I am enjoying having a lot more time to read over the break, because I've decided to not start up on any new projects or academic work until the new year! I finished David Graeber's Utopia of Rules, and am in the middle of Max Haiven's Revenge Capitalism. Graeber's work explores debt, financialization and bureaucracy, and how they mystify the violence and extraction of the capitalist system, and Haiven's work draws heavily on these ideas to develop a "radical imaginary" for alternate economies and forms of relations.

It's interesting to read these works alongside like, two very contradictory sentiments I see on Twitter like every other day. Like, A) this sort of moral impulse for small scale indies to professionalize and "charge properly" for their games, sometimes extended into the explicit argument that free games deflate the market or whatever, and B) "wow look at this cool game that's free on the Epic store today!"


Like, obviously they go together. The games that are "free" from the Epic store are not really free, they're tantalizing snacks Epic hands out to try and skim off more people to be entangled in their storefront/drm apparatus. They've cut a deal with the creators to use them for this, and there's no worries about these games "lowering the standards" for smaller scale game making in general, because they're already legible as professional products. It's COOL to get them for free!

Everyone else is told to professionalize, though, on a variety of axes, charging what is judgily decreed the "right" amount for a game on the one hand, but also how to pitch yourself and your game, what degree of features it needs, how and where to market it, etc. Even in just the 5 or 6 years I've been focused on games it feels like there is much more of a shift towards doing these things "properly," (which is honestly, a lot of superstition, like all other capitalist enterprises you're essentially buying a lottery ticket) rather than like, actually fucking around and figuring out what your work is about.

And like, it honestly concerns me! I forget exactly where, but I think Lana Polansky aptly described a lot of this phenomenon as a type of "enclosure," where something that was oriented towards common use and common resources instead becomes commercialized and professionalized to make extraction at scale easier. It's no surprise it results in a lot of cliche or samey stuff, and attention centralizing even more on a few big winners; uniformity in terms of product makes this scaling up go much more smoothly.

But another concept that I realize pairs well with this is what Max Haiven describes as "punitive financial inclusion." There's two big historical examples he gives of this phenomenon. The first is discussing the shift in how wampum, purple and white beads that were used by Indigenous people for a variety of social functions(as gifts, as records of historical events and treaties between groups, in ceremonies and rites, as prizes for sports and games, etc., in essence a highly flexible, creative, and meaningful social medium) was used after European colonists misinterpreted it as currency. It then purely became a medium for enforcing and extracting debts, with the colonists exercising a sort of emergent power of the state to control its value and how it could be made. This directly led to many of the problems of impoverishment and disenfranchisement that still exist for Indigenous people.

Similarly, enslaved Black people who were emancipated after the Civil War were immediately turned into financialized subjects, similarly to the Indigenous people that had the concept of capitalist currencies and exchange forced onto them. Because they had been enslaved, of course, many of these people had nothing to their names and were immediately incorporated into the sharecropping system, which further prevented them from building up any sort of autonomy by always being in the situation of having to repay debt. This actual debt and sense of "social debt" also contributes to racialized images of "irresponsible borrowers" within the mortgage crisis and "welfare mothers" that persist until today. And of course the proposed solutions are always "better budgeting" or "financial responsibility" rather than pointing to historical and systematic reasons for these problems.

So these are two of the most significant historical examples, but I think this also plays out on a smaller level constantly, and in many areas. Becoming legible as a "financial subject" opens you up to an entirely new field of capitalist exploitation. The exploitation becomes completely individualized, you have to repay your own debts, and you're increasingly trained to see your future as a speculative asset that you can get the needed "returns" from if you are responsible. (Haiven also notes that the initiating event of this phenomenon in many people's lives is now taking out loans for higher education.) It has a lot in common with an "entrepreneurial" mindset. I think the point of entering a deal with a publisher, or even presenting yourself as an aspiring games professional, can also be a highly consequential "moment of legibility" and not in a necessarily beneficial way...

A lot of the work I love is completely financially illegible. It doesn't make sense as a videogame-as-marketable-product and is received by games press, criticism and academia that revolves around a commercial product, well, as you'd expect. It's completely illegible to them. But instead of trying to berate this stuff into becoming legible by being like, charge for your work! pitch! make a press kit! make a product! I really want to preserve their illegibility. I don't think it's somehow intrinsically "worse" in any way to distribute your games for free with a donate button, distribute your games for free and run a patreon, or put a specific price on your games... I think people are smart enough to determine what will have the best outcome for their project, and the best outcome is not necessarily the maximum exchange of currency.

And there's the additional issue of what kind of punitive forces distributing your work and your self as a "product" opens you up to as well. The more experimental your work is, the less dealing with complaints, storefront regulations, "bug reports" or demands for refunds becomes "worth it." The way these function, especially on places like Steam, are purely for pounding your work into the shape of a specific product and pushing it into the pipeline of gamer satisfaction Valve skims off of.

There's a sort of double-alienation at work here. First, the alienation in becoming recognizable as a financial subject (which is hardly a category that offers autonomy, though it dangles autonomy as the prize for playing the game correctly), and then the alienation in the returns for this practice of coercive and punitive reshaping being... just money. Money, as the ultimate abstraction and perversion of the inherent productive and creative capacity of humankind, the "false coin" that decides what labor is legible and worthwhile in the first place, locks us in a position where all we can ever get is sour grapes.

Of course, in the short term, people need the resources to survive and often the easiest way to hand them that is money. But I don't know if attempting to shift the limited ways that value is distributed is that inspiring of a long-term plan. It kind of seems like the worst of both worlds, blaming those who do experimental work or operate in alternative, illegible forms of economy for not being properly entrepreneurial in the present, while giving them no future to look forward to where their work as it is could be valued and thrive.