Every game is a simulation
and that may be playing a part in narrowing the political imagination of gamers
Last week I wrote about how games have come to resemble jobs in a lot of ways. In this post I want to consider this shift in game design as part of a process that is the opposite of gamification; if the world is becoming more game-like, then games are becoming more world-like at the same time. The line between games and simulations is becoming blurrier, games are becoming ‘simulified’. If games are all simulators now, then what are they simulating? And what does that do to the player?
Ian Bogost has pointed out that the word “gamification” is a rhetorical trick intended to blind us to its real purpose. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshannah Zuboff spends a chapter looking at gamification as part of an enormous, automated behavioural modification machine designed to carefully shape the way we navigate the world. Because a ‘game’ is a triviality — essentially an activity with very low or no stakes — the term ‘gamification’ makes us think that the effects it has on us are also non-serious. Both Bogost Zuboff agree that this is far from the case, and that the stakes of gamification are very high indeed. Bogost suggests that we call the apps that make use of this reward cycle “exploitationware”.
I don’t think it’s too controversial to argue that the games we play now are more likely to be simulators than they used to be. Pong was always meant to simulate sport in some fashion, but Space Invaders was a bit more fantastical, and Tetris more abstract still. Mario may have been a plumber, but the game hardly punished you for failing to unclog pipes. Certainly there have been simulations from the earliest days of gaming — racing sims, flight simulators, or the Madden games — but it’s starting to feel, to me at least, like the balance is shifting away from whimsical abstract towards simulation.
If I think about the games I’ve played recently, far more of them care about simulation than the games I loved in my youth. Consider Assassins’ Creed Origins, Odyssey and Valhalla — all three of which make an explicit claim to historical accuracy, which is a form of simulation. Or Valheim, which has detailed and not entirely necessary mechanics simulating hunger, tool durability, structural integrity, weather, and sailing.
I want to propose that there is a reciprocal process to ‘gamification’, by which real-world, non-gaming systems begin to colonise games. I propose to call this ‘simulification’. I’ve noticed in the last few years, many games have started to include some sort of reward system modelled on the exchange of resources in a market, alongside or in preference to other intrinsic rewards systems (goals or objectives). These games are production simulators like Production Line, Factorio, or Satisfactory, but they also include the management sims like Banished.
Alongside representations of an exchange market, games often now have detailed resource simulation but in the absence of intrinsic goals, this sort of game often becomes effectively about endless growth. This side of gaming is best seen in Farming Simulator or Truck Simulator, both of which have a capitalist market running in the background where you sell goods or labour and the gameplay loop is designed to earn money that you reinvest in a trucking or farming business. There is no goal except endless growth of your business until it becomes so large that you don’t need to play it anymore.
There are, then, three parts to simulification:
- Few or no intrinsic goals beyond collecting resources or money
- Some form of resource exchange as a central mechanic (even if only from labour to money)
- Infinite or endless gameplay
What do simulified games simulate?
Collectively, I would say that even the simplest and most whimsical game that meets two or three of these criteria is simulating the political economy of advanced liberal capitalism.
Since the collapse of other political alternatives at the end of the Cold War and the ascension of neoliberalism across the first world in particular, the goal of advanced liberal capitalism has been endless growth, based on the sale of goods and services in a market for profit. Despite the broad shift to a tertiary, ‘services-based’ or ‘knowledge’ economy, resource extraction and exploitation is still a significant part of this mix.
Capitalism is not a system that rewards everyone equally. Despite the significant evidence to the contrary, we are led to believe that “hard work” is the key to riches, and that ‘reward for effort’ is a key element of living under Capitalism. This is a myth that we need to believe to continue to take part in the system; without it, we would quickly recognise just how heavily the deck is stacked against us.
As games become simulified, the myth of reward for effort becomes hard-coded into the mechanics. Simulified games feel close enough to the ‘grind’ of real life that you don’t notice the lack of real-world consequences, like death, debt, or medical disaster. Crops can’t meaningfully fail in Valheim, and maintenance costs are laughably low in the Simulators.
But the same way that ‘gamification’ has changed the way we engage with companies in the market, ‘simulification’ infiltrates our games so silently that we don’t even notice. Consider the implications of automation in Production Line. What role do your machines play in putting workers out of work? Do you provide enough new jobs to offset the job losses created by automation? Are these jobs meaningful, or do they only exist to serve the machines that now do the ‘real’ work? Do you as the player pay enough tax to support them workers you made redundant while they are unemployed and reskilling? The game simply does not care.
