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Stephen Beirne has written a polemic you should read. The claim he makes is that game design archetype of “leveling up” reflects the ideology of capitalism “as narrated by economic exchanges of labour and wealth.” More broadly, Beirne draws a line (not just a comparison, but a line) between the neoliberal myth of self-improvement and systems of quantifiable progression in games.

I call “Level 99 Capitalist” a polemic because it has all the markings of a good one. It sets stakes, arguing that playing games like Borderlands “humours [players] as successful capitalists without really elevating them above their current station,” working to pacify workers in their leisure-time. It speaks fire in that quotable way that polemics often do: “Self-fulfillment [in leveling] is narrated within the cyclic act of labouring and consuming: “in consuming you find happiness, so consume!” It both grounds its claim in previous work and also finds a path forward in that same moment, here in Lana Polansky’s GDC 2014 talk which interrogates capitalist win and fail states in games, and demands subversion of these conventions.

But like many polemics, it sacrifices complexity for strategic power. Beirne has to address a huge issue in a short, digestible piece, and so he does so forcefully, papering over a few cracks in the wall. Here, I want to pull that paper down. I see four major cracks in the wall, which I’ll address briefly below. I do this not because I think his argument is a wash, but because I want to make the necessary addendum to every strong polemic: the call to roll up our sleeves and do the spackling necessary to fill in those cracks, to extend Beirne’s work in specific ways. Left alone, these cracks will form the core of a less sympathetic response than mine, so we should work through them now, with anticipatory vigour.

First, the rebuttal I think we’ll hear most often, is that self-improvement is not the sole domain of capitalism. Marx’s utopian dream is one that allows for the development of the self alongside the development of society, and his vision of the individual is one who is grounded in history, labouring on both themselves and the world in order to transform each. Beirne’s response to this is already implicit in the text when he argues for a mechanics of progression that treat players as “human souls.” 

But even metered, quantified, ranked, and badged self-improvement is not the sole domain of capital (or management.) It exists in the hierarchies of ancient armies, the sky-breaching architectural one-upmanship of medieval cathedrals, and the “organic” games that Burawoy identifies as emerging among factory labor in Manufacturing Consent. Depending on your brand of radical politics, there may even be a place for quotas and machinic tallying in your paradise—but in ways that assure more time for the consideration of “the human soul.” So what is leveling then? Is it just tied to capital? Is it tied to “Empire?” To something else?

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Second, Beirne may be accused of making a category mistake here, rendering the player only as an object to be acted on by game mechanics and not as a subject to read games-as-whole-things. He describes“leveling up” as a mechanical device that works on the player, but it’s an aesthetic one too, and one that can be interrogated by the player. 

Beirne is actually in good company here. Julian Stallabrass makes a similar move in his article “Just Gaming”, and it’s been argued that Nick Dyer-Witherford & Grieg de Peuter do the same in their chapter on Grand Theft Auto in Games of Empire. Like Stallabrass, Beirne is trying to extend the Frankfurt School’s work on repressive desublimation, which is why, when he writes about the politics of Papers, Please he focuses on how the systems turn players into “a dehumanizing bureaucrat,” and when addressing “leveling” only focuses on what it does to the player directly. Beirne does write about about “narratives of self-improvement,” but here he really only seems to mean this mechanical process. He wants more systems that work on the “soul” of the player, but voices no interest in mechanics that represent the “soul” of the characters. 

What does this demand look like in any other medium? Does this require every book to be A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which not only inspects transitional moments of growth in an individual, but represents this transition formally, through a developing vocabulary and grammar, dragging the reader along with Stephen Dedalus? Or can games, like other media, tell stories about individuals without replicating their journeys in the flesh of the player-reader? If the fogged valleys of Skyrim can tell us something about that place beyond just “lots of money made this game exist,” then so might the drumbeat-chant of the level up.

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Third, and an extension of the second, is that Beirne organizes progression-in-games according to a binary split instead of as continuum. In one corner Beirne places the majority of games with leveling, where he sees avatars getting rewarded with “points or toys” as they complete ludic goals, a list of boxes being checked off as the game’s characters improve and the player gets a boost of happy-time endorphins, but little else. In the other corner, he (following Polansky’s lead) places games that are possibly emancipatory or “epiphanic,” (naming Demon’s Souls and Portal 2), that allow the player (rather than the character) to qualitatively improve over time. This binary categorization is strategic writing again, I think, but I want to note how accepting it as-is leaves us limited in regards to the sorts of critique we can do, and invites perhaps the strongest criticism of the piece.

Yes, there are games in which character progress is separate from player “skill”—here I have something in mind like Talisman, the fantasy board game that relies almost entirely on random dice rolls to move play (and character strength) forward. But for the many games with leveling, the relationship between character and player improvement is related. When I unlock the skill that lets me shield bash better in Skyrim, it encourages me to explore that part of the combat system, to master it as a player. When a player maxes out their Alchemy and Blacksmith skills, they’re not just dumping points into a spreadsheet, they’re performing a somatic practice that teaches them combinations and formulas. Just ask one of them how to make a potion of fire shield or a dragonbone cuirass—I promise they’ll be able to explain the intricacies of those systems in the same way that die hard Souls and Portal players can talk about level design.

