In 2017 I wrote about a game called Project Highrise, a building simulator where you develop a patch of land – you can build it up with new floors and apartments and businesses and all the rest of it. In that article we talked a bit about capitalism – obviously it’s a game of accumulation, a game about building up your bank balance – you play essentially a rentier or landlord, collecting income from everyone who inhabits your building – that could be about capitalism, right? That sounds like a game about maximising your profit. I took that basic premise and really just made the point that as much as you can read it as a game about capitalism, it’s worth noting that there are a few weird little constraints that actually work against that interpretation. For example, there’s no sense of competition. You’re never having to worry about the other landlord down the street trying to steal your best businesses. The money also only really serves your build, rather than the other way around. Project Highrise isn’t a game about getting the highest dollar score – from a strict gameplay perspective, Highrise uses money to gatekeep the speed of your build, restricting certain types of lodging or business so that you can’t just free-build whatever you want. It creates a sense of growth over time, a sense of progress. The goal of your gameplay is the build, and the money is a secondary concern, merely an enabler or blocker depending on your position. That doesn’t seem like a straightforward capitalism simulator – it’s not a game about accumulating wealth for wealth’s sake. It’s more an engineering or city planning simulator where money plays a supporting role.
And I think there’s generally more to be said about these sorts of capitalism simulators, or games that might even be suspected as such. I’ve been playing a few games like this recently – for instance, this year’s Journey to the Savage Planet, which takes a jokey-jokey GLaDOS approach to interplanetary resource exploitation. You colonize a planet and kill off its native fauna under the instruction of a sarcastic robot-mom, and – I want to describe the genre as corporate-absurdist, if that makes sense? One of the achievements has the description “Successfully ended the bloodline of an endangered alien species! Congratulations!” It’s a game that shoots for irony and self-awareness as an aesthetic justification for its otherwise very routine acts of economic theft and ecological destruction, and it’s not as cute as it thinks it is.
I’ve also been playing Satisfactory, which again has these key themes of destroying the natural environment in favour of machines and furnaces and resource extraction. The game is maybe not unproblematic, but it’s less offensive than Savage Planet, because it doesn’t really make any attempt to disguise itself. Capitalism is again part of the game’s foreground: you work for a space company that’s out to exploit the resources of a bunch of virginal, unspoiled planets. Like Savage Planet or Factorio, Satisfactory is a science fiction game about reenacting the moment of colonization, discovering a new alien world and bringing it to heel. In all of these titles, colonialism and capitalism are deeply linked, with the instigating colonial party operating not as a government, but as a corporation. As in the title of Lenin’s book, imperialism here is the highest stage of capitalism.
And, you know, the criticisms here are all fairly obvious. There’s something weird about the constant fantasy of colonization, the desire to repeat moments of deep historical trauma – not as absolution or as some sort of restorative effort, but as an opportunity to exploit more efficiently. There’s no attempt to rehearse a more peaceful first encounter, to re-imagine the past as a way of building towards a better future. It’s just colonialism again. These games enshrine something genuinely wicked, and it’s not something that can be avoided by cute irony or malingering self-critique. Shit’s fucked.
I guess starting from that basic premise, I want to look more closely at some of the material limits to capitalism in Satisfactory, and by extension in other games as well. It’s interesting, for example, that progression in games doesn’t often take the form of Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote about creative destruction in his 1942 work Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. He essentially argued that capitalism oversees a very particular self-destructive type of entrepreneurship or innovation, where the creation of new wealth is at the same time a detonation of old wealth. I guess tech is sort of the most obvious example of this process – like how Netflix killed Blockbuster. The new innovation of video streaming created a whole bunch of new wealth for one industry while simultaneously ending another. That’s not really something we see in Satisfactory. In that instance, progress is cumulative, building on innovations or outputs from the previous development tier, and frequently improving the processes of those earlier tiers.
To take a very simple example: at the first tier, you can unlock a ‘Mark 1’ mining machine, which will extract at most 60 resources per minute. By the fifth tier, you can unlock a ‘Mark 2’ mining machine, which will extract up to 120. The primary function of extracting copper or iron remains – it just gets more sophisticated. You can refine those primary resources into ever-higher levels of sophisticated product – iron ore makes iron ingots, which can be made into iron plates or iron rods, and then iron plates can be reinforced and used to make modular frames or smart plating, or a bunch of other things. But these new levels of creativity are never really attended by a similar scale of destruction. There’s maybe a bit of internal rewiring that goes on, but fundamentally each new stage builds on the one that came before, rather than supplanting it entirely.
And you can understand the game design thinking that goes into that decision. Progress should allow players to do the things they were doing before, only better. That sense of empowerment, of completing the same tasks more ably – that’s satisfying. It also – you know – just doesn’t make sense to toss out your basic gameplay loop every couple levels. And obviously nobody’s arguing that Satisfactory built its entire structure around the theme of capitalism – there are clearly other motivating factors. But it’s interesting to see how those other factors intersect with this overarching theme. There are no entrepreneurs in video games: the system is the system, and it won’t be disrupted.
In a sense, the model of discovery used for different tiers of research is much more a scientific model. New discoveries build on older ones – they take established knowledge and show how it can be teased out further, put to new uses. Like with Project Highrise, the question of capital is not ignored, but it’s almost a backdrop. The focus is the engineering and the question of efficiency: the game is aware that such questions take place within a political and economic framework, and it has an almost chummy dislike for those frameworks – for example, when you take damage, you hear warnings about the destruction of company property instead of the risk to your own person – but it considers them ultimately a secondary concern. Does that make it part of the problem, a blasé participant in the broader colonial-capitalist enterprise? I mean yeah, probably.