Is Communism “Overwhelmed”? This question currently occupies players of the strategy game Victoria 3. As they guided their chosen nations through the 19th century, making decisions about political, social and economic governance, players found that adopting socialist policies resulted in more productive and happier countries than any alternative. They realized that forming workers’ cooperatives and redistributing wealth to the working class was just too effective, almost like a cheat code for the perfect nation. “Damn, this game made me appreciate subsidies and welfare in real life,” wrote one gamer on Reddit. The outcry was so great that developer Paradox rebalanced the game’s systems in an update.
The merits and – much more commonly – pitfalls of capitalism are a common theme in video games. But all too often, this important issue is not given the intelligent attention it deserves. On the rare occasions that there’s a wise critique, it still exists in the gaming ecosystem, an industry that exhibits many of the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism. Can games criticize economic systems? Or is their message undermined by their medium?
Usually the comment is not smart. Developers lean on tired tropes like nefarious corporations and portray cartoon capitalists as stock villains. In Cyberpunk 2077, you’re a rebellious hacker roaming a corporate-controlled megacity, and in Grand Theft Auto V, you face off against villainous billionaire Devin Weston on. This satire is partially neutralized by its rudeness – it shows the potential harm of unbridled capitalism as fat cats chomping on cigars, and entire worlds owned by a single tycoon missing out on the more subtle ways these systems can do real harm.
In “Victoria 3” players make decisions about political, social and economic governance
Additionally, the developers of both games, CD Projekt Red and Rockstar, have been accused in the past of engaging in the unethical practice of “crunch,” with teams like Cyberpunk working 100-hour weeks to complete the game (and at of publication). it was very unfinished anyway). Add to this the industry’s penchant for cash-grabbing business models of microtransactions and loot boxes, leaving many players feeling like little more than wallets and eyes to be juiced for cash and attention. Similar dubious practices led to Fortnite creator Epic Games agreeing this week to pay the US Federal Trade Commission a $520 million settlement. With that in mind, their criticism rings hollow when games target unethical corporations. They just adopted anti-capitalism as an aesthetic.
The conditions behind game production inevitably shape the stories games tell. It is revealing that the capitalist ideology is built into the most basic mechanics of the game: in almost every game you acquire resources to become more powerful than everyone else and dominate the world.
It’s a shame because games can also be a uniquely effective medium for exploring ideologies, as players participate in their systems by making decisions. Strategy games like Victoria, Civilization, and Tropico allow players to experiment with different approaches, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
A title that deals meaningfully with the topic is the science fiction role-playing game The Outer Worlds. Here you play a space colonist who has awakened from a long cryogenic sleep to find a galaxy ruled by megacorporations so powerful they even own the corpses of their employees. From the bright minds at the company that developed Fallout: New Vegas, the game lets you decide whether you want to fight the establishment or become a sucker and reap the rewards.
In Tonight We Riot, players play as a revolutionary group trying to overthrow the government
Most thoughtful criticism comes from the indie gaming space. Disco Elysium is one of the most sophisticated politics-dealing games, set in a world of workers uprisings, corrupt unions and militarized governments, where players are encouraged to confront different ideologies. Citizen Sleeper sees players as androids trying to escape the clutches of a tech company that owns their minds and bodies, while Kentucky Route Zero and Night in the Woods both offer intimate and elegiac depictions of rural American poverty.
Other games are more direct. In Democratic Socialism Simulator you play as America’s first socialist president and must make decisions to implement radical left-wing policies while navigating scandals, lobbying and the looming threat of environmental collapse. Meanwhile, Tonight We Riot casts players as a revolutionary mob killing cops and trying to overthrow the government. By making players a collective rather than a single character, it offers a rare acknowledgment in gaming that it usually takes more than one person to change the world. The developers conform to the ideals of their games by structuring their team as a worker-owned collective.
Games are contradictory things – they are products of intense labor, designed for useless pleasure, telling stories that envision a better world but often amplify society’s worst impulses. There’s a place for meaningful political criticism in gaming, even in the products of large corporations. But these must be sophisticated enough to acknowledge their compromised position in a flawed system, rather than simply ignore them.