Skip to main content

2019 was the year that capitalism became video games' greatest villain

Byzantium in The Outer Worlds
Byzantium in The Outer Worlds (Image credit: Private Division)

This year, video games realized that the biggest villain of all was capitalism.

That isn't to say that a version of the rich hasn't been the antagonist before. Class revolt is a tale as old as modern history. However, the system of capitalism, the structure of class inequality, has never been at the forefront of the media we consume so consistently. Us, the horror movie that came out in early 2019, posits a world where the subjugated lower class rise up from the underground, where they were tucked away from the privileged up above, and take out those with the lives they deserve. Ready or Not tells the story of a lower-class woman who becomes the target of a group of upper-class weirdos who want her dead only so they can keep living their cushy lives.

That extends, of course, into video games. The last couple of months brought us three games that utilized capitalism as the villain in one way or another: Borderlands 3, The Outer Worlds, and Disco Elysium. These games tackle the idea in different ways — some more successful than others — but they suggest that the issue is at the forefront of a lot of people's minds.

Borderlands 3: Literal hostile takeovers

The Jakobs estate in Borderlands 3

Source: Gearbox (screenshot) (Image credit: Source: Gearbox (screenshot))

The Borderlands franchise has always been about this tangentially. Pandora is a world that was destroyed by greed, with corporations leeching off the land, bringing prosperity to the everyday citizen, and then backing out. They created a foundation and then pulled it out like a rug from underneath everyone, allowing everything to fall into disrepair and anarchy.

The problem with Borderlands is that it never grapples with its socio-economic foundations enough.

The series is packed with both light and dark humor that simultaneously draws attention to the socio-economic past of this planet while forcing you to ignore it, which can be to its detriment. Borderlands 3 especially suffers, and with its renewed focus on the corporations compared to other entries, it's disappointing that the story doesn't lean more on it. The corporations and their avatars (Aurelia Hammerlock, in particular) are definitely the villains. Still, the depth of their characterization is about their exorbitant wealth and their apathy towards violence, which is common throughout the Borderlands universe, no matter the character's status.

The one exception to the one-note "corporations are evil" foundation in Borderlands 3 is the story of Atlas and how Rhys is trying to turn the company around. His mission statement is about how not all corporations are bad because Atlas is nice now. That's nice in theory but doesn't sway the story in one direction or another. You help Rhys out, and you move on to another corporation. There isn't anything more profound than that concerning how Rhys grapples with his past as a lackey at a similar corporation or the morality of its existence in the first place. Atlas has a horrible history, and no amount of goodwill can change that.

The problem with Borderlands is that it never grapples with its socio-economic foundations enough. The emphasis is on crass jokes that are sometimes funny but almost always elicit reactions from the player. The series is about the gameplay, the looting, and, occasionally, the characters. It's never been a series about the foundation it built but rather the indifference it causes.

The Outer Worlds: We live in a society

The Outer Worlds

Source: Private Division (Image credit: Source: Private Division)

The Outer Worlds goes a lot further, at least attempting to grapple with the same idea. The corporations came in, colonized planets, and either backed out or set up systems that favor the rich. As the player, who is thrust into this situation after decades in cryostasis, you not only have to learn about how everything works but have the freedom to decide if you can do anything about it. You're tasked multiple times with deciding the future of corporation-run settlements and whether they should be left alone or destroyed (of course, you can ignore all of that and just kill everybody you meet, which is the fun of The Outer Worlds).

The game revels in moral ambiguity and creating quandaries for the player, but doesn't have much to say beyond that things are complicated.

I started my first playthrough with an anti-capitalist stance, which goes along with what the game wants you to think initially about these entities. The first person you meet outside of the mad scientist that woke you up is a man who regurgitates a company's slogan multiple times. The first town is ripe with bureaucracy, including a system that punishes the sick and the suicidal in favor of running efficiently. It's easy to say "down with capitalism" within this structure.

However, things are more complicated. The alternatives aren't much better — often run by idiosyncratic psychopaths or the angry and desperate — so a lot of choices come down to which one you think is the lesser of two evils. Do you want to stick with your morals, or do you want to maintain the system because it'll hurt the least amount of people?

What The Outer Worlds wants you to think about is how ingrained capitalism is in societal structures. You can topple Spacer Choice's hold on Edgewater, for example, by redirecting power to the settlement of exiles. Still, you'll mostly be harming the residents, since Spacer's Choice doesn't care about the quality of life. Later you can choose to help out either a corporate stooge or his anarchist counterpart. The former is mostly a pathetic bootlicker, but mostly harmless, while the other was complicit in mass murder. Is your anti-capitalist stance worth it?

