by Joshua Templin
Left Start is a column examining video games from a left/socialist perspective. Today’s column explores the coming virtual reality boom and why the market will leave virtual reality’s promises unfulfilled.
The term “virtual reality” is immediately evocative: it raises the question, “What is reality?,” by positing that there may be an alternative to our perceptions of the way things are. Virtual reality offers a promise that we might transcend space itself in favor of a far more Utopian realm. It’s not hard to see why the developers of VR systems like the HTC Vine and Oculus Rift want to tap into the promise of virtual reality that yet to be fulfilled. But left in the hands of capitalists, the space of virtual reality will come to resemble our neoliberal reality more and more: instead of becoming a place where humans transcend, it will become another marketplace where humans and their labor become interchangeable commodities.
There is another kind of “virtual reality:” one which Guy DeBord described as the spectacle. DeBord said of the spectacle “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” The spectacle is, in essence, the lens through which we filter our capitalist reality.
For those who control the spectacle (insofar as it can be controlled), the goal is to reforge culture until it conforms to the ideology of the market. Culture that is in direct conflict with the spectacle is either crushed or co-opted. The collective imagination of virtual reality is poised to become an extension of the spectacle, reinforcing the ways in which capital transforms people and their labor power into exchangeable commodities. This process of continual transformation is called reification. (https://www.marxists.org/encyclopedia/terms/r/e.htm#reification).
When Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion, the reaction illuminated how much we take this reification for granted. Internet commenters and news outlets alike talked about the sale of a giant crowdfunded project as if it were a consumer good to be bought at a grocery store. There was little discussion of what the sale meant for the thousands of people who gave their labor and money to the project under the pretense that it was a community effort.
There were two major camps of reaction to the news of the sale: one side angrily rejected the new corporate ownership of an erstwhile community project. The other side saw the sale as business as usual in the current market, and an important expansion for a project in need of more investment capital. In a sense, both camps were correct: it was an inevitability that the Rift project would be sold, and the investment did provide the capital that enabled a large-scale expansion that would have been impossible under crowd-funding. But the sale was still a loss for the project’s earliest backers, and represented another blow to the idea that community funding could be somehow democratic.
Facebook expanded into the virtual reality market not only to capitalize on the trend of VR, but also to claim a part of this groundswell of innovation for capital itself. As firms continue to purchase VR assets and acquire more “exclusive rights” (through back-door deals with developers and patents on key technologies) they plant a stake firmly in the ground on behalf of de rigueur capitalism. Put simply, with every entry into the VR market, capitalists are buying a reality in which ownership is a right earned by capitalists because only they have the resources to make technological visions into reality.
But the increasing competition among these groups is not, as capitalist apologists would have you believe, the best way to foster innovation. Oculus has already started buying up “exclusives,” that is, exclusive rights to publish games only on their platform. Exclusivity may be commonplace for console gaming, but extending this proprietary model into VR simply means that thousands of players are never able to experience some games without huge and unnecessary investments in hardware. Oculus claims that this is good for VR in the long-term, but they are putting a positive spin on an act that is plainly in their self-interest. Exclusivity is, by its very name, exlusionary: by narrowing the market in favor of a few privileged developers, the potential for cross-platform collaboration is blunted. Everyone but Oculus and the exclusive developers loses in the case of exclusive games. Most gamers will be forced to pick sides, as they are already forced to do for console games.
Currently, there are more than five major VR consoles vying for consumer attention. This number is only going to get larger as the VR bubble inflates. Fewer than a dozen platforms may not seem like a lot, but with each console costing over $300, consumer spending power means the market won’t be able to bear this many console options for long. As time moves on, there will be “winners” in this competition, namely the few corporations who can guarantee the most value to their shareholders. And while the largest investors and senior executives will be sure to profit from the collapse and sale of struggling firms, thousands of workers will be laid off and millions of dollars and countless hours of labor will have been funneled into canceled projects.
The bursting of the bubble will mean that, while it was once profitable to be more collaborative and innovative, it becomes more profitable to invest in increasingly conservative ventures. Once the phase of primitive accumulation is over, capital will begin to narrowing the scope of creative efforts from developers. Developers will have no choice but to conform to the demands of capital to stay competitive. The revolutionary callaborative potential of this space will diminish over time, due to a consolidation of resources in the hands of fewer and fewer owners to whom revolution and collaboration are anathema.
Virtual Reality is not just for gamers either. There are myriad applications in areas where specialized training is expensive or prohibitively difficult to orchestrate. VR technology could be invaluable to new doctors who need to understand anatomy and practice complex surgical maneuvers. Left in the hands of capital, however, the benefits of these new applications will be made available first to those who can afford to pay. And just as it is now, funds for scientific research will be difficult to acquire unless a clear profit can be made.
In virtual reality as in physical reality, the only resistance to the owners is collective struggle. Only when gamers and workers come together to challenge private property can we hope to take over the virtual space for the common good. The challenge left to us is to remove the goggles of the spectacle and recognize that the market is not a driving force for innovation. Under direct democratic control, the promise of virtual reality becomes actual reality.