Amidst the rise of Animal Crossing, Zoe Ereni considers the pastoral gaming simulator as a genre we turn to in the clutches of capitalism and crisis.
I have spent some of the UK’s lockdown doing something which, as a city-dweller my entire adult life, I had never done before: gardening. This strange period, with its stark contrast of overworked and out-of-work, pitting material terror against enforced boredom and a sort of existential rigor mortis, has opened up space for a lot. I have watched my friends climbing their walls, succumbing to childhood regression, rediscovering the cultural palettes of their adolescence (the last memory they have of being confined to their rooms). After a fortnight of sleeping at dusk and waking at dawn, emerging into 25-degree heat to tend to this microcosm, I realise that time has an entirely different meaning for me than it once did.
I have been working under the demands of Capital and a screeching alarm clock since I was fifteen years old. Until recently I had accepted insomnia as one of my personality traits. Circadian rhythm was a thing of fairytales. When all my income disappeared suddenly, and I went from being overwhelmed to staring at an empty calendar, I did what city-dwellers tend to do and scrambled around for ways to fill the time and space. Having internalised the insidious neoliberal injunction to be productive all the time, I created work for myself, and then I felt indistinct guilt or anxiety when I could not generate enough. I turned my gaze to everything overlooked in the absence of time; I spring-cleaned and learned to cook meals I would have been too exhausted to embark on in former times. As I adjusted to this new mode of being, I noticed my friends increasingly retreat into virtual worlds, generating ritual and community where there was aimlessness and isolation. Animal Crossing became mainstream news, and I remembered the game that once helped me through a traumatic period: an improbably successful indie game called Stardew Valley.
Most closely comparable to Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley is a farming and dating simulator which takes you from your soulless corporate cubicle-based job and lands you on a farm in an idyllic town, whose quirky character and harmony with nature is threatened by the Joja Corporation. Joja is a placeholder for any number of multi-nationals engaged in global homogenisation. The game is explicitly anti-capitalist, and its response to the encroaching menace of global monopolisation is a nostalgic love letter to provincial life. It has a sort of sentimentality which at best risks becoming anarcho-primitivist, and at worst is fuel for eco-fascism. As Alfie Bown is right to suggest, a critique which can only look backwards is by definition going to lack substantial progressivism.
In the interest of balanced analysis, that is the criticism out of the way. Despite its shortcomings as a manifesto, I love the game. Never before have I seen so many people say a game had affected their lives quite like this…
There is no competition in Stardew Valley. The player is incentivised to complete tasks and clear a dungeon in order to earn rewards, but it is possible to play endless calendar years in-game boycotting any number of things and the enjoyment is not necessarily impacted. A player can build a fully automated surplus-producing farm, and no specific reward will be gained. It will not get NPCs to relate to you any differently, and there are no neighbouring farms to put out of business. In a society dictated by capitalist realism, in which the games industry is busy imitating casino environments and competitive sports, how is it that a game like this received such overwhelmingly positive feedback? It is worth mining reviews for clues. Many players have remarked that it was the demands of their work and social lives they were escaping. Stardew Valley motivates the player to work and to socialise, but in a radically different framework, in which time functions less oppressively.
Many of today’s popular games reward competition over cooperation, and the monetisation of content rewards fast accumulation over steady exploration and discovery — a testament to the colonisation of virtual worlds by the logic of Capital. The repetition of these systems throughout games is evidence that even with alien environments at our disposal, human imagination is liable to build the same empire over and over again. If games are coming to resemble life, then what of life in relation to games?
In Psychopolitics, Byung-Chul Han argues that “Capital…represents a new kind of transcendence,which entails a new form of subjectivisation.” This new subjectivisation occupies a specific temporality, one formed primarily by the injunction to work, to work all the time, even when one is playing. The notion of gamification begins as a way of overcoming worker alienation; if we render work more like play then the workers might just forget they are enacting labour, and that what it means to play, what ought to be “The Other of Work” (Han) has been colonised by Capital. It is applying a kind of play, which is already designed by the logic of Capital, back onto work. Where this leaves play is likely a lost frontier, if we fail to claim it for our own.
“Games exhibit a specific temporality marked by immediate experiences of success and reward. But what matures over time cannot be gamified. Whatever is long, anything that lasts a long time, proves incompatible with the game’s temporality. Hunting, for instance, matches the mode of the game, whereas farming, which depends on slow processes of ripening and quiet growth, cannot be gamified at all.”
Contrary to Han, I do think there are ways of forcing farming into a temporality of gamification, but Stardew Valleycertainly does not do this. It provides the player with rolling seasons in the body of an ageless avatar; no risk, no immediate rewards, just the experience of completing tasks for their own sake within a sort of timelessness. It seems significant to me that amid pestilence on a scorching Earth, people are seeking solace in this kind of temporality: a resistance to the relentless acceleration of environmental destruction and economic despair.
