When Crytek Nottingham announced they would be releasing Homefront: The Revolution, a game where grassroots American militia engage in guerrilla warfare against North Korean occupiers, they told Debbie Timmins of The Average Gamer that they don’t want to make it political. This, the sequel to a title whose marketing department spent a fair share of energy trying to convince everyone it was written by the hand that wrote Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn. It’s hard for me to say whether the original Homefront quite lived up to that conceit—I played just one level and never returned—but given how it so swiftly tumbled into obscurity, I’m going to hazard a guess at “not very”. So, this time around, Crytek Nottingham are nipping that in the bud: this game with a politicized setting, from a series with politicized marketing, will not have a politicized narrative.
Meanwhile, a few weeks prior, Nintendo fell over themselves to adopt the same stance. By pure fluke, Tomodachi Life originally released with the option of same-sex relationships, but as soon as Nintendo caught the error they patched it out. In doing so they thought they were restoring the world to its rightful state, a world without gay people, thereby describing their ideal of family friendliness as heteronormative and implicitly homophobic. To not patch it out, however, might have been seen as progressive and accepting or at least tolerant of homosexuality (heaven forbid), so they went ahead and toed the line they’ve always toed.
In that moment, the company found itself in that impossible position of having taken a political stance simply by acknowledging an issue exists. The truth of the matter goes deeper: even if they had never accidentally made Tomodachi Life lovely and gay, it would have still been characterised as political by virtue of their intended heteronormativity, whether or not they were adopting that stance consciously.
It hasn’t been long since the marketers of gritty and politically inept titles had a go at spinning their ineptitude as thematically brilliant, I’ll believe you’ll find, even if nine times out of ten those feints at political themes turned out to be little more than opportunistic marketing techniques. Maybe now we’re starting to see a turn away from all that, as publishers and marketers are realising it does them little good in the long term to advertise their games as snake oil, a miracle cure-all for your narrative needs, and now instead are trying to entreat with the spirit of gaming yore and accept that they don’t have the wherewithal to deliver on promises of narrative intrigue.
And this is wonderful. It’s almost a breath of fresh air. Not because “we should let games be games” or some such dreadful truism, but because, look at how preposterous these statements are! Look at how these intrinsically political media texts trip and perfectly nut themselves on the fence they were trying to straddle, revealing their authors as mortally, irredeemably clumsy.
It’s not just that this approach of theirs, their fear of the political, is at least honest on their part when compared to that of the gritty snake oil salesmen, and so is less condescending. Though there is that—it’s a more pleasant way to be lied to. Moreover, it represents a slight change in the way these creators of art and entertainment view themselves and the world they operate within, a shift towards a future consciousness where their art and where all art is politically imbued, even if that shift is here marked by a very silly attempt at denying that future.
So I take great joy in these attempts to remain apolitical, because counter to substantiating the belief that such a thing is possible, they highlight the intrinsic capacity for politics within any media text of this nature and they show it to be inescapable. Much like Nintendo emphasising a political narrative merely by acknowledging it, such feeble bids to absolve themselves of responsibility only reveal the political narrative already latent in the text, whether it’s a wargame afraid to talk about war, or the limiting heteronormativity of a happy life simulator, or misogynistic plotpoints that publishers are suddenly finding themselves needing to be aware of, or a mindless action romp with delusions of satire, or any of the abundant examples that leap to mind.
In turn, attention flows from the politics of a game’s overt setting and plot to the politics of a game’s ludic narrative—the intrinsic meaning embedded within gameplay and its design, such as how Papers, Please lures you into becoming a dehumanizing bureaucrat, or the clash of BioShock Infinite’s gung-ho gunplay with its aspirations of criticising US patriotism. These archetypes of game design aren’t just suddenly political, they’ve always been political. Perhaps it’s more discrete because, well, designers have traditionally neglected to look for it.
By now it’s old hat for many games critics how prolonged exposure to the norms and values in our culture has ingrained them into our minds, and through us they seep back into the art we make, deepening, proliferating. How the politics we’re raised into affects our own, how our politics influences the media we enjoy, and vice versa. The payoff for the critic is in coming to recognize the little nuggets of culture in our media that were previously invisible, using this knowledge to better understand a game, and sharing with the community in order to collaborate towards building better games for everyone.
One such nugget, I think, is the ideology of capitalism as narrated by economic exchanges of labour and wealth, which takes shape in the design archetype of levelling up.
Mechanically and systemically, levelling up usually constitutes this: as the player achieves ludic goals, they’re rewarded with points or toys to increase their proficiency at completing future ludic goals. It’s a cute little economic process devised around accruing and storing wealth, since that’s what experience points represent: a quantitative measure of one’s power and successes, an abstract currency to be traded for self-improvement, although ‘self-improvement’ in this regard mainly extends to ‘improving one’s ability to collect currency.’
As a result of this abstraction of experience into a currency format, self-improvement and self-actualization become acts of consumerism. The more a game’s design succeeds at hooking players into a consumerist mindset, the more addictive it becomes—it feeds into a hole in our lives created by the needless want for more possessions, an avarice necessary for capitalism to function but which must remain perpetually unfulfilled. Here in the virtual world it has almost the scent of an achievable goal, so we often pursue it as a substitute solution for the unhappiness in our lives. The game serves as a power fantasy and a narrative fantasy, but also as an economic fantasy for the attribution of possessions-as-personal growth.
