Well Played: Imagined Homeland

Video game culture has become a safe space for fascist organizing

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.

Fascism is on the rise around the world. This is visible in the electoral victories and soft coups of far-right politicians (Trump in the U.S., Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, Abe in Japan, Orbán in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, the Brexiteers), and in the growth of fascist street movements, in the U.S. Latin America and Eastern Europe while far right ethnic and religious violence spreads across East Asia and North Africa. It also can be seen in the increasing authoritarianism and repressive violence in China, France, or Haiti, where it has been deployed to put down increasingly vibrant workers’ and social movements, and in Israel, Mexico, and Australia, where there have been accelerating decades of bloody border enforcement and ramped up settler colonialism.

Fascism emerges in response to the same trends in capitalism that have fatally weakened liberalism and are portending world-ending destruction: globalization, weakened nation-states, and the unwinding of Western economic hegemony; financialization; middle-class collapse; the unfolding eco-apocalypse. In response, revolutionary possibilities have already emerged, from 2011’s Arab Spring to the Ghezi Park uprisings in Turkey, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter, from London 2011 to Occupy Nigeria to the Mexican gasolinazo riots of 2017, from the Chinese workers’ struggle to ongoing uprisings in Sudan, Haiti, France, and Algeria.

Ignoring and misunderstanding Gamergate let many in the media be “shocked” by the rise of the alt-right. The misrecognition is by design

But fascists analyze these unsustainable conditions of capitalism differently, not as contradictions in its logic of accumulation and exploitation but as crises of immigration, racial impurity, effeminacy, degeneracy, and immorality that can be addressed by narrowing the definition of citizenship and violently dispossessing those excluded — beyond the extent to which this already occurs. Turn the world into a white-male bunker through genocide and war and maybe capitalism can survive the disasters that are at its door.

Most people are revolted by this program when it is stated baldly (even when they are otherwise sympathetic in practice). So until it achieves the sort of cultural centrality where conformity and coercion can kick in, it tends to find niches where it can establish itself without directly proclaiming its lust for blood and death. For the past decade, fascism has been expressing itself in the U.S. not through the sorts of overt things one might expect from World War II movies (though there is some outright Nazi fetishism on the fringes), so much as through video games and video game subculture.

In the context of such bleak, broad global political trends, it’s hard to consider gaming communities worthy of much attention. But these communities have established themselves as quasi safe spaces in which fascist ideology can hide in plain sight as it spreads. When the Christchurch mosque shooter said “Subscribe to PewDiePie” on the livestream of his murder spree — a reference to Felix Kjellberg, YouTube’s most successful let’s-play streamer and thus perhaps the world’s most famous gamer — Kjellberg disavowed the connection, moving quickly to shut down his Twitter page (which revealed he followed a who’s who of alt-light and crypto-fash red-pillers) and trying to hide behind the fact that “it was just a meme.”

Never mind that Kjellberg himself has repeatedly gotten in trouble for racist and anti-Semitic statements. Many in games journalism and the mainstream press still argued that we should read the Christchurch shooter’s references as ironic or misleading, as a series of “rabbit hole” traps that would send people down the wrong paths, chasing shadows. But to suggest that the killer was a master of deception and irony and that everything he referenced is just a smokescreen is doing the work of the fascists for them. Fascists have been claiming their hatred and resentment is merely “ironic” at least since Mussolini took over Italy with the slogan “me ne frego” (“I don’t give a damn”).

The shooter’s reference to a gamer was not an accident or ironic trick, any more than Gamergate’s producing fascist Breitbarter Milo Yiannopoulos was a coincidence. It instead reflects a social milieu, a pattern of consumption and entertainment from which support for genocidal fascist ultraviolence is systematically emerging. As I noted in a previous column, the young fascists of the alt-right met each other and sharpened their knives and their rhetorical techniques through Gamergate’s coordinated harassment campaign against women, queer, and nonwhite people. Journalists tended to cover this harassment on the harassers’ terms, performing mealy-mouthed both-sidesism and thus overlooking the real damage and danger: how the larger project of nascent fascist organization was being served through the publicized and implicitly sanctioned harassment of communities framed as marginal or expendable. Ignoring and misunderstanding Gamergate let many in the media be “shocked” by the rise of the alt-right two years later.

The misrecognition is by design: Gamergate agitators meant for their actions to be misconstrued by liberal commentators, garnering attention for the fascist ideology underlying them while fascism itself remained unnamed — sometimes even to its advocates — reconfigured instead as merely another side of the story. After its historical (but partial) defeat in the 1940s, open fascism of this sort cannot goose-step directly onto the world stage again. Before it can proclaim itself openly, while it is not yet a matter of belonging to an openly fascist party or a uniformed goon squad and is merely on the ascendant, it must find “local” spaces that afford it plausible disavowal, where it can incubate its ideology and accrue followers. In the 1980s and ’90s, punk and metal subcultures played this role, but punks organized and largely drove them out of their scenes. In the past decade, gaming (and tech more broadly) has become that space in the U.S. The fascist threat from creeps like Yiannopoulos and PewDiePie is serious and has an increasing body count. Anyone with media power in the gaming world who gave Gamergaters public support or credibility has blood on their hands.

