Open Threads is an open blogging platform, for debate and exploration of ideas among communists and radicals. Content presented here is contributed by Kasama site users.
Class Narratives in Video Games
Video games have become a cultural icon. Despite an onslaught of conservative and liberal demonization the efforts of such reactionaries has done little to stem the growth of the industry. With annual growth rates exceeding that of the U.S’s economy and billions of dollars in profits the influence of video games is wide and varied. Many millions of people play these games; many are young, many more are older. To this extent there is no typical depiction of a gamer, even though their average age is 30.
I myself “game” though not as much as I once did[i]. My early days spent in front of the television or portable game console taught me many things which I did not hear from teachers and certainly not from my parents[ii]. Things such as honor, respect, understanding and friendship; through the emotionally involving plots, these prized traits were drilled into my mind and greatly affected the person who I am today[iii].
You may laugh at this assentation, it is normal to do so[iv]. Yet it is unfortunate such a reaction is normal, that many people probably did laugh at the above statement. I consider this unfortunate because the medium is so rich and powerful that those who laugh do not understand the allure and potential of such games.
These people do not understand that individuals of all shades, from all classes and political persuasions, enjoy these games. That for some it is a hobby while for others it is a job. For me it will only ever be a hobby, one that I indulge in on an increasingly rare occasion.
Yet this hobby has applications which I do not think have been seriously investigated by political forces outside of the developer’s narrow intentions. No organization has given its critique of online gaming[v], of how it relates to the struggle, or how persecution of video games hurts youth rights and workers’ rights.
Because a critique like this does not exist I decided to write one. I willingly spell out my thoughts in this matter because I believe that eventually someone, or some group, will formulate a successful cyber-approach and be skilled in nabbing people from the online gaming realm to enter their convoluted fold[vi] (whether religious, political or civil).
I do not claim this manuscript is a completed “end-all” draft or a master one that lays everything bare. I do not substitute it for street work or community organizing. Rather it is an exploratory work aimed at initiating discussion on a topic that I feel has been neglected.
The central question within is this: can the online masses be led to socialist thought and can the revolutionary gamer reach them through their favorite medium, or is it a dead end? This has been on my mind recently and is a topic that I feel needs to be explored.
There seems to be contradiction in revolutionary organizing in the Imperialist states; that between the goals of the socialist revolution and the precipice of where the entertainment industry has forced legions of workers to become subordinate to their whims. How does one combat a recreational tide which eagerly awaits the release of the latest Call of Duty game when, ideologically speaking, you stand on an edge which is the polar opposite of militarization?
Mainly, for the purposes of this essay, I am referring to the video game industry. More directly I am talking about genres of games where violence and capitalist creeds are promoted. I will be taking ample examples from my own life and political development.
~ ~ ~
One does not need to look very far to see the effects of decades of economic decay. Unemployment, underemployment, dwindling benefits, low-wages, and scores of flashy ads on a virtual ocean of billboards, buses, walls, and computer and television screens serve as a poignant remainder of the epoch we live in. Above all it hammers home the realization that the Left has yet to develop a coherent strategy in which to counter-act effects of such posturing; that, more to the point, we are swimming in uncharted waters.
When I consider how to play my part in counteracting this wave of propaganda I am painfully reminded how revolutionaries in the past never had to assault the twin pillars of political apathy and imperialist ideology in such a way that we do now. Marx and Engels lacked needing to disengage the workers from listening to reactionary music, Lenin never was required to write a pamphlet critiquing the effects of popular television shows, and Mao, though struggling against the dated Confucian tenants, blissfully was spared disavowing counter-revolutionary video games.
Indeed, while these titans of Marxism did battle against other forms of anti-communist behavior (organizations, literature, and people) they lived in an era where masses of workers were politically engaged; whether through sheer necessity, such as opposing an imperialist invasion of their homeland, or through prior labor associations (strikes, known anti-capitalists who influenced them, etc) it is not terribly controversial to say that the working class of yesteryear was more active than our current brothers are.
The reasons for this passivity are many but for immediacy I will focus on one major focus point among the youth and older generation brought up when the industry was beginning: video games.
It is not my goal to harangue such games as the arbiter of evil. Nor is it my intent to lay the burden of blame all at the feet of video games. But it is my intention to help dust away some of the confusing waste which has contributed towards the working class’s apathy and seemingly growing compliance.
As revolutionary anti-capitalists we know our goal: the destruction of the capitalist system, the eventual and systematic disarmament of the imperialist military machine, and the liberation of the proletariat. Yet achieving these goals is something else entirely. How do we agitate for others to take up a demand as militant as the eradication of the military industrial complex when many are hopelessly ensnared by patriotic garble, when they spend extensive amounts of their small earnings on a video game glorifying the very edifice which we seek to abolish?
Taken together with their non-participation within their community and lack of class consciousness it appears a monumental task is ahead of us. So the questions remains-how do we revolutionary leftists make a space for our ambitious goals while drowning in a sea of reaction?
I do not purport to have the answer but via examination of some popular products, coupled with reflections of my own progression, I hope to start a dialogue where this question can be completely fleshed out.
Riding the Dragon: My Youth as a Fantasy Nerd
My childhood was one of social alienation, awkward first encounters, and dragon slaying adventures. It was during the triumphant age where the game giants we know today were just emerging: the Playstation2, Xbox, and Gamecube. Engaged in massive media wars the Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony corporations were battling it out to see who would become top dog in the game market.
For me, my first interaction with games was perhaps around six years of age where I frustratingly tried to play my brother’s game, a classic in the making called Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Though at the time I wouldn’t be able to get past the first “level” without screaming out in frustration, as time passed I managed to hold my own in any virtual arena. When my parents bought me a PS2 for my 12th birthday this was legitimized. When I began selecting my own games it meant that I had set on my path away from my brother’s interests.
And yet my brother and I always shared a close love of games. So though I selected my own, my brother’s pick was in the same ball-park. Together we played through just about every fantasy Role Playing Game (RPG) game we could lay our hands on. Early on it was titles like The Legend of the Dragoon to later titles such as Final Fantasy X, Drakenguard, Kingdon Hearts 2, and Arc the Lad: Twlight of the Spirits my brother and I gobbled up as much as we could.
Thousands of hours (hundreds alone in Pokemon games) spent in virtual worlds. To many this may have seemed excessive but it was our hobby. School was terrible, and home life, with parental disputes, there was very few instances of joy. Video games provided an escape, a relaxing current to help ease the troubles of the day. While in the outside world there was tumultuous chaos in the virtual one there reigned evil begging to be vanquished. The difference between the two was simple: one added disorder while the other brought stability, a manner of living which was predictable, safe, and constructed.
To us, my brother and I, video games weren’t simply a pastime but our generation’s version of epic ballads; just as the musical bard’s tales entertained many far and wide, Gaming allowed us to experience stories of bravery, warfare, struggle, sacrifice, hardship, and love, all from the comfort of our bedrooms.
While I was always attracted to the romanticism of RPGs and the beautifully told stories, as I matured into adolescence I began to gravitate towards other genres of games. Coming into the age of Halo and Call of Duty I began to play science fiction and First Person Shooters (FPS). Though radically different from my past stock of games, these new journeys fed my emerging appetite for space adventure and modern warfare. Eventually I was enamored in all aspects of the genre and well versed in their nuances.
While later in life I would come to play only the games which I was dying to enjoy, in part because I had grown disillusioned with how unoriginal many games were becoming, it was during this moment in my life where I was introduced to the kind of games which my peers would rabidly devour and affect an entire generation of young people.
From firsthand experience I know of the memorizing powers video games can have on a young person. The plots, characters, and graphic display can combine to create an entrancing fusion. Yet buried within each video game is more than simply a plot about a damsel in distress or a world under siege. For when you realize you live in a capitalist society, where everything is produced for a reason, you will also realize that most products have an ulterior message.
These messages are drilled into the minds of their owners. Even if it is only subconsciously such whisperings can have a profound effect; whether it is in the mind of a teen still in the formative years or an adult looking to blow off steam after work, there is a vibrant, if not often unseen, world of ideas inserted into all great blockbusters.
For revolutionaries this is important for it can dramatically impact the manner in which the working class, or the emerging working class, views the world and their participation in it. All media shapes us and though it will not be sacrament by any means, I will give some Leftist outlines on the types of messages being pushed by the developers and what our reaction might compose.
