Sim Capital: General Intellect, World Market, Species Being, and the Video Game
Sim Capital: General Intellect, World Market, Species Being, and the Video Game
Nick Dyer-Witheford figures the place of video games in the global market, drawing on Marx’s “species being” for scratch paper.
Today’s headlines, “NASDAQ Drop Leads Global Market Fall,” promises a definitive answer to the question as to whether “digital cultural objects” are “assimilable within the capitalist commodity form”: “no.” This was the question posed to participants at the Special Symposium on Cybercapitalism at the Institute of Advanced Social Studies. Princeton University, USA, March 29, 2001, where this paper was first delivered. It draws on collaborative work in process on the interactive game industry with Dr. Stephen Kline and Greig de Peuter, both of Simon Fraser University. This paper also draws on recent research on the computer and video game industry supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Or perhaps just “not as easily as was thought.” Raymond Williams once complained that bourgeois theorists always construed short-term fluctuations as long-term trends. None of us would want to be guilty of that. But even exercising due prudence, it seems fair to say the recent misadventures of a dot.com sector heavily involved in “digital cultural objects” have revealed cybercapitalism as more problematic than it appeared in the halcyon days of the new economy. I approach these issues through three large concepts, all mutated marginalia of Marx - “the world market,” “general intellect,” and “species being” - applied to an examination of one digital cultural object, the video game.
Some definitions may be useful. The “world market” is simply planetary capitalism, a.k.a. “globalization,” a system of generalized commodity exchange now operating with unprecedented geographical reach, speed, dominion, and nomadism. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Viking, 1983) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Athlone, 1987), 380-385. The polarities of `development’ and `underdevelopment’ of course still exist and continue to fall preponderantly on either side of a North/South axis. But at the same time these poles increasingly designate possibilities of ascendant affluence or abysmal misery that can be visited on any point in the planet according to the movement of corporate investment. “General intellect” is introduced by Marx in Grundrisse, where he prophecies that at a certain moment in capitalism’s development of productive forces the direct expenditure of labor power will cease to be the most important factor in the creation of use-values. Karl Marx, Grundrisse (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1973) 699-743. Wealth will instead depend on the forces of social knowledge - the “development of the general powers of the human head.” This will manifest in techno-scientific innovation and the increasing importance of machinery - “fixed capital.” Marx points to two technological systems in particular as signs of the activation of general intellect. One is automation, the other the network of transport and communication devices that achieve the famous “annihilation of space by time.”
Read sympathetically, “general intellect” can be seen as a prescient glimpse of today’s knowledge economy, with production teams, innovation milieux and university-corporate research partnerships yielding the “fixed capital” of robotic factories and global computer networks. The dialectical prediction of “classical” Marxism was that “general intellect,” though generated by the world market, would destroy and supersede it. Technologies of automation and communication, by reducing direct labor-time and thoroughly socializing production, would render wage labor and private ownership obsolete, so that “capital…works towards its own dissolution.” Marx, Grundrisse 700. The assertion of neoliberalism, although phrased in very different terms, is that the world market is completely compatible with general intellect. The concept of “the new economy” is a marriage made in heaven between high-technology systems and the commodity form, a perfect union of Net and Market: “friction free capitalism.”
In contrast to both positions, the proposal of this paper is that the congruence of general intellect and world market, or of the information society and global capital, is partial, incomplete and contested. It follows a line of argument developed by Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, Michael Hardt, Maurizio Lazaratto, and others who suggest that, in the consideration of “general intellect,” the crucial issue is not just the accumulation of “fixed capital” with advanced machines. Some of the writings of this group can be found in the collection edited by Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (University of Minnesota: Minneapolis, 1996). Rather, it is the variable potential of human subjectivity that continues to be critical for the creation and operation of this high technology apparatus - although often as indirect and heavily mediated, rather than direct, hands-on, labor. This subjective element they variously term “mass intellect” or “immaterial labor.” See Paulo Virno “Notes on the General Intellect,” in Marxism Beyond Marxism, ed. Saree Makdisi, Cesare Casarino, and Rebecca E. Karl (London: Routledge, 1996); Antonio Negri, The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty First Century (Cambridge: Polity, 1989); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Labor of Dionysus: A Critique of the State-Form (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. It is the human “know-how” - technical, cultural, linguistic, and ethical - that supports the operation of the high-tech economy, especially evident in the communicational and aesthetic aspects of high-tech commodity production. The question is how far capital can contain what Jean-Marie Vincent calls “this plural, multiform constantly mutating intelligence” in the structures of the world market. Jean-Marie Vincent, “Les automatismes sociaux et le ‘general intellect’ Futur Antérieur 16 (1993): 121 (my translation).
What is at stake in the development of “general intellect” is nothing less than the trajectory of species being. “Species being” is the term Marx uses refers to humanity’s self-recognition as a natural species with the capacity to transform itself through conscious social activity. Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (New York: International Publishers, 1964). In the era of general intellect the application of social knowledge to production make this issue urgent and concrete; e.g. the Human Genome Project. Given this context, the recent revival of the concept of species being by authors such as David Harvey and Gayatri Spivak, rather than constituting a reversion to a much-reviled “Marxist humanism,” marks a crucial consideration about the collective control and direction of a techno-scientific apparatus capable of operationalizing a whole series of post-human or sub-human conditions. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 73-81, and David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 206-212, 213-232. See also, for a poignant application of this concept, Keith Doubt, “Feminism and Rape as a Transgression of Species Being,” in his Sociology After Bosnia and Kosovo (Oxford; Rowan and Littlefield, 2000), 61-66. The classic critique of Marxist humanism is of course Louis Althusser, “Marxism and Humanism,” in For Marx (London: Penguin, 1969). Alienation takes on a whole new dimension when it reaches up to the creation of “alien” - non-naturally occurring - life forms, and when the cut and paste biology of gene splicing and xenotransplants makes the body itself tend toward the status of “digital cultural object.”
