But is it really capitalism?

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.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Speaking of defining terms, what exactly do you mean by Utilitarianism? From the context you’re using here, it sounds as if you’re using the term as a rebranding of communism,since in practice, if the free market doesn’t determine how foo gets distributed, then the government does. Which is fine — I just want to know what shades of distinction you see between what you’re calling Utilitarianism and Communism.

  2. says

    Utilitarianism is just the value system where you try to maximize the sum of each person’s utility. It’s an ethical framework, not a political system. Within that framework, you could try to justify capitalism by saying it’s maximizes utility, or criticize capitalism by saying it fails to maximize utility.

    I am definitely not trying to rebrand communism as utilitarianism. Here I’m using utilitarianism as a hypothetical system where utility is maximized. I do not think communism is that system, and perhaps no such system could exist in reality.

  3. cartomancer says

    While we’re on the question of definitions, what exactly do you mean here by “queer video games”? Games that feature characters with non-straight identities? Games that deal with minority issues that affect non-straight people? Games that tap into queer cultures? I’m not entirely sure what such games would look like.

  4. sennkestra says

    I’ve seen similar arguments before, although I’d argue that they tend to be less about “capitalism as form of theoretical type of economic system” and more “capitalism as shorthand for the current economic situation, regardless of whether or not the situation would actually be any different under non-capitalism”.

    The theories I have seen have basically been something like:
    1. Under the current (capitalist) economic system, people need to trade labor to get money to trade for food/shelter/survival
    2. Under the current (capitalist) economic system, people can only trade labor for money if it’s a type of labor that is in mass demand by people who have money
    3. People can only perform a certain amount of labor before they have no more time/energy.
    4. Queer and other niche games are not in mass demand, therefore that type of labor does not make money
    5. Therefore, people who might otherwise make queer games must spend their time/energy on survival instead (maybe by making mainstream games instead)
    6. Therefore, if we had a different economic system where people don’t have to trade labor for survival (like in some proposals for minimum income etc.), people will make queer games instead of doing survival work like working in food service or making another Call of Duty.

    Of course, there are flaws in that argument. First, it’s more about resource scarcity more than anything else, and that’s not quite the same as capitalism – there are lots of non-capitalist economic situations where most people still have to spend all their time/energy/label on survival work (see: feudalism and almost every economic system preceding the industrial/agricultural revolutions), and many proposals like “mincome”, for example, are actually incredibly grounded in capitalism.

    Second, IMO this “freeing up labor” argument also only works for things like novels or indie games that can made with like, a home computer and a lot of dedicated labor from a handful of people. If you want the kind of media that require thousands of man-hours from teams of hundreds of people, or the kind of cg movies that require rendering by systems with advanced computational power, you’re still going to have trouble finding the resources for that if you’re in a niche group.

    So while it might make some of the barriers to making queer games lower (in that you don’t have to worry about how you’ll feed yourself if you make queer games), there are still many other barriers (how do you get ahold of computing power or labor from artists to help you with art assets, etc.) So it might somewhat increase the pool of available queer games, it would still be limited, especially for smaller subgroups (like queer people who are asexual and only like platformers that can be played on mobile phones).

    Even if you imagine a star-trek-replicator future where there is basically no scarcity of physical resources, there’s still labor scarcity – if you want to do a project that requires 1200 man hours a week to make all the animations, you are going to need to convince like 30 people to help you, whether it’s through payment with money (capitalism) or with something else like social persuasion or coercion or whatever. And if you only have like 15 other people who share your niche interest that you can convince to help – even if all of them happen to also be game developers – that project will still be materially inaccessible.

  5. says

    That was one of the questions we talked about at the conference! It was the Queerness and Games Conference. Many attendees and speakers were coming for a queer theory perspective, and thus had a very broad understanding of what a queer video game is. To give an example, playing a game by trying to achieve a different goal from the intended one could be a way of queering the video game.

    I’m rather critical of such a broad definition, but at the same time it seems overly narrow to just focus on the presence or absence of queer characters. The important thing is whether it resonates with queer audiences (including the creators themselves). And sometimes that means having queer characters, but queer characters are neither necessary nor sufficient.

    One of the speakers I recall was Robert Yang, who has talked a lot about his experience designing games that are deliberately catered towards queer people and not towards straight people.

