Spicy Apples: Battle Royale

Sometimes I have thoughts in the form of sweeping generalizations about a particular genre of game.  Sometimes it’s one I’m interested in and have some insight about, other times it’s a way of justifying my lack of interest in a genre of games.  These aren’t so much a review as just a spicy take on a general concept, but hey this is my blog and I do what I want!

So here’s our first and spiciest apple: Battle royale games are a genre that could only have been invented under capitalism.  They thrive as much as they do because of a lack of class consciousness.

Books like “Battle Royale” and “The Hunger Games” (and their mountains of imitators) explored the inherent violence of competition for resources under capitalism by looking at it through the lens of an actual physical contest of violence.  Both “Battle Royale” and the “Hunger Games” series had overt anti-capitalist and anti-establishment themes, and both heavily endorse revolution by the young.  Their approaches differ, however.

“Battle Royale” (one of my favorite books of all time) was written in Japan, a nation that is both socially collectivist and heavily entrenched in capitalism.  Its solution, the ultimate victory for its protagonists, is to escape into a radical individualism that evades authority and confrontation, into a kind of libertarian eternal chase, a romantic kind of running into the sunset without resolution.  “The Hunger Games” (another absolutely fantastic series) is more concerned with revolution from within the system, and focuses on the subsumation of the individual into the power structures they inhabit, both within the establishment and then from within the revolution, which reproduces the old ways even in rebellion.  While “Mockingjay” ends on a positive note, with the old ways seemingly shattered, that shattering is again conducted by a radical and heroic individual making a judgement call.  Everyone else is left to obey their decision, again reproducing the old power structure.

The key takeaway here is that, in the worlds of both of these works, the solution proposed is essentially a kind of fascistic one.  They rely on heroic action by an individual or a small group of confederates, people who find their true strength and purpose through a reforging in fighting and violence.  Both works flirt with the idea of cooperation; “The Hunger Games” does endorse a kind of collectivism and overtly tackles the subject of open revolution, while “Battle Royale” rejects the idea that people can truly cooperate long-term outside of a romantic relationship.  Thus, they both fail (in different ways) to truly break away from the system of hierarchy and capitalism that they purport to criticize.

Keeping all this in mind, we turn to PUBG and Fortnite (and their mountains of imitators), and the gamification of these ideas.

While these games do have various modes of play that have different numbers of participants, they generally share some common features.  There can only be one winner (either an individual or a small team), and that victory is achieved by everyone else being dead.  The numbers of participants are generally quite large, and there are both a lot of random elements as well as some skill and map knowledge involved.  The random elements are not so intense that it is impossible for those who take the game seriously to win consistently.  However, new players will almost never win.  Therefore, most people who play these games will lose very consistently, serving to prop up the top 1-5% who basically always win.  There is usually some element that pushes players together and forces them to encounter each other, such as Fortnite’s storm.  There is no solution upon encountering another player other than violence to determine who gets access to the very limited resources on the map.

This should sound familiar to anyone who lives under capitalism.

Under capitalism, there always emerges a bourgeoisie, the few who are willing to do whatever it takes to amass as much money and power as possible.  The rest of us, the proletariat or working class, are there to prop them up, and we consistently lose in order to empower them.  There are elements of random chance involved, such as who your family is when you’re born, the color of your skin, and what gender you are, and these determine to a large extent the degree of your success or failure under the system.

The important thing to consider when discussing battle royale games generally is that, while they closely simulate the conditions of capitalism and reproduce its violence, they skew things more toward a seemingly fair outcome, the illusion of meritocracy.  They tone down the heavy RNG and one-shot nature of real life, in favor of skill-based challenges and the ability to try many times and eventually learn the game’s systems and layout.  This is why these games are so popular among younger people who have grown up during a time when capitalism no longer pretends it is anything other than a monstrous system built to chew up the poor and shit them out for the benefit of the already-obscenely-rich.  It offers you a chance to live the fantasy of overcoming capitalism and coming out on top.  And by doing so, these games reinforce the status quo, defuse revolutionary anger, and teach the young about inherently-capitalist ideas such as “survival of the fittest” and “competition for finite resources”.

It is important for such agents of complicity in the system to veil their true nature.  This is why the recent outcry over the big sword and planes in Fortnite was such a big deal.  Adding these things to that game is the equivalent of them admitting that being born a Rockefeller or a Kennedy or a Bush gives one an unfair advantage.  It’s pulling back the curtain and skewing things a bit too close to actual capitalism, which risks inciting (rather than quelling) revolutionary sentiments.

I’m not proposing that all agents of complicity in capitalism are consciously aware of their role.  I’m not even saying that people understand why they like these games themselves, or recognize why things like the sword matter so much to them.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  These games thrive and have huge playerbases precisely because capitalist nations generally remain capitalist due to a lack of class consciousness.  In other words, people unthinkingly reproduce capitalist conditions and injustices, because those are the only systems and structures they know.  Fish don’t know about “the ocean”, it’s just where they are.  It’s “normal”.  It just so happens that battle royale games are an especially good representation that also offers the fantasy of overcoming those injustices (for a tiny elite bourgeois portion of their playerbase, that is).  This, in my mind, explains their massive commercial success.  All those losing players are just temporarily-embarrassed winners, right?

Imagine a game of Fortnite where the players didn’t fight each other.  Where everyone rejected the systems the game attempts to impose, rejected the idea of a “victory royale” as a victory at all?  Where they all just head for the center of the map for a massive dance party.  Where they work together to build a cool shelter.  Imagine a wholesale rejection of everything the genre attempts to make us, as humans.  What if people woke the fuck up and realized that the resources aren’t actually that limited, that there’s no reason to fight?  What if they stomped out the few PKers who were determined to “win”, and they did that every time until the game was forced to change?  Where they refused to buy battle passes, because who cares what anyone looks like?

What if that’s what we did in real life?

Anyway, that’s why Minecraft is the ultimate anarcho-communist video game, thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

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