Press ‘Start’ to Join the Revolution: Video games as a tool to build a new common sense

By Calum Hendry

So it turns out that socialist video games are a thing. It was honestly a medium where I had not expected to find critiques or visions of post-capitalist utopia. Like the Western world’s movie and TV industry, the video game industry is filled with huge titles that display both overt and subtle support of capitalist hegemony. Think of the Call of Duty or Battlefield games, where a Western hero machine guns hordes of brown, Chinese or Russian enemies. Or more subtle forms, such as the Batman Arkham games, where the main character is a billionaire who cannot recognise the relationship between his wealth and  the extreme poverty which produces the crime he supposedly fights against. (I must confess, aside from these critiques, I enjoy playing these games).

So it was a surprise to me when I stumbled across a little gem of a game called Post-capitalism. It is a small, browser-based, point-and-click game that has you build a socialist utopia by changing aspects of our current failing system. As you transform parts of society, you are invited to draw connections between societal components to understand deeper linkages. How when ‘workplace discipline’ is connected to ‘health and well-being’ in a capitalist society this means that ‘for many people, there is too much work’. And when ‘too much work’ is combined with ‘not enough work’, it shows how ‘labor is exchanged as a commodity’. However, when moving to a socialist society, ‘too much work’ transforms to ‘maximum limits on work hours’, and ‘not enough work’ transforms to ‘all guaranteed to the right to work’. These transformations combine and lead to ‘labor not being sold’.

As this process continued and my socialist utopia took shape, I couldn’t help but think how great this game would be as an educational tool. So often leftist critical theory is presented as long-form, high-academic prose or discourse. Yet capitalist theory has been ingrained in millions of children from an early age through games and fictional worlds. Pokemon, for instance, “serves to communicate capitalist modes of transaction”, as well as instil ideas of capital accumulation (catching Pokemon) and private property (captured Pokemon). Surely opportunities exist to improve the accessibility of complex anti-capitalist theory and ideas.

However, I am also wary of ascribing too much importance to any singular tool of change. It is foolish to think that you can change the world from your bedroom at home by playing videogames.

This is the trap of much digital campaigning, where keyboard warriors can make themselves feel better by sharing a post or signing an online petition. However, there is space for using different forms of media to gain different audiences. After all, it was online gaming communities and threads on reddit and 4chan which were eventually used as springboards for many young, white men into the alt-right movement.

Video games or other forms of interactive digital strategy could be one tool in an overarching strategy to build a new hegemony - a new, radical common sense. One that throws off the blinders put in place by neoliberal hegemony and reaches a young generation that is already open to socialist ideas, but is in need of a structure within which to frame their thinking and actions. However, this new hegemony must be a combination of theoretical entry points into utopian imaginings (eg. video games) and avenues for escalation into on the ground: that is, ‘IRL’ action.

As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue in their book Inventing the Future, the current neoliberal hegemony has diminished the horizon of possibilities and captured the future. As an anti-capitalist movement, we need to find new and different avenues by which we can help people to “release the utopian impulse from its shackles in order to expand the space of the possible, mobilise a critical perspective and cultivate new desires”.

Calum Hendry is an activist with experience in the Right to The City and climate change movement. He is a former Greens staffer and active Greens member. He is temporarily living in Vancouver, Canada, and discovering that he doesn’t really like cold weather.