A Review of Ideology and the Virtual City: Videogames, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism by Jon Bailes
Senior Lecturer in Management, Faculty of Business and Law, The Open University, UK
Marxism – videogames – psychoanalysis – cultural studies
Jon Bailes, (2019) Ideology and the Virtual City: Videogames, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism, Winchester: Zer0 Books.
Ideology and the Virtual City by Jon Bailes is part of the recent wave of critical works examining videogames. Its focus is upon a critical psychoanalytical account of Saints Row IV, GTA V, No More Heroes, and Persona 5, each involving the player navigating through virtual cities. Bailes justifies the psychoanalytic focus by arguing that there is ‘something especially significant in the way that many videogames function as power fantasies, which grant their characters, and through them their players, a sense of agency and control that they generally cannot experience in everyday life’ (p. 4). It is from this starting point that the book attempts to unpack these virtual cities, the opportunities and constraints they present for the player. Bailes elaborates on the neoliberal demand to ‘enjoy responsibly’ (returned to throughout the book) and how this relates to the roles of play within contemporary capitalism. What is particularly interesting about the book is its argument for how videogames involve ‘working through’ the antagonisms within these virtual cities, drawing attention to the importance of the interactivity within these representations.
Due to the specific history of the medium, particularly the focus of marketing attention upon the idealised figure of the teenage boy as consumer, many continue to dismiss videogames as a niche pursuit. In part, it can be easy to miss the widespread engagement with videogames in the home – as those who do not play them then have very limited exposure. Anyone who is in any doubt about the importance of videogames to understanding contemporary capitalism should be reminded of the sheer scale of the industry,1 with GTA V having sold 115 million copies. It has also emerged as a new battleground for worker-organising, with branches of Game Workers Unite springing up across the world, trying to build unions.2 Videogames have become a mainstream cultural activity, and the site of recent struggles over ideology, capital, and working conditions.
Many of these questions were taken up in Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter’s Games of Empire,3 an autonomist-Marxist inspired critical analysis of videogame production and play. This text, soon to be reappraised in a forthcoming special issue of Games & Culture, traces the roots of videogame production to the military and hackers, riffing-off Hardt and Negri’s Empire4 to develop a critical account of the medium and its role within capitalism. The work prefigured the rise of game-worker organising, although its post-workerist conceptualisation of resistance might be considered as too pessimistic. Following on from this, there have been some attempts to develop a Marxist theory of videogames,5 with attempts to revisit Roger Caillois in light of his engagement with Marxism.6 Caillois’ engagement with Marxism was not previously discussed in game studies, despite the impact he has had on the theorisations of games.7 There is a similarity here with Terranova’s work on free labour and the Internet8 (much of which can be said to apply to online videogames) and Kücklich’s portmanteau concept of ‘playbour’,9 used to discuss the practices of modifying videogames. Some aspects of critical theory have been adapted for use in game studies, but shorn of its radical intent. However, there has been a recent increase of Marxist criticism, including my own writings,10 Marijam Didžgalvytė’s ‘Left Up’11 series, and the videogame criticism that features regularly in Jacobin, for example. This should be welcomed – particularly as aspects of play under contemporary capitalism have received little attention from Marxists. As I argued towards the end of my book, Marx at the Arcade: ‘Organizing at work is the key way that we can change the world, but that does not mean we should do so while leaving the dominant ideas in society unchallenged. Taking videogames seriously as part of this struggle is no longer something the left can ignore.’12
While it has not been a focus taken within my own research, Bailes’ book demonstrates what a psychoanalytical account of videogame play can add to our analysis. The book focuses on free-form games located in virtual cities, which treat this setting as the basis for a power fantasy. I have only played one of the games featured in the book: GTA V. The remaining games, Saints Row IV, No More Heroes, and Persona 5, remain a bit of a mystery to me. One of the challenges of writing about videogames is where to draw the line: what to consider, and what to leave out. However, the focus on cities experienced from the player’s perspective does provides a justification for the chosen focus. The inclusion of GTA V makes sense, as is the most successful media commodity of all time, reaching into the homes of players across the world.
