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Alfie Bown: Where Politics and Gaming Meet

(Guillaume Payen/Getty Images)

I think there’s great potential in video games. In some ways, they are the primary space in which the culture wars are now being fought.”

On December 28th, Al Binns was joined by Alfie Bown for a conversation about the relationship between video games and politics, particularly politics of the progressive variety. Dr. Bown is a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London and a contributor to a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is also the author of the 2017 book The PlayStation Dreamworld, which is discussed in this interview. The following discussion, which emerged from Mr. Binns’ recent Merion West article “An Experiment in (Lefty) Roleplaying?,” explores the idea of gaming being inherently political, as well as how certain roleplaying games might be used to contribute to political or social changes. 

Good afternoon, Alfie. Thank you for your time today. 

Thanks for speaking with me.

In your 2018 Guardian pieceVideo games are political. Here’s how they can be progressive,” you argue that video games are a product of their society and are, thus, inherently political. What role can they play in not only helping us understand our society but also in influencing political change?

I think there’s great potential in video games. In some ways, they are the primary space in which the culture wars are now being fought. I mean, it is well-documented how big the games industry has grown to be—now even bigger than film and TV. Games are changing what it means to be a person, but this argument gets more resistance than you would think. You know, one would not argue that Hollywood films did not change what it meant to be a person in the 50s and 60s, for example. And, equally, one would not argue that music did not transform what it meant to be a subject in the 70s and 80s. In this respect, it is strange that some people still hold on to the idea that games are apolitical or somehow not socially transformative. They are, and they are changing who we are and how we relate to each other. As a product of our society, games have obviously always been political, and yet we find, for the large part of gaming history, people have refused to confront this fact or have assumed that they are simply means of escapism, separate from politics in some way. 

But this longstanding idea started to become fractured in 2014 with Gamergate. With the rise of political debates around that, people suddenly started seeing that games could be political. And what is happening now is that gaming companies have started to respond to that. Ubisoft is a good example of this reaction. In 2018, when they launched Tom Clancy’s The Division 2a dystopian near-future roleplaying game (RPG) about overthrowing a corrupt Washington government—their CEO was asked whether it was political. However, despite the obvious, he claimed that [it] had nothing to do with politics whatsoever, directly stating that the game was completely apolitical. But two years later, when their Toronto studio produced Watch Dogs Legion, there was a deliberate attempt to engage directly with politics when they asked a host of video game commentators, academics, and journalists (including myself) to provide podcasts for inclusion in the game. So, if you are playing Watch Dogs: Legion, you can listen to me talking about stuff like this on the in-car radio. The point I am making here is that games suddenly seemed to take a turn, and now we are getting more companies—like Games for the Many (which was a pro-Corbyn games company)—being very political in a direct sense. 

But my position here is that this is not new: Games have always been political, even if it is mildly refreshing to see games finally admitting that. They are obviously very deeply political and play an important role in the culture wars and social (and even electoral) politics of today. 

In noting that games are inherently political, you also note that video games are predominantly geared towards a particular type of politics, one promoting “conservative, patriarchal and imperialist values such as empire, dominion and conquering by force.” Of course, there are some games out there that advocate left-wing politics, but they are very few and far between. As games are a product of our society, this is probably not too surprising, considering that we have not seen a principally left-wing government for several decades. Do you think that our politics need to change first before gaming will follow? Or is it the other way around? Can gaming provoke such reform? 

This is a complicated question, but I totally agree with your point. People on the Right already think that games are left-wing, as seen with Gamergate. While on the Left, we acknowledge—as you did in your question—that most games tend to favor forms of imperialism, patriarchy, and certainly forms of capitalism in the sense that to succeed in the game, one must follow X, Y, Z capitalist principles. That is the clear and fundamental to the situation with video games. Because of this, we have got this weird impasse where people on the Right think that games at left-wing, and people on the Left think they intrinsically Right. 