Games make sense as a starting place for fascist mobilization because they are one of capitalism’s consolation prizes for the larger turmoil it has generated in the economy and the nation-state. The petty-bourgeois and middle classes — who do better under capitalism than most but still lack autonomy and power — have privileged access to games because of the relative wealth of money and time provided to them. Games allow them to see themselves as winners through literal competition. They are a place where “victory” can be staged and practiced and meaning and self-worth can be experienced within an otherwise rigged economic system.

Open fascism must find “local” spaces that afford it plausible disavowal

In this way, gaming’s role in current fascist mobilizations is little different from the role of sports, film, or propaganda in the 1920s and ’30s, when the spectacle of national victory on the global athletic stage — the Olympics were restarted at the beginning of the 20th century by radical right-nationalists — or of mass rallies like those designed by Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl compensated for systemic inequities and mundane everyday humiliations. Practicing victory over ultimately arbitrary enemies — e.g., opposing sports teams — also prepares one psychically for the pleasure of the production and destruction of racialized scapegoats. And like the Italian fascist fetishization of race cars, machine guns, and airplanes, or the Nazi adoration of popular media’s propagandistic potential, video games are at the cutting edge of modern technologies, pleasurably deploying the enormous power of global industrial and technical production for a mass audience.

While liberatory and marginalized projects have continued to flourish in the video game space, you wouldn’t get that impression from the way it is typically described. The industry still sees its typical “gamer” customer as an aggrieved, anti-PC white boy: This is demonstrated by how companies respond to criticism (e.g. two feminist ArenaNet developers were fired after online complaints about being rude on Twitter to someone who tried to mansplain video-game production to one of them), by how journalists cover it (industry press paid as much attention to the reactionary anger over game developer Riot hosting a women and gender-nonconforming-only panel at an industry conference as to the reports of sexual harassment at the company that necessitated the panel in the first place and sparked a recent employee walkout), and by the character of its celebrities (known misogynist racists like Thorin and GrandGrant remain prominent in the e-sports scene).

As I argued in this previous column, the actual fascists in gaming hope to keep that impression current and dominant: This conception of who “belongs” in games circles helps maintain gaming as a space of security and psychological comfort for them while driving out marginalized people from careers in the industry — the first step toward driving them out of jobs altogether and the country they’ve “stolen.” The territory of gaming is a metonym for the homeland: Defending it is like defending the status quo, and the processes of appropriation that renews the cultural terrain for profit and for consolation. Driving SJWs and queers out of video games so that you can enjoy them as the reparative safe space you’ve long experienced them as is good practice for driving them out of your country altogether. At the same time, the long history of white male corporate leadership in the industry and its conventions of gendered marketing have made it easy to drive out those trying to subvert games (and thereby cultural reproduction more generally).

Driving SJWs and queers out of video games so that you can enjoy them as the reparative safe space is good practice for driving them out of your country

Gaming is a crucial part of contemporary culture: If the truly dedicated fascists could be rooted out of gaming communities, it would be a huge blow to the current wave of far-right organizing. Yet Twitter, YouTube, Discord, Twitch, and the other gaming-related platforms where fascists thrive have been infamously slow to respond to this threat. It is not only because people like Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, appear to have fascist sympathies, although that’s certainly a part of it. It also has to do with the structuring of attention, desire, and revenue that shapes these services. As a series of exposés have uncovered about YouTube, its attention metrics and algorithms not only allow fascist content but facilitate it. This is often justified by the tech company’s equivalent of the journalist’s both-sidesism, or the same appeal to free speech absolutism that fascists have made so often in the past few years to explain their hate rallies. One finds it hard to imagine libertarian tech bros defending almost any other government statute limiting their power over their own platforms.

But antifascist activists have shown how these fascist redoubts can be taken back and how the fascists themselves can be disempowered and relegated to relative obscurity. After his online success with Gamergate, Yiannopoulos took his fash act to meat space and went on a Breitbart-funded tour of U.S. campuses, with the aim of spreading Islamophobia and transphobia and increasing the visibility and apparent legitimacy of campus far-right organizing. But on February 1, 2017, at the University of California, Berkeley, antifascist crowds rioted, breaking windows and burning college property, forcing the cancellation of his speaking engagement and putting his tour (and ultimately his career) into a death spiral. Liberal pundits, showing how little it takes to turn them into fascist sympathizers, spent months condemning the evening’s actions, but anti-fascists kept showing up to shut him down, and, despite liberals’ years of practice in backstabbing activists, they failed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

As nerd culture generally and video games specifically become normal, central parts of modern American culture, fascists hope to normalize their politics along with it. But the mainstreaming of video games must not be allowed to become the mainstreaming of fascism, even if some aspects of gaming’s compensations (its catering to fantasies of supremacy and mastery, its glorifying of competition, its heroic narratives, and its reliance on globalized capitalist infrastructures) are seemingly attuned to the needs of a fascist movement. Struggle within gaming cultures — through organizing workers to take control of the industry and organizing fans to drive fascists out of community spaces — can go hand in hand with broader struggles for a better world.

The defeat of Yiannopoulos shows that fascism’s apparent spread into the general body politic does not mean that the fight against it is lost. Fascism wins over liberals through narratives of its inevitability, but there is nothing inevitable about it. Antifascist organizing can work, and it can work in gaming spaces too; it is a crucial part of the response to the various capitalist crises we face.

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.