Genre: First-Person Shooters
Game(s): Call of Duty
First released November 16th 2004, Call of Duty: Finest Hour (COD) made a name for itself for daring to break-away from the nascent Medal of Honor series. Incorporating vicious first person action while throwing the player into the role of an infantryman in World War 2, the series would skyrocket to the top of the video game charts[vii]. Anyone able to tell which way the wind was blowing would know that the young male audience would eat such a formula up.
Such a person would be correct for the success of Finest Hour paved the way for eight years of similar games. France, Guadalcanal, Germany, Japan, Africa, Russia, truly there was no stage of the conflict safe from COD’s developers (which would come to alternate between Actvision and Treyarch). From piloting a tank to sniping Nazis, COD had everything one would expect from a best-selling video game franchise: carnage, non-stop action, adventure, and variety of killing machines (tanks, rifles, B-12 bomber machine gunner, daggers, etc). While early in this portion of its life the plot would remain conventional come 2008 this would change.
Technically the sixth entry in the series, Call of Duty: World at War (WoW) brought a new, darker edge to the series. No longer confined primarily to the battlefields of Europe and Africa like much of its predecessors, COD:WoW introduced players to an extensive campaign which featured a vengeful Russian Army fighting its way into the German homeland and the United States beating back the Empire of Japan in the Pacific.
Indeed it is at this late hour for COD’s WW2 arc which we see the developer, Treyarch, begin to infuse their labors with some semblance of political musings. This can be seen in the portrayal of the Russians and Americans. While the Americans are, expectedly, the heroic band of underdogs fighting for peace in a savage land, the Russians are seen as an angry horde lashing out at anything which stands in their way. While this is off-set somewhat by the ending, where after a difficult battle the Soviet Flag is raised above the Reichstag complete with triumphant music ringing loud for the closure, this is remedied quickly when the United States dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima; vague musings of patriotism clouding the stark reality of the bombing, the whole feel of the game is one which directs historically ignorant individuals to remain indifferent to the sacrifice of the Russian people while lauding the imperialist actions of the U.S.
Taking an example from my own life to prove this effect we can look at how my close friend reacted. This friend, unlike many other youth of his generation, never had access to the top tier games of the advanced line (Xbox360, PS3, Wii) and so was only able to play the more recent COD games at my house. This also meant he, coming from a liberal household, was politically unaware. So was not unexpected of him to glorify the actions of the U.S while remaining passive to Soviet parallels; constantly I would hear him remark (towards the screen), “Yeah, that’s what you get for messing with the Americans… the U.S has very good troops you know.” This is nationalism. Yet while he played as the Soviets not only did he skip the opening cut-scenes, something he never did while playing as America, but he failed to produce his usual assortment of patriotic remarks instead merely content to sit in his seat looking somewhat confused as to the purpose of playing as a Russian. I think it would be a mistake to say that the depiction between East and West (Capitalism and Socialism) failed to produce the developers desired result: reinforcement of historical dualism (The United States being the protectors of the world who fought the bulk of the conflict) and maintenance of xenophobia (Russians massacring innocents).
Such petty-bourgeois reflections, however, would be but the puddle of a new direction.
It was with the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that set the stage for prime social-commentary. A dramatic break from conventions of the past, Modern Warfare, ditched the WW2 setting for the killing fields of today; taking place primarily in the Middle East, the plot follows U.S Force Reconnaissance Marines and British SAS Commandos as they pursue the leader of an extremist rebel faction responsible for killing the president of an unnamed Middle Eastern country and starting a ultranationalist civil war in Russia.
Lauded throughout the gaming community, Modern Warfare is regularly called the best entry. With sales exceeding 13 million copies across all platforms it is without a doubt the bestselling COD title yet. If one plays the game it is easy to see why: with new conflicts and astronomic mission-intensity any person playing would be blown away (I know I was).
Borrowing heavily from current events Modern Warfare looks like a Hollywood action movie. It has terrorists to fight (indigenous insurgents), a predominately Arab nation to invade (complete with a vapid sub-plot about searching for WMDs), and solider honoring theatrics (“No man gets left behind!”) on-top of American chest-pounding; released before the assassination of Osama Bin Laden one can be rest assured that before the credits roll the “bad guy” got a bullet in his brain, a sort of compensation for the than six-year “War on Terror” that had than yet succeeded to find the leader of Al Qaeda. It is the type of game to inspire any young person playing to support their “fighting men”.
This trend continues in Modern Warfare 2. The hashed plot continues with a Russian Invasion, terrorists sporting the Hammer & Sickle as well as a traitor general. Running at such a breakneck pace that one could easily loose themselves in the chaos and gunfire, the synopsis can be summed up by saying the developers still live in the Cold War era where it is “us (Americans) versus them (the Russians).” Though sporting a controversial mission (mercenaries massacring civilians at an airport), ignoring such mass-murder the only artistic quality left is the absurdity of the invasion and the patriotism the sequel expects to drum up; which, judging by the 3.8million unit sales increase, succeeded rather well.
Though by the conclusions of the game the player is tasked with killing the renegade general the actual killing is done not out of moral righteousness (hatred of the general’s actions) but for national betrayal (the general enabling the Russian Invasion of the U.S). It amounts to petty-patriotism and falls short of other more progressive messages of its peers (such as the similar assassination in James Cameron’s Avatar).
With the General dead the player is than left on a cliffhanger as to how the game’s other antagonist-the successor to the first Modern Warfare’s villain- will be dealt with.
As one could imagine the conclusion is flag waving pro-Americana nonsense. Indeed I could go through each and every Call of Duty game and list out all the instances of reactionary garbage. This wouldn’t prove much, however, as by now we have seen that the narrative of Call of Duty is, and always has been, one of pro-war, pro-military, pro-solider, and pro-American exceptionalism.
Countering this narrative ties into the general struggle against the military industrial complex, and nationalism yet like those struggles it is an arduous one to keep peoples interest; any attempt to insert contrary opinions are often shot down without question. Like taking a slow and cautious approach to climbing a difficult trail one can only reproach the game’s ludicrous claims by reminding the audience just how absurd the scenarios are in addition to the grim reality of war.
Our efforts at establishing a counter-narrative though have already begun. Yet this is not because of activity on our part but rather activity on a young person’s part.
In the wake of the tragedies of the Sandy Hook school massacre an unexpected result emerged from the bloodshed. Two young men, 12 year old Max Goldstein and 11 year old Jackson Mittleman, residents of Newtown, began a grassroots movement dubbed “Played Out”. The goal of their project is to convince kids to dump their violent video games.
Critically taking this effort apart what does it mean?
In its current form it is not much more than liberal anti-gun scapegoating: I.E blame violent video games and guns (specifically gun games like Call of Duty) for the actions of unbalanced, unwell people; though their hearts are in the right place blaming video games for violence, and not much more visible presence of military recruiters and wars of occupation abroad, amounts to petty-liberalism expected out of situational oppressed young people. Yet this “movement” is still important. Why? Because it was started by youth themselves, which while it may not be radical right now, it could be radical, meaning a tool to counter the pro-imperialist messages of the COD franchise, with some injections of class consciousness.
Revolutionaries might launch their own version of this project only instead of attacking the “violence” in video games they attack the military promotion, the war glorification, and the trillions of dollars wasted on Imperialist wars of aggression; they might do so while raising awareness about U.S actions across the globe thus informing on Imperialism in general. This way the focus is not on largely powerless scapegoats but on actual entities which foster violent behavior.
To see the potential for such an undertaking we must launch our own operation. This means connecting with the masses and injecting some radicalism in a quite unexpected way.
The Halo franchise is a juggernaut. Started over a decade ago by developer Bungie, Halo proved that First Person Shooters could work on a home video game console, that it wasn’t simply a PC only affair. Since then the series has come a long way and taken some cheap Hollywood turns. From shamelessly exploiting theological tragedies to reflecting modern terror, the series has had quite the impact on the popular culture scene.
The premise of the First Halo game was simple, if not a carbon copy of previous sci-fi plots, in that you are a Spartan, the last of squad of super-soldiers dedicated to fighting alien aggressors called the Covenant. Crash landing on an artificial “ring-world” the player must fight through the hordes of alien forces, prevent the enemy from activating the super-weapon that is the world, and escape while destroying the whole construct in an epic finale.
Sounds cookie-cutter, I know.
