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Future Games

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Stardew Valley provides the missing piece in a linear account of human history that traces our decline from pastoral paradise to the sterile postcapitalist desert

FROM The Walking Dead to Fallout, the gaming industry is currently obsessed with apocalypse. Long a staple of TV and cinema screens, the zombie has become even more prominent on PlayStations and computers. Added to zombie games are reams of other dystopias, from indie games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and the already-cult classic Soma to big-budget productions like the BioShock series. As critics like Frederic Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, and Mark Fisher have all variously pointed out, such images of dystopian futures promote the dangerous idea that only capitalism separates us from a barren wasteland.

But these aren’t quite the only gaming options available to us. Visit the game-downloading site Steam today and among the top sellers you’ll find a game that bucks the trend. Rather than future dystopia, it offers the opposite: a return to the pastoral past. Stardew Valley, an indie-produced farming simulator, or “country-life simulator” as it’s even been called, has racked up a half million sales since February and has overtaken high-profile titles such as Grand Theft Auto 5 and Counter Strike. It might be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but easier still, it seems, is imagining the resumption of pastoral serenity.

At first glance, one might see Stardew Valley as a reincarnation of Zynga’s FarmVille, the Facebook sensation of 2010 that has now, thankfully, largely left our screens. That game offered the chance to nostalgically harvest crops from our computers, but as with other games made by Zynga, such as Words With Friends and Mafia Wars, the real product being harvested is our Facebook friends, whom we put to use to increase our in-game scores (and then to seek approval for those scores). These so-called social games show us a pretty dystopian present in which (as Heidegger suggested) people themselves are as much our raw materials as crops are.

But Stardew Valley is quite different and has much more in common with Harvest Moon, first released on Super Nintendo in 1996. Like its forerunner this game is individual, practically impossible to share or even discuss with friends, and has no multiplayer feature. Far from connecting us to social and technological media, it’s an offer to escape from the modern computer society — one we can indulge in from in front of our computer screen.

So how has Stardew Valley, ostensibly the opposite of current trends, achieved its rise to the top? Though it seems to have little in common with gaming’s apocalyptic portraits of the future, it and other bucolic farming simulators actually provide a necessary counterpart. The gameplay in farming simulators involves organizing people, animals, and the natural environment, planting crops in systematic patterns and experiencing a routine life while playing a key role in a small community. Their picture of a lost era of tightly knit villages where humans lived in organic harmony with nature complements prophesies of a dystopic future in which humans are regimented components of a remorseless capitalistic machine. Farming simulators placate a need for a collective and organized past as an alternative to contemporary chaos.

This may make Stardew Valley seem like a criticism of modern capitalism, but in fact it does little to critique the supposed inevitability of capitalism. Instead it provides the missing piece in a linear account of human history that traces our decline from pastoral paradise to the sterile postcapitalist desert. The best we can do is take comfort in memories and in the fact that we are not further along the inescapable path of destruction.

Stardew Valley offers only the consolations of nostalgia, described by Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia as “the search for collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world.” In the past of Stardew Valley we can escape to a world where we are once again “free” to be “human.”

The game’s 16-bit pixilation doubles up this nostalgia, evoking a lost age from the more recent past as well, when video games themselves weren’t as complicit and prefigurative of our coming doom — at least in people’s memory of them. It incorporates elements of Zelda, Pokémon, and other ’90s games that are evocative of a gentler past when games, we imagine, were more “pure,” “organic,” and uncorrupted. It was a time when games really were seen as an escape from the political and social world — an argument that seems defunct today, when games seem to more overtly reflect or distill sociopolitical conflicts.

This ambiance of escape sets Stardew Valley’s in contrast with FarmVille. Whereas FarmVille was fully symbiotic with Facebook, seizing on Facebook’s technological affordances to propagate itself even as it seemed to soften the social network’s neoliberal edges, Stardew Valley is more ambivalent about its medium. Its opening scene, a 16-bit reworking of the opening of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), presents a bird’s-eye view of a regimented contemporary office space, a cubicle farm in which workers are conjoined to computers that are presumably in the process of supplanting them.

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Trapped in gray walls beneath remorseless fluorescent lighting, these workers are cut off from nature and “real” life, but the game offers us a way out via a faux old-timey letter (obviously not an email) inviting us to return to more authentic work tilling the soil.

sv letter

Of course, this pastoral escape itself demands immersion in a computer simulation.

Stardew Valley addresses this apparent conundrum differently than FarmVille. While FarmVille is nothing more than a masked version of social-capital building, Stardew Valley seems to want to ironize and distance itself from its simulator nature, using retroness as an alibi to make it seem something other than another contemporary extension of computerization deeper into our lives. In presenting itself as a kind of meta-game, Stardew Valley confronts players with the bizarre paradox that a return to the past is at once imaginable and impossible. Ultimately, the game’s demonstrative awareness of its paradoxical position instantiates Octave Mannoni’s idea of Freudian fetishist disavowal: “I know very well, but even so…” Stardew Valley knows very well that it is impossible, but let’s dream of pastoral serenity anyway.

