Blog Post

Case Study: Oculus Rift, Facebook and Affective Labour

A lengthy but important disclaimer:

I want to admit, first, that I’m more anxious about this post than others. I don’t tend to speak or write publically about anything, especially anything digital, when I’m not somehow invested or involved with it. It isn’t that I think all approaches to this material have to be somehow ethnographic to be successful, but I’ve seen some of the worst ‘touristy’* approaches to digital material inflicted upon communities I’m in or care deeply about, and I manage my constant fear of unintentionally replicating that type of work by speaking primarily about groups or practices in which I am somehow involved.

I did not donate to the Oculus Rift Kickstarter, and I’ve never used the platform. However, I am deeply interested in the conversations surrounding it, and their implications for crowdfunding more broadly. So I’ve tried in this discussion, largely by foregrounding voices other than my own even more heavily than normal, to enter this conversation respectfully and with the open admission of some degree of distance and ignorance.

I also want to note that much of my interest in and knowledge about gaming (including this topic) stems from the year I spent at the University of Waterloo; their Games Institute and its explicitly feminist branch, the GI Janes, are both full of wonderful people and amazing work, and most of them have probably forgotten more than I have ever known about gaming. If this is a topic that interests you, I suggest following all of them immediately!

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As many of you may have heard, Oculus Rift, a virtual reality platform, announced its sale to Facebook over the weekend. The $2 billion deal, the developers argue in their statement, will allow them to make VR “ubiquitous, affordable, and transformative”.

This endpoint might be unremarkable, except for where Oculus Rift began: as a crowdfunding effort on Kickstarter. The campaign was nothing short of a massive success, raising its $250,000 goal in less than 24 hours, and going on to generate nearly two and a half million dollars.

Joel Johnson’s piece does some excellent work discussing what this means about the relationship between crowdfunding and venture capital, and I’m going to quote it at length:

“The fact that everyone involved made a rational choice to sell out isn't what I find frustrating, I don't think. (I don't even particularly care that Oculus sold to Facebook and not, say, Microsoft. Ultimately a sale is a sale, even if Facebook is the worst possible partner for Oculus of any of the large technology companies.) It's that I, as a consumer, bought into the narrative that underpins almost every Kickstarter project: that without my contribution, something novel would not exist. And while that remains true—and is a reason that Kickstarter's owners continue to underline that their goal is to fund "creators" and not "products"—Oculus' sale to Facebook also highlights the disparity inherent in the current capitalist and investment structure, where small investors are excluded from returns by regulation, but investors with more capital can quickly extract more capital by pushing a quick expansion into untapped markets, even without proving that those markets actually, truly exist.”

An article by Leigh Alexander posted on Gamstura summarizes critiques of the sale in similar terms:

““When a Kickstarter fails to deliver, annoyed consumers are told, "you did not make a pre-order, you invested in an idea." Now this happens, and we hear the reverse: "You were basically pre-ordering a product, and it's going to get made, so what's the matter?" Which is it?””

So part of what is at stake here has little to do with Oculus Rift at all, and everything to do with crowdfunding’s self-definition. Is it possible to invest in an idea, or a creator, without unintentionally acting as an unpaid test market for larger companies? Or does the successful generation of a large enough crowd automatically place the affective bonds of that crowd in the service of capital, rendering it little more than a digital instance of cognitive capitalism, or an online iteration of the exploitation of affective labour? Is the best we might hope for, as Johnson’s piece suggests, revisions to legal structures that will entitle backers to a stake in a company, regardless of the size of their investment? Or does whatever it was some people thought they were purchasing when they invested in ideas and creators represent an important opportunity to imagine and create alternative economies?

Importantly, too, neither of these takes are particularly concerned with the fact that it’s Facebook specifically involved in the purchase of Oculus. And while I think these critiques would be true regardless of the purchaser, I do want to suggest that Facebook’s involvement does add another dimension to the conversation. And that dimension is affective labour.

While we labour online for far more companies than just Facebook, its ubiquity and control over the terms that constitute the online social should, and does, give many of us pause. Wages for Facebook (a reference to the feminist campaign Wages for Housework) builds on and mobilizes around these concerns, and invokes the importance of affect at several turns, including a memorable moment when they describe how our “fingertips have become distorted from so much liking”, and “our feelings have gotten lost from so many friendships”.

The affective dimension of labouring for Facebook also returns me to Heather Love, whose work I considered in my post yesterday**. While by no means somehow outside of capital prior to the sale, the draw of Oculus Rift, and the excitement about virtual reality more generally, might resemble what Love calls “failed sociality” (22), or a “politics of refusal” (58) to engage with the world as-is. That is, by previously remaining separate from the move toward socially networked gaming, Oculus Rift seemed to present an opportunity for users to participate in a gaming that resists the need for users to be always already social and incessantly connected. Again, this doesn’t make the pre-Facebook Oculus (or any VR) disembodied or asocial, but rather something I see as refusing some of the terms on which the social is currently constituted. Prior to the sale, the moment of connection and monetized affective labour was the crowdfunding campaign and discussions surrounding it; the platform itself did not require users to generate data in the form of ‘sharing’. The reaction against Oculus’s sale seems not just a response to the exploitation of backers in the service of large-scale venture capitalism, but a fear that connecting virtual reality with Facebook’s brand of social might mean a perpetual exploitation which will make the gaming reality decidedly less virtual and more invested in maintaining normative economic and social structures.

Perhaps, then, what this means for my own project is a consideration of crowdfunding as a struggle over two types of labour, and their relationship to one another: the labour involved in imagining/creating an economy centred upon a rejection of products, and the type of work demanded by specific campaigns.

I’m going to consider this further tomorrow by blogging about the implications of this use of crowdfunding and affective labour for other types of campaigns—specifically, the funding of Gender/Sexual Reassignment Surgeries for trans* persons. For the question of having or deserving a ‘stake’ in those situations is obviously very different, and pushes back against the multiple forms of privilege still at work in discussions about Oculus.

 

*I’ve borrowed this phrase from a wonderful mentor at Waterloo, Aimée Morrison

**I don’t mean for Love’s emphasis on queerness to be lost in my use of it here. In fact, I used it because there seems to be very material, if implicit, benefits in non-socially networked gaming for queer (as well as female, racialized, and other minoritized) folks who wish to play but who lack the energy, time, or ability to deal with the often misogynist, homophobic, racist, ableist, and ageist aspects of gaming culture.

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