As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why videogames matter, by Ben Cowles.
Why Videogames Matter
by Ben Cowles
I've been playing video games for as far back as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on my dad's knee playing old-school games like 1942, Outrun, and Pac Man. When I was a little bit older my parents bought me Nintendo's first home console, the NES, and then the SNES. I grew up playing games like Super Mario World, Street Fighter 2, Donkey Kong Country, Star Fox, and the Legend of Zelda.
I always believed that the complications and drudgeries of adult life would force me to outgrow my gaming affliction, but that has never been the case.
Whether they're huge games with multi-million pound budgets and thousands of developers — like the Last of Us 2, Red Dead Redemption 2 or Dishonoured 2 — or smaller affairs, with modest budgets and smaller development teams — like Journey, Disco Elysium, Inside, or Firewatch — video games these days often feature intriguing and in-depth narratives with beautiful original scores, and superb acting and directing. Console games are no longer silly little pixels bopping around a screen, but full-blown artistic productions.
For me, modern games go beyond the experiences provided by films, books and especially TV shows. Instead of passively taking it in, video games actively engage your brain by giving you direct control over a character, a business, a city, an empire, a car, a spaceship, a football team, a date, a hospital, a school, a revolution, you name it. They offer up a level of immersion you simply don’t get in any other form of entertainment.
Whether video games are a legitimate art form or not is a contentious issue. I'm not qualified to answer. What I am sure of, though, is that art is a way for us to safely access emotions that we usually don’t, wouldn’t ever want, or couldn’t ever possibly experience. What would it actually feel like to be the last survivors after a zombie apocalypse; to charge head first into a hopeless battle; to strut through the Wild West; manage a city or dictate an entire civilization; razz round a race track in a ridiculously expensive car, or have the fate of the entire universe resting on your shoulders?
It’s only through video games that I have managed to expose myself to these feelings. But, like all entertainment mediums, video games certainly have their problems, problems typical of cultural experiences in our capitalist society.
First and foremost, especially for working-class people, is the fact that games are prohibitively expensive. You'll probably need to drop at least around £400 on a console or a phone to get access to them. Then games can cost anything from, well, nothing to over £60 for most console games if you buy them new. And despite the fact that video game publishers are rolling in cash — the medium makes way more money than the film and music industries do — some companies want to hike video game prices higher.
There's a huge problem of representation in video games too, just as there are problems in films, books and other media. Too often the protagonists in video games are straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men. And when they do include women, they can be sexualised and objectified to the extreme. It's embarrassing and degrading. But thankfully the medium has made great strides improving on this. Check out the new Tomb Raider games, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Walking Dead, and Gone Home for a few examples.
An industry doesn't become one of the most lucrative in the world without exploiting workers or its customers. The developers – the workers who actually make the games – often have to go through a process known as "crunch" right before the game they've been working on for years is released.
"Crunch" basically means pulling 12-hour shifts for days on end for no extra pay. So like everywhere else, there is a class struggle in the industry – thankfully workers in the industry have started to unionise and gamers have begun calling out the companies that put their workers through this process.
Perhaps one of the worst trends in the video game industry is the way companies try to squeeze more money out of gamers with microtransactions — like when a "free" game tries to make you pay small sums of money to keep playing — or lootboxes — which are essentially gambling mechanics. Making, selling and promoting video games isn't easy or cheap, but it doesn't need to based on exploitation.
Thankfully, there are a growing number of video game developers and publishers showing us how the industry could be run on socialist principles. ZA/UM, a collective of artists and musicians inspired and influenced by leftist philosophy, created the highly-acclaimed role-playing game Disco Elysium — which if you haven't played, you should definitely give it a go if you can.
Pixel Pushers Union 512, makers of Tonight We Riot, and Motion Twin, who made Dead Cells, are worker-owned cooperatives making amazing video games. And while researching for this project, I found a lot more worker-owned co-ops currently working on unannounced games. Let's hope the pandemic has not put a stop to them.
So, could trade unions or some other agencies set up left-wing game makers, like we have left wing book publishers? Absolutely, and especially when it comes to what's referred to as indie games — games made on smaller budgets and usually without the help of corporate publishers like EA, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, etc.
Remember back in 2017, when the Labour Party was led by a socialist and despite not winning the election, the party's share of the vote increased by 9.6 per cent? (Psst, that was more than any other of the party's election leaders since 1945?) Well, during that campaign the Labour Party helped fund Games For The Many, a small studio that created the successful mobile phone game, Corbyn Run.
In the United States Means Interactive, the video game wing of the US anti-capitalist worker cooperative Means, published Pixel Pusher's Tonight We Riot last year. So it can be done. And with games being one of the most popular forms of entertainment, the workers' movement would benefit enormously from getting its message out on the medium.