Since Donald Trump won the US presidential election one year ago, the games sector has tried to work out how to use our medium to resist the rise of the far right. In March, Resistjam brought game developers together around the world to create consciousness-raising works of political art. Rami Ismail is one developer who has used his platform as a respected public speaker at games conferences to speak out against Trump’s discriminatory travel ban and elevate the voices of developers whose work has been affected. Games criticism outlet Waypoint’s remarkable first year included a week-long special feature on the prison-industrial complex.
One year on, it may now be a good time to evaluate the cultures of resistance that are growing in games. What does it mean to resist fascism with games and tech? How can the videogames and technology industries confront our role in fostering cultures of isolated young men who become radicalised? Does it still make sense to focus on videogames at a time like this?
Videogames and neoliberalism
“Duke Nukem’s Dystopian Fantasies” appeared on Jacobin on April 20th, marking a debut post for writer and artist Liz Ryerson on the leftist commentary site. In it, she makes the affirmative case for looking at videogames as historical and cultural artefacts while judging them on their own merits, and makes the connection between the male power fantasy the game embraces, the alienation people feel under late capitalism, and how that can translate into reaction without a coherent understanding of history.
“This is the power of the fantasy Duke Nukem as a cultural figure represents: that through raw machismo, the series of oppressive neoliberal forces that form the framework of our society can be conquered and transcended. Duke cannot exist in a rational world. He can only exist in a one filled with internal contradictions, crossed wires, and broken down buildings.
“His world is never stable. It can only ever be dominated by irrational fears of the unknown and one-dimensional, cartoonish archetypes. His world never resolves any of its cognitive dissonances, and sometimes even seems to be aware of its own self-destructiveness.”
For the most part, Ryerson’s piece received praise from leftist partisans whether or not they were particularly committed to videogames as a craft. But not everyone felt it was appropriate for a socialist journal like Jacobin to have published a close reading of something like Duke Nukem 3D.
someone woke up and thought that the socialist magazine needed an article about Duke Nukem and like 5 ppl agreed w that decision
— Merry Corgsmas Happy Corg-wanzaa Happy Channucorg (@GarlicCorgi) April 21, 2017
It’s not as if they’d ever previously published pieces on the art, culture and business of games or tech, to relatively little backlash:
- Les Simerables, Eva Koffman
“SimCity isn’t a sandbox. Its rules reflect the neoliberal common sense of today’s urban planning.”
- Empire Down, Sam Kriss
“The player in Age of Empires II doesn’t take on the role of a monarch or a national spirit, but the feudal mode of production itself.”
- “You can sleep here all night”: Video Games and Labour, Ian Williams
“Exploitation in the video game industry provides a glimpse at how many of us may be working in years to come.”
In my own experience occupying the art fringe of the videogame industry–which is admittedly a highly reactionary space–I’ve learned that while there are a lot of young people pouring a lot of energy into their craft, it’s easy to feel lonely and beholden to a lost cause. I’ve worked as a writer and small-time artist and developer for almost a decade, focusing primarily on indie and alternative development communities and agitating in my limited capacity for more of a spotlight on them, their histories, and the labour involved in them. My political activity outside of my work consists largely of anti-fascist organizing in my city–that means participating in teach-ins, free food events, as well as protests and counter-demonstrations against the far-right. This work is voluntary, but can sometimes feel much more fulfilling than my actual profession. It’s easy to feel like no one really cares about fringe technical arts because, well, most people don’t. If the industry’s flagship mainstream titles give us very little to seriously engage with, then why bother digging any deeper?Political critique of AAA games is a lot of work, for something juvenile at worst, and culturally peripheral at best. Click To Tweet
As the Jekyll that is liberalism has once again fallen into crisis and gives way to its Mr. Hyde that is fascist reaction, I’ve felt increasingly insecure about the nature of my work and why I chose it. I laugh nervously and tell people what I do is bullshit before going any further. Luckily, most of the people I’ve encountered while organizing, or even just through having had a political affinity online, have expressed genuine interest in the medium, the inner workings of our opaque and cloistered industry, and its potential as an expressive and communicative tool. Still, I have met those who think of things like social media as “inappropriate technology”, who automatically assume that anyone who has any interest in videogames is a pepe nazi, or who think of any engagement with new media as a cultural and political dead end.
That said, some of the most personally influential leftist thinkers I’ve come across are also writers, artists and academics in this incredibly weird field. More often than not we organize and march together. This is not an attempt to scapegoat anyone specific or to do as so many desperate thinkpieces did after the election and try to reaffirm the dubious political importance of games as an artform through headlines such as “Trump as Gamer-in-Chief”.
