Though they foreground models over characters, systems-oriented video games can’t evade the issues of identity politics
This is a story about video games: where they come from, and what they can do.
They come from places like Emeryville, California, a town across the bay from San Francisco, at the foot of the Bay Bridge, beside Berkeley and Oakland. Emeryville was founded by a would-be railroad baron as a “butchertown” around the turn of the 20th century. The Emeryville Historical Society notes that it was advertised, nearly from its inception, as a “tax haven,” boasting “tax rates as [being] the lowest in the state, if not the entire Pacific Coast.”
In 1883, thirteen years before the town was incorporated into the state of California, Emeryville was where two entrepreneurs made their name producing a “waterproofing agent” out of the byproduct of the petroleum-refinement process. Called the Paraffine Paint Company, it was an early success story that, according to the Emeryville Historical Society, contributed to “a full-fledged blast of technological dynamism and uninhibited development that formed and transformed Emeryville over the course of a century.”
Fifty five years after the Paraffine Paint Company was established, Georg Lukács wrote an article called “Realism in the Balance,” weighing in on the relative merits of Expressionism and its related schools. Lukács called these artistic movements, which included figures ranging from Gerhart Hauptmann to James Joyce, “the modern literary schools of the imperialist era.” Against the practitioners of montage, he holds up “true realists” like Thomas Mann, who assigns experience and emotion “to their rightful place within the total life of context.” Lukács’s ultimate goal in valorizing realist art, or at least one of them, is to “understand the way in which reactionary ideas infiltrate our minds” and to “achieve a critical distance from such prejudices” by way of “hard work” and “scrutinizing all subjective experiences and measuring them against social reality.”
Among other claims about Mann, Lukács insisted that Mann’s realism was tied to his intimate knowledge of his characters. This is what allowed him to place them into their context, which, in turn, allowed him to illuminate the real effects of the mode of production like no other artists. For Lukács, Mann’s characters are primarily formal elements. To know a character in Lukács’s sense is not to imagine the characters speaking to you and guiding their own story, as authors sometimes claim, but rather to situate them in the contemporary mode of production.
That same year, Bertolt Brecht wrote a series of critical responses to Lukács, though they wouldn’t be published until nearly three decades later. In one of these, he concludes that, despite their “valuable material,” many of Lukács’s essays have “something unsatisfying about them.” Brecht writes that “the element of capitulation, of withdrawal, of utopian idealism which still lurks in Lukács’s essays,” makes his work “unsatisfactory; for it gives the impression that what concerns him is enjoyment rather than struggle, a way of escape rather than an advance.”
Brecht’s claim that Lukács was a capitulating idealist seems initially bizarre. Realism’s greatest champion took great pains to establish a materialist rigor in his analysis, and his argument that the realist, bourgeois novel — with slight modification — was the form most suited for apprehending the world’s objective nature came as a consequence of that rigor. Mulled over, however, Brecht’s words put Lukács back on his feet. The “true realists” in “their rightful place,” the “critical distance” that arises from their situation — that rigor certainly bears truths, but they seem much more interested in escape than in struggle.
Feelings toward Lukács nearly a century later are not particularly warm. He is remembered, if at all, as an abstruse theorist and an apologist for Stalinism, a bright young Hegelian who was led astray. (Just ask Theodor Adorno, writing in the pages of a CIA-funded journal: Lukács sold out.)
Seventy-seven years after Lukács’ article, in the middle of the Game Developers Conference (the video-game industry’s second largest annual event) one of the most wealthy and well-known game publishers, Electronic Arts, quietly announced it was closing one of its game development studios. The studio, Maxis, is best known for being founded by one of the few celebrity auteurs in video games, Will Wright, who created one of the most successful game franchises of all time, spun off of a critical darling; the latter SimCity, the former The Sims.
