Well Played: Battle Royale

Video games are not an escape from the class structure but reproduce it

Well Played is a monthly column about video games and how they both reflect and shape capitalism’s development. What role do they play in reproducing society, transforming ideology, and sustaining capital’s pool of labor? The answers suggested here are meant as openings for debate rather than comprehensive, conclusive statements; exceptions to some claims may be obvious, but these don’t nullify the general trends, which must be met with social resistance. This series is offered as a contribution to a map of the territory for those who would join that conflict.

Fortnite‘s emotes — the dances sold in its in-game store for two dollars and up — have become its most recognizable symbol, as teens all over the world floss and Take the L in schools, on street corners, and in a million YouTube videos. Originally stolen from Black creators who have not been compensated or even recognized by Fortnite‘s publisher Epic Games, they have now turned up in one of the more popular videos circulating of the Gilets Jaunes uprisings, in which a rioter mimics the emotes among a crowd dancing to a marching band in the middle of a blocked avenue in Paris. The video has been used to support claims on social media that these riots (like most riots, in fact) are more celebratory, carnivalesque, and fun than the standard media reports of rage and dissatisfaction would lead you to believe.

The Fortnite emotes have thus, like rock and roll, hip hop, or techno before them, traveled a familiar cultural circuit of appropriation and reappropriation. Seized as a form of intellectual property by a now multibillion-dollar company, the emotes have in turn been brought back to the streets as a symbol of riotous joy and liberation. A similar thing happened with (mostly Black) queer and trans street fashions, which retained some of their original spirit despite being appropriated by capitalist interests. In being disseminated to greater audiences — working alongside expansive queer agitation and organizing — such appropriation has helped normalize and spread queer forms of living, pleasure, and expression.

Seized as a form of intellectual property by a now multibillion-dollar company, the Fortnite emotes have been brought back to the streets as a symbol of riotous joy

Of course, the original creators almost never see any of this money, nor do the changes usually happen quickly or widely enough to help them — appropriation is a violent extraction of value from marginalized communities. It is also a dangerous game for capital. While it’s fundamental to the rejuvenation of capitalist cultural products (including video games) and hence incredibly profitable, it doesn’t always allow the appropriators to control the political effects of what they’ve stolen. Media in general are sites where ideological retrenchment and social contestation coexist in a state of tension, where seams in the dynamics of capitalism can be exposed and exploited.

To get supported at scale, culture under capitalism must work to reproduce the system that produced it — it must seem to justify existing social relations and produce new subjects to continue them. That is, mass culture must help make the feeling and experience of discrimination or intolerance feel normal, defensible, inevitable, and useful. So this means that cultural goods like video games work to maintain existing gender relations, reinforce racial domination, justify ableism, and perpetuate all other “helpful” forms of social control. While individual games may reflect different things — tradition, genre constraints, struggle, individual creativity, myth, fashion, national or political identity, ideology, and so on — the tenor of the medium, taken whole as a line of business, will be consistent with those ideological requirements.

For instance, in video games, women are typically represented as bad-ass sex objects or sex-object damsels. This runs the gamut across genres and audiences: From Mario’s Peach, who is always in another castle, to the barely-there armor of women in fighting-game series like Soulcalibur or Street Fighter, to the sexy protagonists of last year’s Nier: Automata, a critically acclaimed philosophical meditation on the meaning of humanity that was also full of android upskirts. Meanwhile, abuse and violence against women and children is often used as a shortcut for “serious” storytelling, a problem across the games landscape that is particularly visible in the highly stylized work of video-game “auteurs” David Cage and Goichi “Suda51” Suda.

Likewise, many video games are shaped around conquest, colonization, and war. They often glorify violent power fantasies, the military, and police. This year, celebrations of the police in Marvel’s Spider-Man and colonial fantasies in Shadow of the Tomb Raider were particularly blatant, but the ideology permeates the broader video-game landscape: “Military shooters” is a common subgenre, and there is a set of empire-building games known as 4X: “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.” Numerous games feature indigenous, Arab, Black, or otherwise racially othered enemies; hugely popular franchises — including but hardly limited to Uncharted, Far Cry, Resident Evil, Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty — have all trafficked in this imagery. And all this is only a gloss of the most common critiques of video-game representation.

