Video Games and the (De)Skilling of Labor.

Rob Wilkie

Video games are Big Business. As Intel's consumer education manager recently declared in The New York Times, the future of a computer industry suffering from decreasing profits and a two year decline in the number of computers sold in the United States now depend upon the development of "An ever increasing multitasking lifestyle and a set of killer applications in music and video" ("For PC Buying, A New Picture", 3/6/2003). The expansion of the video game market is driven by the needs of transnational corporations to find new ways after the crash of the "dot-com" industry to cut short a crisis of profitability. But most cultural critics of video games still adhere to the narcosis of economic theorists such as Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers who promised that a "new economy" driven by technological advances would be the end of class inequality and the economic cycle of boom and bust. From the corporate media to academic cultural theory, video games are understood as a source of "entertainment" and for some, even a source of "liberation". As in most analysis of culture today, the relationship between entertainment as a commodity and the exploitation of the workers who produce it is masked.

In contrast to their appearance as a "frivolous" activity of leisure time that serves (solely) as an escape from the drudgery of work, the fact that video games have become one of the primary cultural means by which the social is made "intelligible"—not only through the narratives deployed within the games, but also what the expansion of the video game market supposedly represents—is a indication of their increasing importance to capitalism as a means of opening new spaces for the exploitation of labor. Video games, in short, are an articulation of the social relations of production, and the need of capitalism to turn all aspects of daily life into avenues for exploiting labor for new profits.

Of course to make any connection between video games and the exploitation of workers is to appear to most people as blowing "video games" way out of proportion. Video games are thought to be a matter of "choice", the desire of the consumer. If one finds them "exploitative", so this narrative goes, one should simply not buy video games. The growth of the game industry over the past ten years—in which three-in-five Americans, or 145 million people, now routinely play video games—is taken by most people as the proof of the "freedom" of the consumer. It is also taken by corporate economists to be continuing proof that the "New Economy" of "cyber-technology" transcends class inequality. As one survey asserts, the growth of the game industry has meant the end of the social barriers of gender, age and class that used to define people: "It used to be just the boy next door, but the profile of today's gamer can't be so easily typecast. It could be a housewife relaxing between carpools, a professional sneaking in a few levels flying across the country, teenage boys and girls in a friendly after-school competition, and even senior citizens" (IDSA Press Release, 4/21/2000). "New Media" theorists echo these same assumptions about consumption as a mode of "freedom" from hierarchy and video games as the basis of the new community of cyber-capitalism: a community without boundaries, inequality, or exploitation. As Dr. Henry Jenkins, the director of media studies at MIT, stated in a recent interview, the emergence of a video game culture represents the "harnessing [of] the creative power of grassroots citizens" and "a tool set for people to tell their own stories, to set their own goals, not a kind of rigidly railed interactive experience, but a participatory culture" (, 4/11/2003). In other words, what links people in a culture and ensures "freedom" in a "democratic society" is their consumption. Consumption, they argue, is the ultimate—and only—"freedom" available.

According to these narratives, because video games operate in a "virtual" space seemingly independent of the reality of inequality in social life, they allow people to interact on a level playing field and thus represent a new culture in which social differences such as class no longer operate as the basis of one's identity. In the most basic terms, it is the idea that in the virtual space of the game all social divisions of class, race, and gender are replaced by one's ability in the game. The class division "outside" the game somehow does not find its way "inside" and, moreover, the "inside" is thought to change the "outside" of the game. Upon closer inspection of this narrative of "liberty" what becomes clear is that the promotion of various cyber-technologies (e.g., software applications) as the basis of an alternative lifestyle free from the boundaries of class has become one of the primary cultural means of smuggling in, in the name of "freedom", the private ownership of the means of production as the natural and inevitable way to organize society. Contrary to most accounts of the cyber-culture of "gaming", video games do not represent a break with the fundamental laws of capital but rather have become the latest means of exploiting labor while extending the fundamental ideology of capitalism in promoting "equality" in the exchange of wages for labor. That is to say, the emergence of a video game culture driven by the endless consumption of new software cannot lead to an alternative society because the development of the video game market is driven by the interests of capital to open new avenues for expanding the conditions of worker exploitation and thus for generating profit.