Regardless this premise becomes a reflection of the times with the release of subsequent games and novel tie-ins. With Halo 2’s release the player discovers that the alien race is actually a religious alliance; goals vague and theology murky the only explanation for the conflict is a poor mistake on the part of the Covenant’s leadership regarding ancient alien artifacts they are searching for. Come the release of the third installment the player begins to see Covenant grunts acting as suicide bombers with their plasma grenades. By the publication of Contact Harvest, the fifth paperback novelization, the Halo fan learns that before the Human-Covenant war the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) was engaged in a brutal civil war with their inner colonies: the colonies wanted freedom the UNSC wanted control.
What should revolutionary gamers make of this narrative? It is reactionary, for one. The Covenant, which could easily be interpreted as Political Islam, was the aggressors, not Imperialist Humanity. Suicide bombers are trivialized and the disturbing parody of them displayed in such a bombastic and silly manner is certainly not doing any favors for imprinting the seriousness of the real world parallels. Then there is the suppression of the colonies; this facet could be either interpreted as patriotic nostalgia for the American Revolutionary War of Independence, or it could be seen through the modern War on Terror (perhaps a bit of both?). However, considering the perspective is through that of the Imperialists of the UNSC is would be more accurate to say the War on Terror.
In the Halo franchise there is no moral grey area, it is all black and white: the bad guys are bad, and the good guys are good. While sometimes, when dealing with traitors (The Arbiter), some ambiguity sets in, the overreaching crescendo is that of humanity (Anglo-American heterosexist masculinity) is a shining ray of light while the aliens (foreigners, communists, etc) are evil and easily mislead.
As revolutionary gamers we are able to see through this shade and understand that Halo is a reflection of the times. So entrenched is the franchise that building communities of education within the game world should be easy enough for those enmeshed in the universe; cast light on the pro-war stance, unearth the real world inspiration, and forge new online progressive communities with the tools provided.
Genre: Role-Playing Games
Game(s): Mass Effect
The Mass Effect series has sold millions of copies the world over. With its original gameplay mechanics to its memorizing plot each release has continued to build upon a foundation which amazed from the beginning. The story is as simple as it can be: an unexpected hero, a military grunt, is thrown into the wider universe to cobble together a coalition capable of battling the gods themselves; one plays as Commander Shepard, a military man, dedicated to stopping the Reapers, a sentient race of super-machines, from eradicating all life in the Galaxy.
As one might expect, however, not everyone in the galaxy believes that the Reapers are real. Even after the protagonist is infused with images of a time long ago, one where the Reapers decimated all advanced organic life, one must foster trust between highly diverse alien races in order to direct resources to fighting said threat but as well to overcoming traitors, terrorists, and renegade synthetic slaves.
Suffice to say the Mass Effect trilogy is a beloved treasure of many action RPG enthusiasts.
Yet what does this series show message wise? Is it conservative, liberal, revolutionary, fascist? It is enough to say that it isn’t any of those but it is not enough to simply say it has some of all. As with any blockbuster title Mass Effect has something for everyone. To truly understand how this is, however, especially in relation to what these universal themes are, we must look inwards and disassemble the game brick by brick.
Driving Force of Good
The key to understanding, in my opinion, the primary political direction of any thread is to identify the primary force which is driving the protagonists forward. What enables them to fight? Who is their sponsor? For Mass Effect this is a simple answer: the military. The Human military is the primary bulwark against the hordes of foes itching to slaughter humans. It is the human military which protects the galaxy, who takes the heaviest loses to protect other races, even though those races shun them politically, and it is the human military who goes toe-to-toe with smugglers, deranged scientists, and arms traders; essentially all those lumpen-proletarat elements which are undesirable.
Driving Force of Evil
As with the forces of good the forces of evil have parallels. This topic is slightly harder to pin down in each game, as the antagonist is not so clear. While the Reapers still are the overriding threat very little is said about them or their programming. By the end of the trilogy we know that the Reapers periodically destroy all advanced organic life in the Galaxy so as to ensure the continuance of a great cycle, a supposedly illustrious task assigned to them by some unknown higher power. Failure to do so will result in unexplained cataclysms, in “throwing the universe out of order”.
This certainly does not tell us much. While in-between each game there are several murky factions - the Geth, fascistic human nationalists called Cerberus, and corrupted religious and police figures - each new conflict can be boiled down to either brainwashing or black and white morality.
In Intellectual Properties as rich as Mass Effect there are seldom times where issues from the real world fail to cross-over. Depending on the developer this can either take a proactive stance or a reactive one. In Mass Effect this takes a proactive stance and furthers the cause of sexual equality. In all three Mass Effect games there have been options to engage in same-sex romances. This takes full form during the third where not only is selecting a gay partner permissible but failure to do so will result in less experience rewards. The third game is also where a homosexual crew member is on-board and regales you with many stories of his life; undoubtedly the shock many homophobes received when they heard the word “boyfriend” was great.
Cultural issues again take prominence in race-relations. While the standard Black and White is prevalent it is transmogrified to take the shape of relations between alien races (so as to fit the sci-fi premise). As a commander in the Human military the player is tasked with navigating the delicate waters of having aliens on board: does the crew not mind non-human members? If there are problems how does one handle it? Particularly in the second game, where the player is temporarily aligned with the ultra-humanist group Cerberus, that this is pushed into full swing.
Being by their nature ultra-nationalists, race supremacists, Cerberus believes that humanity should be on top and they will do anything to reach this end. While working for them the player comes across many difficult choices: from deciding whether to permit character growth, determining if certain individuals can be crew, to deciding, in part, if an oppressed race can once again reproduce, the decisions are many.
Not all cross-overs are cultural in nature, however. Some are political. This is seen most clearly in the conflict between the Qurians and the Geth. Greatly resembling the modern conflict with Palestine and Israel, the war in this universe saw the fascistic Qurians expelled from their home worlds after they attempted to murder all the Geth; robotic servants, who gained self-consciousness.
Expelled from their home world after defeat the Qurians became a nomadic people, never stopping on their journey through space, and never ceasing in searching for a way to return home again. Culminating at the end of the third game with a vicious war of aggression headed by warmongering Quarian politicans, the Quarians eventually, through the slick wheel greasing of the player, come to a understanding with the Geth which amounts to a “one-state solution.”
This alternate account of history can be looked upon much in the same way of the Palestine-Israeli conflict. Only in this account the fascistic settler state is defeated and forced to terms with their foes. This retelling becomes even more prominent once the player understands who the Geth are.
Indeed the Geth are more than simply robotic humanoids. They are machines which work in tandem with each other; they communicate and come to a consensus without leaders, they refrain from launching expansionist wars, and there is individuality within a moneyless collective. They are, in short, communists building a communist world; a system which is expanded to include the Quarians after their failed military incursion.
The narrative here is one of multiculturalism, pride in your military, and the inherent good of ultra-individualism. Coating this chunk of blasé liberal concoction is the typical shout-outs to oppressed minorities, a borderline radical alternative to history, and the expected hostility to extreme right-wing ideology. It is an experience drilled home through dozens of hours of play and hundreds of weighty decisions. It is meant to keep the masses electrified yet content.
Revolutionary Response to The Narrative
The driving themes which any player will walk away with is, of course, the ultra-individuality; one cannot literally unite and save the galaxy without leaving with the impression that collective work will fail (especially with the myriad of bureaucratic foes standing in your way at every step). This is splashed with heavy doses of hierarchal teamwork to impress the player with diversity without taking away from the central protagonist.
How should revolutionaries react to this narrative when it can be difficult to call it out? How can we highlight the progressive aspects of the universe without legitimizing the reactionary?
Some basic outlines of what we can do: when Geth (re: communist) segments come up we can highlight the positive aspects of the Geth’s struggle for freedom along with the justification for their actions. When portrayals of gay characters come along we can comment how it took guts for the developer to include such a sub-plot, which, by the same logic, we can employ the same and speak of the parallels that Cerberus’s xenophobia has in regards to the racism of today. We can, when the many scenes of hero worship arrive, skillfully dissect the numerous flaws in how one person can save everyone and the actual real world implications for when this belief is placed into question.
It is not easy work by any means. Not when the game is one as large as Mass Effect and when each event can be interpreted in several different ways. Yet it is important revolutionary gamers make such connections and create valid counter-points because if we do not than no one else will and the potential gains from revealing the rancid points, and promoting the sweet points, will be forever lost.
