Gaming, Politics and Empowerment

This interview was conducted by Verena GrĂ¼n and originally published by the awesome Lotta magazine, an antifascist publication based in west Germany. Since it is only available in German on their site we have translated the interview and publish it here ourselves.

Is gaming apolitical?

fuchsi*: No. Simple answer: No published media is ever apolitical. If it claims to be, chances are it just supports the status quo, which oviously is quite political.

ente: In particular questions like which stories are being told and from what perspective, are obviously political. All games tell some form of story. Even non narrative-driven games have a setting, a world they take place in and figures that act.

radow: Even gameplay mechanics have a political dimension: Which actions does the game reward and which does it punish?

ente: And what level of experience and which abilities are required to play the game in the first place? Recently there has been a lot of debate around difficulty, gatekeeping and accesibility.

radow: I think it’s worth examining why so many seem to be averse to the notion of games being political in the first place. Over the last years we’ve experienced a push for the depolitisation of games. Parts of the community use slogans like “get politics out of games” to basically frame anything they perceive as even rudimentary progressive (such as more diverse characters) as “PC” or “SJW” and claim that it is “destroying gaming”.
Sadly, the reaction of many AAA studios and publishers isn’t particularly encouraging either. Even when they do include more diverse casts and narratives (be this in order to reach a broader audience, or because of increasingly diverse developers including their own experiences) they often deflect and claim “our games are not political”.

What unites you as a collective?

ente: Purple Sloth was formed in early 2018, when some of us were working together as part of a game jam. From there on out things developed further and we figured out what kind of games we wanted to make. As indie game developers it is particularly important to us to foster a welcoming atmosphere of solidarity in which we can develop games with political subtext. We want to empower ourselves as well as others with our games. Since many of us fall under the queer umbrella it is particularly important to us to reflect our experiences as queer people in our games.
If you want to know more about us and our concept you can find our full mission statement at:

fuchsi*: Games have always been important to many of us. Experiencing compelling stories, finding accomplishment in achievable challenges, fully immersing oneself into a fictional world to forget the problems of the real world for a moment or simply finding inspiration in a crafted experience. Then there is the social aspect: interacting with others in online games or huddling around a screen in order to solve a puzzle game can be powerful connecting experiences. Since we were often missing certain political perspectives or even outright clashed with the standpoint perpetuated by some games we soon found a shared vision for what kind of games we wanted to play – and by extension make.

Is there emancipatory potential in games? Where and why?

fuchsi*: Absolutely! Games have the ability to portray a wide range of experiences and life circumstances. There are a couple of games that deal with depression and anxiety or queer experiences and communities. These tend to be small games more often than not, but they give the devs behind them a medium to express themselves and share their experiences. Examples include “Celeste”, “Sea of Solitude”, “Tomorrow don’t come” or “A Normal Lost Phone”.
As interactive media games are uniquely qualified to convey experiences and perspectives that may otherwise be foreign to the consumer. They do not only appeal to the depicted communities, but can also serve to heighten visibility for them and their struggles. While games may not be able to fully covey what living with depression is like for example, their interactive nature allows a player to experience more of it than is possible in other media.
I think the potential of games in this regard is far from being fully realized, but developers are starting to explore it.

ente: Another aspect are communities that form around games. These usually exist primarily online and thus are able to bridge distances that would otherwise make them unlikely. Such communities can be safe havens that give support to people who cannot find it in their immediate surroundings.

radow: And even the creation of games in itself can bring people together. In particular I’m thinking of game jams like the ’nonbinary game jam’ or the communities formed around particular game engines. With “Game Workers Unite!” there is finally a global movement for unionization of game devs. That is absolutely necessary, but still met with harsh resistance on the side of many studios and publishers.