So, if we consider the process of levelling up as a capitalist narrative, what does it describe? Capitalism is founded upon an exchange of labour for wealth, where labour is the product of a labourer to be bought and used by others in pursuit of their own wealth. In terms of a videogame, labour would be the activities involved in generating the player’s wealth, such as combat in Final Fantasy IX and questing in Skyrim. Much of the time these activities aren’t inherently enjoyable but still we tolerate them for the rewards, accepting them as part and parcel of the labour trade agreement between ourselves and the game. There’s already the linguistic likening of the labour of combat in a JRPG as a grind similar to a dreary 9-to-5 job: just put in the hours, you can enjoy yourself on the weekend.
In this exchange of labour for wealth, you farm baddies to be able to better farm baddies. Baddies in this sense are little more than little packets of experience points waiting to be freed up and collected by the player. As one ingests food for physical nourishment, we slaughter enemies and absorb their remains—their loot and experiential value in Final Fantasy IX, their souls in Demon’s Souls (since the game has the head on it to make the exchange properly sinister). In the scheme of capitalism they’re nary more than resources waiting to be cracked open and consumed, and through their consumption the player-character grows more fulfilled as a person, stronger, as their skills develop they become more capable, more wizened.
Societies that have become enamoured with capitalism dictate that the more numbers a person has in their bank account, the higher they’re elevated above their fellow humans in terms of social status and legal freedom. Similarly, the more money they have, the more free time they have within which to spend it and enjoy life, since money is a prerequisite for this, so spiritual actualization is linked to the privileges unlocked through wealth. Not so with those affected by poverty, who are shamed for their lack of success within the system and depicted as villains, wastrels, parasites—scapegoats for social woes. Poor folk instead have to find contentment in their work, short of which perhaps solace might be scrounged from thoughts of them being the lifeblood or soil of society, or God’s chosen people, or whatever other transcending fancy that makes it easier survive a humble living.
Levelling up has the best of both worlds. On one hand, the process of labouring is valued as core to the game’s entertainment factor, even in games where the addictiveness barely serves as a haze to conceal the soul-destroying monotony of the labour transfer—games like Borderlands. And on the other hand, it produces such wonderful fruits as to render the player undeniable as a profiteer, through rewards like thousands and millions of experience points or wonderful, beautiful weapons only available to the most exclusive of this world’s warriors. By entreating the player as both a labourer and a profiteer, it humours them as successful capitalists without really elevating them above their current station, and points towards the exchange of labour as the source of their fulfilment. Maybe so that they may learn to accede to the benevolence of capitalism in the real world.
By amassing experience points the act of labouring is an act of growing as a person through accumulation of external wealth, a sort of imaginary cyborgization via capital. It’s not about learning lessons and emotionally maturing and growing mentally content with one’s lot and comfortable in one’s existence, which are usually the things we attribute to self-fulfilment, because these things are not measurable through a capitalistic exchange of labour. Instead, self-fulfilment is narrated within the cyclic act of labouring and consuming: “in consuming you find happiness, so consume!”
In her 2014 GDC talk, Lana Polansky identified this narrative as inherent to the capitalist doctrines surrounding winning and losing, win states and fail states. This limits the experiences games can offer a player by virtue of the difficulty in measuring and quantifying things like interpersonal, emotional connections and gamifying them as rewards. Polansky remarks, however, that by subverting the obsession with metrics and win states, games can deliver us to a point of epiphany where these intensely valuable human experiences actually manifest. And it’s simply by ceasing to treat the player as a happy, obedient vessel for capitalism, and instead consider them as a human soul.
Polansky’s talk is largely focused on addressing attempts at instilling legitimate emotional experiences in games through the use of capitalist metrics, so the solutions she provides are with this scope in mind. But like Polansky, I believe that alternative models of growth, be it personal growth or growth in one’s expertise, already exist in games on a whole through the use of epiphany (e.g. grasping and internalizing game logic in Portal) and the natural development of one’s skill at a task (e.g. honing tactics in Demon’s Souls).
So what’s the benefit of seeing all this in this way? Knowing that systems of levelling up are but one way to represent character growth can be beneficial for designers when choosing what structures to put into their game. And being able to recognize that design archetypes are also narrative structures can enable greater harmony between a game and its authors: does the capitalist narrative fit in with the intended themes or does it clash? Do you want to represent the freeing of slaves as a gathering of collectibles and currency, with the act of ‘liberating them’ little more than an exchange of their ownership?
Whether you want them to or not, these narratives exist within games as a matter of fact and interpretation. A lot of the time, they’re political. The irony of denying it is that, in hiding from the consequences of your actions, you inherently make a political statement and the narrative you were trying to deny as apolitical becomes irrevocably political anyway. But it was always political, as are we, by virtue of having been raised in politically-minded societies. Hopefully ten years from now we’ll all look back and laugh at the naivety, this desperate bid to remain impartial and exempt from the world around us.
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