This is because it is human labor, not ideas, which produces commodities and it is the exploitation of human labor by capitalists that is the source of corporate profits. When workers sell their labor-power for a wage, they sell a part of their day to the capitalist during which time they commit to producing commodities for the capitalist to sell. While this seems at first glance like a "fair" exchange—wages for labor—it is fair only for the capitalist. Although workers earn a wage for working a set amount of hours, this "fair" agreement means they must continue to work even after they have produced enough value to cover their wages. It is the surplus value that workers produce that becomes the private profits of the capitalist. Consequently, it is in the interests of the capitalist to increase the amount of time that goes towards producing surplus value while reducing the amount of time spent for paying wages. One way to achieve this is to find or create cheaper sources of labor by moving plants to countries where living standards are kept low and workers are prohibited from organizing unions or striking against their employers. In what is a concrete example of the absurdity of the capitalist dictum that if you "work hard" you can "get ahead", workers in the South who make the computer components that go into video games and the PCs and consoles that play them are forced to work 70-80 hours per week under extreme conditions that often result in illness, blindness, sterility or death while earning as little as $0.13 cents an hour. Another way in which the capitalist is able to increase the amount of surplus value workers produce is by introducing newer technologies that intensify production and increase what workers can produce during the working day without increasing their wages. While the remarkable technological advances that workers produce could be put to use raising the living standard of all people around the world, it is instead used only to increase the surplus labor the capitalist steals as private profit. Today, because of the developments in production that enable workers to produce more for less, workers in the United States—despite the fact that their labor is often presented as beyond exploitation because they receive higher wages than workers in the South—create almost 400% more value than they receive back in wages. It is not, in short, the amount of wages workers earn that determines their exploitation; it is the fact that they must sell their only commodity, their labor power, to the capitalist to survive. It is in this context that the video game narratives of a post-production information economy have become one of the primary means by which the exploitation of workers is erased and replaced with a pleasing tale of consumption without limits.

The Sims, to name only one example, has become one of the highest selling computer games of all time because of the way in which it substitutes capitalism's real relations of exploitation with the virtual community of cross-class consumption in cyber-space. The game consists of either choosing a single "sim" or "sim family" from the pre-built options offered in the game, or creating one entirely from scratch, and assisting them in navigating their "everyday life". In doing so, the player seems to determine virtually every aspect of the sim's life, and thus is responsible for whether or not their sim becomes "successful". At the beginning of the game, one must purchase and furnish a house, find a job, make friends, and generally create a "fun" environment. As the game proceeds, you must continue to ensure that your sim is a functioning member of society by making sure that they get up for work, take a shower, make breakfast, pay their bills, work in the garden, go to the bathroom… In other words, although the sims are given a limited artificial intelligence and will, from time to time, complete these tasks on their own, in general the player is essentially responsible for living a "virtual" life through their sim in a "virtual" community. The failure of any of these tasks will not only result in an unhappy, "unsuccessful" sim, but potentially could lead to the death of your sim. When playing the game, however, it becomes clear fairly quickly that "success" is another corporate code for "freedom" defined by a strict regimen of steadily increasing consumption on the terms set by capitalism. Without a new oven your sim will not be able to meet its nutritional needs and will be continually hungry, or if you purchase a small color television rather than the more expensive flat-screen television, your sim will complain about feeling "crowded" in their home. Each purchase of a more expensive item means that your sim will gain in "happiness", either directly in providing "fun" points or indirectly by giving your sim more space. All problems, according to the narrative of the game, are "solved" by increasing one's level of consumption.

The popularity of The Sims, despite its essentially "routine" narrative of the drudgery of daily existence in capitalism, speaks less of its "creativity" than it does of the way in which it structures a view of the world that reproduces as natural the daily existence of life under capitalism, and thus provides the most soothing way of spending one's leisure time away from work. Rather than challenge any aspect of the organization of the capitalist working day—in which the ability to "freely" consume is determined by the exploitation of millions of working people—the game reproduces in minute detail as "fact" the way in which all necessities under capitalism, including leisure activities necessary in preparation for going to work again, are transformed into commodities for exchange and are made available only to those who can afford them regardless of need. While violent games such as Grand Theft Auto III have drawn a lot of attention because of the way in which they seemingly promote an anti-social response to the contradictions of capitalist society while ultimately advocating the logic of the free, enterprising individual for hire that is the essential ideology of wage-labor, games like The Sims appear neutral because of the way in which they reproduce the "immediacy" of the working day while erasing the fact that capitalism is not natural, nor inevitable. It is a system built upon exploitation that is historical and thus transformable.

