gameZ & ruleZ conference
October 20-21 2022
Walter Benjamin concluded his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1935-1936) with the diagnosis that society stood at a crossroad: art could become political and/or politics could become aestheticized. The latter option would inevitably lead to friction, violence, and destruction. History tells us that his warning turned out to be prophetic. Keeping in mind that Benjamin used the term “art” as a synonym of what we would call popular culture – first and foremost, cinema –, in this talk I will argue that today we stand at another crossroad. Perhaps the most prominent manifestation of contemporary popular culture, video games, are becoming increasingly politicized. At the same time, politics are becoming “gamified”. What are the stakes? What kinds of scenarios might these tendencies lead to? This talk provides an overview of the video games-politics nexus, exploring such topics as the politics of video games, the relationship between political propaganda and gaming, the increasing politicization of gamer culture, and more. Plenty of examples and case studies will be provided that hopefully will lead to a fruitful conversation.
Matteo Bittanti’s academic research focuses on the cultural, social, and theoretical aspects of emerging technologies, with an emphasis on their effects on communication, visual culture, and the arts. His approach is interdisciplinary, connecting media studies, game studies, visual studies, and art history. He is an Associate Professor at IULM University where he teaches courses on media studies and game studies. Since 2019, He has been on the Board of the Doctorate program in Visual & Media Studies at IULM University, Milan. He lives in San Francisco and Milan.
Matteo Bittanti: Hello and thank you for inviting me to this conference. I’ve been a fan for many years, and it’s a great pleasure and honor to be here in Zurich.
Today, I would love to share some insights about the relationship between politics and video games, the main theme of our latest collective editorial project Reset. Such a relationship is far from straightforward: in fact, we can talk about the politics of games, politics in games, politics with games, and so on.
I would like to begin by sharing one of my favorite quotes from Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan. In his 1964 book Understanding Media, he wrote that “the games people play say a lot about them” which is to say, if we want to understand how a society works, identify its core values and beliefs, we must pay close attention to its playful activities. I have been studying the relationship between video games and ideology, politics and entertainment for quite some time. But for this specific project, which began in 2020 and culminated with a 500 page book titled Game Over and was followed in 2020 by a 540 page book, Reset, the point of departure was the 2018 documentary American Dharma by Errol Morris, which is a long, often unsettling, conversation between the filmmaker and Steve K. Bannon, the infamous American media executive, political strategist, and former investment banker. As you may remember, Bannon also served as the White House’s chief strategist in the administration of the 45th President of the US, and specifically during the first seven months of Donald Trump’s term. Among other things, he was in charge of Breitbart News after the sudden demise of its founder, Andrew Breitbart, and is now the host of a popular podcast, The War Room.
Steve Bannon is a very interesting character. He calls himself a traditionalist. I don’t have time to discuss his philosophy, but I can recommend this excellent book to anyone who wants to know more about Bannon’s weltanschauung.
What I would like to do here instead is to show you a short excerpt from American Dharma and then discuss a couple of things:
For the record, I’m not the only one who is obsessed with this specific segment of the documentary, which focuses on the experience of Bannon as an investment banker in Hong Kong in the early Zeroes. In a recent profile published by The Atlantic, entitled “American Rasputin”, Jennifer Senior writes:
There’s a scene I keep looping back to in Errol Morris’s 2018 documentary about Bannon, American Dharma. Bannon is recalling his Hong Kong days in the 2000s, when he was working for Internet Gaming Entertainment. He notes how stunned he was to discover how many people played multiplayer online games, and how intensely they played them. But then he breaks it down for Morris, using the example of a theoretical man named Dave in Accounts Payable who one day drops dead.
“Some preacher from a church or some guy from a funeral home who’s never met him does a 10–minute eulogy, says a few prayers,” Bannon says. “And that’s Dave.”
But that’s offline Dave. Online Dave is a whole other story. “Dave in the game is Ajax,” Bannon continues. “And Ajax is, like, the man.”
“Now, who’s more real?” “Dave in Accounting? Or Ajax?”
This question is really about agency. It is less about ontology and more about praxis. It’s also about what counts for meaningful, impactful action. What matters, here, is who can do what to whom and to what effect? Who is in charge? Who calls the shots? Is it Dave or Ajax?
Now, in very general terms, an agent is somebody who has the capacity to act. Agency denotes the exercise or manifestation of this capacity, and so it’s related to the notion of intentionality, and to the ability to make a difference within one’s environment. Agency is opposite to the condition of feeling powerless and ineffectual.
