A Gamer Politics for the Anti-Orange, Anti-Blonde Delinquents

In the last couple blogs I talked about Machphrasis, wherein artists represent the logic and processes of digital media, with art based on video games as the main example. Considering the Orange politician all around us, it made me wonder how being attuned to games as art can reveal a few things about politics, especially as politics becomes more aestheticized, as it has in our current climate.

If there is a video game aesthetics that has transformed into a political nightmare, its figurehead is not Mr. Orange, but Mr. Blonde, Mr. Milo Yiannopoulos. Many of us learned his name in early February, as the guy who was protested out of Berkeley. Before that, his speech at the University of Washington stirred protests that led to one of the “alt-right” students shooting a protester. We were then bombarded with his image, got to know him as that rightwing gay Breitbart pundit who believes feminism is a cancer, Islam is evil, and Western Christianity is the rightful inheritor of the earth.

Milo became known for weaponizing queer “sass” to couch his misogyny, writing things like “birth control was a mistake and women are happier in the kitchen,” and then sugar-coating it with “I’ll always be here to comfort their unhappy ex-boyfriends.” He has used his gay identity to call Islam “sinister,” writing that “as a gay man, I really don’t like it very much.” Before his own downfall after making comments some construed as pedophilic, he seemed on a roll — making no denial of being a troll, and calling himself a comic rather than a serious political voice. As a writer at Brietbart, he consistently professed love for our Mr. Orange (who he called “Daddy”).

But Mr. Blonde did not just emerge with Mr. Orange, and those of his type will not disappear any time soon. His strange art of political trolling emerged within the gamer community, where he became the voice of gamergate, an online movement where those who represented “gamer culture” harassed, threatened, and ridiculed female game journalists, particularly feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, whose college campus tour was cancelled after a barrage of death and rape threats (unlike with Mr. Blonde, news media outlets did not galvanize to defend her rights to speak on a college campus).

Milo’s rhetoric does not reflect Trump’s — it is a far more “gamer-oriented” form of rhetoric. Where Trump’s has been anti-intellectual, anti-elite, Milo’s has consistently been of the elite, as he ridicules others for being “morons” or bad spellers (as he did on Bill Maher), and tosses statistics and research data throughout his articles, defending his views as intellectual products. Indeed, his popularity soared thanks to the men that felt emboldened by gamergate the same way the “white working class” was emboldened by Mr. Orange. Milo attracts a different crowd — a crowd of white, pseudo-intellectual gamers.

So, as a male gamer myself, I can say that Mr. Blonde fits a pretty common gamer profile: The Delinquent Gamer, that random player in a quick game of Counter Strike or Overwatch who yaps to get a rise out of you because he has little else to do. There’s always one. Most often these guys are harmless, amusing, like a village idiot, and it’s never clear how their abusive language actually reflects their real social attitudes. If a guy like this called someone a fag, I would tell him I was bi, and almost every time he would shift — accepting, laughing, making jokes about straight people. Strangely it brought me into this strange idiot’s world, but wouldn’t stop him from yelling “fag!” at other players (not me any longer). If a woman came into the game, and identified herself as such, often this sort of speech would fizzle out like fire in want of oxygen.

That’s how I feel reading Mr. Blonde or watching his interviews. It’s like watching the gamer id on full display, not a human being but an avatar squatting on a player he just knifed (Mr. Blonde also admits that his persona was originally a game avatar).

Gamer delinquency goes like this — while we’re waiting for the game to start, for the textures to load, why not say something outrageous? Why not jolt some of these random teammates, just for kicks? And then, in the rage of losing, this outrageous behavior might emerge in whatever hurtful phrase you can muster. And in the genre of game chats, calling someone “motherfucker” isn’t good enough, not even close. There’s nothing imaginative, interesting, or fun about that. To really hurt the other person, to reverse the game, you gotta get into their head. You’ll never see them again, so why not? Why not go there.

Sometimes even I played the part. I cursed. I told bad jokes. I fed the denigration machine with unsolicited stories about my (mostly fictionalized) sexual peradventures. So I understand that untraceable desire to just start dissing anyone around your virtual sphere.