Game(s): The Elder Scrolls
The Elder Scrolls series has a grand legacy of open world exploration. Like many I was introduced to the series via the entry for the original Xbox: Morrowind. Compared to the linear role playing games of Japan The Elder Scrolls offered players a chance to break away from convention and do what they want when they wanted. This trend continued with the release of the fifth entry: Skyrim.
Set during a turbulent age where dragons have returned to the lands of Tamerial (the fictional landmass where the game takes place) the player is tasked with the quest of harnessing their latent powers as a Dragonborn and slaying the dragons’ foul leader.
As always Bethsda delivered a rich, masterfully crafted world. Within every corner of Skyrim there are wonderfully molded villages which are filled with the multitude of uniqueness one would expect from a chaotic land run amok; between the creature slaying and questing it is easy to become lost in the troubles of its inhabitants. As progress is made, however, discovery turns from naiveté towards bewilderment for it is not hard to uncover the many political overtones present in the game[viii].
Though it may be expected that I should focus on the primary campaign, for the purposes of this examination I will not. Instead I will examine an important in-world event: the Skyrim Civil War. The reasons for doing this come down to the belief that though there are events undoubtedly relevant in the campaign mode (like the return of the dragons symbolic for the periodic market crashes which are inherent in capitalism) such events are too general to be considered seriously; this is in sharp contrast to the civil war campaign which possesses more politically relevant content.
The civil war in the Imperial provenance of Skyrim began in reaction to the terrible loses the Nordic people suffered. After years of warfare with the neighboring Thalmor Imperium a peace was settled where worship of the Nord god-king Tiber Septimus was banned. Combined with the heavy casualties the conflict left many Nords with a bitter taste of Imperial rule.
It is only natural than that severe reaction should arise.
This took the form of Alfric Stormcloak, a self-proclaimed hero of the Nord people. In a coup de ta he assassinated the High King of Skyrim thus initiating the provincial civil war. His rebellion was one of national liberation; to force the Empire to withdraw from Skyrim and allow the Nord people to pursue their own destiny.
All well and good until one reaches the many points in the game where the Stormcloaks are revealed to be as close to Nazis as the game allows. Time and time again the player is confronted with racism, isolationism, and racial superiority. In the stormcloak capital the Dark Elves are rounded up into ghettoes, foreigners mistrusted at every step, and non-Nord races left to fend on their own before being deported.
In light of this revelation the narrative of the game evolved. What had once seemed like a clear cut choice as to who to side with now becomes muddled: Imperialism or Fascism?
The message here is one of degrees, where there is no truly victorious conclusion. It is a narrative of either supporting the status quo (Imperial rule=capitalist rule) or allowing fascism to triumph (Stormcloaks).
In the modern world this game was made during a real financial depression. During such times where people are more susceptible to alternative manners of living-revolutionary left or radical right-the game refuses to present a working class option and instead regulates all possible decisions to “lesser evilism” politicking. This is a kind of isolationism and pro-bourgeois support on a covert level rarely seen.
To revolutionary gamers what does this mean? How can we impart our mode of analysis to promulgate such content to our own purposes?
For one we can dissect the Stormcloak ideology. Reveal its rancid real world anchor and inform others on its hideous design, their historical parallels. While doing this we can give our thoughts on what it means that the developers refused to insert a third progressive option (the combat group The Companions notwithstanding); how their cleaver propping up of the “legitimacy” of capitalism through elementary morality is nothing but a shaky fulcrum in the world economic system.
Game(s): Final Fantasy
Decades have passed since the first Final Fantasy game released. Since then, including tens-of-millions of copies later, Square Enix has amazed generations of gamers with their deep, involving story-lines: From the world dominating ethics of the Shinra Electric Company in Final Fantasy VII to more recent, if less well received, entries in the Fabula Nova Crystallis universe, the developers know how to bring a realm to life.
This talent blooms, and one could say peaks when dealing with the PS3 entries, specifically on Final Fantasy XIII. While lacking the dynamic appeal of the earlier entries, XIII brings something new to the table in terms of plot-social rejection. In all previous Final Fantasy games the heroes were, for the most part, socially accepted individuals thrown into dangerous situations. Not so here.
The set-up is this: on the artificial moon of Cocoon humanity lives a privileged, carefree life. Under the protection of the Fal’cie every want and need is taken care of. However, there is paranoia and intense xenophobia; people from the underworld-Pulse-are forbidden from attaining citizenship. There is a constant witch hunt for those who might be corrupted. This is exemplified by The Purge.
One day, when a foreign Fal’cie is accidentally brought on board Cocoon the government, the Sanctum, invokes a mass purge deporting and murdering all the citizens living near where the Fal’cie was brought. In the process the town of Bodhum is brutally evacuated. Yet not all was lost for during the purge six stragglers from varying walks of life come together to escape and fulfill their destiny.
Once they escape from the carnage of Bodhum’s destruction, however, they find emblazoned on their skins the mark of the l’cie; a pattern which will transform them into deranged monsters if they fail to complete what is known as a “Focus”, a quest of vague intent.
At this point our heroes are outcasts. They bear the dreaded mark and combined with their corrupted status are social anathema. The fellow citizens of Cocoon want nothing to do with them while the military is on the hunt and looking to execute them. While by the end of the game their Focus is fulfilled, the evil Gods which intended to enslave humanity is defeated, and Cocoon is saved the process in which they reach this conclusion is unexpected.
It is a story of rejection and desperation. Such is a departure from Square Enix’s usual Final Fantasy stories. Any player making their way through each chapter can easily relate to the cast’s struggles; whether one is gay, Black, Arab or Transgender there is a powerful tug on identification that allows the gamer to relate in a strong, if not somewhat unconscious, manner.
For us revolutionaries this is a rare opportunity. While many game series can evoke such feelings few have the visibility and popularity as the Final Fantasy franchise. With more of this kind of plot intended from Square Enix, who described upcoming titles as following in the same shoes as XII, revolutionary gamers should make it a point to develop a comprehensive mode of analysis so as to explain XIII’s narrative, give parallels to Barthandelus, the game’s late reveled antagonist, and give light to the disenfranchised masses who feel as persecuted as the l’cie.
Some might call the Persona series an underground hit, others will call it a wildly successful Japanese Role Playing Game (JRPG) franchise, in whatever the case, the series has held true to tenants whom other JRPGs have avoided: mature themes and deep problems; youth alienation and overcoming one’s inner demons.
The series revolves around taming demons and performing well in school. This comes out full force in the third entry. Here the focus is centered on the protagonist, a young man who recently moved to a new high school from a rural town. This youth, whom you name, is special; for he is one of the lucky few who are able to retain consciousness when the Midnight Hour strikes; a “secret” hour between midnight and the next day where all persons on the earth are enveloped in mysterious coffins and from the local high schools sprouts a monstrous tower called Tartarus.
It is while fighting through this mega-dungeon that the player must juggle school (earning good grades), friendships (which increase the number of alter-egos the player can create), and physical condition (which is related to combat). All three must be balanced with each other in order to master the game and yet all three bellows a unique narrative rarely seen.
In most video games the combat is straight forward: you have a weapon-a gun or sword-and there are enemies to slaughter. From here it doesn’t take much to connect the dots as to what to do. In Persona 3 the combat is turn based and the characters, despite being in high school, are trained in arcane weapons (bows, swords, spears, etc). Yet this is not the centerpiece.
What makes Persona 3 different is how magic is handled. While in most games you simply select a spell and it is cast in Persona magic is handled through the youth’s alter-ego, their Persona. Yet to summon this Persona one must possess and activate a tool called an Evoker.
Controversially this Evoker takes the shape of a handgun and in order to activate it to summon one’s Persona the user must place it against their forehead and pull the trigger, exactly as if one was committing suicide.
Creatively this took guts to implement. It does, however, speak volumes, however morbid it may seem at first. This is because in Western society suicide is frowned upon, it is seen as weakness. And while tragic it is neither tolerated nor allowed serious, or satirical, room to express itself. The fact that the developers not only choose a figurative suicide as a means of summoning the Persona within says great things. Things such as in order to be berthed anew one must kill that old part of yourself, that in order to survive and defend yourself, other parts must be sacrificed instead; this is represented magnificently in the protagonists, young people who are forging ahead in life while saving the world must let go and destroy the old selves, otherwise, their growth, their maturity, will never be satisfied.
