A History of Video Game Capital

[Originally published May 9, 2016]

Video Games – as an entertainment medium – have come to dominate the artistic marketplace. They have left books, music, and movies in the dust. This is not opinion – this is fact. Call of Duty: Black Ops was the most widely experienced product of. All. Time. It was the most purchased artistic released of all time. It was the most pirated artistic release of all time. It was the most Most of all time. “In the first 24 hours, Black Ops took in $360 million in the US and UK, selling 5.6 million units… in comparison, James Cameron’s 3-D hit movie Avatar, for instance, took in $232” (Chiang, “Call of Duty: Black Ops Claims ‘Biggest Entertainment Launch in History”). How did video games get here? How did the youngest of all artistic mediums become the most popular – and most profitable – of the bunch? Like any capitalist industry, games have strived to maximize their profits, and their online, digital nature has allowed them to change and finesse the acquisition of capital in a way that these other mediums have failed to do. The integral relationship between ‘play’ and ‘experience’ have also given games a leg up in the exploitation of commodity fetishism – as the power of ‘experience’ can be applied to nearly every virtual commodity. This has made for some devastatingly effective capitalism, since games have elongated the transaction process – and continue to do so – in the pursuit of perpetual commodification. “The video game industry has recently shifted from one based predominantly… on the sale of software discs or cartridges to one that increasingly relies on DLC to extend the commodity life of profitable games” (Lizardi 34).They have invented a series of systems by which they acquire capital at an increasingly constant rate, changing the consumer experience, the monetization of games, and the creative development process itself.

Game monetization is chaotic, overwhelming, and – frankly – upsetting. Subscriptions, Free to Play, DLC, microtransactions, etc. They share more in common than capital, however. They all require an online connection; and so we find the roots of our modern industry – the internet. This is the starting point from which perpetual, digital commodification began. Before the idea of ‘online’ hit the mainstream, games were much like any other artistic medium. Create, release, hope for profit. The crux of video game capital held at a fixed point – the consumer’s enjoyment of a singular, unchangeable product. Then, with the rise of online connectivity, gaming saw the advent of post-release support. This completely changed the game when it came to a developer’s approach to release. They could afford to be less precise – after all, any bugs or glitches that made their way into retail copies of their games could now be patched out. This is a fairly commonplace practice now, but patches were a big deal at the time. The X-Box had its first post-release patch in 2003, for Unreal Championship (“The first patch to ever hit a console is coming soon”), and it’s no coincidence that this is also around the same time when we start to see publishers experiment with continued monetization. One year later, Valve releases Half-Life 2, with plans to release episodic continuations of the game’s narrative for a moderate price. Games had actually attempted something like this even before the internet in the form of dual releases – e.g. Pokémon Red and Green back in 1996 – and add-ons – e.g. Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Now Valve was applying this approach to online connectivity, and this was a representation of the then-industry belief that episodic gaming was to be the future of content. We saw this format as an emulation of Mediums That Had Come Before – a sign that games would somehow improve by appropriating this release tactic. Now we know better.

The love affair with episodic gaming only lasted for a hot minute, and World of Warcraft is really to blame. Also released in 2004, WoW’s success – and reliance on a subscription model – showed the industry that they were better off chasing other means of monetization.While it’s true that WoW didn’t invent the subscription model, no other MMORPG had financially achieved what WoW did. Not even close. “EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, and The Sims were early examples of subscription-fee success, whileWorld of Warcraft is the most popular current example of this type of virtual world” (Jackson 6). WoW was one of gaming’s greatest mainstream successes at that time, and it was inevitable that other publishers would chase the profits of its monetizations. Subscriptions resulted in a more constant, reliable form of capital than episodes did, and ultimately solved a lot of the problems posed by episodic monetization. While charging players per episode easily resulted in greater returns than those of standalone titles, this was still an ultimately finite resource. Also, ‘episodes’ were too defined, from the context of content. There was an expectation of narrative, and narrative alone. This pigeonholed the type of content publishers could charge for. Also, gamers are fickle about their narratives – very fickle. Just look at how they reacted to the third Mass Effect title – petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to change the ending on the grounds that it violated Bioware’s promise to the consumer. Forum user ‘El_Spiko’ authored the petition, saying,

