August 04, 2019
Virtual Games as a Site of Resistance

R Arun Kumar

DURING President Obama’s tenure, his administration created an Agency with its major goal as the creation of educational software ‘as compelling as the best video game’. This might have been inspired by a statement made by Professor Edward O. Wilson, of Harvard, who declared that “Games are the future of learning”. Military, corporates and businesses have already started using games as a means of ‘learning’ and ‘influencing’. It is time for us to explore how games can be used to subvert capitalism.

There are three types of people, who are primarily associated with virtual games – workers, who manufacture the hardware for the games, assemble, pack and ship them to the consumers; developers (which includes artists), who create the game and gamers or players/consumers of the final product, the game. Around this core group are critics, platform hosts and others. All of them are bound by capital that is invested in the creation, manufacture and marketing of the games.

A major role in the production of games is of the ‘game developers’. Game developers are mostly young and male (average age, 30-40 years). They are freshly out of their colleges (around 80 per cent have university/college degrees) and are attracted to the industry as it is considered close to their ‘bohemian attitude’. These illusions are shattered once they join these companies or ‘publishing houses’ or ‘studios’.

Many of these publishing houses are now outsourcing game production to countries like India, China and Vietnam. A developer working from these countries is paid a yearly salary of $4000, whereas a comparable worker in the US is paid a salary of $70,000-$100,000. This humongous wage difference itself shows how much profits the gaming corporates are earning, simply by outsourcing. According to some estimates, these corporates are able to ‘reduce their costs’ by 20-40 per cent by outsourcing. Apart from hiring developers, we had already noted how the ‘free work’ of game players (playbor) is used by the companies to improvise and create new games.

The job of a game developer, irrespective of their place of work, involves long working hours. The industry had developed a term for this long, demanding hours of work – crunch time. Former president of Electronic Arts in Canada, (one of the worlds’ biggest virtual games producer) Glenn Wong had brazenly stated: “If a 60-hour work week is your maximum, then this isn’t the place to be” and in another instance: “It’s not unusual for these guys (developers) to work 21 hours, sleep on the couch and get up and start working again”. International Game Developers Association (IGDA), in its extensive survey, concluded that the working conditions are ‘horrible’ and crunch time is a normal industrial practice. Only 4 per cent of the companies paid developers for overtime. It is because of such a ‘backbreaking’, forced ‘workaholism’, that more than 50 per cent developers plan to leave the industry within 10 years, while 35 per cent leave the industry within 5 years.

An executive of a giant game publisher had stated: “(Our) machinery….is the mind of all these people who….come up with these great ideas….Unlike machinery that stops working at 5:00, ours might be home, but they’re thinking of new ideas, and their whole life experience is creating the potential for new ideas”. But as Brecht had written, he forgot that these thinking brains, can also think about alternatives. Some of such thinking brains are using their creativity to expose their exploitative work conditions, the corporate robbery of their intellectual power and are trying to unite under a trade union. One such example of unionistation is the formation of the union, Game Workers Unite.

An important and creative way in which developers are using their intellect to question the exploitative capitalist system is by rigging games with counter narratives and producing alternative games. When companies refused to acknowledge the name of a game developer in the game, he created a small dot within the game, which, when clicked by the player, leads to the name of the creator. This is one of the many ways in which developers used their intellect to subvert rules imposed by exploitative companies.

Grand Theft Auto (GTA) a very popular game, divides critics about the exact message it intends to convey. This game has produced many series and in one of them, GTA Vice City, there is an incident where a workers’ protest is disrupted, with a dialogue, ‘let’s break some commie skulls’. A section of critics argue that the entire series is a glorifying tribute to neoliberalism, along with its vices. But many Left activists play and like this game, arguing that because of its gaudy presentation of neoliberalism, it should be considered a satire. The use of rap music and advertisements played in the game, through an in-game radio are parodies of commercialisation and consumerism.

Assassins Creed, another popular game has some very interesting features – it has Karl Marx as a character in the game. In a scene, Marx attends a meeting of the workers and explains to them the need to organise against exploitation. It is for these reasons, capitalists unleash their henchmen to assassinate Marx. The protagonists in the game try to protect Marx. This is how one of the series of this game goes.

Many a times, players too join developers in challenging the corporate power represented in games. In a game, Second Life, some of the players ran a CopyBot programme, which played havoc with the intellectual property rights and a ‘guerrilla Liberation Army vapourised a Reebok store with nuclear weapons’. In September 2007, in support of the IBM workers’ protest in Italy, a digital protest was organised inside the game, before the IBM’s ‘corporate campus’. This has made a journalist in the game quip, “Avatar-based workers unite”? In another instance in the game, American Army, which was also used as a recruiting agency by the US, a gamer logged into it in the name of ‘dead-in-Iraq’ and used the chat channel to ‘transmit the name, age, service branch, and date of death of real soldiers killed in the occupation’.

