Tom Martin explores the long-awaited Orwellian inspired We Happy Few, releasing on Xbox and PC this summerWritten by Tom Martin on 16th March 2018
Alfie Bown is Wrong About Video Games and the Far Right
Anarchist gamer James Honke takes on Alfie Bown's recent article claiming that video games are fuelling the rise of the far right.
Alfie Bown (Assistant Professor of Literature at HSMC in Hong Kong) recently wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian which – building upon his psycho-analytical theories from the ‘The Playstation Dreamworld', claimed that video games are in the unique position of being able to push right-wing ideologies on gamers, and are thus “fuelling the rise of the far right”. According to Bown, the video game industry is almost single-handedly responsible for the birth of the alt-right, going so far as to say that gaming is an act of submission to the right wing. “[T]he logic and pleasure of gaming itself has served and continues to serve the political right”, scaremongers Bown, at once technocratic and yet somehow like a doomsayer of the Game-pocalypse, “gaming… should worry the progressive left”.
Reading this, I was taken aback. Perhaps, as an avowed left-wing activist, I was somehow betraying my principles at the altar of leisure and enjoyment? Was I, a communalist and big fan of Bookchin, deep down a right-wing gaming reactionary?
To test this hypothesis, I set about asking my colleagues in the Redbrick gaming office about their political views. If Bown was right, after all, I should be surrounded by greedy capitalists ready at a moment’s notice to seize the office in the name of profit and hierarchy. With some trepidation, I asked them to fill out the spekr.org political locator, which would let me know how many right-wingers I had been dirtying my good name by socialising with, and exactly who to fear amongst my friends. The results came back… eight libertarian lefties, and one libertarian capitalist. I found myself perplexed. After all, shouldn’t the culture industry of gaming have manipulated these fellow gamers into right-wing servitude? Shouldn’t we be a haven for Pepe memes, misogyny and racism? Confused by my results, I returned to the article. What had I missed that could explain my (admittedly anecdotal) evidence?
The answer was a simple one: the article is utter nonsense.
The article is simply another bad apple in the media's increasingly rotten barrel; regurgitating the poorly evidenced excrement of early 2000’s moral panics by blaming video games for society’s ills. The recent Parkland shooting has brought this back into vogue, with the Trump administration deflecting from the cause of the shooting (begins with a ‘g’ and ends with ‘uns’) and blaming the entire thing on violent video games. Bown notes that this is a fallacy in the first paragraph, and yet goes on to use the very same logics to determine that video games make “right wing ideologies” into “instincts”, claiming (in a way that is very reminiscent of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Culture Industry model, with an extra dose of psychoanalysis) that gamers are ‘naturalised’ into believing particular ideologies by the mechanics of a game. Yet Bown fails to truly elaborate how video games are different from any other narrative medium – why do video games get a roughing up whilst TV and film get a free pass?
“There’s no evidence that games create long-term change to the brains of gamers
Indeed, storytelling is a key element of our moral development. Through empathising with characters, we develop as people and see the world from a range of perspectives. This is no different for a gaming industry which is increasingly creating “more sophisticated media experiences” similar to “cable or Netflix series”, so why does gaming get singled out? It’s not like there’s a shortage of political content in other forms of media.
There’s also no evidence that games create any kind of long-term change to the brains of gamers, other than getting better at playing the games they enjoy (a problem for the ‘brain training’ section of the industry), so we can’t criticise games on the basis that the process of gaming can change people. Bown runs into the same problems that Adorno and Horkheimer do – people just aren’t that simple. We are not all simply ‘cultural dupes’ that mindlessly absorb the content that is thrown our way, especially in the age of media-saturation where a myriad of different viewpoints are all vying for our attention and where we can respond in more and more varied ways. Rather than simply absorbing right-wing views, gamers are a community that reflect on the content that they consume, just like any other audience, stopping to “understand, evaluate and deliberate” over the messages in our favourite games.