I don’t think that making videogames, no matter how fringe or alt, should be conflated with tried and true forms of street activism. Game jams about the immigration ban are not a form of direct action in the way shutting down a consulate or doing an hours-long sit-in at an airport are. Your app is not saving the world.
The dominant ideological expression of late capitalism is liberalism, or more specifically, neoliberalism. Liberalism prefers to try to diversify the middle class of the currently existing system, rather than try imagining something that might liberate greater masses of people. According to this view, capitalism fundamentally works, only needing a slight tweak here or there to make it more “accessible” to those who are deserving. A major way it seeks to accomplish this is by centering symbolic representation of various marginalized identities while also depoliticizing things like technological progress, framing them as inherently good and proof of societal advancement. All actual material concerns and real struggle can then be ironed away in favour of simply trying to optimize the level of participation for marginalized groups, as one would fiddle with a dial. This isn’t to say symbolic representation doesn’t matter, but to fixate on it strips us of the ability to think in terms of collective political power, and cultivate a real political program that fights for material improvements to people’s lived conditions.
Class politics of digital media
Media consumption doesn’t determine political outcomes, at least not in a direct sense, but it does help shape people’s political imaginations. Taking the time to unpack the media we consume can tell us a lot about the conditions of production–that is to say, the ways in which labour power is exploited in order to produce entertainment commodities. This may include the mining of cobalt to make computer hardware, or the manufacturing of consoles and other devices at Foxconn plants, or developers coerced into overwork in order to meet production quotas. There is a potentially international struggle of exploited workers even just when it comes to videogames, yet hardly a labour movement to speak of. That there’s hardly a union presence in the technical arts or in tech work broadly, and that these industries tend toward meritocratic, libertarian or even fascist thinking that tends to be expressed ideologically via their major cultural properties, is not an accident.
Conversely, if politics are the “art of the possible”, then media creation allows us to expand the conceptual scope for what’s possible. Most of the art we consume is conservative in character–even works we consider liberal or progressive are often deeply reactionary in their base assumptions. For example, David Grossman explains why diverse Brooklyn Nine-Nine can’t avoid being apologia for the NYPD, and why using progressive representation to paper over the faults of repressive institutions is indefensible.
Earlier this year, the Vera Institute of Justice polled young people in high-crime areas of New York, and found that only four in ten respondents would feel comfortable seeking help from the police if they were in trouble, and eighty-eight percent of young people surveyed didn’t believe that their neighborhoods trusted the police. Forty-six percent of young people said they had experienced physical force beyond being frisked by a police officer.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” tries to get around this problem by pretending the actual Brooklyn doesn’t exist.
Videogames in particular have their own sordid history of using diversity rhetoric as a way to deflect criticism of unwieldy, increasingly shoddy games produced under highly exploitative conditions, and reflect profoundly disturbing ideological tendencies (sometimes with the help of the arms industry or the U.S. military.) This has led some leftists to believe that the interactive arts as a craft are inherently reactionary and devoid of creative potential. I sympathize to an extent with this position, but having spent significant time in tech and games spaces, I believe these problems arise from the same historical conditions that render most art conservative, as well as specific ones owing to the opaqueness of the industry itself. I think these are things that can be overcome, not without some effort, and part of what keeps me interested in games is its creative fringe, where artists are finding ways to use the medium to capture as well as suggest alternatives to our current predicament.Videogames have matured entirely within the context of late capitalism and neoliberalism. Click To Tweet
Videogames have barely a labour movement to speak of, and are an appendage of the tech-libertarian culture of Silicon Valley. An important aspect of their heritage resides in engineers meddling with MIT military computers. They have never, in their production or conception, been entirely separate from the state or the military-industrial complex or from corporate interest, and as a result often exist as an ideological expression of these institutions.
Maybe this was unavoidable, the forces underlying the technical arts world too strong to ever be meaningfully opposed by a few dissenting voices, but I struggle to think of anything in the modern world for which this is not true. Maybe a game jam, or a book fair, or a block party should not be the centerpieces of our activism. These things have their place, but should not be confused for things like street actions (protests, counter-demonstrations against the far-right), grassroots electoral activism, coalition-building between social and economic justice groups, public disobedience (like the destruction of hostile architecture), accessibility and anti-poverty efforts, workplace organizing and so on. This work can be thankless and grueling, but it’s absolutely vital. Still, engaging with media and culture in a way that actually resonates with alienated people is a good way to let them know there’s something else available to them than resigned helplessness. Perhaps it seems like too much effort for too small and marginal a community, but going to any independent games site will bring up literally thousands of entries, much of it being made by people under the age of 30. Many of these people work multiple jobs while making their art for free or almost free, or work under precarious conditions (employment instability, contract work, etc,) and scrape by on crowdfunding, and many–as I’ve experienced both by playing their works and by actually building relationships with them–lean acutely left and hunger for more robust progressive spaces that reward creative experimentation, but often lack the time, energy or organizational guidance that would help them achieve those goals.