The specific example on which I bring these large concepts to bear, the video game (more properly, video and computer games, which together make up the “interactive play” business) may seem too slender to bear their weight. But the interactive game is a - perhaps even the - exemplary “digital cultural object” of cybercapitalism. Three decades have seen its transformation from whimsical invention of bored Pentagon researchers into the fastest expanding sector of the entertainment industry. The US interactive-game business is now larger than the Hollywood box-office. According to Red Herring, the well-reputed high-tech business journal, game related revenues topped $8.9 billion in 1999, compared to US movie box office receipts of $7.3 billion. It notes, however, that this figure is somewhat deceptive, since the film industry generates a much larger revenue thanks to various “synergetic” linkages - pay-per view TV, video and DVD rentals and sales, etc. Once these are taken into account, the global film industry took in some $47.9 billion; even if home and arcade gaming were added together, worldwide gaming revenue would only be about $30 million. On the other hand, the game industry is growing much faster than the film business; Forrester research predicts that in the US alone it will grow from $8 billion in 2000 to $29 billion in 2005, with roughly double these numbers worldwide. See Dean Takahashi, “Games Get Serious,” Red Herring, Dec 18, 200: 66. Counting both console and computers, over half of North American households, and some 80% of those with children, have a game playing system. Over one-third of consumer software sales in the US are games. Business analysts scan the virtual communities coalescing around online games such as Quake, Ultima and Everquest for e-commerce models. In many ways, interactive game industries have been the poster boys of information capitalism’s “new economy,” for, as Nicholas Garnham notes, they “are in fact the first companies… to have created a successful and global multimedia product market.” Nicholas Garnham, “Constraints on Multimedia Convergence.” Information and Communication Technologies: Visions & Realities. Ed. William Dutton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 115.
The interactive game reveals two sides of the world market/general intellect interface. It displays the dazzling success of cybercapitalism in integrating general intellect into the structures of the world market. It simultaneously demonstrates the traumas and limits of this process. These ambivalences, though in some respects particular to the game industry, also disclose more general dynamics of the “dot.com” meltdown. In the last section, I ask whether interactive gaming offers us a glimpse at ways of organizing the activities of general intellect other than through the world-market. This question assumes a particular cogency when we see how video games mirror contemporary dilemmas about issues of species being.
The Ideal Commodity
If we look first at the success of capital in enclosing general intellect, one entry point is through the Regulation School’s account of Fordist and post-Fordist regimes of accumulation. In their account, Fordism is the mass production, mass consumption, Keynesian constellation of capital’s post-war Golden Years that fell apart in the 1970s; post-Fordism an emergent synchronization of digitized production systems, segmented and transnationalized markets, and neoliberal economic policies. The literature on post-Fordism can be seen as an analysis of capitalism’s galvanization and enclosure of the new work forms and technologies of “general intellect.” But while Regulation School theorists tend to assume this project will succeed, those who talk of “general intellect” see the outcome as less certain.
Martin Lee suggests that that each regime of accumulation has an ” ideal-type commodity form” - one that reflects “the whole social organization of capitalism at any historical and geographical point in its development.” Martin Lee, Consumer Culture Reborn: The Cultural Politics of Consumption (London: Routledge, 1993), 119-120. Thus, for Fordism, the ideal-type commodities were “standardized housing and the car,” Lee 129. Cars and houses were imprinted with the stamp of mechanical, industrial production processes; sustained core industrial sectors of the Fordist economy; and arrayed around themselves a whole set of social practices and values vital to the regime. They incarnated the “sense of fixity, permanence and sheer physical presence” characteristic of Fordist consumer culture. Lee 130-131. If post-Fordism is a major shift in capitalism, we should, Lee says, expect to see this reflected in a different ideal-type commodity-form. Lee 119. Without specifying particular products, he cites “high-tech commodities” and services such as “information, data, and access to means of communication.” Lee 128.
I nominate the video game as an “ideal-type commodity” for post-Fordism, embodying its most powerful economic, social, and cultural tendencies. To make this case, I schematically unfold the commodification of interactive games along the length of an expanded model of the circuit of capital. This includes the moments of production (where commodities are made, and surplus value created); consumption (where commodities are purchased, and surplus value realized); circulation (where the passage between production and consumption is enabled by operations of marketing, retailing and distribution); social reproduction (where subjects are prepared and trained for their positions as workers and consumers); the reproduction - or non-reproduction - of nature (where raw materials are extracted from the environment and wastes returned to it); and spatial expansion (whereby the scope of all the preceding operations is territorially enlarged). For elaboration of this model, see my Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High Technology Capitalism (Urbana: University of Illinois. 1999).
In production, interactive gaming is a paradigmatic information age sunrise industry. It demonstrates both the new technological paradigm of post-Fordism - digital objects constructed with digital tools - and its mobilization of immaterial labor in new, collectively organized forms of knowledge work. Here, the lab/studio teamwork conditions of software development appear to confirm some of the more optimistic prophecies about post-Fordism as a site of an emergent digital artisanship.
