Empire forces in contemporary videogames, hyperbole or justified concern?

On: October 19, 2009
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About Sjoerd Tuinema
I'm a New Media MA student at the University of Amsterdam, carry a bachelor degree on Communication and Media Management, do design-work and am known as a notoire media junkie.


In a discussion between the Paris-based culture theorist Paul Virilio and Jérôme Sans titled ‘The game of love and chance’, Virilio questions what kind of form virtuality has currently taken on nowadays:

The imminent home installation of domestic simulators and virtual space rooms for game-playing, poses many questions, and in particular this one: “What is a game once the virtual invades reality?” [1]

The author continues this debate by stating that virtuality has become a same kind of an addiction as gambling, causing the person to be torned between two realities. This could be seen in cybersex and the stock market as they have already become places in which people can get hopelessly immersed in. These habits would also disconnect them from (respectfully) real-life sexual activity and the actual economy, as the virtual has substituted these impulses.

Virilio’s question is also quite literally being discussed in Empire@Play, in this article Dyer-Witheford & De Peuter outline the modern commercial game economy and its community [2]. As the title suggest, the authors try to define how the implications of ‘Empire’ (Negri & Hardt) apply to the field of games, and particularly, how the production cartel shapes this field. According to the authors, Empire as a burocratic totalitarian and labour exploiting force, has also been capable of merging into game developments, and mainly into the leading companies of this ‘Global Game Factory’. The interest for this intervention lies in the potential of the medium’s ability of displaying idealistic models , as described by the authors: “such simulation is vital to a power system engaged in the high-risk military, financial and corporate calculus required for globalized control.”

Empire and multitudes in the field of gaming

The Empire’s influence is then subdevided into different aspects, one of the more obvious is that of war games. Although this genre has always been in some obscurity for promoting violence, it has also become a political tool. As they often not only rely on biased war narratives, in some cases it also engages with the player more explicitely (i.e in America’s Army, also widely discussed by David Nieborg), thus rooting political agendas into cultural products.

Another, more hidden, implication of Empire is that of measureless work, in which serious games or even small-scale webgames, stimulate tasks that may benefit labour. According to the authors the business appear to embrace this potential: “hipster management theorists, drawing on serious cognitive studies of gameplay, argue that the content of games [..] is merely the occasion for intensive skill acquisition in multi-tasking, flexible role play, risk evaluation, persistence in the face of set backs, inventive problem solving, and on the fly decision making–all, of course, precisely what corporate employers claim to want.”

The last influence is described as the financialized life, as early on stock and financial games originate from the old Atari platform. These money games work in different ways, not only they stimulate the capabilities over properties and investments, this also resulted in the emergence of virtual economies in Massively Multplayer Online (MMO) games like World of Warcraft, where virtual value became finally interchangable with real money. Here the play also becomes labour, as Steven Shaviro earlier described: “The entire work/play binary has collapsed. MMOs offer us the possibility of ‘productive play’.”

Continuing with Negri & Hardt’s lingo, the authors use the term of ‘multitudes’ for discussing the different counter-forces: “[the term] we think conveys, better than any alternative their many critics can offer, the positive component of complex contemporary movements against capital.” The counter-culture as described, is organized in several ways: pirate games (building a share community, thus countering commercial distribution), protest games (stressing topics like human rights via gamemods or stand-alone games) and planning games (that, for instance, persue the potential of virtualities beyond capitalism in a MMO games, like with the ambitious Love-project).

In a more radical way, the Empire forces can also be described as a crippled form of play, according to Virilio:  “Instead of accepting the rules, challenge and modify them. Without the freedom to critique and reconstruct, there is no truly free game: we are addicts and nothing more.”

Industry’s responses

To somewhat conclude the previous section: I think Dyer-Witheford & De Peuter’s analysis on the Empire’s implications serves as a useful framework while discussing the political tendencies in game-development. The different forces get clearly outlined, all with genealogies that originate to the early years of games.

But as these moral objections are introduced, it’s not always that clear what exactly is so questionable about the Empire’s interventions. Sure, with measureless work, the emergence of mainstream games could likely be heavily been influenced by the Empire-like forces (emphasing on stimulating their labour with certain cognitive training), but it’s not all that sure if there’s an ethical conflict here that should or could be effectively countered. On the contrary, although these activistic games impose moral concern over an array of cultural subjects, on the production-side they tend to emulate the common gamedesign methods as well; most evidently with the subgenre of game-mods. Would this also mean protest games stimulate labour in the same way? Besides, I doubt that protest games address the issues concerning this cognition training as a whole. This might not be what the authors aim at, but in the end it isn’t entirely clear how the Empire’s influence and the multitude relate to each other.

Of course, it’s also very unsure how this paradigm will evolve, but also where counter-culture will take place. The more overlooked part of Empire@Play is how the game industry itself is already exploring topics outside that conciously avoid ludocapitalistic MMO’s or patriotic wargames, as with games like Fable or Heavy Rain where a player’s choices aren’t just judged by presupposed concepts of good and evil. Also, another multitude-like force comes from the independent developers, that once again are reinventing ideas about freedom, interactivity and consequence. These smaller agencies and the new-school design setting revitalises the field in such ways that more creative forms of play can co-exist, this ultimately can be seen as a multitude from within. I find this force somewhat characteristic to the ludological field, as play is always bound to reinventing itself in form and presentation (as the Nintendo Wii concept succeeded, while competing with the more graphical complex machines). There still lies a great oppertunity to delve into these exceptional cases that shape the field differently, here it’s nontheless a challenge to discuss how the Empire vs. the multitude behaves or how they might collide or unite.

  1. http://www.watsoninstitute.org/infopeace/vy2k/sans.cfm
  2. http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=608#_edn18

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