We Can Win Gamers Over to Socialism

Steve Bannon sees video games as a natural terrain for the far right. But between unionizing game workers and increasingly political games, there's room for the socialist left in gaming, too.

Erin Perry / Flickr

In 2005, Steve Bannon developed a keen interest in video games. The future Trump strategist joined Internet Gaming Entertainment, a Hong Kong-based company that developed a scheme to make money off of the popular online game World of Warcraft. IGE employed Chinese workers for poverty wages to log on to the game and complete repetitive tasks that earned small amounts of in-game gold. The company then sold this gold to Western gamers for real money. Bannon raised $60 million for IGE, much of that money coming from Goldman Sachs.

This “gold farming” operation did not last long. Considered cheaters by World of Warcraft’s creators and fans alike, IGE was banned from the game and sued out of existence. The experience, however, taught Bannon an important lesson. Bannon later told author Joshua Green that gaming is “populated by millions of intense young men [who are] smart, focused, relatively wealthy, and highly motivated about issues that mattered to them … These guys, these rootless white males, had monster power.”

Bannon and other right-wing intellectuals learned to utilize that “monster power,” within the world of video games and beyond. A politically mobilized sense of wounded white entitlement has lead to the Right dominating the popular discourse about video games. The paradigmatic gamer is one of Bannon’s intense, young, white men, someone who visits 4chan and bought into the unctuous outrage of Gamergate. Some people write games off as irretrievably lost to this demographic.

The reality of video games has always been more complex. Women, people of color, and LGBTQ people play, make, and take inspiration from video games. But it is true that the industry — particularly due to its marketing strategies and work culture — and some fans have done their best to marginalize these populations. The Left never distilled its own experiences in gaming in the way Bannon and others did for the Right. Fortunately, this imbalance is shifting. Game workers are talking unionization, socialists are streaming on Twitch, and developers are experimenting with politically themed games. In his new book, Marx at the Arcade, scholar and games enthusiast Jamie Woodcock makes an important contribution to this effort.

The book is a throughgoing and accessible Marxist analysis of the video game industry and culture. It is both a materialist account of how video games are made, and also an insightful description of what it is like to be a leftist gamer. Marx at the Arcade makes the case that games are important cultural commodities worthy of analysis and gives leftists the tools and language to undertake this analysis.

The Video Game Origin Story

Video games’ potential to serve the interests of both the Left and Right goes back to the medium’s origins. Tech workers within the military industrial complex created the first video games. These included war games, designed to model nuclear conflict between America and Soviet Russian, and playful diversions like tic-tac-toe and blackjack. The game Spacewar! was a landmark for the medium. Designed by MIT student Steve Russell, the game “came from the early culture of ‘computer science freaks’ that stood in opposition to institutions and the military.” Russell and other early programmers were impacted by the upheavals of the 1960s, and were more interested in creative collaboration than making money or serving the military.

While some of the earliest video games were subversions of work within the military-industrial complex, the medium has also played a supporting role for US empire. Game studio Treyarch hired Oliver North to consult on and promote Black Ops II, an instalment in the popular Call of Duty franchise. The franchise is famous for its valorous depiction of war, and by hiring North the studio also helped burnish his image. Game studios frequently hire military consultants to advise on projects. The end goal is to add gritty realism to games, but Woodcock also shows how history is often rewritten in games to present the military intervention as righteous and exciting.

Video games have a similarly troubling relationship with arms manufacturers. The two industries enter mutually beneficial licensing agreements, in which game developers are allowed to feature real guns, and gun makers receive great publicity and exposure. Woodcock quotes a representative of gun manufacturer Barrett, who explains, “Video games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners.”

These business relationships put pressure on game developers to depict guns and armed conflict in exciting, heroic terms. It is an example of one of the many ways the US empire organizes and disseminates ideas justifying its imperial presence around the world. This analysis clarifies how the video game industry is a location for resistance to that imperial project. Games have glorified imperial conflict, but they have also undermined the work of empire in creative ways.

The game Spec Ops: The Line is an example of this creativity. In it, players take control of a squad of elite soldiers who fight their way through a ruined Dubai. The game has the mechanics and trappings of standard war-themed games, but instead of portraying lantern-jawed heroes standing atop the corpses of vanquished enemies, it explores PTSD and the aftermath of war crimes. Woodcock explains how “[t]he resulting game poses rhetorical questions like, ‘What kind of person likes virtual killing enough to spend hours engaged in it?’… It also points toward other ways of making and playing games about military violence.”

Passion, Play, and Productivity

From their humble origins, video games have grown to be one of the most profitable sectors of the entertainment industry. Marx at the Arcade takes the reader inside the “hidden abode” of video game production to show us where these profits come from. This tour takes in the global supply chain that includes warehouse workers, rare earth miners, and assembly line workers, highlighting the often invisible labor that is necessary to put a controller in the player’s hand. But Woodcock focuses on the challenging work of game design.