After reading through the list of promises about the ending of the game they made in their advertising campaign and PR interviews, it was clear that the product we got did not live up to any of those claims. This is not somethign [sic] I was happy to do, but after the terrible ending that was in no way the product that had been advertised to me and the lack of any kind of response from Bioware/EA to address this, I felt it was one of my only recourses. (Good, “Mass Effect 3 Fan Complains to the Feds Over the Game’s Ending”).

Unreal. This type of consumer backlash is exactly why publishers are simply not going to rely on the subjective nature of narrative to provide them with capital. It has never happened, and it never will. This is why games with barebones mechanics and a heavy emphasis on narrative –particularly walking simulators – don’t release any DLC narrative content that isn’t planned out from the beginning of development. Subscriptions only promise more content – and continued experience – rather than ‘good narrative.’ They’re just unfocused enough to avoid flak for poor content. Also, there’s the simple fact that there comes an end to episodic releases. Narratives end, but content is forever, and, ultimately, publishers don’t want volume – they want constancy.

Microsoft has always been a company of exceptional capitalism, and – as such – ended up emulating the subscription model of games with Xbox Live. Pay money for the sustained experience of online play. Though the commodity – play – is quite abstract, it still possesses the power necessary to exploit fetishism. This would ultimately cement Microsoft’s position as a major player in the console market when they used the release of the newly-minted Xbox 360 to start pushing Xbox Live as part of the Microsoft brand. This happened, of course, in 2005 – just after the runaway success of WoW and its subscription model. Once Xbox Live became an integral part of their brand, playing online with your friends was marketed as a necessity – indeed, signing up for an Xbox Live account was offered in part of the 360s initial setup. Multiplayer stops being seen as a focus of a game, and is now seen as a necessity in all games. Shortly after the release of the 360, we start to see an uptick in games with a multiplayer focus – hyping themselves up as ‘Halo Killers’ to generate excitement and increase the likelihood of new Live subscriptions – and games with ‘tacked-on’ multiplayer modes. These trends are especially visible in Xbox-exclusive titles. Just recently, Sony finally hopped on the capitalist bandwagon, charging for their online services with the release of the PS4. Both companies now also offer ‘premium memberships’ that come with added bonuses – and more opportunities for consumers to deliver them capital. Comparatively, Nintendo does not charge for online, and – while there are certainly many other factors that have ;2influenced their deficit of capital – the company has just reported a 61% loss in profits – their biggest financial hit in years (Blake, “Nintendo Profits Down 61 Percent”). Nintendo, while great creators, have flagged, as of late, in the game of capitalism, and they certainly could’ve used the cash from online subscriptions to ease the blow of a devastating 61%.

Objectively, the greatest image ever created.


Subscriptions of online usage weren’t the only means by which games pursued perpetual commodification and experience fetishism. Industry capitalists knew that subscription models wouldn’t fly when it came to exclusively narrative titles, so they then had to find a way to monetize with a more efficient method than the episodic model. Ultimately, they chose to experiment with what we now know as DLC. As capitalists, they made the right choice. DLC is now one of the most ubiquitous forms of post-release monetization. It’s the perfect catch-all term for a publisher. ‘Content’ – the nebulous beast. It has such a blanket identity that, really, you can throw almost anything in with it. That’s the secret though – if everything is content, then you can always sell something ‘new;’ and if there were ever a slogan to encompass all video game publishers, it would be the following: Always. Be. Selling. The best part, however, is that ‘content’ is easily fetishized. The capitalist can exploit the catharsis of expanded play – experienced as both narrative and mechanic – to justify the monetization of added twists on play. This is all very abstract, but – when examining the different types of content offered in DLC – more specific analysis leads to the same understanding of content and the commodification of experience.

