Gender, myth and capitalism: An academic view of Portal 2

Information Capitalism

The story of Aperture Science is an allegory for post-Fordist information capitalism. As we now find ourselves reeling in the aftermath of the greatest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, an exploration of the development and maturation of the information economy is relevant as these are some of the forces at work in our current milieu.  Aperture's shift from industrial production (Aperture Fixtures) to research and development (Aperture Science) in 1947 reflects the cultural and economic transformations prevalent in our society after World War II.

Academics evoke the idea of post-Fordism, a restructuring of production and consumption around information technologies, to describe these changes. In the early part of the 20th century, Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev theorized that the global economy moved in cycles of roughly 50 years. These came to be known as long waves, or Kondratiev waves (K-waves). Later economists, such as Christopher Freeman (!) and Carlota Perez, modified and expanded on Kondratiev's initial concept by focusing on the ways clusters of technological innovation drive changes in the economy.

Above: Bow to the all-powerful sine wave

So what does all this have to do with Portal 2? Aperture Science is born out of the techno-economic paradigm shift that launched the information age. As Chell moves through the sealed off parts of the facility, she uncovers the history of the company. As she traverses each era, she sees corresponding changes in the information technology around her, evolving from primitive teletype machines to personal computers. The construction of the test chambers changes too, becoming more refined in each era until industrial design reaches its ultimate manifestation in the “current” area of the facility. Here again, Portal 2 encodes a key concept of post-Fordism, flexible specialization, into the structure of the game. An infinite variety of new chambers can be created almost instantaneously in response to the needs of the situation. Or observe how quickly Wheatley is able to create and deploy his hybrid turret-cubes.

In post-Fordism, flexible specialization is the application of information technology to the production process in order to create more diverse products more quickly. Crucially, it isn't just the equipment that must be adaptable. Workers, too, need diversified skill sets to compete, as the repetitive unskilled labor that was the hallmark of Ford's assembly lines can easily be done by robots.

Here we encounter a convergence of post-Fordist ideas. First, the changes to industry brought on by the invention of the semiconductor and their implications for flexible specialization in manufacturing. Second, the rise to primacy of companies who create knowledge or culture through “immaterial labor” rather than durable goods. The cognitive-cultural economy, or information economy, is driven by media, software, design, R&D. In the rise of Aperture Science, we see the perfect example of this shift. Not coincidentally, Valve Corporation shows more than a passing understanding of the information economy and how to manipulate it.

The replacement of unskilled assembly line workers is just the first step. As the information economy produces ever more advanced computer technology, the need for higher-level managers, designers and researchers is reduced, and with sufficiently advanced AI, eliminated. In Aperture's case, robots replaced humans at every level of the company until the remaining humans, even Cave's precious Caroline, were treated simply as livestock and forced into mandatory testing.

Consider the various test subjects used through Aperture Science's history. Initially, the project attracts the cream of the crop: Olympians, war heroes, and astronauts who have volunteered for testing. There's a sense of exuberance to the endeavor, which is no doubt tied to the recent triumph in World War II and an unwavering faith that the ideals of capitalism push us to be our very best. There's an Andrew Ryan-esque feel to Cave Johnson's confident swagger, a need to break free from the constraints of mediocrity and common morality in order to push human achievement to new heights. But like Ryan's Rapture, Aperture Science is destined to be devoured by its own ideology.

The early days at Aperture Science correspond to the inception of the knowledge economy and the upswing of the k-wave, with new breakthroughs quickly reincorporated to accelerate progress. But valuable volunteers are quickly used up as creative destruction annihilates the old order. The idea of creative destruction in economics was first posited by Marx, but re-contextualized by Joseph Schumpeter in the early 1940s to describe the process by which entrepreneurship and innovation continually destroy and reshape capitalism. Creative destruction also carries mythological significance, in the form of the Hindu god Shiva. Shiva is often depicted as a many-armed dancer, and is evoked in Aperture's motivational poster showing a robot working so fast it appears to have multiple arms. Shiva’s sublime paradox of creation and destruction brings to mind the paradoxes that were supposed to help human workers shut down rogue AI in the event they seize control of the facility.

Above: Watch me annihilate this stack of paperwork – BOOYAH!

