What Comes before the Platform: The Refuse of Videogames

I’ve tended to focus on close readings of individual videogames on Play the Past—such as my look at Prison Tycoon or the code of JFK: Reloaded—and while these readings have been informed by a progressive sensibility, they have been plagued by a problem common in videogame studies. And that problem is the emphasis on the games themselves—the on-screen digital event—rather than the hidden system of relations that made the games possible in the first place. Platform studies, which I have advocated for on Play the Past, tries to address this issue by highlighting the interplay between a game’s hardware, software, interfaces, reception, and use. But in a sense, by expanding the circle of what new media critics look at, platform studies makes it easier to ignore what lies beyond that circle. I’m thinking in particular of the stages of a videogame platform’s life cycle that come before the platform itself. Before the console. Before the PC. Before the phone.

Before the platform was ever sold and held in the palm of your hand or stored on a stand in your living room, it was assembled. And before it was assembled its components were mined and manufactured. And before they were mined and manufactured, millions of deals were made and dollars exchanged.

I’m writing in the passive voice, with what grammarians call a “deleted agent,” because we would prefer not to think about who assembled the consoles and phones we play our games on, or who mined the rare minerals that are essential to modern electronics. If we do let our thoughts stray in that direction, we might merely fondly remember the “Bunny People” from Intel’s late 1990s Pentium II advertising campaign:

In a bold utopian gesture, Intel transforms the workers in its factories in the Philippines and China who make its chips into dancing “Bunny People,” partying across the country in a minivan. The Bunny People clearly enjoy their work and we’re supposed to find their shimmering silver, blue, and gold prophylactic body gear delightful. In the laboratory, these suits prevent dust particles and sloughed-off skin cells from polluting the delicate chip-etching process; the suits lock in danger. In the commercials, however, the suits prevent audiences from seeing in; they block our prying eyes, short-circuiting any thoughts we might have about the people inside. The faceless, anonymous people—likely women—inside. The low wages and demoralizing atmosphere of a factory in Chengdu, China, become immaterial. We see in their place an appealing alternative that acknowledges the importance of production but denies the existence of work. The Bunny People in the Intel ads dance so that the Bunny People in the Intel factories do not have to.

In the past 15 years, the circumstances of the production of our digital world have continued to be largely hidden. Only recently—I’d say the death of Steve Jobs might be a turning point—has more attention been paid to the way our PCs, consoles, tablets, and smart phones are produced. High profile accidents and mass suicides (and the threat of more) at Foxconn factories, where iPads and Xboxes are made, have been headline news. The radio show This American Life recently featured a look inside a factory that manufactures iPhones. And in September 2011, the radical game studio Molleindustria even released Phone Story, a meta-game for the iPhone about how iPhones are made. Apple promptly banned the game from the iTunes App Store, in part due to its depiction of the abuse of children—children who under the watchful eyes of armed militias in the Congo mine the coltan that goes into the iPhone.

Children Mining Coltan in the Phone Story Game
Children mining coltan under the eyes of militias in Phone Story (Molleindustria, 2011)

After being banned from Apple, Molleindustria released Phone Story on the Android Market. None of the message of the game is lost when played upon an Android device, for Android is part of the same global—yet hidden—ecosystem as Apple products. As much as haters and fanboys like to draw minute distinctions between iOS and Android, Macs and PCs, or Xboxes and PS3s, they are all essentially the same product from the viewpoint of a child in eastern Congo working in a mine. (Update: on February 9, 2012, Molleindustria released a free browser-based version of Phone Story, as well as a Mac and PC downloadable version.)

So too are they the same to the worker assembling the devices, say, children working 16-hour days at 70 cents an hour . Many of these factories are located in Shenzhen, China, a region designated by Beijing as a “special economic zone”—meaning that workers there don’t receive the same protection under labor laws as in the rest of China. Phone Story focuses on the most public of these factories’ failings—worker suicides—by turning them into a game.

Worker suicides in a consumer electronics factory. (Phone Story, Molleindustria, 2011)

The player must catch the falling workers with a trampoline, a familiar game mechanic that goes at least as far back as Kaboom! (1981) on the Atari VCS.  Meanwhile the robot narrator of Phone Story sardonically tells the player that the company addressed the inhumane and desperate conditions of its factories “by installing suicide prevention nets.” Only it’s not a joke; installing nets was exactly the factory’s response to the working conditions that led to the worker suicides.

Phone Story makes visible the social and environmental costs of the very device we must use to play it (and also the costs of the devices we are forbidden to use to play it). Players are complicit with the latent history of the platform; there’s no way not to be. And that history is a fundamental aspect of the cultural heritage of games.

In the opening pages of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, the prominent ARG designer Jane McGonigal relates a story from the Greek historian Herodotus. The ancient Lydians, Herodotus tells us, faced a massive, ongoing famine. To deal with it, they developed what surely must have been the first alternate reality game:

The plan adopted against the famine was to engage in games one day so entirely as not to feel any craving for food…and the next day to eat and abstain from games. In this way they passed eighteen years.

McGonigal takes this apocryphal story as evidence of the power of games to sustain people and ease them through troubling times. Yet read ahead in Herodotus and discover a part of the story that McGonigal leaves out: “…In this way they passed eighteen years. Still the affliction continued and even became more grievous.” The story ends with the king exiling half of his people from the country, forcing them out to search for food on their own.