This is a simplistic, centrist interpretation of "capitalism as evil." It's pessimistic and values, as Patrick Klepek at Vice put it, pragmatism over revolution. It's an outwardly political stance in a world where other AAA games want to stress how apolitical they are but remains safe because it doesn't take an extremely partisan view. It does make the player question the value of a system run by corporations (which is one we're increasingly moving toward in multiple countries) by making the corporations distant idiots but only goes far enough to question how we think about toppling that system. The game revels in moral ambiguity and creating quandaries for the player, but doesn't have much to say beyond that things are complicated.

Disco Elysium: Everything is screwed

Disco Elysium

Source: ZA/UM Studios (Image credit: Source: ZA/UM Studios)

The final game here, Disco Elysium, has no qualms about taking an ideological stance on the issue. In fact, it delights in creating situations where your understanding of how structures like capitalism and race theory affect our thinking, our relationships with other people, and how ultimately they don't matter.

In case you missed it, Disco Elysium is a CRPG developed by indie studio ZA/UM. It's inspired by old-school CRPGs and tabletop games, specifically in how they present situations and dialog, but it goes above and beyond. It parodies the task of using skill checks to make choices by forcing you to do it each time you want to do anything. Want to admire a piece of art? The dice will roll. Want to try and get your tie from a ceiling fan without dying? Check again. Want to wake up from an alcoholic stupor and discover your basic amphibian brain? Go for it.

The important thing to note about Disco Elysium is that through its absurd, over-the-top structure, it crafts a world filled with failure.

It all sounds obtuse, but the critical thing to note about Disco Elysium is that through its absurd, over-the-top structure, it crafts a world filled with failure. The lower classes rose up in revolt and failed. The communist workers are on strike but are failing. The government body and its mercenaries are trying to stop the strike, but are failing. You are a cop hired to solve a murder that is connected to this economic conflict, but are failing so spectacularly just trying to walk that it's hilarious and sad. You can't even find a place to sleep at night.

That failure also translates its central thesis: that the world is screwed. The game's world, which is an alternate version of our own, lops multiple ideologies onto the player, forcing you to engage with the minutiae of them if you want. But mostly, it's asking you to either buy into it for the sake of completing a quest or getting on an NPC's good side. Disco Elysium also has a thought system that lets you contemplate concepts like self-destruction and communism to gain skills or knowledge. It's a world filled with people overthinking and believing too hard in horrible ideologies like racism (yes, really), and you're forced into it.

This all pertains to its views on capitalism and socialism. It perfectly captures the imperfection of every system, forces you to engage with it, understand their moral problems, and show you how you can do nothing about it. It's The Outer Worlds ramped up to 11. It traps you and cynically forces you to engage regardless of your power. Whether you solve a murder or not is inconsequential because everything around you will hold you back. It's not a fresh take, but it's one of the most complex. How can you complete quests in a game that adheres to a quest system and makes it impossible for you to do so? How does that relate to your actual situation outside of the game?

Bottom line

It might not matter to you at all what games thinking of capitalism, corporations, and other economic issues, but all of this stuff matters to games. The industry is more profitable than it's ever been, but studios are closing, and hundreds of workers are losing their jobs. Think of all the companies at the center of these discussions: Telltale, Activision Blizzard, Amazon Game Studios, ArenaNet, EA Australia's Firemonkeys, and many, many more. Studios have been shut down, and hundreds have been laid off, and that's just been in the past year and a half.

As more video game staffers lose their jobs, unionizing is a more pronounced topic than ever before. Issues of burnout and crunch are at the forefront of the news as well, crafting an image of an industry that needs to change for the sake of its workers.

Three big releases just over the past couple of months have been about the very thing that's affecting the games industry the most right now. The people creating these games are often supported by big corporations, but is it tough to assume that there's a connection?

Carli Velocci
Carli Velocci

Carli is the Gaming Editor and Copy Chief across Windows Central, Android Central, and iMore. Her last name also will remind you of a dinosaur. Follow her on Twitter or email her at carli.velocci@futurenet.com.

