Self-organisation in Video Games:

Political Message v Political Possibilities

Screen Shot of comment thread

Marijam Didzgalvyte is currently completing her Master’s Degree in Art & Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her main focus is dissecting politics in art and entertainment and establishing who benefits from it. She is interested in applying the ideas of fully-automated luxury communism in gaming and beyond.
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In the below comment on hackaday.com, commenter “matt” is referring to [Masterjun]’s (going by “true” on this message thread) hack, Total Control. In it, the games Pong and Snake were recreated within Super Mario World (1990), using what appeared to be random controller commands. In fact, they were frame-specific inputs exploiting various bugs to alter the source code on an original SNES running an unaltered game cartridge, all done live at the Awesome Games Done Quick 2013 event. Taking into account the very limited resources available, [Masterjun]’s effort in highlighting the flexibility of this medium is remarkable; simply by manipulating known input glitches, [Masterjun] changed the game as we know it.

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Now, Total Control is not a purely aesthetic project or a piece of new media art but, “matt” seems to be more dismissive; they see such an endeavour as a waste of time– “I wonder what these guys could do if they applied themselves to a project which had an actual, useful purpose”. “matt” would not be the only one suspicious of such projects. Online activities and working within cyberspace can be looked down upon by those who fail to acknowledge the skill and commitment applied in the digital realm, especially if it does not translate into monetary gain. What Total Control achieves is a convincing destabilization of an established system–an unconventional recomposition of the static.

Screen Shot of game recreated

But this is just an example–a kind of response that made me think more about the role of political usefulness within gaming. There are people that see activism only as direct actions in the offline world. While I understand that sentiment, dismissing the possibilities of creative radical activity within the digital world is naïve. True – similar to political art, games carrying political messages have struggled to be translated from persuasion/propaganda into a viable means of action. On the other hand, they can be incredible tools that accommodate various voices and channels for critical thinking and participation. My disillusionment with false techniques for democracy within the radical milieu has led me to observe a lot of the similarities between the more positive side of those circles and the productive side of gaming communities. Having said that, the mission here is also to avoid uncritically recycling art’s historical clichés (Tronstad, 2010) – think Ai Weiwei or Agnes Denes.

I want to focus on the many times games and gamers have established the type of reciprocal altruism and horizontal modes of production that are in direct opposition to the status quo.  I am not comparing “irl” activism to gaming nor am I comparing gaming to online activism. I am mostly looking into how certain ways of critical thinking found in gaming can be recognised as parallels for political organisation. Different scopes of solidarity and self-organisation are concepts no longer only attached to analogue/real life spaces; this essay attempts to go beyond the aesthetic judgement of video games and provide examples where non-hierarchical relationships are essential in establishing truly anarchic types of communicating.

Ubiquity of Compromise in Politics

There is a common attitude towards gaming; it is still perceived as niche, a useless waste of time. Nonetheless, the gaming industry is set to grow from the $1.8 billion-worth of glittering, glitchy arcades and wiry controllers of the 1980s to a $100 billion industry by 2017, overtaking the film industry in the process (Cherrayil, 2015). So, how can this seemingly colossal strand of entertainment still pass as non-mainstream, at least within the Western context? As gaming expert Simon Saunders puts it:

“For those able to connect to it, the digital generation finds gaming culture everywhere. For the analogue generation, it’s not that simple. Which makes the task of explaining this vast webscape, its baffling tropes and rules of the road, a very difficult exercise. Gaming has formed its own elites and media from scratch in ways which bypass most of the rules imposed by traditional groups – something which politics is yet to fully discover and deal with.”

As a result of its unfamiliarity, gaming is yet to be recognised as a legitimate resource or an inspiration for various political strategies. But in the event that it were, what would this look like? What would make gaming politically useful? In a broad sense, a politically useful endeavour would create an act or a discourse which successfully undermines current power relations and questions them while attempting to stop their reproduction. According to Ian Bogost, some game scholars say that games built with a linear narrative based on a historical event or a clearly politicised set-up is enough for a game to have the volition to inspire change (for example Sid Meier’s Civilization series, BioShock, Papers, Please).  Bogost himself, however, insists that by giving certain properties but leaving the space for the player to create her own rules, narratives and engagement create an autonomy that, while by itself is not persuasive, is radical in its invitation to participate in the player’s representation – what he famously calls procedural rhetoric (Bogost, 2006). However, is content alone enough?