Some scholars argue that agency rather than interactivity, is the quintessential feature of games, digital games included. For instance, in his book, recently published by Princeton University Press, Games. Agency as Art, C. Thi Nguyen suggests that games are a unique artform, in the sense that they are a medium of agency: they give players autonomy and the power of making their own choices. Alas, I don’t have time to discuss the intricacies of Nguyen’s fascinating book. What I wanted to say is that the more I read about agency, the more I became intrigued by Bannon’s question.
I started looking at statistics from the real world and the virtual world to make sense of a contingency that is becoming increasingly chaotic, opaque, unintelligible. At one point, I stumbled upon a conundrum, an interesting contradiction that I can summarize, for the sake of the time, as the antithesis between NEET and BJ.
Now, before we go any further, I would like to clarify that BJ does not stand for what you’re probably thinking about right now, but bear with me and I’ll break it down.
First of all, NEET is the acronym of “Not in Education, Employment, or Training”. NEET refers to a person who is unemployed and not receiving educational or vocational training.
The number of NEETs around the world has risen in the last decade, especially after the 2007–2008 financial crisis. There is, in other words, a significant part of the population who is not employed, who’s not in school and is not looking for a job or training to find a job. This is especially true in countries like Brazil, Greece, Italy, South Africa, and this is happening in the United States of America as well.
When I was looking at what NEETs do as they have so much “free time”, video game playing ranked as one of the most popular activities, if not the most popular. NEETs play a lot of video games: in other words, they do some kind of symbolic, simulated work within virtual worlds. By the way, additional data about NEET can be found in this report, the Education at the Glance 2022, published by the OECD.
Let’s now briefly discuss the second term, the BJ, which stands for Bullshit Job, hereby defined as a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious, that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that is not”. However, the “pointlessness of the work” questions the very meaning and purpose of their humanity “and creates a profound psychological violence”. I’m quoting from David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, which originated as an essay in 2013 and subsequently became a book in 2018.
In this book, Graeber, who unfortunately passed away in 2020, provides a detailed taxonomy of bullshit jobs. According to the scholar, almost 30% of existing jobs are bullshit, that is, a pointless waste of time. They make the worker feel miserable and they are a constant reminder that he or she has no real agency, no impact on their surroundings: workers just go through the motions, every day, until they retire or die.
In sort, there’s a contradiction between the NEET – those are are no longer looking for employment, not actively training to get a job and are not interested in education, and play a lot of video games because games give them meaning, agency, purpose, some kind of power and symbolic rewards – and the people stuck in BJs – those who are actually working but find their activity stupid, pointless, miserable. They also play video games because games give them meaning, agency, purpose, some kind of power and symbolic rewards.
Going back to the question posed by Bannon – i.e., Who is more real Dave in accounting? Or Ajax, the man in World of Warcraft?– it seems clear to me that it’s related to the broader discussion on video game playing as work, which has a long tradition within game studies and has been extensively discussed for the past twenty years. A new terminology has emerged to make sense of this phenomenon, which includes terms like playbour, coined by Julian Kücklich in an essay for Fibreculture Journal in 2005, but there are also concepts like immaterial labor introduced by Maurizio Lazzarato, free labor by Tizana Terranova, digital labor, platform capitalism and many more that are not strictly related to gaming. In his 2008 book Trigger Happy, Steven Poole observed that modern video games “seem to aspire to a mimesis of the mechanized work process.” We learn – or are disciplined by – the game’s rules and receive positive feedback for following them efficiently. “You didn’t play the game,” Poole writes, much less “beat” it. Rather, “you performed the operations it demanded of you, like an obedient employee. The game was a task of labour.”
If I had to pick one great contribution, it would be Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism, which provides useful insights to make sense of the diatribe between game and playing, amusement and capitalism. Alfie Bown is the Slavoj Zizek of game studies. He uses psychoanalysis to make sense of game playing while rejecting or ignoring the longstanding dichotomy between ludology and narratology. In other words, for Bown, games are not interactive narrative and they are not just rules and mechanics. Games are more like dreams as he argues in The PlayStation Dreamworld, which was recently translated into Italian.