 

***

While Mark Fisher might be right when he recently pointed out that dismissing things as “nostalgic” can be a pretty useless gesture, what we need is further analysis of the peculiar kinds of nostalgia specific to our particular moment. In the case of Stardew Valley, its romanticization of the past serves only to solidify our fear of the future. It teaches us to deal with contemporary alienation through wistful backward glances at an irretrievable past. Though it seems innocuous enough, it resonates with Donald Trump’s calls to “make America great again,” as well as with various European dreams of exiting the E.U. to return to some prelapsarian national serenity in isolation.

As the game’s Joja Corporation — a blend of Wal-mart, Coca-Cola, and Google starts its inevitable takeover of your peaceful village economy, Stardew Valley‘s nationalistic indictment of internationalism becomes unmistakable. This is no left critique of corporate globalization but a call for isolationist retreat. Stardew Valley’s image of small-scale self-sufficiency draws from the same impulse to erect walls at borders and seek local salvation through exporting immiseration. Tellingly, the village in Stardew Valley has a bus stop but the bus has broken down, severing the connection between it and the rest of the world.

Stardew Valley’s popularity reflects the difficult political position of the left today. The fact that internationalism is understood as synonymous with the iniquitous capitalist disaster of globalization is preventing the development of solutions on a broad enough scale to address global crises. The task for future games is to posit genuine alternatives and succeed at doing what conservative artifacts like Stardew Valley fail to do. In the new Existential Gamer magazine, a publication that asks gamers to “review themselves” in order to explore the connection between gaming and subjectivity, I argued that Supergiant’s latest game Transistor might offer something like a tech-positive way to revolt, inviting us to embrace ourselves as technological beings.

Such ideas may be comparable with ideas of those such as Erik Olin Wright, whose Envisioning Real Utopias pointed out that it was not so long ago that both the left and the right could easily imagine alternatives to capitalism. Like Varoufakis and Srećko Horvat, whose new project DiEM25 is at least a concrete example of internationalist alternative organization, video games could do something other than dream of national serenity through isolation.

But the problem is not that we have only dystopia and no utopian alternatives. Rather Stardew Valley’s popularity suggests that both dystopia and utopia have been appropriated by the right to make capitalism appear the only alternative. We can dream only of tempering its destructiveness. We are still waiting for the video game that offers real hope rather than a nostalgic return to the past.

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The Viral Virus

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Content mills turn out listicles and articles inviting us to assess our mental condition — and share it. When the mechanisms of social media tempt us to self-diagnose for attention, how can we tell when we are really afflicted?


AT its core, social media is a public pinboard of self-expression, a set of arenas where anything we post inevitably doubles as a signal of our identity. Sometimes this process is indirect — a link to a New York Times piece about Syrian refugees subtly informs people about your commitment to be informed. Other times it is explicit, as when you link to “19 Things Only Cat Owners Know to Be True” to inform everyone that you own a cat.

The more explicit mode of self-expression has led to the proliferation of identity-bait articles, cooked up not to be especially informative but to be shared as condensed bits of the whole you. These a la carte advertisements for oneself are meant to be specific enough to say something about a particular person but general enough to go viral: “10 Things Only Left-Handed People Will Understand,” for example. The nature of the humble-braggy “grievances” vary from topic to topic — a listicle about having large breasts might offer, “Bra shopping is hard, but at least you can fill out a cocktail dress!”; one about with insomnia will assert, “You’re tired all the time, but you can get so much work done!” — but each builds toward the same formulaic takeaway: “I’m X and I’m great!”

With all the opportunities social media offers to share, we are invited to proclaim as many of those Xs as we can. The potential dimensions of our personality are compounding exponentially as a result, with each offering us an ersatz community to belong to and take pride in. We’re using pre-packaged, shareable content to articulate everything from allergies and pet peeves to nuanced distinctions within and between categories like race, gender, sexuality, and mental health.

It’s here that listicle publishers cease to be merely viral fluff factories. The rise of mental-health listicles began with the Great Introversion Declaration of the summer of 2013, after Buzzfeed’s “31 Unmistakable Signs You’re an Introvert” went viral, triggering a flurry of copycat content. Seeing how popular it was to self-diagnose and publicize one’s introversion, the Huffington Post asked users to similarly assess their anxiety levels, publishing “7 Easy Hacks To Help You Deal With Anxiety,” “You’re Just 5 Minutes Away From Being Anxiety Free” and “Will Anxious Parents Have Anxious Kids?” Around the same time, ABC News syndicated a piece titled “12 Signs You May Have an Anxiety Disorder” and Buzzfeed published “26 Problems Only Anxious People Will Understand” (which was followed less than a year later by “24 Problems Only Anxious People Will Understand”).

Judging by how often such pieces are shared, we’re all surrounded by anxiety-ridden introverts or convinced we’re anxiety-ridden introverts ourselves. But most of this content is only loosely tied to what it means to have anxiety or be an introvert.