Delinquency in The Stanley Parable

The game The Stanley Parable (2013), designed by game auteur Davey Wreden, is about the gamer’s strange desire to lash out, a desire that games seem to yank out of otherwise motionless bodies. It tells us how gamers are led to push boundaries, to push buttons, if for no other reason than to see what nonsense they can conjure.

In the game, you meander through an office building, following instructions given by a storyteller (voiced by Kevan Brighting) who delivers exposition through a voice over. “This is Stanley,” the game begins. I remember my first playthrough well: “Stanley left his office,” the voice said. So I obeyed, I left the office. And I kept obeying, up until the point that I came to a set of two doors. “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors,” the narrator said, “he entered the door on his left.”

All Screenshots by the Author

Immediately I knew what was happening. The narrator, the designer, whoever was behind the curtain, wanted me to go to the right door. The left door was a command, a clear-cut progression into someone else’s story. I, the gamer, wanted my own story. I wanted to get a rise out of the narrator, to disobey. The game knew this, it wanted me to go right, it was using every impulse driven by thousands of hours of game-time to push me to the right in the most convincing way a game can: by telling me to go left.

So I obeyed by disobeying: I went right. The narrator burst out, kept prodding me to go back, to get on track for his story, but the more he pleaded the more I refused. At some point I fell off a cliff and died.

I restarted the game, and when I again came to those two doors, again I went right. I got another ending, restarted, and went right again. Every time I did so, the narrator scolded me, confused by my behavior.

Every new playthrough I did the opposite of what he wanted. I walked up stairs when he wanted me to go down. I sat staring at a key combination even as he screamed the code at me. I even spent twenty minutes standing still in a broom closet, just to see him squirm.

When I saw no new routes of disobedience left, I jumped off a six-story stairwell. “Feel really powerful now?” the narrator said, as I bled out, dead.

The Stanley Parable notes the obsession of the gamer to be disobedient. Of course, you’re not really supposed to follow the instructions, you’re supposed to be an idiot, and disobey. And the game mocks you for it every time. Yet still, you keep on going, like an addict. By being disobedient, you’re doing what the developers want you to do. It is a yearning for freedom based on the most meaningless form of disobedience. In misbehaving you are not resisting a system, but helping it thrive. You are being disobedient, perhaps, like inviting a man made famous for hate-speech to a college campus.

Anita Sarkeesian, who faced weekly death and rape threats after creating youtube videos analyzing gender in games (Vocativ)

We are living in a moment where disobedience has punctured the proper lifeworld that gamergate saw as a world run by man-hating feminists. Their calls to break with the proper etiquette of this world resulted in rape and death threats becoming prevalent, where discussion of gender biases in one of the most male dominated industries ever have now been reduced to the realm of the “proper,” the “planners,” the sisters who just wanted to play along.

Strategies to combat gamergate failed just as strategies to keep Orange out of the white house ultimately failed. But as in any game, one can only be disobedient for a short time. One can only turn right when they should go left so many times, before it dawns on them how much time they’re wasting, how silly the whole thing is.

That’s because disobedience in games, like when one supports a woman-hating “comic,” comes without risk. It’s that disobedience from “think differently” advertisements, where disobedience alone can lead to innovation which leads to saving the world. Disobedience without cause. Disobedience even against those you love. Disobedience, directed at anything and everything. But such disobedience, when it speaks with and alongside those in power, is merely disobedience for the sake of the game. It’s play. It’s to find out what extends past the hallway.

And I get it. Part of me, the gamer part of me, wanted to see Mr. Orange win, just to upset the global economic system. It also wanted to hear Mr. Blonde’s nonsense, just to see the kind of chaos it could provoke. And sure, if I were playing Grand Theft Auto, I would have done whatever I could to empower people like them, just to watch the gameworld burst apart in eye-dazzling anarchy.

I gave little heed to these curiosities. If I had, I would not just wake up having lost time, but I would have lost my self-dignity.

Thankfully, we don’t need to let our strange, addictive mischief go. There are other forms of disobedience — speaking truth to power; being queer in the face of a culture where power from the authorities and the pulpit is aligned against you; sticking up for migrants, refugees, and people of color, even if it means breaking things like the law, or punching a Nazi in the face (there’s a game for that). For all of us, who feel these gamer-like strains of disobedience, we can let them flourish. We can, if we dare, be really, really, outrageous.