In previous book, Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism, Bown suggests that there’s a strong relationship between games and ideology, especially capitalism. I’m simplifying here, but basically Bown argues that all video games operate in the same manner, even though gamers tend to distinguish between “real games”, such as Football Manager, and “not real games” like Candy Crush, which is a “casual” video game, played mostly on mobile devices and by a female audience. As you probably know, practices of legitimization, demarcation and distinction, in sociological terms, are always at play in video game culture, no pun intended. Mia Consalvo and Christopher Paul wrote an excellent book on the subject. But Bown says that no matter how they are perceived and discussed, all video games operate according to the same logic. Although one usually plays Candy Crush in the so called interstitial moments and in short intervals while she or he’s in a queue, on a bus, “to pass the time” as opposed to the full engagement required by Football Manager, which has a thriving community of passionate fans and often requires expensive devices like a personal computer or a powerful console, both Candy Crush and Football Manager are an antidote, a remedy for the frustration people feel in real life, a palliative for the their lack of agency. You play Candy Crush in your office instead of performing menial tasks on the computer to feel subversive, like you are sticking it to the man, but as soon as your boss enters the room, you switch to another tab, the dreaded spreadsheet, which is the supposedly “important, meaningful work” you must undertake. And so you do not question the stupidity of the job in the first place. On the contrary, this kind of pseudo–resistance – playing a silly game instead of working – ratifies the supposed relevance of your job. On the other hand, if you play a very complex game like Football Manager, a prolonged, longue duree kind of experience within the virtual world of professional football, you feel like your activities in the game matters more than your real occupation. Finally, you have agency. Like Candy Crush, this logic is effective if you are a NEET or an employee stuck in a BJ. In the case of Football Manager, the game provides the job and its associated symbolic gratifications that you don’t have IRL: heck, you may win the Champion League and gain social capital in your community. You are the man. You are an Alpha. It also works if you are trapped in a BJ: your daily activities in accounting may be sucking you dry, and the only reason you’re there is because you must pay your house mortgage, your car lease and save for college or cancer treatment. But at night, you are Ajax, or maybe you are the coach of the Ajax soccer team.
In short, Bown argues that beyond their superficial differences – aesthetics, mechanics, types of audience etc. – these two games are the same insofar as they provide similar gratifications, and they both keep us from becoming aware of the inner contradictions of our lives within a capitalistic system. Games distract us from the sheer stupidity of the bullshit jobs or the lack of purpose of the NEET lifestyle. We are playing games, so we have agency, albeit simulated. Our game life is more important than the IRL life because it provides “real” fulfillment and self realization. Instead of questioning our willing participation in the BJs, we simply take the money and we invest our “free time” to work as virtual coaches of a soccer team. After all, it was Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in her seminal essay “The culture industry” (1944) who suggested that, in a capitalistic society, “amusement” is just an extension of work, under a different guise.
So the question becomes “Who is more real, Dave in accounting or Ajax playing Candy Crush in his office instead of working, or playing football manager where he gets home after a day of inanity?”
Possible answers to this question were provided in the 2020 book Game Over Critique of Ludic Reason, whose title obviously references Immanuel Kant. Like most of my editorial projects, Game Over took the shape of an anthology of essays. It’s a collective effort because I’m more interested in presenting the reader a variety of points of view rather than imposing one single, all–encompassing but often flawed or insufficient explanation of complex phenomena.
If I had to hyper–simplify the main thesis of the book for the sake of time, I would say that the two main ideologies that inform video games are neoliberalism and cryptofascism.
Neoliberalism is the organizing principle, the conduct of all playful conducts, the underlying logic of gameplay and of the game industry as a whole. It frames the player as an entrepreneur, as an individual maximizing his/her gaming capital to make it in a hypercompetitive environment – and this applies to live streaming as well, so not only refers to video games but also game videos –; it presents virtual worlds as spaces with endless resources and infinite growth, gamification as religion, etc. In short, neoliberal values inform digital gaming as a whole. Many people naively think that videogames are somehow progressive, left leaning, but the very opposite is true. If cinema is the medium of modernity, the video game is the medium of postmodernity. Videogames are the byproduct of the neoliberal ideology: progressive politics and the progress bar are two distinct concepts.
The term cryptofascism refers less to the games themselves and more to the gaming community and gaming culture, contexts often marked by hypermasculinity, misogyny, homophobia, racism. As the contributors to the book argue, these spaces are much more open to right and far right values than to left ideas. They are not openly fascistic, hence the prefix crypto, but it’s really hard to miss the cues.