Consider Truck Simulator, which as noted above, has a reward mechanism based on selling your labour in the market, and then investing the proceeds into a business, over and over again until you have garages in every city. This is certainly ‘endless growth’. One Steam guide even advocates “abusing fast travel” to turn you into a rentier capitalist, and simultaneously turn Truck Simulator into a ‘clicky’ game. This is a gamer responding to the intrinsic goal of amassing a fortune and building a functioning business, but in doing so skipping the core gameplay loop of driving a truck entirely
Truck Simulator is also a game where state regulation forms part of the core gameplay loop in the form of speeding fines, red light fines, and border/customs control. These regulations are at best a nuisance, and the financial penalties are so low as to be nearly meaningless. You suffer no loss of license and no meaningful impact on your bottom line if you run every red light and speed constantly. You might eventually go into the red if you cash too often, but that’s about keeping your property in working order, not appeasing the State. It’s pretty clear this game cares more about the market, especially given you can literally just turn the fines off in game settings to bring into being a perfect Randian utopia.
In Hardspace: Shipbreaker, your “goal” is to work off the billions of dollars in debt you owe the Lynx corporation. In the time-honoured tradition of companies charging workers exorbitant prices for rent and food, you owe Lynx this enormous sum for delivering you to orbit to work for them in the first place. Steam reviewers recognise the irony, but the irony only reveals the game as simulation: the devs themselves have admitted to using a real-life example from the third world as inspiration, calling it the “shadowy side of the ship industry”. The game does nothing to end the real-world exploitation of workers, and maybe that’s beyond what a game can or should do. But irony is perhaps the first step towards irony poisoning. Consider this steam review:
“If you’re like me, and you have weird delusions of the nobility of manual labor, then this game lets you live those dreams without having to lose your beer belly.” Shipbreaker may critique this particularly malevolent form of capitalism by simulating it; but at the same time, it makes it more acceptable to the player.
Why does this matter?
To set up her discussion of gamification, Zuboff gives the following definition of games: “All games circumscribe behaviour with rules, rewarding some forms of action and punishing others”. Something about this phrase immediately felt off to me. It’s unarguably correct, of course — games do do that. I shared it with a close friend who I often game with, and he immediately concurred, saying “that’s not a controversial statement”. But the more I read the sentence, the more I thought, sure, games do that, but so do parents, churches, schools, prisons, governments, political systems, and (arguably) markets. This is more or less what Paolo Pedercini means when he calls games the “the aesthetic form of rationalization” — they uncritically simulate a very particularly rational vision of the world we live in.
Rules and rewards might be a necessary condition of a game, but they are not a sufficient one, and if this is the definition, there’s not much separating games from the rest of the world. And maybe this is my point — that if the lines between the rules that govern games and the rules that govern everything else are conceptually quite blurry, then games are part of a broader culture that helps to shape and govern our behaviour. Zuboff and Bogost argue that ‘gamified’ processes or ‘exploitationware’ use the practices of gaming to change our behaviour to suit the surveillance capitalists; I am suggesting that simulified games — or perhaps ‘indoctrinationware’ — are doing something very similar.
We know you can learn things through games. Otherwise why would pilot schools, professional race teams, and armed forces use simulators as training tools? I know from research conducted many years ago for my honours thesis that games can leave people with skewed ideas about the past. Games like Battlefield implicitly claim to recreate history and also empower players to shape the outcomes of battles. Games like this can leave players with a very potent feeling that their ‘experience’ in the simulated battle is more correct than the things they read in a book about the actual past.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that games that uncritically simulate capitalist market dynamics or political economy might take part in indoctrinating us to accept them. If you play a game like Satisfactory for 1000 hours, do you think you’d be more or less likely to factor in climate change as an important consideration during resource extraction than, say, if you’d played 1000 hours in Eco, which explicitly models the impacts of extraction on an ecosystem? They may be ‘just games’, but the choice to play one over the other is also a choice to engage in one politics over another.
I am as guilty as anyone else of the ‘it’s just a game’ defence, even if I’m also guilty of many wrathful genocides across various iterations of Civilization over the years. I think we should be more critical of the media we consume. The drive in gaming to simulate is robbing us of alternative visions for the world, while playing a part in teaching us how to be good capitalist subjects.
We should play games that imagine other political economies, or other worlds. I already prefer non-competitive games, but I personally should play more abstract games as an antidote to this representational problem. Otherwise, games just become another part of the discipline-industrial complex designed to shape us into effective workers from the day we are born. They are no true escape.