Among all the humiliating things one has to do to survive in the cutthroat and shameless world of Academia, being a criticaster of popular culture has to be the lowest point. There are already a hundred theses on the unbearable sexism of Shakespeare or the colonialism of Kipling, so you’ll have to make do with a paper on the border-fascism of Plants vs. Zombies or the sexism of Super Mario. And forget about Elsevier or The Journal of Modern Literature, you’ll have to get published in The Guardian (and you’ll get paid according to how many people you trick into clicking the article):
How video games are fuelling the rise of the far right, by Alfie Bown
Violent, isolationist and misogynist desires course through games — and push rightwing ideologies on players
Ah, yes, ideologies being “pushed on”. If there has ever been a
delusion hypothesis that has secured jobs for thousands of intellectuals, professors, and lazy commentators, it’s the conviction that wicked beliefs are being pushed on the public through innocent-looking pastimes (not on or through the commentator, of course, because he is immune to that and what he writes isn’t classified as propaganda even if it looks, smells, and tastes like it.) Technology, new media, scientific discoveries, cultural exchange, economy, jobs, geopolitics, demography? Pfff, who needs that to explain anything when you have Space Invaders as a metaphor of isolationism and xenophobia!
Bown’s article is the latest one in a long list of academic, critical-theory ramblings on games where the
shaman intellectual, studying the remains of a random bird he just gutted ideological underpinnings of a piece of popular culture, sees the seed/shadow/reflection of Satan social evils in them. Then he expects to get paid or he’ll call you evil and demon-possessed Nazi. We could call it ludomancy: the art of watching someone play something until you see some pixels, words, or anything that reminds you of Hitler, Trump, or whatever devil you are sure lurks in such dangerous pastimes.
I admit, however, that I had to look up the author many times because this time it was a bit hard for me to swallow that this wasn’t a parody. But apparently, the guy is real, not an actor or a bot randomly writing prog nonsense.
Anyway, these attacks are usually conflated with older attacks on gaming, but those were about the usual nonsense that worries old people (who don’t get what the youngsters are doing) and the usual hysterical fears of hooliganism, crime, and perhaps going postal. Hence the need to discover “scientifically” if games (or movies, or music, or books… the list of problematic media is long) increase “violence” or aggression. A futile endeavor, but at least it had the semblance of objectivity and testability.
On the other hand, Bown, like other newer critics, is an academic-educated “cultural critic,” the tragic and comic result of an imbalance between the huge demand for ideological evils this intellectual underclass needs and its short supply in the real world. And this class of individuals couldn’t care less about those old-fashioned attacks on media and entertainment (besides, many of them were made by icky right-wingers, gross!) None of Bown’s assertions, which I will
mock analyze later, are even testable in any way because they are basically word-games and bullshit.
So, the New Critic, trying to appear magnanimous or even centrist, quickly dismisses the old panics: “Ahh! I know video games don’t cause mass shooters! I’m much more sophisticated than that! (they actually cause Trump, which is worse)” They talk about cultural reinforcers (whatever those are) and ideological (bad ideologies, that is) messages the games always transmit, for any game has to have one, like a dog fleas or America fat people. Lofty intellectual goals, surely, and like the mystic who can see God in a grain of sand, the pop-culture criticaster manages to see the resurgence of the Far-Right (i.e. anybody he doesn’t like) in Lara Croft’s pyramidal boobs. Or, like Bown, they just write shit like this:
the logic and pleasure of gaming itself has served and continues to serve the political right.
Please, pay attention: “The pleasure of gaming itself” has a right-wing bias. Having fun or enjoying the logic of playing is pernicious rightwingery now. Who would have thought that a medium created by one of the most liberal generations in history has actually “served and continued to serve” the political right!
To be fair, I’m sure Bown didn’t even realize what he wrote because people with intellectual aspirations just love to talk about the-thing-in-itself. He probably just dropped that word there as an emphatic, like writers who go around dropping problematic and systemic. Who knows what those mean, they just sound nice!
So what’s his point or goal (aside from padding out his CV) if it’s not that playing may make you more aggressive (which, seeing as most young people are a bunch of effete sissies, may not be a bad thing)? Apparently, games reflect the (Evil) ideology of the Right, and they transmit those dangerous values through unconscious magic. In his own words:
In these terms, video games are drives masquerading as instincts, naturalising rightwing ideologies in a way other media cannot by offering its users the chance to experience them on a personal level.
This is an old canard, the lie that entertainment “normalizes” evil (and don’t be deceived, in his mind, Right = Evil.) It’s nonsense, like the claim that video games are even worse than movies or books because they are interactive. It’s actually the other way around, their playing nature undermines whatever “message” they could have, which is why Monopoly started as an anti-monopoly “message” game but nobody cared, or why there are games about running down people (Carmaggedon) but that same theme in a book or movie would be much more disturbing, or why video games quickly become humoristic meme farms. But that’s a whole other subject for another post.