Few role playing games have mechanics which require the player to forge friendships with other characters. This is what Persona does. Unlike in other games where it is all about killing Persona throws in social actions which impact on the main quest and can either help or hinder you. Furthermore this aspect of the game is rich. The end goal here is to become best friends with a character. Once this happens new options for Persona creation will unlock (via the protagonist’s inner growth). Yet to reach this honored stage one must help one’s peers overcome terrible burdens; from memories of domestic abuse, to shyness, weight problems, to loneliness the gamut of concerns mirrors that of the real world perfectly and reminds the player that the situations faced by the in-game characters are based on everyday occurrences.
As every revolutionary organizer understands everyone comes from different walks of life. No two people will share the same experience. Understanding this vital key is paramount to any novice organizer. In this sense games like Persona, which has a plethora of varying social interactions to surmount, can serve as the lowest possible platform to knowing this fact and building a new youth movement. What one masters in the virtual world, after all, can provide back-up for real world encounters.
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Revolutionary gamers, especially those still in high school and college, would do well to take pointers from Persona in terms of social-interactions (or like in Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs): one cannot participate in revolutionary activity and education/ world saving hijinks, or not very well anyways, if their social setting is hostile. The revolutionary advanced/protagonist must work hand-in-hand with the masses/characters, help them at their level, and begin, at this lowest stage in life, at the formulations of a mass line/friendship capable of leading young people towards a new horizon.
The Final Level
As we have seen there are a variety of different messages in any assortment of video games. From reactionary tirades to progressive ballads there seem to be games which touch every aspect of our lives and push a specific political agenda.
We have looked at first person shooters and role playing games. During this examination we have uncovered opinions both terrible and wonderful. Yet there are many other games whom, despite not critiquing, spell poignant messages.
Games like Grand Theft Auto, Zone of the Enders, Metal Gear Solid, Bioshock, Dues Ex: Human Revolution, Gears of War, and Half-Life, among many, many others, all, in their own ways, push dynamic worlds and fascinating moral quandaries; some of these are satirical while others are dead serious political statements.
The consensus here, if one has been reached at all, is that video games, long thought to be merely the realm of children’s entertainment, pack some of the greatest communication mediums of the 21st century; tools which, left to their own messages, can either harm or encourage the growth of class consciousness. To call ourselves revolutionary gamers we must rise to the challenge and meet this grand platform with our own society-changing demands.
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PT2: The Working Class Gamer: Psychology and Society
In part one we studied some of the wildly popular game franchises and their messages. Next we will delve into the psychological effects as well as the social-phenomena gaming unleashes in relation to the revolutionary working class movement; we will explore what influence such messages possess, the gameplay dynamics (such as addiction and managing a virtual economy),as well as the emergence of the “Cyber-Class”, and persecution from anti-gaming advocates.
The video game industry has come a long way from the early days of Nolan Bushnell. What started as a simple quarter machine in a single bar has, in the period of a few decades, exploded to unprecedented heights overtaking Hollywood in terms of profits. Far removed from Nolan’s pirated Pong, the games today are intricate webs of stellar graphics and hard-hitting plots; ditching the mascots of yesterday modern game developers have forged ahead with an ever more “edgy” ambition so as to slate their audience of millions.
Ambrosia: Addicted to the Good Times
Some payers, however, do more than simply play the games-they live them. They throw themselves into the game world and play for countless hours which can destroy their social-life. Such people literally cannot stop playing. This occurrence is an uncommon phenomenon yet it does pose an interesting question: can the gaming addicts serve the revolutionary movement or are they, like Marx’s conception of the Lumpenproletariat, “the scum of decaying elements”?
The answer is not clear cut. As in all such important questions though we must examine the aspect which we are attempting to understand on a more basic level, on the subject’s level- their life.
Before we proceed, however, I must clarify what I mean by “addict” as well as the difference between an “addict” and a hardcore gamer. When I say someone is a gaming addict I do not mean they are a hardcore gamer. Simply because someone spends a great deal of time playing a game does not make them an addict; this is an important distinction due to the misconception that hardcore gamers, people who thrive on difficulty, often spend many hours playing, are incorrectly labeled as “addicts”. What makes a person a gaming addict is the “craving” the psychological need to play more. In addition to the irrational amount of time devoted to the game while the hardcore gamer is a heavy player they can quit when it is time to engage in daily chores, this is something the addict cannot do. It is also not my intention to give belief to the mistaken concept that games in themselves (technology) inflict behavioral dependency, as there are many cases where inborn emotional and mental disorders exacerbate the subject’s gaming.
That being said (online) gaming addiction, if such truly exists, is little different than any other addiction: an addict spends all their time and effort satisfying their craving even though it means facets of their actual life falls to the wayside. A drug addict will steal, threaten, and beg in order to secure their next “fix”; a “gaming addict” will do the same. A drug addict will get high until their supply runs dry; a gaming addict will do the same.
Here, at this intersection, is where we need to study. Unlike a drug addict, who has a limited supply of their obsession, a gaming addict, while still technically possessing access to their obsession only so as long as the electricity and/or internet bill is paid, has in their possession a near unlimited amount of their obsession. They can spend much longer slating their cravings than a drug, or sex addict as their craving is not measured by what quantity they have in possession but by what time they are able to devote.
An additional change is that unlike the drug addict, who seals himself away in a remote place to “use”, an online gaming addict socializes with other people. From a realpolitik standpoint this poses a fascinating moral question, namely, can the gaming addict be a conduit for spreading revolutionary information; can their “addiction” be used to not only satisfy their craving but spread anti-capitalist propaganda?
The answer comes in duality: yes and no. The online gamer can be utilized to be a socialist harbinger while the offline gamer cannot.
Answering why this is can be traced to rudimentary social interactions: if you are not communicating with other people, than you cannot spread a message (a computer and game console make for poor revolutionaries). The online gamer, who spends incalculable hours slaying bosses in MMORPGs and blasting strangers in First Person Shooters, can, in whatever way they see fit, agitate for a revolutionary alternative. Those who lack this cannot serve the movement[ix].
Building on this it must be remembered that even the online gamer must first be a Leftist. As many may know attempting to divert an addict’s attention to a cause other than their obsession is difficult work, if not impossible work. So when it comes to something like learning Marxist theory it is almost assured that no gaming addict is going to leave the ultra-simulative version of a synthetic world for the dry world of obscure terms and history[x].
There is an alternative, however. While the addict and indeed most mainstream players will not explore revolutionary anti-capitalist theory due to the excitement of the game world we, as revolutionaries, can bring the theory to them using none other than the game’s own mechanics.
To explore this lets dive into a hypothetical situation in the persistent online realm of EVE. As I will talk about in-depth later on EVE is based around combat, exploration, and player driven economies centered on basic supply and demands needs. Featuring an engrossing backstory and immersive graphics EVE has a player base of almost half-a-million. This is ideal ground for superimposing alien theory to the unsuspecting person’s mind.
In EVE corporations are the true stage, the penultimate arena where the bulk of the game can be spent. As such the rulers of these corporations can often make poor decisions. For our hypothetical situation we shall conjure into being a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who hasn’t been playing long yet has managed a certain degree of success in his far-flung fiefdom; free from the larger corporation’s harassing control, yet holding enough power to be considered a local threat, he has been aggressively swallowing neighboring resources and sabotaging rivals attempts to gain a foothold. This has obviously had an ill-effect on the immediate community. What is a revolutionary to do?
The Mass Line
Organizing that is, what, as our forbearers did in the past to create their own revolutionary movements we must do in the virtual realm. For this simulation we already know that our CEO is not a compassionate leader. His vile gameplay has left an indelible mark on the community and many players dislike him. Though this animosity exists there is no established strategy on how to handle the situation. This is where the revolutionary gamer comes in. Following the principals of the Mass Line the online revolutionary must find means of leadership, of directing the scattered players, into a formidable oppositional force without the use of brute force. This is a window of opportunity to educate people on such organizing skills.