Apart from using games created by the big corporates to spread anti-corporate, anti-imperialist messages, there are some independent (indie) game developers who consciously create games against the exploitative system.

There are many games created by such independent developers against the Israeli aggression on Palestine. One of the earliest such games was The Stone Throwers (2001), which is a ‘simple game that positioned the player within the intifada’. A more complex game was Under Ash which is a ‘first-person shooter game’ in which the protagonist ‘progresses from throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers to destroying Israeli military positions’. This was followed by another game Under Siege, which was based on the resistance of Palestinians against the attacks of the Israeli troops. Even Hezbollah started publishing games, Special Force (2003) is based on its resistance to Israeli attacks on Lebanon.

Interestingly, the Communist Party of China (CPC) too had developed some games. “The China Communist Youth League partnered with publisher PowerNet Technology to develop Anti-Japan War Online, featuring the liberation struggles of 1937-45, to give young players patriotic feeling when fighting invaders to safeguard their motherland. In 2005, one of China’s largest online game companies announced it would develop The Chinese Hero Registry, featuring People’s Liberation Army soldiers performing good deeds ranging from the darning of socks to assisting the elderly”. The official organ of the CPC, People’s Daily had launched a casual games site containing some of these themes.

Feminist critique too is found in certain games, under what is called ‘cyberfeminism’. This had led to the creation of ‘sheroes’, in place of ‘heroes’, with female characters taking the lead. Tomb Raider, with its popular character Lara Croft is one such example. Another influence of feminism on games is found in  a popular game, The Sims, where ‘gendered roles’ are discussed.

Games like Third World Farmer (global poverty and food supply), Climate Challenge (global warming) and Darfur is Dying (conditions in Sudanese refugee camp) are examples of other themes that found an expression.

There are certain games that are being developed to acquaint players with the problems involved in grassroots organising. The game, ‘Republic:Revolution’ is about ‘the slow – even tedious – process of grassroots radical organising to overthrow an unjust social order: ideological agitation, clandestine media, undermining the military, bankrolling the movement….’ Thus we can find ‘games for the oppressed’ available online that challenge the capitalist world order.

Sites such as Kongregate and Klooningames, make available many such games for the oppressed, which deal with the Israeli military attacks on Gaza (Raid Gaza), the corporate greed for profits that led to the economic crisis (Trillion Dollar Bailout) and even on the exploitative conditions involved in game development (The Truth About Game Development). Similarly, Molleindustria of Italy has developed a ‘catalog of smart but simple online games addressing precarious labour, media concentration, queer politics, and street protest’, with the slogan, ‘Radical Games against the Dictatorship of Entertainment’.

Games are unlike any other form of entertainment – watching TV or a movie or any cultural performance is a ‘passive activity’ where we passively consume the propagated ideas. On the other hand, because of inbuilt interactiveness, by playing games, we become soldiers, consumers, cyborgs, etc., as the player at times assumes the role of the subject and also the associated subjectivities. Hence gaming is an ‘active activity’. Games involve us in exhorting the virtues of the ruling class world order. Capitalism does not tolerate the emanation of any force that challenges its hegemony and tries to influence even those few games that are being produced to counter its hegemony. Companies like Starbucks and charitable organisations run by various corporates are funding certain ‘alternate games’ to blunt their radical edge.

In spite of all such attempts, it has to be noted that games still retain their potential to mount a radical critique and alternative to capitalism. They are a product of the ‘sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’ and can be used to challenge capitalist system. The active involvement of players and radical developers make games a double-edged sword.

Games promote interaction and also make us realise that we are a part of complex relations (multi-player games particularly and ‘playbor’ used in game development). Games encourage cooperation, make us think and search for alternatives. Games theorist, Alexander Galloway observes that a “gamer is not simply playing this or that historical simulation but is learning, internalising and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart global algorithm. To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system”.

The duality of games can be well understood with the following example. In 2008, when the global economic crisis was about to explode in the US, Stock Market Game, sponsored among others by Merrill Lynch, was distributed to all the schools in the US. This game was intended to prepare the ‘next generation of customers’. Some 700,000 players from grades four through twelve were playing this game. A thirteen-year-old, among them confessed after the Dow Jones collapse, “Before all this, I asked my mom to get me stocks for Christmas, but after experiencing the carnage of The Stock Market Game, told her not to do it and asked for a parakeet instead”.

Thus games are two sided doors that should be used to defeat capitalist ideas and nurse alternatives. This is a struggle that merits our consideration. As of July 2018, there are approximately 2.2 billion gamers in the world, out of the estimated 7.6 billion people living on earth. This means almost one in every third person on this planet is a gamer. We cannot leave them entirely to the influence of capitalist ideology. We should not miss anything in our struggle against capitalism and games are something that have an enormous influence among the youth. Even if games play a ‘molecular role’ in the struggle against capitalism, it should not be ignored. It is necessary to rally gamers against capitalism. And the best way to influence them is through the medium they are wedded to – games and developing a software, as ‘compelling as the best video game’.