Review-Games of Empire, Game Engine: Labor, Capital, Machine

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  • Dyer-Witheford, Nick; Peuter, Greig de. Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games, University Of Minnesota Press, 2009.
    • reviewed by Taylor Tomanicek


In the introduction of Games of Empire, Dyer-Witheford and Peuter’s argument is made clear: “Our hypothesis, then, is that video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire— planetary, militarized hypercapitalism— and of some of the forces presently challenging it” (xvii). The very beginning of the video game can be traced back to rogue Pentagon programmers, “[transforming] the electronic screens of nuclear war preparation into whimsical playgrounds” (xv). What was originally a direct subversion of the Empire is now a route by which it further extends its reach.

This relatively new commodity of activity further ushers in a new method of production, referred to as “immaterial labor” (3). Games outlines the means by which this new creative class of workers, designers, and programmers operates. It is not a production gauged by quantitative measures, but is immensely more subjective: it “involves the less-tangible symbolic and social dimensions of commodities” (4). Atari was among the first company of its kind to embody the “work as play” approach, “a fusion of counterculture and corporate capitalism” (12). The contradictions of this method of production soon became evident; once Atari was sold to Warner Communications and began implementing cost-cutting measures, the employees once used to autonomy were at odds in a partnership that didn’t last. This was when Japan began to assert its own presence in the world of video gaming: Nintendo learned from Atari’s failures and, influenced by the counter-culture styles of manga, began to dominate an industry that transcended political and geographic boundaries.

The video game, by its very nature, is built and sustained by the free time of the consumer. “The manner in which the industry subsequently and profitably [adopts] the innovation [provided by its users] [highlights] a process that has become increasingly prominent in virtual play: the mobilization of the players themselves as immaterial labor” (23). This includes, or example, players creating female avatars where there had been only male, carving out another type of market to appeal to. This also includes those who modified and repurposed games, and distributed them for free.

Cognitive Capilatlism: Electronic Arts
This chapter introduces a new system of production called cognitive capitalism, “a system … in which knowledge plays an integral role” (36). This includes “the transformation of knowledge into a commodity and dependence of the kinds of immaterial work described in chapter 1” (37). It does not simply consist of the increasing reliance of corporations on technology, but “the dependence of corporate enterprises on the thinking— the cognition— of its workers” (37). Throughout this chapter, Wytheford and Peuter use major video game company Electronic Arts as an example of this new mode of production in action, repeatedly citing “EA Spouse,” a partner of an EA worker who penned an open letter about the harsh work conditions of their partner.

A characteristic of Empire is that it is all-encompassing, far-reaching, global; EA operates major studios in Los Angeles, Florida, Vancouver, Montreal, Madrid, and Ingelheim, Germany. They are continuously buying out smaller studios, ever-increasing the scope of their control. Electronic Arts also outsources tasks such as “‘porting’ existing games to additional platforms, rote programming, and made-to-order artwork” (50). Where a US programmer doing the same work for EA would earn between $70,000 and $100,000 a year, programmers working for the same company out of Glass Egg Digital Media in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam earns $4,000.

There is a unique blend of play and work which attracts people to the field, game workers “[refer] to the ‘rebelliousness’ of the game development workplace [contrasting it] to the stiffness and rationality of the ‘corporate world’” (55). This kind of work comes with the allure of not actually being work, a “workplace [situation] where the prescription and definition of tasks transform into a prescription of subjectivities” (57). This affords authority figures to demand more from creative workers, where 60 to 100-hour work weeks are not outside the norm. Backlash is discouraged, as workers are ever-aware of their expendability, as mentioned previously in the company’s tendency towards outsourcing; “Games workers can learn from their predecessors in auto factories and shipyards that the mere prospect of relocation is often enough to quash dissent” (65).

Machinic Subjects: The Xbox and Its Rivals
This chapter discussed the rivalry between Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo within the discourse of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s “machine.” Machines are not tools, “like cars, lawnmowers, and vacuum cleaners— tools… with moving parts and power sources … instruments with which humans transform nature” (70). These are what Delouse and Guattari call technical machines, which are part of larger social machines. “A social machine is a functionally connected assemblage of human subjects and technical machines … The curved saber is part of an assemblage that includes the armored warrior, the trained horse, the stirrups stabilizing the striking rider— a whole military apparatus” (70). This concept is then applied to the vast possibilities in the Xbox, especially in the Xbox Live feature, and the multitude of opportunity in the networked culture it creates.

Key Ideas

  • Ludocapitalism - Ludocapitalism describes the way pleasure and fun creates exchange value.
  • Immaterial labor - “Immaterial labor … is work that creates ‘immaterial products’ such as ‘knowledge, information, communication, a relationship or an emotional response’” (4). In discussion of the video game specifically: “The ultimate product of this labor is, no doubt material— once a game cartridge, today a disc— but its success or failure as a commodity depends on the creation of a relationship: the willingness of a player to identify … with a diminutive, running, jumping, red-capped plumber” (5). The text then goes on to describe how the post-industrial workforce of the 1960’s and 1970’s ushered in this immaterial form of labor, when corporations began to outsource material labor to places more exploitable, and industrial capital turned to information capital.
  • Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) - This text published in the year 2000 by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri is the primary influence for Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter’s definition of Empire. It is defined as a “planetary regime in which economic, administrative, military, and communicative components combine to create a system of power” (xix) that is all-encompassing, with no outside force.
  • Playbor - “One of the characteristics of intellectual and affective creation is a blurring of the boundaries between work and leisure, creating a continuum of productivity, and of exploitability, that is beyond measure” (23). The term “playbor" coined by Julian Kucklich, encompasses all voluntary, uncompensated activities executed by consumers which drive an industry.
  • Cognitive capitalism - Capitalist mode of production which relies on the subjective knowledge and creativity of its workers. It relies more on intellectual than physical property. “A video game studio executive … unwittingly summed up the essence of cognitive capitalism for us … He explained, ‘[Our] machinery … is the mind of all these people who … come up with these great ideas … Our collateral walks out the door every night’” (37).
  • Machinic subjugation - The video game’s proximity to our bodies, our enjoyment of them, our compulsion to play them are all examples of Dyer-Witheford and Peuter’s application of the concept of machinic subjugation. The text quotes Empire: “the multitude not only uses machines to produce, but also becomes increasingly machinic itself, as the means of production are increasingly integrated into the minds and bodies of the multitude” ((2000, 406) 93).
  • Gamer nomadism - “Just because capitalism generates new machinic subjectivities does not, however, mean they are fully controlled … emergent human-technical configurations [make] unexpected connections and take disruptive lines of flight … This uncontrolled element in machine subjectivity [is referred to as] ‘nomadism’” (84).”The hacker practices that lie at the base of gaming are a modern form of nomadism” (84). Hackers often see the illegal disrupting and modding of games as games in and of themselves. Microsoft recuperated this form of digital anarchy by introducing XNA, that would, for a subscription fee, allow users to generate their own tools and technologies (91).


This text outlines the industry of contemporary play, what it means to combine (or, attempt to combine) work and play, and how free time spent playing can be commodified and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. This text uses real-world examples of video games and their recognizable characters, which makes the experience of reading it feel less dry and more relatable. Dyer-Witheford and Peuter neither condemn nor praise the video game absolutely, but give a tempered account of the web of labor relations lying underneath.