But I think the problem here is that we are missing a key term, and that is liberalism. I think that what the Right perceives or claims to perceive is that, when they say games are becoming left-wing, I think what we’re looking at is that games are becoming liberal and not left-wing. But I think that this is exactly the point your question provokes. What we are seeing now is games encouraging diversity. We are seeing games with more politically engaged narratives and exploring the storytelling around that. But that does not follow that we’re seeing games become left-wing. 

Before you called, I was listening to an advert for Cyberpunk 2077 on the radio that literally says, “drive fast cars” and “rebel against corporations!” There’s something really important here in the way that these two phrases are paired together. Because, of course, the Left would want to—in some way—rebel against corporations. But the fact is, as Mark Fisher’s argues in Capitalist Realism, this just becomes part of the liberal package which is sold back to us. It is an old argument, but the point is that there are loads of games about protest and rebellion now, but they are not left-wing games. They are games that commodify and sell back ideas of subversion and radicalism—but very much within this kind of framework where you get to experience this idea of rebellion when actually the act of playing these games is nothing more than another act of capitalism. 

So, to try and answer the question, I think games can help the Left. I believe that if the Left ignores the political potential of gaming and takes the position that games are not “real” change (as opposed to economics), they may well be left behind. If we allow a generation of gamers to grow up with internalized ideas of what it means to live and think and feel through these games that have a liberal agenda or a capitalist agenda, then, those ideas that are going to run far, far ahead in the culture wars.

That said, do I think games are going to radically transform our society? No, obviously not. We need economic and political reform, but, you know, do I think the Left needs to be critically and actively engaged in using these spaces, utilizing them as a place to experiment with new ways of thinking, to push its own agendas, and to think about how we may be able to organize differently—and importantly how to enjoy organizing differently? I think that is a key point to how we can experience pleasure and fun in ways which are progressive. This is how games can offer something.

In my recent Merion West article, I considered how the boundless worlds of tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) offer a unique counterpoint to the limited frameworks of video games, giving a player a truly open-world experience, allowing them to question what if? With the freedom to explore different kinds of social and political systems as well, I see the real potential in tabletop roleplaying, especially now that it has been digitalized through platforms such as Roll20. In this respect, we may consider this an increasingly influential battleground for the Left for the culture wars. 

Yeah, I love this point and this question, and it helps me to elaborate on the previous one also. It would be good to connect these two points because I think that if games are going to serve the Left, then it’s not going to happen on a PS5 because there are too many ethical problems with the production of these consoles. There’s been some fascinating work done by various people such as Marijam Didžgalvytė, who wrote Towards an Ethical Gaming Console, in which she questions how can you celebrate a game for being feminist when the hardware that is played on is created by underpaid Chinese workers, most of whom are women in a rural factory with terrible working conditions. So clearly, if the Left is going to think about gaming, it can’t do so just on this superficial level of saying, “Well, look how excellent this game is that is celebrating feminism,” for example. Or “Look how we got a red flag in this game, so it must be communist, right?” We need to also think about what’s in play with the consoles that support these games.

I think this is a really good [segue] into thinking about tabletop games. What you have just said about tabletop games—I have said it before about low-scale indie game development. I would much rather take our graphics back 10 years, to some of the open access, free to use platforms that are more inclusionary and have much less reliance on these structures of global capitalism, which allow for something like a PS5. Another argument for these indie games is that it would be boring to play another Grand Theft Auto. Now, some people may argue against low tech, saying it wouldn’t be as much fun as shooting a really high graphics person in the head with a sniper rifle. But actually, how many times do we need to do that? The fact is we’re actually almost bored with those with things, while new indie gaming is developing and being progressive. With low budget, low tech games design—and, indeed, with tabletop games—I think there are great opportunities to do new and different things. 

