Halo Infinite's Woes Expose the Exploitation Inherent to Current Gaming Trends

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<i>Halo Infinite</i>'s Woes Expose the Exploitation Inherent to Current Gaming Trends

It’s been just over a month since Halo Infinite’s multiplayer made a surprise launch on Nov. 15, arriving to both praise and widespread frustration. While most players enjoyed playing the latest in the long running franchise, the discussion instantly turned to picking apart the game’s unfair monetization. Halo Infinite’s battle pass moves too slow and requires too much investment, compared to the slicker offerings of Fortnite or Apex Legends. It also, pretty plainly, offers less. Because Halo’s cosmetics rely on getting customizable pieces, rather than full outfits, actually getting some cool looking armor requires serious time investment in the battle pass… or shelling out too much extra money for XP or to buy an armor set from the store. Furthermore, because the game launched with limited playlists, and with occasionally esoteric or difficult challenges, it can take hours to complete even simple tasks.

I watched Halo Infinite’s controversies roll out with weariness. Simply because, while every criticism of the game struck me as more than fair, this is far from the first time something like this has happened. Even just this year, Battlefield 2042 launched to outrage, New World broke in new, disastrous ways with every update, and Final Fantasy XIV’s servers burst at record engagement. Even now-established multiplayer games like Apex Legends or Destiny had growing pains of their own at launch. Not all of these games are free and they do not all have battle passes, but they do operate with a similar, totalizing logic as Halo Infinite. These are games that require massive player bases to function, that rely on consistent updates and challenges to promote engagement, that want to make themselves a massive part of your life. Halo Infinite’s troubles might be extreme, but they are far from unique. They are reflected in basically every videogame of its kind.

I don’t mean this as a way to halt rightful criticism of Halo Infinite. I just want to emphasize that slicker monetization and progression systems are not necessarily better, but rather exploit at greater speed and with less pushback. The point isn’t that we should not be mad about Halo Infinite, but that we can rightfully spread this anger to more games. Fortnite, to take just one example, has directly profited from the exploitation and appropriation of black culture. It’s a game made for children that requires an extreme amount of spending money to “keep up with.” Its cosmetics create weird hierarchies of players, the poor or unwilling labeled no skins. Halo Infinite is trying at the same cultural place as Fortnite, albeit with a more consistent aesthetic, but it fails. That failure is useful because it breaks apart how almost every multiplayer game works on the same logic as Halo Infinite.

To be fair, I was pretty damn glowing about Halo Infinite in my last piece for Paste. I stand by most of what I said, but I was having a better time when I could only play the game for a couple hours on a weekend. Now Halo Infinite is a product I have to enjoy forever. I can still wring some good times out of that, of course, but I do have to resist the game’s monetization schemes and feedback loops. Frankly, I am frequently unsuccessful in that battle. Even playing with friends, I structure my play around what challenges I have, praying that the right mode or right map will pop up so I can get some XP. If that doesn’t work out, I simply start a new game until it does. Even as it makes the game worse, it does make me play it more. That is the point. The promise of a “fix” to these issues operates in a similar way. It’s a means of player retention, asking them to hold out for a product that takes their money a little more slickly.

To be clear, I am not saying that complaining about a games’ battle pass progression is political praxis. That is pretty obviously ridiculous. However, that same complaining can have real impact. For example, being against NFTs or cryptocurrency does not make someone anti-capitalist. However, understanding the ways those things are scams can help one understand capitalism’s exploitative logic. Understanding why and how even a particular monetization scheme doesn’t work can at least point to how broken the economic institution of videogames, and the systems that allow them to exist, really are. Thereby it is worth foregrounding issues of monetization, in criticism and in casual conversation.

There are three big counter-arguments that come up when criticism of monetization becomes widespread. The first is “AAA games are so expensive that financial schemes like this are the only way they can break even.” It is fairly obvious and sound moral logic to suggest that if something cannot exist without exploitation, it should not exist. Furthermore, logic like this can be, and has been, used to defend game productions more egregious sins, like crunch and sexual harassment. This argument assumes that massive videogames are too big to fail. I simply believe that is not true. Who cares about making expensive games if their existence craters lives?

The second is “what about the poor devs?” Let’s be clear about one thing, it is wretched that management decisions are made the responsibility of community managers and rank-and-file programmers. Obviously, the malicious can harass with careless abandon, hurting those who are not even close to responsible. However, that is a trick of management. The trick is not to quiet up in fear, but rather to strategize. We cannot prevent randos on Reddit from being assholes, but we can refine our targeting so that the executives are the ones catching fire.

The third is “it’s not that big a deal. Just get over it and/or don’t spend money.” This strikes me as incredibly callous. Just because you or I can “avoid” being exploited doesn’t mean everyone can. Free-to-play games rely, in fact, on exploiting the vulnerable for cash. A battle pass is perhaps a marginally less exploitative method than loot boxes or gacha, but let’s not pretend it does not operate by the same logic and that you can’t just buy out the rest of the pass for cash (you can). Let’s not forget that People Make Games recently blew up a story about Roblox exploiting the labor of literal children. These may be “just videogames,” but they do have real stakes.

That is both the problem and the solution. Videogames have been building towards these models for decades. Battle passes and loot boxes and the like are based on years of research, on economic planning, and on very real profits. The allure of completing a battle pass even operates on a kind of imperialist logic, winning items through violence. That is to say, the inherent problems of free to play games are inherent to capitalism. This is grim because it means videogames can’t change fundamentally without massive social change, which might also render the hobby completely obsolete. It’s exciting for that same reason. Obviously getting mad about pixels in space marine videogames can be a distraction from what’s really important. It can also be a helpful device for pointing out why the world is broken and what we can do to fix it.

Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.