Meet the video game studio that wants its players to start a revolution.
Become a revolutionary in the comfort of your own home simply by playing video games. That’s the call to arms from independent Italian video game developer La Molleindustria (‘the soft industry’). Since 2003, Molleindustria has been creating web-based games that critique and satirize the worst tendencies of capitalism. Some of their most interesting offerings include Trademarkville, a game that frustrates the user by asking them to endlessly rename simple objects as more words become trademarked and banned, Phone Story, which puts players in the shoes of exploited Foxconn factory workers, and Unmanned, which invites the player to simulate the everyday life of a US drone pilot.
The games that Molleindustria creates all seem just a little perverse. Some of them are designed to be impossible to win, and force the player to make questionable ethical choices. The McDonald’s Video Game, for instance, allows players to visit every site of McDonald’s production and supply chains, from the slaughterhouses to the front lines of McDonald’s stores, administering the system all the way. Then there are their more bizarre offerings like Queer Power, which allows players to fuck instead of fight as their anatomies and gender identities continually morph, all within a classic Street Fighter setup.
Despite developing video games, however, Molleindustria is not a video game company. Instead, as their 2003 Molleindustria Manifesto states, “Molleindustria is theory and practice of soft conflict—sneaky, viral, guerrillero, subliminal conflict, through and within video games.” To Molleindustria, video games are a tactical tool in the struggle against capital. Their explicit goal with infusing video games with serious and often dark themes is to mount “a call for the radicalization popular culture.”
The mind is a battleground, according to the Manifesto, and one that is constantly “contended by services and commodities.” Their games provide a break from the constant barrage of promotionalism in pop culture.
It might seem odd at first that video games should be a site of social and economic struggle, as games and leisure often seem to stand outside of such dour concerns. What Molleindustria realizes, however, is that there is no such thing as pure leisure anymore: it’s all work.
Maurizio Lazzarato, an Italian sociologist, philosopher, and labour theorist, called this the rise of “immaterial labor” in his seminal 1996 article “Immaterial Labour.” Immaterial labour, according to Lazzarato, is the sum of our everyday activities online—Facebooking, tweeting, playing games—which on the surface do not seem like “work” per se, but are really integral to the profit cycle online and off. In other words, immaterial labour is “the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.”
If it all sounds a little too ambiguous, consider Pokémon. Anne Allison, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, wrote in “Pokémon: Getting Monsters and Communicating Capitalism” that Pokémon, which is by all accounts an innocent children’s game, actually serves to communicate capitalist modes of transaction to players. The tsūshin kēburu (communication cable), she argues, was designed with the explicit purpose of not only fostering communication between players, but trade. Victory in Pokémon is not achieved simply by defeating your opponents, and it can’t be done alone. The key to Pokémon has been, since its inception, forming networks of trade. Allison writes:
...the necessity for exchange envelops players in webs of social relationships, given that, by the very rules of the game, one cannot play strictly alone. And, as was the hope, exchanges are perpetuated outside the parameters of the game itself and into currencies of other kinds. In a mixing of metaphors, economies, and pleasures, one example given by Tajiri [Pokémon’s creator] was that a child might exchange one of his pokémon for a bowl of ramen or a desired comic book.
Remember the giddy excitement, the pure visceral thrill, of exchanging little plastic cartoon monster cards with your friends? Ever trade someone a few low-level cards for a turn on the monkey bars? Since we were old enough to beg our exasperated parents for a pack of playing cards in the supermarket, we were being trained for life in the capitalist economy. Pokémon, like many video games, communicates capitalism through fun and games. This is what Molleindustria realizes, and this is what they are attempting to subvert.
There are certainly a few problems with this approach: it’s unclear how their games can challenge capital in any concrete manner, except, perhaps, by serving as inspiration. But the most important thing to take away from Molleindustria is likely that our minds are battlegrounds, and the subtle ideologies of capital, market dynamics, and commodity exchange are continually impressed upon them—even, and perhaps especially, when we are unaware. Video games often catch us at our most unguarded because, hey, we’re just having fun, right? Molleindustria takes this vulnerable state as an opportunity to turn the whole damn thing on its head.