A few years ago at a conference about queer video games, I said to an acquaintance, “It seems like there are some financial barriers to creating good queer video games.” My acquaintance says, “Yeah, well that’s capitalism.”
But is it? Is it really???
Sure, capitalism makes it hard to make well-funded games catering to a minority group. But it’s pretty hard to imagine an alternative economic system where we decide to invest a disproportionate amount of resources for the cultural benefit of a minority. Of all the problems created by capitalism, I’m not sure this is one of them. If anything, I would blame… eh… utilitarianism.
Capitalism vs utilitarianism
You may have heard that, in the simple case, a “free” market maximizes the good for the greatest number of people–that is, it’s the most utilitarian economic system. It chooses the optimal pricing and product allocation, eliminating “deadweight loss”, which is an angry red triangle that inhabits the supply/demand curves. There are of course, a lot of issues with this claim, most of which are beyond the scope of this post. The currently relevant issue is that hardly any markets qualify as simple.
Video games don’t qualify as simple, for at least two reasons:
(1) High development costs, and nearly zero production costs.
(2) Monopolistic competition.
I will now explore some of the differences between capitalism and utilitarianism, by imagining a fictional product called foo.
Suppose, first, that foo has (1) but not (2). Suppose that it’s expensive to make a factory that produces foo, but once the factory is created, it is completely free to run. Also, all copies of foo are identical, and can be substituted for one another. Under utilitarianism, the optimal solution is to have at most one factory, and then hand out foo to anyone who wants it.
Under capitalism, there will be one factory, but the owners of the factory do not hand out foo for free. Instead, they charge a price for foo that maximizes profits, even though this results in fewer people getting the foo that they want. Alternatively, we create anti-monopoly laws that require that multiple companies own factories. But then we’re wasting resources on multiple factories when only one is necessary. Really, the solution is for the government to own the foo factory.
Now let’s change the scenario so that foo has (1) and (2). Suppose that not all copies of foo are identical, and every factory is custom-built to produce its own special kind of foo that might appeal to some people more than others. Here, the utilitarian solution is to weigh the cost of the factories vs the diversity of preferences of the people. If factories are really expensive, maybe you have just two factories, targeted at different subpopulations (which may not be equal in size). Then each factory hands out their foo for free to anyone who wants either kind of foo.
Under capitalism, you may have a similar number of factories, but the owners of each factory will not hand out their foo for free. Instead, they will charge prices that maximize their profits, and fewer people will get foo. Here, it probably wouldn’t help for the government to take over all the factories, because the government will have difficulty determining what kinds of factories should be built.
Utilitarianism vs queerness
So capitalism is suboptimal by a utilitarian standard. It’s plausible to blame capitalism for, say, the fact that video games cater more to men than to women. Women are half the population, you’d think that if we were to optimize utility, games would cater to men and women about equally. (You’d also expect most games to cater to non-Americans, which is the opposite of what we have now.)
But when it comes to queer video games, well. I don’t think utilitarianism is really on our side.
It’s not a problem with being queer per se, but being part of any group whose tastes are fairly far from the median. For example, if you’re in a group, whose membership consists only of yourself, that can only tolerate bullet-hell-based RPGs, you might find that video games offer some rather slim pickings. And I’m fairly sure this would be true even in a utilitarian utopia. You just can’t build that many foo factories for just one person–at some point that one person would prefer resources be spent on food not foo.
Of course, in the real world, our preferences are not so narrowly defined. Just because I’m queer doesn’t mean I’m unable to enjoy mainstream video games. It’s also perfectly possible for a video game to include aspects that appeal to both straight and queer people.
This tends to be reflected in the demands of minority groups. The demands are for “representation”, or if we already have representation, it’s about “better representation”. Representation is easy, because there isn’t any good reason for straight audiences to be bothered by the mere inclusion of queer characters.
At the same time, there are lots of things besides representation that get left out of the list of demands, because they would be asking too much. I think this hurts most at the intersections. There are many movies that try to address race, sexism, and ableism as they manifest in straight contexts. But how about the specific ways that they manifest in queer contexts? It’s not that that media doesn’t exist, but the pickings are slim.
The unfairness of life
One possible reaction is to say, “That’s just life. Life is unfair.” Or else you might say, “Let’s focus on reaching utopia before we worry about utopia’s limitations.” And I think those are valid reactions.
I think I’m complaining about something relatively petty. But I do so love to complain, and if it’s just life, then life seems like a reasonable thing to complain about. I also find that complaining about small issues helps keeps me grounded so I can remember just how outrageous the big issues are, like the fact that representation is so atrocious.
All this was inspired by the one-off comment of some indie game developer, but I think it’s the kind of comment that’s fashionable in certain liberal circles. “I blame capitalism.” Or the feminist equivalent, “I blame the patriarchy.” I am sympathetic to both sentiments, but I do wish people would dig further, since I truly and honestly don’t know what any given person means by that.