Video Games, Bread and Circuses

Willy Staley

By Willy Staley
Posted on Thu Apr 5, 2012, Last Updated on Thu Apr 5, 2012

Willy Staley is a staff writer and columnist for MyBankTracker.com. His columns cover banking, policy, and culture. More Columns »

Online polls, fun as they may be, become less and less credible the more visible they are. Of course it’s of little use to see a poll with just five responses, but once an online poll passes a certain threshold of popularity, people start to game them. Frequently conservatives and liberals will raid one another’s online polls — MSNBC or Fox News, respectively — to force a partisan news organization to deal with poll results that don’t jive with their particular bent. They’re not to be taken seriously once they’ve fallen into the hands of those who wish to make their own viewpoint appear to be more commonplace than it is — which is the bread and butter of American politics these days, but that’s another discussion entirely.

The NCAA tournament in March has spawned countless bracket-style online polls with the rise of web journalism, and perhaps jumped the shark this year with The Atlantic Wire’s tournament of tournaments, the Battle of the Brackets. The Consumerist has, since 2006, polled the Internet to discover who the Worst Company in America is. This year, the Big Game was between Electronic Arts (EA), the video game maker, and Bank of America, the bank. Guess, who, in the Internet’s supposedly infinite wisdom, is considered to be worse for America?

I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t the one that forged documents to kick Americans out of their homes. That’s right: EA won the honor handily, with 64 percent of the vote — a broad mandate!

Why EA? Apparently they buy up competitors simply to crush them, which is problematic for a healthy market economy. It’s a monopolistic practice that is gaining ground again, as documented in this fantastic feature in a recent issue of Harper’s by Barry Lynn. But this sort of anti-competitive behavior has farther-reaching implications for our economy in arenas a bit more important than video games: publishing and food, for example.

The other complaint against EA has something to do with a game called Mass Effect 3, and it’s likely a petty fanboy complaint about which I can’t bring myself to even pretend to have researched. If I understand it right, it would be akin to calling Francis Ford Coppola the worst person in the world in 1990 because The Godfather III sucked, and giving Saddam Hussein second place. It’s just plain dumb and reflective of a society with a very, very narrow view of what makes a company bad.

More troubling is the narrow view of consumer advocacy’s societal goals. When dealing with industries, like banking, that have considerable influence inside the Beltway, speaking out against the current state of affairs in the industry is a political act. If you believe that a bank is the worst company in America, it likely follows that you believe the comfortable relationship between Wall Street and Washington, lubricated by campaign donations, ought to change fundamentally. If you believe that EA is the worst company in the country, it likely follows that you would like to play more video games that have more satisfying narratives for less money.

It seems that roughly every other year, The Consumerist’s poll anoints an actually awful corporation — Halliburton (2006), Countrywide (2008), AIG (2009), BP (2011) — and on the off years it offers comeuppance for comparatively petty consumer complaints — RIAA (2007), Comcast (2010), and EA (2012).

If this poll’s history is any indication of national spirit, it suggests that we vacillate between legitimate outrage at greedy institutions that profit from war and damage the environment or the economy with impunity, and wishing we had more fun stuff to do for free. While I try to avoid the temptations of declinism as it is likely not a healthy habit of mind at such a young age, it’s difficult not to get a whiff of freshly baked bread, and smelly, smelly circuses from all this.

Just last fall, the Occupy Wall Street movement electrified the nation with the prospect that we might marshall the political will to fundamentally change the relationship between corporations and Washington. Just this week, the Internet got together and decided that video games ought to be cheaper, and better.

Bank of America might not be the worst company in America, but they’re certainly worse than EA. Even if the poll’s result was manipulated by mouth-breathing self-righteous gamers whose view of the world doesn’t extend much further than their mother’s basement — or, indeed, their “battle station” — thousands upon thousands of people were still convinced, for a short period of time, to shame a video game company for perceived injustices instead of thinking, for a second, about the sorry state of American democracy, and how corporations fit into that picture.

It’s a scary thought, considering we’re about to enter our first post-Citizens United presidential election: What sort of short-term outrages will get out the vote?

Image by flickr user Marilyn Roxie, licensed via Creative Commons.

 

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