Political plays: the radical potential of video games

Siobhán McGuirk introduces our series on the politics of video games ahead of our April 30 live debate: 'Can Video Games Change the World?'

April 26, 2020 · 4 min read
Capitalist labour relations are a core focus of Obsidian Entertainment’s The Outer Worlds (Credit: IGDB.com)

In the popular imaginary, video games are often considered to be a base form of popular entertainment – a niche activity enjoyed mainly by teens. It’s a dangerous underestimation: as Jamal Stone explains, video games are for everyone – one in three people globally, to be precise. This £2.87 billion industry (in the UK alone) demands our attention.

Our series on video games, first published in Issue 227 and guest edited by Marzena Zukowska, is an overdue course correction: Red Pepper has never before covered video games in depth. And yet they are perhaps the most ubiquitous – if not the most powerful – form of modern entertainment. We carry around computers with inbuilt games in our pockets, in our backpacks and briefcases. Our living rooms and offices are equipped with machines designed to facilitate play. As contributors detail on our website, such play has potential to inform ideas, establish ideals, build community – through empathy and collaboration – even save the world (we’ve moved beyond rescuing the princess).

As much as TV, film, theatre, music and the arts more broadly, video games are already shaping our politics. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise. After all, throughout history people have used play and games to communicate particular ways of understanding the world and acting in it. Pictionary and charades are forums for establishing shared perspectives and reference points, potent tools for socialisation. Versions of those games exist the world over, though the content varies from place to place. They are tests of in-group belonging as much as fun ways to pass the time.

As much as TV, film, theatre, music and the arts more broadly, video games are already shaping our politics

In terms of 20th century board games, the massive popularity of Monopoly, Battleship, Risk or The Game of Life was not incidental to the deep entrenchment of social norms, of militarism, empire-building, capitalism or heteronormativity. They were – and still are – wrapped up in it, winners rewarded for ideological compliance as much as in paper money or plastic warships. Table-top games are experiencing something of a renaissance, with specialist shops and cafes popping up around the UK to colonise an island (Settlers of Catan), cooperate to stop the spread of a virus (Pandemic), or negotiate alliances and backstab ‘allies’ at the outbreak of war (Diplomacy).

All people play. Video game developers certainly have all people in their sights. They’re making games for the young and the old, products that provide ‘entertainment’ as well as hardware and software for loftier purposes – to help hone memory and motor skills, or provide therapeutic experiences. Game makers are chasing markets, too, of course, selling in-app purchases in ‘free’ mobile games based on your browsing history – or simply selling your browsing history (be careful what permissions you grant when playing Facebook games with friends).

Games – whether physical or digital – are forums for experimentation and interaction with different worlds, different worldviews. It stands to reason that some of those can be subversive; that games can offer exciting avenues towards radical ways of thinking. We should take them seriously, as integral cultural and political features. So get ready, player one.

Siobhán McGuirk is a Red Pepper editor. Follow her on Twitter @s_mcguirk

Join the series’ authors on April 30, 6pm, for a Lockdown Live debate: ‘Can Video Games Change the World?’ Streaming on Facebook and YouTube

Should the left care about blockchain technology?

Despite its utopian promises of digital democracy, Thomas Redshaw argues socialists should be wary of embracing blockchain technology

Review – Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

Suchandrika Chakrabarti reviews Wendy Liu's proposals to reclaim technology's potential for the public good

Hidden labours: how capitalism shapes gaming culture

Paolo Ruffino looks beyond the myths of the video game industry to its contemporary neoliberal realities

Lockdown live: ‘Can video games change the world?’

Globally, 2.5 billion people play video games. Is the left in danger of overlooking their immense power and influence? Join the debate live on April 30, 6pm

The spoils of playing war

Video games play a key role in sustaining the global military-industrial complex, writes Marzena Zukowska

Making gaming great again

With pop culture increasingly a political battlefield, Marzena Zukowska asks Carolyn Petit of Feminist Frequency how the left can leverage the momentum of video gaming