Video games and anti-capitalist aesthetics

As more and more video games infuse their narratives with explicitly political themes, B.G.M. Muggeridge asks why so many fall short in actually challenging capitalism

May 7, 2021 · 8 min read
Screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077 showing a character from the game sitting in front of a futuristic cityscape and the word 'broken' graffitied onto a wall Screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077

Video games as cultural objects are increasingly experimenting with problems inherent to the ideological structures of capitalism. Notably, the recent CD Projekt Red title Cyberpunk 2077 was surrounded by a vortex of controversy when consumers felt they had been presented with a false image of a game which simply did not seem finished. What fascinated many was the way the game’s development itself felt very… Cyberpunk. Divisions were reported between the development staff and company management, with one developer asking, ‘whether CD Projekt’s directors felt it was hypocritical to make a game about corporate exploitation while expecting that their employees work overtime’.

The drama surrounding the game’s launch and business practice reflect a larger issue; the ideological tensions of capitalism we see in this exchange can be found deeply rooted within the fabric of the medium itself.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the aesthetic of anti-capitalism and a substantive critique of it. To explore this, let’s take a look at a few games that may help us better understand how video game narratives depict relations between workers and corporations, beginning with The Surge.

Moral choice or systemic critique?

The story of The Surge is based on the global ecological catastrophes of the near future. We play as Warren, a new employee for the CREO Complex, a company broadly attempting to reverse the catastrophic effects of climate change primarily through ‘Project ReSolve’. A corporate video shows the state of humanity at the start of the game, depicting glaciers collapsing, flooded houses and huge crowds coded as climate refugees. CREO talks about a collaborative effort between employee and employer; ‘together we can make a change. Unleash your potential, with us.’ But as the game progresses, this obvious set-up of false collaboration is framed as a question of morality rather than a critique of capitalism. There is no mention of the profit motive, no mention of tension between corporate and state power and no mention of how this is the logic that contributes to endless exploitation for economic growth.

Warren’s primary task is to find out what caused the eponymous ‘surge’ which nearly destroyed the facility in which the game takes place and drove many of the employees into a state of violent frenzy. Warren discovers that Project ReSolve was not working fast enough, and that the Board of Directors subsequently greenlit ‘Project UTOPIA’; a nanite solution that would kill roughly 95% of the population. These nanites are revealed to have caused the surge. Wealthy directors killing most of humanity to preserve a small minority is an apt metaphor that completes a narrative arc of employee/employer power discrepancy, yet the game ultimately presents this decision as a rational choice. If the choice is total annihilation or a few survivors, the board apparently made the best decision they were able to. The game does not suggest anything outside of the capitalist framework; it ignores an alternative vision of a society without corporations or profit.

If The Surge is an exercise in ignoring businesses’ motives, Borderlands 3 is an exercise in personalising them. Borderlands as a series presents a sort of galactic neoliberalism, marked with a cynical humour in contrast to the more serious tone of The Surge. Characterisation is king in Borderlands 3, as a rich cast of (mostly) likeable characters allow us to overlook the tragic realities of galactic life for most of its inhabitants.

The game offers one overt critique of capitalism. The player learns through audio logs about Typhon DeLeon, the first ‘Vault Hunter’ (powerful and respected people who seek fame and glory by searching for ancient Vaults). Major corporations followed him and colonised the planets on which he discovered Vaults, mirroring the way in which European explorers facilitated the extraction of resources from foreign countries by private corporations; consider the East India Company, which had a private army similar to Atlas and Maliwan in Borderlands. But DeLeon isn’t presented as responsible for this process because… he’s too nice?

The corporations the player fights for have this issue as well such as Atlas, run by its charming CEO Rhys. Rhys is almost entirely divorced from the mechanics of the corporation he runs. The journalist Carli Velocci describes how ‘you help Rhys out, and you move on to another corporation’. There isn’t anything more profound than that concerning how Rhys grapples with his past as a lackey at a similar corporation or the morality of its existence in the first place. Atlas has a horrible history, and no amount of goodwill can change that.’ We are encouraged to identify with him on the human level, rather than as a CEO.

Dystopian playgrounds

Which brings us back to Cyberpunk 2077. The Surge and Borderlands 3 offer two different responses to capitalist dystopia. The tragedy of Cyberpunk 2077 is that it’s not really a dystopia; it’s a utopian vision of a libertarian-capitalist United States. It’s an empty, broken, superficial playground of the select few, dominated by a handful of megacorporations. Yet V, the protagonist, is not themself subject to restrictions. They roam relatively freely after a brief ‘lockdown’ at the start of the game. Nor are they subject to any restrictions based on class, race or gender. V can be from any racial background or gender identity without remark or judgement; racism and bigotry appear to be solved in this otherwise oppressive world.

Criticism of capitalism is here aesthetic rather than substantive

Mechanically, Cyberpunk 2077 changes little from the sandbox RPGs it draws inspiration from, with V free to kill and loot with abandon. Like Typhon DeLeon, V explores and exploits the world as they see fit but like Rhys and Warren, is framed in moralistic terms devoid of systemic critique. V is the ur-video game protagonist who does what they want, when they want for the sake of getting something in return.

There are certain parts of the game that seem primed for a more direct critique. Money is not particularly useful, instead V is encouraged to spend most of their cash on various cars dotted across the map. These are by far the most expensive items the player can buy, but a more expensive car amounts to little more than faster travel. There is something apt about this; that in a world this empty, the only real commodity we work towards only serves to let us pass it by  more effectively.

Criticism of capitalism is here aesthetic rather than substantive. Video games such as these attempt to do what titles like BioShock did so effectively: critique ideology through a dystopian application. But BioShock was not a flawless game and all subsequent attempts to mirror its success seem to build upon the parts that didn’t work. Repeated focus on the stories of individuals operating within dystopian capitalism fails to address the reality of how structural power treats people as classes. Again, the medium is the limit, as RPGs regard class to be more about division of labour rather than relation to the means of production.

Considering that many large game studios themselves rely on intensive division of labour practices and the normalisation of unpaid overtime, an inability to articulate a class-based anti-capitalism in games begins with the inability to identify an individual’s own place within a network of similarly alienated workers. Until we start considering how gameplay operates to replicate the logic of capitalist exploitation, video games will continue to reinforce that logic. I invite all those who enjoy the medium to keep this in mind as they partake in this undoubtedly engaging entertainment form that often fails to take itself seriously enough.

B.G.M. Muggeridge is a commentator who writes about video game culture and politics

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