Boredom and video games in a consumer capitalist system

8 minutes to read
Yasin Tuncer

The homo consumens, a new species, is discovered in our homes. It can be seen in any mirror. The homo consumens craves. He doesn’t know he was born to crave. He itches with boredom, for he was born bored. He feels most comfortable when bored because it is his natural state, and he knows how to combat it. He knows where to seek pleasure. The homo consumens is spoiled for choice, absorbing all that is shown to him (Finkielsztein, 2022, p.2,13).

In his cultural hegemony theory, Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist theorist and writer, states that “Through the institutions of civil society, the ruling class spreads its moral, political, and social values, which are instilled by the ruled class”(Cikaj, 2023). He theorized that the ruling class maintains control by instilling their norms in their subjects. Bourgeois hegemony is reinforced through media, universities, and religious institutions to create consent and legitimacy (Heywood, 1994, p.100-101; IDS of University of Surrey, 2010).

One widely accepted and promoted urge in our current system is the constant desire for more possession and consumption. As the privileged consumer is no longer deprived of his basic needs, a system that has observed and weaponised this fact, has presented him with artificial needs."Capitalism creates 'fictitious, artificial, and imaginary needs' (Lefebvre 161), which masquerade as basic needs (Svendsen, Fashion 134)" (Finkielsztein, 2022, p. 5).

As stated by Deleuze and Guattari and cited by Finkielsztein, “The deliberate creation of lack as a function of market economy is the art of the dominant class. This involves deliberately organizing wants and needs amid an abundance of production; making all desire teeter and fall victim to the great fear of not having one’s needs satisfied.“ Today, this is done by using boredom as a tool and making it the hidden mood of consumer capitalism (Finkielsztein, 2022, p. 2, 15). Finkielsztein calls us "homo consumens," the ones who always want more. Central to today's norms and ideals, consumer capitalist culture has weaponized the boredom it created. Consumer capitalism creates the pleasures to cure said boredom. These pleasures never provide lasting satisfaction, leaving us always yearning for more to fill the gap left by our previous consumption (Finkielsztein, 2022, p. 14).

Video game releases are a prime example of how our culture keeps us hooked, always craving more and hoping for better. This paper inquires into video game launches through the lens of consumer capitalism to uncover what drives this phenomenon. How does the consumer capitalist way of thinking explain the characteristics of the new video game landscape?

The Sad Search for Fun

The digital storefronts of the major platforms in the gaming industry make for an overwhelming experience. Games of all genres, from diverse studios, budgets, and graphics bombard players. You'll notice a growing trend: more editions of sports games, old game remakes, and franchise sequels. It makes you wonder, "Are these games coming out more often?" The repetition that can be spotted in the names of game studios makes you feel imprisoned by the system you chose to be in. You begin to feel increasingly dissatisfied as you browse the games to decide on a purchase.

After spending countless hours watching game reviews and gameplay on YouTube. Eventually, you turn off your device and return to your phone, where choices are made for you as you scroll through your feed. On a good day, if you're determined to sit down and play a game, you ignore the nagging doubts, buy a game you like, and eagerly wait for it to download, like a child on Christmas Eve awaiting presents. You start the game, follow instructions to begin, and are treated to an impressive cutscene followed by a tutorial fight. Then, you're thrust into a world with a to-do list, foggy map, inventory, quest, and store tabs. As you progress, you anticipate another cinematic moment like the opening, but it never comes.

"Wait, I've seen this before, it's a classic."

Trying different genres, games from various studios, playing with friends, or exploring indie games doesn't improve the situation. You've seen it all before, recognizing familiar tropes and predictable character arcs. It's hard to stay emotionally invested when everything feels repetitive, with characters and plots you've encountered countless times. Now, even the characters aren't new; they're recycled from beloved franchises across different media, from Harry Potter to Abstergo employees with scarily boring faces.

It's overwhelming, yet never satisfying. The fleeting glimpses of hope deceive us. Occasionally, a game shifts our perspective, renewing faith in the industry, but the joy fades quickly. Ultimately, the industry's pleasures are short-lived. You're left constantly wanting more, among an overwhelming sea of games on the digital storefront.

A “meh-diocre” industry

In the video game industry, Microsoft and Sony reign as major players, acquiring successful studios. It's a numbers game: who can produce the most games and profit? Dreams are peddled through advertisements, often setting unattainable expectations (Finkielsztein, 2022; Conditt, 2023). suggests a rising efficiency culture in entertainment leads to creative stagnation, termed "meh-diocrity." Despite vast content options, audiences feel uninspired, unimpressed, and underwhelmed (, 2023). In her review of Assassin’s Creed Mirage, Parrish describes it as offering the illusion of an engaging story and complex stealth-action combat before becoming a generic experience with technical annoyances, facile combat, and an easily ignored story (Parrish, 2023).