Protracted Peoples War
Transposing the tenants of Protracted Peoples War (PPW) into a game world which has rules that may or may not be able to fully abide by PPW’s demands can be a difficult reality to make. Yet one must make do with what is able to find. Once the ramshackle group of players has been assembled, by enticing them with reasons to fight which correspond to their own playing styles, begin by targeting the enemy’s outer most bases and resource colonies. When resources and player strength permit intensify the conflict by any means necessary until the strength of your forces are sufficient to force the enemy to consider disbanding their corporation. Again this is a window of opportunity to educate players on the dynamics of actual peoples war; not only this but the necessity of violence as well. As Gamers they understand that in order to gain ranks, level up, and earn the best gear they must slay foes. In doing so they are open to parallels where unjust systems of oppression (Capitalism) must be overthrown (Once they learn of its heinous ways) with the same tenacity in which they throw against bosses and rival guilds.
Socialism in One Star System
With victory ringing loud in everyone ears, and hopefully a decent sum of socialist propaganda, it is time to set up a corporation which follows socialist ideology as best as the game dynamics allow. In a combat heavy game this will not be perfect especially with players who probably will not fully grasp far-left ideology. Yet even establishing a place marker, something which follows communist doctrine as best as possible, is better than nothing. It is in this stage that education among the players can be done in earnest as the collective is not only filling the void left by the conflict but attempting to forge a communal setting in a space which doesn’t usually allow for such equality.
The Political Economy of Synthetic Worlds
As gameplay mechanics are diverse and the dynamics of playing different in each game there comes a moment where those who are advanced may communicate mature alternatives to capitalism within an environment which encourages economic talk.
In many MMORPGs there exists an entirely player driven economy. This means that the virtual goods traded, good which have real world value, are maintained not by executive power (developers, government, etc) but by their gamers themselves. This is perhaps nowhere more prevalent than within the now defunct game Star Wars Galaxies.
Before the developers shut it down (in order to eliminate competition for their new Star Wars MMORPG) the game possessed an intricate system of careers and entrepreneurships. As Stanford University’s Nick Yee explains in his essay The Labor of Fun: How Videogames Blur the Boundaries of Work and Play, players could select either Pharmaceutical manufacturing, bio-engineering, architecture, fashion design, or cooking. Once players had chosen their profession they were able to begin work on making a name for themselves.
This reputation forging took the form of socializing with other players. As Nick Yee details, using the pharmaceutical manufacturer as an example: “[Players] create their product by combining raw resources. These resources, such as chemicals or minerals, must be located using geological surveying tools and harvested using installations bought from other players skilled in industrial architecture.” Going on to say that since resource gathering is a time consuming process he explains how many players hire “resource brokers” to help cut them some slack and free up their hands. This is important since depending on the quality of resources used the product they place on the market will differ in quality.
From there the player must take into account the demands of the market, brand their product, and worry about the constant chain of supply and demand introduced by mass-production. If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. As Nick mentioned earlier, “Users spend on average 20 hours a week in online games, and many of them describe their game play as obligation, tedium, and, more like a second job than entertainment.” To bluntly state their in-game function “…they operate a [business] for fun”.
The overreaching point Mr. Yee stresses is that video game and work are becoming closely knit together. That eventually the two will be indistinguishable while in the immediate said games are training us to become better workers; both more knowledgeable in what we do and more prepared to tackle the demands of a 21st century economy.
Obviously Nick is looking towards the future. Indeed he seems more than a little idealistic. However he is tackling a major point, albeit in a conservative way, which we, as Leftists, should be taking advantage of. After all, does such gameplay mechanics not sound like the perfect opportunity to communicate with other mature (non-addicts who healthily manage their gameplay) players about the inherent flaws, violence, and contradictions within the capitalist mode of production? Could we not employ the in-game concepts as examples to lecture on the “real world” market systems?
Currently, it is painfully obvious that people who excel in such worlds are capable of understanding Leftist theory. Take, for example, the virtual world of Eve Online. Designed as a Sci-Fi MMORPG EVE revolves around players taking control of their experience. Much like in Star Wars Galaxies players in EVE can choose a career, mine and harvest materials so as to make products which they can sell to other players for in-game credits.
Examining component creation we find that players need special instrument (the Tools of Production) to harvest the raw resources, players must build refineries (Means of Production) before using their skills (Labor Power) to forge components which are of use when building advanced space ships and structures. Experienced players will, after long enough, begin to see traces of their efforts in real world businesses.
Moving on to another example is how player vs. player combat is handled. Employing the use of the Corporation concept EVE subscribers are able to start a corporation for a (in-game) fee. One aspect of Corporations is that they allow players to fight each other without the loss of prestige that follows out-of-corporate affiliation. Yet a more prevalent aspect of this is the Empire building dynamics.
As one might expect from an Open-World economy, EVE allows players to bring their corporations into alliances with other corporations. These are called Alliances. Under an alliance players are able to chart more effective trade routes (all in game materials used for component creation must be delivered via player), generate more in-game credits and resources, as well as colonize entire star systems.
So it is not surprising that rivalries develop. Between Alliances such competition explodes into Trade Wars; conflicts over whom will have the richest planets and resource harvesting operations. Conflict over which Corporate Alliance will have the local monopoly is a fantastic in-game psudeo-exposure to Imperialism.
Not only Imperialism can be seen but also exploitation and Stock Market mechanics. This is revealed in the structure of corporations: as in the real world a CEO stands on top with a whole convoluted tier of underlings below. As in any financial undertaking there are those who perform the menial grunt work and those who live the high life. EVE is no different. With players able to take on a variety of roles within the corporation, not all of them fantastic, the lowest rung soon learns that being a pilot or crafter is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
The second is glimpsed by the in-game stock exchange. Once large enough each corporation is able to sell shares of their company to other players. This functions much like how the actual stock exchange on Wall Street functions. A price is set for each share and as players buy or sell they can not only become wealthy but determine which corporation is able to develop sophisticated weapons. In this manner prowess in combat matters heavily to each corporation as no one is likely to invest in a weak entity.
When it comes to declaring war the shareholders must vote on whether the conflict will bring good business. This is then weighed against the Executive Board’s opinion. With each office being held by a living breathing person, with opposing spies possible in the highest reaches of government-making assassination a real possibility for a powerful CEO-the reflections of the real world are too many to list.
If revolutionary gamers are but willing to bring their knowledge to the forefront when an opportunity for exposition presents itself I believe some gains in class consciousness can be made, however minor they might be. While the disconnect between reality is still strong the fact that such personalities are able to comprehend the visceral histories of these history based synthetic worlds is something which didn’t exist decades past.
Which is exactly my whole point: If we do not take advantage of the digital frontier the capitalists certainly will. In the synthetic world of Second Life, a MMORPG which allows players to create an alter ego, called an Avatar, real life corporations such as American Apparel have opened storefronts to promote and sell their products. Gone are the days of simply having a website and in are the days of having a website where one can see a virtual model of the product one is considering buying. By opening up this storefront American Apparel is not only making money from selling virtual goods but they are gathering data on their customer’s preferences.
Many might be surprised to know that many people can make a living, or at least a profit, off of selling virtual goods. This is due to Second Life’s mechanics. Because of many users drive to customize their avatars with the latest and most cutting edge looks and to create their own landscapes and houses, an entire industry has blossomed.
Generating revenue in this manner works like this: A real world fashion designer plies her skills in game to make virtual clothes. Since these clothes aren’t already in the game’s inventory other users will have no other way to access these new items. The seller is the only person who can distribute them; to obtain a piece of clothing one must buy. Using real world money this can lead to a lucrative operation.
The same can be said of the real estate moguls. Like the fashion designers these people use their skills to make real world profit only they do it through the selling of virtual property instead of virtual clothes. Due to the large size of Second Life, 180 square kilometer, the necessities to run this world tally at around 3000 CPUs. The manner in which the developers decide how that horsepower is used is through real estate. Because each player owns the I.P rights to what they create, and the more you create the more horsepower you have access to, there is a rush among players to gobble up all they can. This translates into real value being placed on each property and with real value comes real money; with monthly transactions totaling over 2.7 million dollars the proof is in the pudding; proving this in stunning etiquette is Anshe Chung who, after a scant ten dollar initial investment, developed her own Second Life landscape and fashion industry now estimated at over a million dollars in value.
This is taken to the next edge with individuals such as Jon Jacobs who leased a second mortgage on his house so as to purchase a massive virtual property in the Massively Online Game (MMO) Entropia Universe. Paying the developers over $100,000 dollars he purchased an in-game space station which he rented out to other players. Jon knew what he was doing, however. Soon afterwards he had not only made back his initial investment but began to generate over $200,000 annually from his tenants. This culminated when, in 2010, he sold his station, aptly called Club “Neverdie”, for over half-a-million dollars.