Now, far from being antithetical, neoliberalism and cryptofascism are instead complementary. I second Wendy Brown’s idea that autocracy is the necessary outcome of neoliberalism, its point of arrival. She develops this thesis in her two books Undoing The Demos, Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution and its sequel In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, The Rise of Anti–Democratic Politics. Video games perfectly exemplify this trajectory.
Game Over presents various case studies in which the coexistence of these ideologies is all but manifest.
For example, one of the most extreme cases on neoliberalism in games, Minecraft, which is examined by Daniel Dogan in an excellent essay entitled Digital Conquerors Minecraft, The Apologetics of Neoliberalism. I’m not going to discuss it now, because I know that the talk by Sjors Rigters is a detailed analysis of the game’s mechanics and its core values. I just wanted to say that the original game designer, Marcuss Persson, the founder of Mojang, the company that developed Minecraft before it was sold to Microsoft, has expressed, how can I say?, problematic political views on social media through the years, to the point that he is now considered persona non grata by Microsoft. I don’t know if you followed his Twitter feed in the past few years. Well, I’ll just leave it at that.
The same contradiction can be found in the message promoted by the most notorious evangelist of gamification, Jane McGonigal, who through a series of TEDTalk, transformed gamification from a marketing tool into the most powerful asset of Corporate America and Silicon Valley disrupt–everything ethos. Game Over features a brilliant contribution by Sarah Mason, then a graduate student at University of Santa Cruz, titled Chasing the Pink, also known as High Score, Low Pay. Why? The Gig Economy Loves Gamification, which cogently argues that all the ideas promoted by McGonigal are making our lives terrible. Mason is specifically referring to the gamified rules introduced by companies like Uber, Lyft, and the likes. But the same critique of gamification applies to every field in which it has been applied from education to health care, to nutrition to transportation.
The third example discussed in the book is another highly problematic character Palmer Luckey. Dave Harley explains the ideological underpinnings of Oculus, the virtual reality company founded by this young man, which was eventually sold to an even more problematic company, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, who has been trying to shove VR in our throats ever since. Luckey, the poster boy of virtual reality, now makes weapons for the Pentagon. He owns a company called Anduril, named after a sword in The Lord of the Rings. A big Trump supporter, Luckey exemplifies the relationship between gaming and a certain kind of politics, not to mention the military–entertainment complex discussed by many scholars, including Patrick Crogan and James Der Derian.
In Game Over, we suggested that there’s a straight line that connects GamerGate, a massive online harassment campaign against women, players, journalists, developers by gamers that took place in 2014–2015 and the January 6th, 2021 attack in Washington DC, when cosplayers, militia members, and Call of Duty fanboys stormed the Capitol to take over the symbols of democracy, reject the outcome of the elections, and hang one politician or two.
But the story continues. For instance, David DePape, the man who broke into the home of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a hammer and attacked her husband Paul Pelosi while shouting, “Where's Nancy?”, stated that he was radicalized by Gamergate.
One of the threads that connects Gamergate to the attack on the capitol and other acts of political violence in the US is the so–called replacement theory – or rather conspiracy theory – also known as the great replacement, which was originally disseminated by French writer Raynaud Camus. This white nationalist far right conspiracy theory states that with the complicity of French élites, white European population are being demographically and culturally replaced with non–white people, especially from the Muslim majority countries, the mass migration demographic growth, and dropping the birth rate of white European. This conspiracy theory, which emerged around 2010, was quickly applied to the American context where it was embraced and promoted by the likes of Fox News, one of the most powerful disinformation machines in modern history.
What is GamerGate if not a great replacement theory applied to the gaming community? The idea that white, male gamers were being replaced by women and minorities who wanted more diverse games ignited a violent backlash that culminated with death threats and constant harassment and eventually merged with and/or inspired other conspiracy theories as soon as the gamer community converged in the Alt–Right: Pizzagate and QAnon among others.
Interestingly, one of the first analyses of the January 6 2021 insurrection by historian Timothy Snider, published by The New York Times Magazine, uses the game metaphor to make sense of the attack. In The American Abyss, Snyder suggests that the Republic party is basically split into two factions, which he calls, respectively, “gamers” and “breakers”. He argues that the gamers are skilled players which “game the system” by exploiting all the existing loopholes. He cites the Republican Senate Minority Leader from Kentucky Mitch McConnell as the perfect example: he acts shamelessly and ruthlessly, supports gerrymandering and voter suppression, gets all his far right judges elected to the Supreme Court, but nonetheless adheres to the rules of the game. This explains why a minority party de facto calls the shots in America. On the other hand, the breakers who found in Donald J. Trump their hero, have the uttermost disregard for the rules. They only care about winning, even if that entails lying, intimidating voters, deliberately sabotaging the democratic process, disseminating disinformation, and relying on violent, vile language. If we were to use another game like–metaphor, we could call the breakers cheaters or even spoilsports.
