Cognitive Capital Contested

"Cognitive Capital Contested: The Class Composition of the Video and Computer Game Industry"
By Nick Dyer-Witheford

1. Introduction [1]

If cognitive capital is a regime commodifying digitalized and networked processes, video and computer games are amongst its most important components. Over three decades digital play has transformed from a whimsy of bored Pentagon researchers into the fastest growing sector of the entertainment industry. The US interactive-game business is now larger than the Hollywood box-office. Lara Croft, shapely neo-colonial heroine of Tomb Raider, is a hot celebrity ; playgrounds are swept with Pokemon epidemics ; virtual communities coalescing around games like Quake, Counter-Strike and Everquest are e-commerce's last hope. In many ways, interactive game enterprises are the poster boys of information capitalism's « new economy, » for, as Nicholas Garnham notes, they « are in fact the first companies . . . to have created a successful and global multimedia product market. » [2] This paper analyses the class composition of the video and computer game industry, the new forms of contestation emerging within it, and the ideological valence of the virtual worlds it generates. But first, a sketch the history and organization of the sector.

2. The Video and Computer Game Industry

Digital games emerged in the 1970s as a spin-off from simulation devices of the US military-space complex. The playful experiments of hacker-scientists were adapted for home and arcade markets, first by small software entrepreneurs, later by large media and toy conglomerates. Throughout the 1980s and 90s boom and bust cycles of creative destruction destroyed many individual pioneering companies but propelled the business as a whole on a dramatic growth trajectory, until today its annual revenues are some $17 billion globally. [3]

There are two sides to the industry ; video games and computer games. Video games are played on special consoles either connected to television or hand-held. Console making is an oligopolistic business, dominated by Sony, with its PlayStations, Microsoft, with it X-Box, and Nintendo, with its Game Cube and Game Boy devices. These companies operate on a « razor and blades » model. Profits come from games software, the « blades, » but preeminence depends on sales of consoles, the « razors, » -to establish a market base. The other game platform is the personal computer. Because the PC is a multipurpose device there is no equivalent here to the « big three console » companies, though Microsoft's control of operating systems clearly gives it an advantageous position. But gaming is vital to the personal computer business as a whole ; many analysts suggest that demands for processing speed, graphics display and networking capacity made by hard-core gaming culture are driving the overall trajectory of the industry. Software is the lifeblood of the industry. Without sufficient variety of high-quality games, console and computer play alike would die. No one company has the resources to monopolize software creation. Even the big console companies must license rights to make games for their machines to third party developers, while the open architecture of the personal computer makes independent development relatively easy. Many of the most famous interactive games-Tetris, Doom, Myst, Ultima--were made by small enterprises. Escalating production and marketing costs have now all but extinguished the « lone wolf » developer, and give the handful of game publishers who control the marketing and promotional channels an increasingly commanding position. But large conglomerates often have difficulties assembling talent and tapping fickle cultural trends, and hence chose to arrange alliances with smaller, more creative companies. This generates complex, fluid arrangements with considerable diversity in the scale and organization of enterprises.

The impact of this new media on popular culture and leisure practices has been extraordinary, and bears comparison with that of cinema in the 1920s and 30s. Counting both console and computers, over half North American households, and some 80% of those with children, have a game playing system. Long regarded as « toys for boys, » interactive games seem be moving out of a juvenile male niche-certainly in terms of age, with the average game player now in their late 20s, more tentatively in terms of gender, with more women and girls playing, even if most hard-core aficionados remain male. Interactive games are knit into the synergistic webs of branded giants such as Sony and Microsoft, with links into film, television and merchandising arrangements of all sorts. On-line gaming, via both computers and consoles, is widely seen as the next horizon. Though only a small proportion of industry revenues currently come from this source, many companies are betting that massive multiplayer online games, in which participants control avatars in virtual worlds to a degree collectively created, will be a major entertainment medium of the new century.