When people use sharable content to affiliate themselves with mental-health conditions, it can help expand their visibility in a society that tends to suppress them. This can be empowering. It breaks down stigmas and opens lines of communication. But it can also be trivializing, particularly given the incentives social media provide users to spuriously lay claim to illnesses that only medical professionals are qualified to diagnose.

Because they are optimized for identity signaling rather than for being informative, these listicles tend to romanticize mental health conditions — anxiety is really just a pesky side effect of intelligence; introverts are people with rich interior lives who just hate surprise parties. It applies an attractive sheen to potentially concerning behaviors, boiling them down to overthinking or occasional antisociality. It broadens the definition of these conditions to allow anyone to claim them in exchange for sympathy or applause, increasing the chances they will get wider distribution in social media. 

It’s clear why Buzzfeed and Huffington Post make this content: it drives clicks. But why do people share it? Self-diagnosis in the form of engagement with viral content becomes a successful personal-branding strategy. It is participatory catharsis (“Anxiety is so annoying, amirite?”) as well as a source of attention and praise (“Go me, I’m taking care of myself!”)

Identity-bait listicles invite readers to indulge a kind of cyberchondria for attention, a like-driven version of Munchausen syndrome. They propose a bare-minimum, pop-psychology-inflected definition of mental-health conditions, making them lowest-common-denominator enough to allow the broadest base of readers to identity with it and possibly share it. While this may raise awareness of a condition, it also raises the level of confusion about it.

There is a fine line between the breakdown of stigma and the distribution of toxic misinformation. Finding outlets for solidarity or publicly performing self-care can be therapeutic. But sharing a listicle is not a sufficient replacement for therapy. In some cases, it can make the truly afflicted seem like unserious attention-seekers. Just as the gluten-free fad can belie the seriousness of celiac disease, the dilution of what counts as anxiety can make it seem like the clinically anxious are just stressed out.

Lots of people worry, but generalized anxiety disorder is a specific condition with particular diagnostic criteria. More likely than not, someone actually suffering from anxiety will not be relieved to see their stressors catalogued as a series of bullet-pointed quips. At worst, they may be discouraged from seeking help if they are led to believe their struggles are something ordinary that everyone suffers from. How can you know for sure whether you have anxiety after probing the possibility online?

Pharmaceutical companies certainly hope to persuade you. Self-diagnosis on sites like WebMD can drive drug-company profits, and the site is well supported by the industry’s ad dollars, as Vox recently reported. Eli Lilly once went so far as to rig a WebMD quiz on depression to suggest that anyone who took it was at risk of major depression. The wide net cast by personality-based listicle content works similarly, generating undue concern in order to engage the widest possible audience.

Clickbait listicles on mental health contribute to a fun-house mirror of self-expression that sets us all at an introspective disadvantage. Reading up on conditions can prompt us to imagine that we are actually suffering from them: Who among us hasn’t become convinced a cough was a sign of a malignant lung tumor after searching WebMD? With mental illnesses, which may lack measurable or disprovable physiological symptoms, the access to diagnostic information online sets up a torturous feedback loop: the search for the source of our worries inevitably incites additional worries. Hypochondria, after all, means “illness anxiety,” and no one benefits from a world in which everyone is anxious about having anxiety.

You can be stressed about achieving all of your life goals and not have generalized anxiety disorder. You can enjoy watching Netflix alone and still be a little bit of an extrovert. It’s complex! You’re complex. But viral social media doesn’t thrive on such complexities. The more we try to capture ourselves in the confines of shareable parameters, the further away we get from understanding who we are.






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The Chaparral Insurgents of South Texas


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A new exhibit cops to state-sanctioned murder, but not vulnerability

THE first thing I saw as I reached the top floor of the Bullock State History Museum in Austin, Texas was the large sepia portrait of two swashbuckling Texas Rangers on horses, the taut rope of their lassos converging down toward something out of frame. The unseen complete portrait features the mangled corpses of Abraham Salinas, Eusebio Hernández, and Juan Tobar, three Tejanos in South Texas, at the ends of the Rangers’ ropes. “Postcards depicting violence against minorities were common novelties during the early 20th century,” a small placard next to the photo notes.

Between 1910 and 1920, thousands of Tejanos were murdered in the hot, dry borderlands by Texas law enforcement and white vigilantes. My family’s history is tied up in genocide: Relatives on my father’s side were swindled out of most of their ranch land by the Kleberg family, a longtime ally of the Texas Rangers that now owns a million acres in South Texas (known as the King Ranch). Hundreds had their land seized by Anglos under the protection of the Rangers, who eventually acted as a death squad to smash an armed Tejano resistance to oppressive white rule. The state of Texas has largely purged these events from public history records, and the exhibit at the Bullock Museum, Life and Death on the Border 1910-1920, which was on display from January 23 through April 3, was an attempted reckoning.