But as Franco Bifo Berardi noted, this analysis is wrong. In fact, there is no real difference between gamers and breakers within the GOP: all Republicans are gamers who like to break the game. Maybe there are a few exceptions – Liz Chaney comes to mind – but the vast majority of Republicans are hard core gamers/breakers who are willing to do anything to take over.
This particular “gamer” attitude or identity is by no means limited to the United States of America, where it is undoubtedly spectacular, extreme, and over the top, like most things in America. It is no less severe in places like Brazil, where far right president Jair Bolsonaro received the full support of Brazilian gamers in 2018. He courted the gamers by sharing videos on YouTube and social media in which he shoots things on the screen with his plastic gun…
Now, the follow up to Game Over, Reset, goes even deeper in tracing and discussing the connection between video games, gamer culture, politics and ideology. The point of departure for this specific project was a seminal essay written by Walter Benjamin between 1935–1936. Benjamin was deeply concerned by the relationship between politics and art. For the record, his definition of “art” includes what we now call popular culture, like cinema and radio. As you may remember, in the last paragraph of “The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility”, the German philosopher saw the “politicization of aesthetics” (as well as art) as a possible antidote to the rise of the far right in Europe, namely Fascism and Nazism. Benjamin was afraid that they could use spectacular means of entertainment to advance their toxic ideas. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) comes to mind. Benjamin also mentions the Italian Futurists.
In Reset, we investigate the phenomenon of the politicization of video games and the gamification of politics. I am not going to discuss the latter in detail as I know that such a topic will be covered today by another speaker, Daniel Hackbarth and he’s going to illustrate the connection between QAnon and American politics, which is something that Jon Glover covered in Game over.
What I do want to say is that the gamification of politics is a complex phenomenon that has many ramifications. I specifically look at how politicians use Twitch for political propaganda. Consider, for instance, how Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio–Cortez used Amazon’s platform before the 2020 Presidential elections in two instances to advance left causes. She participated in a live stream of Among Us with other members of the so–called Breadtube, including Hasan Piker, ContraPoints among others. The stream was extremely successful and helped raise funds. The chosen game, Among Us, was also significant as it can be considered a metaphor of politics, or rather, the games that politicians play. It’s about deceptions and manipulation: a group of astronauts are trying to identify the impostors operating among them who are sabotaging the spaceship and even killing their peers. It’s hard not to think about the IRL impostors in the Democratic party, like Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Krysten Sinema from Arizona, who basically behave like Republicans, boycotting all the most important initiatives by President Joe Biden and their colleagues in relation to the environment, labor, the minimum wage and so on. But Manchin and Sinema are just the most recognizable impostors in a party in which deception is the standard operating procedure. AOC was able to use live streaming to engage voters, raise awareness about key issues in a non–didactic, pedantic way. At one point, more than 445,000 concurrent users watched the stream, which is quite remarkable.
But the gamification of politics also includes phenomena like transforming the elections into a game in which “players” questioning the legitimacy of the process are awarded “points”, as Sheera Frenkel writes in The New York Times to discuss emerging trends in the November 2022 midterms.
The title of my talk is “Playing Politics”, which is often used as a derogatory expression. It refers to the tendency to say or do things for political reasons instead of doing what is right or what is best for other people. Playing politics means acting for political personal gain rather than ethically.
It seems to me that everybody’s playing politics these days. Metaphorically, in the sense that politicians are notoriously unreliable when it comes to the common good. But playing politics also refers to the fact that politicians are playing games, literal video games, so the boundaries between, the seriousness of politics and the escapism of play have now become blurred.
By the way, there’s a great essay in the book entitled “Games and Rules Game Mechanics for the Magic Circle” (2018) that discusses NPCs, and there’s a sentence in particular that stuck with me: “Game metaphors in politics always signal dangerous developments. A dangerous transgression is taking place” wrote Gunter Hack before Brexit, before Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections. Hack was specifically referring to the NPC, which as you certainly know, is a gaming term to refer to non–player character, which is now used by the far right to indicate the normies, that masses that must be manipulated.