But even more broadly, more people play games than identify strictly as “gamers.” Plenty of people who do work in the industry recognize this term as a corporate invention, and don’t actually resemble the stereotype of the socially-awkward, emotionally stunted, self-pitying bourgeois recluses that so much of the industry has historically built its marketing around. While mainstream ideologies in the subculture tend to range from milquetoast liberalism to right-wing libertarianism to cryptofascism, quite a lot more people consume media like games, comics and even anime than are intimately involved with the worst elements of these subcultures. Snobbishly refusing to make any use of these “deviant” or “degenerate” new forms and reacting with hostility at anyone who tries to strikes me as missing an opportunity, and as needlessly ceding cultural ground to people we seek to oppose at every level.
Art as political response
Though GamerGate is nearly incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t been following it closely, it’s unusual in that it captured the attention of people who have nothing all to do with video games when it’s ostensibly preoccupied with whether certain online blogs have properly disclosed their writers’ ties to indie game developers. A recent post at Breitbart, however, helps to explain GamerGate’s appeal: It’s an accessible front for a new kind of culture warrior to push back against the perceived authoritarianism of the social-justice left.
Reactionaries–from bog standard republicans to the fractured jumble of fascoid revanchists that make up the so-called “alt-right”–have for a long time viewed nerd culture as part of the broader culture war. This is why Gamergate attracted conservative figures like Christina Hoff Sommers, Todd Kincannon and Milo Yiannopoulos (both disgraced), Paul Joseph Watson, Mike Cernovich and so on. I don’t think gaming or memes really impacted, say, the election, and I tend to think the way we talk about Gamergate–as though it’s the cause of, rather than a product of, the resurgence of the far-right–misses the forest for the trees. I don’t think leftist and labour activists ought to go out of their way to address these hard-identified gamers either. There’s no reason for us not to remain critical of the industry and the ideologies it reproduces.
But it’s obvious that this is a group that gets really anxious when they start to feel like they don’t have control over “nerd culture” anymore, and who have in many ways acted as shock troops to dissuade people from asking too many questions about the industry’s inner practices. In retrospect, there was an opportunity with Gamergate for those in and around the industry to really interrogate the relationship between its issues with labour and its issues with incubating angry reactionary nerds, and for the most part that didn’t happen. It couldn’t, because those who were most likely to suffer professional and personal attack weren’t organized, and still aren’t. It’s no wonder so many YouTube celebrities turn out to be fascists. Actually embracing those who work in or around these fields and who are desperately trying to inject a little grace and intelligence into the medium may help weaken that stranglehold. Not such a terrible idea considering how many kids are watching the likes of PewDiePie and JonTron.
— liberalism.txt (@liberalism_txt) August 8, 2017
We’ve seen this work to an extent: bots that tweet out liberal self-owns and dank communist memes can help bring together people who feel their concerns aren’t otherwise being articulated and addressed, and find if nothing else in this a bond with other like-minded souls. I don’t think these things are necessarily directly persuasive, but they do allow us to give voice to that which both invigorates us and that which causes us to despair.
— رمـــــــــــــــــــــزي ناصــــــــــــــــــــر (@ra) February 6, 2017
They’re also a natural consequence of a diverse mass of people all feeling the same disillusionment and disgust in their everyday lives, needing solidarity but also craving catharsis. Taking a second look at these commodities we mindlessly consume may not in itself be movement building, but it can help put things in perspective. (And if these things are in your estimation not meaningful, why waste time getting angry at the people who do find value in them, especially if those people are your comrades in every way that does matter? Don’t we value a diversity of skills and tactics?)
We know this can work with podcasts, publications, flyers, banners, zines, comics, and music, despite the problems endemic to all creative industries. Not only can these things let people know that in fact they aren’t alone, but they also give us an opportunity to craft a compelling alternative vision. Unfortunate though it is that the most visible videogames tend to express the vilest characteristics of the industry, certain indie critical darling games have proven that the same tools can be used to vividly illustrate the daily grind of making ends meet while working a minimum wage job, the dehumanizing procedure of immigration bureaucracy, or the desperate, soul-crushing banality of office work.
