I don’t remember how old I was when I played my first computer game. I started out on a DOS based IBM compatible 386 and an old Atari 2600, some time in the early 1990s. I played NES and Master System games at other children’s houses, and watched them trade them in for Super Nintendos and Mega Drives. We got a CD drive for our 386, and I watched the birth of early multimedia gaming. Basically, I’ve been around for every major beat in gaming history, and I still enjoy them to this day. But I don’t call myself a gamer anymore, and am not often identified as one by anyone who’s serious about the hobby. Why? Because I can no longer associate myself with the culture, politics, or even the image of a member of the gamer demographic – all fundamentally affected by the ideological assumptions and demands of the capitalist economy. In an interview, developer of the anti-capitalist Oddworld series, Lorne Lanning, describes the problem as:
A trend, really, since I got in. I’d say it’s more of a capitalism trend, which means all those companies need growth. If you’re a public company you need to have constant growth and you need to conquer more territory, and the day you’re not, your shareholders bail. That’s it.
But Lanning’s games are still tied up in modern capitalism, with one reviewer of a recent HD remake of his debut game remarking:
Perhaps the oddest thing about this remake is the presence of in-game advertising. For a game that is staunchly anti-capitalism, as evidenced by the snarky critiques that appear on in-game billboards, it seems contradictory for those billboards to then scroll to reveal a poster for an upcoming PS4 game.
This is the contradiction at the centre of the ‘games-as-art’ debate, where critics rightly ask if an art form which is developed and promoted as a toy can ever really be a work of art at all. Complicating this is the problem of their interactivity, which is often sacrificed in games with less ambiguously artistic goals, leading to debate over whether they really should be classed as ‘games’ at all. The fallout from the ‘Gamergate’ movement and its call for naive ‘objectivity’ has led to a reductionist approach in many gamer circles, whereby gamers try to focus exclusively on game mechanics in the hopes of ending the ‘politicisation’ of the hobby, which they say has impaired the quality of modern games and critical appraisals. But almost all games are inherently political, and refusing to acknowledge it doesn’t change their subtext or reality. Even merely ‘not questioning capitalism’ – the safest place to start when telling stories in a medium as commercial as a mainstream game – is making a political statement. It tends to manifest itself in either the erasure of real-world class-related issues (even when they should be vital to the narrative), or depicting them with a denial of the possibility that radical changes to our economic system could be necessary if we want to solve them.
Even Mafia III, which I called my game of the year for its otherwise progressive politics, shied away from claiming that the system was a problem, allowing the player the ‘opportunity’ to pull down Marxist posters even while admitting that capitalism was complicit in the social problems it described. In one level a major character even says as much directly, but quickly follows with, ‘but that’s not the way we do things in America’, and the subject isn’t raised again. Other games released last year were even more overt about refusing to critique our economic system, especially in the cyberpunk genre, traditionally a space for anti-capitalist dissent. Of the mainstream games I played last year that featured cyberpunk environments (disregarding Shadow Warrior 2, which only referenced cyberpunk aesthetically, and had a slew of more upsetting problems), all of them refused to talk about the structural issues with the worlds that they described, and chose instead to focus on appearing ‘moderate’: an inherently political position which preserves the status quo, and denies the fact that not all ideological positions have a middle ground. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was the worst offender, appropriating imagery and language from the Black Lives Matter movement to talk about discrimination against mechanically augmented humans, while refusing to discuss the economic issues that the concept and the real-world movement actually raise.
The mere existence of a smaller group of legally persecuted, mechanically augmented humans implies that the majority could not afford the surgery. While the previous title, Deus Ex: The Human Revolution, primes us to believe that most of the popular arguments against the new technology were largely moral or religious (no surprise, with atheism being popular and moralism being frowned upon in gamer circles), it also tells us that the augmentations were expensive, and that many workers were provided them by their employers. This implies a mostly middle class phenomenon, as poorer employers would not necessarily have had the capital to augment their entire staff, and unemployed workers would be out of luck entirely.
Still, the game condenses this to simple ‘racism’ fought against by activists literally described as ‘SJWs’: ignoring both the economic angle, and the simple fact that these augmentations give an individual an edge over their peers. Even the persecution of magic users in the high fantasy Dragon Age computer games (a similar fictional construction: a fraction of the community with enhanced abilities becomes a disenfranchised class due to the fears of a majority who can’t possess them), is more nuanced than this, despite its obviously more fantastic setting. As a game that ostentatiously presents ‘a future’ of a world that we inhabit, in a genre that’s associated with political critique, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided should at least have fully shown the issues that it’s making light of, but again we’re stymied by a lack of capitalist critique.
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, another cyberpunk computer game from 2016, was equally disappointing: undercutting its implied critique of capitalism by building its society literally on the ruins of a Stalinistic state that came before it with a group of communist revolutionaries, ‘Black November’ (who express dissatisfaction at being ideologically associated with the Soviet-inspired Omnistat, but can’t show how their revolution differs). This comes despite a racially diverse cast of mostly women, including one of the few openly autistic characters I think I’ve ever seen in gaming, but you couldn’t really call the game ‘progressive’, since it doesn’t really challenge anything.
It’s an open secret that our current system predominantly protects the interests of the rich. As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, their interests are, ‘always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public’. By refusing to accurately depict this system, and pretending that alternatives would be impossible, the centrism of computer games is actively promoting it. And when we realise that the second largest ideology depicted in the mainstream game is actual conservatism, we start to see that games themselves have pushed the gamer’s ideology toward the right, despite the demographic being more diverse than we expect. But thankfully, despite the arguments of uninformed or disingenuous capitalists, it is possible to separate the subculture from the industry. Protest games have been around for over a decade, and continue to come out every year, while indie games have always been a space for social commentary. There were even video games in the Soviet Union, offering a flawed but interesting take on what the hobby could have been, were it focussed on collective gain rather than individual profit. The first ever video game was open-source and freely distributed, and the spirit of it is preserved in the fan game and game modding communities – both of which remain a vital part of mainstream gaming, despite continual attempts by the gaming industry at their monetisation, suppression, or control.
So there’s fertile ground in gaming for a more progressive scene, but while the industry is allowed to pretend that support of capitalism is an apolitical position, the subculture will continue privileging conservative opinions. It’s alienating for the rest of us, but it can be changed. Bringing capitalism’s hidden politics to light is just the start of the solution.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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