As video games have grown into an entertainment juggernaut in recent years, the industry’s largest gaming publishers have become awash in controversy. These include the widespread adoption of predatory monetization techniques, poor working conditions, systemic misogyny in the workplace, monopoly behavior, false advertising and the release of broken, unfinished games being rushed out to market.
The industry has become an almost cartoonish case study in the worst aspects of corporate greed and capitalism. With nearly 180 million gamers in the United States, the industry has also become an important hub for ideological struggle.
Longtime gamers have grown increasingly frustrated at how these game publishers have not only taken more money out of their wallet — but also the joy out of their favorite hobby. The anger and backlash at the industry could provide an opportunity for the left to mobilize and win over much of the gaming community. This is all the more important as gamers have been courted heavily by right-wing forces for much of the last decade.
“A Testing Ground for New Monetization”
One issue that has generated intense concern has been the widespread growth of “microtransactions.” Broadly speaking microtransactions are in-game transactions that enable players to turn real money into digital goods to gain a competitive edge or add cosmetic items. This new form of monetization has grown into a $67 billion cash cow for the industry.
This has radically changed the gaming landscape. For decades, gamers would pay for a game once at the point of purchase and play it for as long as they wished at no extra cost. Now, gamers are encouraged to spend more on the same game for years. Young children often fall victim to this. In 2020, a 6 year old from Connecticut spent $16,000 on a Sonic the Hedgehog game with his parents’ credit card.
“The video games industry has been a testing ground for new monetization strategies and ways to make a profit,” said Jamie Woodcock, author of Marx at the Arcade: Consoles, Controllers and Class Struggle, in an interview with Truthout. “Games therefore provide an important study in how culture is turned into a profitable commodity, often in ways that take some of the fun out of the process.”
Often these in-game transactions mimic casino-style gambling with a randomized reward system, sometimes called “loot boxes.” These have been designed to psychologically trap gamers into a cycle of addiction. The game NBA 2K20, for instance, had a simulated slot machine, which would spin as players bought more cards to improve their online teams. Joe Vargas, host of the “Angry Joe Show” on YouTube, accused the company of “glorifying gambling” by “putting a casino in my basketball game.”
In June Activision Blizzard released the most aggressively monetized game ever made, the free-to-play, online role-playing game Diablo Immortal. A report from Kotaku showed estimates from gamers that it could cost over $500,000 for their in-game character to reach maximum strength, far exceeding the maximum attributes costs of other “role-playing” games.
The swift transition from brick-and-mortar stores and physical game cartridges and discs to downloadable products means it is no longer clear what it means to own a game or movie. The rapid changes give the video game industry a chance to profit as much as possible before regulators around the world finally catch up. In the interim, the gaming industry shows no signs of ceasing its onslaught of anti-consumer behavior.
Far Right Ideology and the Gaming Community
Notably, the consumer and labor rights issues are the battles the left has been fighting for decades. Given the intensity of anger and backlash from the gaming community at this shameful corporate behavior, this could provide an opportunity for mobilization for the left. The gaming industry has become a useful case study in exposing how corporate greed can not only destroy our rights as consumers, but also bleed all the fun out of entertainment. This is especially important considering how much gamers have been targeted by reactionary culture warriors and right-wing political interests.
“The right — and also importantly far right and fascists — have been organizing effectively in online spaces, including games, for quite some time now. Many on the left haven’t taken these debates seriously,” Woodcock told Truthout.
For years, reactionary right-wing elements have been trying to appeal to the gaming community — and with an alarming degree of success. YouTube channels like The Quartering and Geeks + Gamers have earned millions of views mostly by decrying perceived “wokeness” in games, movies and TV shows. These channels and right-wing commentators often lament the inclusion of diverse characters or complain that games put less emphasis on sexualizing female protagonists.
These critiques became common starting in 2014 when a phenomenon called “Gamergate” emerged. This was an umbrella term describing an online harassment campaign by misogynistic media outlets and online trolls, who claimed feminism and progressivism were destroying the video game industry. Some women even had their personal addresses and details leaked online.
Some say these misogynistic conspiracy campaigns played a small role in the ascent of Trumpism in 2015-16. Vox writer Aja Romano described Gamergate as “arguably a watershed moment and learning experience for many future Trump supporters” that showed a “trend toward systemized online harassment and increased ideological polarization.”
A 2021 report from the Brookings Institution explained: “Mobilizing gamers to fight for conservative values in the culture war turned out to be wildly popular. [Trump administration official Steve] Bannon turned the rhetorical strategies and organizing tools of Gamergate into powerful weapons for the Trump campaign, and with them, he mobilized a small army of very angry, very online young men into effective political operatives.”
The rise of “anti-woke” militants in the gaming community has been a source of frustration for some on the left — especially since there is so much consensus from gamers online about how greed and the push for short-term profits has irreversibly changed the industry for the worse.
