I was about five years old when I discovered Samus Aran, the protagonist of the video game series Metroid, was a woman. Now, I wish I could say that I was thrilled by the news, or at best indifferent. But unfortunately, I was not.
“Samus is a girl???” I couldn’t believe it. I refused to believe it. The idea was just too absurd.
But why was it absurd? Here again I’m embarrassed and disappointed, because the answer was simple enough to five-year-old me. The reason Samus could not be a woman was because Samus was the hero.
This moment illustrates three important points. First, media can have a sociological influence quite early. Second, this influence happened without anyone explicitly directing it. No one told me women couldn’t be heroes. The games themselves didn’t do that. But at that point all the heroes I had played as in games were men and there was usually a damsel in the distress. Combined with the, at the time, ubiquitous reinforcement through movies, TV, etc. that saving the world was a man’s business and it’s no wonder I had inculcated this sexist idea long before I knew what sexism was. And finally, the effects of this influence extend beyond just games. I can’t provide hard data, but it’s only logical to assume that if I was absolutely outraged by the thought a fictional woman could be a hero that I would have problems accepting a woman as a hero in the real world.
This is, of course, just a personal anecdote. But Gamergate (which saw a massive sexist campaign directed against female developers and videogame journalists) was just one of the more repulsive instances where the gaming community showed just how toxic and pernicious it can be. Don’t get me wrong—I loved games as a kid and still enjoy indie games. As of this writing, I’m actually playing Hollow Knight, a relatively new game that was heavily influenced by Metroid. But there is undeniably a toxic side to gaming today and, worse, that segment has often been used to serve reactionary ends.
That’s why books like Jamie Woodcock’s Marx at the Arcade: Consoles, Controllers, and Class Struggle are so important. Games are not merely childish entertainment that have no effect on politics or culture. Games are, in financial terms, the dominant cultural milieu today, a juggernaut that dwarfs the reach and profits of movies, music, or books. Furthermore, they can and have explicitly and implicitly convey harmful notions when it comes to sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia, and much more. They have also had a positive influence, but we can only hope to effectively counter the negative ideas if both developers and players become more aware of just how this medium works in the political sense. Woodcock understands this, and does a remarkable job analyzing a subject that is only just beginning to get the attention from the Left it deserves.
The first half of Marx at the Arcade covers the history of games, focusing especially on its origin in the military-industrial complex and how it eventually became massive capitalist enterprises that seem unrelated to the public sector. Woodcock also explores the supply chain that results in players being able to play a video game, starting with cobalt mines all the way to the decisions made by developers, publishers, and retailers. His analysis of developers is particularly interesting given that there is a bit of a contradiction at play here. Games partly arose from hacker culture, which valued the free spread of information. The kind of community-centric values that helped build up the video game industry, however, is not exactly suitable for a capitalist environment. Triple-A studios like Blizzard or Electronic Arts (which are the most powerful and wealthiest companies in the industry and thus can put out the biggest games) would ideally like to have the same level of total control that any corporation would, especially over its employees. But games require a level of technical education and artistic freedom that make them difficult to control, at least for now.
It is this tension that has allowed worker organizations to rise up and challenge the most harmful practices of the industry, such as crunch time. Crunch time occurs near the end of a game’s development cycle and forces workers to put in more than seventy or eighty hours a week. Partly as a result of the hacker culture that it came out of, there is no strong trade unionist tradition in the industry. But employees with specialized skill sets who are difficult to replace, and thus intimidate, have allowed groups like Game Workers Unite and many new unions to form. This is an exciting time for the industry and the first signs that videogame workers are seeing themselves in class terms, which is a necessary first step toward becoming a class-conscious actor.
The second half of the book examines specific genres to see what influences their content and how they, in turn, influence players. First-person shooters (FPS) obviously have a militaristic element, but I had no idea just how directly the military participates in shaping the content of games like Call of Duty or other realistic shooters. Nor did I realize that people high up in the corporate structure of Triple-A studios work with the military to make decisions about actual war scenarios and how to market an imperialist ideology to kids. Likewise, I was surprised to realize how simulation games like The Sims and Civilization naturalize the nuclear family and capitalism, as if they were inevitable steps in social evolution as opposed to constructed systems that could be changed. I used to play Civilization all the time and, when I look back, I can see Woodcock is clearly right. But at the time, I simply didn’t notice—another example of how you don’t need to be told an idea to learn it. And, of course, there’s the online community, which for all its utopian potential has a dark underbelly that spawns the kind of bile Gamergate epitomizes.
Videogames are a potent force in global culture today, something reactionaries have long understood. Woodcock’s book demonstrates how dangerous it is to simply cede the field of battle to the Right, especially during the resurgence of strongman-cults and governments around the world. But Woodcock also shows the potential games have to counter these ideas and how we might still fulfill their revolutionary promise.
So go read it. Now.
And remember to check out Matt’s Reading Recommendation Lists for more books you should immediately read!