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Dark Pools

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Narratives of financial complexity obscure how capitalist realisms are made—and might be unmade

I own a map that has been displayed, variously, in my living room, beside my writing chair, and above my bed, where it still hangs today. The map depicts the global shadow-banking system—the blanket term covering any unregulated activity that creates credit—and is all boxes: 350 tiny rectangles representing different financial institutions and instruments sorted into pairs, color-coded with combinations of 15 bright stripes for various forms of credit. For every self-evident label, there are four that aren’t, and if an inquiring layperson managed to work their way through the map looking up every foreign term they hit (MTN: medium-term note) there is still the problem of fitting it all into the larger spatial scheme of big (also) color-coded blocks, bracketing marginalia, and solid and dashed lines tracking whatever sort of relationships they track. I’ve never tried.

The map was published by the Federal Reserve following the 2008 crash, and though the image was made publicly available, it is intended for experts. Some mainstream-media outlets paid attention anyway; the Wall Street Journal, in one such instance, published a blog post titled “A Map of Our Ridiculously Convoluted ‘Shadow Banking’ System.” “Oh,” the post deadpans for an opener, “So that’s why our financial system almost collapsed.”

The post goes on to attempt a partial explanation, but that first line is telling. It has the ring of a familiar joke, one that practically writes itself. For literary critic Leigh Claire La Berge, it’s part of the abstraction side of popular financial-media discourse that tends to unfold through the twin poles of scandals and abstractions. In her book of the same name, La Berge argues that during the 1980s, finance became the discursive metonym for the economy at large, and a rhetoric of abstract complexity became a favorite method for talking about finance. “Is capital, or life, more abstract than it was 30 years ago?” she asks. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. The rhetoric precludes the question: “Abstraction, by its very nature, isn’t quantifiable.”

La Berge argues further that finance is uniquely constructed by its popular representations—through the whole array of ways finance gets seen, from market analysis in the Wall Street Journal to films like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street to so-you-want-to-be-me CEO autobiographies like Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. “Representation,” she writes, “constitutes the value [finance] is supposedly representing.” Finance isn’t just shaped by narration but requires it for substantiation. This is what La Berge, borrowing from and building on Mark Fisher, calls capitalist realism: the chicken-or-egg manner in which finance capital and new cultural forms help one another emerge.

As that process unfolds, the slippage between the two gets dizzying. Just days before Black Monday in 1987, for example—at the time the largest single-day stock market drop in Dow Jones history and soon after a central symbol of the new era of finance—Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was released; just days after Black Monday, La Berge notes, major papers looked to the novel to lend narrative to the crash. That year the Wall Street Journal touted the growing market for books on finance, and Wolfe cashed in with magazine thinkpieces calling for a realism that could capture the newly complex world of finance. Wolfe considered himself the vanguard of this realism. He had, after all, written Bonfire with the help of informants at Salomon Brothers, a top ’80s investment bank. Meanwhile, the press filtered evolving new realisms through the masculinist language of killers, cannibals, and predators that traders were proudly using to describe themselves, and the incoherent stream-of-consciousness style and bland name-dropping of CEO-penned books simultaneously explained and obscured what, precisely, constituted an insider’s experience of Wall Street.

For all the developing talk of an unfathomable Wall Street, though, financialization was from the start intimately embedded in ground-level economic experience. La Berge points in particular to the way it was enabled by the advent of personal banking. After the gold standard was lifted, the resulting flood of currency presented financiers with a problem: where to go with all of it. When other strategies proved not lucrative enough, they turned to personal banking, pushing consumer bank and credit cards and the development of new types of savings, checking, and retirement accounts. “Third world loans weren’t going to take [the bank] where [its leadership] wanted it to go, nor would commercial lending,” La Berge quotes the business journalist Joseph Nocera, “only the consumer could take [it] there.”

One of the central images that attended this turn, according to La Berge, was the ATM. As they were rolled out around New York, the machines showed up in a series of news stories, most of which reported on the various ways they confused or worried people. In the words of one bank manager, “people are wondering where the bank is.” There’s a not-often-mentioned ATM at the center of White Noise that just might be the proxy-narrator for the entire book. And a whole host of them populate American Psycho, drawing the historical connection elided in other texts—the direct one between high finance and personal banking—with a calculus that was pretty simple to grasp. The trader Patrick Bateman visits them obsessively, often for money he doesn’t need, an activity he likes to follow by randomly killing someone.

 

I met Cassie Thornton after getting recruited into an art project of hers, a piece in banks called Physical Audit. Physical audits were a series of financial experiments conducted at banks around New York. In one, auditors ran fingers and hands over bank surfaces searching for dirt; in another, people moved as one body while carrying out ATM transactions; in others, people pet a dog named Truman and then the walls, faked blindness while being introduced to the space à la Helen Keller, and opened accounts with as many names on them as possible. Whatever the outward metaphoric resonances, the inquiry was most interestingly about feeling bodily discipline—how our bodies did and didn’t comfortably move, what our eyes did and didn’t habitually see.

