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Unions in Space

Competitive individualism won’t save you in Silicon Valley’s future

While we’re embroiled in a media circus around Amazon’s Olympic-style contest for who will host its second headquarters, edgily dubbed HQ2, it’s worth imagining Amazon in 2088.

The hypercorporation has become so vast that it has hollowed out even our university system. Corporate loyalty points are everything, and these currencies aren’t interchangeable. When you go to Amazon University you’re in “loyalty debt” to them and can best pay that debt by working for Amazon-owned businesses to earn their “loyalty.” It’s corporate scrip à la SkyMiles, an invisible currency that is only tangibly valuable in the company store. Amazon doesn’t just own a city district in this future; they have a stranglehold on lives, public finances, education, and infrastructure.

This is the world portrayed in Tacoma, the new single-player, story-based videogame from Fullbright. You’re Amy Ferrier, an independent contractor in the transorbital gig economy who’s been dispatched to the titular space station to recover the station’s AI core, and discover what happened to its six human crew members. Tacoma is billed as a queer sci-fi mystery—one mercifully free from tedious combat against evil space aliens—so I was expecting a good time. I wasn’t expecting what might be 2017’s best piece of popular pro-labor art.

This is a game that is fundamentally about capitalism and where its Silicon Valley variant is leading us all. As you enter the station you have to sign a waiver allowing Tacoma’s corporate owner, Venturis Technologies, total rights to record you, your position, your body shape, and every word you utter (in earlier versions of the game, Venturis was called “Virgin-Tesla,” to give you some idea of who and what it represents). Fullbright’s sci-fi vision portends a world where the “disruptive” ways of Silicon Valley have come to dominate the global economy, to the point where artists are now casually referred to as “content creators.” But despite its cyberpunk dystopian setting, Tacoma gives us a very clear point of light in the darkness: unions.

Fullbright portends a world where the “disruptive” ways of Silicon Valley have come to dominate the global economy.

Everyone who was on board that station—before their untimely disappearance, that is—was a member of the OWU, the Orbital Workers Union, and while this gives the game some remarkable art (including a poster I badly want to own), the OWU is not mere set dressing. Fullbright’s developers did a stunning job using the game’s speculative guise to comment on the enduring importance of organized labor; in the process they’ve issued a powerful, accessible reminder that science fiction helps us theorize resistance in the real world.

An email from Orbital Workers Union Local 1293 perfectly captures the earnest tone I’ve come to know and love in my own union correspondence: “It is your LEGAL RIGHT to celebrate this momentous event”—a vacation named Obsolescence Day— “on the last day of February each year, no matter what your employer claims! Report any attempts at worker suppression to your OHLU Local representative!”

“So just what is Obsolescence Day?” I asked myself as I walked through the lunar space station. It transpires that it’s a cheeky celebration held on the anniversary of the day the “Orbital Workers Safety” bill was defeated in the congress. This bill, named in a lovely bit of satire on the Orwellian titles given to so many oppressive pieces of legislation (think “Right to Work” laws), would’ve essentially retired all human workers on space stations in favor of completely automating them—in the name of safety, of course. It would’ve meant the forced “obsolescence” of space station employees. Instead, the bill was defeated and, in an act of resistance, space station employees celebrate that fact annually.

The core theme of the game emerges from the unique personalities of the six crew members who vanished during that celebration, when disaster struck. Their tangle of relationships, troubles, and quirks are easily the most engaging part of the game. You get to know the absent crew members through augmented reality recordings that give you both voice and position data, making the characters appear as differently colored paper dolls, re-enacting a moment in the past. Like us, they’re struggling with unbearable debts that they can’t get out from under, filing “support tickets,” and being jerked around, denied advancement due to corporate politics they can’t control. (Venturis is even trying to force the station’s doctor to accept responsibility for a patient death caused by corporate negligence.) Through them, we get a sense of hope and resilience in a soul-sucking environment, a sense that even in dark times the best aspects of the human spirit will see us through.

But this message, often distilled into an individualist form in single-player videogames as in self-help books, is given a more collective spin here. Each crewmember has their personal spark of character, but they are each held up by not only their colleagues, but the union to which they belong. What hope they do have always comes from someone other than themselves, for there’s always hope in solidarity—whether it’s love, collegiality, the ties of family, or, indeed, trade unionism.

It’s a thoughtful take on trade unionism that doesn’t cast it as a relic of a bygone age.

In a way, it’s amazing that unions of any description still persevere in such a scenario—Fullbright’s lore isn’t quite as clear on this point as I’d like—but, while it’s possible to run space stations without human labor by using AI, the bargaining power of a union seems to come from the fact there aren’t enough AI to go around and, further, it’s illegal for corporations to employ fewer than six people per space station. (Hypercorporations haven’t managed to buy off the congress yet.)

That tension unfolds into a theme that reaches its fullest sweep by the game’s end. After all, artificial intelligences created by the tech corporations are what threaten to replace the orbital workers. You’d think this would bring the humans into conflict with them—“they’re trying to take our jobs!”—but something more magical happens instead. The final message of this game is that when capitalism tries to pit us against one another—as Amazon is now, by suggesting that cities bidding to host HQ2 keep their corporation taxes low and create a “business-friendly environment”—the greatest hope comes from refusing to let that happen.

It’s become a canard to say that the best educational games are the ones that aren’t trying to be—the Carmen Sandiego series was designed as a game first, and only later was it adopted by teachers as a learning tool. The game preceded its genre. In the same way, Tacoma might serve a similar purpose for a wider left looking for ways of repurposing new technology. It wasn’t intended to be a didactic affair, but it may serve the purpose of being a thoughtful take on trade unionism that doesn’t cast it as a relic of a bygone age. In imagining a new future, it helps to remember that some things should never go out of style.