• scottbdejong

Social Class as Game Difficulty: Invisible Fist

With immediate reference to capitalism’s invisible hand, Invisible Fist is a game that has social class at its core. Through its mechanics and playable characters the game is commentary on the role of social positions on one’s ability to succeed in life. The game offers three progressively unlocked characters which exist as stereotypes of different socio-economic positions. Unlike most games where players gain power and defeat increasingly powerful enemies, Invisible Fist uses downward class mobility against the same enemy to make a commentary about late stage capitalism. Procedurally and humorously, the game makes social class the difficulty meter.


Core Gameplay Mechanics

Gameplay reflects two months (8 weeks) of a character's life. You fight through each day, battling against the notorious invisible fist. Classified as a roleplaying card game, you gradually build up a deck of cards that reflect your character’s class position, progress through a narrative about your life/work and, hopefully, defeat the Fist. Your arsenal of cards is separated into four main types:

  • Work cards reflect your character’s day to day tasks and typically cause you stress (a negative factor on your character) in exchange for harming the Invisible Fist.

  • Relax cards help alleviate the stress from your work day, helping you balance out the hard work of fighting the Fist.

  • Importantly, the Fist doesn’t just sit there and take your punches, it hits you back. To help you gain some life back, sleep cards give your body a chance to rest and heal back some of this damage.

  • Finally, special cards are obtained through the game’s story where your character can choose to participate in activities to earn them. These cards are specifically related to your character's relationships to others that reaffirm or poke fun at your class position. For example, the billionaire gets cards about vacationing from their rude mother, the university student gets special cards to grow weed from their dealer, and the factory worker gets a card about taking heroin from an addicted sexually aggressive co-worker.

Figure 1. Image describing the card aspects

To survive and win, players must balance their characters mental and physical health with relax and sleep cards while weaving in damage against the fist with work cards. Two of the characters also need to make money through work cards so that debt does not lead to further stresses. Like other card games, each card has a cost. Unlike the classic card game costs of mana or land, the Invisible Fist must be defeated with time. You are fighting against the limits of a 24 hour day.

Success is indicated through achievements represented as stars. Typically, at the end of each week you get one star for not dying, a second if you reduce the fist’s health bar to zero, and a third if you successfully complete the fight’s randomized quest goal. Your battles with the fist impacts your character’s quality of life. This can be the difference between your character finding food to eat, dealing with sexual harassment at work, surviving the school semester, or successfully launching their newest product. Each character’s story is different, but they all must succeed in beating the Invisible Fist.


Characters:

The game offers three characters each unlocked after a successful run (earning at least 20 out of 25 stars) against the invisible fist. In order the characters are:


Figure 2. Game descriptions of the three playable characters.
  • Jeff Whiz - The ‘filthy rich’ college dropout is struggling with social anxiety as he prepares to unveil his newest technological AI.

  • Rena Bennet - The ‘bisexual stoner’ who is studying a “meaningless liberal arts degree” while trying to balance paying their bills/tuition and survive life stresses through drugs and spending money.

  • Dian Hua - An uneducated yet “ambitious as hell” factory worker who dreams of making it big in the spotlight while struggling to make ends meet.

It is no coincidence that the playable characters progress from a white wealthy male to a poor woman of colour. These class positions, which dictate the difficulty of the game, reflect the economic, social and cultural challenges that different individuals face when trying to climb the ladder. While getting a high enough score to advance via Jeff is already a challenge, attempting to even survive the 2 months is nearly impossible for Dian.


Humour/Gender/Race: Satire as Frame

Figure 3. Screenshot of game's satirical announcer

Invisible Fist attempts to use satire, alongside its serious rhetoric, to poke fun at, engage with, and make an argument about late stage capitalism. However, the joke does not always land. Player choices and character progression is constantly narrativized and mocked by a play-by-play sports commentator. The announcer and your cards are meant to satirically poke fun at the class disparity, stereotypes and challenges at play. Yet, the game comes off with a “sorry not sorry” tone that quickly borders on offensive. The announcer's remarks and the relatively preset nature of player decks presents each character predicament as reality, blaming the character for the struggles they are having. Even if it is all in good fun, this framing has larger repercussions when we consider the gender and race of the poorer characters, Rena and Dian.

Figure 4. Three of Rena's work cards

Both female characters need to play work cards that generate some form of revenue in order to avoid debt and pay for the stresses caused by life. As a young college student Rena has 3 ways to make money: participate in the gig economy, grow and sell drugs, or engage in various forms of sex work (Figure 4 shows two of these). The latter ranges from streaming naked, having a sugar daddy, or posting lewd pictures online. Initially all of these cards seem like viable options to play, however in order to succeed in the game some cards are much better than others.

