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Games of Empire Global Capitalism and Video Games

May 31, 2011

Brett Caraway -

Games of Empire

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, video games are an integral part of global media culture, rivaling Hollywood in revenue and influence. No longer confined to a subculture of adolescent males, video games today are played by adults around the world. At the same time, video games have become major sites of corporate exploitation and military recruitment.

In Games of Empire, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter offer a radical political critique of such video games and virtual environments as Second Life, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto, analyzing them as the exemplary media of Empire, the twenty-first-century hypercapitalist complex theorized by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. The authors trace the ascent of virtual gaming, assess its impact on creators and players alike, and delineate the relationships between games and reality, body and avatar, screen and street.

Games of Empire forcefully connects video games to real-world concerns about globalization, militarism, and exploitation, from the horrors of African mines and Indian e-waste sites that underlie the entire industry, the role of labor in commercial game development, and the synergy between military simulation software and the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan exemplified by Full Spectrum Warrior to the substantial virtual economies surrounding World of Warcraft, the urban neoliberalism made playable in Grand Theft Auto, and the emergence of an alternative game culture through activist games and open-source game development.

Rejecting both moral panic and glib enthusiasm, Games of Empire demonstrates how virtual games crystallize the cultural, political, and economic forces of global capital, while also providing a means of resisting them. Source: Publisher

Putting Play to Work in Games of Empire

Along with aspiring filmmakers our class is also home to a growing number of ambitious video game producers. We have lots of fun each semester learning the ins and outs of 3D modeling. But we also spend considerable time learning about the video game industry itself. This semester we read a portion of Greig de Peuter’s and Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the field of game studies. The authors’ work is grounded by the concept of immaterial labor—a reoccurring concept in our class. This book insightfully explores video games through a cultural, social, and economic lens. We are honored to have Greig de Peuter respond to some of our questions below.

Copygrounds: Is there something substantially different about the immaterial labor associated with video games as compared to radio/television? Much has been made out of the passive nature of the engagement with these latter technologies, but isn’t the process of interpretation or the creation of meaning similar for both? Or more broadly, do you see continuity or a significant break in the transition from so-called ‘industrial labor’ to ‘post-industrial labor’?

Greig de Peuter: A short answer is that there are continuities and discontinuities. As students in the course know, there’s a tradition of reception studies that’s challenged simplistic assumptions of audience passivity and emphasized the active agency of mass media audiences in the meaning-making process. Even so, it wasn’t unusual for early game-studies scholars to herald the interactivity of computer and video games as a democratizing advance over the viewer or listener’s position within one-to-many broadcast media—an exercise in contrast that obscures continuities like corporate ownership structures and marketing-led content design and so on. Looking back, early celebratory perspectives on interactive entertainment might be read as rehearsing some of the ideas later associated with the rhetoric of user empowerment now surrounding Web 2.0.

The uniqueness of the video game as compared to other media is an issue that was taken on in game studies in early polemics between what were loosely labeled ‘narratologists’ and ‘ludologists.’ If the former approached games as texts to be interpreted in ways similar to literature, film, or television, the latter understood video games as more akin to sports, structured by rules, goals, and strategies. The singularity of gaming is captured by Alexander Galloway (2006) when he refers to it as an “action-based medium” (3): “If photographs are images, and films are moving images, then video games are actions. … With video games, the work itself is material action. One plays a game. And the software runs” (2). Computer-specific categories like simulation are central for grasping the specificity of this medium. At the same time, to the extent that in-game representations replicate hegemonic social identities and relationships, this ‘new’ medium hasn’t transcended the problems of ideology dissected by generations of communication scholars concerned with ‘older’ media systems. By the same token, a video game’s algorithmic layer can recapitulate prevailing socio-economic norms just the same. We have a chapter on Grand Theft Auto, for example, where we argue that free-market logic is literally the rule of the game, and cynicism the overwhelming affect of its player-driven narrative.

The broader question about industrial/post-industrial labour is a vast and thorny one. Our book points out commonalities and divergences. Your reference to a ‘break’ brings to mind an interview we did with a studio executive whom we quote in the book. Praising the imagination and intelligence of his game development staff, he defined the studio’s “machinery” as “the mind of all these people who … come up with these great ideas. … Our collateral walks out the door every night.” And, he said, when that “mind” leaves the office for the weekend, “(we) just hope like heck that they … show up on Monday.” While capital, industrial or post-industrial, always faces the possibility of a withdrawal of labour power, this executive’s comments gesture at a modification in the power relations of labour and capital in this post-industrial setting. Although a bit nervous about a situation where workers’ autonomous cognitive capacities are so indispensible to production, this executive went on to mention a big plus of this type of creative labour: “unlike machinery that stops working at five o’clock, ours might be home, (but) they’re thinking of new ideas, and their whole life experience is creating the potential for new ideas.” His comments hint at the difficulty of applying conventional measures of labour time within what some theorists call ‘cognitive capitalism.’