30 Comments
  • Video games have been using big bad corporations as villains for a while now, so this definitely isn't new. You can also look at movies from decades ago and see the same stuff. Of course, it's also been on both sides. I just thought it was interesting that three games (and probably more, who knows!) came out so close to each other and approached the same concept, each from a different angle. Games are cool.
  • Aye, in the other direction there's some irony too how Fallout always had this undercurrent critique of rampant corporatism, and then Bethesda goes and charges $100 per year to play Fallout 76 solo loool.
  • Lol! As with nearly everything else today, 'good' and 'bad' often depends on which side of the table you are sitting, especially in modern times where physical brutality has pretty much vanished in much of the western world and oppression is no longer as obvious. Pretty sure shareholders in 'big bad corporations' are loving the status quo, they even believe they are doing good to the world - providing livelihood for employees and stuff. I try not to think too much about it!
  • Still, death is a preferable alternative to communism.
  • Obviously there is a market for that these days. Capitalists are serving what gamers are willing to consume.
  • Hahaha almost as funny as the article crying about net neutrality ending as if it was a bad thing.
  • The lack of competition among ISPs in the US is why you guys have data caps and shitty speeds and why Europeans have no data caps and good speeds as standard lol. just saying
  • Lol, hardly. The primary reason is that the population density of the US is much less than European countries. That means more infrastructure ($$$) is needed to supply an equivalent population, leading to higher prices and/or more restrictions (data caps, lower speeds, etc.)
  • More like designed oligopoly and lack of enforced competition.
  • that's buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuullllllllshit when you consider densely populated areas suffer the same issues. corporate collusion/lack of competition regulation is to blame. feel free to live in a fantasy land tho!
  • This is very true. I am an IT manager in a suburb of Los Angeles.... HIGHLY DENSE POPULATION. The Fastest Internt I can get for the business is 20Mbps Down and 3Mbps UP. This is ridiculous Considering some parts of the city have 100+ Mbps Down.
  • I live in a developing country...particularly in a neighborhood where there isn't even running water during the day (I have a collection tank for when it does come at night) and here I get 350mbps download/15mbps upload speeds with my cable service because we actually do have competition (I can get up to a gigabit if I wanted to, but I got a free bump to 350mbps because a competitor moved into town) Here is proof:
    https://1drv.ms/u/s!AgIyg4km3hf3vHUCgUGEi90g58oQ?e=Ox0NfL
  • Let me guess! You have cables hanging from the trees in your city and nobody gives a ****?
  • Well stated Jez. Population density actually causes most of the data caps here, because it costs the companies MORE when you have more users using the network.
  • While this is true and the Europe has sacrificed some things (like big yards) for others (fast internet in dense cities) the US has other problems that contribute like regulations on where you can put cables. Easter Europe is a good example. Everyone just hangs cables from the trees which makes entering the market very cheap and ensures competition. It was even banned at some point but is still practiced (long live corruption). So we have Internet much better than the west despite our significantly lower income and quality of life.
  • You want Netflix to be exclusive to ISP#1 and YouTube to be exclusive to ISP#2 all while silicon valley is policing 100% of the internet? We need new neutrality.
  • That's BS. You have no clue what net neutrality is. Net neutrality is just a fancy way of saying taxation, taxation, taxation while the politicians and government would have you believe it's about better internet speed and preventing data caps. It's absolutely not. Don't believe me then take at look at your cable, electric and phone bill. See all those Surcharges & fees, Government taxes & fees? That's what net neutrality is. The government never anticipated the internet would get so big and now they want a piece of the pie. Don't be fooled by their BS.
  • Bullshit. Net Neutrality is just a way for Google (YouTube) and Netflix to complain that their business is not subsidised by internet users who are not their customers. ISPs wanted money from Netflix and Google because they generated a lot of bandwidth which is fair and also the networks are the private property of the ISPs. And I say that as someone who watches Netflix a lot. I see no reason why my neighbour who doesn't watch Netflix must share the price of the network upgrade caused by my Netflix usage.
  • Big, evil corporations and capitalism aren't really the same thing, even if some dumb politicians say so. What is capitalism? They never really say - but it's always bad, and in the words of one of those politicians, irredeemable. The vaguer the definition, the more believable the story.
  • Conversely, I see enough people talking about a vague, undefined "socialism", "Marxism", "globalist agenda" etc. All undefined, vague boogeymen to direct fearmongering on to.
    I don't believe capitalism is irredeemable. It just has its flaws that we, the people, should get to do something about.
  • As one of the people who use some of these words I will define them for you. Socialism - in the pure definition - an economic structure where workers own the means of production. In the lighter, everyday use a form of government which takes the property of some people to give it to other people because of some percieved fairness or need. Marxism is an extreme form of socialism which advocates among other things for violent revolution, abolishing inheritence and as a matter of fact the destruction of the family itself. I claim that socialism in the light and extreme sense are equivalent because of the government can take part of your private property to give it to others then it has declared your private property a kind of common property which is just given to you to use. It always ends badly in practice and when it does the "not real socialism" refrain is repeated. "globalist agenda" - the idea that united world government is a good idea, immigration should be unrestricted, multiculturalism is good and efficient, tax evasion is bad, tax competition is bad (see the EU trying to push countries which compete by providing lower taxes to increase their taxes)
