From blowing up Margaret Thatcher to surviving the sinister clutches of a capitalist megacorp, radical left-wing video games are challenging the status quo of the gaming industry
Last year, pictures emerged of Jeremy Corbyn enjoying a gaming session at UK socialist festival The World Transformed. The former Labour leader was playing Thatcher’s Techbase, a mod for 1994’s Doom II, that sees players descend into the tenth circle of Hell to put an end once-and-for-all to the reign of an undead, cyborg Iron Lady.
Naturally, the game’s creator, Jim Purvis, was delighted to receive such an endorsement. Before long though, Purvis found himself dogged by calls from journalists working for “the UK’s more unsavoury newspapers”. His work appeared on BBC panel shows and he was turning down invitations to appear on Good Morning Britain because, as he tells Dazed, “it would have been like signing up to face a firing squad”.
Luckily for Jim, the tabloid press would soon find a new fixation and he was able to return to normal life as a computer programmer. But for the organisers of The World Transformed, the media frenzy that was whipped up germinated an idea. Initially, the team planned to run a month-long game jam to find a worthy successor to Thatcher’s Techbase for that year’s festival. But before long they found the scale of their ambition was growing.
With recent unionisation efforts in the games industry and the breakthrough success of anti-capitalist games like Citizen Sleeper and Disco Elysium, the team recognised the potential to programme a full day festival. Featuring workshops on how to organise in the workplace, talks on the political utility of video games, and discussions such as what games are good to play in a police kettle, the inaugural edition of Games Transformed launched this May and brought gamers together with developers, academics and activists to help solidify a growing movement for change in the industry. With the medium’s ability to reach a broad and diverse audience, the hope is that such change could reach far beyond the confines of game studios.
“Games Transformed showed that games and wider cultural niches can be used to inspire people to engage with organising,” Ezra, a member of the festival’s organising team, says. “Like all art forms, games have the potential for consciousness-raising, helping people identify their position in real-world power structures and inspiring them to resist.”
The challenges facing any movement looking to reform the video games industry are numerous and well-documented. Unfair working conditions remain prevalent at many major studios and most games remain conservative in both their content and design, with the rise of microtransactions and play-to-win systems only reinforcing this as gamers are encouraged to hand over more and more cash to unlock content.
Even games that do appear to take a stance left-of-centre routinely have their political message undermined, as studios seek to cling to a false pretense of political neutrality. Take, for example, the co-director of The Outer Worlds, a game that appears to gleefully satirise the excess of late-stage capitalism, telling VGC, “I like money: I’m not against capitalism, and in a lot of ways I’m happy with our society.”
With all these issues twisting themselves together into a nightmarish Gordian knot, where do we even begin? Is it even possible for a truly radical, left-wing game to ever make it into the mainstream? “I think we won’t see political stories coming out of such a compromised system,” says Gareth Damian Martin, the founder of development studio Jump Over The Age. “I think video games are very good at telling these stories, but you won’t see many coming out of AAA [mid-sized or major game] studios.”
“Studios won’t take meaningful risks because [game development] is so expensive, and individual people can’t question the politics of the games they’re working on because they need to have a job at the end of the month. Storytelling is a labour issue” – Gareth Damian Martin
Through Jump Over The Age, of which they are also the only member, Martin is the creator of sci-fi adventure game In Other Waters and the RPG Citizen Sleeper, with a sequel to the latter just recently announced. Widely praised by Eurogamer and the Guardian for its portrayal of life on the periphery of capitalism, Citizen Sleeper sees the player take on the role of a fugitive android trying to survive in a sci-fi dystopia. It was heavily inspired by the developer’s own experiences of working in the gig economy.
“I spent a long time working for employment agencies and working on zero-hours contracts and that was very important for Citizen Sleeper’s story,” Martin says. “That means I have made a political game because reflecting on that experience of capitalism is inherently political.”
Central to Citizen Sleeper and its message is the insecurity the player faces and how that is reflected in the mechanics of the game. As a Sleeper, a synthetic humanoid, your body is built to decay without access to the medication provided by the very megacorps you’re fleeing. This means not only do you need to eat and sleep, but find a way to access these drugs too – something which comes at a heavy financial cost. Each day in-game, dice are rolled which the player must use to determine the success of tasks – the higher the number the better your chance of success. But only a handful of tasks can be completed each day and so tough decisions have to be made. Do you forego deepening a personal bond to earn credits in a bar? Or do you push your body to its physical limits in order to progress the story? Citizen Sleeper reflects something most of us know to be the case, that our lives are at the mercy of luck and capital.
Creating this system required Martin to go against the grain of traditional game design. “Games are a really effective way of getting a message across because they implicate people in stories. The problem is that most games are structured to give players agency over the world, so you can act with impunity, reinforcing a really individualistic, right-wing view of the world,” Martin explains, “I’ve tried to do the reverse and place the player in an inferior position to the world to help you understand the oppression our world creates.”
The game received widespread critical acclaim and Martin puts much of their success down to the fact that, as a solo developer, they have never had to compromise their vision. “I’m at a massive advantage because I completely control the stories I tell, and I have no interest in getting any bigger as a studio,” they explain. “At bigger studios, it’s a question of risk. Studios won’t take meaningful risks because [game development] is so expensive, and individual people can’t question the politics of the games they’re working on because they need to have a job at the end of the month. Storytelling is a labour issue.”
“Material conditions impact cultural output,” echoes Ezra. “A unionised workforce would be better placed to intervene in the dire political culture of the games industry, fighting back against chain-mail bikinis or collusion with the military-industrial complex.”
Before we can reasonably expect video game developers to storm the Winter Palace, there are more present matters to attend to. An end to crunch, better job security, no more workplace discrimination. Take care of that and the rest in time will hopefully follow, and when it does nothing will be safe – no matter how iconic.
“Games are becoming increasingly interested in labour. And I think there’s a second wave of games on the horizon that are going to interrogate a lot of what we’ve taken for granted,” Martin says. “A lot of people see Animal Crossing as this bucolic fantasy, but isn’t it built on an extractive fantasy? And who’s benefiting from all this work?”
Games have already given us the chance to live out our fantasies of slaying Thatcher. How long will it be before we can do the same to Tom Nook?