I thought it was worthwhile to identify two different types of capitalist subject that exist within videogames. There is a continuum between the two character archetypes, and the distinction is not new, however I think that one type has been present, and dominant, for most of the history of videogaming – within videogames with internal economies, i.e. primarily, but not exclusively RPGs – and the other has had a bit more of an upswing in recent years.
The first type of character is a generic capitalist laborer – that is, someone who engages in the act of obtaining resources or capital on one level, and then taking it to the marketplace to exchange for better or more equipment. This is the type of engagement that goes on in games over much of the history of RPGs, and maybe a good example of this is the harvesting of equipment from games as early on as the early Eye of the Beholder games, Ultima, and the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, right from the Black Isle days, through to Bethseda. This is an autonomous agent of capitalism that engages with merchants and resources pretty much as an individual within capitalism would as well. They obtain either capital or resources personally, that they then exchange, personally, with a merchant, and obtain better equipment, which allows for greater levels of harvesting. i.e. a traditional ‘grind’, a la Diablo 2.In this case, the means of production are essentially equipment, that multiplies the labour power of the subject (or character), and enables a greater degree of throughput. Strange that, if absent this specific tedium, many RPGs become unpopular on some level. I am attempting to think of RPGs that do not engage in this particular notion, but nothing immediately springs to mind. I have always considered RPGs to be the most capitalistic of all videogames, partly because of their economic relationship with resources and inflationary economies as the game progresses, but also because every element of the character that has input into the social or physical world is rendered in terms of stats that can be charted, compared, and prioritized – even charisma! This is also why the Neverwinter Nights games (and a bunch of others that operate on the same level) are closer to approaching a model of socialism if we use the same logic – all characters have the same number of distributed points, and are essentially equally advanced, but in different areas. Who remembers the endless re-rolling of early Angband/Rogue/NetHack/Baldur’s Gate characters? Nonetheless, this is one end of the spectrum of capitalist subjectivities within videogame characters that I have recently taken notice of.
The other end is the character who is an arbiter of an entire circuit of the capitalist mode of production. Here I am thinking of characters such as Connor from Assassin’s Creed 3 – the player is tasked with organizing labourers, subsuming natural and non-natural resources from the environment, engaging the labourers on the resources, distributing the resources to merchants, exchanging the resources, then reinvesting the M’ in both new resources and new means of production (better and more equipment). There are elements of this in Star Control II/Ur-Quan Masters, Mass Effect 1-2 (3, I assume, but I haven’t played it), Neverwinter Nights 2 (although the economic resources are not infinite, and arise from specific, story-based progress, rather than simple extraction), Skyrim (mining:crafting:sale:mining), and undoubtedly others that I haven’t considered, or haven’t played. These are all games that, more than the other end of the spectrum I mentioned, requires players to engage in a classic Marxist cycle of capitalism: consumption -> production -> distribution -> exchange -> consumption. All the while reinvesting new capital back into the process. In fact, this process solves the classic capitalist quandary that always occurs within these games! What do I do with all my money? By reinvesting it, by recreating the conditions for the emergence of profit, the excess capital is shifted into a space that puts it to some performative purpose, rather than simply letting it lie idle on the status bar of any shopping menu.
Note that I specify ‘characters’ – I do not consider the role of the player in games such as the Sims, Warcraft, the wide variety of Transport, Hotel, or Restaurant Tycoon type games to be the same – partly because the games are designed around an economy function, rather than having an economic function as an appendage to a storyline, and also because the player avatar is absent from the world itself. The player sits transcendent (or parallel) to the world, and views it through a porthole, and has little to no immanent affective relationship with the other characters in the world, other than in the form of pleas and pity more appropriate to a deity than a fellow human. However, in games such as NWN2 and Assassin’s Creed 3, the player has an avatar that can and is directly petitioned by the characters in the world – the capitalist becomes human, and sees the working class without risk. Perhaps this speaks to an emerging trend in videogames where a Jamesonian intervention on culture can produce new terms for problematizing capital? I think I will be using these ideas in the future for a new article at some point, and you can read my conclusions then.