To start off, I want to say that I agree with 90% of what Thomsen has to say about video games. I am a fan of the ever-fashionable Marxist critique, and Thomsen applies it deftly to marketplace of video games, showing how adaptive changes in the means of production have equated to a change in the way that people play video games (or maybe the ends of what gameplay means.)
It is that last 10% that made me write this post. Thomsen’s article is split into sections, with the first being about the transition of the traditional, console-based to the free-then-pay model (my words, not his.) Totally straightforward and basically true. The second section opens with this quote:
Thinking of videogames as “free-to-play” reminds me of why I hate to play games with other people. In its purest form, play is a creative act negotiated between two people without intermediary. I am not playing when I’m interacting with a videogame, I’m accepting someone else’s rules and experimenting with them, allowing the designer to delimit my instincts for behavior. Doing this with another person feels like a waste of time, an inherent loss of the generative possibilities of play without intermediary limits. Videogames are the experience of being ruled. In contrast, play is the experience of generating new rules in collaboration with someone else. The idea that “play” is free is redundant. It is only ever free. As soon as money is involved it no longer simply “play” but a perverse form of labor, proving one’s worth as a participant in, and exponent of, the zeitgeist.
We need to do some exegesis of some definitions here. For Thomsen, play is “a creative act negotiated between two people without intermediary.” There are a couple assumptions locked into that definition. The first is that, to get to “play,” one has to be with another person. Play can’t be achieved by one person alone. The second assumption is that you have to be local with that person; if mediators, like virtual systems, kill play, I imagine that things like telephones, the internet, etc. would also have to do the same thing. The third assumption rests in the word “people,” implying that one cannot play with, say, a cat. I have ten thousand times more fun with my cat than any other one-on-one play experience I have ever had with another person, and she certainly understands that play is happening.
If we grant Thomsen his limiting, anthropocentric definition, then we still have some problems. He characterizes the act of playing video games as “the experience of being ruled” because the player of a game is “accepting someone else’s rules and experimenting with them” which allows “the designer to delimit [the player’s] instincts for behavior.” The begin with, I don’t understand how this broad definition and complaint about accepting the rules of video games is any different from living in the real world. Social mores govern us in the same way, and more importantly, they limit and inhibit cognition in the same way. The idea that a being is a free agent, the libertarian wet dream, is a myth.
The last issue that I have with the paragraph is that, at some hidden point, we jump to money being involved. The paragraph flows from “mediating agents between players means that we are being controlled” to “money involved in that system makes it bad.” It is a non sequitur at best, but it is also wrong. It isn’t merely money that makes the process problematic–you can play hundreds of games for free, a huge amount of which are awesome. Rather, and this is a point that I don’t think is clear in Thomsen’s article, it is the way that one is forced to play that turns play into labor. It isn’t the fact that you are playing by someone else’s rules that makes that form of play bad (or non-play, for Thomsen). We are never playing by our own rules. Instead, it is the drudgery involved, the time commitment that is required to climb to Olympian heights.
For Thomsen’s critique to really hit hard, I think we have to veer away from the discussion of play and how play is enacted in the world of the game. The free will argument is pointless, and while we might have gotten highjacked by capitalism as an industry, I don’t think we need to be surprised by that. The video game industry, at the bare moment of being created as a product, extracts massive amounts of labor from developers, programmers, machine assembly workers, and now players. That shouldn’t be a surprise, and while I’m glad Thomsen wrote the article, we need to push it further.
So if we accept the rest of Thomsen’s argument after that paragraph, which I mostly do, then we accept that making players do drudging work to get to have “fun” in a game might be a little fucked up. The next step beyond that, however, has already been taken by iOS developers. They take the fact that gamers are performing terrible labor for granted. They know that no one wants to put ten thousand hours into Jetpack Joyride just to unlock every jetpack. So they give the player in-app purchases which are in-game currency. This is the company scrip system for the digital era, but even more insidious.
If labor is the combination of the time and work involved to create capital, then in-app scrip is the purchase of that labor. The game player is literally buying her own labor from the company. This is something that is only possible in the digital era, and it is also fascinating–in a fictional, fantastical economic world, anything is possible.
Definitely read Thomsen’s article if you haven’t. It is smart all the way through, and I’m glad this kind of critique is getting some maximized exposure. Check it out.