ASA 2014 Paper: (Un)Healthy Competition: Video Games and the Mediation of Neoliberal Structures of Feeling

I know, the title is a doozy. I always seem to do that, don’t I? (Note to self: shorter paper titles in the future.)

A big thanks to Amanda Phillips and Anne Cong-Huyen for acting as sounding boards, helping me in the process of writing and revising.

This paper was a real pleasure to give, although a great source of anxiety leading up to the conference, as I felt a bit out of my element — not being much of a digital humanist or a game studies scholar by trade.

Please keep in mind that this was written to be presented rather than read, and it had quite a helpful bit of visual aid. It is a work in progress, in a new direction, presented out of context, so it’s not the optimal way to come across this; however, I offer it here in the hope that some of you find it helpful.

———

Steven Pokornowski

(Un)Healthy Competition: Video Games and the Mediation of Neoliberal Structures of Feeling

Outline:

This paper is in 4 parts: a truncated personal story; an examination of how video games at large function to make us better Capitalists and competitors; a brief rumination on how we are trained to be more flexible gamers/laborers; and finally, an analysis of the virtual reenactment of the structures of neoliberal, neoimperial capitalist violence as mediated by Resident Evil 4. So, this paper will start thinking economically and conclude thinking racially and politically, so forgive me if there is a disconnect or a caesura, this is a new direction for my scholarship and I’m trying to bridge a few different strands of thought here.

 

  1. Heroic Capitalism: Exceptionalism and Accumulation by Dispossession

So, originally a good portion of this paper was taken up by my account of becoming aware of the way that video games had begun to structure my affects, making me embrace intense competition, violence, and inequity in my virtual life, while being politically opposed to them in ‘real life.’ I kept rewriting this section until I realized I was really offering up a caveat about my own privilege in the form of a transformation narrative. So, I will do that more briefly and directly instead: As someone who is constantly read and identified as a heteronormative, white, male – as a child I identified to a large extent with the exceptional protagonists in the video games I grew up playing: like Mario or Link, I thought that I was exceptional, privileged, and powerful (though unconscious to the political impact of buying into such an overvaluation of myself). As I became aware of my privilege and its relation to the protagonists of video games, I remained oblivious to a byproduct of the narrative of exceptionalism, privilege, and power inherent in video game heroics (or anti-heroics): this structure had been socializing me to the tenets of neoliberal capital, and training me to feel the affective intensities of winning and losing in violent competition. Unbeknownst to me, video games reinforced my socialization into a capitalist economy founded on “accumulation by dispossession” – which David Harvey attempts to outline as a reordering of the forces of Capitalism into a new mode of imperialism.[1]

 

  1. Virtual Bodies, Real Accumulation

David Harvey begins “The Right to the City” by talking about human rights, setting up his analysis of the ability to access and reshape the city as an oft overlooked human right. What he mentions in that setup, though, can shed some light on the work of video games in socializing us to neoliberal economics and ethics. Harvey writes:

“We live in an era when ideals of human rights have moved centre stage both politically and ethically. A lot of political energy is put into promoting, protecting and articulating their significance in the construction of a better world. For the most part the circulating concepts are individualistic and property-based and, as such, do nothing to challenge hegemonic liberal and neoliberal market logics, and neoliberal modes of legality and state action.”[2]

The same, certainly, can be said of most video games: the circulating concepts are individualistic and implicitly property-based. What’s more, the majority of major-title popular video games even seem to reproduce property-based systems, Capitalist economies, and socioeconomic stratification. [editorial note: slideshow included screencaps of market/shop menus from major, Triple A video games].

Role Playing Games and Action/Adventure games, in particular, appear to reproduce Capitalist economic structures. Oftentimes making personal accumulation a focal point (it unlocks trophies or achievements, and some major titles like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed Black Flag are explicitly centered on narratives of accumulation, etc). The RPG’s I had grown up playing were founded on ‘grinding’ for monetary gain, to get access to and purchase better equipment [editorial note: slideshow contained images from Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior]. As the genre evolved and expanded, the internet spawning MMORPG’s, people were put in direct competition for resources: rare,legendary, epic loot, etc. (And the real economies surrounding virtual objects – both sanctioned and unsanctioned – seems relevant here, so gold farming and in-app purchases, would be serviceable examples of those, respectively.)

In fact, if we consider how Capitalism has been characterized as changing since mid-century, (I am thinking of Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, but also post-Marxist thinkers like Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, and others who have recently repurposed earlier Marxist and Socialist Feminist analyses of gendered labor), Capital has come to be seen as prioritizing flexibility, contingency, precarity, and proliferating affective/immaterial/virtual labor, what used to be called “women’s labor” or “feminine labor.” It seems that changes in the content and industry of video games have actually begun to shape our play in the image of labor that Capital wants to extract from us – we are becoming flexible, competitive gamers.

The booming of the cellular games industry, the innovation and expansion of cross-platform play, and the creation of temporary in-game events tied to external timelines – such as the special events in Destiny, or the ebb and flow of darkness in the Dark Souls games – encourage us to game flexibly and frequently.

