SPACE: THE FINAL (Libertarian) FRONTIER (Fantasy)02 Nov 2016
I like to think I've got broad taste in videogames, but one thing I can never resist is the allure of spaceships. Back in high school, I played hours and hours of Terminus on my Apple G4 Cube. My EVE Online character is nearing his tenth birthday. Homeworld is still such a powerful influence on my work that I have the Kushan Navy emblem tattooed on my arm.
But I'm also a socialist, and that's where space sims always seem to let me down.
With surprisingly rare exceptions, open-world sci-fi settings tend to come prepackaged with visions of unregulated capitalism, dating back to Elite. The idea of space as a sea of limitless possibility is often represented as just a superficially wide range of ways to get rich.
"You can do anything in space!" the box copy breathlessly points out. "You can trade commodities, mine asteroids, hunt bounties, find valuable artifacts or engage in a little casual piracy! SO MANY POSSIBILITIES!!" Honestly, it gets sillier every time I think about it.
There are a couple of obvious things here. First of all, it's true that most videogames are capitalist to some extent, even if it's just in the sense of meting out rewards (ostensibly) proportional to the player's performance. But space games are often more overtly libertarian, with all the market competition and delusions of meritocracy that entails. Second of all, I'm certainly not arguing that capitalist game mechanics aren't entertaining -- I've been enjoying EVE for nearly a decade, and that's probably the most cartoonishly ruthless Randian dystopia in all of science fiction.
Corporate warfare is fun in space, because there are more lasers and no one has to lose their real-life pension because some jerkwad in an expensive suit blew it on a wholesale carton of rotten mortgages.
Nonetheless, it's a little disappointing that a videogame genre seemingly on the bleeding edge of futurism shows so little imagination when it comes to how economies might function, as though capitalism is a universal optimum to which all advanced civilizations must inevitably arrive. I guess this goes hand-in-hand with the uncritical technological determinism of nerd culture, which often seems willfully oblivious to science fiction's long history of critiquing capitalism. Star Trek may have been rather hand-wavey about it, but authors like Iain M. Banks have built entire bodies of work from such critique.
You may also remember this acceptance speech by Ursula Le Guin, which the internet loved for about twelve minutes in 2014 then promptly forgot. Choice soundbite: "We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings."
Now let's follow that up with a bit of actual marketing for Star Citizen.
Leaving aside the fact that Star Citizen is rapidly becoming the Ozymandias of feature creep, this is some industrial-strength advertising right here. All the aspirational messaging of a luxury car commercial, repurposed to promote a $55 spaceship that exists only as infinitely reproducible data -- data that, if you're clever, can be resold at such a colossal markup that you could finance an actual car with it.
Funny how so many of our futuristic visions seem to have little interest in the actual future, choosing instead to continually reimagine 20th-century measures of success. In many ways, space sims represent a kind of retrofuturism, like something that tumbled out of a wormhole from the Reagan/Thatcher era.
Maybe it's no coincidence that No Man's Sky, a game inspired by the British prog-rock aesthetic of the pre-Thatcher 1970s, came out of the gate with a decidedly less neoliberal tone.
I'm no mind-reader, but in the years following its announcement, it was pretty clear that Hello Games was aiming for a more humanist experience, focused on things like cataloging exotic fauna, deciphering ancient relics and admiring beautiful scenery. Naturally, gamers responded to this by demanding to know "what you actually do" in the game, which is a bit like asking a park ranger "what you actually do" in Yosemite National Park -- the implication being that No Man's Sky couldn't be a real game unless player actions had clearly defined extrinsic rewards.
PRO TIP: "What do you do in the game?" is code for "how do you win the game?"
The end result may be one of the most tragically crippled artistic visions in videogame history; the bleached skeleton of something vibrant and meditative, half-buried in shifting dunes of videogame busy work. Superfluous, inherently boring game mechanics like crafting and trading shoveled on top in a frantic bid to appease a hostile audience, probably because someone up the chain of command got spooked by the skeptical response and decided a cluttered, minimally playtested surrender of a game was better than letting Sean Murray and co. stick to their guns.
Economics probably weren't in the elevator pitch for No Man's Sky, but the questions it might have posed are still relevant. With all that freedom and no profit motive, what would drive us forward? If wealth is a means to an end, what other means can get us there?
If Block'Hood is green architecture's answer to Sim City, what is democratic socialism's answer to EVE Online? What would Elite: Dangerous look like with a planned economy? And why the hell does Star Trek Online even have currency?
The real world is only just beginning to grapple with the possibility that unregulated capitalism will not survive the 21st century. Now is the time for us to envision new ways of living happily and purposefully in a post-neoliberal world. As Le Guin said herself, this is one of the great strengths of science fiction, and I really hope space games will step up to the plate.
(Incidentally, I'm thinking about running a casual socialism experiment in EVE Online. If we know each other, and you have any interest at all in EVE, message me through the usual channels. It'll be fun, I promise!)