I do not think it is too far-fetched to advocate, when appropriate, alternative models of human organization. When dedicated to playing an online game this takes creativity, to be sure, and isn’t something to attract a flock of converts, yet when dealing specifically with video games, and your fellow gaming comrades, aligning to spread your dominance while spreading revolution simply seems like the natural conclusion.
The “Cyber-Class” Emerges
Taking the form of the direct economic formation of capitalist society, this following concept is something which has only recently emerged: the working and owning classes personified within the virtual arena, the so-called “cyber-class”.
Currently there are thousands of pro-gamers, individuals, mostly youth, who literally play games for a living. Their skills and reflexes are so great that they are able to make a living off of their most treasured hobby. Yet much like all “too good to be true” events there is a parallel: these lucky few can only etch out a living this way so as long as they are held in thrall to a corporate master.
Most, if not all, Pro-gamers belong to a professional gaming team (or clan, or group). Usually such organizations exist only to promote a product. It works like this: gamers want to make a living off of playing games, corporations want relevant mascots to promote their commodities during game industry events, corporations hire pro-gamers (or sponsor a team) to promote, whether it is directly or indirectly, their products. Results- sales for that product increase. This is exemplified stunningly in South Korea, the world’s most gaming friendly nation, where cell phone manufactures employ pro-gamers in their commercials and are sure to stick their logo anywhere it will fit.
So we see that pro-gamers only remain pro-gamers so as long as they possess a sponsor. Nowhere is this perhaps more personified than in South Korea, where pro-gamers are treated as celebrities and even national heroes. Here is where the most competitive pro-gamers reside. Here is where the cult of corporate gaming reaches its zenith.
In South Korea this level of fame was the logical conclusion of a nation being so technologically wired. With the highest percentage of households connected to the internet, with several different television stations devoted to full time video game coverage, and bursting with hordes of youth eager to connect with the latest fads, it is no surprise that the high-tech manufactures took to promoting icons of the generation which most often buy their products.
Indeed the business is often lucrative. Thanks to the set-up high profits are only the expected outcome. Because most pro-gaming teams are comprised of teenage boys, males who, before any public appearance undergo an extensive beauty routine, are carefully selected to bring in the female demographic, the corporate leaders can use the inevitably personality cults which develop around such young men as an effective means of selling a new phone, computer, or game[xi].
Brand names such as Sony, Samsung and others spend lavish amounts of money on the best ranked pro-gaming teams. In return for this funding the pro-gamers, as previously shown, sell themselves in the form of product endorsements and public appearances. These events, which occur in between tournaments and cups, are often a necessity due to the need of many of the players to bring in additional revenue to send home to their families.
Yet to win and compete one must practice. Driven hard by their managers these young pro-gamers, most of who are in their early to middle teens, often practice playing up to fifteen hours a day[xii]. With no union to protect their health and mental well-being, in addition to the short career of the average pro-gamer[xiii], the turn-over rate can be high.
The pro-gamers work so diligently for a reason, when a victory is earned, and corporate funding resumes pouring in, the entire team benefits. Yet between groceries and managerial compensation the hard hand of exploitation is easily felt.
This exploitation, however, is found in other sections of the gaming industry. Though pro-gamers slavish work schedule forces them to sell their labor-power at severely reduced rates, there are another section of gamers who, much like professional gamers, play games a for a living. Such gamers, however, are far removed from the awesome spectacle which their pro-gaming peers bask in.
They are known as Gold Famers and Power Levelers. The former are people who will accumulate in-game resources, often gold, so as to sell such gold, in exchange for real world dollars, to players who are eager to buy an in-game item without putting in the tedious hours necessary to collecting the needed resources themselves. The latter specialize in the same department only instead of farming for gold they grind for levels; much like how compiling in-game credits can be tiring so can amassing experience points, for this reason start-up companies have outsourced such tasks to places like China and Eastern Europe. What American gamers are too lazy to do themselves, desperate workers will do for absurdly low wages.
The industry has grown to such an extent, with some estimates placing the numbers in the millions that the Chinese government has gone as far to issue a 20% tax on all Gold Farming and Power-leveling operations. Though the labor is intensive and unregulated with no oversight whatsoever by any Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, for many unskilled, working class youth there is little else to choose from.
As one might have expected such operations are gloomy. Workers payments are often late, the wages are low, and the benefits are nonexistent. Eerily reminiscent of sweatshops there are no unions and the player behind the character can easily be replaced. To meet deadlines workers play nonstop; when one shift ends another worker begins where the last left off. Power-leveling, even ten levels, for the normal gamer can take weeks if not months, so to meet the customer’s demands, and to bring them back in future escapades, the desired level must be attained in but days. This means non-stop playing.
There is something to be said about this division. While both segments of such gamers are exploited, some are exploited more than others. How does the working class revolution factor into such positions? Is there leeway, collaboration room? Come the revolution what role will the cyber-working class have?
The roles here depend on which class tier we are dealing with. As in the real world there is an exploited working class. However this working class is large and divided by those who are more exploited than others and those who are given large salaries over those who are paid by the hour (often lowly). Those who are paid exceedingly well might be harder to sway to a revolutionary program.
The same social-nature extends to the cyber-class. In this shadow of production relation we can anticipate that those who are given the extension of pro-gamer might be less inclined to endorse a revolutionary stance. The caveat here is the prefix “Pro-“, professional. As in real world stances professionals are less inclined to push a proletarian agenda so there is little reason why their cyber-counterparts would do the opposite. The good news is that though they will be difficult to win over they can be won over. In addition to this scheme we can understand that the cyber-working class, those who farm for gold and power level, will be, like their real world compatriots, more likely to attach themselves to a worker emancipation movement. Yet much like how production relations in the cyber-world mimic those in the actual world so does the purpose such individuals plays.
Considering a revolutionary situation what role will the cyber-working class undertake? Since such hasn’t yet occurred we can only speculate but it would be safe to assume several concepts.
The first is for the professional gamer. While these people may be hard won, and might not be of incredible use during a workers uprising, they, like all professionals and intellectuals, can possess powerful propaganda capabilities. In their own way pro-gamers can influence other gamers to not simply propagandize online but go out and participate. Each group, each identity of the working class must have their own generals and the revolutionary pro-gamer fills the role for the “cyber-middle class” exceedingly well.
The second concept is for the cyber-working class proper: the gold farmers and power levelers. These people are in a precarious situation. Unlike their pro-gamer counterparts they are not in a powerful media position. As such there do not have any potential to participate as beacons or leaders. In addition to this their line of work-harvesting gold and experience points-doesn’t greatly affect the revolution; to be sure their actions come the revolution can impact the cyber-bourgeoisie but when talking about workers physically talking over their workplaces, establishing a revolutionary state, and repelling counterrevolutionary attempts at capitalist restoration, what role do they have?
It is not terribly controversial to say that it is likely in such a scenario that the cyber-bourgeoisie will enter into an alliance with other branches of the ruling class. The cyber-working class certainly can, at this point, rise up and take over their work stations, their computer labs, and run the operation themselves thus enriching everyone present. While this might not curtail real world violence under revolutionary management they could, when power-leveling and farming, now agitate within the virtual world; changing their website to be socialist friendly, spreading awareness of current events as they happen, and more. None of these obviously will tremendously push the movement forward by themselves yet such is precisely the point: while small, they are workers, and while lacking power they are still included within the capitalist system of exploitation; every worker in every branch of industry must bring to the movement what they are able, no matter where they are employed.
Persecution: Killing the Golden Goose
Though enslaved under the same market forces which compel their “real world” counterparts, the cyber-class faces an additional challenge on-top of barely etching out a living: persecution. As following any great shift reaction emerges; like air bubbles coming to the surface of the Marianas Trench anti-gaming advocates swim out of their regressive pits to assault the popular medium.
Anti-gamer arguments fall under the much lauded “media effects” category. They claim that video games are a detriment on society. They bellow incessantly that games like Grand Theft Auto and Doom teach children to kill and steal, to, in short, become criminals and terrorize society. Using falsified data, overblown study results, and good old fashioned pseudo-science such people is the modern equivalent of Christian Moralists of decades past whining about supposed satanic influence in rock-n-roll.