This new industry was a child not of the free market but in the Keynesian welfare/warfare state. Interactive gaming - like the Internet - is a spin-off of the military-industrial complex, a derivative of nuclear war preparations; the most generally accepted candidate for first digital game is “Spacewar,” a military simulation “hacked” into being by defense-related workers at MIT. See Herz, and also Steve Poole, Trigger Finger: The Inner Life of Video Games (London: Fourth Estate, 2000) and Steven L. Kent, The First Quarter: A 25-Year History of Video Games (Washington: BWD Press, 2000). The digital game was thus born out of a state-led social mobilization of collective resources that could (in however distorted, destructive or inadequate a form) be seen as a rudimentary model of “general intellect.” See Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,” Science as Culture 6:1 (1996): 44-72; Manuel De Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (New York; Swerve, 1991); Paul Edwards, Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997); Manuel Castells, The Network Society: The Information Age Vol 1. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). We are dealing here with more than the originating military influence at the root of so many media technologies: interactive gaming has a far more organic, persistent relation with the weapons complex; not just “spin-offs” from the military to civilian applications but “spin-backs” and “spin-ons.” Pentagon simulation-makers constantly transfer to commercial game-making, while the military frequently contracts services from, adapts products of, or enters into co-development partnerships with, the civilian industry - making interactive gaming the most persuasive instance of a “military-entertainment-complex.” This term is often attributed to McKenzie Wark, “The Information War.” See also Tim Lenoir, “All But War is Simulation: The Military-Entertainment Complex,” Configurations, Fall, 2000; http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/TimLenoir/MilitaryEntertainmentComplex.htm; Paul Leslie, The Gulf War As Popular Entertainment: An Analysis of the Military-Industrial Media Complex (Edwin Mellen Press, 1997).
It is, however, in the realm of consumption that interactive games have had their greatest influence. Here they exemplify what many authors see as a characteristic of post-Fordism - a switch in emphasis from material to experiential commodities. Digital games build on and extended foundations lain by older generations of broadcast media; console games depended on physical connection to the ubiquitous television set for their entry into the home. But interactive games altered the economics and dynamics of this penetration of domestic time and space. They directly commodify in home entertainment, rather like broadcast TV’s reliance on the indirect commodification of advertising. They also dramatically intensify and fluidify the consumption experience, since they can be played anytime, almost anywhere. The escalation of this process runs from Nintendo’s introduction of the hand-held Game Boy to the edicts issued by North American office-managers against the playing of Doom on LAN, to the development of game capable cell phones and PDA’s; the most recent is Electronic Art’s Majesty, an X-Files type conspiracy game in which players will be supplied with clues through their “real life” email, fax or cell-phone, so that they may be contacted by game characters during a work meeting, over dinner, or in bed.
Crucial to this intensified absorption of cultural commodities has been a smoothing and speeding of circulation. Though video game companies first relied on the novelty of the new technology to attract interest, they rapidly realized high-intensity marketing was critical to growth. In the early 1990s, competition between Nintendo and Sega made video games test commodities for aggressive, ironic, “in your face,” MTV-style television advertising. Nintendo and Sega were among the first companies to “brand” on the electronic frontier, creating an enveloping ambience of games-tips, phone lines, magazines, films, merchandising tie-ins, virtual tournaments, sponsorships, websites, game rentals and trials, and a host of other marketing and public relations strategies. Such an apparatus not only transmits advertising, but also simultaneously gathers transactionally generated information about customer preferences and habits to be resinscribed into the production and marketing process. Video gaming thus became one of the first industries to perfect a post-Fordist “cybernetic cycle” between production and consumption. Kevin Wilson, Technologies of Control: The New Interactive Media for the Home (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1988).
The cycle reaches new heights with digital gaming’s e-commerce experiments. Networked play became widely available with the popular explosion of the Net in the early 1990s. Online game sites have been test beds for a variety of e-revenue models: subscriptions, pay per play, advertisements, sponsorships for tournaments and other gaming events, and numerous hybrids. Equally importantly, online players are guinea pigs for experiments in yet more effectively “closing the loop” between capital and consumer: culling online information, practicing forms of “viral” marketing, getting players to add value to games by distributing their own levels and scenarios; and creating worlds of sociality - virtual communities - predicated on renewed commodity consumption.
The degree of controversy attending interactive gaming may be explained by the ways it impinges on the sphere of social reproduction. One aspect of post-Fordism’s search for new markets has been an explosion of selling aimed at youth and children, a process that really ignited in the 1980s. Early video games were part of this moment. They were sold as toys - targeted primarily to boys, aiming to enlist their sense of rebellion and mobilize their “pester-power” to open parental wallets. For the industry, this early implantation yields opportunities to expand by continually “up aging” its products–so that games are now marketed heavily to young adults familiarized with them a decade ago. For cybercapital as a whole, however, the juvenile targeting of interactive toys has a wider significance. Gaming familiarizes children - especially boys - with digital skills (while contributing to a plague of obesity amongst youthful “mouse potatoes”). It thus constitutes a sort of an extra-curricular training ground for immaterial labor, and e-consumers.
All these developments are occurring on an increasingly international scale, in the process hyperbolically represented by popular accounts of globalization - where digital games often figure prominently. Ken Ohmae, business theorist of a “borderless world” speaks of “the Nintendo kids” as a cosmopolitan echelon of youth who are “forging links to global economy, turning their backs on older generations and traditional values, and using new technologies, such as the Internet, to circumvent government restrictions.” Kenichi Ohmae, “Letter from Japan” Harvard Business Review May-June 1995: 161-162. Such accounts point for substantiation to the mixed genealogy of video gaming, which began as a US industry, annihilated itself in the Atari crash of 1984, and was revived by a triad of Japanese companies - Nintendo, Sega, and Sony, to subsequently evolve a series of trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic enterprise webs. These economic forces underpin a cultural hybridization of Japanese anime cartoon styles, American super-heroes, British neo-colonial nostalgia, and German military precision, in a demonstration of post-Fordist “time-space compression” where “the cultural streams of East and West swirl into the Tastee-Freeze of global entertainment.” Herz 169-170. The head of Nintendo’s game development says, “We don’t find any difference in kid’s feelings nation-wide or world-wide. Our development R&D is thinking about the world as a target for each of their products.”