There are some expected parts to the analysis. For example, Bailes argues that despite many distractions within the games, ‘in the end, because the overriding objective is to win the game, I am implicitly encouraged to calculate risks and rewards around personal advancement, which naturalizes an extreme form of individualized instrumentalism’ (p. 9). This is part of an established critique of videogame play as shaped by the constraints and demands of neoliberalism. However, Bailes develops this in an interesting direction by considering the inclusion of ‘Utopian elements’. As Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter argue in their seminal book on videogames: videogames ‘tend to a reactionary imperial content, as militarized, marketized, entertainment commodities’, while simultaneously they also ‘tend to a radical, multitudinous form, as collaborative, constructive, experimental digital productions’.13 Thus, we often come across radical examples within corporate-produced videogames – from the hints of union struggle in Outer Worlds, and the critiques of nuclear warfare in the earlier Fallout iterations, to the fourth-wall breaking critique of wargame violence in Spec-Ops: The Line, or indeed the appearance of Karl Marx himself in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. There are also plenty of examples of radical videogames, produced by indie developers like Molleindustria with explicitly political aims. Bailes takes another important angle by examining ‘how the utopian element is often revealed precisely by a game’s “failure” to identify social antagonism in terms of the background neoliberalism’ (p. 9). Rather than having an explicit political content, the interactivity of the game can create a political – or potentially politicising – moment.
This critique is put forward first through Saints Row IV. However, given the bizarre plot twist (not to spoil it for anyone who might play the game!) this is a little harder to gauge. The argument develops most clearly in the chapter on GTA V. For those who have not played it, the game is presented as a neoliberal pastiche, and the developer has regularly courted controversy. As Bailes astutely notes, ‘its main ideological thrust [is] that of an unwavering cynicism towards modern life’ (p. 38). It has hints of critique that run through it, a ‘kind of socially aware pessimism, according to which the existing society is hopelessly corrupt, but cannot surmount that corruption because it is too deeply embedded, if not at the core of human nature itself’ (p. 39). However, it is important to remember that the game is a cultural commodity produced for mass consumption. Therefore, it should not be surprising to find that ‘all the elements in the game are calculated to fall within the targeted players’ comfort zones, and any social critique is not intended to present any kind of intellectual or ideological challenge’ (p. 46).
It is worth reflecting here on the dynamics that operate beyond the virtual city of GTA V. For example, the game attempts to lead the player to the conclusion that ‘we are all equally corrupt and worthy of scorn’ (p. 46). In a scandal that broke last year, it was revealed that Rockstar North (the company that made GTA V) had paid no corporation tax in the previous ten years. From 2013 to 2019, it is estimated that the company had made an operating profit of £4 billion. More than just this, the company claimed £45 million in tax credits from a scheme designed to support the British videogames industry – taking 19% of the total fund, despite the game being set in a fictionalised California.14 It is hard not to be left with the feeling that the underlying relationships of production have seeped into the ideology of the game and its characters.
Unlike the recent proliferation of so-called ‘production studies’ research coming out of games studies and adjacent disciplines, the focus of the book remains within the play space. While the constraints of the software come out at various points in No More Heroes, there are wider questions about why virtual cities have become such a focus in contemporary games. There has been an obsession with larger and larger open worlds, with more and more content stuffed into them, demonstrating the ‘cutting edge’ of gaming technology. However, in the process, some of these games appear emptier the larger they become. This can be seen in the development of sequels and the paint-by-numbers approach of the so-called ‘Ubisoft formula’, used in Assassin’s Creed and the FarCry series. These include patterns of large maps, locations to unlock, huge numbers of side-quests and collectibles. While these virtual environments present as complex ecosystems, they end up feeling like yet another mass-produced iteration. Increasingly large teams of game workers are involved, with the studio becoming more like a ‘production line’ of workers, each being ‘pigeon-holed’ into more specific tasks.15
Videogames like these are therefore major undertakings on the part of developers and publishers. Each of the four games follows the pattern of the individual player developing their own power fantasy in slightly differing ways. One of the major questions this left me with was thinking about how alternative forms of games could move beyond the player narrative like this within the city environment. For example, as Nanni Balestrini[16 argued in an interview:
We Want Everything is the story of a real person, Alfonso; he told me everything that’s in the book. He is a collective character, in the sense that in those years, thousands of people like him experienced the same things and had the same ideas and the same behaviors. It’s for this reason that he has no name in the book. I am interested in collective characters like the protagonist in The Unseen. I think that unlike what happens in the bourgeois novel – which is based on the individual and his personal struggle within a society – the collective character struggles politically, together with others like him, in order to transform society. Thus his own story becomes an epic story.17
While Balestrini aimed to do this through the novel, this notion of ‘individual’ and ‘collective’ characters can also be used to think through the power fantasies so often present in videogames. The norms and expectations of videogame formats have been deeply shaped by the first-person perspective, with many following the pattern of the bourgeois novel that Balestrini elucidates. There are, of course, many multiplayer games. However, these often focus on player vs. player combat, or working through a story with limited opportunity for any form of collective struggle – although examples of these have been found in World of Warcraft or EVE Online. In a single-player context, there is one recent example, Tonight We Riot, for which the developer argued:
The mechanics of the game back up the idea of this being a game based on worker liberation. There is no direct hero in the game. Instead, the player plays a random assortment of folks who pick up the flag and charge forth when one of their comrades falls.18
This is, in an explicit way, an attempt to experiment with a collective story for a single player. The possibilities of other forms of representation like this are hinted at by the focus on the virtual cities across the four games considered in the book. While the thought-experiment of Balestrini’s ‘collective’ character is beyond the scope of what Bailes is arguing, it is one future way of thinking through the critique in this work and its implications.