With Christchurch, El Paso and Halle there have been several right-wing terror attacks performed by gamers. What was you reaction when you found out about these attacks? Is there any discussion about the connection between right wing terror and gaming in the community?

radow: I’m sad to say that I was not particularly surprised. Over the last years, specifically after GamerGate, right wing activists have identified gaming communities as a plentiful recruitment area. By now they have created outright recruitment pipelines that start in relatively harmless gaming discords and subreddits, moves via GG subreddits and ends on platforms such as 8chan or gab. With good reason 8chan is the platform where the terrorists have shared their manifestos and live streams.

fuchsi*: The source for these problems are neither inherent nor exclusive to games though. They thrive on the acceptance of and alignment towards toxic parts of the communities without any awareness for these problems.

radow: An ever present example is the acceptance of racism under the guise of jokes, memes or alleged historic accuracy (that tends to be all but historically accurate). Racists rants and outbursts from large content creators such as Pewdiepie are belittled as “heated gamer moments”. And large publishers such as THQ Nordic hold AMAs on 8chan.

ente: A particularly loud group are the so called identity-gamers. Their most distinctive feature is gatekeeping: They see themselves as “true gamers” while others, e.g. people playing mobile games, casual games, narrative games or people who are not white-cis-male are not and accordingly have no right to be part of gaming communities.

radow: Naturally most of those do not want to have anything to do with the terrorists, but share many of the same phrases, idols (Pewdiepie, Jordan Peterson) and ideology or make edgy jokes about the atrocities.

How did you perceive the coverage and the political discourse surrounding the attacks and their relation to the gaming scene? [Note: This question mainly focuses on the coverage of the Halle attack in German media.]

fuchsi*: My first reaction was “Not the ‘killer game’ debate yet again!”.

radow: Starting an in-depth conversation about racism, sexism, other forms of discrimination and toxicity in video games, gaming communities and gaming culture would absolutely be necessary.

fuchsi*: The public discourse, however, is very superficial, focuses too much on general game mechanics and tends to miss the actual problems.

radow: To be clear: Problematic content as well as mechanics do their part in attracting bigots and making them feel justified, but the discourse usually does not even reach this level of analyses. It usually does not cut much deeper than “Oh a Shooter – those are bad”.

ente: The defensive reaction of large part of the scene to these discourses itself isn’t particularly helpful to starting a critical debate, in which gaming communities would ideally begin to take responsibility for their problematic and enabling culture and policies.

When Nazis started coming to Hardcore concerts the scene reacted by developing the “Good night white pride” label and tried to exclude Nazis from their spaces and events. Does something similar exist in gaming? Why not?

ente: There is nothing of comparable reach and scope though many smaller communities have codes of conduct that sanction transgressive behavior.

fuchsi*: Parts of the scene do have a heightened level of awareness for these problems and accordingly there are pushes to confront and in some cases deplatform content creators, publishers and developers that perpetuate them. These often lead to severe shitstorms against critics and affected marginalized people who do speak up and it can be hard to cushion those attacks as communities since they often target individuals.

ente: One of the problems is certainly that many people do view gaming as fundamentally apolitical. That makes the circumstances quite a bit more difficult than it was in the hardcore context. Even positions that should be consensus everywhere, like “Nazis are not okay” are not universally accepted in some spaces.

radow: It’s generally much more difficult to exclude Nazis from online spaces and communities, because the spaces themselves are much more vaguely defined. When Nazis openly try to come to a concert, you can just throw them out – either as a community or in cooperation with the organizers. Online communities can sprawl over multiple platforms and in the few cases that the platform providers do react they just return the next day with a new account or on a new platform.

What could be done against toxic communities and Nazis in gaming?

ente: As gamers as well as as developers we can organize and strengthen our communities, e.g. by introducing codes of conduct. But big content creators, publishers and studios also need to take on their responsibility for their products and communities.

fuchsi*: Especially in regard to the aforementioned deplatforming of Nazis more needs to be done. Finding solutions for this that do not rely on the intervention of governments and huge tech companies has so far proven frustratingly difficult – and may in fact be impossible as long as Facebook, Twitter etc. (rather than their open source alternatives) remain as important as they are right now.

radow: And then – of course – there is classical antifa work: dedicated research and documentation of recruitment methods, praxis and structures of alt right, MRA’s etc. in gaming spaces.

Thank you for the interview!