  • That's because politicians have not clue what capitalism means. Remember when Nancy Pelosi said, "We need to pass it to know what's in it" ? Well, it's called reading which obviously they don't know how to do so it stand to reason why they don't know what capitalism is. Capitalism is the only economy that has survived the test of time while all the other "ism" have collapse or destroyed countries. Without capitalism we wouldn't have innovation, freedom of choice, free will, choice of how to make a living, etc. Instead you'd be told what to do like China and Russia do, how to think, where to live, where to work, etc.
  • Capitalism vs lack of competition is the Moral. Things that don't have competition can price fix and take over. So capitalism is good. Uncontrolled capitalism can be evil. Even portrayed by the games.
  • While reading this, I had to keep checking to make sure I wasn't on Kotaku. The author of this piece is lamenting the fact that video games don't go deep enough politically, and basically aren't woke enough for her. It all made sense when I saw the photo of her under the article with pink hair. Splurging about politics in video games is a great way to chase off 50% of your readership. Please don't go down that rabbit hole.
  • Absolutely any given company can be run by criminals and do bad things, and to the extent that makes for a great villain in a story, movie, or game, I'm all for it. But let's be really clear that as a social and economic system CAPITALISM IS THE GREATEST FORCE FOR GOOD IN HUMAN HISTORY. The level of economic and historic ignorance with which people conclude capitalism is somehow bad is disturbing. First, capitalism is fundamentally nothing more than freedom -- the freedom to trade what you have for something you want that someone else has. That could mean a chicken for carpentry skills or it could mean selling your labor for dollars so you can buy a computer, car, movie ticket, or health care. The alternatives, socialism, communism, fascism, and their ilk all take away your freedom, replacing it with the force of a government gun, boot, or tank to tell you what to do. Second, to put this in a historical context, almost (but not quite) every advance in technology since the Renaissance has been the product of capitalism: ships, cars, trains, computers, lasers, cell phones, tv, nearly every drug in existence, x-ray and MRI machines, etc. None of these would be available were it not for investments made in R&D in pursuit of profit. Third, for those who would say, "But what about sweat shops, pollution, and the 'military industrial complex'!?" OK, let’s take each of these oft-recited points: Sweat shops: Yeah, if an employer can hire people, pay them next to nothing, and get good labor, some unethical companies will seek to do that. But if you look at the history of working conditions, you learn that in almost all cases each new factory provided BETTER working conditions THAN THE ALTERNATIVES. The logic is simple -- farm work was incredibly hard and dangerous. Workers took factory jobs in cities because, as dangerous as they were by our standards today, they were safer and paid better than the jobs they left behind. And on a global scale, those same "greedy" companies go where labor is cheap and repeat the process: they offer work in bad conditions BY WESTERN STANDARDS, but to attract workers, they still need to be better than the alternatives. Cheap labor attracts lots of companies, and competition between them for the cheap labor drives up wages and working conditions. That's how South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan quickly transformed from cheap places to manufacture to first world economic powerhouses with a high standard of living. And the same is true across all lines of work everywhere. If you’re a software developer, you go where you’ll get the best pay and work terms you can get. The more competition for your work, the better the terms you’ll get. Pollution: In economics we have a term called “externalities” which is just a fancy word meaning the costs incurred that the company causing them doesn’t have to pay. Because I believe that a company should pay its own costs (just as I should pay my own way, not expect government to tax others to pay for everything for me), I have no problem with laws or even taxes to prevent or cover the cost of pollution. That’s fair. There’s nothing fundamentally polluting about capitalism. Military, war, and government lobbying: The best way to keep big companies from lobbying the government is to keep government small and out of the way so there’s no benefit to lobbying the government. Small, nearly invisible government, Freedom, and personal responsibility, FTW! But yeah, corporate lobbying is a problem when the government passes laws that benefit one company over another. That has NOTHING TO DO WITH CAPITALISM. As government involvement in business, that’s the antithesis of capitalism. It’s socialism. The solution to that is to ensure that government stays out of everyone’s lives and business. The solution is NOT more government.
  • Today in new definitions for socialism: "when government does stuff, that's socialism. The more that the government does, the socialister it gets." 🤔
  • Not a bad definition actually.
  • This article reminds me of that line from 'Money' by Pink Floyd: "Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today.
    But if you ask for a rise it's no surprise that they're giving none away." Whoever came up with the tactic of making millions (or billions) of dollars by selling the idea that capitalism is the 'great villain of our time' is legit a geniuses.
  • **** those commies! Capitalism is the best thing that happened to humanity. Also taking someone's property by use of actual violence (as opposed to made up violence of the kind "I had no other choice") is not capitalism. It is what the government does. Now I wonder if I should buy Outer Worlds because I am worried that it will present me with a situation and give me two options none of which is what I would do based on my libertarian-capitalist values.
  • i think you made an excellent observation of the common denominator across those games, but the notion that we should look to games to deal with our socio economic issues is a bit too "out there" for me.