two different capitalist subjects in videogames

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.

Cultural studies conference, 2012

As someone who is on the peripheries of cultural studies, the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia conference for this year was a means of understanding the terms under which cultural studies continues to operate as a discipline. A reasonably passionate debate on Thursday night at Sydney’s Courthouse pub found a number of people from the conference (all male, for the record) staking positions on the existence and future of cultural studies as a discipline. We all had our particular avenues that we based our arguments on, and I forget the particular details of the various positions so I’ll just note and elaborate on my own. Cultural studies, to me, has no singular coherent object of study, and it has no single methodological or philosophical position, which leads to a need for the discipline to engage in debates or writing called something along the lines of “What is Cultural Studies”, or “the future of cultural studies”, etc. This, to me, indicates that the discipline has no conceptual core (most other disciplines have fairly fixed ideas of their approaches or objects, i.e. physics/media studies/art history/philosophy), and requires persistent apprehension of the goals and methods currently in play within the discipline. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in the sense that it means that the discipline is constantly critical of itself, and has potential for fairly radical political critiques of other disciplines. The curse is that this means that the discipline must constantly make these ‘turns’ (i.e. the chemical turn, the material turn, the biological turn, etc) in order to retain a coherence that allows for a political core to remain in the discipline so that it does not dissipate into the purview of other departmental structures and thus lose its critical purchase. These trends are cliche, but necessary, if the discipline is going to have any site for staging its program of constant critique – which I think it should.

I found all the keynotes to be quite interesting, primarily because all the ones that I saw (which was everything except the final plenary) showed how the discipline could be relevant beyond simple pedagogical concerns – that is, they showed how cultural studies could be deployed in the process of making real interventions beyond the educational. I was particularly interested in Bev Skeggs’ work, mainly because I found her work on the notion of value to be quite fascinating (and I would love to have her slides).

Also I should note that I don’t understand the purpose of the hall of fame material. The fact that there was no policy instituted prior to the awarding of the statues means that the awards themselves have no meaning beyond a vaguely defined act of ‘recognition’ of people who are already well-recognized in their fields: Graeme Turner, and Meaghan Morris. Who can win an award now? Will it only be a post-factum act of meritocratic recognition to those who got to their current location on the basis of their own struggle? The idea of ‘fame’ as the categorical imperative for the award is, in my view, unwise, as it renders it into exactly the criteria that cultural studies seeks to unpack.

A few additional links from the conference:

Glen Fuller’s take on the final keynote.

Jason Wilson’s piece on social media in academia for ECR and post-grads.

Also, CSR has a new issue out, for the interested.

the problem of ‘the poor’

How do I talk about the poor? In all seriousness, they are a politically important group, in the sense that they have historically always existed in one form or another, and they are what most political programs attempt to separate society from. The reduction of ‘the poor’ is a problem that some choose to solve through welfare, and others through economic etoliation. The goal seems to be a perpetual attempt to escape the historical problems of ‘having’ and ‘not having’, which seem to be inescapable. I think the poor needs to be defined as something other than the working class, other than the indebted, other than the slave, other than the precariat (someone whose ability to shift into temporary or marginal labour affords them periodic income; which, despite its recent popularity, is not nearly as abjectly excluded as the poor) and something other than those who are politically excluded along other lines – such as queer sexualities or alienated ethnic groups. I never come into contact with the poor, except in those brief moments where they ask for spare change. I give, sometimes, but this is not a solution. At this stage, for me, the problem is how to discuss a group that is outside the political frame that I work in – that is, outside possessing enough property or money to access networked communications.

a busy time of year

It’s been a busy year this year, I’ve been incredibly prolific in terms of doing what I essentially see as self-development work. Beginning to see the light as to what a future as an academic might hold for me. It is both a frightening amount of work, and also incredibly exciting. The opportunity to become someone who might be able to both engender new ideas in people, as well as to develop new ideas of my own in the context of learning and research is excellent. I love it. I want to do it for the foreseeable future. The chance to collaborate with people whose intelligence I respect and admire is something I’m enjoying doing now, and hope to do for the rest of my life.

Which brings me to the fact that I’m recognizing an increasing need to upskill myself as an educator, and potential academic. There is a lot to do if I expect to be able to continue to discuss the artforms of cinema, games, and literature, as well as to be able to educate myself to a doctoral level in the concerns of media and communication, Marxism, the autonomists, and political philosophy in general. As someone who is intimidated by the skills, knowledge, and intelligence of those encountered in reading groups, workshops and seminars, I recognize that the near-pastoral educational environment of my old institution is a combination of both idyllic low-stakes country bliss, with very little in terms of opportunities both within the institution itself, as well as its ability to provide opportunities elsewhere. In other words, I’ve been doing a lot, and have a lot left to do.

larvatus prodeo

Descartes has a term, larvatus prodeo, which I think bears some merit in the context of the anonymized communcations of the internet. It means “to go forth/to emerge, masked/ghostlike”. In Descartes’ original usage, it was an idea of protection through masquerade for the controversial thinker. Regor Sebba translates a French copy of a lost Latin work, Olympica, written by Descartes in his youth: “As an actor, to conceal his blush of embarrassment, enters the stage masked, so I step forth onto the stage of the world, masked.”

Sebba points to a contrast in Descartes’ thought, between res cogitans and persona cogitans. The first is simple ‘res‘ a being, a material, ‘cogitans‘ that thinks, ponders, engages in thinking. ‘Persona‘, though, this is intriguing: ‘persona‘ a mask, a character that presents itself to the world. Perhaps Descartes was already beginning to make the move to the idea of the dualism which would later make him famous. A dualism between a presented self as a Lacanian masquerade, and the real, material, thinking individual that sits behind this, as a form of puppeteer.

Larvatus prodeo, then. I would prefer to read it as a ghostlike emergence, rather than a concealing of a self in a communicated framework, it is a wispy ethereal presence of a subject in a networked space. By engaging in a process of constant contact and individuation in a communication matrix, flitting across spaces and moments of discussion, communication, and aesthetic experience, a real self is invested with a semblance of identity. But, to be true to Descartes’ usage, the classical reading would have to be along the lines of the capacity for a transcendent notion of the self that expresses itself through material substrates, such as the network, or the human body.