Scott Alsworth writes about real and virtual class conflict in the video game industry, and its potential for helping us confront and overcome capitalism. All images are from Wikimedia.
The class struggle is raging all around us. It is, as Marx observed, a sometimes hidden and a sometimes open fight. Across the country, it’s playing out on picket lines and factory floors, in our hospitals and in our schools. Shop assistants, care workers, cleaners, students – millions are waking up and challenging a ruthless system, dedicated to putting profit before people.
But this conflict, is also a battle for ideas. Culture matters not just because it unites us but because it’s an inviolable arena, belonging to the mind. No wonder then, that the ideas of the ruling classes are in every age the ruling ideas. The illusion of capital’s permanence and power are sacrosanct. Any artist today, courageous enough to take a stand against neoliberal agendas, must face an impossible choice; assimilation or annihilation. By championing revolutionary politics they are forced to accept pariahdom and a lingering, spiritual death, or else, conform. This agonising dictum blights every creative enterprise in the UK, including its biggest – the gaming industry.
Video games add more to the British economy than film, TV, music, publishing, design, fashion, and architecture combined. In 2019, some 18,279 game developers contributed a staggering £2.2 billion to the country’s GDP – an increase from £1.8 billion the year before. The growth is looking exponential, and it shows no signs of abating. More and more workers are flocking to development studios, PC gaming is up 46%, and mobile gaming, 17%. Since the introduction of a rebate on production spends in 2014, annual sales from games in Great Britain have reached 8.9%, demonstrating the trend is not an isolated phenomenon, nor caused by the market boom brought about by the recent COVID-19 lockdowns.
There is also the mainstream impact of virtual and augmented reality to consider, not to mention the future impact of AI-assisted software, the metaverse, and quantum computing. Emergent technologies will change the way we spend our leisure time. In fact, a 2020-2021 survey showed 92% of adults aged 16 and over are already playing video games, while projections for 2025 suggest the number of video game users in the UK will reach 51.88 million. If the population reaches the estimated 68.3 million mark, that will be 75% of the nation, actively engaging in digital, interactive entertainment. The figure is impressive globally too; 3.5 billion people around the world will soon be video game consumers – in other words, approximately half the planet.
Thanks to the U.S. Department of Defense!
This embarrassment of riches is often lauded by business leaders and politicians as an entrepreneurial success story, made possible by competition between creatives in a capitalist society. Never mind that video games, like other forms of art, are commercialised and regularly steered from their true potential as a means to explore the human condition – and never mind the awkward truth, that this multi-billion-pound industry was founded by a group of self-professed hackers who stole time and resources from America’s military-industrial complex to prototype gaming machines. Indeed, all contenders for the much coveted title of ‘first video game ever’ have one thing in common; a paper trail leading to the US Department of Defense.
Some examples of this historical context are worth exploring, as they lend us an important dialectical perspective. In 1962, expectations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for missile targetting systems, capable of countering a Soviet first strike, were running high. Yet, what was secretly in development there was Spacewar!, a two-player game conceived by Steve ‘the slug’ Russell. Designed on a PDP-1, Russell and his colleagues were able to secure expensive research time, using a mix of pretences, to build a responsive computer where simulated spacecraft could launch torpedoes at one another while navigating a gravity well. Needless to say, it was a far cry from contemporary video games. The display was comparable to a battleship’s sonar panel with green blips, rendered without sound against a black, starless void. For controls, heavy wooden blocks were used and capped with several switches, allowing both players to move around. Although it was not much to look at, it was a fennel stalk concealing fire: a Promethean gift, snatched from the gods.
Before long, Spacewar! spread across the US via the government’s ARPANET as an early instance of open-source freeware. A decade later, a tournament was even held at Stanford University, in a room plastered with posters condemning Nixon and the Vietnam War. Remarkably, it was not the first attempt to re-purpose military funds from within. In 1958, William Higginbotham, a physicist who worked on the atomic bomb and later became a leader in the non-proliferation movement, devised Tennis for Two –a sports simulation, designed on computers intended for calculating ballistics. One can only imagine the response of his superiors when it was finallyunveiledathislaboratory’sannualvisitors’ day.
Another story relates to Ralph Baer, an engineer who redirected the resources of his 500-man team to build a console that could be connected to a television set. Filing out patents under the name of his employers at Sanders Associates, a company supplying the US military with sophisticated technologies, Baer told his managers nothing and during the summer of 1966, laid the groundwork for the Magnavox Odyssey, which made history in 1972 as a commercial gaming platform. The origin of video games then, is linked to a technoscientific cognitariat that America’s powerful defence corporations failed to control. Through channels like the Advanced Research Projects Agency, vast sums of money entered research centres in a bid to steer the first mass draft of immaterial labour in the US towards preparing for a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union – and we have video games because a little of that money was misappropriated and put to better use.