The "neutrality" of cultural practices such as playing video games always works in the interests of the ruling class because of the way in which it reproduces the existing social relations without question. It is important, in this context, to note the way in which even the violence of games like the Grand Theft Auto series, which at one moment becomes an object of moral outrage, is forgivable at another moment once it proves to be profitable. After the release of numerous studies that claimed to link violent behavior with the playing of violent video games, a new study released at the end of May argues that not only are "first-person-shooter" games like Halo and Doom not harmful, but are actually beneficial for children as a means of increasing visual attention skills ("Video-Game Killing Builds Visual Skills, Researchers Report", The New York Times, May, 29, 2003)!  It is, of course, presented as simply a coincidence that these are also among the highest selling games on the market. Leaving aside the fact that contrary to the initial studies one cannot discuss the relationship between the violence of video games and violent behavior independently of the violence of capitalism which deprives people of the means of subsistence as a means of forcing them into exploitative labor relations, what this new study makes clear is that the primary focus of capital is profitability, and that there exists no system of "morality" independent of this fact. That the study legitimates these games on the basis of the future employment skills children can learn by playing them only further indicates that it is the role of video games as a means of producing profit—either directly as commodities or indirectly as means for training labor in new skills—that determines their "importance" in contemporary culture.

Like all of capitalist culture, in other words, video games operate through the ideology of "choice" as a means of obscuring the hidden exploitation of labor that exists in all commodities in order to reassure an alienated working class that their alienation can only be understood on the terms established by the market and can be solved only by increased consumption: it is not the exploitation of wage-labor that creates inequality, it is the inability to work hard and manage one's resources effectively. In reality, the idea that the market can solve all social problems is the means by which owners continue their at times hidden, at times well publicized, but always continuing assault on working people by turning all socially produced resources into avenues for accumulating private profits. And it is the logic that the capitalist market is the only effective means of organizing social life that is today being used to justify the privatization of social services such as health care and education.

It is in this sense that the popularity of The Sims can be understood as an effect of the cynical way in which it provides the player with the appearance of "choice" while reflecting the primary interests of global capital and actually expanding the control of transnational corporations over the lives of workers through the introduction of new commodities. It is not coincidental that, according to a recent study, the majority of the people playing these games are on average 29 years old and now facing the increasing contradictions of social life under capitalism. In a moment of economic crisis in which increasing numbers of people in the formerly "recession-proof" economic sectors of the technology, service and communications industries are now facing the possibility of lay-offs and thus the possibility of not being able to meet their needs because they have no employment, the game naturalizes the exact conditions of exploitation that lead to unpayable healthcare bills, mounting debt, home foreclosures, failing schools, unemployment…  In the virtual environment players are led to see themselves as "above" class contradictions, poverty, and need. In actuality this script identifies with the capitalist for whom all needs are met by virtue of the fact that they command the labor power of others, and thus are able to appropriate tremendous amounts of wealth while millions are forced to live in conditions of dire necessity. While in the real world, what Marx calls the "silent compulsion" of capitalist exploitation has led to a desperate struggle on the part of most workers to manage their declining wages against the increasing costs of privatized social services, The Sims provides the illusion that these problems are not caused by capital, but rather solved by it.

By promoting consumption as the solution to the contradictions of capitalism, games like The Sims become the cultural representation of the extension of capitalism's control over all aspects of social life and thus in actuality increase the contradiction in which the tremendous productivity of labor is put to the use of producing private profits for a few. Consumption, in other words, cannot be a source of individual "freedom" because all consumption is determined by production and thus, under capitalism, it is a reflection of the exploitative relations between owners and workers. While workers must use their wages to purchase the commodities their labor produced, every act of consumption extends the global system in which their labor is exploited because all production under capital—regardless of the intended use of the commodity—is determined by the drive for profit. This is the materiality behind the ideology of "free choice" in the market. In the case of video games, the ability of working people to purchase the game is dependent upon whether or not the sale of their labor-power for wages will provide them with the resources to cover their basic necessities—an increasingly improbably possibility as evidenced by the high level of debt of working people in the United States—while the purchasing power of owners comes from the profits derived from their command over the labor of others. Inequality, in other words, is at the core of the video game industry and cannot be erased by playing games.

