Art and words by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded – if you enjoyed this article or would like the artwork as a wallpaper, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.
“So a very odd thing was happening in the middle of this economic crisis, which was that capitalists had begun to talk about capitalism. It’s not often they do that because ideology resists an unmasking.”
Terry Eagleton – Why Marx Was Right, Dublin 2014
I am that much of a fool that I read Ben Kuchera’s recent article about the latest Assassin’s Creed. In spite of the fact that I more or less knew what I was getting into beforehand given how I plainly accept I am, to put it lightly, not a fan of his work, I still found myself in a rather unkind state of mind following the piece.
In it, Kuchera expresses the relief he feels at discovering Assassin’s Creed: Unity to be an unplayable buggy mess, such that it no longer binds him to go out and buy the game. It’s an unburdening, a release from one’s unspoken, self-imposed obligation, shared, Kuchera notes, by many fans of the series. The supposedly preposterous thing here and the reason it’s being presented as a curious twist of nature is people are glad they don’t have to buy a game from a franchise they’ve come to enjoy. They’re pleased to be able to write it off. It means they can move on to the next enormous franchise, as if a Metacritic score is the magic word to break their curse.
Now this isn’t a particularly original phenomenon nor is it intriguing in this case by its severity—there have been bigger technical and commercial failures in recent enough memory. Kuchera isn’t breaking new ground. What grabbed me is how he is describing a real social exhaustion with the status quo explicitly through concepts built to empower its continued existence, in that many people do feel stress and are actually relieved that they don’t feel compelled to buy Unity, but the explanation grasped here is the one most accessible to their projected mindset: a capitalistic solution to a problem inherent with capitalism.
So Kuchera glances over the frustration people are feeling to address it as an opportunity, using language friendly to a familiar capitalist framework: the issues we’re facing are budgetary (he has the dubious sense to attribute time as a resource but frames it as a currency to spend); the danger in buying a bad game is wasted money; our ‘identity’ as hobbyists informs the rate at which we must participate with media; our duty as “dedicated players” is to comply with mass consumption of media; the underlying assumption that we are responsible, by our own pleasure, to purchasing games as close to launch as possible; we ought to organize and schedule our leisure to justify keeping up with new releases to appease this responsibility; alternative games we could be buying are xyz from other equally hyped highly lucrative franchises. He conciliatorily frames this in the benevolent facsimile of consumer advocacy, an increasingly common way to present as progressive while pleasing one’s free market sponsors, or in other words, to say much and do nothing.
If this is the solution, the problem seems to be people are not yet epicurean enough. Not too terrible when put like that, except that the prospect of becoming more decadent, of achieving the objects of our desires (in this case, buying Unity), isn’t supposed to be daunting in and of itself.
Rather, in my experience, the sense of frustration isn’t solved when sated or when the item of affection is made redundant. It’s actually a condition of the very act of purchasing, which we are told from a very young age and all throughout our lives to be an intrinsically enjoyable act. It’s an economic deed to be treasured, to thrive off spiritually. The more prestigious the goods bought the more thrilling the exchange for its ownership—hence the importance on day-one purchases, and hence the crises of embargoes and pre-orders and Collector Editions and Elite Collector Editions, which stymie or galvanize the prestige. Normalization of this economic is instituted alongside a network of values also culturally ingrained to promote and safeguard its continuation, first by endearing the act to our worldly human existences, and second by convincing us of its necessity.
Thus the ideology is made self-fulfilling. Pursuit of the joy of purchasing is itself a wonderfully cyclic process in that all that’s required is to suddenly come into possession of an item to satisfy the Pavlovian conditions. To get this thrill from the purchase we don’t even need to consume the item, which is to say devour it and destroy it, although the language we use in describing that particular and distinct act is also deliciously capitalistic—we assimilate our possessions, they become a part of our spirituality, and therefore materiality breeds completeness.
Like language informing thought, thought informs reality. For those of us reared on the value of the act of purchasing, the simple act of it can have a soothing effect, observable in the wild and everything. We can enjoy it and we often do enjoy it; that’s why levelling up is so enjoyable in spite of its propagandistic connotations; that’s why it’s effective as propaganda. Just because it’s artificial doesn’t mean it’s not real, and just because it’s real doesn’t mean it’s natural. It is a fragment of the dominant ideology, and dominant ideologies are notoriously allergic to making themselves known, since in admitting themselves as constructs they acknowledge an alternative world without them. The lull we experience when faced with overindulgence and overconsumption (consumerism placing ‘consuming’ as synonymous with ‘purchasing’, as if the latter act itself is consumptive) reveals this artificiality—it’s a discomfort of cognitive dissonance, a seemingly spiritual emptiness when our acceptance that purchasing is fulfilling is unmet, when the promise of the joy of buying more and owning more fails to correlate with delighting more, and we cannot rationalize it as otherwise without contradicting a basic part of ourselves.
Which is why Kuchera’s article is compelling, because you can see he’s acknowledging a problem inherent to his ideology and the loops through which he jumps to resolve it in a compatible way without veering too close to pursuing the underlying thought. It is painful to tread that route, especially when it’s so much easier to grasp at air for opt-outs pre-installed in the status quo. If you track Kuchera’s work over the past few years you might find a gentle trend towards this level of self-reflection, perhaps ebbing toward substantiating his ‘changed man’ narrative since his shift to Polygon. As I wrote this post and left it to settle, hasn’t he gone and published a piece on ideology as a way to describe the Gamergate mania, complete with a video by Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek. But only after it’s safe to do so. He’s still bang smack in the capitalist mindset himself but it’s an encouraging sign.