This past Thursday, March 5, the University of Maine’s Socialist and Marxist Studies Series hosted a talk by Christian Haines concerning the financialization of everyday life, first as trial by arts and pop culture. As an extension of Haines’ current book project of the same name, “The Scored Life: Contemporary Culture and Financial Abstraction” talk discussed broad themes of finances as means of valuing and devaluing personal livelihood in a post-capitalist society, as seen in video games such as “Cyberpunk 2077,” released in September 2020 and “Kentucky Route Zero,” a 2013 release.
The Socialist and Marxist Studies Series is moderated by Michael Swacha with introductions by Douglas Allen. This series is supported by the UMaine socialist and marxist studies minor and current sponsors: The Maine Peace Action Committee, the Office of Student Life, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the department of philosophy. This semester, there are eight featured talks, with this being the sixth.
As introduced by Swacha, Haines is an assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of “A Desire Called America: Biopolitics, Utopia, and the Literary Commons” (2015) and co-editor of “Is There a Place for the Commons” (2015) for the Minnesota Review, among other projects. Haines has also recently written, “The Scored Life: Contemporary Culture and Financial Abstraction” and serves as the managing editor on gamerswithglasses.com, a website which spurs discussions regarding “gaming as art, entertainment, technology and community,” which relates to his Socialist and Marxist Studies Series talk on March 5.
Haines’ talk delved into the future of financial abstraction on the global gaming industry both past and present, focusing on “Cyberpunk 2077” and “Kentucky Route Zero” as case study examples within his larger book-project concerning the cultural commentary of the devaluation of human life through capitalistic thinking. Haines began his presentation by reading a short excerpt from his current work, setting the scene for a neon-dystopian lens in a punk, post-capitalist society.
Using “Cyberpunk 2077” as an example, Haines discussed the financial expectations of gamers in the industry. By illustrating the lengthy release process of the game, which spanned from 2012 to Dec. 2020, the game’s demos were used to perpetuate an unattainable sense of gratification. Haines notes that many game demos are released so often that gamers are unrealistically expected to acquire new equipment per new release in order to play the newest edition.
“These hopes of the effect of an industry that’s heavily invested in long-term marketing campaigns that frequently advertise features that never actually make it into the game and promise an experience so revolutionary, no game will ever meet expectations,” Haines said.
Haines also notes that through the process of creating incredibly immersive games such as “Cyberpunk 2077,” “overwork and lack of job security are regular conditions.” Companies create a fluid labor force to keep creativity readily accessible and labor low, perpetuating a “crunch” timeline, particularly in AAA game development, which spans multiple years and eats up hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.
“In a Marxist terminology, they are facing extraction of absolute surplus value and longer hours, usually for the same pay,” Haines said. “To get specific, game development studios large and small are known for using what’s called ‘crunch,’ a drastic increase in working hours often unpaid in an effort to meet deadlines. Usually, the stories about this usually involve six-to-seven day weeks of about 15 hours to 20 hours of work a day, sleeping at the office with meals being brought in by the company, lasting from a month to six months.”
Haines recognized that for “Cyberpunk 2077,” the “crunch” factor was put into action early on in development, creating immense burnout and turnover as the intensification of labor discipline suggests.
By taking a thematic lens, “Cyberpunk 2077” serves as a critique of capitalist society, “emphasizing how corporations have replaced the state of governing society,” according to Haines. The game is full of these advertisements and uses body modification as imagined through such advertisements and via character upgrades during gameplay, suggesting capitalism does not only extend to products people may consume, but may corrupt bodily autonomy to stay at the top of the pyramid.
As his final point, Haines discusses risk management as a key player in training gamers in the pleasure of financialization. By optimizing time and resources through varied strategies of gameplay, games such as “Cyberpunk 2077” model capitalistic thinking and “embody a virtual fantasy of speculative power; a model of sovereignty over risk that is tailored to the digitized body,” Haines said.
The talk then ended with a brief Q&A session which discussed themes of the individual as a corporation and nonviolent alternatives of capitalistic representation among others.
For more information regarding the Socialist and Marxist Studies Series, visit https://umaine.edu/socialistandmarxiststudiesseries/ for information on both previous and upcoming events, including the “United States Relations with China (Southeast and East Asia)” talk with Ngo Vinh Long, a professor of history at UMaine, and “Revisiting Marx’s Critique of Liberalism in 2021: Implications for Political Theory and Practice” with Igor Shoikhedbrod, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto (Mississauga) and adjunct faculty at Trinity College at the University of Toronto (Toronto). These talks will be on April 1 and 8 respectively, both beginning at 12:30 p.m.