I recently read an opinion piece on the Guardian’s website: How video games are fuelling the rise of the far right, by Alfie Bown. To say I had a reaction would be kind wording; to say that I actually balked at it would be perhaps a bit more truthful. A reminder that the below is just my sole opinion.
For those of you that want to read Alfie Brown’s original article, you can find it HERE.
The article discusses video games as affecting people’s mental faculties. That is quite true: Video Game Addiction is indeed a serious affliction, and one that should definitely be treated as such; how many stories have we heard of people whose lives have fallen apart due to mobile gaming, or died due to blood clots because the game was more important than any kind of movement over the course of several days? It’s fantastic that the World Health Organisation are looking into the situation. Whilst Bown’s seeming dismissal of this affliction is disappointing, I agree that studying the psychological affects of video games is important, and many places are indeed tackling the task.
And the results, so far, are mixed across the board: For example, one study from Vancouver found that players solely experiencing an ‘Action Game’ (eg. An FPS) had reduced grey matter in the hippocampus (associated with memory function, spatial awareness), whilst those solely playing Super Mario actually had increased grey matter in the region.[i] A study by Princeton University and the University of Rochester found evidence to suggest that FPS players were actually better learners than those tasked to play The Sims. Information from various studies have found evidence to suggest that games which task and reward players for aggressive behaviour lead could be a casual risk factor in raising general aggression; they also discovered evidence to suggest that games that encourage socialising could build empathy, and some players shown negative stereotypical portrayals of other sexes/races in games could show an increased likelihood in expressing similar opinions soon after.[ii] All of them have one thing in common though: A call for greater research into these areas to better understand the situation.
The notion that ‘the logic and pleasure of gaming itself has served and continues to serve the political right’ as Bown claims is, aside from being completely fucking hilarious, is not a notion founded in any conclusive, or even tertiary, study. Just personal assessment. Looking at Gamergate and 4Chan as the representative majority communities of gaming is an interesting take, though. But the citation of ‘Many gamers are right wing’ (by which it seems he means far right) relies on an article that says thousands of Steam gamers are Nazis. No shit – The platform has 125 million active accounts, so of course some of them are going to be bad people.[iii]
Yet the broad statements continue. American games supported aggressive foreign policy in the Bush years? Sure, some have – Activision put out about seven Call of Duties in that period. But EA also put out seven Sims 2 expansion packs and ten Stuff Packs in the same period. Stragey titles and FPS didn’t really grow in that period though.[iv] As for British games glorifying the old empire – who’s, and where? Activision’s put out a WWII title, which is pretty damn common, and that’s about all I can see? And yet, the article does include some truth by referencing the detrimental depictions of Arabic and Muslim people in some video games in the 00’s.[v][vi] That’s kind of a frustrating pattern of this article, to be honest; little eggs of reality nestled amongst the hyperbole and assumption. Which in no way makes every statement true by default.
We then come to the part that I gave up trying to take this article seriously, and decided to write this response. But I will be tackling that later. It’s…too distracting to get to for now, in all honesty.
But in the meantime, Bown presents us with the idea that gamers agree impulsively with the ideologies presented in a game due to its nature. As previously stated, there is evidence that video games might affect our behaviours to a degree like that at least temporarily, so this might make sense – until you consider that the author is suggesting a permanent conditioning of the mind that would encourage adoption of a particular political belief. All the studies that have looked into the psychological affects of gaming so far have cautioned that more research is required; we know games could affect people temporarily, but the long term affects are still unknown, and certainly not in consideration to how we’re affected by other stimuli in our world (eg. TV, music, interactions with people, a little thing called ‘our pre-existing core ideals’…).
But let’s assume that, sure, most video games are indoctrinating people to become more right wing. Looking back at voting trends in the US from the 90’s onwards will surely demonstrate this. In 1992, 18-24, 25-29, 30-49, all primarily voted in favour of Clinton. Likewise again in 1996. In 2000, 18-24 were evenly split, 25-29 favoured Al Gore more, and 30-49 favoured Bush more. In 2004, 18-24 and 25-29 favoured Democrat, whilst 30-49 favoured Republican. In 2008, 18 right through to 64 favoured Obama. 2012, 18-44 did once again. 18-44 also favoured H. Clinton in 2016.[vii] Whoops, it doesn’t seem that anyone playing video games, growing up with them or introduced to them later in life has been noticeably influenced. Considering 63% of US households have a ‘frequent gamer’ and 65% have gaming devices[viii], shouldn’t we be seeing more Republican leaning here, at least over time?
Whilst white males, gaming’s largest demographic, do tend to lean towards conservative voting, this has been a near consistent situation since at least 1980 – So unless Pong was the most effective secret weapon of the Republicans, chances are that there’s more influential factors at play here. I will concede that games have attracted right wing people, though. And centralist. And left wing. A desire for entertainment is a universal trait, so video games appeal to all: One wouldn’t claim that books attract left wing people alone because they have knowledge in them, or that TV is the refuge of the centralist due to a perception of balanced programming, because such statements are obviously moronic.
It’s great that Bown recognises that playing video games don’t necessarily prevent violence, but they don’t necessarily cause it, either. And were that it, I’d happily end the response here. But it isn’t. There’s still that delightful little bit that got me to write this in the first place. Presented here, for your viewing…well. Not pleasure. But viewing nonetheless:
“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), 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).“
This. This is the part that just outright kills any seriousness one might have when reading the piece. Although Bown admits that the games are affected by context, he doesn’t seem to actually pay that any attention before listing key examples. XCOM is not a game expelling foreign beings, it is a game defending the planet against those with hostile intent – something the majority of immigrants don’t have; the fear of ‘impure infection’ in those games is not racial, it is literally the avoidance of viral or parasitic material that turns you into an undead monstrosity; Plants Vs Zombies is, again, fighting against brain-eating zombies, not immigrants; Splatoon is a game where you’re a squid kid shooting ink to temporarily win a stage, not acquire new land for the Octo-Empire; sure, you build a nations in the cited ’empire builders’, but you can peacefully co-exist with neighbours – in Tropico, you can even be a democratic republic who has no influence outside your nation; I know this intends the roles of females in society, but you really went with not saying that, but calling it fucking Princess Recovery (Remember that time Ted Cruz had to save Princess Peach?); and Sonic as an argument for restoration of natural harmony? I mean, I guess that’s what he’s doing by fighting Robotnik..? But context matters. It really does.
Without recognising the importance of context, without that understanding, you’re no longer writing an informative opinion piece so much as ‘Thomas the Tank Engine is a Fascist show’.[ix] The sort of thing that gets lampooned on the internet for being clueless,[x] for having obscured its point carelessly it is lost on all. This reaction is already happening.[xi] If you actually have a point to make that’s valid, it’s irresponsible to risk it being mocked instead of understood: I mean, fucking princess recovery? You had to have recognised how that sounded. So it’s a good thing that this piece doesn’t seem to have a valid point, not one based in established research or supported by any conclusive evidence. If Bown has any such thing, providing them in the article might have been a good idea – again, speckling an article with little verifiable pieces of truth does not make up for your main point lacking citation. It does not make it real.
The reality is, though, that video games and their messages are diverse. They are a creative medium; creators have various ideologies, and humans are influenced by a variety of things, both external and internal. Assuming one of those things, interactive or not, is influential enough to affect our very political leanings is simply not supported by the evidence we currently have. It also supposes we exist in a vacuum free from other influencers – we do not. What impact video games do have on us needs to be studied further and better understood. And what we have recognised – like the apparently dismissed Video Game Addiction – needs to be treated seriously. Not like some game.