In all of this, we are dealing not just with a “world market,” ceaselessly expanding its spatial dimensions, but also with a “worlds market,” generating increasingly persuasive virtual realities. Writing of electronic financial markets, McKenzie Wark refers to post-Fordism’s creation of Third Nature, a sphere of communication and information flows called into being by advanced capital to control and coordinates the industrial structures of Second Nature, and the biosphere of First Nature. Video gaming is the domestic version of this domain. As such, it is a quintessential part of the postmodern ethos often seen as the cultural correlative of post-Fordist production. “Hyper-reality” is precisely what the industry promises. Fredric Jameson’s famous description of simulacrum culture as one where “the world…momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin, a stereoscopic illusion, a rush of filmic images without density” - an experience “terrifying” and/or exhilarating” - could well be an account of playing a level of Unreal Tournament.
In an “ideal” post-Fordist capitalism, computerized production, digital media, e-business, global expansion, and postmodern culture would connect in a smoothly integrated circuit. The digital game embodies the virtuous cycle of this virtual economy: it gives us virtual consumer goods constructed with virtual tools to meet virtualized needs in virtual environments, “all hermetically sealed by the institutionalized forces organized around the technology”: Sim Capital. Steven Kline, personal correspondence.
The Nightmare Non-Commodity
But interactive games also embody the contradictions between the world market and general intellect. They display the forces that make immaterial labor, informational technologies, and digital cultural products resistant to commodification. Interactive games constantly threaten to flip from ideal commodity to nightmare non-commodity. Once again, this process can be schematically followed around capital’s circuit.
In production, interactive gaming is an example of what Tessa Morris Suzuki characterizes as information capitalism’s “perpetual innovation economy,” in which business seeks to maintain continual expansion by generating and marketing a ceaseless stream of new commodities with ever-shortening product cycles and life spans. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Beyond Computopia: Information, Automation and Democracy in Japan (London: Kegan Paul, 1988). This speed of innovation comes from the systematic mobilization of immaterial labor, and the accelerated cycles of information flowing from producers to consumers and back. Such velocity of change - Schumpterian “creative destruction” not just as episodic convulsion but daily modus operandi - promises information capital a higher rate of profit than the slower cycles of traditional manufacturing.
But it also brings greater risk, “as the investment needed for innovation is high and the window of opportunity to realize the investment is ever smaller.” Arun Kundnani, “Where do you want to go today? The rise of information capital.” Race & Class 40:2/3 (1998/99): 57-58. The danger is that the blistering pace of change will immolate vast expenditures of research and development before they can be translated into profit. Robert Brenner has recently highlighted as a key ingredient in the crises of capitalist regimes the dynamic by which large investments in complexes of fixed capital become rapidly outdated by new technologies. Whereas neoclassical economics tends to assume a relatively friction free shifting of resources into new, higher productivity technologies–the benign operations of the invisible hand–Brenner points to an alternative, “malign” possibility, in which owners of the old technology who cannot immediately liquidate their sunken investment, lower profit margins to meet the challenge from more efficient newcomers, thus setting in train a process can spiral into a generalized downturn. Brenner uses this model to explain the great crisis of Fordism in the 1970s. However, post-Fordism does not escape this dynamic. If anything, it accelerates it. Robert Brenner, “The Economics of Global Turbulence,” New Left Review 229 (1998), 1-267. Such an upgrade economy places a premium on renewing and expanding consumer capacities to absorb digital commodities. But the conditions of “general intellect” simultaneously undermine consumption power, in a variety of ways that track back to the system’s requirements - and lack of requirements - for human labor.
The most dramatic of these drains on consumption is piracy. Digital gaming, with its origin in the unauthorized play of MIT programmers, is a child of hacking. And while information does not want to be free anymore than it wants to be paid, there are plenty of people who want free information and free games, and know how to get them. This is a result of what Peter Lunenfeld refers to as the “commerce of tools.” Peter Lunenfeld, Snap to Grid: A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media and Cultures (Cambridge. Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 5. The software commodities that are amongst the most attractive offerings of digital capitalism are not only consumer goods, but also “the tool commodities of technoculture,” which enable “new commodities and new work.” So the relationship between producers and consumers is no longer simply “a case of sellers and buyers” but of “a relationship between hyphenates: between manufacturer-producers and consumer-producers.”
Lunenfeld notes how this process pushes what Marx termed “the social character of private labor” to an unprecedented intensity, so that “although the commodity still retains its awesome power, the “made” character of the technocultural commodity is consistently foregrounded for the consumer-producer.” Lunenfeld 5-7. But this informal takeover of the means, not just of production, but also of near-instantaneous and costless reproduction by immaterial labor, constitutes a major dilemma of the world market in the era of general intellect. Quoted in Lesley Ellen Harris, Digital Property: Currency of the 21st Century (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, Ryerson 1998), 162. In the game business, two pirating technologies have recently attracted special attention - “emus” (software “emulators” that enable software for one platform to be played on another), and “modding” (modification that enables people to copy and play game CDs). But these are only the latest manifestations of an endemic problem.
According to the Interactive Digital Software Association, game pirates released approximately $3.2 billion worth of packaged goods last year: this figure is only for packaged software, and excludes Internet traffic in games, for which, according to Douglas Lownstein, president of IDSA, “there are no hard figures.” Since worldwide sales of legal games are approximately $17 billion, this would mean that pirated games are equivalent to just fewer than 20% of total business. Such figures should be viewed with skepticism, since they rest on the improbable assumption that all these games would have been bought at the normal market price. Game makers’ associations have an interest in overstating the problem in order to persuade government action against pirates. ZDTV, “VideoGame Piracy”. http://www.zdtv.com/zdtv/gamespottv/videofeatures/story/0,3776,2310674,00.html But even allowing for hyperbole, illicit, free software is clearly having a major impact: according to Lowenstein “Piracy in all its forms represents the biggest threat to the continued growth of the industry.” Steven Kent, “Video-game Pirates on the Loose.” Aug 7, 1999. ZDNet. http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/stories/news/0,4586,2310837,00.html
This problem is inseparable from the intensified speed and scope of cybercapitalism’s preferred means of circulation - the Net. A highly sophisticated, competitively organized system of online game “warz” has flourished for years, using private FTP servers, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and, to a lesser extent, short-lived Web sites to distribute “cracked” titles. ZDTV, “VideoGame Piracy”. http://www.zdtv.com/zdtv/gamespottv/videofeatures/story/0,3776,2310674,00.html The peer-to-peer explosion will multiply this problem. Although the music giants have been the first in the firing line, interactive games companies will be next, as video-capable P2P networks such as Swapoo emerge. Thomas E. Weber, “Maverick Programmers Prepare to Unleash Anarchy on the Web,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 March, 2000, B1. “I think Napster and Gnutella are pretty serious threats to the games industry,” Lowenstein says: “As you get to more broadband, I think they become even more dangerous.” http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-201-1757865-4.html
The hazards of perpetual innovation and the hemorrhage of piracy place a premium on expanding digital markets. Gaming participates in the “80:20” - actually more like “90:10” - formulae common to many cultural industries. A small minority of “hits” supplies the vast majority of profits. Making money depends on selling these hits very fast, very widely, before the obsolescence of perpetual innovation and the bleeding of piracy take effect. But here too, the industry faces a problem of its own success - that of extreme market segmentation.
