Games that avoid capitalistic design •

Games that avoid capitalistic design •

In November 2021, narrative designer Megnha Jayanth released a transcript of a talk titled “White Protagonism and Imperial Pleasures in Game Designonline. In it she argues that the games are deeply rooted in Anglo-American and European imperialism. It’s a complex argument, and I strongly recommend that you read the whole essay, but there is one point in particular which I clung to – games, according to Jayanth, are hard to extract from capitalism and colonialism, given that the cultures of taste in the industry are both.

Capitalism has many ways of influencing industry; Here I will focus on the design. Monetization and game-to-win structures are two particularly blatant forms of capitalism that are hotly debated, but less obvious forms of capitalism exist in most popular video games. There are obvious examples where games put us to work, like the cycle of work and consumption in Animal Crossing that many memes poke fun at even though we enjoy it, or management games and city builders. But the work is also inherent in filling out a skill tree, or a progress bar. The satisfaction you get from leveling up is designed by an inherently capitalist reward loop – you’ve worked hard for something, so as a reward you get something to do more work with.

However, many games are fun because, unlike many real-life moments, the work we put into them brings visible results. Interactivity allows for creative forms of self-expression that mean your farm in Stardew Valley, your island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, your factory in Factoria, they are uniquely yours. But with marketing campaigns selling us the possibility of 500 hours of fun game time for a particularly dedicated group of people (note the choice of word!), and the recontextualization of binging and grinding into something positive, it’s worth wondering if games, too, can’t offer an alternative to cycles that keep you working. To that end, I spoke to some recent game designers who many gamers and reviewers have noted for their cuteness – the connection between cuteness and anti-capitalist design is often not accidental.

Chicory: a colorful story

Greg Lobanov and company designed Chicory out of a desire to find a fun painting mechanic in video games first and foremost. Given that this is the story of a painter who caves under the weight of expectations, it’s no surprise that Chicory came out anti-capitalist in its conception. It would have been easy to make the game more capitalistic, Lobanov tells me, because currency fits easily into many types of games, whether it’s experience points, skill points or trade references. . “We’ve avoided any kind of renewable resource, which means there’s nothing for players to work on forever, which changes the relationship with the game a lot.” Even trash and outfits can only be picked up once, although no one would have questioned the reappearance of trash. But Lobanov was happy to give players the freedom, the freedom to color only as much as needed or as much as they wanted, the freedom to pick up collectibles or leave them – and yet everyone would experience the end of the same way.

Freedom is an important anti-capitalist notion associated with games. Capitalist structures fill your time – if you don’t connect, you miss, if you miss certain elements, you remain weak. Again, all of these things can be fun, but a lot of capitalism is based on the idea that doing something is always better than doing nothing.

But doing nothing, antithetical as it may seem to an interactive experience such as a video game, is a great way to help you refocus, to realize that you can exist without generating anything for anyone. I always like to take Abzû’s meditation sequences from Giant Squid as an example, because they only brought me joy looking at the creatures around me, just like a painting can bring you joy just by looking at it.

The one game that got a lot of talk last year in reference to freedom was Shedworks’ Sable. Sable retains some business mechanics, but as creative director Gregorios Kythreotis tells me, Sable’s real focus is on its protagonist’s coming-of-age journey. Sable is not a hero, which means no one is dependent on her progress. The world will keep turning if she decides to take it easy. Taking it easy is not in the capitalism playbook. As the American dream most often illustrates, every moment you pull yourself together can be the one – you could have the next big idea, you could be anyone, you could have it all. Or you could just be who you are right now and stare at a brightly colored mountain range. “We wanted this world to encourage and support young people in their exploration of self and designed the game around that,” says Kythreotis. “You are also free to ignore some requests. You can complete the game and the only things we ask the player to do are opening and ending because everything else is optional hopefully it’s more like a favor than an obligation.”


The crux of the matter is that capitalism is going nowhere, and the purpose of this article is not to make anyone feel bad about the systems that, while intrinsically connected to it, still bring you harm. joy. But diversity, or even just trying something new, can enrich our medium. To this end, it may be possible to relax certain capitalist concepts without erasing them completely. I’ve written extensively about Echodog’s Signs of The Sojourner, not only because I love its core gameplay idea of ​​turning conversations into gameplay, but also because of its world-building and the way it deals with trade, so I spoke to Echodog founder and creative director Dyala Kattan-Wright.

“While we didn’t start out thinking explicitly about trading systems or resisting capitalism, the naturally defined environmental and social themes led to this point,” she tells me. In Signs of the Sojourner, a caravan bridges different communities, delivering and trading goods. A natural disaster further complicates the caravan’s efforts. “We’ve been intentionally vague about how a lot of transactions happen. Sometimes the things you receive are gifts, sometimes it implies there was a monetary transaction that just wasn’t meaningful to include in conversation in any way. You’re probably bringing home some staple foods as well as some weird snacks that we just never mention.” Like in Sable, travel is the destination, and if the weird treats that you’re reporting are somehow earned, they’re then used to help people elsewhere. It all sounds a lot like barter. At one point, Kattan-Wright also manages to read my mind: “I guess not caring of growth and profit is already a much more positive take than the norm.”

I’ve read a lot in the last year about the disappointment of underpaid workers quitting their jobs in droves, living wages that don’t keep people going, or the growing number of people who are burning out. Games cannot offer answers to any of these problems, in part because these problems all exist in our industry. But games can recognize their own systems and offer alternatives, and if we can find alternatives here, through design ingenuity, who says we can’t do it elsewhere? “Similar to how we have approached environmental catastrophe, we wanted to recognize these enormous challenges that can often seem impossible to overcome, but placed in a world with people and communities who have or are beginning to find and integrate solutions” , says Kattan-Wright. “While building relationships and bringing people together isn’t a solution in and of itself, it’s a good first step that we wanted to reflect in the mechanics and the narrative.” For me, that’s the gist of what it’s all about – design reflects intent. Similar to accessibility issues, we don’t need to understand everything – the design process is a lot of testing, balancing, and re-testing – but we can show intent.

We already know what works – combat works, trading systems work – and it’s a huge gamble to try to find new systems that engage us as players and as audiences in thoughtful ways. But the examples are there.

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