One month after a shooter killed 17 teenagers in Parkland, FL, President Trump has attempted to shift the conversation away from banning guns to banning something else: video games. Violent video games, Trump says, “are shaping young people’s thoughts.” He wants to do something about this, and invited video game executives — among them the maker of classically savage Grand Theft Auto — to the White House to discuss possible regulations.
But conservatives, when it comes to games, are deeply confused: though Trump is right when he says games are changing us, he’s right for the wrong reasons. Video games are indeed shaping young people’s thoughts. Alfie Bown, the editor of The Hong Kong Review of Books, argues in his 2017 book, “The Playstation Dreamworld,” that video games are shaping all of our thoughts. A fringe identity, the term “gamer” once applied to basement dwelling teenagers and middle-aged failsons. Today, we’re all gamers, and Bown situates games at the center of capitalist consumption. We play on our commutes, to kill time, a way to check out and free our mind from the everydayness of things.
But thinking of games as just another form of escapism, argues Bown, is actually dangerous. He doesn’t mean being run over by a car trying to catch rare Pokémon. When we feel most free and most open, is when politics can most powerfully impose itself on our psychology. For Bown, video games are deeply political and ideological spaces. Over a recent Skype conversation, Bown and I discussed the link between violent video games and real violence, how the Right dominates online and what the Left can do about it. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Thanks to high school students protesting, the latest mass shooting has stayed in the news cycle. By blaming violent video games for the Parkland shooting, President Trump demonstrates that he hasn’t absorbed new information in the last 20 years. Now, he wants to ban them straight up. Since you argue that gaming has a powerful effect on society and our psyche, what are we to make of the persistent idea—though debunked by research—that virtual violence causes real life violence?
Trump’s recent attempt to blame mass shootings on violent video games is an odd one since it attacks a significant part of his own fanbase. Here though, a cultural solution, a change in the patterns of gaming, is being proposed in place of a legal one, the banning of guns, and that is too far the other way. Reducing everything to culture wars avoids making real concrete changes to the law.
Games like GTA create the appearance that there is a desire to do such things, whether we do them or not.
And the argument that violent games have anything to do with these mass shootings?
My argument is that the two main positions on videogames and violence are both wrong: it’s not that video games allow us to realize our desires — encouraging our natural violent or sexual impulses, etc. — or that they provide us an outlet for desire (stopping us from following those impulses); instead games actually change desire and impulse itself. With GTA for example, it’s not so much that it makes people go out and do violent things, and it’s not that they don’t do violent things in real life because they’ve done them in GTA. Rather, games like GTA create the appearance that there is a desire to do such things, whether we do them or not. If you have a violent game like that, it makes it possible to go and do a mass shooting and then feel that you wouldn’t wanted to have done that if you hadn’t played the game. In that way, I can see the baby boomers — and even Trump today — had something like a point, though they were saying so for all the wrong reasons. The game does have the capacity in, my opinion, to construct and create impulses and desires, which the individual feels to be their own.
What do you mean when you say that video games are like dreams? Is there something physically and psychologically similar between dreaming and gaming?
This concept of dreams is based on the idea that dreams are not your own dreams that belong to you personally or naturally — or have anything to do with your inherent self. Dreams are not controlled from inside yourself but they are created by cultural and political forces. But when you have a dream you experience it as if it’s your own thing.
I think this pattern can be seen in video games, and it’s the most important thing to stress. Video games are cultural products created by individuals and corporations and informed by cultural and political ideas. Certainly a timeline can be made, for example, the prominence of anti-Islam games in the 2000s tells it all.
The logic of gaming tells the user to follow their instincts and follow their drive, and to experience it as if they’re doing so, while also simultaneously telling the user what their instincts or desires ought to be. You can see this pattern with Trump: he encourages his followers to feel passionately and follow their impulses and instincts. But, he also tells them what those instincts ought to be. The ideology games lends itself to the right-wing more than the left.
That point gets back to the dream analysis. Games are so powerful because they make people feel like they’re following their own drive, when really it’s the games.
What we need is to recognize that gaming does not give us what we want or simulate we want — it transforms what we want. That may sound abstract and theoretical, but it’s also not. You wouldn’t argue that Hollywood cinema didn’t just give people what they already wanted. Of course, it changed patterns of desire, it changed conventions, what people wanted from a lover, a marriage, a career. That is the obvious power of powerful forms of media. Video games are similar. They don’t come along and respond to already existing desires, they come along into our culture and transform how it is that we want.
It seems the Right dominates online in a way the Left doesn’t.The Outline recently reported an alarming story on how the Alt-Right is recruiting on online depression forums. Similarly, Angela Nagle in “Kill all the Normies” traced how Gamergate spun off into the Alt-Right. Why are they so successful online?
I was at the Left Forum in New York last summer and I was talking on a panel with Angela Nagle, and there is a lot of connected interest between us that surrounds your question. How does the Right use the online sphere so effectively? There are so many examples of that, like, as you say, recruiting through depression boards. The Alt-Right seems to mobilize incredibly fast online. It's rather difficult to pin down why, but certainly the kind of tech-savvy opportunism that seems to characterize the online Right seems to be working.
I like to give the example of Microsoft’s tweeting bot Tay released in 2016. She was supposed to just tweet like a person. For about five minutes she was just tweeting lovely normal things. Within an hour, all these right-wingers on Reddit grouped together and decided to manipulate this piece of technology to start spreading their own messages to the 8 million followers that follow Microsoft. Within hours, Tay was tweeting hateful, misogynistic comments about Obama, about women and feminism. She turned anti-feminist and pro-Trump.
No one on the Left would have even considered using that opportunity to spread some Corbyn memes or anything like that.
The same thing happened with the Clinton email leak, another opportunity to score points against the political center. The Right were on the Chan boards instantly working out how to turn the WikiLeak’s dump to Trump's advantage, whereas the response on the Left was two or three think pieces by academics like myself, and little else.
There’s a much simpler point as to why the Left hasn’t been successful online: they tend to be more technophobic.
Why isn’t the Left doing this? I mean, not turning bots into racists, but mobilize online and spread their message.
I think one step for the Left is to realize that online and video games are incredibly political spaces, and incredibly powerful ones. That might be the first step for the Left, to start harnessing that potential in the video game space. There’s also a much simpler point as to why the Left hasn’t been successful online: they tend to be more technophobic than the right. I’m pleased to say that we’re starting to see elements of that changing, and we’re starting to see a rise of the online Left using tech in really positive ways.
Some examples in new games, like Post-capitalism and Nova Alea, which are socialist community building games that address alternatives to capitalism. In some ways my book is depressing: Oh, the Right and the capitalists are controlling the entire discourse of video games and the wider online discourse. But there’s a lot of potential for the Left.
What game are you most enjoying right now?
I’m playing a game called Anarcute. Have you heard of it?
No. What is it?
It's basically a riot simulator. But the rioters are small fluffy cute animals; you play as a group of rabbits and cats and other cute animals against an evil capitalist corporation that has taken over major cities, you start riots and protests to overthrow these capitalist overlords.
What are they protesting? Carrot scarcity?
Well, that’s one of the problems with the game, they’re not actually protesting anything particular. Still, it’s an interesting example to begin talking about the philosophy and politics of video games. On the one hand, I want to hate it. I think the game shows how even anti-capitalist protests have been sucked back into capitalism and kind of repackaged back to the user as a commodity. Either way, it’s bloody good fun and the animals really are quite cute.