The piece was also, intentionally or not, about very particular kinds of bodies. Not everyone could have run such a Physical Audit, or at least not to the same effect. As a group, we were more white than not, middle class-ish, almost all young, all able-bodied. Most of us looked like “artists.” We were just the right sort of visible to be left alone in banks to play.

In her book Debt to Society, cultural theorist Miranda Joseph writes about the ways people are constructed through accounting practices, broadly understood—not just literal banking but related machinations in criminal law, popular discourses about responsibility and trustworthiness, and ways of valuing knowledge. It follows that people are constructed differentially through accounting practices, according to race and class and gender and geography and family structures. Blackness is a central referent, and Joseph spends a chunk of the book surveying the ways it has been historically constituted in especially close concert with narratives of indebtedness, untrustworthiness, and, crucial to the era of financialization, irresponsibility. She says gendered norms matter, too; specters of the shopaholic and the nervous, tight-fisted saver serve as negative frames for correct credit behavior. If personal banking is a key place high finance makes itself seen in everyday life, it is also an object that must itself be teased out, its systems of suppositions, points of access, and manifestations in specific bodies brought into focus. To that end, Joseph calls for counter-accounting practices that pay attention to the nuance of people’s different lived realities of finance.

But how that work should look isn’t necessarily obvious. I got the chance to interview Joseph and, while speaking off-handedly about student debt, complained about 18-year-olds getting stuck with loans they didn’t fully understand. She pointed out how that logic could be extended—to people of certain races, in “bad” neighborhoods, at nursing homes and assumed doddering—and mentioned a whole body of scholarship that documents the ways people understand the risks of taking on “predatory” credit (here the traders’ rhetoric survives) far better than they’re often said to. “We should be careful about buying too completely into the idea that all we need is financial education,” she said. And not just because doing so can get condescending fast, but because it erases what people already know about how finance makes their lives. The counter-accounting trick, it would seem, is to both be critical about what needs to be known and maximize what already is.

Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys might appear a strange place to draw inspiration. Lewis is a prime purveyor of the popular explainer-of-finance genre, and Flash Boys, which reports on exploitative high-frequency-trading practices, inevitably mines the rhetorical status quo that precedes it. Yet there are useful cracks to that facade. If at times the book presents finance as incomprehensible, it also presents it as opaque, and the two tend to be linked, if only implicitly. The opacity is a relational one. A quant doesn’t know what his algorithm does in the world because his department is purposely isolated from others in the firm. Mutual-fund managers find stock prices rising mid-trade because hidden advantages are doled out to high-frequency traders. Big investment banks open unregulated private exchanges called dark pools not (as the official logic goes) to protect clients but to protect their own profits from more agile HFT competitors and gain, as a bonus, a screen from behind which to better fleece clients. On the whole, the financial world depicted in Flash Boys seems impenetrable less because it is fundamentally too complex to grasp than because it is so systematically full of obfuscations.

Secretive financial wrongdoing has long been a theme in popular representations of finance, to be sure. But, as La Berge argues, it’s often narrated in the language of criminality—the scandal side of scandals and abstractions—which ultimately frames exploitative behavior as the violent exception to a system left otherwise unexamined. Flash Boys isn’t overly interested in fingering particular culprits, and, in a book practically destined to bestsellerhood, that disinterest proved ­anxiety-producing in financial quarters.

Consider a CNBC interview on the day of its release between Lewis, a Flash Boys informant and trader named Brad Katsuyama, and William O’Brien, the then-president of a private exchange called BATS that was implicated in some of the book’s worst allegations. The interviewers spent substantial energy trying to establish whether Lewis and Katsuyama thought the stock market was “rigged,” and O’Brien seemed fixated on dispelling the systemic implications of that notion. “Shame on you both for falsely accusing literally thousands of workers,” he blustered at the start of the interview, and only grew more aggressive from there. The interview soon went viral, as did Flash Boys as an explanatory touchstone. In one incestuously ­capitalist-realist strand of that process, news outlets from Bloomberg to CNN mentioned the book in reports on an investigation into HFT firms by New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who himself characterized the effort as an attempt to understand and regulate “Insider Trading 2.0,” a concept he introduced with reference to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Insider Trading 2.0 “isn’t about some Gordon Gekko–like characters gobbling up companies using information about those companies that no one else has,” he said. “In some ways, it’s more insidious.”   

The Wall Street truism on HFT is that it provides markets with necessary liquidity; Flash Boys tells the story of a group of financial workers trying to produce a counter-account to that line. Katsuyama, whose inquiry into HFT drives the book, began to ask questions when he started seeing his stock prices rise mid-trade every time he tried to execute a big order as a trading manager at the Royal Bank of Canada. When no one could explain it to him, he convinced his bosses to earmark $10,000 a day to lose testing hypotheses about what was going on. He assembled a team of people with complementary expertise—hard- and software, electronic trading ­strategy—and began conducting experiments, most of which bombed, because the guesses about the market on which they were based were wrong.