In Reset, I question alongside other contributors the idea there’s a clear opposition between political activism and escapism. It is obvious that gamers are extremely engaged with their games. They’re very active. This activism is not confined within the so–called magic circle, “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart”, that is separate from mundane activities. But this alleged separation is a fiction. You bring your values, your ideology to the gaming arena, and the ideologies that you encounter in the gaming arena follow you IRL.
In short, the ludic is political.
There’s “nothing” neutral about video games. There’s nothing “neutral” about play. The ludic is always political. Reset opens with two essays by scholars who re–interpret the foundational texts in game studies, Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga and Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois to bring to the foreground the political subtext informing their theories. The essays are “The Seriousness of Play: Johan Huizinga and Carl Schmitt on Play and the Political” by Alexander Lambrow and “Roger Caillois and Marxism. A Game Studies perspective” by Lars Kristensen and Ulf Wilhelmsson.
In the book, we also discuss the politicization of video games, a phenomenon concerning their production (think about the way the game industry operates, the glorification of crunch time as a lifestyle, the attempt to squash the workers’ efforts to create unions, the practice of outsourcing etc.) their consumption, that is, the way we play games, and how we make sense of them, the meanings we confer to game practices. Last but not least, the aforementioned politicization is manifest at the level of discourse, which includes the marketing of video games, fandom practices, discussions in forums, game journalism etc.
Just to give you an example of how we approached this multi–layered discussion, here are some of the contributions featured in the book. Consider, for instance, Hans–Joachim Backe’s “A Redneck Head on a Nazi Body. Subversive Ludo–Narrative Strategies in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus”, which provides an insightful critique of a well known first person shooter series. What makes Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus a particularly interesting case study is that its political message was explicitly mentioned by the publisher, Bethesda, whereas other companies that produce extremely political games rarely acknowledge their message. Ubisoft comes to mind. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was released shortly after literal Nazi were marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017 chanting “You will not replace us/Jews will not replace us”. In a sense, it can be considered a commentary on the normalization of fascism in Trump’s America. Clearly, as Backe writes, Bethesda used this message to market the game, but nonetheless, it did not shy away from recognizing the political nature of video games. The politicization we allude to is by no means limited to triple A productions, but applies to many independent titles as well. Perhaps one of the best examples is Lucas Pope’s Papers Please, which addresses the relationships between work and play, bureaucracy and bullshit jobs, but also the ethics of everyday life politics.
Another example is Perez–Latorre and Oliva’s “Video Games, Dystopia, and Neoliberalism. The case of BioShock Infinite”, which examines the contradiction between the game’s narrative and its mechanics. That is, between what you are told and what you actually do in the game. Such a bifurcation is something that you know really well as your entire program stresses the importance of mechanics, mechanics, mechanics in game design.
However, I would argue that the most political games available are not the usual suspects, the obvious choices, that is, the Call of Duty–like first person shooters, the hyper competitive, super masculine games, but racing games. Along with my partner in crime Colleen Flaherty, I’ve written about the politics of games like Forza Horizon 2, in which fossil fuels, petro masculinity, and climate change are addressed in political terms and dressed up in fancy visuals. I don’t have time to delve into the politics of Forza Horizon and racing games, but if you’re interested, I can point you to some of our work, which includes artistic and curatorial projects, like Travelogue, an exhibition I curated in Mantua, Italy in 2016.
