Marx in the arcade

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Commentary on the book by Jamie Woodcock.

Jamie Woodcock, currently a senior research fellow at Open University in London, asks, in Marx in the arcade, translated by Autonomia Literária and with a preface by Rafael Grohmann, the processes involved in the production and distribution of digital games, cultural goods that are receiving increasing attention in today's society.

From a Marxist perspective, which takes a critical look at the reality of exploitation present in this sector of digital work, Jamie Woodcock focuses on the history and industry of digital games, investigating, from the concept of “class composition”, coined by the editors of the magazine Notes From Below (2018), the working conditions of the different types of workers that make this ludic universe possible, with its perspectives of struggle and resistance. In addition to placing video games at the center of the class struggle, the author also reflects on the potential of digital games as a cultural, political and critical practice.

In the first part of the book, “Developing electronic games”, Jamie Woodcock, after a brief exposition of the history of playing, tries to understand digital games based on his Marxist and critical perspective, accustomed to the analysis of the economic and social relations involved therein. If, on the one hand, games produce a displacement of the reality of work, since millions of people seek in them a more attractive experience than that provided by bullshit jobs ('shitty professions'), on the other hand, to the extent that they mimic the work process with its rationality based on objectives and rewards, they represent the extension of work under late capitalism.

As the author points out, this nature, at the same time transgressive and apathetic, uniting rebellion and power, is at the root of the birth of digital games. Their first forms were born in the Cold War, within the North American military-industrial complex, when they were basically computer simulations of war conflicts. Converted into an act of play, they quickly became a major commercial enterprise.

Jamie Woodcock then outlines an overview of the ups and downs present in the history of the industry: the rise and fall of Atari; the success of arcades; the contribution of Japanese manga to the success of Nintendo; console clashes; and the diversification of styles and genres, especially with the advent of the internet.

In this way, the role and scale of the interactive entertainment industry is highlighted, considered today one of the key sectors of the global economy, with several advantages for the investor in the form of payments and tax exemptions, combined with government initiatives such as teaching programming , funding bodies and digital incubators. Overall, the industry is made up of three segments: development, publishing, and sales. The main sector is development. You games are made in studios, which may be independent or belong to large publishers, such as Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft and Electronic Arts (EA), with their proprietary rights plans, vertical control of production and licensed franchises.

The second segment is publishing, where publishers are responsible for financing, marketing, and distributing the final game. Finally, sales can occur physically, in retail, but are increasingly being made on digital platforms, such as Steam.

The main axis of discussion in the first part is work with digital games. Jamie Woodcock investigates the work in the development studios, which produce the cultural and informational content of the merchandise, so that the game can reach the final consumer, realizing its exchange value. For this, the author claims the method of workers' poll, inherited from the theoretical and political tradition of Italian workers. This for two reasons.

First, this approach points to how to conduct the investigation, being done “from below”, in a process of building knowledge that is carried out together with workers' organizations. Second, it also provides elements for the interpretation and analysis of research results. Here comes the idea of ​​“class composition”, which would have three main elements: the technical composition, related to the organization of the workforce in a working class; the social composition, referring to the organization of the working class in a class society; and, finally, the political composition, focusing on the self-organization of the working class into a force for class struggle. The British author will analyze each of these dimensions separately.

Technical composition starts with amateurs contributing to the industry by making so-called mods, modified versions of an original game. This union of playing and working was called playbourg, “done voluntarily and without remuneration, pleasurable and explored” (Woodcock, 2020, p.123).

In a global production chain, many tasks are outsourced to workers “on the bottom line of production”. In the studios, there are testers, an occupation that, despite seeming fun, is quite boring and repetitive. This group also includes people who work with advertising, event organization and community maintenance, most of whom are female.

Also, for digital games to be played, an entire material infrastructure of cables, wires, consoles and controls is required. It is only possible with the extraction of raw materials, assembly of devices and logistics networks, depending on a myriad of people working in extremely precarious conditions around the world.

To profile the workforce at development studios – programmers, artists, designers and audio technicians - Woodcock uses data from the report of the International Game Developers Association (IGDAMore) (Legault, O'Meara and Weststar, 2018). The data apply, in general, to Canadian and US workers - which exposes the limitation of the author's generalizing pretensions -, showing that they face high turnover and are mostly men, young (up to 35 years old), white, technically savvy , skeptical about the use of suits, alien to union tradition and ideologically diverse. Managing them poses a dilemma for capital: on the one hand, a flow of innovative ideas must be ensured, which is only possible by giving them a margin of autonomy; on the other hand, there is the equally strong imperative to gain control over intellectual property and guarantee the achievement of the goals set by the organization.

Thus, these factors shape the work environment. First, the process is complex and interconnected, making it difficult to demarcate clear functions and roles, which renders the traditional notion of wage effort bargaining ineffective. In addition, the introduction of flexible working hours and playful elements in the office, which blur the distinction between playing and working, results in the naturalization of the so-called “critical moments” (crunch time), a widespread practice in the games, in which workers work up to 85 hours a week, from Monday to Monday, to the point of exhaustion, usually without receiving overtime, overtime or sick pay or vacation pay.

These moments can be seen as part of an ethic of virility shaped by the white masculinity present in the studios. However, as it is a common practice, Jamie Woodcock refers them, in Marxist terms, to the increase in “absolute surplus value”, corresponding to the increase in the productive time of work.

