Notes From My Lecture on Critical Theory, Games, and Capitalism

by Darius Kazemi on October 23, 2007

in design,games,philosophy,theory

I gave a guest lecture a few weeks ago at WPI (where I got my degree). My friend and former professor John Sanbonmatsu teaches a course on critical theory and video games, and he invited me to be a guest lecturer–I suspect mostly to mollify student’s suspicions that no real world game developer could actually give a crap about all this Adorno and Horkheimer stuff. Well, I certainly do.

Anyway, here are the notes that made up the first part of the lecture I gave. It’s all over the place, but I think it’s worth putting up here.

One of the unique qualities of capitalism is that it’s about the domination of use value for exchange value. That is, instead of valuing the intrinsic qualities of a thing in itself, we instead care about its market value. This simple statement actually encapsulates two of the biggest complaints that your hear from within the game industry.

One complaint is basically that art games won’t get funded. That is, if you want to make a really interesting game that stands on its own as a work of art, you either have to do it yourself and nobody will know about it, or you get a publisher and venture capital and you spend millions of dollars and end up with a derivative piece of crap that’s nothing like your original vision. This is because the publishers, the capitalists who control the means of production, care about profit more than the overall increase of human happiness that could be caused by making a thoughtful, moving game. It’s actually pretty soul-crushing when you claim that something you’re working on is art, but what you’re really producing is a cheap commodity. At least the folks toiling away in the stapler assembly factory don’t have any delusions that they’re making people’s lives better.

Another big complaint is that game journalism sucks. Some people want interesting analyses of video games. Let’s look at games in a critical way, tease out their influences. Yet when you read a review of a game like Team Fortress 2 (which I love, by the way), everybody’s talking about graphics and art and does it get an 8.5 of out 10 or a 9 out of 10 and whether the medic/heavy combo is a dominant strategy. Almost nobody notices, to cite a pithy example, that TF2 and all games like it are actually a modern recreation of Valhalla, the Norse warrior heaven where dead soldiers fight endless battles and are resurrected upon death to continue their ceaseless fighting. (Which is an observation I stole entirely from Ernest Adams, in his semi-famous lecture “The Philosophical Roots of Computer Game Design”.)

Most game journalists defend their writing by saying that all they’re doing is helping consumers make an informed decision about whether they should be spending their money on X, Y, or Z game. But who’s to say that’s any more important than the Valhalla assessment? I mean, when I am playing Team Fortress 2 I get lost in the strategy and the adrenal viscerality of the game, I forget that I’m just logging on to a server and fighting a bunch of guys for no particular reason whatsoever. And then I have to think: is this truly making me a happier, better person? And after some reflection, I come to the conclusion that the only reason that I play this game is that my best friend Darren also plays, and I enjoy playing with him. I rarely get to see him in person, but we can spend one or two nights a week playing together and talking over voice chat, and it really does strengthen my friendship with him. And that’s why I play Team Fortress 2: the friendship. (Cue rainbows and puppies.) And I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t actually taken a step back and thought about the game for a few minutes.

So I’ll go back to my earlier question: who’s to say what’s more important, consumer reporting or qualitative analysis? And the answer’s simple, again: the capitalists who control means of production. They’re the ones who have the final say, they’re the ones who run the magazines and the TV networks and so forth, and so people are only going to be exposed to the shitty consumer reports. Yes, there’s been some democratization with the internet, and you can go to certain websites and get good game criticism, but it’s still an uphill battle because 99% of the population has been indoctrinated to believe that being informed on HOW to spend your money is more important than being informed on how to THINK about what you’re spending it ON. Your average gamer is literally insulted when you ask him (or possibly her) to think instead of to consume.

And there’s another problem. As gamers, we think of ourselves as consumers first and foremost. We fetishize commodities, we stand in line 20 hours for a Nintendo Wii, and our self-worth is reflected in our Xbox Live Achievement scores. And that’s dangerous. I was just watching a 2004 lecture called “The Tragedy of Suburbia” by an architectural critic named James Howard Kunstler, and he said something that really resonated with me: people need to stop thinking of themselves as consumers, and start thinking of themselves as citizens. And not “citizens” in the sense of the word where you’re an obedient servant of the government. Citizens have responsibility to their fellow humans. You need to look at everything you do and ask yourself how you’re increasing the general welfare. And as long as gamer culture is focused on consumerism, that won’t happen.

There’s a great quote from Adorno’s essay on “free time,” where he’s lamenting the idea of having hobbies. To paraphrase, he says that every time someone asks him if he has any hobbies, he has to say no. This isn’t because he’s a workaholic who can’t enjoy himself, but rather that a hobby is merely something to pass the time, and he doesn’t lower himself to passing time. He reads and makes music and listens to music with his full attention, and to call these things “hobbies” would be to degrade them. And the gamers that I really admire approach video games the same way: they are extremely mindful of their play. They really truly think about it.

And that’s all I can ask of you. Be mindful of your play.


solipsistnation October 23, 2007 at 6:06 pm

Another analysis of violent video games is that they take the place of something the name of which I forget… Basically, teenage Celtic youths would run off into the woods to live and fight with each other and beat each other up and stuff until they got it out of their system and could rejoin society and be useful. Unfortunately, I am out of touch with my primary source for Celtic knowledge these days…

Patrick October 24, 2007 at 12:10 am

The way I go about it is trying to infuse thoughtful reflexion into commercially viable gameplay, so that the artfulness becomes a selling point.

amanda October 24, 2007 at 2:51 am

That Ernest Adams article was a good read. Thanks for the link!

Tom October 26, 2007 at 5:07 am

Nice post. Made me think in a direction or two that I hadn’t wandered too far down.

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