Plants vs Zombies vs capitalist utopias: How games reward you like the good worker you are

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 is sheer fantasy, designed to be picked up, idly enjoyed and then put back down. There’s no story as such, and the missions and mechanics are simple. It also illustrates how far a termite, a certain kind of termite, has crept into games.

When you defeat an enemy in Garden Warfare 2, not only do you increase your score, the game plays the sound effect of a cash register, a quick “cha-ching!” to indicate that you have earned more points. In this most escapist, childish video game, the player is rewarded “financially”. On the completion of missions, upgrades and items are given out. Their value is implied – this gun is more powerful, more experience points give you a higher character level, and so on – and their further acquisition becomes a motivation for continued play.

It’s a closed loop, a system where the player commits time and the game rewards that time with items, which in turn are “spent” by the player for further reward. Garden Warfare 2‘s “cha-ching!” effect makes this system overt, but it’s present in myriad games. Call of Duty‘s online mode, for example, incentivises players by offering them better guns, better abilities, even different outfits if they play for more hours. Once they reach, say, level 10, they receive items that will better enable them to kill more players and win more games, and thus reach level 20, and so on.

Open-world games do this too. For exploring new areas and finishing optional quests, Assassin’s Creed, Fallout and Skyrim award the player items and points, subsequently motivating the player to explore further, to play longer.

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Even moral decisions in games are encouraged and met by some kind of prize. If you save Josie at the end of Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s first level, her husband will tell you how to purchase discount weapons. If you revive one of your downed teammates in Call of Duty online, or in Vanquish, you receive a points bonus. Games consistently reward action with material. It’s an imitation of real-life labour/wage systems, whereby hours worked are equivalent to money earned – the more you play these video games, the more points, items and “stuff” you accrue.

“Even moral decisions in games are encouraged and met by some kind of prize.”

More interesting is how these games then encourage players to feed their “wages” back into the system. What you earn in video games isn’t material in the true sense, since it doesn’t physically exist – it’s capital, but usable only in the games’ closed systems. Players enter into a kind of feedback loop.

Once you have unlocked a new weapon in Red Dead Redemption, you keep playing in order to try the weapon out. When you reach a higher level in World of Warcraft, you dedicate further hours to the game, completing missions that, at a lower level, are either unavailable or too difficult. It’s a contained, self-sustaining economy, whereby players are rewarded for their input and in turn dedicate more play time, or “work”, to the game, thus generating more reward and creating more incentive to continue playing.

Pounds for hours spent

A long game – a game that offers many hours of play and lots of unlockables and “content” – is still broadly regarded as superior to a short game. When boxed releases can cost upwards of £40, value for money – in the base sense of pounds spent in relation to hours of entertainment received – remains an important factor in consumers’ discussions about whether a game is good.

In short, the longer a game can keep its players enthralled, the more likely it is, still, to get good reviews and recommendations via word of mouth. Gradually rewarding players with items that can only be spent inside a game’s unique, closed system is beneficial to developers since it generates more “replay value” – if a game offers players rewards and upgrades that can only be accessed after 100 hours of play, that is seen as value for money, as a “better” game due to its generous exchange rate of pounds to entertainment.

Capitalism, in its most basic sense, is an exchange of labour for wages. More broadly – and often only in theory – it’s a system whereby an individual’s work is relative to their wealth and social status: the founding principle of capitalistic free enterprise implies that, if you’re willing to work for something, you’ll attain it. These core tenets of capitalism are emulated by video games. The more you play, the more you receive. The more you’re willing to play, the greater you’re rewarded – a player who diligently explores every area in Fallout will have more in their possession than a player who travels through only select parts of the game’s map.fallout_4

For capitalism to function, individuals must wish to work, wish to earn wages and also place implicit value on material. A society that didn’t prize money, goods or luxuries would not be capitalist – if individuals had no regard for wages, they would produce no labour, and the tangible markers of a capitalist society – industries, corporations and so on – would become unsustainable.

This model is also emulated by video games. Players are told, or are implicitly aware, that finding items or earning points is “good”, that weapons, armour and unlocked abilities will not only make them better at the game but possibly allow them to access fresh areas of the game entirely. Often, progression through the game is contingent on the player’s ability and willingness to earn. The later stages of role-playing games require that players have amassed enough experience points to become stronger, or weapons and items powerful enough to defeat advanced enemies.

“A video game is sustained by the player’s willingness to ‘spend’. If the player has no desire to use in-game rewards and material, and thus doesn’t seek them out, the game ends.”

Just as the denizen of a capitalist system must earn wages in order to purchase material, to progress in video games, you must be willing to seek and collect the game’s rewards. The wages earned by a capitalist citizen are returned to the system – they’re spent on products, thus sustaining businesses and corporations. Likewise, a video game is sustained by the player’s willingness to “spend”. If the player has no desire to use in-game rewards and material, and thus doesn’t seek them out, the game ends. As aforementioned, this has an additional, extrinsic, detrimental effect on the game-maker: games that motivate people to keep playing and as a result have a lot of “replay value” are broadly considered better games, more likely to receive good reviews, word-of-mouth recommendations and arguably higher sales.

The dispensing of wages in exchange for labour and the spending of wages, perpetuated by institutions and individuals, is vital for the sustainment of a capitalist system. Similarly, the continuation of a video game and the success of the game’s creator is dependent on players’ willingness to “earn” and desire for in-game items.

Real-world capitalism or a utopian vision?

Video games are not wholly modelled on capitalism, however, inasmuch as they uniformly reward work with wage. In a game, hours played are almost always equal to material received. In real capitalist societies, however, things are less fair. It’s possible for an individual to be born into wealth, or to receive a large amount of material reward without having to work for it. Alternatively, a university graduate may find that their qualification, which required three years of school work, doesn’t earn them a paying job.

Video games, unlike real-life societies, have a formal responsibility to fairness: reward is dispensed proportionately to the players’ actions. To that extent, they’re not wholesale modelled on real-world capitalism.

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If game-makers should wish to challenge video games’ capitalistic leanings, quite simply more things need to happen – players need to be given more actions to complete – which aren’t met with explicit, material reward. The moral decisions mentioned earlier (revive a downed teammate in Call of Duty, saving a life in Deus Ex) seem like the rational place to begin.

“Instead of rewarding actions with points, game-makers could allow the actions to be rewards in and of themselves.”

Instead of rewarding these actions with points or items, game-makers could allow the actions to be rewards in and of themselves. The sense of doing something moral, or simply doing something of your own volition in a video game, might be considered reward enough. It is after all a perverse and cynical dynamic, when game-makers appeal not to a player’s altruism or morality, but to their desire for material.

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