Theorist Walter Benjamin would not find it sufficient – his text ‘Author as Producer’ argues that it is not enough to pass something off as having “revolutionary content” while still utilising contemporary relations of production: it is essential for the author/artist/activist to become a conscious producer, one who considers and evaluates their own work, and their relation to the formal means of production, in a “truly revolutionary way” (Benjamin, 1970). This is in direct opposition to what is commonly seen as activist work – charities, marches from A to B, liberal commentators: these are the typical means of activist production. The question of distribution here becomes the key concern. As argued by Benjamin:

“The activists and the representatives of the new objectivity can wave their arms as much as they please: they cannot do away with the fact that even the proletarianisation of an intellectual almost never makes a proletarian.  . . . the bourgeois class gave one a means of production which, on the basis of the privilege of culture, makes him solitary with it.”

In essence, Benjamin insists that the beginning of any operation in a political context should not start from the author settled outside and looking into the subject matter, but from within the area of discussion itself. Not only does that critique a lot of what is perceived as instrumental for social change, but it negates the entire notion of political aesthetic in art, writing and/or games. Such projects may be purposeful but, if committed under the same bourgeois means of production, stops being “useful” politically.

Now, one could say that video gaming can never truly be of radical utility due to its sheer dependency on consoles/PCs and its production in developing countries, often in appalling conditions. The discourse of video games escaping the dictatorship of mass-produced hardware–similarly as art has escaped the confinement of the gallery–could be a fascinating one, but worthy of a whole other text. For now, it is important to establish that a lot of what comes under the shtick of ‘politically useful’ can be easily dismantled when put under the magnifying glass of Benjamin’s critique. But if we were to look for organic collaboration under the current state of gaming, where could we find it?

Goonswarm: All your ISK are belong to us

Consider the potential for co-operated disruption potential in MMORPGs, such as Eve’s original Goonswarm, a network of players formed primarily by users of the website Something Awful. The focus in Eve’s virtual economy is the time, money and skill that gamers put into the mining of minerals, the selling of goods and services, or the stealing of goods and money (just don’t get caught). Created in 2006, Goonswarm was comprised of hundreds, if not thousands of players with relatively low resources who secretly organised for months to attack the corporation Band of Brothers: a rival in-game group of players who, at the time, had complete control over the game’s resources and could therefore control all the other players.

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Anonymous alliances and skill were the key factors in the victory of this particular war. With this anonymity, Goonswarm had members infiltrating the private forums of Band of Brothers, releasing key information back to their teammates and sabotaging any attempt at counter-attack. Their sheer numbers and the countless hours they devoted to their mission enabled them to gain leverage over Band of Brothers. The decisive moment came when the former chairman of BoB, Haargoth Agamar, defected to the Goonswarm because he liked the group dynamic, which validated a more horizontal organizational form, better.

While Goonswarm may be seen as a temporal experiential space for the critique of hierarchies, it did still require countless amount of hours and certain hardware in order to work. This tension probably applies more to single player games than MMORPGs, but there is little doubt that the big flaw of such actions in terms of accessibility is just how much time players can afford to give in order to become “good” at the game. Although I would argue that Goonswarm was effective more due to its numbers and methods than resources, it would be idealistic to overlook the economic and social factors involved while also ignoring Benjamin’s critique. In addition to that, it is important to point out that whilst this is a neat example of “the little guys” winning against a more dominating, powerful force, more often than not these techniques are still utilised against the marginalised, e.g. Gamergate attacking women in gaming.

Passivity in Papers, Please

While Goonswarm was successful in dismantling power structures within the game, Papers, Please is touted as an agent in disrupting the rules of the real world. Lucas Pope’s 2013 single-player success was one of the first truly mainstream video games with an overt politically-charged agenda and aesthetic. The game is essentially a border agency simulator which presents players with a collection of ordinary people trying to enter the fictional country of Arstotzka. The player checks the issue date and the issuing city of the traveller’s documents, watching for discrepancies that might suggest an expired document, or worse, a sinister forgery. If immigrants are coming for work, they need a permit; if they’re citizens, they need an ID card; all documents must be current, etc. The rules and discrepancies the player must watch for pile up as they continue playing.

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The overall directive of the game is to illustrate the almost-robotic bureaucracy behind a real, life-or-death situation to many people. While shining a light on the state of modern border controls is admirable, Papers Please by itself could run the risk becoming a standard piece of political art, functioning as propaganda at best and a self-congratulatory project at worst. Public and private spaces are already filled with complacent artistic commentary on the contemporary world, attempting to strike the balance between the ethical and the aesthetic, but rarely achieving both, hence damaging the political in “politically engaged” (see David Černy or Shepard Fairey). The danger of falling into this mediocrity by making ubiquitous, “politically engaged” games is enormous, but what is at stake and what should be questioned is the ability of the reformist, conservative and charitable voices of some these initiatives draining the voices of true solidarity.

