Game Boys

The “gamer” identity undermines the radical potential of play

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.

For a long time now, video games have been associated with mental illness. Of course, as the world is consumed by ecological apocalypse, ever-increasing inequality under capitalism and wracked with  forever imperial wars that look more and more like permanent police interventions, mental illness is increasingly endemic. In the wake of the (temporary) defeat of Black, anticolonial, labor, and indigenous liberation movements, hopelessness, despair and depression are common responses. Video games are a technology of depression, a partial salve for a world of alienation and violence.

But this structural violence is not necessarily what people are thinking of when they link mental illness to video games and gamers. Often games are instead held to somehow be responsible for antisociality or psychopathy in an otherwise sane society. From the supposed importance of Doom in the lives of the Columbine shooters to the centrality of online games in the hikikomori and internet-café-addiction trends in East Asia to video-slots addiction in casinos, video games are largely (and often rightly) understood as compulsion-producing, addicting, and full of unhealthy power fantasies. Forms of murderous rage, near-comatose withdrawal and disinhibited psychopathy — perhaps fueled by the belief that the world is just a simulation — are often ascribed to and associated with games.

Game companies not only cater to the escapist possibilities of “play” but also the regressive politics of adolescence in a sexist culture

Even when these more severe forms of mental illness are not involved, a preoccupation with video games in adults is still sometimes seen as a mark of a stalled maturation process, as if games were still fundamentally escapist pastimes for children and gamers were essentially childlike in their psychological disposition. Shaped as many of them are by nostalgia, gamers and game companies aren’t always quick to dispel this idea: As Alyse Knorr argues in this Kotaku post, video games offer a directly reproducible physical and visual experience from our childhood, giving us access to decades-old muscle memories, audio cues, and pattern repetitions as well as the bright-eyed awe and wonder that video games at their best can provide.

But game companies not only cater to the escapist possibilities of “play” but also the regressive politics of adolescence in a sexist culture. The spectacle of 8chan Nazis and neckbearded Gamergaters stomping their fedoras in wild tantrum every time a video-game company reduces the bust size of one of its characters from “spine breaking” to “scoliosis at 30” is reproduced by a gaming press and industry that responds apologetically to their organized reactionary brigading.

This gendered, adolescent marketing goes back to Nintendo’s mid-1980s-era revival of the video game market after the implosion of the early video game industry, a traumatic rupture in the medium’s history that saw it seemingly poised to disappear. Video games first emerged as bar amusements and then high-tech home gadgets for adults, but Nintendo treated game systems more as toys — and then succeeded to sell those toys to boys. Ever since then, the industry’s defensive crouch — rooted in its historical frailty and its self-preserving pivot to boyish juvenilia — has melded seamlessly with a defensive white-nerd masculinity that is all too familiar in 2019.

So despite the ubiquity of video games in contemporary culture and the fact that virtually everyone plays them in some form or another, the “gamer” has emerged as a particular identity marker linked to these deep-seated industry anxieties: The “gamer” is a straight white consumer who just wants to drink his Mountain Dew and be free to use “ironic” slurs with his friends while shooting at strangers with virtual assault rifles. For the “gamer,” adult fandom of games is a form of supremacy that expresses itself as a kind of mental and social immaturity. This identity allows for a performative sexism within and around games, a contained space in which extremes of toxic masculinity can be sustained, modulated, and safely vented when necessary to keep the broader sexist society functioning. At the same time, the reputation of “gamers” allow games rather than society to be blamed when this same toxicity exceeds normative sexism and expresses itself as extreme antisocial violence. A moral panic about how games must be bad for you can then supplant a more serious examination of the roots of the violence.

For the “gamer,” adult fandom of games is a form of supremacy that expresses itself as a kind of mental and social immaturity

As I’ve been arguing in this column, video games are fundamentally a reproductive technology: Under capitalism they serve to help create, sustain, organize, and train workers and subjects in ways that help them function in a fundamentally unlivable society and economy. One of the key ways they accomplish this is by maintaining and reproducing masculine entitlement among the middle classes, even as the number of single-salary, patriarch-driven households dwindles and women and gender-non-conforming folks have become increasingly visible at all levels of society.

But video games don’t merely mediate players’ relation to patriarchy. They also emerge at a time when technology facilitates an increasingly administered life in which alienation and isolation feel like a prerequisite to social engagement, consumer choice is a form of control, and unbounded economic competition produces widespread anxiety. These conditions require a fix that sustains workers without actually curing them of their distress (which would, of course, be liberation from the systems causing the crisis in the first place). To structure as pleasurable the repetition, learning, and boredom that one must master and tolerate to live under current economic conditions, video games rely on affects, moods, and ideas that are capable of producing not only of forms of violence directed toward non-normative groups but also forms of intimacy, fantasy, and play that point toward a horizon away from and outside capital’s clutches.

Games provide different compensations for people who are differently situated in the social hierarchy. They give white men aggrandizing power and vengeance fantasies that modulate their sense of self-importance under conditions that disempower them, but they also are capable of giving everyone else the fantasy of an alternative to white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. This has been particularly clear in how queer creators, writers, and fans have found space in and around games, despite the organized harassment campaigns, intensely misogynist industry advertising campaigns, and widespread critical and cultural denigration of games that aren’t played by cis-men. “Casual” games, dating sims, and visual novels — games played predominantly on phones or less powerful machines and played overwhelmingly by working class folks and non-men — receive a minuscule amount of the cultural attention (and budgets) twitchy first-person shooters and open world adventure games receive. Pokemon Go, a game with a strong majority non-male player base (more than 65 percent), was treated like a wacky fad, while Fortnite, an equally large game but with more than 70 percent male players, was taken as a serious cultural shift.