We use that concept in another chapter of the book to frame a case study of Electronic Arts, one of the industry’s largest players. As we write there, the idea of cognitive capitalism emphasizes the dependence of corporate enterprises on the thinking–the cognition–of its workers. Of course, employers have always depended on their employees’ intellect. Even the most rationalized assembly lines of industrial capitalism ran courtesy of workers’ tacit knowledge. To speak of cognitive capitalism is to suggest the rise to prominence of a set of industries for which the mobilization of advanced forms of collective knowledge is foundational: the computer hardware and software industries; the biotechnology, medical, and pharmaceutical sectors; the financial analysis sector, marketing, and data mining; and media and entertainment enterprises—including video games. Although each sector of cognitive capital has unique characteristics, they share some basic features. They rely on, and often produce, software aimed at recording, managing, simulating, and stimulating cognitive activity. Their primary mechanism for securing revenues is intellectual property rights–patents, trademarks, copyrights, and other instruments. And cognitive capital depends on an immaterial workforce with formidable technical, intellectual, and affective capacity: knowledge under cognitive capital is incorporated not only into fixed machinery but also is integrated into, and emanates from, the subjects of living labour.

Just one attribute of ‘cool’ jobs in post-industrial sectors that sharply contrasts with what most of us probably have in mind by industrial labour is the articulation of work and play. Arguably no other sector of cognitive capital has so strong an image of fusing labour and leisure than game development. Even if the idea of getting paid to play is an outsider’s perception, this work-as-play ethos doubtless serves a recruitment function. In any case, it would seem to be especially challenging to anchor a critique of labour exploitation in occupations where one is ‘passionate’ about the content and the product of the work. If you relate to your job as ‘play,’ are you less likely to understand your labour as an object of exploitation?

But many qualities that tend to be associated with industrial work aren’t necessarily overcome in workplaces churning out immaterial commodities like video games. The game development process is, for instance, not immune to standardization or rationalization: digitally tweaking features in the umpteenth annual update of a sports game franchise will have its share of rote tasks. Likewise the offshore outsourcing of manufacturing jobs gets a lot of press, but as you know, this process has steadily climbed the value chain: game work, including that by industry giants like EA, is hardly sheltered from mobile capital’s restless search for sufficiently skilled labour at the cheapest cost.

Another way into this question of industrial/post-industrial labour is to emphasize that although the commercial success of a game commodity depends on the creation of something intangible—namely a relationship, or the willingness of a gamer to identify, for hours, possibly years, with a game character, setting, or experience—the product of this labour is definitely material. Game code resides on a physical CD. We play on computers, consoles, and mobile devices. All these are crammed with components. These products are routinely assembled and packaged by factory workers in the global South in export-processing zones whose punishing working conditions are exposed in studies such as those published by Make IT Fair.

You mention industrial labour. But we might add pre-industrial labour practices, because these too blend into digital play’s circuit of exploitation. Our book ends on bipolar possibilities for games and the labour mobilizing them. On one side are online virtual worlds where monetary and entertainment value is derived from player-producers networked via the latest digital platforms. On the other side are dramatically different but nonetheless codependent realities marked by informal work and environmental racism. Numerous playable gadgets rely on electrical capacitors packed with tantalum, a mineral derived from coltan. Its greatest known deposits are in the conflict-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, where in recent years the ore has been extracted by young diggers eking out a livelihood in harrowing improvisational mining operations using the most rudimentary tools. And at the end of their machine life, consoles morph into a new commodity, e-waste, entering a global economy of digital trash, with subsistence-wage scavengers inhaling toxins while disassembling digital products by hand and by flame, picking out components containing a shred of residual value.

From game design to console disposal, from stylish studios to the planet of slums, the labour that runs the game factory is anything but uniform. It better resembles what Paolo Virno once described as a kind of “world’s fair”—a multiplicity of coexisting modes of production and forms of labour.

Copygrounds: How important is the content of these games to your analysis? For example, what does the concept of immaterial labor allow you to say about the large amount of violent content in first-person games?

Greig de Peuter: Our book’s project was to examine the interaction of virtual games and actual power in the context of what Hardt and Negri call Empire—an apparatus of planetary hyper-capitalism whose two pillars are the market and the military. The book’s wider argument is compressed in an article online entitled “Empire@Play,” if you’re interested in checking it out. For the course students read from the first part of the book. There, the political economy of the games industry is a focus. But game content is important to our analysis as well, especially in the second part of the book. There we take a closer look at individual titles—like Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft—that exemplify what we term “games of Empire.” With this concept we’re exploring how virtual games simulate identities, rehearse logics, and prepare subjects for the emerging imperial social order anatomized by Hardt and Negri.

One game of Empire we zero in on is Full Spectrum Warrior. This console game was the product of a perfectly neoliberal collaboration integrating resources from academia, the US Army, and commercial game developers and publishers. While the military experimented with a version of the combat simulator as a (dubious) training application, the consumer-grade iteration of this shooter stands out as a classic example of game culture’s generous contribution to the “banalization of war,” a phrase we pick up from Hardt and Negri. It seems to capture the enveloping socio-cultural-emotional process habituating populations to the perpetual conflict of the ‘war on terror.’ The connection between virtual games and actual war is even more direct in projects like America’s Army, another well-known military-civilian coproduction. With the game’s web site allowing players to click-through to the US Army, what some gamers might rationalize as an escapist and perhaps even cathartic bloodbath is for the world’s armed superpower a rather serious PR tool to aid a military evidently having difficulty drawing recruits from a gaming generation. This is just one of the more obvious examples that games aren’t merely playful distractions but political devices entwined with global power dynamics.