As video games have become more prominent, harsh working conditions in the industry have gone from open secret to common knowledge. To justify these conditions to workers, the industry exploits the deep passions of game designers. There are countless stories of the incredible energy and dedication of people who make games, including people who work for free modifying games. Studio bosses can effectively use that passion to justify exploitative business practices.

As Woodcock explains, crunch (the industry term for the long, demanding hours during game production) is “a deliberate managerial strategy” designed to extract greater surplus value from workers. Because crunch is so common in the industry, “managers have a skewed understanding of the timing for game development,” and this skewed understanding only leads to more crunch in the future.

Crunch also has the effect of forcing women out of the workplace. In a society where women are expected to take on the majority of social reproductive work, such as caring for dependents or doing household chores, ninety-hour work weeks are simply not feasible. This employment culture thus selects for and reinforces a mostly male and young workforce.

Workers in the industry are beginning to rebel against these practices. For example, workers at Riot Games, walked off the job in protest of the company’s toxic work environment. Woodcock dedicates an entire chapter to describing how game workers are starting to organize. As in other sectors of the tech industry, there is a burgeoning radical consciousness within gaming, the leading edge of which is Game Workers Unite. In a context where militant workplace action is being revitalized and tech workers are starting to look to unions, this opportunity cannot be ignored.

These are promising developments. Organized game workers can more effectively push back on their bosses and challenge to the “rootless white men” Bannon praised. This challenge could take many forms. In the 1980s, industry elites consciously decided to market games primarily to younger men, a decision that has had profound political ramifications. Organized workers might be able to challenge such decisions, forcing the industry to embrace the broad spectrum of game fans.

Video Game Criticism

Rejecting both fanboy boosterism and moralistic denunciations, Marx at the Arcade offers a refreshing approach to video games analysis. Woodcock never loses sight of the fact that the material conditions behind game production shapes the stories games tell and how they tell them, but does not reduce its analysis of the medium to these material conditions. The book highlights how it feels to actually play a game, what makes it fun, and why that participatory aspect matters when discussing what a game communicates as a cultural product.

In discussing the first-person shooter genre, Woodcock is not afraid to acknowledge that running around a battlefield killing enemies can be a blast, even as it normalizes the vicious logic of armed conflict. In the multiplayer game Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), a team of keffiyeh-wearing “Terrorists” square off against “Counter-Terrorists” for short, competitive matches. The in-game political stakes are never explained, though the pro-Western implications are clear. Despite these design choices, the game is fun to play because it combines skill, level design, and animation into a immersive feedback loop. CS:GO’s mechanics and politics operate semi-independently, and it is impossible to understand the game, or its broad appeal, without grappling with both elements.

Sid Meier’s Civilization games are a similar mixture of circumscribed political imagination and fantastic game design. The games task the player with building a globe-spanning society from the ground up. The player is in constant competition with other civilizations, and must dominate them either militarily or culturally in order to win. The games’ rules “naturalize capitalism, with its dynamics of accumulation, imperialism, and conflict,” yet “this critique is not to say the game is unplayable — the reality is these kinds of games are incredibly compelling.”

Civilization’s complex, interlacing rules are challenging to master, but never arbitrary or unfair. The experience of slowly expanding one’s civilization is satisfying and addictive. Instead of condemning the franchise, Woodcock reveals what makes the games fun, and uses their limited politics as a jumping off point for analysis.

No game needs explicitly political messages to be worthy of the Left’s attention. They do not have to educate players on key moments of history, or the perils of imperial violence. Video games contain much for socialists to both criticize and celebrate. Marx at the Arcade models a creative and compelling way to do this.

The Future of Video Games

Video games are a medium of contradictions. They are an art form dedicated to fun, to unproductive play. Yet they are designed and created under notoriously demanding working conditions. The earliest games were subversions of work within the military industrial complex. At the same time, some games ideologically supported US empire. Games have the power to gather people from around the world in one virtual space to play together; yet that space is frequently redolent with the worst sexism, xenophobia, and racism our culture has to offer.

To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, video games are part of the ideological apparatus that justifies our society’s worst impulses and realities; but they also contain meanings and traditions that challenge that apparatus.

Marx at the Arcade wants the Left to understand that these contradictions can be resolved in our favor, or to the benefit of our adversaries. Video games have become one of the biggest players in pop culture and entertainment. As Steve Bannon recognized over a decade ago, games are a cultural site where ideologies can be clarified and mobilized. Radicals should not abandon this cultural terrain.

The book also wants us to understand that play is an essential part of being human. We do not play video games primarily to challenge reactionary politics, but because they are fun, and they can tell personal, engaging stories. Modern capitalism leaves little room in our lives for idle play, so socialists should embrace any art form that revels in it.