Video game ideas are conceived and rushed into development by underpaid, overworked developers. The market ends up cluttered with unfinished releases, merely promising enough to sell. Being new and exciting seems more profitable than being refined and polished, often resulting in rough experiences. This trend has fueled the nostalgia boom (Merigold, 2021). Many adult and adolescent gamers (Statt, 2021) grew up with earlier instalments of franchises, such as movies, series, or video games, that are now being overexploited. This consumer overload has left minds numb in a digital world overflowing with nostalgic treasures and soulless shells of the present. Even during my breaks from social media while writing this paper, I stumble upon game announcements from Jurassic Park and Blade movie franchises.

With cutting-edge hardware, video games unveil visually stunning worlds for all players. But here’s the twist: game studios are crafting games that spark unexpected reactions like these:

“It may sound hyperbolic, but AAA releases increasingly seem to rely on scripted set-pieces and predetermined scenarios to convey their stories or introduce players to their worlds, and, while it’s nice to marvel at expertly crafted environments or gawk at soon-to-be-standard RTX-enabled volumetric lighting, there’s no denying that some titles seem to be eager to relinquish players of control rather than grant them more of it. Games are not games that rely on player decision-making  and responsibility, rather just their monotone input to convey a “glorified movie”(Fox, 2019)

The Yearners

Viewing consumers as capable of satisfaction feels unnatural. Our innate desire for more creates an endless cycle of unfulfilled video game releases, often lacking creativity and leaving us unsatisfied. The system we live in encourages a society where dissatisfactions are created frequently to establish a consumer that is constantly wanting - and is nurtured to want, wish, desire and yearn.

A consumer society prefers credit cards over savings books. It's focused on the present, not the future. It's about wanting, not waiting (Bauman, 2007; Finkielsztein, 2022, p.7). Randall Jarrell sees entertainment as the messenger of a specific message. He explains that the medium desires us to be constant consumers, always wanting more. Jarrell highlights how the entertainment industry has merged pleasure and dissatisfaction, fostering a culture of finding pleasure through purchasing. (Jarrell, 1960, pp. 360-361)

“Thus, as Theodor Adorno portrays it, the basic mechanism of consumer capitalism is an endless spiral of passing from entertainment to boredom and back to the next entertainment without a sense of lasting satisfaction.”(Finkielsztein, 2022, p. 2).

As the Medium has created dissatisfactions, it got harder to satisfy such cravings and dissatisfactions by the entertainment industry. This has led to many views on the matter from scholars and journalists alike., as stated above, has called our current era of entertainment to have a feeling of “meh-diocrity” to it. Finkielsztein states that “The manufacturing of culture is industrialized, and mass culture is produced in the same way as cars, clothes, or agricultural machine parts.” and adds further, “This results in boring entertainment—the entertainment presupposes the feeling that it was meant to exorcize. Yet, boredom is not apparent—it is disguised by vibrant action, high technical quality, and a glimpse of originality here and there.”(Finkielsztein, 2022, p. 12).

These statements support the view that entertainment industries, such as the video game industry showcased here, are part of a system that has streamlined the production of, essentially artworks, and has created a model where enough glimmers of hope are shown to the consumer to keep them buying and consuming, without losing the will to do so. Gamers, and the video game industry, have lost the will to make the act of gaming a cherishable, quality time. Gaming now has a very large demographic with people from various backgrounds (Engelstätter & Ward, 2022, p. 1,9) - resulting in video games becoming more and more accessible to all, along with making them more streamlined, easier, overall something that requires less and less of your time to get good at.

Games are not challenges, but just distractions for the modern labourer, who is bored the second he sets foot at home. Games have been reduced to something to satisfy the low-level stimulus addiction of many around the world, becoming just a boredom cure. Fisher and Finkielsztein both identify addiction to low-level stimulus as a distinct quality of the homo-consumens under the consumer capitalist system, satisfied by all types of entertainment ranging from our phones to our consoles. The industrialization of the video game industry and the streamlined creation of cultural products are becoming apparent in academic and journalistic circles. However, consumer behavior remains unchanged.

The video game industry, although taken a hit from the post-pandemic comedown in consumption and inflation, with many layoffs and restructurings, is expected to grow larger in the coming years after a moderately successful 2023 (Dring, 2023). Gamers nurtured in an era where they are spoiled for choice and addicted to the stimuli, demand more and more of the established model, while faint voices of dissent from select gamers, critics and former employees of the industry alike (Obedkov, 2023), are drowned out by the sound of coffers filling with gold.

The gaming industry, relatively a child to the other entertainment industries that comprise the Medium Jarrell talks about, is already observed to take a very similar path, where just enough is done to satisfy and dissatisfy the consumer, to keep him walking towards the end of the tunnel where light can be seen - only to realize it’s a flashlight hung at a dead-end.


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