Perhaps the meatiest type of DLC content is ‘systemic content’ – map packs, level packs, and narrative extensions. This content is ‘systemic’ because it consists of new playgrounds in which players may experience the unchanged mechanics and systems of a game in a setting that is unfamiliar to them. New areas to ‘shoot the mans’ in, new platforming challenges, and even new linear narrative content – though non interactive, linear narrative still qualifies as a ‘system.’ While this may not exist as a real, physical space – nor can it be considered an item or tool with a practical use-value – this content is still very much a commodity. What is its use-value to the capitalist? Sometimes, its use-value is To Exist – as a triumphant declaration of artistic prowess and execution – but, more often than not, its use-value is To Generate Capital. The developers of Call of Duty don’t put out the same amount of post-release maps for $25 every year because of artistic integrity – they do it because it’s their job, and they’ve been told to do it by the people that fund development of a yearly franchise. To be fair, these people – the publishers – have to pull out all the stops to recoup the hefty investment required by yearly franchises and the growing cost of game development. This is only half of a commodity, however, so: what is the use-value of systemic content to the consumer? Its use-value is simply To Be Enjoyed and Experienced. Gamers don’t think of these map packs as the output of X amount of man-hours by Y amount of developers. They think of them as $Z worth of content and experience. This same logic applies to other types of DLC content as well.

Gameplay items come next on the list. These items affect the core gameplay – be that shooting, platforming, hiding, or piloting. The use-value of these commodities is inherently tied to the experience of play. Those who make a living off of their youtube gameplay videos have no choice but to purchase these items – especially if they own a small enough youtube channel that publishers don’t supply them with promotional codes for their game content. This is both a guaranteed market, as well as a source of advertising – both working towards the perpetuity of consumer purchases. The same can be said for professional eSports teams. Unlike the cousin of gameplay items – cosmetic items – this type of content consists of “digitally simulated objects created by computer equipment… through these production processes, game items can be accessed and consumed by players via their digital devices through their avatars in digital environments” (Ho, 58). Again, players don’t see a new gun as an asset produced by a certain member(s) of a development team – it’s just an exchange of money for experience.

Cosmetic items are the last on the list. These are – through and through – shining examples of commodity fetishism. They possess no use-value – other than, perhaps, catering to fans – in the real world, or in a game. They are strictly cosmetic in nature – changing nothing about the game, the way it plays, or the way its narrative may occur. Though some may have a tangible effect on the ‘play experience,’ these are few and far between. They are totally divorced from the people who made them – no one knows the name of the “one person [who was] working on nothing but the cape for two years” (Purchese, “Eidos expects Batman to score in the 90s”). in the Batman: Arkham Asylum game – and they’re exchanged for cold, hard cash – digitally, of course, but that’s exactly the point. The digital realm has enhanced the absurdity of the commodity, resulting in the normalization of $5 costumes that change nothing.

What we – as gamers – are left with at the end of the day is every possible aspect of a game experiencing some form of extended commodification. The artistic side – narrative, world, etc. – is quantified by currency. The play aspects – weapons, powers, etc. – are quantified by currency. The visuals – skins, filters, etc. – are quantified by currency. That’s a lot of ways to fetishize the commodities of games, and they’re all part of perpetual commodification. In order to maximize capital, publishers must first maximize the number of commodities a consumer may buy. The next step is selling them.

So – in the pursuit of perpetual commodification – how are these types of DLC actually sold? This ends up being less of a question of how, and more of a question of when. For DLC, life begins at conception. Even before the release of a game, publishers offer content through pre-order bonuses. It’s not labeled as DLC, but – make no mistake – if it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s a totally sweet set of exclusive akimbo shotguns – and for just $10 extra! It’s also levels, maps, even full character campaigns. Batman: Arkham City took flak for offering exclusive Catwoman narrative levels as a preorder bonus.Sometimes, this content will be made available to those who did not pre-order the game. What we see here is classic commodity fetishism, first used via the hyped up ‘exclusivity’ of pre-ordered content and then repurposed to draw in jealous players who missed out on the opportunity to acquire the same content the first time around. The gift that keeps on giving.