But back to test subjects. In desperation, Aperture began recruiting from the underclass – hobos, derelicts, anyone hopeless enough to risk certain death for $60. During this era, Cave's recordings reveal his utter disdain for the people he's testing on. The high-mindedness of the early days is gone. The unrelenting need to continue testing (i.e., remain competitive with Black Mesa) sets in. Test subjects are exposed to asbestos, microwaves, even lasers that turn their blood into gasoline, with full knowledge that the result will be cancers, tumors, or instant death. For all Cave's lofty ideals about human betterment, the cold logic of accumulation reduces life to a mere commodity to be consumed in the relentless pursuit of wealth. Science is wealth, because knowledge is capital in the new economy.

Above: An image revealed during Portal 2's pre-launch ARG

Even as he throws the lives of countless orphans and transients away in pursuit of Science, Cave's recordings are hilarious – we respond to them because of their exaggerated bombast, but also for their insight into the modern condition. Cave, at least, has the guts to say exactly what he thinks.

Another poster tucked away in an office reveals a prison mentality setting in at Aperture around this time, as the test subjects are forced to continue participating against their will. When robotics and AI become advanced enough to take over most of the operation of the Enrichment Center, the bulk of Aperture's human workers are forced into testing as well. But even Aperture's sentient robots are treated with the same disposable attitude, the Turret Redemption Line awaiting any turret who no longer furthers the cause of Science.

Above: The gears of capitalism are oiled with the oil of sentry turrets

Perhaps the creepiest but most insightful part of the Redemption Line is the very end, where the machines are cast screaming into a giant grinder. Wheatley reveals that they are sentient and feel pain, an acknowledgement that he and GLaDOS take a certain masochistic delight in their suffering. After all, they designed the system and could have just as easily made the turrets' demise painless. Again Portal 2's subtext reveals that capitalism, whether industrial or information based, is inescapably rooted in exploitation and suffering.

Virtual goodness?

The communication and cultural studies book “Digital Play” (Kline, Dyer-Witherford, de Peuter; 2003) makes the case that video games are the ideal post-Fordist commodity because they so perfectly embody the technological, economic and cultural dynamics of information capital. The global explosion in the virtual goods economy reinforces this idea. Valve proved without a doubt that they were ahead of the curve when they launched Steam in 2003, and are now tinkering with another method of magically turning bits into dollars. 

Enter Portal 2's Robot Enrichment center, in which players can buy little hats for their co-op avatars. The virtual goods for sale are purely superficial and don't affect gameplay, and the great thing about selling little graphics is that they're really cheap to make and distribute. The markup is immense, so you don't even have to sell very many units to make it a worthwhile experiment.

Above: These are worth exactly what people will pay for them

Valve has already made a fortune by spearheading the digital distribution of games, and will almost certainly turn big profits with their virtual goods store, just as others adept at manipulating the knowledge economy already have. But is the buying and selling immaterial objects the way out of the economic crisis? Is this a stable enough foundation upon which to build a recovery? Economists have suggested that the “bubble economies” of the last 20 years have masked a much more insidious trend that has been laid bare in the recent financial meltdown. The perpetual innovations brought on by the information economy are accelerating the accumulation of wealth for a tiny minority while the middle class is being systematically wiped out.

So what do we, as digital citizens in the information society have to look forward to? For most, dispossession and servitude like all those poor souls stuffed into freezers at the Enrichment Center (i.e., work in the Service Sector.) And for a lucky few, unimaginable riches and power. But it's also a cautionary tale – if we're not careful, we'll innovate ourselves right out of existence and Aperture's fate will be ours. Part of avoiding that catastrophe is understanding the true structure of the information economy, the length and breadth of our participation in it, and developing strategies to avoid dispossession by the ever-ravenous machinery of capitalism. Like not pissing money away on hats for robots, for example.

Don't get me wrong, Portal 2 is an amazing game with a fantastic story, and Valve duly deserves to be rewarded for producing it. But we also need to apply some critical thought to the shape of the information economy and its latest scheme, virtual goods. We should take a good look at what we're giving up and what we're getting in return, to make sure we understand the consequences.

May 25, 2011

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  • ernesto-romero - March 4, 2013 3:59 p.m.

  • TheRealJoeMcNeilly - June 1, 2011 12:21 a.m.

