Pay to Win or Pay to Live?: Fear of a Freemium NHS

Ben Moore discusses freemium culture and the dystopian possibilities of ‘paid extras’ in the national health service and beyond, via Lukacs and Agamben.

The growth of mobile gaming has seen a proliferation of ‘freemium’ games. Such games are generally free to play up to a point, before they either require or encourage in-app purchases to progress to the next stage, play as a different character, skip ahead in the game, or gain a pile of coins, jewels or credits that can be exchanged for in-game rewards. These games gently but repeatedly reshape expectations around gaming, enjoyment and the distinction between ‘basic’ and ‘upgraded’ experiences. The principle of such games is to work out of enjoyment, and habit or compulsion, such that we pay more to do more because we enjoy the gameplay experience, or at least are distracted by it. At the same time, these games train us to expect, and accept, incremental micropayments if we want to progress beyond the basic form of the game. The other side of offering these paid extras to improve our experience is, however, that the basic game is designed to be limited, to provoke interest but leave it unfulfilled.

Paid extras in video games are rather different to those on airplanes

Gaming is just one example, albeit a pervasive one, of the logic of ‘paid extras’ which has colonised everyday experience in recent decades. Mobile phone, internet and TV packages offer extra channels, extra data, and ‘bonuses’ of various kinds. Airlines have been at the forefront of this development, offering customers extra legroom, choice of seats, speedy boarding, inflight food and drinks, optional hold luggage and so on – for a price. Travel has long been delimited by social class, of course, with nineteenth-century railways separating passengers  into 1st, 2nd and 3rd class carriages, but this new logic does away with fixed, solid class boundaries, instead allowing us to constructed our own individualised packages. As with mobile games, we decide which ‘add-ons’ we want. Once this logic is accepted, financial incentives inevitably lead companies to make as many aspects of the experience into add-ons as possible, paring down the standard (now ‘basic’) ticket to the point where paying for extras becomes normal. With air travel, however, the ‘enjoyment’ motive for buying extras we see in gaming becomes blurry. Many of these choices (extra legroom, hold luggage) function not to increase the fun of air travel, but to avoid discomfort or inconvenience. There is a motive, then, for companies to makethe basic experience at least somewhat uncomfortable or awkward, to encourage upgrading. Enjoyment, pleasure and convenience are reinterpreted as surpluses that go beyond basic requirements, and which should therefore be paid for.

This logic of ‘extras’ introduces a variegated and diffuse network of small differences in place of the more solid, unified class-based distinctions that previously characterised train travel, air travel and the service economy more generally. It is a logic that reduces class division but also resists leftwing resistance, because it does away with clearly identifiable social demarcations. A critical stance towards this logic is necessary, though, as becomes clear if we consider it through the lens of Georg Lukacs’s work on reification.

In ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, Lukacs points out that the principle of the capitalist system of production is rationalisation, which involves the breaking down of work processes into its separate elements with as much precision as possible – we might think of the Fordist production line for example. This has consequences for workers, since ‘this fragmentation of the object of production necessarily entails the fragmentation of its subject’. A fragmented labour process leads to passive, fragmented workers who are valued only as mechanical components or units of production.

While Lukacs focuses on early twentieth-century production rather than early twenty-first-century consumption, his key insight that ‘Reification requires that a society should learn to satisfy all its needs in terms of commodity exchange’ remains valid. As under Lukacsian reification, freemium logic demands that all relationships between subject and object are fragmented and become minutely transactional. What has shifted since Lukacs is the expectation of rationality. Although we are provided with ‘extras’ in a rationalised way, rational calculation is not expected in the consumer; indeed it can be a problem, since mobile gamers acting from impulse are likely to buy more extras more often. On the other hand, an echo of the rationalised worker remains in this logic, since we constantly have the opportunity (whether we take it or not) to make calculations about whether this or that ‘extra’ is worth purchasing.

Although the examples of mobile gaming and airline tickets might seem relatively benign, they are coordinates on a continuum that leads towards instances where the concept of the extra becomes deformed, and begins to invade the sphere of life itself. Through freemium logic we learn to accept the standard offering made to us as not normal but basic, even as the absolute minimum. We become used to paying extra for what might previously have been expected.

Agamben’s Homo Sacer (1998)

This can open the way for to state services to be hollowed out, so that it appears normal that health services, for instance, are fragmented, monetised and provide only minimal care as standard, as is beginning to happen in the UK with end-of-life care for instance. We can see the extension of this logic in securitised living arrangements across the world, from South Africa to the USA, where wealthier residents employ private security companies in place of police services. In this sense, there is a line that runs from extras that give added enjoyment, via extras that avoid discomfort, to end with ‘extras’ as a matter of survival. The final result of this logic is that all life beyond mere existence is surplus life, and must be paid for. We reach here a state in which what Giorgio Agamben calls ‘bare life’ – that is, life reduced to its most basic biological features and denied political expression – becomes the new baseline, beyond which all that can be guaranteed to us is the opportunity to buy add-ons.

Ben Moore is co-editor of Everyday Analysis and lecturer at University of Amsterdam.

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