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Neocolonialism and Videogame Culture

November 10, 2008 | By

Videogame culture offers a startling example of how a public digital space or commons can successfully resist the silicon dictatorship of multinational capitalism, even on the latter’s own high-tech grounds.

One of the strangest paradoxes of the contemporary mass media is the gradual but unmistakable radicalization of the videogame culture. Almost every other branch of the mass media, with a few signal exceptions (primarily documentary film and the music culture), has been deeply complicit with the economic, social and political predations of neoliberal ideology and its nightmarish wars of neocolonial aggression. By contrast, videogame artists and fans have created some of the most thorough-going critiques of both neoliberalism and neocolonial accumulation around.

This track record of resistance is all the more extraordinary, considering that videogames are the purest products of digital capitalism and multinational consumerism imaginable. Originally an obscure spin-off of the children’s toy culture of the late 1970s, videogames exploded into mass prominence thanks to the home console systems of the mid-1980s. By the late 1990s, games had evolved from simple two-dimensional action narratives or jumping puzzles into complex, three-dimensional game-worlds. Since the turn of the century, videogames have developed increasingly sophisticated storylines, character animation and voice-acting, to the point where the newest games are the aesthetic equal of – and occasionally even superior to – anything in the repertoire of television, theater or film.

Neocolonialism and Videogame Culture

In 2007, videogames accounted for close to $40 billion in sales, according to NPD and other industry trade groups. This is much larger than the approximately $25 billion in world box office ticket sales for cinema, though somewhat smaller than the $54 billion registered by annual DVD sales and rentals.[1] While box office receipts and DVD sales have either stagnated or experienced very slow growth, videogames continue to grow at double-digit rates across a wide range of platforms, from cellphones and personal computer to consoles, with no sign of any slowdown.

Historically, the price tag of such overwhelming commercial success has always been political mainstreaming and the neutralization of critical voices. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Hollywood studio system displaced or marginalized the film auteurs of the silent era, while the corporate robber barons of RCA hijacked and privatized the radio broadcasting system of the US. Robert McChesney’s masterful The Problem of the Media documents in copious detail how this trend has continued to the present-day era, as giant media oligopolies have gobbled up cable television, newspapers, magazines and book publishing. As a result, the mass media of our planet is increasingly driven by the quest for maximum advertising revenue and profitability, at the expense of aesthetic quality, public accountability, or accuracy in news reporting.

Yet the videogame culture is a startling exception to this rule. Blockbuster franchises such as Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto and Square Enix’ Final Fantasy have delivered scorching repudiations of the US Empire. Meanwhile, a range of equally popular series such as Valve’s Half Life and Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid denounce the violence of neocolonial accumulation with astonishing frankness.

The evolution of Valve’s science fiction spectacular Half Life is paradigmatic of this shift. The very first game, released in 1998, was a savvy rewriting of the alien invasion movie. Scriptwriter Marc Laidlaw transformed the Hollywood alien invasion movie into a stinging denunciation of interstellar neoliberalism. Players stepped into the shoes of Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist who must battle against invading aliens as well as the death-squads of the US military. At the end of the game, Laidlaw pulls the rug from underneath the player’s feet, by revealing that the aliens had been provoked by a prior invasion by human soldiers into their world.

Half Life

The evolution of Valve’s science fiction spectacular Half Life is paradigmatic of this shift.

Valve’s next iteration of the franchise, Half Life 2 and the ongoing episodes of Half Life 3, extend this localized critique of US neoliberalism into a larger critique of neocolonialism. These games depict a devastated near-future Earth which is being strip-mined of its ecological and biological wealth by the forces of mysterious interstellar colonialists, known as the Combine. In response, the human race sets aside its differences and rises up in tandem with sympathetic aliens to resist the Combine’s occupation.