If you want to find techniques that truly acquires capital as soon as humanly possible, look at early access and crowdfunding. They both have the quickest turnaround potential for capital, as both techniques are dependent upon the monetary exchange for the mere promise of a game. It’s certainly the riskiest form of this transaction – for both gamers and developers. Sometimes, the promise of a game just isn’t enough to accrue true capital. Sometimes, the game never comes out, and the promise is broken. Writing in response to a prominent failed Kickstarter project for Polygon.com, Phil Kollar says,

It’s up to backers to begin being much more discerning about what they’re putting money toward… as part of that crowd, I’m increasingly wary of where my money is going, and I think others should as well… Who is really going to be working on this? Can they pull it off? And how upset will you be if you contribute money and it turns out they cannot? (Kollar, “Yogscast Kickstarter failure is a painful reminder of the risks of crowdfunding”)

This was written in 2014, and it’s a great example of the prevailing attitudes about crowdfunding. It’s inconsistent, and that’s why crowdfunding and early access are no longer the capitalist darlings they once were.

Another form of early-stage fetishism is the oft-derided ‘Day-One DLC.’ Perhaps the most transparent attempt to capitalize on, well, commodities, DODLC can consist of any of the previously discussed types of content, and becomes available the day that the game is released. This means that – during the stages of development – content was specifically developed as a means of acquiring capital right out the door.

EA’s John Riccitiello gloated over the 40% attachment rate to the day-one DLC for Mass Effect 3, ‘From Ashes’… DLC that was later proven to have been cut from the game and sold back to gamers as premium content (Usher, “EA Proud Of Day-One DLC: Selling $20 DLC So The Sale Becomes $80”)

As made clear by the open boasting made by many industry capitalists, it doesn’t matter how transparent this capital-grab is: content trumps integrity. While it’s not popular, it’s profitable.

Wait. No. This is it. THIS is – objectively – the greatest image ever created2849893-watchdogsreleasechart

Games are also often released with a rough release schedule for DLC. This, of course, is a means of hyping up an ‘expansion of content’ – thereby making it, theoretically, more likely for consumers to plan their spending habits around the release of DLC. Maybe John and Sally will hold off on buying that fancy china so as to have funds for the new ‘Retribution Map Pack’ in a month. This also means, however, that publishers can commodify these pieces of DLC further, via ‘Season Passes.’ Purchase the promise of future commodity – in bulk – for a slightly reduced total price. Brilliant. It’s more reliable than crowdfunding and early access, since the game itself is already out – as proof of content. You hook players who wouldn’t normally shell out the cash for this content with a ‘reduced’ price structure, while still offering the full-price nougats of content for those unlucky enough to miss the window of Season Pass purchases. It’s not a ‘different’ form of capital, but an added one – meaning, ultimately, more money at the end of the day. One of the most recent examples of this was seen in the new Battlefront game. Writing for vg247.com, Patrick Garratt asks, “If the base game is $60 and the Season Pass is 50$, aren’t you just paying $110 for the full game?” (Garratt, “Added value or rip-off: how do you feel about Star Wars Battlefront’s $50 Season Pass?”). This controversy was heightened even further due to the relatively small amount of release content found on the retail disk. To revisit episodic gaming for a brief minute – season pass content is actually a perfect example of why episodic gaming just wasn’t profitable enough to stick around en masse. Look at any Telltale episodic series. They’re all monetized – to be sure – but they’re only monetized via the narrative-DLC/season pass structure. There simply isn’t room for anything else. The mechanics are solely narrative-based, meaning you can’t capitalize on chainsaw-guns and boomerang-grenades. Any cosmetic changes could potentially ruin the artistic vision of the narrative, and – even if they didn’t – there would be no point in purchasing items that have no potential for interacting in an online market. You can’t offer maps. The only thing you offer is more narrative, and so your only methods of monetization are the DLC/season pass structure. Not very profitable in comparison to other titles, is it? It’s no wonder episodic gaming has been relegated to a niche output.