Finally, the politicization of games is all but manifest at the level of discourse, and in the book this topic is addressed by Kristian A. Bjørkelo in his excellent essay “‘Elves are Jews with Pointy Ears and Gay Magic’: White Nationalist Readings of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim”, which explains how Stromfront users reinterpret a game that is obviously not fascistic in nature, i.e. Skyrim, through the lenses of white supremacy. Likewise, in “‘Elf Lives Matter’? The racial dynamics of participatory politics in a predominantly White fandom”, Stephanie Betz addresses the political discussion surrounding another fantasy game, Dragon Age. In both games, elves are generally interpreted as a proxy of marginalized and/or historically oppressed groups, like the Jews or African–Americans. It is often the case that the virtual battles fought within video game spaces become culture wars on social media. I would like to mention, en passant, that the fascination for fantasy novels, movies, and games by the Far Right is a known fact. Post–fascist Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s admiration for The Lord of the Rings, for instance, is well documented. Now, I would like to clarify that I am not suggesting that if you admire JRR Tolkien, you are necessarily a supporter of the Far Right. Nonetheless, I find this recurring correlation interesting. And it’s not limited to the fantasy genre, by the way. Blake Masters, a protegé of uber–libertarian Peter Thiel, uses a quote from a tabletop sci–fi game titled Eclipse Phase as his motto, that is “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it.” In short, I am really fascinated by how game–like metaphors and mechanics become part of the political discourse and actively shape our vision of the future. My point is that today, to fully grasp political agendas one must be fluent in game studies
Now, the theoretical frameworks that I’m using in my book to make sense of the relationship between gaming and politics come from these two books: The End of the End of History. Politics in the 21st Century, published by Zero Books in 2021, written by the Bunga Bunga Boys, aka Alex Hochuli, George Hoare, and Philip Cunliffe and Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, originally self–published in 2014 and then reprinted in 2018 in a gorgeous edition by San Francisco’s Stripe Press. I’m not going to spend much time discussing the former because I am running out of time. I’ll simply say that I agree with the authors that we live in an age of “anti-politics”, in which the very institution of politics is under attack. This contingency follows the “post-politics” time frame of the Nineties, with the rise of Silvio Berlusconi and the normalization of neoliberal politics.
I would like to spend more time discussing Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public because even though he does not explicitly address the relationship between politics and gaming, he does describe a specific figure or character of this turbulent age, an age marked by a crisis of legitimacy and systemic attack on institutions and authorities. Gurri calls this specific figure the nihilist, which makes his appearance as democratic governments, especially center–left democratic “are burning with failure” and there’s a “widespread perception that democratic politics are removed from reality and that democratic programs are drained of creative energy and therefore of hope”. Here I’m quoting verbatim from Chapter 8. But who is the nihilist? Well, the nihilist “is not a philosopher with an elaborate ideology or a political figure leading an organization”. He is somebody who’s reacting to the intense pressure applied to this environment and his goal is to destroy that environment.” He is technically savvy. Gurri calls the nihilist homo informaticus, basically, a geek. “He comes to live through its digital devices and networks”. “Being connected at all times, the nihilist is networked and what he wants to do is to create real time mayhem.” He’s not a normie, he’s a nerd, he has sectarian interests ranging from video games to Japanese anime to whatever. The nihilist “is morbidly monstrously against, and he imagines it would be happy if the society in which he lives were wiped out tomorrow”. I find it interesting that Gurri mentions Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011 because he hated immigrants and left politics. I don’t know if you are aware of the fact that Breivik, the nihilist, was a hardcore gamer. Before planning his attack, he spent several hours all day playing video games, especially fantasy games and first person shooters. In a stunning book entitled One of us, author Åsne Seierstad describes Breivik’s obsession for World of Warcraft. Let me read you this passage:
It was a good place to be. It was a perfect meritocracy. If you were skilful and alert, you rose through the levels. If you persevered and carried out your tasks, you reaped the rewards. Quite simply, you got what you deserved. There were no inherited qualities or privileges. You chose your class and your race for yourself. It was your skills, and how you used them, that carried you up the hierarchy and towards your goal. Everyone started from the same place, from the start. You made yourself exactly as you wanted to be. You gave yourself a name and a story. You could be a man or a woman. You could be a human being or a troll, a dwarf or an elf, a gnome or an orc. That was your race. Then there was class. You could choose to be a warrior, priest, shaman, hunter or rogue. Or you could be one of the mages [...] He gave himself the name Andersnordic. His gender was male and his race was human. His class was that of mage. Andersnordic was tall and powerful, with a menacing, greyish face.
Gurri argues that Breivik is “just a glimpse, a warning of more horrific possibilities”. And he goes as far as suggesting anybody could become like Breivik under pressure. After all, he is one of us.
I go back, once again, to Bannon’s question: “Who is more real, Dave in accounting or Ajax?”. Or: Who is more real? Anders Breivik IRL or Andersnordic in World of Warcraft, the fearless leader of a powerful guild?”
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that if you play World Warcraft sixteen hours per day, if you play Call of Duty non-stop, you will become a terrorist like Donald Trump argued in 2019. This is the classic argument used to deflect attention to the ridiculous gun control laws or lack of thereof in the United States. It is also the favorite talking point used by the National Rifle Association and its minions.