The games market is transnational, with sales roughly equally divided between North American, European and Asian sectors. While much of the industry's driving force is concentrated in the US, Japanese and European companies play a leading role. But although global, the game industry is not universal : for the third of the world's population who subsist on less than $2 a day, the cost of a console or computer is of course unthinkable. The contrast between digital game expenditures made primarily in the advanced zones of planetary capital, and unmet human needs in other areas of the globe is no grosser than for other luxury items (cosmetics, ice cream, pet food, etc.). Nevertheless, it is instructive. The $8.8 billion annual revenues of the US industry alone are only slightly less than the annual additional funds needed to provide clean water and safe sewers for the world's population, slightly more than what would be needed to give basic primary education to everyone on the planet. [4]

3.Work as Play? The Game Labor Process

Video and computer games are made in complex, transnational webs of paid and unpaid labor. We can identify three segments into which capital divides these collectivities : a) knowledge workers, b) prosumers c) the new proletariat.
a) Knowledge workers. In the US, the digital games industry directly employs some 30,000 people (about one tenth the number in film) with a wide variety of skills, security and rewards. [5] But the dynamic core of this labor-force is the game developers. To conceive, plot, and program virtual worlds requires a synthesis of narrative, aesthetic and technological skills, deploying the combined skills of digital coders, graphics designer, software testers, scriptwriter, animator, sound technician and musician. Production is done in studio conditions by teams of six to twenty members. Projects can take several years to complete. This is a youth industry, recruiting from the very culture its has created, drawing primarily on a pool of young men fascinated with technology, and familiarized with game design by constant play. Such « immaterial labor » is completely unamenable to Taylorist/Fordist management techniques [6] ; the games industry is a central arena for experimentation in team work, charismatic leadership, ultra-flexible schedules, open space work areas, flattened hierarchies, stock options, participative management, and an ethos of « work as play. » This involves soft coercion, cool cooption and mystified exploitation, with long hours, physical and mental burn out, and chronic insecurity, organized outside of all established traditions of trades unionism and worker protection. But it also partially confirms optimistic prophecies about post-Fordism as a site of an emergent digital artisanship offering some young men (and a very few women) more rewarding and interesting work than the assembly lines to which they would have been consigned a generation ago.

b) Prosumers : The « work as play » ethic of game development has another dimension. Many games, especially good ones, are the creation of networks extending beyond the workplace. These networks in various ways incorporate the unpaid productive activity of consumers into the development of games. This process of mobilizing digital « prosumers » includes the gathering of information on players' tastes and preferences through net surveillance and tip lines ; the creation of laboratory-style interactive entertainment centers, and the on-call use of a contingent labor force of game fans. [7] The paid work teams of corporate developers-the « A web »- thus becomes only the core of a diffuse swirl of creativity-« the B Web »-that includes unpaid creators, test subjects, expert informants and volunteer labour. Of particular importance is the encouragement of the player « modding » (modification) of games through shareware, open source and player editing capacities. The paradigm cases here are Doom and Quake, epics of labyrinthine monster killing, whose original narratives have been endlessly expanded by the addition of player created levels circulated on the Internet. This process is now widespread throughout the computer game side of the business, where it serves not only to renew interest in games, but also as a sort of voluntary training and recruitment arenas for future workers in the industry.