The goal of the anti-gaming advocates is to ban all violent video games while making the remaining nothing more than family friendly opuses. As with most extremists, however, their definition of violent is far more inclusive than what you or I might define as violent. Their approach would condemn games rated “Teen” by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) while forcing everything else from the shelf.
Such a caveat is an important distinction to make. This is because some of the most popular games (Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, etc) are within the rating which not only falls within the advocates scope but which are also home to almost literally every pro-gamer and cyber-worker who depends on said game to make a living.
Because they can only see irrational hatred of video games as a positive and wholeheartedly believe that the elimination of such a medium will mean a better, less violent society, they blindly peruse persecution as their means to an end. In their frenzy to achieve this goal, however, they fail to see the other side, the real side; where people not only derive enjoyment from playing such games after a laborious working day, but those people who depend on said games to make a living.
Anti-gamers like Jack Thomson, however, do not care if their actions would hurt workers or curtail youth rights, for they only care about imposing their narcissistic will on the populous. For them it does not matter if young people are victimized, school shootings are used as a pretext for biased assaults, or game programmers forced from their jobs. All are simply ammunition to be expended; like Imperialist warmongers, anti-gaming advocates care little for the human cost their crusade leaves behind.
This, however, raises a good question: what would happen if the anti-gaming advocates had their way? For this we must make a distinction. The distinction comes in the form of hemisphere; meaning, is the anti-gaming advocates forcing their will in North America and Europe or in Asia and Eastern and Central Europe?
We must make this detail known because it affects the outcome of the aftermath. If anti-gaming advocates transmogrified their will into law within the industrial centers than it will mean great economic loss. Thousands of developers will lose their jobs, artists and creative studios will close, and billions of dollars in capital will be lost. Likewise, lf the advocates triumph within the cheap labor market, the effects will ripple out, shoving millions of so-called “gold famers” and “power-levelers” from their occupations and into the streets.
In either scenario the outcome is not pleasant. While looking deeper at the hypothetical within the industrialized centers one cannot discern as bleak an outcome as within the neo-colonial centers, the regressive imprint on expression, culture and art would be more than sufficient to make any Leftist revolutionary cringe at the prospect.
Saving the Universe: A conclusion
Revolution doesn’t wait, it does not patiently idle while the revolutionaries catch up to it; revolution barrows forward at a breakneck pace. With each new communication force society becomes more intertwined. Through this fact revolution becomes more integrated. Because of this relation we revolutionaries must become more integrated; we must adapt and create comprehensive strategies for combating reactionary doctrine wherever it reigns.
This is not an easy task. This is due precisely to out epoch. While communication is more “wired” than ever, people, paradoxically, seem more secluded than ever. Many are content to live sealed away from the working of the wider world and remain isolated in a virtual cage. Our task is made hard because of this; we go from propagandists to jail-breakers.
Yet before we can even jail-break (educate) we must envision: we must be armed with our Marxist analysis, with our revolutionary texts, and helpful desire to make our ideology easy for the masses to understand. We must go from obscurity to notoriety; it is this reason, that our task is made hard.
Even to sketch out possible places to begin, as I have done here, the attitude often boils down to propaganda and waiting, education and waiting, becoming a force in-game… and waiting. Waiting for sympathetic people to show an interest, waiting for them to take an interest in learning and asking questions, waiting to see how they progress and more. The tasks are further obstructed by the amount of effort we inject into such activity: do we do so in such quantities that the roleplaying aspect of the game is altered or just enough to make us seem like unconventional players? Is it even right for us to do so at all and will it ever be worth the trouble? For us revolutionary gamers this is a central question which must be carefully considered.
For all of the difficulties we face, however, we will overcome. We will surmount our obstacles and forge ahead. This is the revolutionary motto, after all. Leftist revolutionaries are no strangers to sacrifice, to building new communities of resistance where none before existed. We take this historic task bestowed upon us by the natural course of human development and carry it out towards its glorious conclusion.
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Marx, Karl “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1852)
Professional Gamers “Hardcore vs. Professional: What’s the Difference?” (http://professionalgamers.org/general-discussion/hardcore-vs-professional-whats-the-difference/) (2011)
Parker, Laura “Game Addiction: The Real Story” (http://www.gamespot.com/features/game-addiction-the-real-story-6207309/) (2009)
Yee, Nick “A New Disorder is Born” (http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/001494.php?page=1) (2006)
Pineiro-Escoriaza, Juan Carlos (Director). (2008). “Second Skin” (Motion Picture-13:16-16:40)
Polo, Susana “Girls Don’t Play Video Games, But This Ten Year Old Stole More Than $1K For Them” (http://www.themarysue.com/10-year-old-girl-steals-video-games/) (2012)
Spencer, Richard “Man dies after 7-day computer game session” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1544131/Man-dies-after-7-day-computer-game-session.html) (2007)
For a thorough summery and guide on what a Corporation entails see here: http://wiki.eveonline.com/en/wiki/Corporation_management_guide#Benefits_of_Corporate_Membership
Rise of the Video Game: Level Five (Television mini-series, 2007)
StarCraft: World Cyber Games 2005 (National Geographic Documentary) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Kc0Pgm8lWRw)
For an example of a power-leveling and gold farming company see here: http://www.powerlevelstudio.com/Aion-Power-leveling-From-creditable-companies.aspx
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[I]The reason I do not game as much as I once did is mainly because I tired of playing through many of the same game environments, plots, and fighting the same enemies as before. I played games for the story and many such games, especially with the decline of Final Fantasy, simply weren’t offering me what I craved so I gradually crept down playing until I only played either the biggest released which I was eagerly looking forward to or the low-budget indie games where creativity still flourishes.
[II]My parents were embroiled in martial concerns at the time so being the unprepared parents they were didn’t have much time, or skill, at teaching life lessons.
[III]This I know for fact. I lived a very secluded childhood in a semi-rural area. For most of my youth I had no connection to the internet and had no desire to read. Without video games I would have been left to my own devices and probably never would have taken to heart the trials and tribulations of my childhood heroes; while many other boys might idolize Basketball players or presidents mine were the protagonists from my favorite games; in this sense, with an idol who will not be dragged down into the muds when arrested, I was able to internalize virtues which otherwise would not have come to me.
[IV]An interesting tidbit I have picked up in my time of interactions is how the generation gap affects people’s chances of laughing at such a statement. Young people, by and large, tend to accept this statement as true, for better or worse, while older people almost always shrug it off as meaningless.
[V]No Leftist organization that I know of. I know some groups may publish a piece on some detrimental aspect of an uber-reactionary game-such as what was seen with the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops-yet for the most part the revolutionary left’s interaction with the medium has been as rare as seeing an albino peacock in the wild.
[VI]When this inevitably happens it would be best for all it is was not a reactionary organization which was the antithesis of everything we stand for.
[VII]Unless otherwise noted I obtained all sales data from “VGchatz” (http://www.vgchartz.com/)
[VIII]For a brief attempt at explaining Skyrim’s political and social economy see here: http://www.revleft.com/vb/group.php?do=discuss&group=&discussionid=6525
[IX]This is not to say that we should condone “gaming addiction” or that it should be either fostered or used as an acceptable substitute towards street action but rather is an attempt to make an inquiry into the activity of those who intend to spend their time in the game world regardless of what is happening politically. As Leftists we know that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit and though we can help people change their direction to a more positive locale, we cannot force them to; so in this manner the previous section was an attempt to begin discussion on a difficult topic and begin to flesh out how everyone, regardless of circumstance, can contribute to the movement.
[X]This is taken from personal experience. In my youth I would game heavily all day and not be bothered to even watch television. A memory of mine which truly brings this home is when after playing for so long in one session my mother tried, in vein, to divert my attention to something other than the game. Building on this I think it is safe to say that if one cannot even seduce the excessive gamer to TV than Marxist theory is out of the question.
[XI]It is important to remember that the female demographics buying power in many technologically wired Asian nations are much stronger than their North American and European counterparts where the primary demographic are 18-25 y/o males.
[XII]This practice time is relatively consistent throughout the globe. So while South Korea may be the most formidable team the amount of practice time to be competitive is, despite national boundaries, consistent.
[XIII]The average career of a pro-gamer is about a decade, maybe longer depending on the individual. This is because career length is tied to how quickly one can input command into the computer. As one grows older the neurological responses slow down thus eventually killing the edge which gives young pro-gamers their highly praised skill.