Building socialism through the arts
Perhaps this goes some way in explaining the military’s interests in the gaming industry, and how it was able to exercise its influence so quickly. By liberating computers and video games from the Pentagon, hackers inadvertently set the stage for their ‘reterritorialisation’ by capital in pure commodity form. This, and the associated cultural hegemony, superincumbent over all conceivable forms of virtual play, is not going unopposed. Assemblies of immaterial labour have long resisted and continue to resist the insipid commodification of art as well as its overall subjugation to neoliberalism. After the 1960s, there came the creatively unmanageable developers at Atari who, in the 1970s, during the Golden Age of gaming, drove studio executives mad. Then came the suspect subculture of Manga artists who revived Japan’s burnt-out American industry in the 1980s, followed by the internal and external pressures of female players and industry workers on male-dominated networks in the 1990s.
Later, into the 21st century, we have the advent of modding communities and teams of micro-innovators reshaping video games as a provocative and independent force. This increasing level of autonomy, energised to no small extent by the availability, affordability, and accessibility of development tools, is empowering ‘indie’ studios and attracting working-class artists, frustrating attempts to stifle outside opinions while compounding existing tensions within, with regards to unionisation and an inchoate class-consciousness. The pace of technological progress, accelerated by the blind pursuit of wealth and an ideological aesthetic, has paradoxically left this cultural bastion vulnerable to attack. Even in the early days of gaming, corporations struggled to leverage the creative talent of immaterial labour. Now, the capitalist class is insisting its gravediggers take up the shovel.
The situation is particularly acute owing to the simple fact that, unlike film and literature, video games can achieve massive popularity and commercial success without significant financing from distributors or publishers. Service platforms such as Steam afford blanket coverage for all titles and additional coverage based on sales, acting as an online storefront for a 30-40% share of revenues and a small charge. Their principal competitor, Epic Games, offers a similar service for a 12% cut and no fee. This arrangement means that video games disseminating alternative views can reach mainstream audiences.
In addition, time-honoured tendencies from other artistic disciplines can be adapted and redeployed. Social and Socialist Realist video games are already appearing on the market. There are also those that educate players in Marxist theory; sometimes passively and sometimes with a clear didactic intention. Both can be constructive. The same may be said for the retro appeal of predominantly Soviet design, music, language, and symbology. To take a case in point, I have heard from several comrades that Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 was an early influential factor in their political development. This should come as no surprise – many of us will have been introduced to the concept of socialism through the arts.
In 2019, the subject of Marxism and video games was put firmly on the table in an event that took the gaming world by storm. At a crowded auditorium in Los Angeles, during an acceptance speech for the Fresh Indie Game Award, developers of the breakout hit, Disco Elysium, gave a passionate shout out to ‘some of the great people that came before [them]’ – a roll call that included Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Viktor Tsoi, and Vladimir Makovsky. It was an impressive speech, especially as it came from a team responsible for earning approximately £43 million worldwide.
Elsewhere, studios operating as workers’ collectives are also gaining media attention. A year after Disco Elysium, a profit-sharing group of American communists founded Pixel Pushers Union 512 and released Tonight We Riot – a side-scrolling ‘beat ’em up’ where you play as a crowd of revolutionary workers, hurling petrol bombs and taking on the state. Although as subtle as a sledgehammer, its aggregate review score on Steam is rated ‘very positive’. Video games such as these, however, are an exception rather than the rule. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the direct and indirect ‘militarisation’ of the industry, not only by national governments and armed forces but also by arms manufacturers.
In the UK, attempts to bring gamers into the military’s fold are openly acknowledged and play a part in recruitment propaganda. The British Army’s latest advertising campaign demonstrates this perfectly with posters reading: ‘Binge gamers, the army needs you and your drive’.In reality, videogames themselves are working as a primer. Many sanitise and glorify modern warfare, normalising violence while promoting nationalistic notions of who our enemies are. This usually involves framing ‘good guys’ as freedom-loving US special forces and‘bad guys’as generic Middle Eastern terrorists. Or Iranians. Or nowadays, the Chinese or Russians.
As a video game developer myself, I have seen first-hand how studio executives will push false narratives and politicise creative content. Anti-Marxist sentiments are often mandated from above and historical events are regularly revised before being insidiously presented as fact. Combined with this, for the sake of authenticity, game writers and designers are routinely paired with military consultants, who can also prove instrumental in pandering to conservative paranoias. Moreover, video games have also been targeted for product placement by major gun companies, who hope to reinforce their brand identities and have their merchandise showcased in realistic combat scenarios. In this respect, video games are appropriated as interactive promotional materials. Senior developers and stakeholders are approached and courted by arms dealers. They are taken to factories and firing ranges, made to feel like ‘real soldiers’, and, in some cases, outside the UK, paid-off with samples, taking home assault rifles to their families. A few studios even collaborate with the military to further long-term business plans, leasing in-house software for training purposes.
