In the 1960's Guy Debord wrote a book, Society of the Spectacle, which presented an argument about how this was the, "...historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.". It's a somewhat cryptic comment but basically boils down to the idea that almost everything we experience becomes framed in terms of capitalism. It's also one of those ideas that, once you see it in action somewhere, you start seeing it everywhere. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as we all need some sort of shared frame work to make sense of the world, but understandably it can be seen as a cheapening of the experiences of life (which in of itself is a phrase framed in capitalism).
Rules of the Spectacle :
- The subject must be attentive enough for long enough to consume or comply.
- Vision is arranged, organised and disposed within various visual regimes, the most influential and pervasive of which is capitalism.
- Every part and activity of sociocultural life are made available for consumption and promoted as commodities.
- Subjects experience and understand the world and themselves more or less exclusively through commodities and acts of consumption.
The cultural field of sports is an obvious example where it can be seen happening, but games, particularly digital games, present us with numerous examples as well. When I was playing through Fable 3 I couldn't help but notice it in action. I'm not sure why that particular game seemed to present it in such a glaring light, maybe it was just because I was seeing it in other places, maybe it was because of the games setting (an industrial revolution in a fantasy setting) - either way I often felt like I couldn't escape it. In particular I noticed it in terms of the relationships with other characters in the world - as you gained their friendship (through social actions) you gained a form of income which could be spent to improve you character. There was a direct equation between social links and commodities - and that made me somewhat uncomfortable.
Fable 3 - You need to commoditise more people to gain their trust!
Diverging back to the historical origins of the digital RPG, the table top game relied upon the gamesmaster building these relationships with the players. There was no "currency" that the players had except the bond the gamesmaster built for the characters. The bond between each of the players operated on the same rules that we experience in the physical world - social interaction, and I've played in parties where there were strong friendships and simmering dislikes (in some cases barely contained hatred - either based on the players or the characters themselves). This was always one of the great appeals of table top gaming, it uses the same rules and codes that we are already familiar with as part of the narrative construction - digital games don't have that same freedom and as such need to have other systems in place to try and replicate the experience.
Sometimes games can manage this simply through a carefully constructed narrative, where the players become attached to the environmental characters just through the skill of the writing. The player creates an imagined bond through the narrative - when done well this often presents the strongest replication of the table top experience. However in more open games there often needs to be a system for the player to gauge how they stand with individuals, groups, townships and even nations. Breaking these relationships down to a commodity nature has always been cumbersome at best, outright debasing at worst. It is, however, a necessity and the ideology of capitalism does present a framework that most players will be easily be able to grasp in an abstract sense.
Alyx and Gordon Freeman from Half Life 2 - a strong narrative relationship in action.
It makes sense that game producers will use capitalism (and currency in particular) to provide players with a measure of abstract social concepts in games - everyone likes to know where they stand. However I often find it troubling when there is a direct link, between commodities (in terms of currency, like in Fable 3) and social relations. Perhaps it is something which I am just sensitive about - I just feel that it undermines some of the fantastic worlds which we, as players, get to experience through gaming. Of course not all games do it so obviously and many game producers place social interaction as a key component of their games without resorting to such obvious measures of social capital. It's a difficult area to try and simulate and I'm sure we'll see more and more complexity in the realm of social interaction in gaming.
So capitalism, as an ideology is present in many of the games that we play, and it frames how we interact with the digital environment. Again, this isn't always a bad thing, but it does have implications for how game worlds are built. There is an element of simulation in many games - and I can't help but wonder at the effect of experiencing worlds in which social interaction is framed in terms of a commodity. Certainly social capital is something which has value, but that value is not always related to commerce as we all know. Value is also in the experiences we share with other players and the digital creations which populate the game worlds in which we play.
Debord, G., and K. Knabb. Society of the Spectacle. Rebel Press, 2006. Print.
Schirato, Tony. Reading the Visual. Allen & Unwin, 2004. Print.Schirato, Tony, et al. Understanding Media Studies. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.