Other franchises have been equally innovative in fields ranging from post-Cold War geopolitics to anti-neoliberal micropolitics. The game-world of Square Enix’ epic role-playing game Final Fantasy 12 offers an intricately realized map of post-American geopolitics, where insurgents of a mythical country set in the desert (a lightly fictionalized version of Iraq) must battle against the forces of an invading (and obviously American) Empire, by avoiding sectarian bloodshed and creating a unified worldwide resistance to imperialism. Final Fantasy 12 also deserves recognition for its forthright repudiation of the toxic sexism and racism of the role-playing genre, by portraying some of the most complex, intriguing and multicultural female characters ever created.

There are three little-known reasons for this extraordinary aesthetic productivity. The first is that the videogame culture has profound and enduring links to the open source software revolution. On the most pragmatic level, videogames are nothing but bundles of software code, and the development of that code is excruciatingly difficult. Most films are shot and released within a single year, but the average videogame takes anywhere from eighteen months to three years to create. As a result, game studios depend on skilled programmers and open source tools to develop, debug and distribute their games. At the same time, fans have begun to circulate vast swathes of videogame media throughout the internet, often using open source or freeware media tools of various kinds. The result has been an explosion of non-commercial media which cannot be policed, monetized or commodified.

Second, the videogame industry does not depend on advertising revenue for its income. Final sales to consumers make up almost the entire $40 billion in last year’s videogame revenues. Though estimates vary, most industry analysts estimate that videogame advertising reached somewhere around $400 million in 2006.[2] For the sake of comparison, Screen Digest has estimated the total amount of television advertising in the US at $65 billion in 2006 – far more than US movie sales (about $9.5 billion) and the sales of DVDs and video rentals (about $24 billion) combined. Put bluntly, in the field of television, ad revenues heavily outweigh actual consumer purchases, whereas in the videogame industry, consumer purchases almost completely eclipse ad revenue. As a result, the production of videogames is driven largely by fan approval (or disapproval) and the creation of persistent game-worlds, otherwise known as franchises, and not by corporate marketing campaigns. While parts of these franchises are owned by game studios and distributors, significant aspects of those franchises have become the collective property of the emergent public space of the internet, a.k.a. the digital commons.

Neocolonialism and Videogame Culture

The game-world of Square Enix’ epic role-playing game Final Fantasy 12 offers an intricately realized map of post-American geopolitics, where insurgents of a mythical country set in the desert (a lightly fictionalized version of Iraq) must battle against the forces of an invading (and obviously American) Empire, by avoiding sectarian bloodshed and creating a unified worldwide resistance to imperialism.

 

The third reason is the dramatic expansion of the videogame audience. It’s worth noting that during the first two decades of their development, videogames were an elite First World cultural form, accessible only to a small number of educated and computer-literate consumers. By the mid-1980s, the total videogame audience was probably not more than 150 million people. A decade later, a range of new consoles and massive industry growth transformed games into a much more plebian media, available throughout the wealthy industrialized countries of the European Union, the US, Canada, Australia and Japan. Still, this was a market of slightly less than one billion people, a far smaller audience than world cinema or television.

The third reason is the dramatic expansion of the videogame audience. It’s worth noting that during the first two decades of their development, videogames were an elite First World cultural form, accessible only to a small number of educated and computer-literate consumers. By the mid-1980s, the total videogame audience was probably not more than 150 million people. A decade later, a range of new consoles and massive industry growth transformed games into a much more plebian media, available throughout the wealthy industrialized countries of the European Union, the US, Canada, Australia and Japan. Still, this was a market of slightly less than one billion people, a far smaller audience than world cinema or television.

During the past five years, the videogame audience – as well as the potential pool of producers – has expanded yet again. Handheld devices, cellphone games and entry-level consoles are now accessible to an audience which numbers in the multiple billions. The urban regions of China and India, the countries of Eastern Europe, South Korea, Taiwan, and Russia, the oil producers in the Middle East, the booming semi-peripheries of Latin America (in particular, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile and Argentina), and fast-growing cities throughout Southeast Asia are in the process of adding somewhere between 2 billion to 4 billion potential consumers to the videogame market. This titanic transformation of the gaming landscape has been driven partly by the ongoing telecommunications and digital revolutions, and partly by conscious action by powerful developmental states. South Korea, China, Russia and the European Union have invested heavily in public broadband, digital media, and online services of all kinds, and they are reaping the rewards by experiencing a true boom in indigenous videogame production and consumption.