Anyway, how does he prove that naturalization through gameplay? Through the magic of word association! For example, what was one of the main points of the Trump campaign? The expulsion of (illegal) “aliens.” What’s the goal of a game like X-COM? The expulsion of aliens (extraterrestrials) from Earth. Bam! There you go, right-wing bias, clear as day. No, I’m not joking:
First, rightwing ideologies have been overrepresented and dominant throughout the history of video games. Although affected by context, video games have long focused on the expulsion of “aliens” (Space Invaders to XCOM),
Now, if I met someone with this degree of word associationism and loose logic, I would assume the person may be schizophrenic because that’s one of its main cognitive symptoms, but because I know Bown probably has a degree in something like media studies, I know he is not insane, he’s just well-educated:
video games have long focused on the expulsion of “aliens” (Space Invaders to XCOM), fear of impure infection (Half-Life to The Last of Us), border control (Missile Commander to Plants vs Zombies), territory acquisition (Command & Conquer to Splatoon), empire building (Civilization to Tropico), princess recovery (Mario to Zelda), and restoration of natural harmony (Sonic to FarmVille).
Ah, yes, the horrible right-wing ideology of “natural harmony” and its propaganda through… uh, Sonic and… FarmVille?
All those examples may seem strange to the naive and ignorant (i.e. rightwing and crypto-Nazi) reader, but it requires a very unique mind to perceive such subtle, almost etheric ideological associations. And, by the way, that is how you get papers when you are trying to break through as a cultural commentariatti. I mean, sure, anybody can point at those pervy-rapey Japanese games and note their obvious… uh, not very feminist-friendly content, but it requires a unique, special, academic and, I’d say, brave mind to dare using Half-Life as an example of phobia to impure infections or FarmVille as… whatever “restoration to natural harmony” is supposed to mean. I don’t even know why those two things are supposed to be wrong or evil (i.e. right-wing) or even what they are, but then again, I’m not intelligent enough to write for The Guardian.
Of course, there’s a little problem: even inside the contorted logic of media critical studies, those examples are… bollocks. Even if I accept that dangerous emulsions of games and ideologies (not that that is ever defined) can be magically transmitted like that, through the magic of fun, they don’t even make sense. I can prove how they should reinforce the opposite ideological side of the spectrum just as easy:
Every RTS game? Communism because you always micromanage a nation in a central-planning way and no economic video game has the faintest idea of what “market economy” means or how they work.
Every cRPG in existence? Unhinged feminism because male or female is a cosmetic choice and (almost) no game sees anything odd with playing a woman with the Strength of André the Giant.
Every single game with a corporation in it? Anti-capitalist socialist nonsense from the 80s as every Corporation in any game is always Evil.
X-COM? The game where you play a band of technologically inferior saboteurs fighting against alien colonizers who believe it’s their right to conquer, subjugate, and exploit Earth? If that’s not an anti-colonial jeremiad with a subtext of anti-white hatred my name is not Hercules Rockefeller. Also, the game is not about kicking aliens out of America but Earth. Clear globalist propaganda there: to instill fear of an alien invasion to create support for the UN and illegal, supranational kill-teams. Tsk-tsk.
Half-Life? You mean the game with American soldiers assassinating civilians and scientists? Subversive commie propaganda to make you fear the US army.
The Last of Us? Isn’t the girl in the game lesbian or something? I think Bown didn’t get the memo that this game is one of the good ones and shouldn’t be criticized.
Command & Conquer? Ah, yes, the game where the “villain”, Kane, (the coolest guy in the game, obviously) is the leader of anti-Western, anti-nationalist, global, Third-World uprising against the GDI, which is basically the Anglo-American/NATO, Western world. Also, he uses Arab aliases and his army includes suicide bombers. Hmm… suspicious!
I could go on, but you get the point. If you want to see ideological messages, you’ll see them, and it’s not hard to contort any media content to mean whatever you want it to mean. In fact, since almost any game/story/movie has a hero (or protagonist) and a villain (or antagonist) with opposite goals and, usually, beliefs, you can just focus on one or the other to proclaim it teaches one thing or its opposite.
In fact, it could be argued that it’s easier to see “left-wing” (whatever that is) associations (not necessarily “meaning” and certainly not indoctrination) in most popular video games. Nothing surprising there since those games are a product of a quite liberal (and young) generation, not that cultural critics like Bown et al. would care about any of that of course.
I should mention that it is possible to study games (or anything) as a product of their time, including the social and political context that shaped them. A quick example: Half-Life is a product of the culture that gave us X-Files, conspiracy theories, and the subculture surrounding the Roswell Incident. It has secret scientific/military bases (clearly inspired by Area 51,) black ops, weird Men in Black/G-Men, top-secret army units sent to clean out things the public shouldn’t know, etc. This sort of narrative wouldn’t make sense in the pre-Cold War world, so there is a sort of political/cultural context there.
But, as you can see, I’m only pointing out the wider cultural background and references, not saying the players are slowly imbibing right-wing conspiracy-laden paranoia or “desires” or that such games were behind the success of this or that politician of change in the never-ending American cultural wars — because that would be bullshit. But of course, that’s exactly what people like Bown do. The games (or movies, books, comics) are only an excuse, they already have the conclusion of ideological contamination foreordained, the rest is just ideological paraedolia.
PS: I forgot to say that in the article Alfie Bown writes this
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan distinguished between “drives” and “instincts”. While instincts come from within us, drives occur when political forces propel us in certain directions.
His whole analysis and diagnostic depends on that crude and false distinction. Well, Lacan never said that so I’ll assume he’s consciously lying or referencing other intellectual frauds like Žižek, who may have said that about Lacan. But if you are an inteleshtual you have to cite Lacan, Derrida, or Foucault, of course, even if you are talking about Plants vs. Zombies. There are more things to comment/laugh at but, really, I think I shouldn’t give that awful “article” too much attention. It doesn’t deserve it.