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How to stop getting played

Games and play are everywhere under neoliberal capitalism. But they can also show us the way to a better future, argues Keir Milburn

7 to 8 minute read

Graphics from video games in a montage with people laughing playing a game

In 1978, the philosopher Bernard Suits used his enigmatic book The Grasshopper to pose the question: what would we do in utopia, in a world freed from necessity? His answer was that we would play games, which he defines as ‘the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’.

Today we live in a world saturated with games and gamified social interactions, yet we seem further from utopia now than when Suits’ book was published. Work, the realm of necessity, dominates our lives, while material inequality has skyrocketed. This apparently contradictory situation becomes more understandable when we recognise games as the form of cultural expression native to contemporary, late neoliberalism, or what we might call ‘platform capitalism’.

The games industry is, of course, huge, taking $184 billion in revenue in 2023, with around half of that from games played on mobile phones. At the same time, analogue games have been experiencing a ‘golden age’. The popularity of board games has rocketed over the past 20 years, both in terms of the numbers playing them, with the 2022 market estimated at just under $12 billion, and in the variety and complexity of game play. The past decade has also seen a renaissance of tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). While Dungeons and Dragons is by far the biggest and best-known, the real action has been elsewhere, with a huge proliferation of innovative, often self-published ‘indie’ games.

Gamification from above

It would be naive to uncomplicatedly position the games industry within the realm of play as that would exclude the people who work in it, and in any case, games have leaked out of play and been colonised by the realm of necessity. Huge areas of life have become gamified: from social interaction (social media and dating apps), through learning (Duolingo), to exercise (Strava). The most pernicious examples of this ‘gamification from above’, however, are seen in the world of work and management. Workers at Amazon fulfilment centres, for example, are monitored and managed through handsets that induce them to compete against one another for points that can be turned into virtual pets. Drivers for the taxi app Lyft can gain ‘streak bonuses’ for working longer and harder by accepting back-to-back ride requests without rest.

These examples all follow what Adrian Hon calls ‘generic gamification’, a very specific type of competitive game that features quite simple systems of points, badges, rewards, streaks and leaderboards. This phenomenon of gamification is often explained as businesses exploiting the existing popularity of gaming, but its roots can be found further back with the imposition of neoliberal management techniques of auditing and competitive ranking.

Neoliberalism can be distinguished from classical liberalism, and indeed other iterations of capitalism, through its drive to re-found the whole of society around an ethos of competition. Neoliberal theorists recognise that competitive markets are not naturally occurring but must be constructed by an active, interventionist state. Extending the effects of competitive markets beyond the economic sphere requires dramatic institutional reform and intrusive managerial practices to both assess and mould behaviour. It’s a set of techniques with which we are all now familiar. Our actions are audited against arbitrary systems of measurement, producing key performance indicators with point systems that can then be used for competitive ranking. When we interact with such structures we must conform to their logic or lose out.

It should come as no surprise that games providing the impression or actuality of more autonomy are growing in popularity

Our forced engagement with these ‘market’ mechanisms acts as a kind of training. It trains us to adopt a particular subjectivity, a particular mode of thinking and acting. We are encouraged to game the system by shaping our actions to accord with the audit. The organisation’s original purpose often suffers as a result, but through repetition we internalise this institutional logic, come to anticipate it and act accordingly, until it can eventually come to structure our common-sense understanding of human possibility.

This matrix of audit and ranking is the basis of ‘generic gamification’, but that could only take off after smartphones massively increased the amount of data collected, and platform capitalism allowed algorithmic management to replace human managerial evaluation. The explicit gamification of work is an outgrowth of inherent incentives to learn, adapt to and game the opaque and adaptive algorithms that shape and manage our behaviour.

Research shows that the gamification of work has only very short-term effects on workers’ happiness and performance. Once the novelty has worn off, they return to the disgruntled norm. So why do firms continue to gamify their operations? The answer is straightforward. By offering ‘streak bonuses’ for completing tasks and having constantly changing rewards linked to unclear metrics, companies can obscure work intensification and changes to overall pay and compensation. Gamification at work facilitates the lowering of labour costs through obfuscation.

Gamification from below

In his book Games: Agency as Art the philosopher C Thi Nguyen argues that games can be distinguished from other cultural forms, such as novels and movies, because games involve agency. Indeed games, he argues, are fundamentally about constructing and exploring agency by imposing specific constraints: only move the football using your head and feet, for instance. This gives us an axis of judgement for thinking about games critically. Rather than just focusing on a game’s themes and content we should also ask what kinds of agency are being modelled.

Generic gamification constructs a very specific and limited form of agency – that of the competitive neoliberal subject who ranks others hierarchically and sees them as obstacles to overcome. This model of agency appears to be active but has very little real autonomy. We don’t set the rules we play by, nor control the metrics and algorithms that govern us. Ultimately, gamification from above is guided by the constraints of capital, the need to maximise returns on investment. The gamified aspects of social media, for example, are constructed using insights gained from gambling addiction to keep us on the platforms providing data to be collected and sold.

Identifying and conforming to the parameters of an obscured algorithm becomes one of the key skills for advancement in this environment. There is a similar dynamic in many video games. Playing classic formats, such as shoot ’em ups or platform games involves learning the patterns created by the hidden algorithms the game runs on: the moves a boss makes when it fights, or the pattern a guard follows on patrol. In our contemporary gamified environment, there are transferable skills to be learnt in such play, but as people are constantly enrolled in games they can’t control, and often have little choice in playing, it should come as no surprise that games providing the impression or actuality of more autonomy are growing in popularity.

Many modern video games push in this direction, from open world games such as Red Dead Redemption 2, to multiplayer cooperative games such as It Takes Two, but the growth of analogue games such as board games and particularly TTRPGs should also be understood in this light. The latter allow you to explore worlds of your own creation, while the rules that govern play can be changed and adapted to suit the group playing.

The cultural studies scholar Stephen Shapiro has gone so far as to argue that the independent, rules-light, experimental TTRPGs that have emerged since the 2008 financial crisis, such as Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts 2, are one of the key cultural forms through which a young, intersectional left – what I’d call Generation Left – is forming and expressing itself. He cites Avery Alder, one of the key game designers in this movement, to argue that while novels explore interiority, a character’s internal thoughts and states, and films explore action, the function of such TTRPGs is to explore the process and consequences of decision-making. Playing such games can act as a form of training in democracy. They produce a collective deliberative agency around the equal, collaborative, creation of shared narratives and the building of worlds.

Compared to Dungeons and Dragons, or the huge numbers playing video games, only small numbers play these games, but we can see the influence of this cutting-edge spreading into more popular genres. Some of the most interesting video games with a distinctly left-wing bent, such as Disco Elysium, take their game mechanics from experimental TTRPGs. Citizen Sleeper, for instance, uses a pool of dice to permit action, but that pool diminishes if you’re unable to eat or gain access to medicine, mimicking the impacts on agency of poverty or disability.

There is, of course, a huge tradition on the left of thinking carefully and deeply about agency, how it is formed, constricted and conditioned by both psychological and structural forces. We have only just begun to explore this in game design. As we construct the politics of 21st-century socialism we will require cultural expressions that both reflect our reality and prefigure the world we want to build. Our gamified present has produced the conditions in which game play will be an essential component of finding our way out.

This article first appeared in Issue #244 30 Years of Red Pepper. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Keir Milburn is a member of the Red Plenty Games collective which designs and runs political strategy games

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