  6. says

    Probably worth noting that a lot of the indie developers I met were really indie–like, having studios that consisted of only one or two developers. I suppose they might believe that under socialism, they would have more time to create games, and that this would go a significant ways to addressing demand for queer video games. But as a consumer who likes production values, I find this is a bit self-serving…

  7. says

    I will repeat my lament that economics lost a great mind when you went into physics. However, I think there are some subtleties that you might be missing. I will think carefully on the issue, and probably post something on my blog this weekend.

  8. says

    My boyfriend did point out a few errors. First, this part is wrong: “Under capitalism, there will be one factory, but the owners of the factory do not hand out foo for free.” In a capitalist market, it might be profitable for several firms to build factories and hold an oligopoly. Also, apparently in economics the common term for an abstract good is a widget, not foo.

  9. says

    I take your argument; I suppose it’s an inevitable side-effect of placing arbitrary value on things, that less popular (just in terms of demographics) things will get short shrift. It has always seemed to me that the role of art is to deliberately play with those balances, in the guise of humor or creativity.

    Capitalism amounts to putting a price on everything, so that it can be taxed and controlled ubiquitously. That’s certainly not likely to result in good gaming outcomes (unless you’re making something that panders to the axis that the masses have been propagandized to)

  10. says

    But if games are made that benefit (or “pander”) to the masses, isn’t that a good gaming outcome?

  11. siggysrobotboyfriend says

    Under some non-capitalist economic system you’d (presumably) have fewer (possibly zero) exploitative micropayment-based and pay-to-win games, but I doubt that would lead to a proliferation of games catering to niche interests.

    Not sure what Marcus is getting at with this stuff about how popular games “pander[] to the axis that the masses have been propagandized to”, or why this would be different under a hypothetical non-capitalist system.

  12. says


    Your boyfriend is correct.

    Your use of “monopolistic competition” is also pretty much completely different from how it is used in economics. In economics, the monopolistic competition is used to denote a market that “ought” to be perfectly competitive: free entry/exit, large number of firms, (supposedly) homogeneous products, perfect information, etc.) but where firms can to some degree set prices. The canonical example of monopolistic competition is the Coca Cola corporation, which has generated an economic profit for decades despite producing what “should” be a completely homogeneous product, flavored sugar water, with relatively low physical capital costs.

    Other than oligarchy, I don’t think any economic system even has a term for many firms competing in a natural monopoly (i.e. a market with a marginal cost of production below average total costs in the domain of the quantity demanded) other than “wildly unsustainable; if you can’t pick an obvious winner, run away as fast as you can.”

  13. says

    One thing at the back of my mind is that the video games market is somewhat different from the restaurant market (the canonical example of monopolistic competition). There’s nothing to stop two restaurants from selling identical goods, and in fact that happens all the time. Restaurants still differentiate themselves, presumably because it is profitable to do so. On the other hand, with video games, you really can’t sell an identical good to another firm, because that would be violation of copyright.

    And if there weren’t copyright laws, it’s clear the market would collapse. The development cost is basically the cost of choosing the right good to sell (ie selecting the one string of bits out of 2^n possible strings). So if you copy someone else’s product, it’s a shortcut around development costs. There would be little incentive to develop new games when you’d rather just copy someone else. Even with copyright laws, there’s a market for knock-off games that just skirt around copyright.

    So I agree that this isn’t perfect monopolistic competition, although I do not know what the consequences of that are. I figured it was similar in the relevant ways–for instance, the fact that monopolistic competition is inefficient.

    Oh, and thank you for the post. You presented several plausible mechanisms by which capitalism could reduce the production of queer video games (relative to a system that maximizes utility). It seems likely to me that one or more of these mechanisms are at work.

  14. says

    I’m disappointed to hear that economics degrees don’t address the issue of high capital costs / low marginal costs. Are economists trying to render themselves obsolete for the digital age?

  15. says


    The characterization of conditions you ascribe to the video game market seem largely correct; the only difference that economists typically would not use “monopolistic competition” to describe the problem of high market costs and low marginal costs. They would use the term for video games in a much less interesting sense of competition between similar but clearly differentiable products. Since they are differentiable (and identical copies are restricted by copyright law), video game companies can maximize profits by setting prices higher than marginal cost, sacrificing quantity to increased revenue. But as I see it, absent the factors I explore in my post, monopolistic competition by itself should at best help, by providing a point of differentiation, and at least not hurt queer video games.

    Your main thesis is correct: because of high capital costs, video games are expensive. Expensive things need a lot of demand to make them worthwhile, and if the demand for queer video games is not sufficient to justify the expense, they are not worth making.

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