But once again, there are countercurrents. In 2011, Polish developers at 11 Bit Studios launched This War of Mine; a survival game focusing specifically on civilian experiences of conflict. Aside from winning more than a hundred awards, it also made a tangible difference in the world by raising over £400,000 for the charity, War Child. Similarly, two projects I have worked on while contracting for the Czech studio, Bohemia Interactive, have sought to introduce players to International Humanitarian Law through the 2013 military simulation game, Arma 3 – generating nearly £300,000 for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
This then, is to describe something of the battle for ideas. But what about those battles affecting game developers in the workplace? Compulsory overtime is almost expected in the industry. Known as ‘crunching’, it is a cost-cutting exercise that can lead to 80-hour weeks for extended periods of time, without extra pay. This frequently results in ‘burnout’, a catch-all term to describe the myriad health problems occurring when studio employees are pressurised into working day and night in stressful circumstances. I can testify to this from personal experience and have been compelled to crunch for months on end: once, for 96 hours straight. I remember how team members were invited to bring sleeping bags to the office and how, every morning, an anxious producer was forced to step over exhausted bodies to reach my desk.
Situations like this are not uncommon. In 2004, the fiancée of a game developer at Electronic Arts wrote a damning online article, describing how her partner was coerced to work 12-hour days, seven days a week, month after month, ‘with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behaviour (at 6.30pm)’. Her furious invective, charged with obvious concern and despair, made headlines around the world and shocked many, mainly because within the industry such hours were not considered shocking at all. Depressingly, not much has changed. According to a 2022 study, 58% of game developers in the UK have experienced crunching within the last two years.
Aside from this gruelling practice, thousands of others also face gender discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment. In the words of a fellow freelance Narrative Designer, Meghna Jayanth:
‘[it’s a] confluence of worker disempowerment and a male-dominated managerial class [that makes game development] an especially unwelcoming place for women. [The industry] sits at the intersection of the worst of the casting couch, predatory networking culture of the entertainment industries, and the unregulated boys’ club mentality of Silicon Valley. There’s an entire culture of silence, complicity and even enabling toxic behaviour’.
This assessment, I would add, is an accurate one. Reports of improper conduct against female employees are often dismissed by upper management. At some studios, disciplinary action is even avoided unless an allegation of rape is made – anything less being blithely put down to ‘office hi-jinks’. Of course, workers have not been idle in resisting these conditions. Over the years, many high-profile cases have appeared in the press and inspired efforts to establish unions. In 2018, a British chapter of the international Game Workers Unite union was legally recognised as a part of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain. The first labour association in the country to represent the interests of game developers, its goals are to end unpaid overtime, to educate and protect targeted workers, to improve inclusion and diversity, and to establish fair and regular wages.
In practical terms then, the familiar question of ‘what is to be done’ may be easily answered. Those of us developing video games in the UK should join the Game Workers branch of the Independent Workers union of Great Britain and encourage others in the industry to do the same, while championing and sharing information on the organisation’s campaigns. Political education and further reading should also be considered – especially Marx at the Acrade by Jamie Woodcock and Games of Empire by Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter. Both books are recommended, for they are very accessible and offer a much richer insight than the one afforded here.
Tackling cultural hegemony
On the subject of our response to capitalist cultural hegemony and video games, we must strive towards a more daring and creative solution. The way ahead is open. Now is the time to advance a radical agenda. To educate, agitate, and organise. To fight back, as artists – real artists, leveraging the power of virtual play with passion and integrity. Not alone but together, as Marxist game developers. To do this, we have to combine our skills and resources and establish at least one video game studio, run as a workers’ collective for peace and socialism. Such an undertaking will be an ambitious endeavour. It will require experienced and dedicated comrades and it will also require outside support, from the Game Workers branch of the Independent Workers union of Great Britain and from communist parties, internationally.
In truth, we are at an exciting point in history. The ruling classes, in an impulsive attempt to secure and further the runaway profits of the gaming industry, have left the gate of their falling castle unguarded. By spurring automatised software, generous government subsidiaries, and free digital distribution services, they have unintentionally provided us with the means to confront a social, political, and economic status quo. If we can rise to this occasion we will set an incredible precedent and liberate ourselves from a dominant, bourgeois ideology.