Layoffs and closures are announced constantly in the video-games industry, which positions itself closely to the tech sector while relying on narratives of passionate individuals and the dream job to recruit workers into precarious, unpaid-overtime-dependent positions, as Ian Williams and Austin Walker explain in this Paste article. Even with the high barrier to entry that coding presents — and the constant turnover and burnout of those who make it in — the reserve labor pool for the games industry is massive, and it is constantly being capitalized upon. But the closure, couched in talk of “consolidating” intellectual properties, was met with the sort of disappointed fatalism that the video-games press always presents at these announcements.
Perhaps the only exception to this press fatalism about the closure was Ian Bogost’s eulogy for the studio. He uses the closure as an opportunity to reflect on SimCity and how it evoked for him a history of games that never came to pass, one which deemphasized characters in favor of systems. In this alternate history, SimCity would have led to a surge of similar games, which would have spurred mass deindividuation, a sort of (systems) thinking man’s class struggle. But his eulogy for Maxis is tempered by the fact that the auteur designer, Will Wright, left the company six years ago to found a think tank.
The takeaway of Bogost’s article is, ostensibly, that “only a fool would fail to realize that we are the Sims now meandering aimlessly in the streets of the power brokers’ real-world cities. Not people with feelings and identities at all, but just user interface elements that indicate the state of the system, recast in euphemisms like the Sharing Economy, such that its operators might adjust their strategy accordingly.”
This all after Bogost comes a stutter-step away from blaming identity politics for #GamerGate: “Some gamers have become so attached to their identity that they’ve been willing to burn down anything to defend it.” In a story of consolidation and mergers, think-tank defections and tax havens — of what we might call systems — the villain that emerges is, of course, representation.
The strangest moment in the eulogy comes when Bogost valorizes a story about Wright’s refusal to move Maxis’s office to Silicon Valley after the EA buyout. Bogost argues that a “particular urban location … mattered to Wright. Making simulations like SimCity wasn’t just knowledge work that could be done anywhere; it was situated.” That particular urban location, in his words, was “nestled in between Berkeley, the cradle of identity politics, and the rising glass towers of San Francisco’s SoMa, where the new Silicon Valley has set up shop.” It may very well be true that Wright preferred “the East Bay and its surrounding hills,” but relations aren’t locations. There’s a name for that nestle: Emeryville.
Nowadays Emeryville may be most famous as Pixar’s home base, but visitors probably best know its mall: open air, home to an AMC movie theater, a Barnes & Noble, a Uniqlo, a frozen-yogurt spot, and — stretched between two parking lots with only a P.F. Chang’s opening onto it — a road called Ohlone Way. A friend calls this the heart of Emeryville: the crassest, lowest-effort reminder that you walk on what was once an indigenous people’s burial ground on your way to the AT&T store.
Emeryville, too, is where Tony Smith, the former superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District and one of the men most responsible in recent times for school privatization and union busting, made his name. He, too, came from the cradle of identity politics — or at least he was a football-team captain at the University of California, Berkeley.
The closure of the Maxis studio in Emeryville does nothing to reverse these forces of gentrification. Google buses will still shuttle the rich to where the money is, from where it has been long hidden. The Tony Smiths of the world will continue to circulate. Oakland, the other half of the land grant that became Emeryville, will remain a postindustrial town nestled between two major centers of capital. Not metaphorically, but in simple terms of transportation: for all the talk of capital’s immateriality, the supply chain still needs trucks.
The irony is that 2013’s SimCity, the last project worked on by the now-defunct studio, happened to be, as Bogost noted, linking to this article by Emanuel Maiberg, something of a gentrification simulator in its own right.
The pedagogy of simulation games — city simulators in particular — is worth meditating on. They are, ostensibly, about engaging with complex (though still incredibly simplified) models, coupled with rule sets that mark discrete goals. These range from the practicable (make sure there are water lines in your new residential zone so the houses can have plumbing) to the whimsical (call down an alien invasion). By being told to use a set of tools in a particular way, an individual can be taught how to engage with a system — the system that is the game.
In a medium full of the post–Star Wars Hero’s Journey, where men with guns or swords or the remarkable dexterity to jump very high are almost always the centerpiece, this pedagogy has the appearance of a radical alternative. The half-step from “abstractly represented white man’s power fantasy” to “abstracted white man’s power fantasy” looks like a huge leap from up close. And even then, only if you take a very narrow view on what constitutes representation.
