I started playing a video game last week. Fallout: New Vegas is an RPG (role-playing game) premised on making impactful decisions in a universe following a nuclear war that destroyed organized human life in the 1950s. And after a week of playing this game, which is absolutely riveting by the way, my anxiety over my own future began to take a massive toll. In the middle of a lecture about finding work in theater, I left class and locked myself in the bathroom, desperate to have a moment with myself. The immediate future feels like a pit of despair in front of me and the Earth below me pushes me closer to the precipice.
The allure of games like Fallout is that they give the player choices. The game is selling you a fantasy that your decisions matter. The ability to choose is a concept that modern media capitalizes on to great effect. Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, where viewers had the ability to make decisions and control the outcome of the episode, was a smashing success.
But in the contemporary U.S. economy, choice is a cruel artifice given to people to limit class consciousness. Not only is poverty a serious problem in this country, but politicians will convince you that your poverty is your own fault. The fact of the matter is that you need to work to survive, most jobs don’t pay a lot, and you will need to compromise your morals to make more money. The oft-quoted truth is that there is no ethical consumption (or production) under capitalism. And most importantly, most of that work in this capitalist system feels utterly meaningless and ungratifying.
Many people will go to work in a service industry that demands a high amount of labor for little money just so that they can produce profits for millionaires they will never meet. Others who attempt to make art, massive amounts of which this country consumes through TV and music, often cannot support themselves solely in that line of work. Even higher-paying jobs can take huge tolls on workers physically and mentally—and nonetheless there are always more trash collectors and construction workers to replace the ones who can no longer handle the physical demands of their labor. This is because each of these industries rely on disposability.
Jobs are structured such that individual workers are expendable. If workers had autonomy beyond their work, they could demand more wages and benefits, which cuts into profits of bosses and CEOs. So bosses can just fire a worker if they demand too much. There’s always more people in need of work. And if workers unionize, businesses can just lobby for a “Right to Work,” which reduces union power by allowing workers to work, just not as a part of a union. Currently, 27 state have passed Right to Work legislation.
Not only have States made unionizing challenging, but they have also limited wage increases. Louisiana, where I hail from, has a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage that was set in 2009. That wage has already diminished over a dollar in real value since 2009 due to inflation. The minimum wage in 1980, some 39 years ago, is worth $9.45 in today’s dollars.
Falling wages mean that workers are constrained in the decisions they make beyond simply budgeting. The birth rate among millennials is the lowest in US history. One explanation links the birth rate to the continued economic anxiety as real wages fall with inflation. Forty-one percent of students report feeling overwhelmed by school compared to 18 percent in 1985. Rates of anxiety among children and adolescents increased by 20 percent from 2007 to 2012, a period before and after the housing crisis. Is it possible that this could be tied to the realization of the U.S.’s economic instability.
The explosion of media incorporating choice gives people the sense that they matter, even after greedy financiers and CEOs have shown them the opposite. Whereas many games give you a task that you must complete to progress, games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Undertale, and Fallout give the player the option to opt out of nearly every quest. Or the games allow you to complete tasks in ways the game perhaps didn’t intend. Breath of the Wild gives the player several abilities that they can use (or abuse) however they like in the game with no restrictions. Players get the illusion that they’re industrious or creative for applying the mechanics of the game in unique ways.
As I sat in the bathroom collecting myself, the illusion of creativity and being important crashed down around me. It’s difficult to realize that I’m not only unremarkable, but that my actions will likely do nothing to change the systems I operate under.
Work should not define who we are as people, but it certainly limits what’s possible. It constrains the decisions you’re able to make outside of work. In video games, this might be the point where you restart the game and make some different choices. But people obviously cannot do that in this life. It’s just game over.
Connor Aberle is a member of the Class of 2019 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.