Thankfully, Papers, Please does not fall into the trap because of its procedural processing, and how it plays with guilt. Players are challenged with moral dilemmas as the game progresses. For example, players decide whether to allow the supposed spouse of an immigrant through, although their papers are incorrect, at the risk of accepting “a terrorist” into the country. Bribes must occasionally be accepted in order to feed player’s own family. This not only creates simplistic, symptomatic social-commentary, but also succeeds in engaging the players into feeling as though they are part of the problem, making them feel actively responsible, much like Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s practice of leaving aesthetics aside and only focusing on delivering experiences that can often be seen as ‘poverty porn’ (Montenegro,  2013). In a similar way, rather than just being commentary or reportage, Papers, Please separates itself from the ubiquity of clicktivism by holding a mirror that reflects the often willful ignorance that is at the key of division in society.

Games as Tools, Not Posters

Even with examples from games such as Papers, Please or the Goonswarm in mind, it would still be an easier task to defend hacking or new media art as politically conscientious, because those acts of labour have clear intentions and a well-documented output.  But beyond the games themselves, the broader picture of the communities created by video games also encourages participators to co-operate with each other and organise in an increasingly non-hierarchical manner, opposing the status quo of many established “irl” communities. New politically-charged games can not only call-out the status quo, but give tools to practically destabilise it; a sort of equivalent to practices of the Yes Men, Hans Haacke or even Anonymous. They can be created in horizontal environments, be affordable, but under no circumstances serve corporate interests, such as Jane McGonigal creating ‘political’ games for McDonald’s, World Bank, and the U.S. Department of Defense (2011). How many people in the gaming industry want to admit the possibility it that their main reward is a sense of superiority, a perverse high status particularly when it comes with some added frisson when being viewed as a political game developer (Graeber, 2011)? Producing real cultural change can be a lot harder, lonelier and less rewarding.

Too much time has been wasted pandering to dogmatic aesthetics of the “right way” to achieve a better tomorrow – solidarity, co-operation, self-organisation and creation can be expressed in a vast diversity of tactics and considered discourses which are self-aware and gain insight from a multitude of perspectives. My suggestion to my friends and everyone else involved in the struggle of making this world a better place? Refuse to cling on to the often hidden hierarchies of many politically-charged projects. Attempt to see autonomy in places quite unexpected, and most certainly in gaming. While that potential hasn’t been fully harvested yet, instead of judging the attempts to engage with it, broadening the spectrum of techniques employed in political action. See more than “uselessness” and look for the potential instead.  

References:

Benjamin, W. (1970). The Author as Producer. New Left Review, 1/62.

Bogost, I. (2006) Playing Politics: Videogames for Politics, Activism, and Advocacy

Cherrayil, N.K. (2015). Video gaming to overtake movie and music industry.
Available: http://m.gulfnews.com/business/sectors/technology/video-gaming-to-overtake-movie-and-music-industry-1.1560428. Last accessed 20 October 2015.

 

Graeber, D. (2011) Revolutions in reverse: Essays on politics, violence, art, and imagination. Minor Composition, New York.


McGonigal, J (2011) Reality is Broken, Penguin Group, NY. p.8

Montenegro, A (2013) Locating work in Santiago Sierra’s artistic practice. Available: http://www.ephemerajournal.org/sites/default/files/13-1montenegro.pdf Last accessed: 2 February 2016

 

Saunders, S. (2015). Why Is Gaming Both Mainstream and Not Mainstream? Available: http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-c0b3-Why-is-gaming-both-mainstream-and-not-mainstream. Last accessed 18 October, 2016

 

Haargoth Agamar Available: http://eveinfo.net/wiki/in~10142.htm Last accessed: 24 April, 2016.

 

Tronstad, R (2010) The Productive Paradox of Critical Play. Available: http://gamestudies.org/1001/articles/tronstad. Last accessed 1 February, 2016

 

 

Figure 1:  Marijam Didzgalvyte, (2015), Screenshot of the Comment Section. Retrieved September 13, 2015 from http://hackaday.com/2014/01/10/teaching-mario-to-play-pong-and-snake-through-innumerable-exploits/

 

Figure 2: Masterjun. (n.d.). [TAS] SNES Super Mario World “executes arbitrary code” by Masterjun in 02:25.19. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxgEXDnXD6M

 

Figure 3: Munar, A (2013) Overview of the Battle between Goonswarm and Band of Brothers. Retrieved September 13, 2015 from http://www.eve-site.com/breaking-hbc-eve-vs-goonswarm-and-co-brawl-going-on-right-now-live-feed-added/

 

Figure 4: Pope, L (n.d.), Screenshot of Papers, Please Gameplay. Retrieved September 13, 2015 from http://papersplea.se/