So I take your point, and I agree with it. I was recently doing a playthrough of a game on Tabletopia by this company in Cyprus called Hegemonic Games, whose raison d’etre is about mixing politics and games. They have created this amazing game called Hegemony that confronts the problems with contemporary capitalism, but it does so in an open way so that anyone can affordably access and play. So I think there is great potential in the Left using the gaming space but moving away from the AAA high graphics, high tech spaces and, instead, utilizing platforms like LARPing, tabletop games, and indie games development to experiment with what we can do.

Thank you for articulating that. So far, we have been talking very specifically about video games; however, as part of your overarching thesis from your 2017 book The PlayStation Dreamworld, you argue more broadly: referring to us collectively as “a generation of gamers.” Those who don’t play video games on regular basis may not identify with this, or they may find it confusing. Maybe you can define what you mean by the term “gamers.”

In many ways, this brings us back to your first question about how and why games are changing us. More than 50% of the world plays games, so this is no longer the niche demographic it used to be when being a gamer was quite a subcultural thing, like being into comic books or sci-fi. Now, 50% plus of the world is playing video games, and that is not something that is exclusive to certain countries. The African games market, for example, has exploded through very interesting developments in mobile gaming. Also, it is no longer a gender imbalance thing. Although while 51% of games are played by women, there are still vast differences in the types of games men and women play, so gender politics exist there, as do class politics. But the point here is that basically everyone is playing in some form. 

To add to that, even if you never play games per se, gamification means that a lot of what you do engage with is part of the games industry in certain ways. For instance, if you’re on Tinder but don’t play games, you’re still being influenced by gamified elements because you know the swiping of Tinder is clearly a form of gamification, in that gamification just most broadly means when elements from the gaming industry make their presence felt in other areas of life. Similarly, this exists with in-game rewards for various kinds of actions in the city; I think that Transport for London is exploring an initiative using in-game rewards to remove route congestion and things like that. So games are fundamentally linked to the future of how our society is being constructed. We might even consider that going on Deliveroo is quite gamified, albeit in a more abstract way.

The point I am making here is that, whether we play games or not, we are all affected by these trends. So when I say we are a generation of gamers, I am not just talking about somebody who plays as many hours on The Witcher or Football Manager as I do; I am talking about every single person who grows up in an age of games, whose social fabric is influenced by the technologies of gaming. 

With the ubiquitous nature of gaming, the concept of meaningfully disrupting it may seem abstract, if not impossible. Practically, how do you think we can achieve this? 

I think that—in some ways—the easiest or best way is to take inspiration from what people have already done in this direction: to look at examples of games that have already been made where you think, “Okay, the experience of play here is really constructively interesting from a Left or socialist perspective.” Or even simple things like food sharing, anti-food waste apps. Clearly, this is not something that’s going to deliver socialism immediately, but, at the same time, it’s people looking at gamification and instead of doing what Pokémon Go does, for example, which is simply moving people around the city in different ways for pure profit for Google and its associates. Instead, it is thinking about what things would we like to happen? For example, less food waste or access to free and cheap food for those who need it? How can we create a fun experience with gamification? Can we create something where people can be libidinally invested in the process and enjoy it while still achieving those (often very modest) social ends that might help the Left?

There are plenty of examples like that. The PlayStation 4 simulation game Everything is pretty interesting in terms of giving people an experience of play which is not simply about following capitalist principles to achieve set ends. And I think the board games I mentioned—Hegemony is a great example of a game that can be fun, while precisely teaching and educating people about the problems with capitalism and confronting the possible alternatives of society. So I think this is a collective project. It is not like one game or one app is going to transform everything, but rather it’s a case of being aware of how transformative and political these things are. It is about creating and encouraging the creation of experimental apps that play with gamification and achieve something through that. And, collectively, I think one can already see a Left emerging in these spaces. People are thinking about play, and fun, and gamification, and these new emerging digital technologies—which, for the most part, are not as exclusionary and hard to access as one would think, or as Google would like—and starting to use them to achieve quite modest and small political aims. I think that’s probably the first step. 

Thanks for that. I appreciate your time today.

Thank you.

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