We have already noted as digital gaming colonization of youthful minds that can be cultivated on a life-long basis. But the particular line along which this youth market has been developed creates its own limits. For most of their brief history, digital games have been “toys for boys.” The version of “general intellect” cultivated by the military entertainment complex is actually not general, but partial: a masculine collective mind dominated by the most reactionary element of a quite traditionally gendered social brain. The complex grooves worn between the weapons complex and the gaming industry have suffused game content with the narratives and the subject positions of “militarized masculinity.” This has made it a target of criticism from educators, parents and psychologists concerned about the effects of media violence - and about a gendering of digital play that deprives girls of an informal high-tech head-start program. The industry has an interest in responding to such criticism - and not just to avoid political heat and preempt regulatory legislation and civil actions. Expanding beyond the male niche offers the eminently attractive possibility of selling to more than 49% of the population. Throughout the late 90s there was a swirl of activity around the realization of “girl games.” This is in documented in a fascinating collection of essays edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat (MIT Press, 1998). See also Elizabeth Buchanan “Strangers in the ‘Myst’ of Video Gaming: Ethics and Representation,” Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility Newsletter 16.1 Winter 2000.
Breaking out of the testosterone zone is easier said than done. Experimentation with marketing to female players is a gamble in the “risk versus repetition” quandary that pits the possibility of huge profits - or losses - from audacious innovation against safer income from a steady stream of tried-and-true clones, sequels, and knock-offs. While the former route may open interactive entertainment to greater participation by girls and women, the inertial momentum and feedback loops of the latter keeps it in a tight orbit around male players. The equation, according to some, is that “catering to boys is much more fun. Video game companies are very good at it, and it makes them rich. And they don’t want to mess with a winning formula.” One industry analyst concludes, “The video game industry is so huge it can afford to ignore women” and that “one side effect of the eruption of game-playing into the mature male consumer market is the continual shelving of plans to design games for females.” This is certainly message conveyed by Jeff Levy, a vice president at 989, a the software company owned by Sony, who, observing that the question of women in gaming “has been asked of the video game industry for the last twenty years” says “I don’t think most male dominated products worry about it. Do beer companies market for women? Or do they just go after their core demographic? Do we have the luxury of developing products for women? It’s that age-old adage, a dollar chasing a nickel? Isn’t it better to fish where the fish are?” Alexander McGregor, “Toys for the Boys,” Financial Times, Dec 12/13, 1998: 10. Many companies find it safest to deepen the established male game niche, up-aging and internationalizing markets. The effect of this swirl of contradictory initiatives around female representation and participation in games is hard to estimate. Industry organizations, anxious to promote the image of an expanding consumer markets and repudiate accusations of sexism, now generate rosy estimates of steep rises in female game play. Thus a 1999 survey conducted Interactive Digital Software Association claims to “explode the myth that the videogame domain is a boys-only club.” According to the survey, approximately 35 percent of frequent console gamers and “a whopping 43 percent of frequent PC gamers” are female. It concludes that “more girls and women are coming on board, as their comfort levels with the technology and the software rise through familiarity with the Internet or products aimed squarely at female players.” But although there is probably some truth to this, there are good reasons to doubt the shift is as great as the IDSA likes to represent. Studies of earlier generations of media have shown that there are enormous gender related differences in what constitutes “use” of entertainment technologies. “Watching” television, for example, has historically meant very different things for men and women, with men tending to watch on a more sustained basis, command the remote, and select programs, while women watch TV on a more sporadic basis, interspersed with domestic duties. The IDSA study does not mention any of the comparable factors that structure digital gaming: duration of play, ownership of systems, choice and purchase of games. There has recently been a wider inscription of girls and women into gaming - in terms both of characters and appearance of women in game magazines. But, much of this “feminization” seems to follow the lines of the Lara Croft strategy: that is, putting women into games so as to appeal to young men. It is thus intensification, not a diminution, of the “testosterone zone” gaming ethos. The message is that one doesn’t have to be a geek to game - you can have the girl too. But here too digital capital encounters its own limits.
We have already invoked the “80:20” formula of the interactive gaming industry, whereby 20 % of game titles bring in 80% of revenues. But there is another “80:20” split crucial to the industry: the division between the rich world and the poor is such that 20% of the world’s population owns 86% of its wealth. United Nations Human Development Report 1999 (New York: United Nations, 1999). Nearly all game industry sales are within advanced capital’s triadic core of North America, Europe and Japan. There are sporadic attempts to penetrate beyond these zones: there is, apparently, currently a gaming boom in South Korea. Electronic Arts recently made its first marketing ventures in Thailand. Takahashi, 67; Bangkok Post, “Electronic Arts does its First Thai Language Game,” Aug 5, 1998. But from a truly planetary perspective, only a fraction of the world’s population participates in digital game culture. For one sixth of the world’s population, a Sony PlayStationII, with its $300 plus price tag, costs a year’s income, while even a hand held Nintendo Game Boy console represents three months livelihood; the 250 million global child laborers have no time for gaming; only some 3% of planetary inhabitants have Internet access. United Nations Human Development Report 1999, and 2000 (New York: United Nations, 1999 & 2000). Even if the activities of transnational marketers mean that the dreams of many of the world’s children are focused on the adventures of Mario or Sonic, for a majority, existence centers on a precarious struggle to fulfill truly universal needs for food, water, and shelter.