c) The New Proletariat. So far, we have emphasized the industry's role in creating an, « immaterial » labor force. But cognitive capital results in a highly polarized pattern of employment. While the top end corresponds to the « ideal post Fordist model » of skilled knowledge-workers, the bottom end-of labor power cheapened by automation and global mobility-- is far closer to the experiences of workers in capital's early period of « primitive accumulation. » [8] Game systems, like all computers, crystallize in their tiny circuits two contrasting types of work-making software, and making hardware. Both involve digital labor. But we are talking different digits : in one case, the binary code manipulated by male programmers in the developed world, in the other the « nimble fingers » of a mainly female cheap-labor global workforce, recruited for its supposed docility and disposability, and subjected to ferocious work discipline under conditions that destroy health within a matter of years. All games playing systems, consoles and computers, share a vital component with other parts of the digital economy-microchips. They also have specific requirements for assembly of consoles, cartridges and peripherals Chips and hardware are products of a worldwide industry whose plants located in maquiladoras and enterprise zones in Mexico, Central America, Southern China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan or Korea. Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and Microsoft all subcontract the creation of gaming consoles and hardware to these areas, where they are the construction of the new global proletariat. And the dependence of game play in the global North on hard labor in the South goes further, into the classic « heart of darkness. » Game consoles such as Sony's PlayStation depend on columbite-tantalite, a rare mineral extracted at rock bottom wages by rural miners in the Congo, where the revenues from this precious ore have become a major factor inciting hideous civil wars. [9] The creativity of immaterial labor concentrated in the global North thus rests on bedrock immizerated labor in the planetary South.

4. Churn, Piracy and Strikes

Though the game industry professes an ideology of fun, the production of play does not proceed without struggle. Rather, it is the site of tumults and turbulences that may be paradigmatic of emergent contestations within cognitive capital. At the top of the industry's hierarchy of labor this contestation is muted, or at least expresses itself not so much in « fight » as « flight. » Amongst the knowledge workers, where there is little or no collective worker organization, discontent manifests itself through the « churn » of mobile employees leaving to join other companies or found their own, or perhaps by occasional acts of digital sabotage--planting malign « easter egg » in a games-than by organized protest. Inconvenient as this may be for managers, it presents no major obstacle to the overall process of capitalization.

Much more problematic for cognitive capitalists is a transgression inseparable from the industry's mobilization of prosumer player-creators ; piracy. Digital gaming, with its origin in the unauthorized play of military-industrial programmers, is a child of hacking. Information may not want to be free anymore than it wants to be paid. But plenty of people want free information, and free games, and know how to get them. Pirating technologies--emulators that enable software for one platform to be played on another and illicit CD burning-are integral to gaming culture. On the Net, a sophisticated system of gift-economy « warez » has existed for years. According to industry organizations game pirates release over $3 billion worth of games annually, equivalent to almost 20% of legitimate sales. [10] Such estimates rest on the improbable assumption that all pirated games would have been bought at market price. But even allowing for hyperbole, illicit, free software is clearly having a major impact, and the peer-to-peer explosion will compound it.

Finally, if we turn to the new proletariat, we see the continuation of much more traditional lines of dissent. Electronics assembly operations of all sorts have become the sites of a savage cycle of labor struggles in newly industrialized zones. One case involved the organization of workers at a Nintendo subcontractor's factory in the Mexican maquiladoras. Young women assembling Game Boy consoles and cartridges worked ten to twelve hour days at poverty-level wages. In summer, ambulances called three or four times daily to collect those collapsed from heat exhaustion. Unionization was met with goon squads, firings and trickery, and only conceded when Mexican and US labor made the incident a test cast of NAFTA's labor provisions Sony recently responded to a strike by female Indonesian electronic assembly workers seeking the right sit rather than stand all day, by threatening to relocate to Vietnam. And so on. [11]

Striking and hacking, workers movements and warez networks, seem worlds apart. But they overlap in two ways. One is through « Third World counterfeiting » or piracy in emergent markets. Significant as the gift economy and warez networks may be in the North, the major hot zones for of contraband games are in China, South East Asia, the Russian Federation, and Central and Latin America. That is to say, in the same low wage areas where the North's « new economy » locates its cheap electronic assembly plants. In many countries in these zones eighty to ninety per cent of games sales are on the black market, rendering them effectively off- limits to commercial producers. Many Southern pirates legitimize their actions as anti-imperialist or class resistance. Self-serving as these justifications are when advanced by what are often ruthlessly criminal operations, the « objective » dimensions of the world market give them a certain truth.

