Last month, bisexual gamer and leftist YouTuber Hbomberguy finished a gruelling 57-hour streaming session of the notoriously frustrating videogame Donkey Kong 64, raising over $340,000 for UK trans charity Mermaids. The mammoth effort was in response to anti-trans activist Graham Lineham and his briefly successful social media campaign to jeopardise Mermaids’ funding from the UK government.
With support at first in the gay and trans communities, the stream eventually went viral over left-wing social media and spread into the wider geek and videogame subcultures, with nerd celebrities like the designer of the Doom and Quake games John Romero, Donkey Kong 64 composer Grant Kirkhope and absurdist queer sci-fi erotica writer Chuck Tingle appearing publicly throughout the stream alongside a variety of left and left-leaning figures such as whistleblower and outspoken socialist Chelsea Manning, internet philosopher ContraPoints and even US democratic congress member Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
The stream served as a powerful counterpoint to the culture of toxicity and right-wing politics that often dominate the gaming world, showing passionate support for an oppressed community while connecting up our struggle with the wider left. It also shined a light on the existence of the leftist nerd: a common type of nerd (especially in trans communities) whose presence is continually overshadowed by the louder voices of reactionary gamers and pseudo-rationalist centrists claiming to be apolitical, even as they enthusiastically support the status quo. When even basic nods towards progressive politics in games are often controversial – such as when the 2016 Baldur’s Gate expansion Siege of Dragonspear included a transgender character and the developers were review-bombed and harassed for it – reactionary politics are often employed as a marketing mechanic, pandering to the delusion that the ‘social justice warriors’ are out to get gamers.
This phenomenon is not unique to gaming but it does appear to be more common among fans than in other mediums. The idea of gamers as an embattled minority, beset by what they perceive as the lying, hating left on one side, and the censorship of the religious right on the other, has actually become a meme in certain circles. Never mind the aforementioned right-wing biases in gaming or the sometimes fascinating history of Christian games.
Gatekeeping in reaction to a previously maligned hobby becoming popular and hence accessible to everyone – even those who lack the skill of more adept gamers – plays a part in this as well. There is for instance a trend to lament the rise in context- and content-driven (as opposed to purely gameplay-driven) reviews, especially when journalists are seen to ‘suck’ at games.
Hbomberguy’s stream gave the lie to all of these assumptions. Firstly, by absolutely dominating at the game and, secondly, by showing just how many leftists genuinely love the medium.
It isn’t just that almost everybody finds gaming enjoyable. It’s also that many games are built on highly detailed alternative worlds. I have discussed before how this can help to educate players by making them compare the game’s world with the one in which they live. What must also be observed is that this process is intrinsic to gaming, and that the wider left can take advantage of it.
As a democratic, modern entertainment medium, games are openly created so that players can have fun. Simple games like Candy Crush will usually do nothing else. But with more elaborate games like, say, Yakuza 0, the gameplay and the narrative necessitate drawing connections to the outside world. These connections create a dialogue between the game and player, asking questions that the player is obliged to answer. By drawing their attention to them, leftists can help gamers see the nature of the world we really live in and help them feel empowered to change it.
This is an example of what Paulo Freire calls dialogic education. As he writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968):
Because dialogue is an encounter among women and men who name the world, it must not be a situation where some name on behalf of others. It is an act of creation; it must not serve as a crafty instrument for the domination of one person by another. The domination implicit in dialogue is that of the world by the dialoguers; it is conquest of the world for the liberation of humankind.
Yakuza 0 is an anime-inspired action game about a pair of Japanese criminals who get drawn into a complicated war between the Yakuza and a real estate company over an absurdly valuable plot of empty land. The game is often sexist and the role the martial arts play in it is very silly, but the action builds upon a simulation of a pre-financial bust Japan that offers a robust commentary on capitalist greed and the way that gentrification destroys communities. It even has a side-quest featuring a conversation about tax law with a city politician that starts with you having to fight off a group of businessmen exclaiming that taxation is theft, and then answer questions from the politician on the purpose of taxation and how a tax becomes both workable and fair. The tax that the player ends up creating is real – it was introduced by former Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita around the time when the game is set.
This sort of teaching is a core feature of the medium. You can see it in Battletech, a robot-themed strategy game that includes an innovative trans-inclusive character creator showing players just how diverse human gender really is. You can see it in Spinnortality, a game about ‘soft power’, and in Wolfenstein 2’s Nazi-smashing dieselpunk alt-history, which uses satire to show how present-day America has come to be ruled over by avowed white supremacists. You can even see it in games that try to be ‘just’ simulations seemingly devoid of politics; socialist YouTuber donoteat01’s videos on Cities Skylines show how the innovative use of building mods combined with a players own experience can reveal the ways in which building cities are political acts.
Games like Civilization VI, which present social and historical phenomena in more simplistic fashion, or those that make an effort to avoid the real-world politics of the places and scenarios that they’re discussing – such as Farcry 5 – tend to suffer for these omissions.
While the barriers for entry can be high, gaming has become a mainstream art form, and it’s easier to get into than it’s ever been before. There are a lot of options, too, with everything from modern versions of traditional platformers to full-blown space operas that can serve equally well as introductions to the medium.
The power of videogames to influence our society towards progressive (or reactionary) ends through dialogic education, team building, and simulations of the world makes familiarity not just with gaming culture but with the games themselves a vital tool to shape and understand reality. Through criticism, narration, or simple engagement with the games and their communities, leftists can raise both awareness and money for the causes we are passionate about, and fight against the wider political drift towards the right that we are experiencing throughout the world.