There is one sense in which interactive gaming really does participate in a world market, in the field not of consumption, but production. So far, we have emphasized the industry’s role in creating a new, digital, “immaterial” labor force. But as many analysts have pointed out, post-Fordism results in a highly polarized pattern of employment. While the top end does sometimes correspond to the “ideal post-Fordist model” of skilled knowledge-workers, the bottom end - labor power cheapened by automation and global mobility - is far closer to the experiences of workers in capital’s early period of “primitive accumulation.”
All game playing systems, consoles and computers, share a vital component with other parts of the digital economy: microchips. They also have specific requirements for assembly of consoles, cartridges and peripherals. Both chips and hardware are the products of worldwide industries whose plants are located in maquiladoras and enterprise zones in Mexico, Central America, Southern China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan or Korea. Game consoles and cartridges, like all computers, crystallize in their tiny circuits two contrasting types of work. Both involve digital labor. But we are talking different digits: in one case, the binary codes of zeros and ones manipulated by male programmers in the developed world, in the other the nimble fingers of a primarily female cheap-labor global workforce, recruited specifically for its supposed docility and disposability, and subjected to ferocious work discipline under conditions that destroy health within a matter of years.
These operations have been the sites of savage labor struggles. A test case of NAFTA’s labor provisions involved unionization at the plant of a Nintendo subcontractor in the Mexican maquiladoras, where young women assembling “Game Boy” consoles and cartridges worked ten to twelve hour days on assembly lines to which, in summer, ambulances were called three or four times daily to collect those who collapsed from heat exhaustion. Sony recently responded to a strike by female Indonesian electronic- assembly workers seeking the right sit rather than stand all day by threatening to relocate to Vietnam. And so on. For full discussion and documentation see Nick Dyer-Witheford, “The Work in Digital Play: Video Gaming’s Transnational and Gendered Division of Labor.” Journal of International Communication 6:1 June 1999: 69-93.
This global dimension of digital play demonstrates a classic contradiction between capital’s imperatives at the production and consumption ends of its circuit. While the game industry depends on international cheap labor to shave production costs, immiseration limits its prospects for transnational growth. In this combined and uneven development the problem facing the games business, and other digital cultural industries, is that of both too much and too little “general intellect”: too much insofar as the capacities of immaterial workers concentrated in the developed world exceed managerial control, giving rise to problems of piracy; too little insofar as the relative impoverishment of the underdeveloped world constricts markets.
Moreover, these problems overlap in what is now known as “Far Eastern counterfeiting” - piracy - in emergent markets. Significant as the gift economy and warz networks may be in North America and Europe, the major areas of contraband games are in the so-called developing world. China, the Russian Federation, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are considered to be the largest sources of counterfeit video games. Much of the product is shipped through Hong Kong and Paraguay for reshipping to countries all around the world. The IDSA accuses 55 countries of either aiding counterfeiters or not establishing or sufficiently enforcing adequate protections against theft of intellectual property. IDSA 23. Critical areas of the global economy - particularly in Asia - are virtually off-limits for Japanese and American based game giants. According to the Business Software Alliance, the piracy rate has reached 96 percent in China alone; RASPA, a Russian anti-piracy group, declares that as many as 98 percent of PlayStation titles in that country are counterfeits. Software & Information Industry Association, http://www.siia.net/piracy/default.asp; Business Software Alliance, http://www.bsa.org. At one time it was believed that corporations’ best chance of squashing pirates lay with Hong Kong’s integration into China, and the imposition of authoritarian state socialist discipline. But this hope has faded as the liberalization of China’s economy spawns its own thriving bootleg businesses. Beijing has its own “Thieves Alley” where software pirates congregated. In 1995, China and America teetered on the edge of trade war over the counterfeiting of software, music and video. Eventually, the Beijing government agreed to crack down and closed many of the plants. Many, however, believed that the only effect was to push production deeper underground - or even into the clandestine private software factories of the People’s Army and other state agencies. Many pirates legitimize their actions as forms of anti-imperialist or class resistance. Self-serving as these justifications are, especially when advanced on behalf of criminally ruthless black market operations, the “objective” dimensions of the world market give them a certain truth.
If the interactive game industry exemplifies capital’s creation of a virtual “Third Nature” apparently independent from material constraints, the meteoric rise and fall of the dot.coms illustrates the limits of this hallucination. The e-commerce meltdown of 2000/01 is now attributed to the delirium of e-entrepreneurs bemused by the hyper-reality of their own advertising into ignoring the absence of hard profit, the saturation of the computer market, and the creation of gross overcapacity in telecommunications networks. Behind the failure to realize wild expectations lay the resistances we have described. Underlying the burnout of virtual capital are nagging fears the Net may actually be intractable to the commodity form: that people will not buy in a networked environment where they are used to free experiences or worried about hacking and privacy breaches; that profits will be sapped by piracy; that markets constrained by digital divides will not be large enough; that transnational expansion will be stalled by “backlash” against globalization. Such uncertainties are then magnified as a perverse result of the very capacities promoted by e-commerce. Popular digital participation, inserted into a market framework as the activity of millions of investors connected through online brokerages and day traders, manifests as an intensification of individualistic game-like speculation and competitive behavior. One side of this is the collective euphoria -an “irrational exuberance” - that has buoyed up high-tech markets. But the other is a panic capitalism - jittery, nervous, possessed by fears it cannot deliver on its promises, that the system that seemed to have the planet in its hand holds only a bubble.