What is central to the emergence of these games is the same logic that is used to promote the idea of a New Economy; namely that we have entered a new stage of capitalism in which knowledge, not labor, is the source of value and class is a flexible lifestyle determined not by inequality at the point of production but the "freedom" of consumption. This is particularly the case in the dominant understanding of games called MMPORGs, or "massive multi-player online role-playing games". Unlike other "single-player" or limited "multi-player" games, in which the player(s) navigate their way through a fairly limited plot in achieving a pre-determined goal, the strategy of MMPORGs like Everquest and Star Wars: Galaxies is to improve one's character, or "avatar", through interaction in what essentially constitutes a giant virtual marketplace with thousands of other players. In this sense, the primary selling point of such games is the establishment of a virtual community in which players can create an entire identity, or multiple identities.

EverQuest is one example of a "fantasy role-playing game", played entirely in an online virtual world. Players begin the game by choosing either a male or female character from 14 "races" including barbarian, gnome, half elf, human, or ogre and 15 "classes" (or careers) such as bard, cleric, rogue, or wizard. Each has its strength and weaknesses and in order to survive in the world of Norrath (the virtual world of the game), players must join together to form "guilds" and organize their skills in a variation of a "social contract". It is in this set-up that Everquest has come to be considered a "pure" model—because it appears spontaneous—of the natural functioning of any social economy. In "Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier" (, an extensive sociological study of the economy of EverQuest, Edward Castronova explains why he thinks the game is an example of the way in which cybercapitalism is effectively organized beyond the traditional class boundaries of owners and workers. He writes,

Unlike Earth, in VWs [virtual worlds] there is real equality of opportunity, as everybody is born penniless and with the same minimal effectiveness. In a VW, people choose their own abilities, gender, and skin tone instead of having them imposed by accidents of birth. Those who cannot run on Earth can run in a VW. On Earth, reputation sticks to a person; in VWs, an avatar with a bad reputation can be replaced by one who is clean. (14)

It is this "self-fashioning" ability of players in the virtual economy of the game that leads Castronova to propose the relationship between the economy of EverQuest and the economy of cybercapitalism. Castronova calls the "work" that players put into developing their characters, "avatar capital". Deploying a variation of what Pierre Bourdieu calls "cultural capital"—or the idea that class is determined by your lifestyle, or what you think about yourself, regardless of your objective economic position in society—Castronova advances here an economy theory in which it is ideas that advance social life, not human labor and as such promotes the idea that in a post-labor economy, class and exploitation have become things of the past because, in the most basic sense, everyone can have a "good idea". He argues, "In a post-industrial society, it is social status, more than anything else, that drives people to work so diligently all their lives. In this respect, VWs are truly a simulacrum of Earth society" (15).

But "social status" is a reflection of class and class is not determined by the skills that one has learned, but rather by one's objective position in the division of labor. That this is the case can be seen in the recent collapse of the technology industry. Complex computer skills that once required years of study and often resulted in a high-paying job, a nice home, and other aspects which make up the "social status" of middle-class life, today have been made simple by more recent technological developments and no longer command the kinds of high wages they once did, if they have not been entirely eliminated. As a recent article in Fortune magazine explains:

Increasingly, supereducated and highly paid workers are finding themselves traveling the same road their blue-collar peers took in the late '80s. Then, hardhats in places like Flint, Mich., and Pittsburgh were suffering from the triple threat of computerization, tech-led productivity gains, and the relocation of their jobs to offshore sites. Machines—or low-wage foreigners—could just as easily do their work. The white-collar crowd was concerned, but they knew that those three forces would also help get the American economy humming. And they did. Now that trust has come back to haunt them. Technology has allowed companies to handle rising sales without adding manpower. Gains in productivity mean one white-collar worker can do the work that would have taken two or three of his peers to do ten years ago ("Down and Out in White-Collar America", June 9, 2003). 


This is the cruel reality of life under capitalism that Castronova's celebration of "skills" cannot account for. Skills that today make workers "employable" in jobs in which they can earn enough to provide for their families are no guarantee that tomorrow they will not be facing the possibility of being out of work or of no longer being able to earn enough to survive, much less maintain "middle-class" status. The fact that under capitalism workers have nothing to sell but their labor power means that any "skills" they have spent tremendous time to acquire to make their labor power more valuable could just as easily tomorrow command lower wages, or become entirely unnecessary. It is this fact that condemns working people to a life of constant uncertainty as long as capitalism remains.