There’s no simple escape hatch from the ways we’re financialized, Joseph argues. For her, the task is not to find new and perfect modes of accounting but to rework available ones toward more just ends. Flash Boys says little about how the exploitative practices it details affect people in their daily lives, and its prescription for curbing those practices is likewise vague. That doesn’t mean the book doesn’t contain tools for someone else to raid. After Physical Audit was done, Cassie made a short video with some footage she’d taken. The video consists entirely of shots of participants’ auditing hands set to pulsing Muzak. It is all repetitive action, closeups of bank surfaces, and looping insinuations of deep affect and desire. It looks like the beginnings of a data set. That data doesn’t represent everyone’s capitalist realism, but it represents Cassie’s, and mine, and if that distinction can be preserved, her project suggests ways to explore how people iterate and are iterated by finance. For those without $10,000 a day to spare, the methodology might begin with the body—by watching its position, working to feel how finance invisibly guides its hand.

 

There is likely something to be made of the fact that both shadow banking and dark pools are industry-accepted terms; I haven’t fully sussed it out but would guess it had to do with a counter-account financial institutions could call on in response to growing calls for transparency. Don’t worry, it’s probably already reassuring us, opacity is an important part of a healthy market system.

In late 2014, Fortune reported that the Federal Reserve was updating their map. This one comes as an estimate puts shadow banking at 80 percent of the U.S. banking sector (as compared to 20 percent globally) and will attempt to record every major institution in the U.S. shadow banking system. “It is the most complicated map you have ever seen,” said Stanley Fischer, the Fed’s vice chairman. Maybe. For most people there’s also the question of being able to draw its counter-map: that of the shadow banked. 

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Discipline and Pleasure

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Is addiction a deeper form of distraction or a desperate escape from it? What the video game Dota 2 can teach us

DEPRESSION and addiction are hard to distinguish when they happen simultaneously; they seem to overlap and reinforce each other, becoming an endless cycle. I know I’d be less depressed if I stopped playing Dota 2, but I don’t know how I’ll find the willpower to stop playing Dota 2 as long as I’m this depressed.

My depression didn’t start when I downloaded the game. And 500 hours of play later—an amount that might seem absurd to the uninitiated but which marks me as a novice in the Dota 2 “community”—I know it won’t disappear when I stop playing. Nevertheless, these days Dota feels like the specific block to my ability to live a happy life. It’s also the only thing I want to do. Even as I type these sentences I realize that my body is tilting left, literally straining toward the computer in the other room on which I play.

User reviews of Dota 2 on the Steam marketplace, where one gets the game, show my experience to be typical. Rather than rate the game from, say, one to ten, Steam has reviewers choose to either recommend (thumbs up) or not recommend (thumbs down) a game as part of their review. The reviews also automatically and handily include the number of hours the user has played. Phux, with 2,734 hours in Dota 2, gives it the thumbs up with a four-word review: “Regrets, so many regrets.” Inkubeytor, with 4,412 hours in game, does not recommend it, writing only “Suffering.” A user named “happy new year” (7,885 hours) recommended Dota 2 on July 27 with “HELP ME,” while Fierce (1,550 hours) does not recommend it: “PLEASE GIVE ME MY LIFE BACK.” About two thirds of Dota’s reviews in the marketplace are in this vein, if not all so pithy.

Though Dota 2 is entirely built around multiplayer engagement and teamwork, the first genuine feeling of social togetherness and empathy I ever got from the game was when I read these reviews/cries for help. I also only read these reviews because I was stuck in the Steam marketplace waiting for Dota 2 to redownload, after I had uninstalled it 20 hours earlier in a hopeless attempt to be free.

 

FOR those blissfully unaware, Dota 2 is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), which is a strategy-game subgenre somewhere between MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft) and RTS (real-time strategy games such as Starcraft II). MOBAs take multiplayer gameplay, vast player populations, and RPG-style leveling up from MMORPGs and join them with the resource management and direct head-to head competition of an RTS. Though Dota 2 is not the most popular MOBA—that would be League of Legends, with a monthly player base of 67 million, or 1% of the world’s population—it still boasts 12 million unique players a month. It is also one of the most important games in making e-sports big business: Dota 2 has the best-funded tournament in professional video gaming, and its most recent annual championship, the 2015 International, featured a prize pool of over $16 million.

Each game of Dota lasts, on average, around 40 minutes and comprises 10 players total, five on each side, who attempt to storm the other team’s base and destroy their central structure, called the Ancient (hence Dota: Defense of the Ancients). Every player controls a separate “hero” chosen from a field of 111 available heroes, all with different strengths, weaknesses, and tactics, different strategic modes and peak power timings. Each of these factors is also influenced, combined with, or countered by those of other heroes, both those on your team and the opponents’. Just choosing heroes, which you do simultaneously with the opposing team, is a huge component of the game and determines both your win conditions and how each player will try to play.