The analysis of social composition is based on the premise that workers become a class even before they sell their workforce, as they are stripped of the means of production. Thus, looking at social indicators that go beyond the work environment – ​​type of housing, the sexual division of labor, migration patterns and racism – is fundamental to understanding it.

As the social composition of the workers of games is mostly young and male, gender is a key factor in understanding the culture of extended hours. In a survey cited by Jamie Woodcock, most women (45%) reported that gender was a limiting factor in career progression, as they are responsible for the affective work of domestic care. The mobilization around the culture of game is another crucial factor. As many of these workers are passionate about games, they are willing to work long hours, submitting to precarious terms of work.

Having drawn the technical and social compositions, Jamie Woodcock then moves on to the political composition, making a brief historical reconstruction of the workers' forms of organization and resistance. The culmination of this mobilization took place in March 2018 at Game Developers Conference (GDC), the industry's largest professional event. Gathered around the round table entitled “Trade unions now? Pros, cons and consequences of unionization for game developers", a group of workers, articulated through social networks, founded the Game Workers Unite (GWU), “a wide-ranging organization that seeks to connect pro-union activists, exploited workers and allies across borders and across ideologies in the name of building a unionized gaming industry” (Woodcock, 2020, p.165).

From then on, three foci of action were established for the GWU: (i) Formation of local sections in several countries, including Brazil; (ii) Conducting educational campaigns to defend unions; (iii) Work with existing unions and other organizations with the aim of bringing about GWU forward, building alliances and sharing tactics.

According to the representative of GWU in the United Kingdom, unionization in the sector is occurring mainly for two reasons already identified in the analysis of social composition: critical moments and lack of representation. Furthermore, there is a very important movement taking place in that country: the entry of several workers from the games in British trade unions nationwide, where they can establish shared struggles with workers from various other sectors of the economy, setting an example for struggles in other parts of the world.

In the second part of the book, “Playing electronic games”, Jamie Woodcock is inspired by the Marxist cultural critic Raymond Williams to analyze digital games as a “form of mass culture”, conceived not only as the cause of historical changes, but as their result , that is, as a technology that arises from the existing conditions of a society. Investigate the games for its “ideological content”, understood here not only as an order to be obeyed, but as something contradictory, which, despite reflecting the economic relations from which it emerged, creates points of tension with them. As a cultural artifact, it is then about analyzing “the active involvement that games create with their players” (Woodcock, 2020, p. 184).

In addition to doing an extensive cultural analysis of different genres, Jamie Woodcock focuses on the relationship between digital games, politics and activism. In a first approximation, this relationship is expressed through the concept of gamification, which designates the application of elements found in games to organizational contexts that, at first, would not have anything ludic - like those found in call center or on app transport. However, the author is more interested in identifying this relationship in explicitly political games.

In this sense, Jamie Woodcock highlights the production company's games molleindustria. In phone story, for example, by going through different challenges, players experience the reality of exploration inscribed in the production stages of a smartphone until it reaches its final destination, ranging from Tantalite mining in Congo to factories in China, and from the accumulation of electronic waste in Pakistan to unbridled consumerism in the northern hemisphere. Here, we are playing with the position of a player as owner of a smartphone to give rise to a reflection on economic and social relations, bringing awareness to its role as a consumer and user.

Em Every day the same dream, one lives the monotonous routine of an office worker with his banal tasks. The narrative raises questions of estrangement and refusal, turning the reality of the work upside down. In The Uber Gamefrom the British newspaper Financial Times, after the player performs the services of the Uber fees are charged, plus car, maintenance and fuel costs. This comes as a shock, because it shows that drivers actually earn little, which exposes the uneven rules of the platform economy to conservative, union-critical readers.

So why should Marxists be interested in digital games? why read Marx in the arcade? First, because digital games are not simple entertainment, but a complex cultural commodity. Their production, circulation, and consumption provide important insights into the inner workings of capitalism. Game production, particularly in the big studios, involves disciplined and organized control of your cognitive workforce. Through a playful contract, which mixes work and free time, “exploitation in the electronic games industry provides a glimpse of how we might be working in the coming years” (Woodcock, 2020, p.254).

Furthermore, digital games are an incredibly popular form of culture, bringing millions of people around the world together around shared activities. Although many games have dark content, they also have their radical side through experimental and collaborative digital productions. In the dispute over which games we play, they can therefore serve critical purposes, introducing uncomfortable facts, encouraging opposition, and presenting future alternatives.

If Marxists and people on the left do not occupy this space of cultural struggle, they will let the radical right of Alt-right do it. And this becomes fundamental with the emergence of a movement of workers in the digital games industry, which has, in the words of the author, “the potential to not only reshape the condition of work, but also to transform the types of games that we have and how to play them” (Woodcock, 2020, p. 259).

*André Campos Rocha is a doctoral candidate in Social Sciences at PUC-MG.

Originally published on USP's Plural Magazine, volume 30, no. 1


Jamie Woodcock. Marx in the arcade: video games and class struggle. São Paulo, Literary Autonomy, 2020, 200 pages.


Notes from below (org.) “The Worker's Inquiry and Social Composition”. Notes from Below, vol. January 1, 29, 2018. Available at:

LEGAULT, M; O'MEARA, V.; WESTSTAR, J. “Developer Satisfaction Survey 2017 Summary Report”, International Game Developers Association, 2018. Available at:

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