“It boggles my fucking mind how we lost gamers to the right,” lamented one left-wing gamer in a viral post from 2020. “Capitalism is the biggest cause of the decline of gaming.”
The Gamers’ Revolt: An Opportunity for Mobilization?
While gaming publishers have profited greatly due to their aggressive monetization, this has not happened without immense backlash from the online gaming community. Contempt for greedy publishers has not been relegated merely to left-wing gamers; even apolitical voices and conservatives have had their say.
“Even these conservative ‘gamer bros’ will criticize the [industry’s] predatory business practices, including microtransactions and loot boxes,” YouTube host Kavernacle explained in a video about reactionary gaming communities online. “They’re actually criticizing capitalism and the capitalist system. They just don’t really realize it.”
As consumers of games continue to endure these new monetization schemes, Woodcock explained, the left can help educate the gaming community.
“Given the rise of far right across many parts of the world, it is important to make sure that the left is organizing and putting forward an alternative vision — whether in video game spaces or more widely.”
Some interesting parallels include:
*The predatory scalpers that got rich selling next-generation game consoles at a huge markup are quite like the private health insurers in the U.S. health care system. They play the role of a needless, parasitic middleman that inflates prices for consumers.
* The tactics video game publishers use to push gambling mechanics onto children have been compared to the role tobacco companies played in pushing nicotine onto kids in the late 20th century.
*The overtime crunch game developers have faced has parallels to Amazon warehouse workers who have been treated by their bosses like disposable widgets.
*The lenient ratings systems from the Electronic Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which has rated games with simulated slot machines as appropriate for children, is similar to how credit agencies enabled banks during the sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2007-08.
*The lack of competition facing the Madden football series, which has paid for exclusive license to use the NFL logo and players, parallels how telecom companies benefit from monopoly pricing.
*Continuous mergers among publishers have led to similar consolidation as mass media outlets in the United States.
*The lobbying done by the Electronic Software Association to keep Congress from interfering with the games industry is effectively the same as the way other industries flex their lobbying power.
Gamers have shown a desire to create change in recent years. For instance, when there was massive growth of non-fungible tokens or NFTS — a controversial digital asset that has been at the crux of numerous scams — gamers resisted efforts to try and bring these into the major video game titles.
When Electronic Arts introduced expensive new microtransactions in the Star Wars game Battlefront II in 2017, the backlash from gamers was enough to dent the company’s stock prices by $3 billion, according to CNBC. To this day, the Reddit post from the company defending the practice is the most disliked post ever made on the site. Electronic Arts has been named among the most hated companies numerous times and there is a Wikipedia page devoted solely to the backlash the company has received.
There has been far more progress outside the U.S., where consumer rights are taken more seriously. Belgium has banned predatory loot boxes. In the summer of 2022, the Norwegian Consumer Council released a seminal report on these tactics called: “Insert Coin: How the Gaming Industry Exploits Consumers Using Loot Boxes.” The report found the industry was “exploiting customers through predatory mechanisms, fostering addictions [and] targeting vulnerable consumer groups,” among other issues. At least 20 consumer groups from 18 different countries voiced support for the findings.
Despite the perception that the right is winning the culture war for the gaming community, there are indeed a host of left-wing activists, organizations and leaders in the gaming community.
Consumer rights organizations, media reform groups and organized labor have seen the most success so far. In May, the first gaming employee union in a major U.S. studio was formed at Activision, despite months of union-busting tactics. These kinds of labor victories, Woodcock said, have the potential to “fundamentally reshape the video game industry, changing not only how games are made, but also the decisions about what sorts of games get made and why.”
Other groups, unions and nonprofits, including Public Citizen, Demand Progress, Communications Workers of America, and others have been lobbying the Federal Trade Commission to scrutinize big mergers and regulate the virtual currency used in microtransactions.
The organization Able Gamers has been pushing for gaming to help eliminate social isolation among those with disabilities. It has made progress in making games more accessible to those with issues such as blindness. YouTube channels made by Kavernacle, James Stephanie Sterling, and others serve as counterweights to the reactionaries. They have countered the most pervasive right-wing tropes about the gaming industry, outlined socialist themes in games and fought for more accessibility and inclusivity in the industry.
Many game developers themselves have expressed anti-capitalist sentiments, both in and out of their games. There is no shortage of games showing the dystopian future of a world destroyed by capitalism. Some examples include Hideo Kojima of the Metal Gear series. The creators of Disco Elysium are openly Marxist and even shouted out Marx and Engels during a victory speech at an awards ceremony.
Still, recent reports suggest they were removed “involuntarily” from the company while existing leaders seek to hire a monetization expert — a fitting example of the state of the game industry in 2022.
The investors for Disco Elysium appear to be more interested in producing a sequel to make even more money, Woodcock told Truthout.
“After all, developers who praise Marx and Engels at award ceremonies are not likely to get on that well with corporate partners,” he said.