In every game, all heroes start with zero experience and 625 gold, carrying nothing over from previous ­matches. Players gain gold and experience points through killing opposing heroes or the other team’s non-­player-controlled monsters, called creeps—little goblins that spawn constantly for both teams. Players use this gold and experience to buy items from among the 142 available and to level up spells and abilities. The map is always the same, the creeps always spawn in the same pattern, the available items are constant, and in general the game setup is static. The field, rules, and goals are always the same, which makes Dota and other MOBAs similar to traditional sports. But that basic stasis is also a key part of the game’s addictiveness: Every match is simultaneously totally identical and completely different.

With so many possible combinations of heroes, items, and scenarios, most of them coming to a head in split-second confrontations reliant on intense mouse and keyboard speed, there is an almost infinite learning curve (not to mention the fact that the game is regularly patched, with the developers changing the nature of abilities, items, and heroes). An entire game can be won or lost by the particular order in which one of the 10 players decides to purchase their items, or by one player being a few steps out of position and getting caught out before a crucial fight. The game is hard—really hard—and the most famous introductory guide to it is called “Welcome to Dota, You Suck.”

The coordination, strategy, and reflexes that Dota demands would be challenging enough on its own. But you have to play with nine other people—for the most part, random people, strangers, of whom most, on U.S. servers, will be white boys and probably well-off ones, considering the hardware required. Of these, at least one is likely to be non-communicative and ragey, will inevitably play like shit, and then yell at everyone else for throwing the game. You have to hope that he is on the opposing team.

When you’re playing with a good, well-coordinated team (or just playing well on your own) you can enter an almost euphoric state of competitive flow. But most of the time you’ll watch teammates—or yourself—wander aimlessly around the map, getting killed seemingly for no reason, all the while telling each other to buy wards, throw their ultimate, or stop being such noobs. And beyond the game-related insults, there is the homophobia, racism, and misogyny endemic to any space dominated by well-off white boys, who, in the case of Dota, also yelp xenophobically about the Peruvian, Filipino, or Russian players who are well-represented in the Dota community.

In other words, Dota 2 puts players in a dysfunctional and horrifying social space while offering an addictive set of opportunities to grow individual skills and exhibit mastery in competition. No wonder it can feel so familiar. No wonder there’s so much money in it.

 

IN trying to deal with depression by losing myself in meaningless activity, I stay right where I am, only a little more so. Whole lives, no doubt, can be spent in such holding patterns.

It is hard to explain to people that you are emotionally incapable of basic tasks: that you literally can’t do the laundry, can’t reply to a text message, can’t give more advance notice before cancelling. But if it’s hard to explain to others, it’s equally hard to explain to yourself. I don’t know why I can’t send an email right now, when a lot of the time it’s the easiest thing in the world.

Video games, and addictions generally, give depression an explanation: “I’m not emailing anyone because I’m spending all my time playing this game.” This is still really depressing, but at least it makes sense. You know where the time goes—you can see what happened, the hours are (depressingly) tracked in game. Without the metrics of addiction, the days just melt in a morass of incapability, a catatonic ennui that consumes your time without reason.

Addiction as a response to depression is, in a certain way, the response of a perfect capitalist subject. The system’s requisite growth depends on the generalized principle that our pleasure comes from increasing consumption: More will make us happier. The addictive impulse attempts to salvage this ideology from the disappointments it repeatedly delivers. Rather than reflecting on the fact that consuming more never provides the promised happiness, addiction just keeps upping the ante: just one more game, one more win will do it.

Addiction is thus an effort to reconcile yourself with an abusive society that makes unlimited demands of its subjects. But it gives the game away that these addictions are seen as pathological only when they make you unproductive—i.e., drinking becomes a “drinking problem” when it interferes with your work or the reproductive labor of your personal relationships. Addiction is a produced, fully anticipated response to the vicissitudes of consumer capitalism and a diagnosable pathology of legal consequence.

This makes it an incredibly effective weapon of control. Not only is addiction presupposed, but if you are not addicted in the right way, the state can intervene with punishment. Contraband drug markets (and the concomitant wars on them) produce optimal consumer-subjects while also generating a social “crisis” that allows the state to intervene and enforce the racialized, gendered, and classed stratification necessary for maximum profit production for the few who benefit from the system.

 

THE addict, then, can be recognized by her overidentification with capitalism’s ideological promises. From this vantage point, drug addiction appears as a sort of utopian version of consumption: There is no use value to drugs except enjoyment; you directly buy “pleasure.” This validates the promise that consumer goods can provide pleasure without complications, mediations, or social relations to facilitate that pleasure.

If the drug addict, in this sense, is the too perfect consumer, whose extreme consumption ultimately makes them unfit for further productivity and consumption, the video game addict is the too perfect worker. To see this, it helps to recognize how many video games are utopian work simulators: You advance and progress by getting better and better at an expanding series of repetitive gestures. As you put more time into the game, the keystrokes transition from deliberate and difficult into muscle memory, and you go from being focused on what your hands are doing to making choices on behalf of your character, eventually inhabiting the fantasy of their power and ability. The repetitive gestures become your skills, your abilities, rather than those of a diegetic avatar. You become capable of making instantaneous decisions and acting on them with maximum effectiveness.