In this way, the real economy surrounding video games (the many ways we can buy content – in store, at home, on our cell phones), and the economies imagined in video games function together to capitalize on the labor of our virtual bodies, recontextualizing the older critique that the body is an accumulation strategy.[3],[4]

 

  1. Digital Biopolitics and Pixellated Imperialisms

As depressing as the preceding analysis has been, the truth is that I’ve omitted an important aspect of the economic structures I’ve outlined: the violent annihilation of the monstrous, the threatening, and the different for direct profit. In the majority of action, adventure, and role playing games wealth is not simply accumulated at the expense of other players, but it is accumulated through the destruction of alterity and the disturbing expansion of a consolidated power (and a corresponding social norm). Whether you are embroiled in an imperial war [World of Warcraft], fighting off the (racialized and often… racist) zombie hordes [Resident Evil], or making a quick buck as a mercenary in the galactic frontier [Borderlands]: your wealth and power are directly predicated on a violence toward bodies marked as different, your wealth is accumulated through a literal violence, and dispossession is often two-fold: you dispossess other players of experience, goods, wealth, power; and you dispossess your opponents (whether pvp or pve) of the same things through a more direct violence. In this way, the majority of virtual socioeconomic structures are predicated on a sort of necro-capitalist accumulation. At the same time, this structure encourages gamers to respond to alterity with political violence, enacting a totalizing violence and constantly redefining norms and normality in ways that typically favor white, heteronormative, masculine cultures. And instead of continuing to speak about generalities here, I want to (very, very, very quickly) turn to Resident Evil 4 for some specific examples.

 

  1. Accumulation by Destruction: Resident Evil 4 and the Totalitarianism of Generalization

So, I’m going to talk about Resident Evil 4, and for the sake of time management I am just going to assume most of you are at least passingly familiar with, so forgive me for not offering a better summary: but the game came out in 2005 to much fanfare, though it eschewed the survival horror format of its predecessors for a more action oriented approach. Basically, a former police officer and one of the heroes of RE2, Leon Kennedy, is sent to rescue the President’s daughter from a nefarious, bioterrorist cult that has captured her and is holding her in rural Spanish village. The plot thickens from there, but I’m going to move fast here because I’ve already been talking for too long.

Resident Evil 4 was the first game of the franchise to introduce a cash system to purchase weapon upgrades in the main narrative (and this slide is just a shot of the upgrade interface). Money could be found in objects, but was most easily obtained by killing zombies (and other mutated monsters). And the currency seems anachronistic/citational, it appears to be in Pesetas in the narrative frame of the game, but in-game the drops appear as tiny boxes of gold doubloons, a sort of weirdly out-of-joint imperial citation.  Zombies in RE4 were also different, the player learns that these individuals infected with “las plagas” – they are more directly aligned with the narrative of bioinsecurity and its relation to global health and governance. At the same time, this portrayal of the infected/zombie invokes a pre-Romero version of the zombie that more closely cites the figure’s historical imbrication in Empire, colonialism, and slavery – and this is emphasized by the weapons wielded by the infected throughout the game: farm tools, which most likely unintentionally, seem to be citing plantation slavery. More radically mutated and monstrous enemies invoke a radical molecular alterity reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing (and its source text, the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. short story, Who Goes There), especially evident in the tentacle-sprouting dog-monsters. At the same time, as infected humanoids are portrayed as increasingly monstrous in the game, they are also decreasingly clothed (implying both their dehumanization and their incivility, and still, in some measure, invoking a narrative that collapses racialization, dehumanization, and pathologization).

In this way, the seemingly white, European bodies of RE4 are not overtly racial ones – unlike the zombies of the fifth game so scandalously were. However, the infected figures in RE4 are racialized. At the same time, they are so “othered” and dehumanized, that the protagonists – and presumably the player – feel little or no guilt in their destruction. In this way, Resident Evil 4 offers a startling example for my analysis: the game encourages white, heteronormative, masculine sovereign exceptionalism, wielding not just the power over life, but power over the right to death, and accumulating through a hugely problematic neoimperialist, colorblind violence.

Unsettlingly, in the Resident Evil franchise, the BSAA or Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance, a fictional militarized branch of the UN, continuously attempts to secure and maintain the health of at-risk populations; however, in reality its members always seem to end up extracting value from othered bodies. I do think there is some redemptive value in the narrative critique of the global health industry and global health resource management and governance implicit in these games – they do seem to (unconsciously or not) critique the neoimperialist exploitation of global souths, albeit through a problematic, often pleasurable, reenactment of neoimperial violence. Yet, this critique occurs through such counterintuitive and troubling representation, that any praise of it must be tempered.

This final section of the paper has eschewed some of the concepts I wanted to trace throughout (such as the idea of competition) but I think the extension of this analysis into something like the World of Warcraft or other MMOs such as Destiny (which in some sense I should have read instead, given its overdetermined deployment of alien monstrosity encroaching on the earth in a literal battle between light (humans) and dark (largely humanoid, othered aliens).

By way of conclusion, let me say that despite the bleak picture I’ve outlined here, there do seem to be two major, potentially positive takeaways: firstly, from an analytical perspective, the presence of problematic neoliberal and imperial inequities and prejudices in video games can help us to better identify their presence in the real world AND to serve as a teaching tool to demonstrate these issues to students; and secondly, because video games are a source of and a location for community formation and socialization, they also have the potential to form radical communities geared toward creating better worlds and more just economies. Thank you.

Notes:

[1] Harvey, David. “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession.” The Socialist Register Vol. 40, 2004. 63-87.

[2] Harvey, David. “The Right to the City: From Capital Surplus to Accumulation by Dispossession.” Accumulation by Dispossession: Transformative Cities in the New Global Order. Ed. Swapna Banerjee-Guha. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2010. p 17.

[3] Harvey, David and Donna Haraway. “Nature, Politics, and Possibilities: a Debate and Discussion with David Harvey and Donna Haraway.” From the Association of American Geographers, Chicago, March 17, forEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space 13/5. 1995, pp. 507-27.

[4] Harvey, David. “The body as an accumulation strategy.” Environment and Planning D; Society and Space 1998, volume 16, pages 401-421.

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