I keep returning to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim throughout this piece for three reasons. First, because about seven months ago I offhandedly made the same claim that Beirne makes here (about Skyrim specifically), and have been working that claim over in the back of my mind since then. Second, because it is so clearly a product of capitalism, and yet it resists Beirne’s broadest claim. Third, because it can illustrate the diversity of leveling practices when placed in conversation with the other games in the Elder Scrolls series. 

But it is not the only game that can resist this. Every game that I’ve played in the last year that has a leveling system also addresses me as a player, encouraging mastery of its systems. I mean that across the board, too—from small studio projects like the endearing, tactical roguelike Hoplite to the most problematic, big budget games like Watch_Dogs, each engages my skill as a player along with representing character growth through a leveling system. And I’m not excusing leveling from receiving critical attention, I’m demanding that we be precise with our critique. Without reading critically, someone might enjoy this piece and begin casting a net as wide as his, instead of addressing each system of progression individually.

"Level 99 Capitalist" actually carries this critique in its own text. As mentioned above, Beirne writes that when players level up, they are “rewarded with points or toys to increase their proficiency at completing future ludic goals.” This is the tip off that there is more at play here, more to work through. Instead of glomming together leveling systems that reward points and leveling systems that reward “toys,” why not address these individually? How are systems like Skyrim’s, which offer new “toys” (in Skyrim’s case, new “verbs” of interaction in the form of abilities and perks) different from even Morrowind’s (which simply adds greater chance for success on the verbs players already have)? 

The importance of this sort of differentiation and specificity becomes even more clear when we move into intersectional, instead of only political economic, critique. What do we see when we put the “racial” component of different fantasy systems into relation with each other? How do we understand that in Elder Scrolls games, Orcs get flat bonuses to certain skills, and sometimes a special attack or power, while in Shadowrun Returns, racial difference is about maximum capability, not starting aptitudes, giving its cyberpunk Orks different potentials (but not baselines) than its elves? How do we understand leveling in the too-many Free-to-play MMOs which lock classes behind specific gender choices?

It’s advantageous to even push the purely political-economic critique further than “it’s capitalism,” too. It’s easy to say EVE Online replicates the logics of capitalism—I should know, I’ve said it a bunch. It’s much tougher to interrogate how EVE leverages themes like loss and permanence in a way entangled with neoliberal logics, or to address how it handles trans- and posthumanism (especially in relation to other games that do the same, like Transistor and Syndicate)? Again, my goal here isn’t to say “leveling has no tie to capitalism,” it’s to ask “what is that tie on a system-to-system level?”

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Fourth, and finally, we need to remember that the leveling mechanic has been used again and again in works that are in many other ways tied to capitalism (and Empire and white supremacy, and and and). So it should be no surprise that leveling in these works reflects their greater character. But when I think of Crypt Worlds’ systems of progression, for instance, I see how it both integrates the systems of capitalistic wealth creation through exploitative labour and also subverts them. When Kalug Hammerlamp is struck by a mood in Dwarf Fortress, etches the tale of his people’s latest victory in the walls of their mountain halls, and becomes a better artist for it… well, I as a player didn’t improve, my “soul” isn’t touched, and this is definitely a leveling system, but it seems to better illustrate a world of autonomous personal development than a narrative of capitalist bootstrapping.

It is hard to know if leveling carries a capitalist logic in it, if it primarily reflects its contexts, or some combination of both. I know I don’t want to create a rationalization, or to claim that leveling is an apolitical pharmakon. Technologies carry politics, I’m sure of that. But I want to avoid addressing leveling writ-large, as if it were a singular convention, at least without a lot more work done to build that argument, block by block.

And the question of politics is at the root of this. Beirne is right when he says that as developers like Nintendo and Crytek wriggle and squirm around, claiming “apolitical” motives, they only work to “highlight the intrinsic capacity for politics within any media text of this nature and they show it to be inescapable.” He also is right to know that good critique can’t stop at “games are actually political,” which is why he goes on to argue for the existence of a particular politics, to argue how games might be political. I’m deeply sympathetic to Beirne’s project, like Stallabrass’, like Adorno’s, which is why I’m asking that we repeat this “how are they?” motion again, and again, and again. 

I am not a games evangelist. I do not aim to excuse these works or systems, or to say facilely “no no, all games improve us.” But it seems just as facile to say that “we” “tolerate” the mechanics of MMOs and RPGs, that they “aren’t inherently enjoyable.” Are “we” sure about that? Why specifically? And who is “we?” Does “we” include the millions of MMO and RPG players who defend “the grind” as fun and essential to their play experience, or do they not count?

The polemic lights a fire that we should keep burning, but one that we should check and shape to our needs. We must do this through critique that identifies patterns and outliers instead of generalizations, that interrogates instances of both capture and “epiphany” (especially when they emerge inside of the same work), and that may focus on only one part of a text, but understands the work within a whole ecology—from its community of players to the economic conditions of its production, from the history of its conventions to its referents beyond the form, from the ethnographic personal play experience to the formal analysis of mechanics.

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Screenshots from The Elder Scrolls Wiki and LPArchive.org