What unites all this – within the ideas of economic theory – is the subjectivity of it all. It’s made for a system that is as hard to define as it is to push against. It’s not as though consumers are being lied to – everything gamers are sold does fall into the broad, blurry barriers of ‘content.’ In attacking content from all angles, publishers offer something for everyone – and who’s to invalidate a strangers subjective motivations for fetishism in this capitalist system? This is why oppositions to relentless DLC practices are often met with a certain counter-argument. No one was forced to buy anything. You certainly don’t have to. Why are you complaining about something that doesn’t affect you? And the self-defeating rationalization: well, it’s just my opinion. Who am I to take away from a hardcore fan’s enjoyment of the game? The second argument holds more water than the first, but it’s still an ultimately harmful attitude. The reality of DLC – the way it’s produced, and the way it’s sold – is that it does affect me. It affects all of us. We keep paying, and we keep providing publishers with enough capital to prove that their methods are justified, in the end. It’s a capitalist system, where the ultimate goal is capital. Why shouldn’t they have this impression? We – as gamers – are just as culpable for these trends – and all this ultimately extends out far beyond DLC.

So by the time the late 2000s roll around, downloadable content has become an established staple of video game monetization. Then, two very important events happen that change the way video game capitalists approach monetized content. 2008: Apple launches the Apple App Store, and video games go mobile. Games shared a space in our phones – a part of our lives that many fear we as a culture have become addicted to. Games no longer had to share the same scope or style of AAA, mainstream games to be successful. 2009 – one year later: Farmville is released, and defines the dominant mobile market mentalities for years to come. It popularizes a type of microtransaction that will ultimately result in the ubiquity of ‘free to play.’

What Farmville did was truly insidious. Instead of offering mechanical content that allowed you to play the game differently, it offered content that allowed you to keep playing the game. It monetized the very act of play. Truly, it monetized action. When you lack the in game resources necessary to progress – though the nature of ‘progress’ in these types of games is another debate entirely – you are, functionally, unable to ‘play’ the game. Yes, you may stare at a screen of moving animations. Yes, you may click ineffectually on plots of land, and – yes – this may offer you information you did not have at a previous point in time. No, however, you are not having any sort of mechanical effect on the events unfolding before you. But you can pay to have that happen! Is your tractor out of fuel? Are you out of seeds? Help us generate some capital with your delicious, ripe dollars, and we’ll fix that for you.

This model owes its form – somewhat – to subscription models. After all, subscriptions are, essentially, continued payments for the continued experience of content. Subscriptions are, however, fixed by chronology. Yearly payments. Monthly payments. They both have their ceilings – even if they’re expensive ceilings. Not so with mobile microtransactions. In a way, it flips the script of your standard subscription. Rather than exchanging capital for continued play, you exchange capital for extended play. This verbiage is important to consider in the context of perpetual commodification as goal. There’s an implication hidden in the monetization of games like Farmville, namely: the player is paying for an advantage, or ‘heightened experience’. Oh, now I have ‘extra’ content – ‘exxxtra’ experience – rather than the sustained, constant experience offered by subscription models. Also, it should be noted that the diminished prices – in comparison to subscription models – of these microtransactions also serve to chase the goal of perpetuity. Millions of people are more willing to make tiny – ultimately more profitable – transactions than hundreds of thousands are to pay for more expensive DLC. This model worked better than anyone ever imagined. Appeal to a broad, casual market with a mobile-form game, and use that format to milk the game for all it’s worth. Actually, having written it out, this concept makes a lot of sense.

