Finding Connection and Resisting Extraction in Quarantine Gaming
This essay on quarantine gaming is the fifth piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.
This essay is part of Edge Effects Out Loud, a collection of pieces published in both written and audio formats. Stream or download to listen to the audio version of this essay.
Video games have seen a massive boom during the COVID-19 pandemic. The industry smashed multiple sales records, and an unprecedented number of viewers tuned in to Twitch livestreams. In mid-2020, I noticed people I’d never thought of as gamers talking on social media about Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game exclusive to the Nintendo Switch. Many were using the game as a way of connecting with distant family members—a multiplayer function allows players to visit to each other’s digital islands.
I, too, used video games as a way to connect with my family during lockdown. But my game of choice was a PC title named Satisfactory, a first-person open-world factory building simulator made by Coffee Stain Studios, the folks behind the tongue-in-cheek cult hit Goat Simulator. Satisfactory combines crafting gameplay—think Minecraft, Terraria, or Stardew Valley—with base-building, tasking players with the construction of massive 3-D factories on the surface of an alien planet. In December 2020, instead of our usual holiday visit, my father, my partner, and I created a multiplayer Satisfactory world and spent most of our evenings there for about a month.
Satisfactory is set on an untouched planet resplendent with otherworldly trees and mushrooms, lakes, and deposits of metal, a randomly-generated landscape in multiple biomes. You are an employee of the mysterious corporation FICSIT and have arrived on this world carrying the materials to install the HUB, or “Habitat and Utility Base.” Two key areas of the HUB drive gameplay in Satisfactory. The Crafting Bench allows you to make second-order resources (e.g., iron ingots) from first-order ones collected from the environment (e.g., iron ore). And the Terminal allows you to select resource crafting goals, called Milestones, which upon completion unlock new recipes, equipment, and buildings. Buildings fulfill many interesting functions, but the core one is automation. Constructions like Miners, Smelters, and Manufacturers all speed up the task of gathering resources from the environment and turning them into things you can use.
Hypnotized by Production
I knew Satisfactory was going to take over my inner life. I’ve struggled with computer addiction since I was a teenager, and prior to COVID-19 had handled video games as though they were radioactive. Now that I work with video games professionally, I have to be careful since I’m tempted to become hypnotized every day. It both terrifies and fascinates me that video games so effectively entice players to entrap themselves in extended flow states.
What magnetized me about Satisfactory was how the game offered up the illusion of productive work. Game designer and media studies scholar Ian Bogost frequently points out this quality of games. In his take on the cult indie hit Untitled Goose Game, Bogost laments how labor is embedded in video games, writing “Games are supposed to be entertainment—and yet they demand toil in leisure’s pursuit.” Though Bogost sees this demand as problematic, I found toiling toward leisure along with my dad and my partner compelling.
Collaborative work offers so much good: a shared language, group identification, the harmonization of values in pursuit of a collective goal. In our game, I recall joking about putting up a Kanban board and using sticky notes to assign tasks. Rather than feeling alienated by project managing our play, I was happy the three of us had something to do together. My father and I optimized production lines while my partner searched the planet for power slugs and sped up factory buildings. Over a series of extended play sessions one weekend, we located a patch of crude oil and set up a new operation there, routing an oil pipeline around an entire mountain range.
Laughing with my dad over voice chat during a Satisfactory automated truck project gone wrong one evening, it struck me that our in-person visits before COVID-19 had never been so warm. During unstructured family gatherings, we both used work as an excuse to make exits from fraught social relations. Homeschooled as a child, I’d been given a self-led upbringing by my educationally radical parents. But they had also isolated me at home, instilling distrust for anyone external to our world. Searching for purpose and friendship in an upbringing that resembled living under plague, I’d bonded with the unending labor of games. Amidst leisure’s toil, I found ways to play queerly, building relationships with other social outsiders who acknowledged and even celebrated the way I self-expressed.
Discovering the Story
As you progress through HUB Milestones in Satisfactory, an additional building called the Space Elevator makes the completion of goals more complicated. This enormous construction requires players to ship higher-order resources up to FICSIT, and completing its Phases is required to unlock higher-tier Milestones. As my dad, partner, and I worked out the complex production lines for advanced components, we didn’t give much thought to who our characters were or why FICSIT needed these particular supplies. Were we exploited slaves of a corporate overlord? Or was this whole project supposed to be our idea? Satisfactory was still in early access, so many story elements felt like placeholders that would be filled in later. But even in its final version, Satisfactory would be a simulator first, a game about optimization and systems. It wasn’t designed as a parable. It’s not a character-driven game.
And yet story has a way of asserting itself. I saw this at last when we came to Tier 7, the final unlockable set of Milestones in Satisfactory’s 2020 early access release. With the construction of a hazmat suit, we could now start pulling uranium out of deposits whose radioactivity had previously killed us. Our power grid would skyrocket with the introduction of nuclear power. The only caveat, my dad explained, was that we would begin to produce nonrecyclable nuclear waste. “We’ll have to store it somewhere,” he said.
A nonrecyclable item? I couldn’t believe it. The byproduct of our fuel production line, polymer resin, could be reused in a workflow that turned it into residual plastic. And we’d already been sinking extra resources into the amusingly-named Awesome Sink, a building that turned inputs of any kind into tickets, which could be spent in a special store that sold statues, vehicles, and the FICSIT Coffee Cup™. But radioactive resources couldn’t be dumped down the Awesome Sink. When I looked up disposal solutions on YouTube, I found videos of streamers building out vast nuclear waste storage facilities in far corners of the Satisfactory map.