The second connection between the new proletariat, and the prosumers and knowledge workers of advanced capital lies through the cyberactivism. The only way we know of many of the strikes such as the one at the Nintendo factory in Mexico is through the circulation of news on the various networks of counter-globalization movements. Insofar as video and computer games have become the means for a sort of basic digital socialization process for generations of young people, they can be thanked for disseminating the skills and knowledges necessary for reappropriating digital technologies from cognitive capital. Boosters of global capital rhapsodize about the iconoclasm of « Nintendo kids » without reckoning that this might to extend to a critique of world borderless only for business of the sort mounted by the electrohippies of Seattle and cyberspace Zapatistas.

5. Contested Virtualities

We have examined the composition and contestation of the game labor process. But what of the ideological significance of the virtual worlds it creates ? Left intellectuals generally ignore digital games, or condemn them as a puerile-a judgment that, while never wholly fair, is not groundless. The Pentagon origins of the industry created a game culture focused on scenarios of violence and subject positions of militarized masculinity. Although commercial production spawned a variety of game genres-action/adventure, sports, shooters, role playing, shooters-the appeal was often to the most sensationalist, simplistic fantasies the industry's most loyal consumers, teenage males. Game culture has thus habitually linked digital sophistication to atavistic narratives of Manichean combat and individualized heroics, creating a medium that often seemed wholly consonant with the ethos of competitive and militarist neoliberalism.

But this may be altering, because of both market pressures the creativity of the multitude. The desire to enlarge sales by attracting female and adult players has created commercial incentives to diversify content. The popularity of The Sims, a game devoted entirely to the domestic lives of suburban citizens, is a sign of this change. This adoption of more civilian and feminized themes does not necessarily mean the adoption of more progressive ideology. The Sim 's relentless pursuit of consumer goods may be more reactionary than the mayhem of Quake !

Nonetheless the games industry's exploration of new niches open it to unexpected possibilities--as demonstrated by the success of State of Emergency, a game that positions the player as an « black bloc » anarchist activist in Seattle-style street riot against a global trade organization. Games, like music and film, are beginning to display that equivocal dance of cooption and subversion that today characterizes all media that take their energy from the street.

This shift is intensified by the increasing importance of « prosumer » activity in renewing the industry's cycles of innovation. The prominence of player-devised game modifications collective multiplayer games makes interactive play porous to infusions of creativity from below. Much of this only elaborates and intensifies preset genres and conventions. But it can create surprises. On-line shooters have been targeted by artists who « spray paint » the game environment with anti-war slogans ; on-line games with quasi-feudal structures have been the sites of virtual peasant insurrections ; Nintendo Game Boys have allegedly been hacked to create politicized games about children's rights ; counter-globalization web sites include rudimentary games to educate people about neoliberal policies. The culture of gaming and the capacities of immaterial labor are now sufficiently diffused to make outbreaks of divergent content impossible to suppress.

This is to say no more --and no less--than that digital play, like other commercial media, now refuses to stay circumscribed within the predictable bounds of the market logic, and is becoming subject to a host of reappropriations and transgression. But is it possible to envisage more radical horizons for interactive games than sporadic insubordination ?