To get to the second part of your question, the link between games and militarism is intimate, as the examples just mentioned indicate. (For more on this, see Huntemann and Payne’s excellent collection, Joystick Soldiers.) Game violence and immaterial labour connect—and clash—on multiple valences. A few really general points can be flagged. First off, any explanation of the prevalence of violence in video games would have to acknowledge that immaterial game labour incubated in military milieu in Cold War America. Proto-games were often unofficial projects—but early hacks like Spacewar! nonetheless bore the imprint of the institutional setting their designers worked in. Secondly, it seems that in the formative years of the industry a kind of recursive loop took shape between unpaid and paid deployments of immaterial game labour, with studios recruiting developers from their most devoted audience which, historically at least, was skewed to males whose ludic pursuits tend to the militaristic.

Thirdly, the violence that features in even DIY game cultures tempers any hard-and-fast assumption of progressive possibilities being inherent to immaterial labour. Although there’s an accumulating capacity for immaterial game labour to creatively collaborate independently of major-publisher capital, player-productions from mods to machinima regularly feature content that mimics, sometimes even extends, the violence of the original source. It’s possible to affirm the potential for autonomous media production without ignoring what Virno frames as the ambivalence of the multitude. But … and finally, it’s important to our analysis to recognize that there’s also a vibrant tradition of counterplay. Activist-minded gamers have turned the participatory capabilities cultivated by the industry to alternate ends, like to trouble the militaristic, sexist, and heteronormative character of imperial game culture. We walk through some of the many possible alternative social pathways for gaming in our discussion of what we call “games of multitude.”

Copygrounds: The lawsuit filed against the HuffingtonPost after the AOL merger involving the free labor of bloggers has been on our minds as we have read your book. Do you see the same contradictory forces at work in both the corporate blogosphere and video games? Do these bloggers have a more legitimate complaint since they are in some sense productive workers? Or conversely, are the interests of gamers somehow invalidated because gaming is positioned as a leisure activity?

Greig de Peuter: Selling to a corporate media giant a ‘liberal’ website whose value comes significantly from content generated by users certainly appears to be more blatant than the mobilization of work-avoiding video game players as a source of financial value generation. The cases are of course singular, but they occupy a common context: networked communication platforms are multiplying the options available for capital to access immaterial labour-power without entering standard employment relationships.

On the point of ‘productive’ versus ‘unproductive’ workers, the coherence of such a distinction is part of what’s being challenged by the concept of ‘free labour’ and the broader tradition of autonomist marxism that you’ve talked about with Tiziana Terranova. Free labour is suggestive of a continuum of productivity, and hence of exploitability, that exceeds the walls of what’s conventionally understood by the workplace. In terms of gaming, what we try to show in the book chapter you read are some of the ways that gamer activity outside the major studios and their waged labour force has consistently helped to drive the game industry—and the medium—forward. After all, the earliest digital games weren’t designed as commercial products. They were hacks. It was only later that entrepreneurs converted games into a youth-oriented media commodity. In the 1990s modders emerged as an important source of ingenuity for the computer game sector. In the early 2000s player-made machinima was helping to build and maintain interest in certain console games, with machinima-makers serving as de facto promoters. But probably the most striking deployment of free game labour is in MMOs, or massively multiplayer online games, a digital domain whose most compelling draw is substantially sustained by the collective contributions of vast populations of networked players.

This tendency poses questions about what forms of compensation would be adequate to the unbounded productivity dynamic of a networked social factory. But, yes, a Huffington Post-style grievance by player-producers claiming expropriation by game capital would likely have even greater difficulty gaining traction, because gaming is, as you say, positioned as a leisure activity: gaming is play, the reverse of work. Yet as workers across a variety of settings are increasingly obliged to be ‘creative’ on the job and to look for self-actualizing work and so on, then troubling the merger of work and play—in what Julian Küchlich termed “playbour”—has a wider relevance. And any assumption that play is the opposite of ‘productive’ work is further challenged if something like a “play ethic” is now integral to innovation under conditions of cognitive capitalism.

The sort of skills cultivated through the performance of free game labour as well as the platforms reliant on it aren’t destined to serve market interests only. These capacities lie at least partly outside of capital’s control. This much is suggested by the activist-minded game artists and ecological forecasters who have taken preliminary steps to create alternative multiplayer games. One early project we describe in the book is agoraXchange, which included a participatory design component to develop a simulator of a world polity based on constitutional principles its makers hypothesized might foster greater socio-economic equity. The idea that virtual worlds might be testing grounds for actual social innovations has recently gained some currency. There’s certainly a lot of experimenting to be done but a question our book ends on is: if the likes of the Pentagon and Wall Street can use simulation tools and virtual worlds to plan the Empire, why should the opposition not use them to think through exit options?


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