This is the pleasure of learning, of “building knowledge,” even if done within a closed system that makes it both more reliably achieved and more meaningless. There’s a reason both marketers and game reviewers always discuss how many hours of gameplay you’re liable to get from a particular product. It is desirable to lose countless hours memorizing and studying an intricate system of rules and effects, to imagine endless combinations of outcomes of different wizard battles. That this learning occurs within the closed and technologically mediated context of a video game makes it difficult to transform the skills into something meaningful, consequential, potentially liberating or socially constructive.

Video games rechannel what would otherwise be an impulse toward real unproductivity into a form of consumption that reinforces the pleasures of work. In video games, discipline is pleasurable, designed and done for fun, and it places you into a fantastic and fictional world in which you are empowered beyond human possibilities. In the midst of gameplay, you enter that vaunted neoliberal state of flow, you achieve Malcolm Gladwell’s mastery in far fewer than 10,000 hours, you are working at something. Discipline, learning, and productivity melt together into an ecstatic experience of achievement, achievement whose pleasures are individual and internal.

This “flow” is stripped of social meaning and decontextualized from networks of power. It makes any repetitious activity—and by extension, any kind of work—capable of appearing as individual progression, creative production, skill learning, and strength building. The ease with which work, exercise, and other disciplinary tasks have been “gamified” indicates how much games are already about discipline to begin with.

Of course, there is a whole world of games that do not fit the above description, that approach games from a more surreal or liberatory or creative or philosophical angle. Games built around communal storytelling—for example the Powered-by-the-Apocalypse series of tabletop role-playing games, or the avant-garde work being done on Twine and other open-source game-development platforms—depend much less on a player’s technical or tactical mastery of gameplay constraints. Such games, by their very nature, do not structure or give way to compulsive, repetitive, addictive relationships.

MOBAs achieve the opposite. Not destructive enough to really destroy most players’ lives, nor featuring real play—the actually anarchic play that challenges your perception of the world and the way it functions—MOBAs instead funnel energy, attention, time, and money toward the quest for more perfectly epic and entertaining wizard battles: a quest whose material result is a more perfectly disciplined capitalist subject. Is it any wonder Gamer Gate drew its recruits partly from these communities?

Playing video games for 40 compulsive, depressing, and exhausting hours a week is addiction, but going to work for 40 compulsive, depressing, and exhausting hours a week is having a job. Addiction is not defined by the way you feel; it is not about levels of compulsion or willpower. It is defined by what those feelings and compulsions do to your productivity. If people with thousands of hours of gameplay on League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm maintain relationships, work, or school, then they’re not “addicts”; they’re healthy individuals with an intense hobby.

Addiction is when the pleasures to which one becomes addicted no longer smooth out capitalist relations and social reproduction but disrupt the ability to work. It is not to deny the real suffering and considerable damage that addicts and addiction can wreak to see in addiction a social demand. Is addiction a potential beginning of resistance, rather than merely individual pathology?

Perhaps. But the ways in which video-game play reproduces neoliberal subjectivity and productivity make this political transmutation of addiction almost impossible to achieve through video games. The sensation of progress, achievement, and learning in games is both genuinely pleasurable and just effortful enough to satisfy that neoliberal itch toward constant productivity, at least as long as the game is booted up and the endorphins are still pinging: Afterward, guilt sends us back to work, chastised and full of self-reproach. Indeed, the DSM-V, hardly shy about classifying new mental disorders, found there was “insufficient evidence” to include gaming addiction.

We have entered a historical period where work in the Global North feels as meaningless as it ever has. Our work isn’t making the world any better—in fact, the world is dying of our productivity. The likely political horizons, as the nation-state loses its last shreds of sovereign power in the face of global capital, are merely different cultural organizations of the police state: Do you like your fascism theocratic or liberal-humanist? Video games reflect back and mimic our work’s pointlessness. If leisure is as pointless as work, then maybe work isn’t so pointless after all. And so I just keep playing. There’s rent to be paid, after all.

Such is the nature of this addiction that even as I critique it, I’m anticipating my next game, thinking through what heroes and strategies I want to try. A good session—where I play well, win a few, and don’t play so long that I enter a zombified state—will give me enough positive feeling to significantly improve my day. A bad one does the opposite. My daily affect has come to rely on my ability to wield a computerized wizard. At least it gets me out of bed.

A gaming addiction is perfect for the lazy workaholic, too resentful of authority to actually work hard for a boss. Trapped within myself, in this insufficient individual subjectivity, a fully engaging method of wasting time is the easiest way I can quiet the insistent internal reminders that productivity is the only virtue, which has been the main cop in my head for most of my adult life. What a trap: The things that best quiet the cop make him stronger. 

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