Games of labour and the avant-garde
- Richard Hofmeier Cart Life
- Lucas Pope Papers, Please
- Molleindustria Everyday The Same Dream
- The Tiniest Shark Redshirt
- Jake Clover Nuign Spectre
- micha cárdenas Redshift and Portalmetal
- Paloma Dawkins, Gardenarium
- Colestia Crisis Theory
Even more avant-garde works like Nuign Spectre or Redshift and Portalmetal use mixed media aesthetics to illustrate the grotesqueness of prevailing ideologies and conditions, while the dreamy work of an artist like Paloma Dawkins allows us to envision worlds which are seemingly impossible but nonetheless worthy of imagining. Colestia’s Crisis Theory subverts the tech world’s own obsession with Taylorism and systems, specifically using flow chart representation of capitalism to lay bare its inherent instability.
This isn’t to repeat the canard about games being more inherently capable of producing empathy than other art forms, or that we ought to focus on one art form to the exclusion of others. But I do think the exercise of ranking different art forms according to how sophisticated they are is inherently reactionary, arbitrarily limits the scope of expression, and constrains our ability to cultivate the new and different when it’s staring us right in the face.
As film critic Shannon Strucci pointed out in her video “why you should care about VIDEO GAMES”–which was made in response to the very attitude I’m describing–no conservative holdout in the history of the arts has ever been vindicated by a wholesale dismissal of a new form or movement as delinquent and therefore not worth engagement.
All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.
But this is just regular old art criticism. Not all art is or should be explicitly used toward political ends, and games are no different. Walter Benjamin famously warned about confounding aesthetic with politics, and how doing so creates space for fascism. Grossman’s piece mentioned above ultimately links the dopey neoliberalism of Brooklyn Nine-Nine to an underlying apologia for a racist police state; this sort of prioritization of representation and aesthetics is commonplace in liberal bourgeois rhetoric (the fixation, for example, liberal pundits have with condemning bigotry as being a “bad look” rather than being actively harmful in calculable ways). The tech world, too, is remarkably consumed with style over substance–it’s a world where rainbow capitalism and tokenism reign supreme while the oligarchs who run it not only would be too happy to work on behalf of fascist governments, but have in the past and are in the present.
In Ways of Seeing, art critic John Berger tracks the history of the reification of dominant ideologies through art, from colonialism to sexism to capitalism. Berger describes the nostalgic yearning for more “legitimate” forms of art displaced by newer technology as fundamentally reactionary and regressive, writing:
“The bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art, and which is ultimately dependent upon their market value, has become the substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible. Its function is nostalgic. It is the final empty claim for the continuing values of an oligarchic, undemocratic culture.”
How to use games politically
Suffice it to say, there is little in the history of games or the arts generally that should stop them from expressing reactionary tendencies. It can’t really be helped, after all, if art is to be a reflection of current and historical conditions. By extension, the most regressive elements of gaming culture tend to value only those games that functionally and aesthetically resemble classic games, and classical forms of art. If games are a reflection of an industry full of people who literally want to suck the blood of the young and think unions are a trick of the devil, that’s at least in part true because art forms that preceded them, like oil painting, are a reflection of an inbred aristocracy that believed in the divine right of the propertied classes to rule and thought that they were justified in pillaging entire peoples because of their superior skull shape. That doesn’t mean we ought to deny subversive art where it exists, and it’s a piss poor reason for refusing to support its cultivation in new forms which are as-yet barely understood.
I want socialist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-fascist art to exist anywhere art is being produced, even if it’s with computers, and especially if its core demographic is young people and kids.
Supporting bold, avant-garde and subversive art is a much bigger social project than simply using what exists toward political ends, but I think if we are going to use what exists for political ends it’s useful to think about how what we create can reconfirm our reality. It’s also worth pointing out that plenty of political art is embarrassing, ineffectual or just plain preachy. The same has been true for lots of “serious” games (maybe even some of the ones I listed above), which may be accused of being boring, simplistic, or worse at conveying their overall point than a book or article on the same subject. (I would counter that games should not try to be like articles or books, but more like paintings, where being simple and straightforward isn’t such a big deal. I would also caution that it’s possible to engage serious subject matter while maintaining a sense of humour.) Conversely, when political operatives try to make use of games–rather than game developers trying to portray current events–this also runs the risk of coming off as condescending, tin-eared and trite. For example, the Clinton campaign made use of a “game-style app” called Hillary 2016 that Teen Vogue described as like “FarmVille but for politics”.