    @FinderKeeper LOL, you're absolutely right of course. This kind of writing exists in a weird space between pop culture and academia, I don't really know anyone else doing it. I made the conscious decision not to fill it with footnotes and citations (nice to be able to make my own rules)... except for the one, because I figured anyone who read that far and was still interested would be into that book. @nee50n Great comments, thanks for moving the conversation forward in a thoughtful and intelligent way. Can't wait to read some Zizek, sounds like just my kind of thing. Don't have time for a proper thoughtful reply right this moment, but i'll try to post again later tonight.
  • FinderKeeper - May 31, 2011 7:52 p.m.

    What, no footnotes? Only one outside piece of literature cited? Then it isn't really an academic view... C'mon Joe, we know the full version of this must be replete with the various accoutrements which no self-respecting academic would omit from his oeuvre; surely you must've used the words "unpacked" and "embedded" in your discourse? ;-) RECAPTCHA: maingibi pig-flesh o.O
  • nee50n - May 31, 2011 1:27 p.m.

    Hi nathstyles, From my point of view, my comment below attacking the idea of equally valid opinions was not aimed at your early comment; my exaggeration of the point was perhaps more for arguments sake (although that is not to say I don’t agree with the statement). In reality a lot of it is about getting the balance right – so you are correct. The notion of assimilating opposition is quite apt here. For example, Post-Modernist philosophy while initially radical (and even at its peak purported to be radical) was a perfect fit for post 1970s world. Not only did it dismiss grand narratives (and therefore curtail opposition to the system) but its belief in multiple perspectives (ie all opinions are equally valid) and individuals creating their own definitions of themselves (so where you shop is who you are) worked extremely well for Capitalism. The problem for those who argue there is more than subjective experience, they are accused of being elitist and that their universal demands will ultimately lead to death camps. I think this tradition of thought has engendered an anti-intellectual dismissal of theory. Interestingly have you come across Gramsci? (he was pretty big among cultural critics years ago - although they mostly took away his revolutionary essence). His notions of common sense (ie, standard ruling ideologies and reactionary unquestioned facts which people accept) and good sense (where you question these dominant ideologies and develop a critical approach to understanding your world), is quite a liberating approach.
  • nathstyles - May 31, 2011 9:08 a.m.

    Shiiit i keep using the wrong words in my comments - I meant 'didn't mean' not 'did' and as I see 'opinion' has reared it's ugly head in Joe's last comment, I'm regretting that one again. As my last involvement in this thread (God knows I've never even commented this much on anything) I would just like to try and explain what I originally meant. Analysing anything from a computer game to the end of western dominance relies heavily on the author's own ideas, knowledge and sometimes, as is prevalent in this thread, the theories of others. The application of these factors to the proven facts or clear evidence will vary from person to person and therefore different theories emerge. Scepticism towards any theory (when not blindly or subconsciously anti-intellectual) is healthy and often constructive. I think there can be validity to multiple theories and no that does not mean I think all theories stand equal. But the way in which the hierarchy of validity forms will be subjective, even to individuals that consider themselves totally objective. For example, my priority is the evidence within the game whereas for others it is the coincidence with theories they have read and agreed with. On a last note I have to take it back on subject and stand in awe that as Portal 2 tries to make us discuss our value in the information economy, even the theorists as well as the haters are all gladly submitting and commodifying (not a word)our views and personalities within it. Oh well, what can you do? (insert ironic sarcasm here) P.s. love the end of Tom Goulton's comment thanks for pointing me at it.
  • nee50n - May 29, 2011 5:54 p.m.