Regardless, this format swept the mobile market into a vice grip that it has yet to escape from. It’s an honest-to-god surprise to see a mobile title – let alone a successful one – that doesn’t feature some sort of microtransaction model. Shortly after the release of Farmville, you start to see its influence on non-mobile-style games. Since mainstream mechanics aren’t centered around time-dependent resource acquisition – in the same way that most mobile games are – they had to find a way to adopt this model while preserving the successful mechanical directions of console/PC gaming. As such, mainstream gaming evolved its approach to DLC and the notion of ‘extra’ content. This is why we begin to see the rise of Free to Play – lovingly referred to as Pay to Win. Offer everyone the same experience, but let those willing to scoot a bit of capital to the publishers some wicked cool skins. Maybe some sweet guns. Even double XP! Two years after the release of Farmville – and the rapid growth of a mobile market that many industry alarmists believed would ‘kill’ console gaming – Valve’s Team Fortress 2 goes free to play. Hey, look at that – it’s Valve again. This is no accident – these folks have openly hired several economists over the years, and I can assure you these men and women are doing a lot more than taking in profit data. I should note – while games like Runescape had long since employed a free to play model, their success was merely moderate – meaning they didn’t nearly have the impact that Farmville did. This is why – after Farmville – many MMOs start to abandon the subscription model in favor of free to play. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic didn’t go free to play in 2012 by sheer frustration over competition with WoW, I promise you. Farmville set the standard for the mobile market, the mobile market set a monetization structure for mainstream gaming to emulate, and Valve’s incorporation of free to play set the standard for the rest of the console industry. Hey – if Valve’s doing it, then it must be okay, right? Those alarmists – those who hailed the mobile market as a harbinger of doom – were certainly wrong. Mobile gaming didn’t kill console gaming, but it sure changed it.

It’s at around this time – 2013, to be exact – that we actually see a kind of death strike down a certain type of commodification – dual currency. The now dead currency I refer to is the Microsoft Point, a silly, oft-derided fake money that Microsoft attempted to trick consumers with. Its roots exist in Microsoft’s initial appropriation of subscription models with Xbox live, as it was used – from the beginning – as the currency by which Microsoft quantified the offerings of their online store. 400 points for $5, 800 points for $10, and 1600 points for $20. It was, quite frankly, hot garbage, and everyone knew it. Though it was certainly an effective way of generating capital, it lacked the two components of perpetual digital commodification needed to sustain itself as a system – content and exchange-value opacity. Currency is not content. True Fact. It may lead to content, but it will never be content – and therefore lacks the previously discussed subjective edge of content. It lacks the power. It’s actually a barrier to content – even if that barrier is slight. Microsoft points were an extra step in the acquisition of commodities, and it drove gamers nuts. Not only was it a frustrating mess, it lacked any of the subjectivity of content. One cannot ‘feel’ for an exchange rate. No one comes away from a currency ratio justifying its artistic merit. Not only that, but the ratio itselfwas a constant frustration for gamers. The point values often left consumers with surplus virtual points after making a purchase, so players knew they were being robbed. It was a mess, through and through, and that’s why Microsoft points are dead. They got commodification wrong.

This stands out as one of the few capitalist failings of Microsoft, but it – by no means – represented the end of all dual currency. I called the end of Microsoft points a ‘kind of death’ for dual currency because it still continues to live on – albeit in another, more effective form. We might now better recognize this as the commodity of virtual economies. Team Fortress’ hats. The items of an MMORPG auction house. CS: GO vanity knife skins. All these owe much to both DLC and the concept of dual currency. These items are a lot like dual currency, in that they themselves have been assigned a value that represents an amount of real-world currency, and can be exchanged for said currency. Money for, ostensibly, virtual money. The difference, however, between a Microsoft point and a goofy Team Fortress hat is that the hat is a commodity. It is content. It falls into one of the sub-categories of DLC content – specifically the cosmetic/vanity category. But it’s more than that. Whereas much cosmetic DLC is infinite in supply, Team Fortress hats – for example – are not, and that’s why there’s an economy unto itself for hats, knife skins, and myriad other game vanity items.