To return to the book, there is an entertaining chapter on No More Heroes, which continues to draw out the argument from GTA V. However, the overall thrust of the analysis comes into its own with the chapter on Persona V. This game, as Bailes notes, is a JRPG (or Japanese-style Role Playing Game) rather than an open-world game. However, it features the ‘metaverse’: a dimension that manifests people’s unconscious cognition. This, as well as the direct reference to psychoanalysis and Carl Jung in the title,19 makes Persona V a useful foil for exploring the psychoanalytical critique, as well as the contradictions within the game.
In summary, the book is an interesting and nuanced reading of these four different videogames. As Bailes notes towards the end: ‘in essence, the power of these cultural objects is in what they can’t quite say, or the representation of the city as a playground, battleground, wasteland or prison, and the conflict that creates, stand in for’ (p. 89). By taking these videogames seriously as cultural objects we can begin to understand their ideological role. They provide a way for us to interrogate some of the responses to neoliberalism – and the ways in which people justify the status quo – and help to chart a path beyond it.
Balestrini, Nanni 2016, We Want Everything: A Novel, London: Verso.
Caillois, Roger 2001, Man, Play and Games, translated by Meyer Barash, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Dyer-Witheford, Nick and Greig de Peuter 2009, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri 2000, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jung, Carl Gustav 1992, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Second Edition, translated by R.F.C Hull, London: Routledge.
Kirkpatrick, Graeme, Ewa Mazierska and Lars Kristensen 2016, ‘Marxism and the Computer Game’, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, 8, 2: 117–30.
Kristensen, Lars and Ulf Wilhelmsson 2017, ‘Roger Caillois and Marxism: A Game Studies Perspective’, Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media, 12, 4: 381–400.
Kücklich, Julian 2005, ‘Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry’, Fibreculture Journal, 5, available at: <https://five.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-025-precarious-playbour-modders-and-the-digital-games-industry/>.
Kushner, Rachel 2016, ‘“I Am Interested in Collective Characters”: An Interview With Nanni Balestrini’, The Nation, 17 November, available at: <https://www.thenation.com/article/i-am-interested-in-collective-characters-an-interview-with-nanni-balestrini>.
MacDonald, Keza 2019, ‘Grand Theft Auto Maker Has Paid no UK Corporation Tax in 10 years – Report’, The Guardian, 29 July, available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jul/29/grand-theft-auto-maker-uk-corporation-tax-rockstar-north-games>.
Terranova, Tiziana 2000, ‘Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy’, Social Text, 18, 2: 33–58, available at: <https://web.mit.edu/schock/www/docs/18.2terranova.pdf>.
Thompson, Paul, Rachel Parker and Stephen Cox 2015, ‘Interrogating Creative Theory and Creative Work: Inside the Games Studio’, Sociology, 50, 2: 316–332, <https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0038038514565836>.
Woodcock, Jamie 2016, ‘The Work of Play: Marx and the Video Games Industry in the United Kingdom’, Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, 8, 2: 131–43, <https://doi.org/10.1386/jgvw.8.2.131_1>.
Woodcock, Jamie 2019a, Marx at the Arcade: Consoles, Controllers, and Class Struggle, Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Woodcock, J. 2019b, ‘Interview with Pixel Pushers Union 512’, Notes from Below, 25 June, available at: <https://notesfrombelow.org/article/interview-pixel-pushers-union-512>.
Woodcock, Jamie 2020, ‘Organizing in the Game Industry: The Story of Game Workers Unite U.K.’, New Labor Forum, 29, 1: 50–7, <https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1095796019893315>.
- 1. Woodcock 2019a.
- 2. Woodcock 2020.
- 3. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009.
- 4. Hardt and Negri 2000.
- 5. Kirkpatrick, Mazierska and Kristensen 2016.
- 6. Kristensen and Wihelmsson 2017.
- 7. Caillois 2001.
- 8. Terranova 2000.
- 9. Kücklich 2005.
- 10. Woodcock 2016; 2019a
- 11. See: <https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcshwYnnTU-zGy9Ufv9N5UQ>.
- 12. Woodcock 2019a, p. 159.
- 13. Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009, p. 228.
- 14. MacDonald 2019.
- 15. Thompson, Parker and Cox 2015, p. 342.
- 16. Balestrini 2016.
- 17. Kushner 2016.
- 18. Woodcock 2019b.
- 19. Jung 1992.