Such a relation to imperialist temporality has occurred before. Jack Halberstam uses the concept of queer temporality to account for communities made “in relation to risk, disease, infection and death.” Writing specifically about the AIDS epidemic, he argues that, excluded from mainstream life, queer people developed a fundamentally distinct subjectivity, one formed by institutional marginalisation and the ever-present threat of premature death. From a position of alienation from a life trajectory determined by capital accumulation and reproduction, the queer subject exists, in a sense, outside of conventional time. He identifies a ‘stretched-out adolescence’ idiosyncratic of the queer subject, which “challenges the conventional binary formulation of a life narrative divided by a clear break between youth and adulthood.” Regarding subjects which emerge into ‘adulthood’ after an adolescence spent preparing for a job market they discover is non-existent, finding a collapsing ecosystem and the reversal of progressive social policy, which then must endure multiple economic recessions followed by a global pandemic, I posit a comparable exclusion from normative temporality occurs.
When governments implemented lockdown, there was the usual castigation of young people making a fuss — this is the easiest plague in history! All you have to do is wait it out with Netflix and home-deliveries! To the average middle-class individual already settled into a comfortable life-cycle, the notion of waiting might be innocuous, but waiting might be agony to those for whom the future has been cancelled. In his analysis of Waiting For Godot, Halberstam remarks “the experience of duration makes visible the formlessness of time,” which I believe is pertinent to the tension particular to being told to wait out a cluster of crises. In the urgency to respond, we are told there is nothing to be done. Before this, we were working toward a disappearing horizon. Now, following mass labour redundancy, temporality which was determined by that labour has been stripped to reveal its formlessness.
It is this encounter with formlessness, or the revealed absurdity of a temporality mandated by the eternal grind of alienated labour, from which people are turning to virtual worlds. As neoliberal workforces have become gamified in order to resemble play, so have games occasionally poked fun at the eternal grind. In the game Always Sometimes Monsters, I found myself stacking shelves. The sequence was deliberately tedious, repetitive, and there is no specific quota to fulfil. I got to work moving these boxes on the promise that I would be rewarded when I had done ‘enough,’ but how much was enough was never clear. The scene is a striking example of the insidious demands of surplus labour emergent in neoliberal workforces whose management perform the prioritisation of individuality, reward and job satisfaction. The real work is in guessing the rules of the game, and the real fun? That might be in breaking the game. A few boxes into boredom I decided to quit my in-game job at the risk of real losses, in game terms. Nothing happened. Virtual worlds have the potential to operate differently to the real world; they can mimic it by presenting the player with all the rules they encounter in life bound by normative temporality under the domain of Capital, only to break those rules. Instead of seeing game worlds recreate the conditions of the real world, I hope to see more world builders build new worlds. Virtual worlds have the potential to create alternative temporalities, especially with the popularisation of immersive technology, but only by shirking the expansion of the conditions of Capital into everything other than work.
“The constantly diminishing future creates a new emphasis on the here, the present, the now, and while the threat of no future hovers overhead like a storm cloud, the urgency of being also expands the potential of the moment…” (Halberstam)
Alienation is twofold: first as work and then as play. The perverse colonisation by Capital of the virtual, from the people we communicate with on social media, to the games we play to escape reality, is a reterritorialisation of the possibility for play as a radical act. Like humour is a recourse from trauma, play is a site of reimagining, experimentation in creating new rules, or just breaking them. It is at this site of ambush that we find ourselves, fleeing the prohibition and reclamation of imagining itself, and this is where the engineers of virtual realities have a choice: they can accelerate Capital right through the singularity, or they can weaponise the tools to design new ways of organising and educating, and find innovative solutions to old problems. As the highest-grossing entertainment industry, games have considerably more cultural capital than literature, film or music likely will again, meaning the responsibility of designing the future lies there. Cast from the dominion of normative temporality by tangential global catastrophes, no wonder the younger generations reach further into the virtual. With the material world consigned to apocalyptic certainty, the only possibility of a future is in timelessness. The formation of that reality is a gift and a burden not to be taken lightly.
 “As a means of production, gamification is destroying play’s potential to set free. Play should make it possible to use things in wholly different ways; it should liberate them from the theology and teleology of Capital.” (Han, Psychopolitics, 2017)
 I am referring specifically to the emotional labour described in detail in Capitalist Realism(Fisher, 2009).
Zoe Ereni is a writer, performer and activist who would have been a style icon and comedian a century ago. Instead she spends time contemplating psychoanalysis and contemporary culture