Of all the modern art forms, gaming is conspicuous for its lack of class perspectives, writes Simon Saunders
The best defence of a “social justice warrior” (an online pejorative thrown at people who express progressive views when talking about computer games) against accusations of being a “fake gamer” is longevity.
In interviews on every gaming website and in every personal introduction a developer or games journalist makes in public, the ritual is to say: “I’ve been a gamer all my life” and perhaps, if you’re particularly with it, to reel off an obscure work you liked in the style of a hipster — “It was brilliant, you’ve probably never heard of it.”
So in this new tradition I will begin by recalling my experiences as a seven-year-old.
The first computer game to hook me came out in 1988, a tense, mostly text-based thriller called Dracula in London which taxed my dad’s galumphing system to the limit. It was brilliant.
By such measures, although I was not one of the first games consumers, I am, near enough, among the first generation who grew up regularly playing them at home — the first to remember the games I played as nostalgically as the television I watched.
Which brings me to a point about time and games growing up.
My childhood attempts at staking the Count took place two years before the poll tax riots, four after the miners’ strike. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were in the ascendancy and the working class was being comprehensively frozen out of the future.
These were the formative years of an art form which has come to dominate popular culture with an astonishing grip, an industry set to grow from 1981’s $1.8 billion-worth of glittering arcades and graunching green screens to hit $100bn by 2017 — overtaking film in the process.
Computer gaming is thus the child of a neoliberal politic.
It has never been taken under the wing of a workers’ movement or had its mind blown by long discussions about a world beyond avarice, but was instead trapped and fostered in a home that forever rang with a poisonous litany — “Competition, wealth is value, mine, mine, MINE.”
As a result, if you ask even the most dedicated gamer to name 10 obviously pro (or even proto) class struggle games, let alone which would go so far as to laud communism, there will be a pause that you won’t find from experts in almost any other creative art.
Red Faction perhaps? Final Fantasy VII? The first half of Bioshock Infinite before it descends into tepid liberal sneering about revolutionaries being little more than despotic thugs in waiting? The list is short.
The language of gaming is peppered with clues to this stunted childhood.
Stories and worlds which don’t have a number after them (Fallout 3, Far Cry 4, GTA 5) are termed “new IPs” — intellectual properties.
Not “new stories” but “a thing we own, which is new. It is ours, and we shall sell it for profit.”
Games which use microtransactions use the Orwellian line Free To Play — but are always Pay To Win and increasingly Pay Just To Continue.
Success metrics are solely coined in terms of sales and subscriptions where the story can be threadbare as long as the mechanics keep people hooked (I’m looking at you, Destiny).
At its worst, this ingrained acceptance of capitalist norms is embedded so deeply that it begins to teach other fields.
Eve Online, a dystopian sci-fi future in which the player effectively acts out the US libertarian dream in a vast galactic playground, is used by economists to model certain aspects of market behaviour.
Call of Duty multiplayer combat maps are paralleled by Ikea’s floorplans.
Where among this is the Luther Blissett of first-person shooters? The Joe Hill of the MMO? Where is a furious El Lissitzsky, challenging real-time strategy structures with the cry: “This is not how it has to be”?
They doubtless exist, but they have not had a say in moulding the tropes and norms of this titanic industrial homage to modern capitalism, bloody in tooth and claw.
That has been left to the money men, a combination of suits, military junkies, Silicon Valley “entrepreneurs” and wannabes chasing their gold rush.
If this all sounds a depressing framework to begin a gaming column, it is. But it’s also a framework with purpose — think of this as an initial manifesto to put class front and centre in a field of entertainment where it is routinely, scandalously absent.