But the differences in forms of play, affect, and form between the games are just as telling as the differences between their player bases. Video games involve the reiteration not only of stereotypes but also sorts of intimacy that can also be peculiar, counterhegemonic, and gender-bending. Many games — even ones like Saint’s Row or XCOM2, which appeal in other ways to masculinist colonialist ideas — feature whole-cloth avatar construction, with players sometimes able to literally sculpt the bones and contours of their character’s face and skeleton, allowing them to imagine and inhabit radically different bodies. Of course, these systems can work to reproduce and strengthen racist, misogynist, and transphobic tropes, restricting what kinds of hair styles, skin tones, facial hair, and so on are available and on what kinds of bodies. And they also may reproduce body-fascist standards of beauty, gender, and strength. But players’ ability to use these systems for their own pleasures, desires, and identities — along with the fan-fiction, modding, and original full-motion-video content that proliferate around games — opens up spaces of creativity, encounter, and expression that challenge or attempt to overturn these stereotypes.

Multiplayer games, meanwhile, sustain mediated forms of touch, as we stroke controllers, screens, and keyboards as a way, often, of getting our avatars to touch one another, albeit frequently through violence. (This is similar to conventional sports.) In the forthcoming Video Games Have Always Been Queer, Bonnie Ruberg offers a polemical intervention into game studies, discovering queer frisson through close readings of how games are played, from the touching shoulders of two men playing a Pong cabinet in the 1970s to the modern trend of speed running or glitching games that transforms the temporality and meaning of play.

Deep forms of play — autonomous, chaotic, queer, and anti-hierarchical — threaten the systems of profit, work, and exploitation. Video games, as designed today, overwhelmingly work to co-opt that energy

As Ruberg argues, there is often an implicit denial of sexual energies in the way we think about and play video games. When reactionary gamers reject queer, politicized, or minoritarian readings of games, they “are seeking to defend the sanctity of the ‘magic circle’ in which games are safe from cultural and political meanings.” Games have been constructed — actively, by industrial and political economic forces — as a refuge from “the real world,” a place of rest, relaxation, and identity re-enforcement for straight white men, a space in which the feminized labor of social reproduction is performed for them by a machine rather than a woman.

Games in particular — and automation and computers more generally — serve to further alienate, confuse, and invisibilize feminized reproductive labor, as the stories of the traumatized content moderators or brutally exploited Mechanical Turkers hidden behind algorithms show. Interaction with machine interfaces often serves to mask the vast systems of gendered and racialized exploitation of affect, care, desire, and interest. Much as men respond violently to the simple feminist insistence that women are people and that the cooking, cleaning, and caring they do are forms of work, gamers vociferously reject any attempt to question, analyze, or even recognize the queerness, politics, and production of their enjoyment. Indeed, the extreme misogynistic and repressive attitudes, harassment, and organizing prevalent in certain “gamer” communities is usually centered on the demand that people “keep politics out of video games” — which is of course a highly politicized demand for the status quo in which games are made for and played by teenage boys, real or imagined. What they really mean is keeping any kind of progressive or feminist politics out of video games — they never brigaded the makers of America’s Army, a series designed and sold by the U.S. military to recruit teenagers into the imperial death machine.

The demand that video games be a safe space for their (white straight male) power fantasies, nostalgia, and competitive pleasures is about restricting the affective range of games, about purging them of the heterosexually “unsafe” pleasures, drives, and meanings they so often generate. The “true gamers” instead require that games remain havens of repetition, relaxation, and recuperation for people at the top of various social hierarchies — and that they serve the purpose of venting the threats to that hierarchy. Their preferred games will distribute fantasies of power and domination to placate boys who expect the unearned benefits of an unjust society while protecting them from recognizing the forms of intimacy that make those games actually pleasurable.

That industry officials so often cater to white boys doesn’t only reflect the overwhelmingly white, male nature of the development space but also the fact that the industry plays a crucial role in reproducing these structures of cishetero-patriarchy and white supremacy that structure the workplace and the world.

Because the fact is that deep forms of play — autonomous, chaotic, queer, and anti-hierarchical — threaten the systems of profit, work, and exploitation. Calls for increased play, joy, and an end to boredom were common slogans and demands among the radical wings of the movements of the 1960s, graffitied on the walls of Paris in May ’68 and broadcast over the radio by the anti-work workers’ movements in Italy. Video games, as designed today, overwhelmingly work to harness and co-opt that energy, to discipline the desire for play into the work ethic, to transform the freedom of creativity, exploration, and questioning into the diligent following of rules and learning of systems.

Our embodiment, our material contact with these systems, our desires and touches, our yearning to be free to play, move, touch, and fuck come up against this enforced form of rule following and competition, and its peddlers and bootlickers, both paid and volunteer. We meet them in struggle. So far capital’s definition of play is winning out, but our desire for freedom is stronger than their controls.

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.