Saturday, June 24, 2017

The economics of queer representation in video games

Siggy at A Trivial Knot wonders whether capitalism is to blame for the lack of "good queer video games." He doesn't seem to think that capitalism is the cause; instead, he suggests a utilitarian cause: the cost of developing good queer video games exceeds the social benefit, so it doesn't make sense — from a utilitarian perspective — to spend the resources to develop queer video games or increase queer representation.

I don't play video games, and I'm not queer in any ordinary sense, so I don't know what a queer video game is nor what queer representation entails; the comments in Siggy's post suggest that these questions are not settled among people who know more than the exactly zero that I know.

I do know a few things about economics, so I want to talk about the economics. I will use the generic term queer video games for whatever it is that queer people would like to see in video games, and I assume that people who are interested in queer video games find the supply insufficient. Please note the heavy use of conditionals and the subjunctive.

I am also discussing the issue of theoretical capitalism. The actual world has many features that are absolutely contradictory to capitalist theory. For example, capitalist theory predicts that video games should market equally to men and women; video games target mostly men because sexism, and possibly do not produce queer video games because of a similar bigotry. We could dig deeper into the marginalization of women, people of color, queer people, etc. as a mechanism the capitalist ruling class uses to maintain its social and political domination, but I think these are features of ruling classes in general or exist in specifically capitalist societies for historical rather than theoretical reasons.

If Siggy's conjecture is correct, and the positive utility — by some good measure — of queer video games is outweighed by the disutility of opportunity costs, then I don't see utilitarianism as a "problem"; I think it is exploitative and morally wrong for any person or group to demand more utility from society than they return. If so, then queer people would no more be entitled to queer video games than I would be entitled to a trip to the Moon. We wouldn't need to look at economics at all.

However, utility is a very difficult concept to define and measure, which is the most legitimate criticism of utilitarianism. (I don't think it's a fatal criticism; philosophers have had for a couple of millennia considerable difficulty creating and supporting ethical definitions and measures in general. I think the most legitimate criticism of alternative ethical philosophies are that they oversimplify ethics and introduce assumptions at best dubious (e.g. Kant) and at worst outrageously class- or self-serving (e.g. Aristotle).) Thus I think it is more fruitful to look at how utility is defined and measured in a capitalist democratic republic, and examine under what alternative social constructions the production of queer video games might have positive net utility.

In examining Siggy starts with the problem of high capital costs coupled with low marginal supply costs. He finds that at least with regard to queer video games, this problem is not one of specifically capitalism. He is, I think, correct on this count. Absent substantial externalities, even a Labor Theory of Value Marxists such as myself would say that if producing any video game costs a million socially necessary abstract labor hours, then if consumers are not willing to collectively contribute at least a million hours in return, then the effort is at best wasteful and at worst exploitative.

As a side note, the problem of high capital costs — indeed of capital costs in general — and low marginal supply costs seems to me an enormous problem in economics that has been almost completely ignored in my undergraduate and Master's level education.* The definition of capital we use in my coursework — rent paid to households who own the physical means of production and lend those machines to businesses — is almost but not quite completely unrepresentative of how businesses actually operate.

*I've only taken courses in economics at two schools, but they're both accredited, so I assume my education is at least somewhat representative.

I don't want to delve too deeply into the capital/marginal cost paradox. See the Cambridge Capital Controversy, as best I can tell still unresolved, for some background. In Railroading Economics, Michael Perelman examines the first capital crisis of high capital costs vs. low marginal supply costs caused by the development of railroads in the United States in the mid 19th century, and mirrored substantially in the airline industry today.

Anyway... I don't think the lack of queer video games reflects anything about how capitalism in general solves the problem of capitalizing specifically high capital/low marginal cost production. But that doesn't mean that capitalism is not the cause of the lack of queer video games.

A more salient aspect of capitalism is how capitalism generally measures the utility of goods and services (or, more precisely, the utility of the socially necessary abstract labor time embodied in goods and services). Capitalism measures utility via the mechanism of profitable exchange value under enforced inequality of wealth and income. The utility of a good is its monetary profitability. A wasteful good (negative net utility) will probably be unprofitable, but an unprofitable good is not necessarily or even probably wasteful.

Of course one reason is simply social. If it's just an asshole move to exclude queer video games, and capitalism does not do all that much to restrain assholes, then I guess capitalism might be at least an indirect cause.

One way that queer video games could have positive net utility but still be unprofitable is because the people who want these games have disproportionally less money to pay for them. If we measured utility less unequally, we might have more queer video games. If so, we could say that capitalism was indeed the cause of the lack of queer video games.

Another mechanism is if queer video games have substantial positive externalities, i.e. they offer substantial positive utility to people who don't actually buy them. For example, queer video games might contribute to greater acceptance and less social oppression of queer people, which would have positive utility not only for queer people who do not play video games but also for people such as myself, who would see greater acceptance as a definite social positive. Again, because capitalism is notoriously bad at pricing externalities, we could then locate capitalism as the cause.

Yet another mechanism is lack of differentiability. If no one is willing to pay money for a queer video game, i.e. buy a game they wouldn't otherwise buy just because of its queerness, then there's no incentive to spend even a little extra to include queerness. Alternatively, companies might reason that if one person does it, everyone will do it, and no one will have a marginal benefit. If they believe this "arms race" will equalize before any improved profit can be generated, especially if they think there might be a short-term backlash which would depress profitability in the short run. Again because under capitalism firms must concentrate on differentiation that is hard to replicate, a different way of allocating capital and conducting business might give a different result.

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