That said, one of the most important portals for games will be cheap and affordable handheld devices and cellphones. According to the ITU, telephone density (landlines plus mobiles) in 2006 was 24 connections per 100 people for the continent of Africa, 95 for the Americas, 45 for the whole of Asia, and 141 for the continent of Europe. To be sure, these averages conceal vast regional disparities: China had a teledensity of 63, a figure typical of a middle-income country, while the comparable Indian figure was only 18.[3] In addition, these numbers are increasing with dizzying speed. By January 2008, the Economic Times reported that teledensity in India rose to 25 connections per 100 people (incidentally, this is the same level reached by China back in 2001).[4] Cellphone connections continue to proliferate with equal vigor across the rest of planet.

There are two object lessons here for those of us who critique or create mass media, as well as for ordinary consumers. First, we need to start taking the idea of cross-media platforms seriously. Narratives are no longer limited to a specific genre or device, or a specific national broadcasting space – say, an American TV show on a US cable television network. In addition to the rapid expansion of indigenous television networks across the entire planet, ranging from India’s ZeeTV to Brazil’s Globo, and from Russia’s Channel One to China’s CCTV, the rise of digital media is accelerating the transmission of narratives between the various branches of the mass media. A musical motif created by a nationally broadcast television series might be borrowed by a console videogame cut-scene, and later migrate into the DVD release of an animation narrative, before eventually turning into a cellphone ring tone. We need critical tools capable of navigating the complexity of these new spaces, and decoding both their positionality and their aesthetic content.

Second, this vast expansion of the viewing audience and media platforms comes with a price tag. This price tag is the responsibility for thinking historically. Media works are, like any other aesthetic document, force-fields of historical contradictions. It is not enough to celebrate their creation and dissemination. We need tools of interpretation capable of critiquing their forms and mapping out the radical potential encoded in their content – the potential for new forms of cross-border solidarity, new forms of media literacy, and new forms of collective media ownership and innovation, a.k.a. digital socialism. Videogame culture offers a startling example of how a public digital space or commons can successfully resist the silicon dictatorship of multinational capitalism, even on the latter’s own high-tech grounds. It’s up to us, as the collectivity of consumers, creators and digital proletarians, to realize that promise.

Endnotes

  1. While there is no central statistical agency which tracks videogame sales, there are solid numbers available from industry analysts on specific national markets. Analyst firm NPD estimates 2007 sales in the US at $17.94 billion and Canadian sales at $1.5 billion, Enterbrain estimates Japanese sales at $6.3 billion, ELSPA estimates British sales at $3.13 billion, Pearl Research estimates Korean sales at $2 billion, GfK and IEAA estimate Australian sales at $1.15 billion, and IDC/China Publishers peg Chinese sales at $1.96 billion. Videogame sales are considerably larger than world box office revenues of film, estimated by the Motion Picture Association of America at approximately $25.8 billion in 2006. However, Eurostat’s European Audiovisual Observatory Focus 2007 report calculates world box office revenues were only $24.2 billion in 2006. This essay splits the difference, i.e. assumes a figure of $25 billion. Last year, box office receipts and DVD sales and rentals either stagnated or grew only slightly in the major markets of the US, Japan and Europe (cinema admissions continue to stagnate or trend down, while the average price of a DVD continues to fall). DVD sales and rentals are still larger than videogame revenues, racking up $52 billion in worldwide sales for 2006, according to data from the International Video Federation’s European Video Yearbook 2007 and Screen Digest.
  2. Paula Lehman. “Mad Ave Clicks With the Gamers.” Business Week, November 26, 2007.
  3. International Telecommunications Union. Accessed April 4, 2008.
  4. Economic Times. Accessed April 4, 2008.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Dennis Redmond is an independent scholar and media critic in the US, who works extensively with multinational video culture and digital media (esperially the 3D videogame). Some of his work is available online at (http://www.efn.org/~dredmond).
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