As the game gets harder, players have to be more careful in how they manage their character’s stats. This means playing cards from your deck that have the highest value payoff (i.e. most damage, most health restored or most stressed reduced). For Rena those cards involve sex work. From an efficient play perspective, the sexist “Playing on Twitch Naked” is one of her most efficient cards. It deals damage to the fist, makes her much needed money and only takes 6 hours (which is short compared to other work cards). While it does generate a small amount of stress, the money it makes easily pays for the relax cards needed to offset this. The value tied to playing this card makes it almost impossible to ignore if the player wants to succeed with a perfect score. Players could go into debt and attempt to play other cards such as “All-Nighter”, however the repercussions of not having money and taking out a large portion of your day means that Rena will struggle to deal with stress and potentially deal with serious mental health issues (One instance is suicidal thoughts which has a random chance to immediately kill your character - Figure 5). When playing as Rena, the game is telling players that in order to get ahead, to truly succeed, the option to engage in sex work becomes a necessity rather than a player decision.

Figure 5. Example of mental health challenges caused by high stress and debt

While the player-as-Rena still has a chance of beating the fist, playing as Dian feels like a struggle to even survive, let alone be victorious. Rather than beating the fist, most games are spent patching up its onslaught by counteracting the stress and health repercussions that Rena’s own actions and the fist place on her. Earning stars is especially gruelling, particularly when many of her special cards cost stars (rather than time) to provide much needed actions for survival (i.e. deal double damage to the Fist by taking heroin or earning a bunch of money by robbing someone). If you want to make it through the 8 weeks, every action you take holds a risk over the state of Dian’s life.

While the game is allegedly making a statement about the impossibility of getting ahead in this kind of service role, its reliance on reductive and crude stereotypes often undercuts the points it tries to make. For example, Dian’s aspirations of stardom are presented as an unachievable joke layered over top of sexual harassment claims at work and a toxic relationship with her crack addict co-worker. The game presents these situations as unchangeable for Dian, and its attempts at humour fall flat at the barrage of sexism Dian appears to face. Success is a fallacy, where your cards and narrative progression always feel sour. This is seen narratively when Dian is trying to deal with a coworker who is inappropriately touching her and other female employees. If Dian “succeeds” she reports them, only to be informed that they have been transferred to another department where they will continue their actions on other women. This sour taste transfers into gameplay, seen prominently when Dian gets a special card that when played earns her an achievement star. This seems amazing until you realize it takes 25 hours to play, a near impossible feat in your turn of 24 hours. In both story and gameplay players are told “sorry not sorry”, success just isn’t there for you.

Survival seems to become the only method of success for Dian. In my own playthroughs I never “won” as Dian, but I did survive 8 weeks. To do this, I had to forgo balancing her mental health, instead consuming opioids whenever I got the chance. By the end, Dian was severely in debt, dealing with five different mental health afflictions, and I was only successful in running out the clock against the Fist instead of actually defeating it. In these playthroughs I felt forced to accept help from her sexually inappropriate coworker Mitch, and completely ignore my dreams for stardom while I consistently used heroin to make it through each week. I did not feel victorious. I had no stars, a bleeding healthbar, and a menagerie of mental health afflictions, but I had somehow survived the Invisible Fist. Reflecting on this, my player choices made Dian’s life much worse than before I took control. The jokes being made and the stereotypes that were placed upon the character further soured my experience, where I left the game feeling frustrated with its problematic tone and description more than the gameplay.


Conclusion: Gameplay/Difficulty/ Social Class

Figure 6. Jeff's card on the left, Dian's on the right

If we reflect on the game’s progression from billionaire Jeff to factory worker Dian, class position frames difficulty. As you progress from wealth to poverty you watch your cards either take more time, harm your character more, or provide less protection from the invisible fist. Figure 6 compares Jeff and Dian’s relax cards where the narrative and consequence of the card is clearly referencing a class stereotype. As you move down the socio-economic ladder you lose choice, the cards text reference more personally harmful acts, and your play moves into a desperate struggle to just make it through the week.

Playing for success, means playing a specific story (based on cards selected). Very quickly, success in the game becomes less about what you want as a player and what will be effective in defeating the Invisible Fist. Class success becomes meritocratic, where “perfect play” equates beating capitalism and reaching one’s dreams. Satire exacerbates these arguments and leaves players offended or shocked. As you master the game, play feels less and less rewarding, where the difficulty of class mobility attempts to showcase how class position impacts one’s life. It is unusual for games to have players get weaker as time goes on. For players and scholars we should think about our expectations for success and growth as we play games. When we think about social class, Invisible Fist asks us to think about our characters positionality and how that might impact the story. While the game definitely has problematic elements, it does prompt questions about social class, stereotypes, player expectations, and design intent. I left the game frustrated, but my reactions stuck with me and perhaps that was the goal of the design all along.

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