Games didn’t work out so well for the Lydians. Especially the half that had to leave their homes.

While I’m aligned with many of McGonigal’s broader concerns, I think her facile use of history highlights the extent to which game studies has averted its eyes from historical complexity and facts we would rather not face in the light of day. McGonigal sees games in Herodotus’s tale as giving “a starving population a feeling of power in a powerless situation” (17). I see games being used to subdue and subjugate a population. Playing games for eighteen years forestalled any political and social change that might have alleviated the disaster. And the half that had to leave the kingdom when times not only did not get better but actually got worse? They’re sacrificial lambs, outcast and forgotten so that the other half might thrive.

What have we cast out and forgotten in today’s world of games?

What is the refuse we have refused to acknowledge?

If platform studies takes a holistic view of a new media object, then I propose that we also need a kind of pre-platform studies. What comes before the platform? What refuse—discarded, forgotten, overlooked, or dismissed people, places, things, and events—precede the making of the platform and design of the code and execution of the game?

What game studies needs to do—what game studies scholars need to do—is confront head-on the history of games and the history of the platforms we use to play games. Not merely the development of any given platform—whether an Intellivision or a Wii—but the material history of a specific specimen, say the PS3 with the serial number CG825114628-CECH-2101A. I don’t expect us to stop playing games or to give up our phones and consoles, but I do think we need to be more deliberate about what we play and how. And by deliberate, I mean reflective, intentional—as in an act of deliberation. Careful and balanced, not rushing to judgment but unflinchingly considering what others have assumed or ignored. Deliberation also entails more forcefully using games themselves as tools to think about and through the refuse of the past and present. Phone Story does this. McKenzie Wark did this brilliantly in Gamer Theory, using the life of a Sim character as an allegory for the labor that went into the creation of The Sims. In my own work I’ve begun using the iOS game Strange Rain to think about the history of the iPad and the voiceless men, women, and children who contributed to its existence. I would hope that these moves are merely the opening tactical maneuvers in what needs to be a long-running strategic intervention into game studies—and indeed, into games themselves. We must use games not to escape from the present, but to engage with it.

Downhill photograph courtesy of Flickr user Christian Södergren / Creative Commons Licensed


  1. Excellent post, Mark! I remember having a similar visceral reaction about production and labor when watching a Coca-Cola commercial from a few years ago that transformed the inside of a Coke machine into a carnival playground that only incidentally created a bottle of Coke.

    I wonder if there is a wider historical turn about labor that these kinds of commercials signify. At any rate, the games you mention are really interesting.

  2. Great post! I’m not a “gamer theorist” – – but your manifesto, imo, points to the need for a broader materialist history of the “platform” in general. Putting labor and social relations closer to the center of any analysis. The money quote for me: “What refuse—discarded, forgotten, overlooked, or dismissed people, places, things, and events—precede the making of the platform and design of the code and execution of the game?”

  3. There is a serious dearth of political economic analysis in game studies as there is throughout the study of art and media. I found this particularly true while getting my PhD in Theatre. I think your call for deeper analysis is great but we have to think about what kinds of intervention can actually make material difference. Protest in the United States has become a strange beast of late as capitalism has become increasingly able to slide away from its impact, mostly through a control of media and the means of production of media. OWS for instance has for the most part been slid to the side and is out of mainstream public discourse.

    The same is true I believe when it comes to issue of resistance in the video game and technology industries. I think that there have been some changes as far as the ecological compliance of these companies based on things like the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, but ultimately the voice of resistant forces is so small relative to the overwhelming noise of a consumptive society that small points of resistance like these games generate little pushback.

    I think that you are spot on in the need for teaching and writing about these things, something I am also trying to do, but I wonder how we can actually manage to enact real change rather than just model change intellectually. Most change within the current political economy of gaming is either related to bottom lines or the way in which PR impacts bottom lines. I struggle to feel confident about how we can build true momentum in educating about and then getting the gaming community to be active in resisting practices they are against. People need to care more and feel more empowered than they are, and the separateness from reality and sense of escape in games usually counteracts the process of generating the kinds of impulses that lead to palpable consumer response.

  4. Good food for thought. It seems to me that this is a much broader issue than game studies. Computing is at the center of any number of activities, writing and distributing literature, film and television, art, business, etc. To what extent do we think this is an issue for games studies as opposed to the study of anything involving or dependent on computing?

  5. Fantastic post, Mark–I’m sorry you won’t be able to attend THATCamp Games and lead a session on this topic. I’ve been interested in the labor behind games since reading Cory Doctorow’s “Anda’s Game” and _For the Win_ (which both deal with MMORPGs and gold-farming), but didn’t see any good way of connecting this enlightenment into game studies work. I especially like your idea of tracing histories of specific specimens of platforms–we look at the social history of individual books, so why not individual platforms?
    One minor issue: in her defense (?), McGonigal does mention the end of Herodotus’ story in her TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html), but she frames it with her typical optimism (“they played one final dice game, and the winners of that game got to go on an epic adventure”! I’m not sure the word “winners” is the right one for that situation…).

  6. Absolutly brilliant and thought provoking.

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