Species Being and the Possibilities of Socialist Cyberspace
So far I have said little or nothing about the content of interactive games. I want now to rectify this by proposing that the theme of virtual play, in the broadest sense, is nothing less than species being - humanity’s capacity to objectify and transform the “natural” conditions of its collective life. Nominating a death-match of Quake or an hour or two of The Sims for this portentous role clearly requires some justification. It is, however, clear that the issue Marx identified in 1844, about the way human beings make “life activity itself an object of will and consciousness” currently manifests in an array of issues almost stupefying magnitude: the climatic changes of the greenhouse effect and ozone layer; crises of water supply and desertification; the control of lethal viruses released by human encroachment on tropical rainforests; xenotransplants and longevity extensions; cyborg prostheses; the transformation to relationships between the genders produced by successive waves of reproductive technologies; the fabrication of new life forms; not to mention the “exterminist” possibilities of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare. Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (New York: International Publishers, 1964). That these issues are closely associated with the new technological powers created by “general intellect” is also obvious. So too, I think, is that the central problem Marx raised in relation to “species being,” namely the alienation of collective, human-transforming capacities into the hands of privatized ownership is, in the age of Monsanto, Bristol-Meyers and Merck, more acute than ever.
Such issues find translation in popular culture. One of these (by no means the only one) It will by now be apparent that the author has not only been immersing himself in too much Marx and too many video games, but also reading too much science fiction: the influence of Ken Macleod’s extraordinary Trotskyite-cyberpunk quartet, Star Fraction, The Stone Canal, The Cassini Division and The Sky Road (London: Orbit, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999), especially the second and third volumes, is duly acknowledged. is gaming, which can be seen as a ludic meditation on the possibilities of collective human development, up to and including fundamental socio-economic, environmental, and biological alterations. This is the manifest content of what are often referred to as “God games” of civilizational progress or alternative world histories, and science fiction epics that put the player in the situation of choosing options in sweeping narratives of human destiny. But even smaller-scale fantasies - shooters, fighting and sports games, and role playing fantasies, can be seen as addressing species being issues, in so far as it is possible to digitally redesign events and protagonists; changing the contours of terrains and the populations of cities, the terms and outcome of battles, and the “skins,” gender and race of onscreen agents. In this, games, of course, repeat primordial themes of myth and fantasy; industry apologists who in other contexts are only too happy to assert that digitization makes everything new persistently appeal to this archetypal, “timeless” appeal to excuse games from charges of excessive violence. But this not only overlooks every historical specificity of such content’s realization, but also, more importantly, occludes the fact that the digital medium of these games is now precisely that through which IRL (in real life) social and corporeal futures are now being shaped, in such ventures as bioengineering, nano-technologies and robotics, and, of course, in the simulated rehearsal for “smart” weapon warfare.
It is hardly surprising that virtual games representations of species being often recapitulate the premises of the cybercapitalist system that produces them. Consider the elements of Pokemon, wildly popular amongst schoolchildren: players raise and train mutant creatures for combative competition with each other, in an elaborate system of trading transactions and intellectual property rights; the medium is digital; the orientation is multinational. Could there be any better metaphor - or socialization process - for the operations of global e-capital, in which the new frontier of accumulation and warfare is the bioengineering of viruses, plants, animals and humans? See Ellen Seiter, “Gotta Catch `Em All - Pokemon”: Problems in the Study of Children’s Global Multi-Media.” Paper presented at the conference “Research in Childhood, Sociology, Culture and History,” Oct. 1999 at the University of Southern Denmark.
The attraction of virtual play is the possibility of things being different. And this is a prospect in which some sections of a generation raised on interactive games now seem to have an interest. Cyberactivism and hacktivism by so-called “anti-globalization” movements - actually largely movements of “counter-globalization, “alternative globalization,” or “globalization from below” - foreground the possibilities of reappropriating digital technologies. Boosters of global capital rhapsodize about the iconoclasm of “Nintendo kids” without reckoning that their activities might to extend to a critique of a world borderless only for business of the sort mounted by the electrohippies of Seattle and cyberspace Zapatistas. In such a context, we can ask whether interactive gaming points to social possibilities other than–perhaps even “beyond”–cybercapitalism.
One possibility, of course, is to take piracy and free software phenomena as harbingers of “dot.communism.” This is an idea that has recently been audaciously developed by Richard Barbrook and others, in a manner with which I am broadly sympathetic. However, dependence on open source and Napster-style networks leaves so many questions about the organization of non-digital goods (not to mention digital infrastructures) unresolved that I want to take the discussion of “dot.communism” beyond the romance of piracy, and into an apparently much more prosaic and unpopular realm: planning.
Since the collapse of the USSR it is widely held today that on this issue there exist only two options: the Free Market or the Command State (decisively discredited by the despotism of previously existing socialism). The failure of the Command State is a consequence not only of the enormous possibility for bureaucratic corruption, but even more fundamentally, of the sheer enormity of the calculus involved in comprehensive economic coordination. The strong (and, many believe, unanswered) challenge posed by Frederick Hayek and Ludwig von Mies to their socialist opponents in the “calculation debate” is that of the impossibility of processing the quanta of data necessary for comprehensive planning through the “single brain” of the centralized state. The best statement of this view remains F.A. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” American Economic Review 35 (1945): 519-30. For a fascination discussion of and rebuttal of Hayek, see Wainwright.
There is a third way, periodically proposed by the anti-authoritarian left: decentralized democratic planning, sometimes known as participatory economics. The usual objection is that the volume and complexity of information required to plan a modern economy could never be processed in time to allow either democracy or participation: Oscar Wilde’s quip that “socialism is a good idea, but it takes too many evenings” springs to mind. But the emergence of highly distributed, very fast information systems throws this rebuttal into question.