The takeaway from a game like SimCity isn’t that urban planning is a complex set of interactions embedded in a world of other systems; it’s more like, Hey, did you ever realize how slow a city of four-way stops would be? Wild, right?
What Bogost overlooks, like Lukács did before him, is that models too are a form of representational politics. To say that SimCity doesn’t have characters like most games or that realist novels provide more objective context than Expressionist poems is not wrong, but to argue that those facts therefore mean that novels or SimCity are not implicated in reproducing bourgeois identities is, to use Brecht’s words, a form of utopian idealism. Idealism because it fixates on the content of the thing, rather than the practices it may provoke; utopian because it wants these things to be seen and therefore become true, rather than struggled for.
Representing marginalized people in a story-driven piece of media is sometimes framed as being a matter of realism, or a market imperative. These are concrete acts of struggle — sometimes compromised, sometimes capitulating, but always material. Behind this struggle the insistence that fiction can explore things like the dialectic of the self and the other, or of being and consciousness. This exploration relies on modeling of many kinds: of space (“setting”), of action (“plot”), and of people (“characters”).
The wellspring of identity politics in media involves the creation of models. And the argument for diversity always operates, at least partly, at a level of abstraction — between what is in parentheticals above and what isn’t. Politics mediates the translation of one into the other. While identity politics may be most obvious in the gap between people and characters, modeling space as “setting” adheres to the same logic. What SimCity suggests is not a world in which video games are a pedagogical tool for the city rather than the Sims, for systems over characters. Characters have always been systems. If anything, the game suggests a world in which that very abstraction might be better used in the medium.
Abstraction is central to Lukács’s dismissal of Expressionism and its related schools. He prefers the concrete and material; for him, “the kinship between immediacy and abstraction finds expression in the reflection of economic realities.” What initially appears dissonant — that which is immediate is not associated with that which is abstracted — is unified in the circulation of capital. Money, under capitalism, stops being an abstracted means to mediate between goods, becoming an end unto itself.
The “most extreme form of abstraction,” according to Lukács (who is interpreting Marx), is nothing less than “the entire process of capitalist production,” in which “money begets money.” What begins in immediacy — viewing the process of exchange — ends in abstraction, such that the process appears autonomous. For this, Lukács accuses them of “abstracting away from reality” rather than, as the realists he valorizes do, toward it.
But he also acknowledges that “without abstraction there could be no art — for otherwise how could anything in art have representative value?”
The difficulty lies in determining which ways abstraction can be harnessed for political ends. Can, for instance, the representation of action be used to explore the dialectic of immediacy and abstraction? That is, could holding a video-game controller give some measure of objective context to how “money begets money?”
If it can, now or in the future, then video games will be able to do it only within the politics of representation. It may not be through a character as such, just as it wasn’t through 800 pages of descriptions of dressing rooms, but neither will it be through the magic of systems.
Because how money begets money is currency speculation and futures trading, sure, but it is also a fleet of trucks and shipping containers. The mode of production might be the ultimate abstraction, but to understand that begetting requires also the understanding of a shopping mall, built on an old graveyard, where a man lunches while he prepares to privatize neighboring school districts.
The history of the Black Paraffine Paint Company, as best I can figure it, goes like this: In 1917, it consolidated with other companies into the Fibreboard Corporation. The Fibreboard Corporation lasted until 1997, by which point it had become, among other things, an operator of ski resorts. That year, it was bought by Owens Corning, a fiberglass-manufacturing company. Three years later, Owens Corning filed for Chapter 11 after dealing with multiple asbestos-related class-action lawsuits, which had plagued Fibreboard as well.
Owens Corning emerged after five years and returned to its status as a Fortune 500 corporation; Fibreboard lives on only in the name of the Owens Corning/Fibreboard Asbestos Personal Injury Trust.
This is one story about video games: where they come from, and what we might make them do.