Bown highlights this community in the article, again using 4Chan (interestingly, the linked ‘evidence’ for this is simply a link to the ‘Far Right’ section of the Guardian’s own website) and the “Gamergate” scandals to provide evidence for how the community is infested with Alt-right sentiment. Yet correlation is not causation – it is far more likely that since white men are the majority audience for video games (thanks to gendered advertising in the early days after the video game crash in 1983) and also make up the majority of the alt-right, it is likely that there would be some overlap. The alt-right also represents a very vocal minority of internet users, so it often appears that they’re ‘representing the views of gamers’ when in fact they represent nothing of the sort.
After all, for every misogynistic 4chan page, there’s a Girl Gamer sub-reddit. For every ‘Gamergate’ scandal, there’s a Polygon, a Kotaku or a RockPaperShotgun. Hell, if video games are so good at indoctrinating us into right-wing ideologies, how come there are so many left-wing or liberal commentators and journalists? How do they find an audience? And why are there so many people online complaining about how left-wing games and their developers are?
“For every misogynistic 4chan page, there’s a Girl Gamer sub-reddit
This leads to another issue that Bown glosses over – how much he has cherry-picked his evidence. We’ve already seen how he’s deliberately ignored the not-alt-right sections of games media, but how about his games? Bown openly picks at themes in games which he feels to be representative of a wider culture of alt-right media in the industry citing XCom, Civilization, The Last of Us and even Mario as evidence of alt-right values. Yet each of these games could equally be used to show how left-wing the medium is: Civ could be about diplomacy and culture instead of ‘empire-building’; XCom could be about the dangers of military overstretch as much as it is about ‘expelling aliens’; The Last of Us is arguably less about ‘infection’ and more about familial bonds and the dangers of love, and hell, Mario is as much about brotherhood as it is about anything else. Bown builds a world of the alt-right by a straw man – assigning values to the alt-right and then picking out any theme that can suit. Why doesn’t he mention the Bioshock series, a series so pronouncedly against Randian objectivism that it practically set conservative news sites on fire? Or what about Wolfenstein 2, where your job is quite LITERALLY to kill Nazis?
And this is when Bown actually deigns to use evidence. In his article he frequently makes claims about the industry, accusing it of just about every political crime under the sun, yet often fails to cite his sources. The Bush foreign policy in games? Which ones exactly? The only games that really reflected such a viewpoint were the Call of Duty series, and only in their fourth instalment… a game which came out six whole years after the 9/11 attack. Games that came out in the aftermath of the attacks (I went for around 2004, to allow for a whole dev cycle) were games such as World of Warcraft, Half-Life 2 and GTA: San Andreas – hardly vocal defenders of interventionist foreign policy. Post-Brexit British games also apparently “advocate [for] isolationism or nostalgia for empire” – which is quite incredible since the development cycle of such games must be very short at less than two years, and since Kotaku’s list of best British games in 2017 (the only list I could even find for British games) does not reflect those themes at all. Bown’s argument doesn't seem to make sense, and the article contains little empirical evidence to back up his claims.
“Games provide an excellent scapegoat for the ‘corrupted young’ narrative
Instead, Bown appears to have joined the slew of commentators chasing click-bait in an effort to make a quick buck and stir up controversy. Games now provide a huge slice of the media industries, generating over twice as much money globally than the film industry whilst remaining a mystery to many of the middle-aged readerships of national newspapers. As such, they provide an excellent scapegoat for the ‘corrupted young’ narrative that has been trotted out by every subsequent generation for over 2 and a half millennia.
Dear reader, I implore you to ignore it.
“A vibrant new form of interactive storytelling
Instead, play whatever you want. Games are a vibrant new form of interactive storytelling, giving us stories of great heroes, great villains and yet allowing us to get closer to these people and ideals than ever before. They allow us to explore ideas – some of which are indeed right-wing, but many which are not, representing a whole new avenue for emotional and moral development. They are not a corrupting force, but instead offer a world of opportunity to an ever more talented group of creators, capable of crafting ever more complex stories, capable of building entire new worlds in which to explore, create and adventure and giving you, the player, more and more ways to be whoever or whatever you want to be. Journalists, politicians and other vested interests can blame gamers for whatever they choose, but one day we shall replace them. There are many, many more of us than them.
Dream big. Play on. And screw everyone who tells you otherwise.