Or, a Manifesto of Resistance in the Ludic Century
It feels almost irresponsible to want to write about video games when, all around us, the world is catching fire.
The grim fact is that within the United States, a nation already well-known for its abysmal prison population and incarceration rate, concentration camps have been erected for refugees, asylum-seekers and undocumented people; that children are being torn from their families; that people are dying of malnutrition and easily-preventable illnesses in these camps.
The grim fact is that a man with a tenuous grasp on reality and a penchant for Mussolini-style strongman fascism has taken power and is reluctant to let it go.
The grim fact is that paramilitary gangs of neo-Nazis and hard-right thugs regularly enact show-of-force parades through American city streets.
The grim fact is that a lot of the far-right reaction got its organizing model from and shares members with a bunch of angry nerds mad at some queer people for making games about more than just clicking on heads and getting big numbers.
In that light, writing about video games seems both impossibly decadent and hauntingly necessary. Games and gaming are transformative forces upon our wider culture, and people much smarter than me have talked at length about the ramifications for our social order stemming from these forces.
“Games will not save us, but we can’t escape them.”
I was tempted to start No Escape as a response – a spiteful response – to individuals within games media who maintain that the only correct position to take regarding politics in games is the one closest to the middle. No Escape would be a rejection of that position, and on top of that it would be opposed to an even more nefarious force within games discourse that claims games for the reactionary right-wing.
There are sites out there with strict “enthusiasts only” editorial policies, and sites that pretend to have that while soliciting for writers who are “sick of constant crying and bitching about identity and gender politics invading [their] favorite hobby.” It would be so easy to spend time simply making fun of these outlets for the groundbreaking work they’re doing in writing bland, thought-dampening work about the art and culture of video games.
The thing is, this deeply annoying and vacuous low-hanging fruit is either going to be around in some form forever or it’s going to disappear. The problem isn’t the individual outlets, it’s a broader problem — one connected to the gangs of neo-Nazis and angry nerds sending death threats to women they don’t know over slights they imagined out of whole cloth.
It’s connected to the concentration camps operating along the United States’ borders.
It’s connected to the stupid, fascist President.
One of the images out of the “shelters” the US has set up to hold the children of undocumented immigrants that will haunt me forever is that of a child swinging a plastic baseball bat in a small gray room opposite a US congressman. The kid has hit a ball, and you can’t see the expression on his face but the caption reads something along the lines of, “it’s likely the first time he’s ever swung a baseball bat.” I want to imagine that the kid is feeling some kind of joy, however fleeting, in that moment of play.
Games will not save us. But we cannot escape them.
Austin Walker, the Editor-in-Chief for Vice Gaming, uttered those words to a crowd of young game developers at NYU last February. It was a small statement as part of a talk on games in the context of political struggle, but it was connected to a larger point about the intrinsic nature of games in our lives.
Walker told the crowd that games are just as interwoven into our social fabric as chores like laundry are. “For as long as there has been laundry, for as long as there has been labor, there has been play,” he said.
Games are not just a medium but a tool that can be used both to uplift and oppress in equal measure, and they have always been here. We need to think and write and speak critically about games, because they are not “just” games. They are also reflections of the way we interact with work, with household chores, with our friends, family and neighbors, with the world itself.
“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.”
I did not know Willem Van Spronsen, a 69-year-old anarchist from around Tacoma, WA. Folks who did know him described him as a “sweet old man” and a teacher in his community. He died over the weekend trying to sabotage GEO transport vehicles that would have been used in ICE and CBP raids.
He is likely the first US citizen to die in a counter-deportation action against ICE, CBP and the private prison companies making bank off their concentration camps.
His manifesto perfectly displays the dichotomy between hopelessness and overflowing hope, between despair and determination. He wrote,
I follow three teachers:
Don Pritts, my spiritual guide. ‘Love without action is just a word.’
John Brown, my moral guide. ‘What is needed is action!’
Emma Goldman, my political guide. ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.’
I’m a head in the clouds dreamer, I believe in love and redemption. I believe we’re going to win.
He talks about how, when he was growing up in post-war the Netherlands and France, stories of the rise of fascism in the 1930s filled his head. He vowed then, as a child, to never be someone who would just stand by if it happened again.
“I’m a man who loves you all and this spinning ball so much that I’m going to fulfill my childhood promise to myself to be noble,” he writes. “I set aside my broken heart and I heal the only way I know how — by being useful. I efficiently compartmentalize my pain… And I joyfully go about this work.”
Walker observed in his talk at NYU that perhaps the biggest difference between fascists and those resisting them is that the former holds onto a nihilistic and incoherent politics of mere response, removal and denial, while those resisting them have the benefit of belief.
“It’s powerful to believe in your experience and to believe that others deserve and need to have their experiences shared, and that we should make art that reflects the real, lived diversity of experiences in the world,” Walker said. Contra this, fascists and protofascists do benefit from this nihilistic politics of denial.
“There is no ‘there,’ there for them. There is no way to reach, there is no way to cross the aisle, and there is no way to wound,” he said. “There is no heart to stab at. Our art, in that way — and our criticism, for that matter — is never going to be received by many of those people.”
So why bother dancing? Why bother joyously carrying out the work that might otherwise be a grim enterprise? Because it isn’t necessarily about the MAGA-hat-wearing CHUDs. Because play is as ubiquitous as folding laundry. Because we might be able to reach the MAGA-hat-wearing CHUDs’ less-radical family members. Because to have hope in a hopeless world, to believe in love even when hate would be so much easier, keeps us afloat.
“A playful system is a human system.”
So, what can we do? Should we write about games and how they made us feel? Should we continue to make room for play even though everything around us would suggest that play is the last thing we need right now?
I believe so.
I saw online that some folks believe that antifa and black bloc folks were merely “LARPing” as protestors. I sincerely wish there was more LARPing, more pageantry on display. Infect the dour, incoherent and nihilistic world the fascists want us to live in with joyous incoherency. Fuckin start a chaotic dance party in the streets.
And meanwhile, play games with your friends. Play online if you can swing it. Play in person. Play tabletop games if that’s more your speed, or make up your own. Because, as Eric Zimmerman said in his manifesto on the Ludic Century,
Being playful is the engine of innovation and creativity: as we play, we think about thinking and we learn to act in new ways. […] In the Ludic Century, we cannot have a passive relationship to the systems that we inhabit. We must learn to be designers, to recognize how and why systems are constructed, and to try to make them better.
To put it another way, as Willem Van Spronsen said,
You don’t have to burn the motherfucker down, but are you just going to stand by?