Paper: Gaming’s Queer Economy

In my last link roundup, I pointed to a paper called “Coin of Another Realm: Gaming’s Queer Economy“, by Christopher Goetz. I’m all over this, because I’m really interested in the economics of video games, and what this means for people with minority tastes. That’s not the direction Goetz takes, but still.

But I must warn you, you may find this paper infuriating. It shows some of the most frustrating tendencies of critical theory and queer theory. For example, in queer theory, “queer” often does not refer to sexuality, but instead means something like, “against norms”, “relating to oppressed groups”, or “in opposition to reproductive futurism”. Frustrating, as an activist, but also frustratingly standard!  And it’s not really much of an economic analysis–the paper quite literally uses a child’s understanding of economics. It’s a “literary” view of economics: myths, not maths.

But my purpose is neither to attack nor defend the paper (although I may do either incidentally), but to engage with it in good faith. The reader is welcome to quit in frustration at any point, and tell me about it in the comment section.

Queer shame and gamer shame

Goetz begins by explaining Samantha Allen’s comparison between the shame felt by queer people, and the shame felt by gamers. Gamers often feel shame after having spent a lot of time playing a game, because we view that time as unproductive. This ties in to a foundational idea in queer theory, coming from Lee Edelman. Edelman argues that queer people are viewed as a waste, because they do not contribute to society’s (reproductive) future. In other words, both playing games, and being queer, are thought of as wasteful or unproductive. Thus, gaming is queer (by queer theory terms).

I’ve talked about Lee Edelman before, and…  I agree that queer people are perceived as unproductive. I agree that we should defend the value of (some) unproductive activities.  But I don’t agree with the idea that we should strive to be unproductive.  Anyway.

Games as candy

Next, Goetz brings in an idea from Kathryn Bond Stockton, who wrote a book about queering children. She described how children are sheltered from knowledge of money, and so develop fantastic mythologies about money. One mythology is illustrated in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Oompa-Loompas are paid with candy. Candy is a currency that kids understand, it’s something that you blissfully, and wastefully consume. “Wasteful” meaning that the thing you consume is lost. Games also fall in this category of blissful, but wasteful consumption.

I’m amused by the argument, between Bataille and Lyotard, about whether wasteful consumption is a subversive force in the economy, or actually the dominant force. These are two philosophers, neither of them has a clue. Ask, ask, ask, an economist.

Harnessing value from waste

Goetz seems concerned that the games industry will somehow harness this wasteful consumption of games into something productive. This is kind of a strange thing to worry about. What if we accidentally add utility to the world, oh noes! But it does make a little sense, because if we too loudly celebrate the few instances of wasteful consumption that turned out to be more productive than they appeared, then we may lose sight of the value derived from consumption that is truly wasteful.

Goetz uses a really bizarre example here, the worst one in the entire paper. He talks about how Candy Crush Saga is productive because you’re providing data to the game company, and monetizing small moments of boredom. He contrasts this with the “radical boredom” of wandering aimlessly in Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which provides no data to anyone. I’m pretty sure that this is backwards. Candy Crush Saga players are more likely to feel that they wasted time, because who the fuck feels productive about providing personal data to tech companies? And Zelda players probably feel more productive because they engaged with a cultural touchstone, that they can wax poetic about in academic articles. This casual game hate seems uncalled for.

Game labor

There’s a bit of discussion of the labor we perform in the course of playing games. “Playbour”, if you like portmanteaus.

An interesting question: why is game labor fun, while job labor is not? Goetz asserts that games lack alienation of labor. That’s a Marxist concept, meaning that laborers are alienated from the product of their labor, and are unable to self-determine the character of their label. For example, blogging is enjoyable because I have the ability to write about random queer theory papers, but if I were getting paid to write I would be alienated from my labor, and wouldn’t have the same freedom. Yeah, this kinda makes sense to me, that games lack alienation of labor.

The mythology of treasure

Aside from the mythology of money as candy, Caillois explains another economic mythology held by children: treasure. What is treasure? It’s a “burst of splendor”, whose value comes more from glory than its exchange value. Treasure can be made up of currency, but usually currency so old that it’s gone out of circulation–it’s coin of another realm, like in the paper’s title. What you do with treasure, is not wastefully consume it, but squirrel it away to be kept forever.

I really like this concept of treasure, which is present in so many games. Goetz uses the example of Pikmin 2, which was about some small aliens traveling to an alternate Earth, and collecting various odd items like bottle caps, and treating them like treasure.  Cute.

The squirreling of games

Goetz talks about how repeated plays of games can transform them into a sort of treasure themselves. For example, a game’s value is transformed by speedrunning, or competitive play.  He asserts that games are a particularly strange commodity, because repeated plays “stretch its intended meanings”, which “exceed[s] traditional models of utility”. I don’t know about that one. Plenty of economic goods change in value upon use. Like cars. Or bread.

Well, he argues that game developers have to find a way to circumvent the long shelf-lives of games, by making games that need to be updated. Or, games like Super Smash Brothers Brawl, which eventually fell apart in the competitive gaming scene. Uhh…. I think Nintendo loves making games with very long shelf-lives–I mean, they make an awful lot of money that way. This entire line of analysis is pretty weak.

The analysis that could have been

How did this paper make you feel? It’s okay, you can take from the paper whatever you found useful or amusing, and you can leave the rest behind.  It’s fine.

I am a bit disappointed that there was no analysis of the real economics of games. Instead we had literal children’s narratives of economics, as applied within games (makes sense!) to our personal interactions with games (okay!), and to the economics of games themselves (weak!). Well, it’s not an economics paper, so I don’t know what I expected.

But I think there’s a lot to be gained from at least a drop of real economic understanding. You know… games exist in monopolistic competition, they have high development costs, low marginal costs–precisely situations where free market economies don’t work so well. And as I’ve said before, this easily explains why every gamer wants other gamers to enjoy the same games that they do, and thus explains a lot of the conflict between gamers. You don’t need to be an economist to understand it, and there’s plenty for a queer theorist to analyze there. But, you read the queer theory you have, not the queer theory you want.


  1. Epiphenomenon says

    “games exist in monopolistic competition, they have high development costs, low marginal costs–precisely situations where free market economies don’t work so well. And as I’ve said before, this easily explains why every gamer wants other gamers to enjoy the same games that they do, and thus explains a lot of the conflict between gamers.”

    This is fascinating and I want to know what you mean by this!

  2. says


    I was referring to an old post I wrote for my old blog in 2013. Which I just realized I never linked, so why would anyone know what I was talking about? I added a link to the OP, and maybe I’ll repost that article next month, or just rewrite it.

    Most of the cost of a video game is in developing the game, and once you have the first copy then producing additional copies costs nearly nothing. So if you want to improve a video game you have to put more money into development, which means selling more copies. So if you want your favorite games to be better, you might try to evangelize them to other people, and attack gamers who spend their money on different kinds of games.

    Queer game theorists might see this as merely gamer identity politics, toxic masculinity, and capitalism ruining everything, but I think that doesn’t really address the issue.

    And if you’re wondering about the part where I say the free market doesn’t work well in this kind of economy, that’s common knowledge in economics. For example, Wikipedia has a section on the inefficiency of monopolistic competition, which I don’t entirely understand.

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