As I considered the repulsive idea of filling our sandbox planet with waste, the story of the game I’d been playing slowly unfolded before me. Amidst Satisfactory’s crafting, optimization, and planetary exploration lay a tale of extractive capitalism. We had killed animals, cut down trees, and routed an oil pipeline. Our construction of power plants and factory buildings served no societal or artistic purpose, as it would have in a SimCity-type management game where the player’s goal is to balance growth and homeostasis. In Satisfactory, the design ideal is unchecked expansion. We were harbingers of a colonial infrastructure, tasked with bending an environment to the requirements of exploding growth and an addiction to progress.
The Promise of Unlimited Expansion
It’s a system evocative of what Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen call Wiindigo infrastructure. The Wiindigo, a monster of Anishinaabe lore, “symbolizes the potentially addictive part of the human condition—when certain desires are indulged.” Wiindigo are cannibals, once-human specters now transformed to monstrous form by their own hunger. LaDuke and Cowen see the spirit of this myth alive in a settler colonial infrastructure that transforms “ecologies of the many into systems of circulation and accumulation to serve the few.” I observe something similar in the hunger cultivated by video games like Satisfactory. These games tantalize players with the sense of arrival pure efficiency pretends it will bring. And yet arrival is in truth not possible because achieving true satisfaction corresponds with the end of the game.
Interestingly, this dynamic is openly touted through tongue-in-cheek copy on the Satisfactory website: “Conquer nature by building massive factories across the land. Expand wherever and however you want. The planet is filled with valuable natural resources just waiting to be utilized. As an employee of FICSIT it’s your duty to make sure they come to good use.” The folks at Coffee Stain Studios aren’t unaware that their game is one of planetary clear-cutting without consequences. They’re just betting, with a sly wink, that players will either not problematize their play, or if they do, they’ll be too hypnotized to mind.
There’s a tradition of game development in this self-aware, ironic mode. This is on display in Red Hook Studios’ 2015 title Darkest Dungeon, which one commentator likened to a human resource management simulator. The game teaches you to view adventuring heroes (employees) as expendable resources by enforcing “permadeath” on killed party members and providing an endless stream of replacements. The dark moral consequences of this mindset are played out at the game’s end. As game designer Paolo Pedercini argues, many developers know that their systems intentionally bring about Weberian rationalization: the “replacement of traditions, customs and emotions as motivators of human conduct in favor of quantification and calculation.” Pedercini spoke about this in a 2014 IndieCade talk titled “Videogames and the Spirit of Capitalism,” beginning by exploring how games are designed for addiction. He looks warily upon games like Zynga’s Farmville, which exploited existing social networks toward growth and encouraged players to instrumentalize their non-playing friends. However, Pedercini ends the essay in a place of possibility, highlighting games like the Copenhagen Game Collective’s B.U.T.T.O.N. that resist “totalizing computational structures” by engaging both digital and physical play.
Sustaining Connection and Choosing Satisfaction
I see possibility in games too. As people turn to games as engines of entertainment, creativity, and social connection amidst the limitations of life under COVID-19, they can appreciate the best of what games have to offer. Creativity and play arise in response to constraints, flourishing when resourcefulness is necessary. In an open-ended role-playing game I co-designed called Sojourn, players are asked to choose only three of nine possible items to take on a long journey. Within this narrow set of choices, the ways players make meaning of their chosen items are endless. But Sojourn has a play time of about ten minutes. When we turn to games like Satisfactory, we’re looking for something bigger—an escape that brings about extended annihilation.
I agreed to play Satisfactory with my dad because I wanted a break from constant fear. Before we turned to games, our conversations revolved around stories of COVID-19 deaths. We lingered on the phone in rage at the political news cycle. Playing Satisfactory helped us sustain a more loving and hopeful connection with one another. In part, this was because we were so enchanted by the labor of leisure that there was no time to talk about other things. After I identified the threat of nuclear power, though, things changed. I proposed to my teammates that we choose to be satisfied with our progress thus far. Instead of completing Tier 7, we would use another power source, the Geothermal Generator, to create a renewable power grid. Each generator would contribute only 200 megawatts, compared with the 2500 generated by a nuclear plant—but we didn’t need more power, we realized. There weren’t any more Milestones to unlock. And thus, our conversation on sustainability marked the end of our time with Satisfactory.
I admit to grieving the powerful connection our collective flow state had given us. Still, we were free now, outside of ensnarement. To find each other here, I considered, we needed to recreate what the game afforded. If Satisfactory had manufactured creative purpose, mutual recognition, and communal love, we can seek those same joys again—and in places that don’t trap us in an endless cycle of perceived progress but instead give us life and connection.
Featured image: A production line transforms planetary resources into advanced components, a key element of Satisfactory gameplay. At first, the unsustainable promise of endless production and unchecked expansion inspired collaboration while quarantine gaming.
Nat Mesnard teaches game design, narrative design, and interactive storytelling at Pratt Institute, Rutgers University–Camden, and the School of Visual Arts. They co-host the podcast Queers at the End of the World and co-created the tabletop role-playing game BUSINESS WIZARDS. Website. Twitter. Contact.