    "Techno-utopians believe that new technologies are empowering people, strengthening democracy and creating economic opportunity. " A good example would be the huge amount of time and effort given in the press to Twitter with regard to the Arab Spring uprisings - to the point that the people throwing off the shackles of oppression were kind of background event to the real story (a similar exaggeration can be found on the left with the role of the internet and the Zapatistas movement). One news report I watched during the Egyptian revolution - when all communication and mobile phone signals were cut - argued this would be a death blow to the uprising. In a way, is this the most exaggerated example of what you describe! The question I have regarding a critique/self critique of information capitalism in Portal 2 - is the extent to which it applies to capitalism per se, rather than capitalism specifically in the developed world? For example, I recall, when they released Half Life 2 many years back - the backdrop for the game was a kind of dystopian Eastern European country. In an interview, I remember either Gabe Newell or one of the designers discussing that after the fall of Stalinism, there was huge optimism and hope of a better future in Eastern bloc countries, but then the realities of capitalism set in and hope was destroyed. While Half Life 2’s setting is Eastern Europe – Portal 2 and Apperture Science is clearly set in the US. If the Eastern Europe hasn’t lived up to its potential, the US is under increased threat economically. Maybe it signals an anxiety in developed Capitalist countries regarding the dominance and reliance of financial services and information economy to their financial wellbeing (particularly regarding recent events). So rather than being about monopilisation of wealth and information which leads to our destruction (certainly I would argue that this is a trait of Capitalism), in this case, it’s about the opposite – the loss of power. I seemed to have missed some of the brief Black Mesa references during the game, but are they not regarded simply as a competitor – effectively in the same situation? Message: US capitalism is in trouble. While manufacturing still plays a huge part to the total output of the US, it has been (if somewhat exaggerated) publically considered to be struggling. By contrast, the big emerging markets (China, India and Brazil) are heavily reliant on old style Capitalism and the US debt crisis (in particularly what it owes to China) threatens to bring the house down. For example you say “Aperture's shift from industrial production (Aperture Fixtures) to research and development (Aperture Science) in 1947 reflects the cultural and economic transformations prevalent in our society after World War II.” The key words here are “our Society”. The reality is that industrial output is at is highest level ever – it’s just not (at least believed to be) in “our society”. This is a realtiy check. Since moving to Capitalist production, China has ironically become a workers state. Chinese workers are the working class of America! If Steam are selling little virtual hats –rather than inviting you to take part of in your own doom, are they not exposing the flaw in the prospect of information capitalism in the developed world. As you say it is meant as being ironic, but are they not saying, “this is the best we’ve got” (although clearly Valve do have better). The American Century is well and truly over could be an alternative message from the game.
  • TheRealJoeMcNeilly - May 29, 2011 6:18 a.m.

    I'd like to take a stab at explaining the end of the article, as I kinda rushed through the conclusion. Here goes... Techno-utopians believe that new technologies are empowering people, strengthening democracy and creating economic opportunity. That may well be true, but this isn't even remotely the viewpoint presented in Portal 2. Robots have taken over, and human life has been utterly commodified and devalued. That's not my opinion, that's simply a description of the scenario. Information capitalism is the engine driving us toward this dystopian end. Virtual goods are an ideal commodity for information capitalism, therefore further its goals (monopolization of wealth/information), therefore move us closer to the endgame in which we're all meat popsicles awaiting the test chamber. The robot store, then, is an ironic, self-aware acknowledgement that Valve is selling you a piece of your own doom. The system's greatest strength, as Tom Goulter pointed out in his comment, is its ability to commercialize and assimilate opposition. Let me reiterate that I'm not hating on Valve for including the aptly named Robot Enrichment. I'm trying to contextualize the hat store, as part of the Portal 2 experience and within the greater social and economic trends of our time. That the game harmonizes on so many levels is a testament to Valve's enduring genius. Finally, a quick word on overthinking. It's easy to look at Portal 2 and go, “Hey, cool, there's some Greek mythology references, aren't Valve clever?” and leave it at that. My article tries to go deeper and dig into the meaning behind those references, because therein lies the real value of the work. It's the difference between saying, “Hey, this car is blue and so is that one,” and saying, “I have a blue car because my father taught me how to drive in his blue car, and and I want to be reminded of him and the life lessons he taught me every time I see my car.” See the difference? OK, enough gams jarnlzim for tonight...
  • nathstyles - May 28, 2011 3:30 p.m.

    @nee50n In the context of all the analytical minds this article has brought out, perhaps 'opinion' was the wrong word to use - I did mean it to sound derogatory to the arguments made in the article, just a simpler way of saying 'theory'. And as for the objective truth in this art, maybe Valve are the only ones that can truly know the answer, but as you say it is fun to be along for the ride when the interpretation is as well evidenced as it is here.
  • silentflame666 - May 28, 2011 12:51 a.m.

    @nee50n Thanks mate, I haven't seen the film yet, but Zizek is surprisingly serious and cogent in this little clip, and it compels me to watch it. The graffiti shown between 1:49 - 2:05 has a similar flavor to those of Ratman's (to bring the topic back), which in turn shares some stylistic similarities to the works of Bansky. At the very least their graffiti functions very similarly in their worlds: as vehicles of criticism and resistance, and at times, despair and frustration.
  • nee50n - May 27, 2011 9:14 a.m.