When Gurri wrote about Breivik being “just a glimpse, a warning of more horrific possibilities”, all I can think of is the phenomenon of the gamification of mass shootings, which has risen prominently in the past few years. There’s a rich literature on this topic, there are several well articulated papers, mostly originating from criminology rather than game studies. Examples include “Press F to Pay Respects”: An Empirical Exploration of the Mechanics of Gamification in Relation to the Christchurch Attack by S. Lakhani and S. Wiedlitzka; From cyberfascism to terrorism: On 4chan/pol/ culture and the transnational production of memetic violence by C. Thorleifsson; Playing for Hate? Extremism, Terrorism, and Videogame by N. Robinson and J. Whittaker and The El Paso Shooting and the Gamification of Terror by R. Evans.
All these contributions bring to the foreground the video game logic of recent mass shootings in the United States and elsewhere: not only their frequency is increasing, but the perpetrators are getting younger. And these horrific events feature game–like mechanics and gamified tactics, including the use of GoPro cameras mounted on the killers’ helmets so that they can livestream the attacks as if they were a first–person shooter, the goal of “maximizing the score” and break new records, real time feedback by the “fans” and so on. The shooters themselves are often the end result of a process of radicalization that begins in video game forums, image boards, and even on video sharing sites like YouTube, as Luke Munn writes in his seminal essay “The Radicalization Pipeline”, included in the book. As the scholar explains, far right conspiracies and hate speech circulate freely on social media because companies like Google and Facebook have absolutely zero interest in preventing or limiting their spread since that would hurt their bottom line. This explains why disinformation is so rampant these days. You might ask yourself: “How serious is this problem?” And the answer is that this issue is becoming more and more serious, especially in the United States, so serious that the Department of Homeland Security last September awarded almost $700,000 to study radicalization in gaming. At last, the Authorities are acknowledging the gravity of the problem.
If you are interested in watching a fictional account of this phenomenon, I strongly recommend The Hater, a movie directed by Polish filmmaker Jan Komasa, available on Netflix, which revolves around a former PR student who wrecks havoc with the aid of a nihilist, a radicalized gamer in a divided, highly polarized Poland.
What can be done to fix this problem? In the book, I point to the practice of counter gaming, a term coined by American scholar Alexander Galloway almost twenty years ago which refers to ways of playing against the games in order to highlight and simultaneously defuse their ideologies and political messages. I specifically look at Radicalization Pipeline by Greek artist Theo Triantafyllidis, a live simulation in which rioters confront each other in the streets of a generic American city, as a case study. In Radicalization Pipeline, characters kill each other until everybody dies. And then the scene resets and the fight restarts. It’s street fighting meets Groundhog Day. Why is Radicalization Pipeline an example of counter gaming? Because this is a live simulation, so it’s not interactive. There’s no agency here. You watch a scene that looks like a video game, in terms of aesthetics and mechanics, but you can’t do anything about it. You’re prevented from playing because in a sense, to play the game is to support its ideology, is to become an agent of destruction. It’s a very powerful work. In other words, in order to avoid radicalization, you shouldn’t be playing at all. Incidentally, this work was installed downtown Zurich at Dynamo as part of the DA Z digital arts festival. It’s a must see.
When it comes to further research, what I’m interested in right now are specific mechanics that support a far right ideology versus a more left lean ideology. I was inspired by this video by Joshua Citarella and Jacob Orbitz Goodman, entitled DKP is Market Socialism, produced by DIS ART. In short, Citarella suggests that you don’t necessarily need “leftist” games in order to advance “left” politics. Even a game like War of Warcraft can express, advance, and promote socialist ideas.
However, I’m a little skeptical because, as you know, Anders Breivik played World of Warcraft for up to 16 hours per day, and if there’s something that he hated, something that he wanted to destroy physically in the real world, was exactly left–leaning politics and left progressive ideology. So long, dragon kill points…
Anyway, this is just the beginning of my next research and I don’t know exactly where I am going to end up. If you have any suggestions on the politics of games at the level of mechanics, your area of expertise, please let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Ok, my talk is coming to an end. I began by mentioning Steve Bannon’s rhetorical question – “Who is more real? Dave in accounting or Ajax” – and I’m still looking for an answer. I think that both Dave and Ajax are real. Bannon co-opted the entire gaming community, which was already immersed in cryptofascist politics and got Donald Trump elected as the first meme-president in history. Not an easy feat. This is another reason why I think it is crucial to pay attention to video games. As game scholar T.L. Taylor often says, video games are the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to several societal phenomena, including politics. So, it’s not just escapism.
Games are political: today we're all playing politics.
Thank you for your attention: I’m ready for your questions if you have any.