And yet, it is the same notion of "freedom" by way of skills promoted by corporate economists that left critics, who seem to challenge the "free-market" ideas these games openly promote, have also grasped in their embrace of video games. For example, in her book Life on the Screen, cyber-theorist Sherry Turkle echoes Castronova's theory of the impact of the emergence of a similar concept of "avatar capital" for transforming social relations through the creation of virtual worlds in which "virtual characters converse with each other, exchange gestures, express emotions, win and lose virtual money, and rise and fall in social status" (183). According to Turkle, with the development of these games we are witnessing, "the eroding boundaries between the real and the virtual, the animate and the inanimate, the unitary and the multiple self" (10). This sentiment was echoed in a recent report that along with the "typical" behaviors, The Sims Online had produced an entire counter-culture in which players have started communes and virtual universities and have begun to participate in anti-corporate actions such as a virtual protest at a virtual McDonald's in the game. In this context, the theory of "avatar capital" is read as opening a space of resistance to the dominant discourses by "re-appropriating" the means of representation. The seeming fluidity of life in the virtual space is, following this argument, enough to overcome the strict economic divisions that exist outside of it.


What both sides ignore, however, in their rush to embrace the game form as the basis of a new "virtual" community and the prime example of the "freedom" of the new economy, is that the emergence of the game market is not a product of gamers' desires, nor does it represent an industry driven by "ideas" as opposed to labor. On the contrary, computer and video games have become the primary means of lifting the technology industry out of a crisis of overproduction that began two years ago and the means to extend the exploitation of labor. To address for the moment only the immanent profitability of the video game market, recent figures suggest that somewhere between one and four million subscribers worldwide play games like EverQuest, and that revenues from on-line gaming are estimated to grow to $1.7 billion by next year. However, it is not only the sales figures that video games generate that has interested the technology industry and has pressured corporate giants like Intel, Microsoft, Sony and others to enter the game market ("The Biggest Game in Town", Fortune, 2 September 2003). It is the fact that video games generate a market for the surplus computer equipment that, after years of increasing productivity and declining wages, cannot be sold. That is to say, while video games promote the appearance of "escape" from the "real world" economy and its problems, the ability to achieve the "freedom" the game promises requires either that one have a fast computer, a cd-rom, an internet connection, a sufficient hard-drive, a high quality graphics card, and in an increasing number of cases a monthly fee above the initial cost of the game, or that one purchase a "game console" such as the Xbox or PS2 (which merely incorporates all of these products—which otherwise unsold would remain unrealized profit for the capitalist—into a single commodity).  In other words, the debate over the limit of "freedom" within the game ignores that the economic impetus behind the game is that it expands the need for other commodities and thus extends the reach of the capitalist market regardless of any "anti-corporate" intensions of participants.


Contrary to the idea that video games represent the emergence of a post-industrial organization of production without class, the emergence of the video game market reflects the interests of transnational capital in intensifying the exploitation of labor while expanding the monopoly control of capitalists over all aspects of social life. While the debate over the game industry has generally focused on whether or not it constitutes a new economic model or a new cultural community, and thus accept the terms that consumption is the basis of "freedom", this debate displaces the fact that at its core the game industry is a mode of managing labor, of introducing new modes of private accumulation while representing such modes of accumulation as "democratic". Although video games are taken to represent a world beyond class, it is the exploited labor of workers who produce the games that enables the market to develop. By promoting consumption as a mode of "resistance", and by creating "demand" for new commodities, programs like EverQuest and The Sims train workers in the inevitability of the capitalist system at a moment of increasing class contradictions.


Video games do not represent an alternative to the capitalist mode of production, despite the dominant claims they open the space for the emergence of spontaneous, de-regulated, and post-capitalist "cyber-communities" to emerge. On the contrary, they have become the latest means of extending the market-share of the technology industry in a moment of economic crisis. Video games are part of the extension of need that capitalism engenders and, thus, the expansion of the control of capitalism over the daily lives of workers. In short, such software does not break capitalism, but rather provides the foundation for the expansion of commodity production required for the realization of profit.  

THE RED CRITIQUE 9 (Fall/Winter 2003)