— Emily Uhlmann (@emily_uhlmann) July 25, 2016
But I don’t think this is a bad way to approach politics because they used a game–it’s a bad way to approach politics because it avoids addressing constituents and answering simple policy questions. It betrayed a valuing of data over people that so many find bloodlessly reptilian about tech evangelism. Also, Christ does it sound boring.
A politically meaningful use of interactive art could mean the creation of workshops for marginalized communities, similar to the Skins Workshop for indigenous kids run by AbTec, a research network based in Montreal. Or, it could mean the kind of partnerships like the one Subaltern Games had with Jacobin to promote their game No Pineapple Left Behind, thereby using games as yet another way to engage people about issues like colonialism and capitalism in the global south. I’ve personally become recently involved with the Montreal collective behind Game Curious, an independent annual gaming showcase and workshop that seeks to bridge the gap between the medium, non-gamers, and radical activist groups organizing around real-world political struggles.
- Initiative for Indigenous Futures | Workshops: Bringing Aboriginal Storytelling to Experimental Digital Media
The Skins workshops aim to empower Native youth to be more than just consumers of new technologies by showing them how to be producers of new technologies.
- Subaltern Games | Jacobin sponsorship
“We are proud to announce that we will be collaborating with Jacobin Magazine to help promote our upcoming game, No Pineapple Left Behind. […]
Jacobin will tell all of the leftists about our upcoming Kickstarter campaign (even YOU). They are also providing copies of their book Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook as backer rewards.”
- Game Curious | Are you game curious?
“Game Curious Montréal is a free, 6-week long program all about games, for people who don’t necessarily identify as “gamers.” Sessions are two hours long and will provide an introduction to a wide variety of games, as well as open discussions and group activities, in a zero-pressure, beginner-friendly environment.”
Likewise, mainstream gaming symbolism can be subverted toward leftist messaging–the appropriation of famous imagery or characters for “bootleg” leftist art could be a means for engaging youth culture and kids. Even having something like a YouTube channel or Twitch stream to engage young people on their interests from a left perspective could help shape healthier, more progressive perspectives. And, although the use of incubators and game jams are not inherently radical, and in many ways benefit the industry by training new exploitable workforces, there’s still no reason we can’t sometimes use some version of them for social and teaching events in the future.Why should we use games to engage and give voice to people, when other art forms exist? Click To Tweet
There remains the question of why we should use games when we can use any other art form–and especially literature–to engage people on ideas and give exploited or marginalized communities more tools for making themselves heard. My answer may not be satisfying, but it’s this: why not?
I want to use all of these tools and more. I want to use whatever’s available to me and whatever works. I want to go wherever there’s movement and culture, and especially where there’s a mass of alienated, unorganized young people looking for an alternative. I see no reason to leave that on the table, or to throw fledgling modes of expression to people who post videos of themselves drinking a gallon of milk to prove their manhood and long for the Fatherland to cleanse itself in the blood of the degenerate races, or the corporations that love them.
Of course it means more to me because it’s my regrettable industry and subculture, and I don’t blame anyone if they read this and still can’t find it in themselves to give a shit. Still, these cultural properties aren’t going away, so we might as well engage with them. More than that, we can make good on the promise of so many oleaginous tech disruptors that Gaming is revolutionary in how it makes possible different and exciting new worlds. Isn’t a new world what we want?
- ResistJam brings game devs together against authoritarianism
- Your app isn’t helping the people of Saudi Arabia
- George Monbiot on neoliberalism (a fantastic article that both introduces neoliberalism to those unsure what the word means, and gives those who have been using the word for years an enriched perspective)
- Eleanor Robertson (2016) Get Mad and Get Even, Meanjin Quarterly
- Jonathan Ore (2017) “Viewer discretion advised? Your child’s favourite YouTuber may be posting offensive content”, CBC News
- Laura Stampler (2016) “Hillary Clinton campaign launches ‘Hillary 2016) game app”, Teen Vogue
The Gamer Trump Trope
- Patrick Klepek (2017) “The power of video games in the age of Trump”, Vice
- Christopher J. Ferguson (2017) “How will video games fare in the age of Trump?”, Huffington Post
- Asi Burak (2017) “Trump as Gamer-in-Chief”, Polygon
Labour issue examples
- Children as young as seven mining cobalt used in smartphones, The Guardian
- Chinese university students forced to manufacture PS4 in Foxconn plant, Forbes
Otto von Bismarck, Wikiquote
Prince Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898), was a German aristocrat and statesman; he was Prime Minister of Prussia (1862–1890), and the first Chancellor of Germany (1871–1890).
Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen.
Politics is the art of the possible.