For games to have effective force they must not be too dogmatic or stale — to achieve that cover, they tend to appropriate the vitality of emergent culture

The works that are most celebrated in terms of popularity, monetary value, and often cultural recognition will tend to be the ones that are most successful at reproducing those values capitalism requires. Their conformity to already hegemonic values allows them to appear as accessible, relevant, and “realistic” while they cater to and thereby manage popular desires. But popular desires often prove more unpredictable, and the fundamentally chaotic nature of the market as well as the push of social movements and other currents elevates works more radical in their potential, or at least more ideologically ambiguous. Games, like all mass culture, are administered ideology, but to have effective force they must not be too dogmatic or stale — the widespread recognition of vulgar state-produced propaganda as such (for example from places like North Korea or Turkmenistan) masks the more insidious but no less propagandistic functioning of culture markets. But to achieve that cover, they tend to appropriate the vitality of emergent culture. When games steal this popular energy, the ideology they convey becomes potentially unreliable.

Media come to prominence for their ability to unify, pacify, or otherwise reproduce the working class and keep things as they are, but artistic and revolutionary works and energies within mediums will always militate against this. Culture “works” because it harnesses pleasure, joy, reflection and creativity — all aspects of experience that, if given enough space, will eventually point away from the hatred and greed that marks white supremacist capitalist accumulation. As a site where many people are gathered by passionate devotion, culture makes for a sensible entry point for political engagement.

Social control through entertainment media is a tactic mainly employed in the “homeland.” It is for subjects integrated and to a degree rewarded by the capitalist system. Meanwhile in the periphery, in the neo-colonies, in the ghettos, trailer parks and prisons, in the global South and internal souths, capital is more “efficient” and direct in its exercise of power. Rather than seduce and convince potential opponents, capital relies on grinding poverty, naked exploitation, brutal repression, and endless physical violence. As a matter of communal preservation and survival, oppositional cultures develop in these peripheries, generating novelty and beauty that the integrated mass culture cannot.

These symbols, like Fortnite emotes, are unstable, bearing with them the history of their creation by people yearning to be free

These innovations are then assimilated, commodified, and transformed by global companies and white, Western cultural practices — cultural appropriation. So even as entertainment media are formalized, controlled, administered in the capitalist homeland, their greatest works are built on the creative labors of marginalized people — e.g.: the Fortnite emotes.

But this means that these symbols are unstable, bearing with them indelibly the history of their creation, the ideas of beauty, freedom, and creativity created by a people yearning to be free. So they are less reliable tools of oppression than the policeman or the prison cell. Class struggle, exploitation, and neocolonial extraction are embedded into all cultural artifacts and, as such, always threaten to pour out of the margins and into the streets. Media, like everything else created under capitalism, is always threatened with recapture by capitalism’s gravediggers.

With the explosion of the video game industry and increasingly powerful and easy to use development tools and distribution platforms, more and more queer, trans, nonwhite, and otherwise marginalized creators are successfully developing games that are reaching bigger and bigger audiences, and a small but strong and growing community of support, journalistic and academic attention, and fan discussion and interaction has grown around them. The Gamergate harassment campaign of 2014 destroyed much of its infrastructure and drove many of its practitioners into hiding or out of the industry altogether, but now this community is beginning to flourish again. And the broader growth of resistance and organization across American society, particularly among younger generations, is pulling video games along with it.

In a sign of these shifting tides, Sonicfox, after winning the Best Esports Player award at the Game of the Year awards earlier this month, started his acceptance speech with “Wow, I really won this shit!” Later he said “As you may not know, I’m super gay,” to raucous applause. He concluded by saying that as a “gay, black furry,” he was “pretty much everything a Republican hates. And the best esports player of the whole year, apparently!”

While moments like this are encouraging, more openly radical, Black, or queer friendly games will remain marginal to the extent that video games remain a dominant medium in a culture dominated by capitalism. Discussions of the power of art often emphasize engaged, politicized currents in a medium, but these will remain by definition minority positions within the larger cultural apparatus of control and conformity, unless events in the street overtake the culture and change it. In such a world, these games would not appear as radical but ordinary and many mainstream games from today will seem absurdly reactionary relics of a bygone era.

Vicky Osterweil is a writer, editor, and agitator based in Philadelphia. She is the co-host of the podcast Cerise and Vicky Rank the Movies, where they are ranking every movie ever made, and the author of In Defense of Looting.