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All to play for: towards a left gaming culture

Gerry Hart shares personal reflections on the politics of gaming, inspired by a one-day festival of games hosted by The World Transformed

5 to 6 minute read

An illustration shows an 1980s style arcade machine with small human figures running out of the screen, with dotted lines on a green and purple background. The text reads: 'Games Transformed: Love games, hate capitalism'

On 28 May, 2023, The World Transformed (TWT) hosted Games Transformed in Bethnal Green, a one-day festival dedicated to the political side of video games. Alongside a number of talks from developers and organisers in the games industry, the event was also the culmination of a month’s long ‘game jam’ – in which teams compete to make the best new game within a limited period – with all the entries available to play. Naturally, as Red Pepper’s resident gamer, there was no way I could pass this up.

Despite the games being the main attraction, I unfortunately didn’t find much time to play them all. I did manage to try Wildcat which, as the name implies, has you running around trying to find and convince your coworkers to partake in a wildcat strike while trying to steer clear of your boss. It’s a fairly simple game but fun nonetheless, and surprisingly challenging given the tank-like controls and the speed your furious boss charges at you.

I was able to spend a bit more time with Thatcher’s Techbase, though it wasn’t part of the jam itself. This Doom II conversion caused something of a stir when Jeremy Corbyn was seen playing it at The World Transformed last year. In terms of its actual gameplay, it is still Doom II at its core – an absolute classic – and its already irreverent sensibilities transfer well to a game that has you entering the tenth circle of hell (the UK) to destroy a demonic Thatcher risen from the dead.

Admittedly, I wasn’t impressing anybody with my skills that day. There is a physicality to playing such a fast paced game on an arcade machine as opposed to my preferred medium of mouse and keyboard. Still, I eventually managed to get a hang of the controls right up until my sleep deprived mind decided it would be smart to fire a rocket launcher into an adjacent wall, blowing myself up in the process. 

Political production

However, I was able to attend the talks, of which there were three throughout the day: the first on trade union organising in the games industry, the second on the political power of the medium, and the final one being a discussion with Citizen Sleeper developer Gareth Damien Martin and Quinns of the excellent People Make Games. Of the recurrent themes that ran through these discussions, I think the one that stood out to me the most was the creation of games as an inherently political act.

Part of this should be obvious for any good socialist. Games within capitalism function as products first and art second, and these products are produced by labour which, within the games industry, is particularly under-unionised and heavily exploited. Therefore, workplace organisation is imperative if we wish to fully utilise the liberatory potential games hold. 

Games within capitalism function as products first, art second; produced by labour that is under-unionised and heavily exploited

But game production is also political because the process of conceiving and designing a game is suffused with political meaning. I was particularly intrigued by Martin’s discussion of the dice system in Citizen Sleeper. Without getting into spoilers, Citizen Sleeper has the player taking actions through a series of dice rolls with varying odds.

However, the player has to maintain their character’s body which is constantly degrading. As their body weakens, not only do the odds on the dice rolls worsen, but the number of dice afforded the player is reduced. According to Martin, this system was a means of tackling the subject of precarity, an increasingly dominant force within our current epoch of capitalism, and it was done not merely through written prose but through the mechanics of play.

The politics of play

Another recurrent theme I have been ruminating on for a while is that in addition to game production, the act of play itself is inherently political. Players are not blank slates but political agents with their own backgrounds and worldviews which, to a greater or lesser degree, will inevitably inform how they play (this was something Hwa Young Jung touched on in talking about her work with games and incarcerated persons).

Sometimes this is for the worse. The Verge describes how players with black characters were targeted by posses of racist players in Red Dead Redemption Online, using the game’s setting of the late 19th century American South and West to emulate the racialised violence of the period through play. Done well however, a game can account for a player’s agency whilst actively and critically engaging them. Disco Elysium might let you play as a fascist for instance, but it does not let this choice go unchallenged or unpunished, as you alienate yourself from the world around you.

While at Games Transformed, I thought about an exhibition also dedicated to video games at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), which I had visited a few days prior.. Whereas Games Transformed centred on the liberatory potential of play and game production, the IWM’s exhibition War Games centred on the relationship between games and conflict, examining why we as a society enjoy simulated violence and how the interactive nature of games can provide us a window to explore the experiences of those most impacted by conflict. At the end of the IWM exhibition, there was a comparatively smaller section dedicated to the relationship between games and the armed forces, featuring gameplay footage of Battlezone – developed in 1980 by Atari for the US military – and an Xbox 360 controller, a device owned by millions of people for play and used by militaries to pilot unmanned drones.

If games hold the power to shape how we see and interface with the world, that power is already being acknowledged by the state (to say nothing of the far right, who have recognised the political power of games for years). But in incorporating liberatory games and play into our arsenal, we also open up the possibility of dynamic and joyful ways of making sense of the world around us and building community and solidarity. If I took anything away from Games Transformed, it is that games are a contested space and it really is all to play for.

Gerry Hart is a Red Pepper editor

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