Are you tired? I’m tired. It seems like every year we get a new main villain. Last year it was NFTs: apes, slurp juice, whatever the hell Square Enix is doing and what-have-you. This year? Artificial intelligence is here to threaten us all with ultra-processed sludge in place of human creativity.
And it all seems so inevitable. NFTs felt like a kind of infection, a fever stemming from addled CEOs and shareholders trying to wring another buck out of their various franchises. They’ve not been defeated, but we as a people were at least able to bully them to the point that game companies were far more reticent about them this year.
But AI is as loud as ever. Governments are using it, huge game companies are toying with it, sites that make use of AI-generated content are still being caught out, and the brightest minds in the field of AI are alternating between telling us it’ll be good for humanity and begging for someone to stop them before they kill again on a bi-monthly basis. AI feels as unavoidable at the end of the year as it did at the beginning.
There are plenty of reasons for that. Where NFTs were a get-rich-quick scheme, a dirty way to make a few thousand dollars off a jpeg, AI is a bonafide labour-saving device, a way to shift the already lopsided power balance between bosses and workers in a way that’s no doubt quite appealing if you’re in the business of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into games that take the better part of a decade to make.
Plus, hey, if your industry got absolutely zooted during the pandemic and is now laying off bloody swathes of staff in the hangover, that makes AI even more attractive. You’ll never want to lay AI off at the end of a project. Bad headlines begone!
The work AI generates is quicker, cheaper, and doesn’t rely on humans who have annoying habits like complaining and unionising. So what if it’s technically worse? Plenty of the products I can buy on Amazon are probably of lower quality than the ones you could buy in stores a hundred years ago, but they cost less to make, are faster to mass produce, and the people who assemble them didn’t need tricky, specialised skill sets that make them hard to replace and lend them a bit more clout in negotiations with management. Not hard to see why the people holding the pursestrings went this way with it.
All of that combines to make AI feel like a foregone conclusion, and it means people—particularly workers—who come out to criticise their replacement by very clever Xerox machines end up lambasted as Luddites, uselessly and annoyingly trying to thwart the onward march of history.
But look, first of all, the Luddites had a point, so let’s clear that up. You don’t have to look very hard in 2023 to realise this whole “industrial capitalism” thing has come with its fair share of baggage. Second, if there’s one lesson we ought to take from this year’s Hollywood writers’ strike, it’s that absolutely nothing about AI should be treated as a fait accompli. Through organisation, writers in Hollywood were able to put guardrails in place around AI’s use in screenwriting, ensuring—at least for now—that the creative process remains under the direction of the people doing the work rather than the people paying for it.
The lesson there, I think, is that we shouldn’t let the C-suites of the world dupe us into thinking any of their desired changes are inevitable. They are not. They just have the money and marketing power behind them to seem that way. Just as in Hollywood, a well organised and well unionised games industry has the power to make sure the Bobby Koticks of the world don’t get carried away with themselves and turn all our favourite things into the same cheap and efficient slurry.
My colleague Ted Litchfield called 2022 the year the dam broke on videogame unions, which I suppose makes 2023 the year the empire struck back. But if we want games to stay good, I think Hollywood has taught us we need to make sure the dam breaks further. Because while I think AI is kind of cool in an abstract sense, and certainly in a way NFTs and web3 never were (I can go and type “Sonic the Hedgehog addressing the Council of Nicaea” into Bing right now and get four pictures of it, and that’s wonderful), I think we’d probably all agree that we don’t want it put in charge of the narratives or art direction of the games we love. It’s a tool, and tools belong in the hands of workers, not bosses.