Destiny, the flagship title from the studio behind Halo, is the most expensive game ever, costing over $500 million to produce. The most expensive film ever made, Spiderman 3, cost $258 million. While a large proportion of that money has gone into marketing and hype, Destiny is remarkably innovative for a number of reasons. The story, the sandbox worlds, and playing with strangers meld seamlessly into one. You can suddenly find yourself engaging in a strike mission with strangers, who then take you to some other planet you’ve never been before. So the benefits for cooperation are potentially huge. The worlds themselves are colossal, as well as stunningly designed. The game is going to be expanded regularly, with a story that is supposed to respond to the way people play the game.
The game is set several hundred years in the future. Earth’s only remaining city is defended by Guardians, and threatened by hordes of a reassuringly malign alien race called the Fallen. They are trying to capture or destroy the Traveller, a small-moon-sized alien that somehow gifted humans with incredible technology and social progress, allowing them to build colonies across the solar system. In a sense, there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the plot, not least because it bears a painful similarity with the Halo games. What is interesting is that the two sets of visitors, the Fallen and the Traveller, have very different consequences for us, yet are intrinsically bound together. You don’t get the species-advancing Traveller without having to deal with the multitudes of crooked and slavering Fallen hordes.
Although much of this could be read as a creepy warning about immigration, it really has far more to do with the limits neoliberalism has placed on imagining the future. Not by any censorship, but by the nullification of collective agency. So the former colonies, on Mars, Venus and the Moon, are empty, abandoned. There are no children on Earth, as far as you can tell because the only part of the last city on earth you can see is the Tower, a kilometer high fortress that only exists for Guardians to acquire shinier weapons and ships and to meet other Guardians. All of this makes an initially impressive game feel weirdly lacking.
And while the times you end up fighting alongside strangers are fun, they ultimately feel hopelessly inadequate. You’re supposed to be humanity’s last hope, and yet there’s no means for these great warriors to make tactical or strategic decisions together, let alone democratically. And because the only narrative arc is based on the single-player story, the collective experience is of a war that will never end. Perhaps this is understandable given the fact that Bungie, the game’s producer, would probably have problems shifting the game if everyone else had already won the war. But what it means is that the key selling point of the game, collective experience, is practically meaningless. As a collective, the people who play the game can change nothing about the universe they’re in. Instead they’re condemned to endlessly repeat the same ritual battles and slaughters, without any moral or political consequence.
Writers like Jonathan Crary, author of 24/7, have argued that the increased consumption of videogames has lead to ordinary people “gamifying” their existence in a neoliberal world. I’m not sure if games are the cause or the symptom – it seems instead that games are increasingly popular because they allow us agency in a world where there is none.
Yet this agency is tightly bounded. Our imagination rarely shines through. Minecraft, and the culture of modding, where people code their own edits to the game, are exceptions. In the main, video games sell us the sensation of having control despite actually having quite limited choices.
Arguably, contrary to Crary, it makes more sense to understand the mass appeal of games as a sign of a desire for genuine agency: in games we can change our gender, we can save the world. More crucially we can make real achievements because the parameters of success are clearly defined. In that sense games are far fairer than real life. Even though the ambition of Destiny runs up against the limits of the developers’ imaginations, it still provides far more agency than most real-life experiences.
The hugeness of games, in comparison to the relative passivity of films, for example, says something. If we are genuinely interested in revolution, we need to be able to articulate real agency. As silly as it sounds, videogames may be a reference point for us to do so.
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Søren Goard is a socialist living in London. He contributes to revolutionary socialism in the 21st century, where this article first appeared.