Perhaps. Games emerged from military institutions. And war is not only about violence. It is also about planning : collective co-ordination and marshalling of resources and populations ; the organization of « biopower. » [12] Interactive games are a ludic exploration of the possibilities of collective human development, up to and including fundamental socio-economic, environmental, and biological alterations. Simulation virtually rehearses options-tactical, strategic and societal-in preparation for societal actualization. This is the capacity that passes into popular use in games, a popularized version of technologies today used managerially, militarily and politically to make critical social decisions about resource allocation and human trajectory. These technologies have been made available to the multitude only as a matter of play, as fantasy. Yet one could conceive of such media in a context where networked simulation is important, not just a matter of entertainment, but as a component of « real life » societal self-organization. It is, in fact, hard to envisage what form a twenty-first commonwealth might take other than as a distributed interconnected system of collective communication-a « general intellect » [13] --devoted to solving problems of a material and immaterial resource allocation. Can we envisage a world in which the capacities honed by generations of young people informally trained in Civilization or Pokemon find a place in the widespread participatory planning of economic and environmental possibilities ? And if we cannot see this arising within the comfortable enclaves of advanced « Northern » capital, dare we imagine it emergent from the nomadic global youth of the « South » who will challenge with stolen weapons, bootlegged technology and pirated software the nonentity to which cognitive capital condemns them ?

6. Conclusion

Consider two formulations.

1) Video and computer gaming demonstrates the extraordinary success of cognitive capitalism in enclosing emergent forms of general intellect in a smoothly integrated, constantly expanding global circuit of commodification. In production it demonstrates the foundation of a new industry built on the mobilization of an elite immaterial workforce, whose activities are supported by a penumbra of vital but un- or low paid activities conducted either by volunteer prosumers, and underpinned by the immizeration of maquiladora labor. At the level of consumption and social reproduction, games disseminate virtual scenarios appropriate to hyper-militarized finance capital with primary investment interests in the cyborg arenas of biotechnology and digitization. To this extent, video and computer gaming exemplifies the triumphant subsumption of biopower by the forces of cognitive capital.

2) Video and computer games demonstrates how general intellect drives toward the supersession of capital. At the level of production, they reveal the dependence of new media on forms of « dot. communist » activity, such as open source and freeware, and the implosion of the commodity form under the pressure of the escalating piracy inherent to networks. More generally, the digital socialization of youth through gaming discloses a subversive face in a proliferation of cyberactivist and hacktivist practices that both explode within game culture and overspill into more manifestly political spheres. By circulating the skills and technology necessary for virtual experimentation with social organization, video and computer games have unwittingly democratized capacities for popular planning and collective self-organization hitherto been concentrated in the hands of capitalisms military and managerial cadres. Interactive play thus demonstrates the corrosive force with which contemporary biopower undermines cognitive commodification.

Both statements are true. It is by the enfolding of their simultaneously existing yet mutually destructive affirmations that the conditions of class struggle in cognitive capitalism are defined. Hic rhodus, hic salta--or, very loosely translated, here is the game, let's play

[1] This paper was originally presented at the conference, « Class Composition of Cognitive Capitalism, » March 2001, Paris. It draws on work conducted by Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter for the book Paradox Lost : On Culture, Technology and Markets in the Making of the Video Game, forthcoming from Queen-McGill : Montreal. It is also partially enabled by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, of Canada

[2] Nicholas Garnham, « Constraints on Multimedia Convergence, » in William Dutton ed. Information and Communication Technologies : Visions & Realities. Oxford : Oxford University Press 1996

[3] Dean Takahashi, « Games Get Serious, » Red Herring, Dec 18, 200, 66.

[4] United Nations, Human Development Report. New York : United Nations 1999

[5] Interactive Digital Software Association, The State of the Entertainment Software Industry 1999 : An IDSA Report. IDSA : Washington, 1999.

[6] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2000.

[7] Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave. New York : Bantam Books 1981.

[8] Martyn J. Lee, Consumer Culture Reborn : The Cultural Politics of Consumption. London : Routledge 1993

[9] Karl Vick,. « Vital Ore Funds Congo's War :Combatants Profit From Col-Tan Trade, » Washington Post Foreign ServiceMonday, March 19, A01. 2001

[10] IDSA.

[11] See Nick Dyer-Witheford,. « The Work in Digital Play : Video Gaming's Transnational and Gendered Division of Labor. » Journal of International Communication 6 :1 June 1999, 69-93,

[12] Hardt and Negri.

[13] Hardt and Negri."