Over the last decade radical economists such as Dianne Elson, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell have raised the issue of how digital networks can be used to coordinate highly decentralized forms of economic planning. Dianne Elson, “Market Socialism or Socializing the Market?” New Left Review 172 (1987). Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, The Political Economy of Participatory Economics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), and Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century (Boston: South End Press, 1991); Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, Toward a New Socialism (Nottingham: Spokesman). See also Andy Pollack, “Information Technology and Socialist Self-Management.” In Capitalism and the Information Age: The Political Economy of the Global Communication Revolution, eds. Robert McChesney, Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster (New York: Monthly Review). Their proposals range from loose governmental directives backed by high levels of public disclosure about labor, environmental and production costs, to more complex systems iteratively matching needs and production between assemblies at many levels of local, regional and transnational collectivity. What all share, however, is the suggestion that the information technologies deployed to create “friction free” capitalism - just-in-time systems, customer-supplier networks, easy to use accounting programs - open the way to an inverse result, namely the subjugation of market to plan without the hypertrophy of a centralized state.
It is in this context I locate the long-term significance of gaming, with its possibilities for simulating social and species alternatives. The point here is not just that games can - and sometimes already are - the vehicles for speculative, ludic experiments that carry the premises of social orders. For some discussion of subversive possibilities within game scenarios, see Nicholls; Julian Bleeker, “Urban Crisis: Past, Present and Virtual,” Socialist Review 24: 1/2 (1995): 189-223; William Stephenson, “The Microserfs Are Revolting: Sid Meier’s Civilization II,” Bad Subjects 45 (1999). More radically, one could conceive of such media in a context where networked simulation is important, not just a matter of play, but as a component of “in real life” popular planning. Here it is worth reconsidering the issue so often to highlighted in discussions about game violence: the industry’s military legacy. War is not just about violence, but also about state-led collective coordination and the marshalling of resources and populations at multiple levels - tactical, strategic and societal. And this is a persistent preoccupation of games, from Civilization to Shogun to the collaboration of online Quake clans. What the Pentagon has put into general circulation is not just training to kill, but training to plan. Video and computing gaming’s vilified “culture of carnage” is also a culture of civilization organization. If the negative aspect of such organization is the deeply ideological premises programmed into games such as Sim City or Age of Empires – “raise taxes, citizens riot” - such games nonetheless represent a popularized systemic logic, using vivid, easy versions of the software technologies that are today being used managerially, militarily, and politically to make critical social decisions about resource allocation.
In this sense digital games can be seen as avatars of distributed, democratic “withering away of the state” state planning. “General intellect” is–as Tiziana Terranova points out - a Marxian inflection on the theme of a networked collectivity persistent in futurist works from Teilhard de Chardin’s “noosphere” to Pierre Levy’s concept of “collective intelligence.” Pierre Levy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 1999). Classical Marxisms have rightly been contemptuous of such ideas for their technological determinism or philosophic idealism, and above all their assumption that such a collective consciousness arises as the self-reflexive awareness of global capitalism. But this rejection might be reconsidered within an antagonistic perspective: if we think of the global mind versus the limbic system of the stock market, social knowledge versus financial capital, the noosphere of socialist cyberspace arising from class war. It is, in fact, hard to envisage what form a twenty-first socialism might take other than as a distributed but interconnected system of collective communication devoted to solving problems of a material and immaterial resource allocation - the corollary of an emergent sense of species being.
In my book Cyber-Marx I propose the elements of such net-based communism: de-emphasis of waged work in favor of a “citizen’s wage” or “basic income”; an increased availability of publicly funded but diversified media, including free access to digital networks; experimentation with the uses of such communication systems for decentralized, distributed social planning. This would be a society of “general intellect” where wage-work would have a steadily decreasing importance; where, although there would be labor to be done, livelihood would not be dependent on a job; where, consequently, people would have more time to think through and participate in decisions about organizing associative life, with access to a very wide variety of communication channels and diverse representations of possibilities for being; where these networks served also as routes for a flow of collective debate and decision-making about the production and distribution of goods, including debate and decision about directions to be taken and not taken in technological development.
Such speculations of course transgress every iota of contemporary “common sense” and every well-justified Marxian prohibition against utopianism. And in a way, given current social conditions, it is presumptuous to even talk of such possibilities. For one thing, the level of social investment envisaged by such a program would, as even Bill Gates recognizes, certainly not have as its first objective the generalization of high technology access, but the meeting of much more fundamental human needs; food, water, medicine, housing, reading, writing. But this point also reminds why we might want to replace the automatism of the world market with the collective intelligence of general intellect. Returning for a moment to the interactive game industry, recall some figures cited earlier: $8.8 billion dollars as the annual revenues of the US digital games business, some $17 billion globally - $30 billion if we throw in arcade games. According to the most recent United Nations Human Development report, the annual additional total expenditure necessary to meet universal basic human needs for food, medicine, shelter, clean water and literacy are some $70 to $80 billion annually. United Nations Human Development Report 2000 (New York: United Nations 2000). The $8.8 billion annual revenues of the US video and computer game industry alone is slightly less than the estimated annual total needed to provide clean water and safe sewers for the world’s population, slightly more than would be needed to give basic primary education to everyone on the planet. United Nations Human Development Report 1999 (New York: United Nations 1999), 38. These are crude figures. But as, the hero of William Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic” observes while pointing a shotgun at the corporeal form of a cyber-gangster, “sometimes crude is the only way to go.” William Gibson, “Johnny Mnemonic” in his Burning Chrome (New York: Ace Books, 1994). Blunt as they are, such indices put in clear focus the crucial issues of species being in the era of general intellect and the world market - issues of cybercapitalism’s adequacy, not to its digital objects, but to its human subjects.