    @silentflame666 Fantastic. Interestingly I always thought the film Children of Men felt like playing a video game. So this may be the closest we will get in terms of Zizek with this brief reivew of the film (sorry to take off topic).
  • Thequestion 121 - May 26, 2011 11:17 p.m.

    Holy crap, that was a good article. The amount of social commentary that Valve packed into Portal 2 is astounding.
  • silentflame666 - May 26, 2011 11:15 p.m.

    @nee50n: Hello there fellow Zizek fan! If Zizek played games he would certainly talk about Portal 2, but perhaps also games like CoD and Duke Nukem (wow, I'd pay to read that). These articles seem to fish out the theory crowd submerged on this website. "Does the drive to testing, a testing for testing's sake, as so meticulously constructed throughout the game, not immediately indicate that this little, friendly, moronic blue ball is a symptom of this world's ideology and is not to be trusted?" "The simple ideological construct behind the mechanisms of Demon's Souls is superficially Manichean, but Sisyphean in truth. White world tendency, black world tendency, white character tendency, black...whatever. You change the world configuration, but everything that moves is still an enemy (if not a potential one) and boss demons still gleefully kill you with one hit. Why? Because f**k you is why. That is Sisyphean."
  • inpathos - May 26, 2011 10:31 p.m.

    Would like to point out that Electra's complex is a Jung's theory, not Freud's. About the article, though, I didn't read it all - because I couldn't agree with ANYTHING (but the Prometheus thing and maybe some of the economy-related bits). Miming your style, I say: Don't get me wrong; the idea of making people think about videogames (or anything, actually) is great, and you guys deserve it for trying better than anyone else. However... I believe you're trying too hard to mix games and seemingly intelligent obscure theories, such as the ones presented in this article. We should remain critical and careful in face of such efforts. Maybe, a serious article about "What it felt like when playing Portal", theory-free, would be more successful and, even, more accessible.
  • SolarPoweredShitMachine - May 26, 2011 10:19 p.m.

    I think you're just looking at this waaaaay to deeply and overanalysing what is simply meant to be a comedic game.
  • nee50n - May 26, 2011 7:57 p.m.

    @onewingedantista well apologies for bad grammar and spelling (actually that's a lie, it's an internet forum and I was in a rush. I believe Freud would call your agitation with spelling and grammar, displacement!). However, generally glad you found the logic moronic. However, I disagree with the notion it is all just opinions as a kind of post-modernist justification for anti-intellectualism. “This is my opinion and is equally valid as your opinion”. It is simply not true that one opinion is as valid as another, whether that opinion is a minority of one or accepted the world over. The idea that we should celebrate pluralism in all its guises is mistaken. Contradiction and conflict are far more helpful in a discussion/debate – so glad you are blown away (albeit it utter disbelief at my logic – which I can only put down to my poor spelling and grammar). If all art criticism is complete and utter bullshit, then art itself has no function or meaning above say something colourful on the wall. Art is interactive and through this interaction we interpret, judge and criticise. It is fine to think that art criticism is bullshit, but it doesn't mean your opinions should be validated. In the same way it’s fine to think that the Mona Lisa is just oil spilt on canvas. There can be such a thing as objective truth, even in the arts. While most of us will never find it, it’s worth going along for the ride (even if it means relying on well researched articles to guide us).
  • lovinmyps3 - May 26, 2011 7 p.m.

    Well done. It felt like you were over thinking it a bit but that's what these kinds of essays are for.
  • Zeb364 - May 26, 2011 6:48 p.m.

    I loved reading this article and enjoyed all but the last paragraph. Not that I disagree with it per se (nor am I saying I agree for that matter) but it just seemed really out of place to me. It sort of "came out of left field", as it were.
  • Zanthis - May 26, 2011 4:18 p.m.

    This is one of the best articles I have read in a long time. Thank you for providing such a good analysis of Portal 2 and for fully explaining every point.
  • onewingedantista - May 26, 2011 4:07 p.m.

    @nee50n Wow, poorly spelled, bad grammar, AND moronic logic! My mind is blown! @nathstyles Yes, it is all opinion. That's why I consider art criticism (from everyone) complete and utter bullshit.
  • nee50n - May 26, 2011 12:41 p.m.

    "Will never understand the anti-Capitalism chants from people..." Unemployment and Inflation Are not caused by immigration Bullshit, come of it The enemey is profit

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