This image is also pretty good.2849900-steam_trading_cards

We’re talking about a system where a commodity is so far divorced from its initial creator that it has its own changing, shifting value unto itself. People flip these things for a living – it’s like real estate. There are even distinctive white and black markets for these commodities. “At any time, you can… purchase a Mann Co. Supply Crate key for $2.49… currently on the black market, you can buy the same exact key for as low as $1.24 each” (Cometa, “Yes, there is a black market in Team Fortress 2. Here’s an explanation”). At this point, capital has slipped through the fingers of the publishers and into the hands of the public – and we can’t have that. So what was the answer? Unsurprisingly, it was Valve that came up with one. Steam trading cards. Get cards for playing games! How do you play different games and get different cards? You buy them, of course. It’s commodity fetishism of commodity fetishism. Once again, the exchange of capital often takes place between players, but – now – part of acquiring the means of exchanging that capital requires giving Valve capital. PC gamer’s “How to Make Money from Steam Trading Cards” details the myriad ways to obtain cards – idling in different games, increasing your Steam level by logging in every week, spending money during Steam Sales, etc. (Hatfield, “How to make money from Steam Trading Cards”). All of this pushes players towards spending money on Steam games, thereby sending sweet, juicy capital over Valve’s way. Absolutely, positively, devastatingly brilliant capitalism. Perpetual commodification at its finest.

There’s one final through-thread between all of these offered forms of content. Beyond commodity fetishism, beyond perpetual commodification, beyond the beyond. All this content – with the exception of the finite commodities of the aforementioned virtual economies – is a preciosity: an easily produced item of low worth, exchanged for an item(s) of high worth. This term is, undeniably, part of the DLC conversation. It fits the definition to a ‘T’. The digital nature of virtual goods means that they need only be produced but once – as the supply will never run out. They are commodities of limitless supply and scope. These are digital concepts – nothing more – and they are exchanged for tangible, valuable money. By their very nature, preciosities yield massive gains of capital, and video games have – as an industry – long benefited from this concept.

Hopefully, now you can see why games have come so much father, so much faster than any other artistic medium. Books are limited by their narrative limitations, their distribution models, and even the very nature of their medium – print. While still party to their own capitalist exploitations, the number of opportunities for the written word to engage in commodity fetishism and perpetual commodification pales in comparison to those of video games. Cinema – while closer to games, in many regards, than books – has truly dropped the ball when it comes to capitalism. Studios currently fight digital distribution tooth and nail, missing out on the myriad capitalist opportunities presented by what has ultimately contributed to much of video game capital. I would posit that this is likely why the independent scenes of books and movies lack the visibility and potential profitability of the video game indie scene. Fewer structural opportunities for capital mean fewer independent voices get heard, which is less of a problem for games. At this point, the barriers to visibility and profitability in indie gaming is more of an issue of oversaturation that lack of opportunity.

While the relentless capitalism of games has resulted in some good – like an exquisite independent scene – a lot of artistic integrity is lost to the pursuit of capital. Not all games have fallen victim to this phenomenon, but it’s a problem that seems to only escalate as time has gone on. I should note: I’m not trying to cast dispersions on the people driving these capitalist decisions. They’re likely good people, and the decisions they’ve made – concerning monetization – are completely and totally rational within a capitalist system. Gamers should feel grateful that they’ve fueled the success of our industry. Gamers should also feel a little bit guilty, as we’ve all participated in – and therefore rewarded – this capitalist system. We’re all the bad guys. Extremely fortunate bad guys, but bad guys nonetheless – and what a tangled web we weave. The issue is not with CEOs like Bobby Kotick, but with the system itself. Capitalism has changed video games, and will continue to do so as long as it remains the dominant economic system. This may one day change, but – until that day – try to be mindful of your role in the system.

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