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Dyer-Witheford's Games of Empire: a Must Read for Critical Information Scholars

Dyer-Witheford's thesis is that virtual games are not only a reflection of offline realities, but that they are a manifestation of capitalism and an extension of empire. This book argues that there are two key drivers of virtual games: militainment and ludocapitalism, which reinforce two main pillars of empire: the military and the market.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, America's Army and Real Heros are web-based, first-person shooter video games that have generated over seven million downloads. In America's Army, gamers are able to simulate direct participation in the U.S. war against Afghanistan. The game allows users to link directly from the game to a website:, which is a recruitment portal into the armed forces. The games original and intended purpose, of course, is to operate as a public relations arm of the military and to foster interest, enthusiasm and passion for shooting "enemies" of the U.S. government. So the game is more than a virtual experience, it is also a tool for facilitating offline behavior, such as joining a branch of the military.

A look at America's Army 3 (the latest version) press release has some interesting notes. The game developers have incorporated feedback from users, which include: "Suicide" has been replaced with "Withdraw" as a console command. You also no longer "tap out" when incapacitated but instead choose to "withdraw from the mission." Medals of honor and awards of achievement abound. Gamers get an opportunity to experience virtual success as snipers, medics, infantrymen and leaders in the comfort of their computer station. America's Army crowdsources "fixes" the game to make it an even more appealing game to draw in users and keep them entertained in what James Der Derian (2001) terms "MIME-NET"--the military-industrial-media-entertainment network.

Second Life, a virtual world created by Linden Labs, has replicated free market economics on the web. By developing a currency exchange of Linden dollars has opened up a new world of money-making in the virtual world. Developers and gamers can build and own (with full copyright and intellectual property right protections). Corporations can show their wares off in Second Life through the purchase of land and establishment of online stores and virtual marketing experiences. In Second Life, the first life is replicated, replete with mindless consumerism and energy-consumption.

Dyer-Witheford brings the intersectionality of these two games of empire to light when he says, "Consider that the virtualities of Second Life feed back into the actualities of capital via the medium of the Linden dollar, and that the virtualities of America's Army cycle into the actualities of combat via the Web link to the U.S. Army home page. Add, moreover, that the two games are connected: the high-energy consumption and consumer goods of Second Life are what America's Army recruits soldiers to fight and die for. The two games reassert, rehearse, and reinforce Empire's twin vital subjectivities of worker-consumer and solder-citizen: Second Life recapitulates patterns of online shopping, social networking, and digital labor crucial to global capitalism; American's Army is but one among an arsenal of simulators that the militarized states of capital--preeminately the United States--depend on to protect their power and use to promote, prepare, and preemptively practice deadly operations in computerized battlespace (Blackmore 2005)."

Of course, this could not happen without the manufacture of "play" as both an industry and an acculturation tool. Video game play originated in the Pentagon and has proliferated into a multi-billion dollar commercial enterprise and site of accumulation in highly industrialized, over-developed nations. It's effects, extending to the under-developed world through the secondary opportunity structure (also known as the black market) are shaping and shifting cultures and economies. Energy consumption to make gaming possible includes the use of up to 1,752 kw of energy per Second Life resident -- on par with the consumption of an adult in Brazil. These gluttonous energy and server-storage needs (reminiscent of Googleplexes) feed into the demands of the First World upon the rest of the world for raw resources extraction and intensified labor in the manufacture of both software and hardware. What is problematic with the notion "play" is that it makes light and fun of gaming (notably themed games that promote militarism and consumption) as innocuous -- without harm or foul. Dyer-Witheford work shows us that games are not simply to be taken at face value -- they are tools and sites of other types of activity that reinforce domination, and in ways that are highly obscured (introduction, pp. xii-xiii).

This obfuscation of a web of interactivity is what Hardt and Negri (2000) might call "network power" -- the web of nodes across multinational corporations, extra-governmental agencies like the WTO, IMF or World Bank, and nation-states. Empire is no longer about geographic boundaries, it is the expanse of global capital, and its accumulation of profit from workers and consumers, learners and raw materials. In Foucault's words, it is the "biopower" that we provide in this complex web of social relations -- power that is entirely and effectively exploited.

Dyer-Witheford carefully defines Empire as: "the global capitalist ascendency of the early twenty-first century, a system administered and policed by a consortium of competitively collaborative neoliberal states, among whom the United States still clings, by virtue of its military might, to an increasingly dubious preeminence. This is a regime of biopower based on corporate exploitation of myriad types of labor, paid and unpaid, for the continuous enrichment of a planetary plutocracy, Among these many toils, immaterial labor in information and communications systems, such as the media, is not necessarily the most important. But it clearly occupies a strategic position because of its role in intellectually and affectively shaping subjectivities throughout other parts of the system. The Empire is an order of extraordinary scope and depth. Yet it is also precarious (pg. xviii)."

But this expansion of Empire is not without opposition. From online to offline protest -- Seattle to Second Life -- people are waking up to the intrusion of corporate and state dominance, and are finding points to reshape or at least resist. Games of Empire is a must read for anyone interested in a critical examination of virtual games as a manifestation of Empire.

Dyer-Witheford, Nick, and Greig de Peuter. Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2009.


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