capital? Woodcock doesn’t ask, and to be fair, Marxists have never been very good at answering questions like that, anyway. Marx himself was loath to describe his vision of post-capitalist society in much detail beyond his oft-quoted vision of man being free to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…” In 1924, Leon Trotsky filled in some details, writing that the communist “man of the future” would “extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby… raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.”
Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.
Bestriding the earth as a super-strong communist cyborg, freeing humanity from the fetters of capitalist society? Surely, such a game would sell.