In the 20th Century, interaction with the media amounted to literally talking back at the television. By the second decade of the 21st Century, talking back at the TV has become making the TV, whether that be via gaming, meme production, the posting of homemade videos or the constant publication of a combination of text, video and still image on social media platforms. Homer Simpson — agitated but essentially apathetic media receptacle — is no longer an accurate model of the media consumer. Instead, Lisa Simpson’s saxophone improvisations provide a more fitting account of the new media audience-producer who endures but responds freely to an alienating cultural sphere by producing her own cultural products. This participation can take the form of meme production, gaming, music and video production, video streaming, computer hacking and game design. Though Steve Bannon appears to want to use gaming to hamper our free creativity, rather than embrace it.
The former White House Chief Strategist and ExecutiveChairman of right wing online newspaper Breitbart came to video gaming as CEO of Affinity Media (formerly Internet Gaming Entertainment) from 2007 to 2012. Affinity Media employed players of games such as World of Warcraft to ‘farm’ in-game treasures and rewards through gameplay, that were then sold to other players. If evidence were needed that gaming tends to take on the character of real world exploitation (rather than itself creating exploitation), a large number of non-western players were engaged by Bannon to work for low wages playing games so that they could win goodies that were then sold for huge profits to western gamers, with the money going to financial investors. Though aside from this, Bannon saw in the hordes of gamers online every day as a great amorphous mass ripe for shaping into his political mould, stating, “These guys, these rootless white males, had monster power.”
It is that so called monster power he sought to channel as head of right wing news site Breitbart, where he employed alt-right darling Milo, who attempted with Bannon to tame and direct the boundless energy of the internet forum and meme.
Bannon arguably makes a mistake of reasoning in assuming the world to need more, rather than less control. Seeing liberalism as a rule-adverse system that presided over a collapse in morals and in the financial system, he prescribes a society of moral certainties, hard trading borders and immigration restrictions.
And while it’s true that video games operate around rule systems, what’s groundbreaking about games in the 21st Century isn’t the amount of rules a player has to follow, but the freedom of choice they have. The key to gaming is not discipline, work or structure, it’s play — though this doesn’t mean it can’t necessarily be thought provoking in content.
Nevertheless, Bannon is not alone in believing that gaming and new media can sway the attitudes of the millennial generation towards the stifling needs of the right wing power base. The US military, for example, produced their own game series aimed at recruitment of the gaming generation. Entitled America’s Army, and available for free download on the distribution platform ‘Steam’. the first person shooter is heavy on camaraderie, portraying military service as a kind of jaunt undertaken with one’s buddies. The franchise, which was first rolled out in 2002 and is currently in its 41st incarnation as America’s Army: Proving Grounds allows potential recruits to explore the realm of battle training alongside other online players.
Such a phenomenon if anything proves the extent to which online gaming is at the forefront of defining community today. It might lead players to come together in a festival of cosplay, whereby they enter into a colourful reenactment of their avatars exploits. Or it could, conversely, lead players to become soldiers of the world’s most belligerent armed force: again the US military.
Reviews of the game America’s Army tend to be positive with players noting its completely free system of play, as opposed to many other multiplayer online games, which depend on in-game purchases for revenue: a point which, given the addictive nature of gameplay, with its emphasis on achievements and rewards could be seen as potentially damaging. The omission of any such money trap in America’s Army comes about as it is backed by the best financed military in the world. Though there are plenty of indie games with non aggressive themes available for free or at less than $5 on Steam. And many more that while containing violent motifs do not aim at recruiting players to real life combat.
Games that challenge rigid power structures while coming to terms with the complexity of political systems are abundant and include directly political titles such as Path Out (2017), which follows the true story of Abdullah Karam, who fled the Syrian conflict as a teenager in 2014 like so many of his peers. The short free game demonstrates the emotional upheaval and fear experienced as Abdullah puts his life in the hands of strangers — who are often out to con him — to assure his safety. The appearance of the game’s creator via a video window at points during the game helps to reinforce the reality, and the fact that the player is making life or death decisions on behalf of a ‘real’ person. What’s more, while the total range of actions that a player can make are limited (to entering rooms and houses, taking and packing objects, paying people at borders, hiding from patrols, etc), the outcomes are variable, and failure (meaning death) can occur at various ways, and unexpectedly.
In the game Papers, Please (2013) the players assumes the role of an immigration inspector controlling the border of the fictional communist state of Arstotzkan. You are faced with difficult decisions as you have to identify genuine asylum cases and economic migrants, among smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Its heavy Kafkaesque aesthetic is reflective of the burden the player undertakes as she or he wades their way through would be immigrants and their documentation, stamping their passports as they go, while amassing enough credit to pay rent and provide for the family. The game highlights the complexity of immigration control, and the fact that a country’s’ borders and internal laws are often maintained by poorly paid servants, who are not better off than the poor asylum seekers and economic migrants (genuine or not) that they ‘process’.
Such examples — together with the capacity for MOABS to create global communities — demonstrate how 21st century gaming could be exemplary in shaping our political future. Who knows what could happen if the still guaganturan power of the US identified in each young citizen a potential indie developer, with the capacity to produce games with greater levels of choice, or ever more advanced community oriented games, with educational applications. This can only happen if the wide open posture of youth and young adulthood is seen as providing opportunity for growth, not exploitation for right wing gain.
Mike Watson is an art theorist, critic and curator and the author of Can the Left Learn to Meme? (forthcoming, 2019) and Towards a Conceptual Militancy (2016), both from ZerO books. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Goldsmiths College and has curated at the 55th and 56th Venice Biennale, as well as at Manifesta12 in Palermo. He has written regularly for Art Review, Artforum, Frieze, and Radical Philosophy. He lives and works in Finland.