Ignoring his discredited Freudian psychobabble, Bruno Bettelheim did more to contribute to our understanding of how the Nazi government attained and retained its power than any other public intellectual of the 20th century minus perhaps Hannah Arendt. By framing fascism as a system of self-affirmation in its subjects through collective rituals that provided positive re-inforcement of the self within a powerful and attractive group, Bettelheim placed fascism in the context of a collective decision to surrender ourselves to the machinations of a state because of imagined utility rather than the solitary evil of a dictatorship. That explanation may lack the simplicity of black & white moralism, but it’s far more representative of the actuality of human nature.
Having entered the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, the true threats to human liberty will not come from power-mad governments; Vladimir Putin’s last grasp for Russian hegemony reeks of the end of realpolitik as a driving social order. No, humanity may have learned the harsh lessons of collective sacrificing our will to the vagaries of nation-states. Instead, we’ve made the conscious decision to lose ourselves in the brands and corporations that have come to define our lives. The average American may be far removed from the Crimean maidan or the Arab Spring, but ask them about the newest iPhone or the changes to their Twitter feed, and they’ll surely have a response.
Barring an emergent class consciousness in America (it’s not happening; I promise) and a severe backlash to austerity in Europe (possible but unlikely), the path of the 21st century will be defined by a continual shift from traditional nation state sovereignty to something more akin to corporate autocracy. If you doubt that claim, check campaign spending in the wake of Citizens United and then silently weep into your pillow for the fate of government separation from corporate interests. It’s not hard to imagine a world where the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world hold more sway than heads of state. It’s not hard to imagine because, let’s face it, we’re almost there, and we are responsible for it.
These are topics for academic papers or think pieces in the latest issue of Salon or Mother Jones not video games. Or at least, that was the case before I had the pleasure of playing A(s)century, a cyberpunk text adventure from Austin Walker, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Ontario as well as a research associate for the Digital Labour Group. Full disclosure: I’ve known Austin for about a year now thanks to the video game streams of Phil Kollar on Twitch (where he’s a frequent contributor), and it was always clear that Austin was a highly intelligent and socially committed thinker; now, it’s also clear that he’s a hell of a writer.
A(s)century (more on its clever title in a bit) was a project of the Cyberpunk Game Jam, and it was made over the course of nine days. As I said, it’s a text adventure, so if you’re expecting graphics or modern game mechanics, look elsewhere; A(s)century places all of its chips on the strength of its interactive narrative, and like last year’s Gone Home, the gamble pays off. When the worst thing that you can say about a game is that it might have needed a better copy editor, you know you’re in for a unique and powerful experience.
A(s)century places the player in the shoes of a “runner,” cyberpunk parlance for a freelance agent taking jobs to put a little scratch on his credstick, in the year 2077. After an easy run, you find a prototype program called MindWriter; I’m still not entirely sure what the program does even after playing the game twice but that’s beside the point. The program gets you a gig as a copy writer for a powerful beverage corp, ReKafffe Services. And, thanks to the program, you slowly bend not only the corporations advertising but eventually lead it towards corporate state sovereignty as you acquire smaller companies into your fold.
I don’t want to spoil the path that A(s)century charts too much (though I recommend at least two playthroughs for cyberpunk neophytes like myself so you can accustom yourself to the jargon), but the game becomes a scathing commentary on the way that modern society subsumes our identity into that of the products we consume. You lead a corporation into global dominance only to see the human costs of your actions: labour strikes broken with lethal precision, puppet-head leaders thrown into office because you paid for it, environmental destruction. And all the while, the people define themselves by your company and your product.
The idea of making the player do horrendous things (in the name of gaining more resources to upgrade your MindWriter program [which, once again, still not sure what it does; don’t think that’s too important though]) is what makes A(s)century so powerful. By placing the responsibility for acquiring a company that can manipulate and enslave artificial lifeforms or one that sells patriotic memorabilia to maintain emotional control of the populace, it forces the player to confront their role in our modern consumer culture. When people lined up around the block to buy Chick-Fil-A after backlash against the company’s anti-gay donations, those Christians may have been re-affirming their religious beliefs but they were simultaneously lining that company’s pocket. And Chick-Fil-A knew it, and on some level, we as consumers knew it as well.
As an avowed socialist, I am aware of humanity’s need to place responsibility into the collective and for our need to have identities beyond ourselves as a singular entity. But, throughout our history, we’ve managed time and time again to surrender our responsibilities to organizations/institutions that exist to take advantage of us. If there was a point to HBO’s The Wire, it’s that modern American governmental institutions have become (unintentionally) mechanisms for the manufacturing of suffering, and it is our own apathy and the entrenched nature of these institutions that mean we can not find a path to collectively beneficial change.
A(s)century understands this as well. When you make the often cataclysmic decisions you do in the game, they are never with the intent of ruining the world. But, when we entrust our very identities to corporate institutions, we sacrifice humanity to the profit margin. The moment I knew I had fallen in love with the game was one of the inter-act screens with quotes (which are scattered throughout) where Canadian capitalist Kevin O’Leary deifies the 1% as the realization of the American dream. The aspirational fallacy of American economics is one of the most dangerous pitfalls of our life: where people don’t act in their own rational self-interest because we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that the trickle-down will really come and that economic achievement is the most noble pursuit. And A(s)century has as low an opinion of that ambition as I do.
Before I give the false impression that A(s)century is all doom and gloom, the game has a dry, subtle sense of humor, and it finds plenty of time for jokes in its Infinite Jest-esque hyper-text structure. The title itself is a clever joke about both climbing the corporate ladder as well as the century of history that you shape over the course of the game. Throw in the game’s stellar soundtrack (seriously, buy it here), and any one with a love of cyberpunk and politically motivated gaming has to check it out.
If you’re still on the fence about whether or not you should play the game, here’s the last test. If you appreciate this quote and understand how it relates to all I’ve said before, A(s)century is for you. Karl Marx: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” You can find A(s)century here: https://googledrive.com/host/0B8Vp_6RrfYFmd0FCS3ExbU5jNms/A%28s%29century.html . Take it for a spin; you won’t regret it.