on "political" games


June 25, 2019

This is an excerpt from Marx at the Arcade by Jamie Woodcock, covering some of the discussion on “political” games and the relationship between games and politics. The book is available from Haymarket and you can read reviews here

Among the recent wave of explicitly political videogames are a notable number of titles inspired by or linked with left-wing politics. These kinds of games are explicitly political. But it is worth noting that, to quote Patricia Hernandez, “when the real world seeps into games,” some people “don’t like it, because it ruins the whole ‘escapism’ thing.” However, she continues, “there’s no such thing as an apolitical game and thinking otherwise can be dangerous.”1 All videogames are political. As Mike Cook has stated, political videogames have potential to change player’s ideas, but “we have to make sure that we’re aware of the power of persuasion, misdirection and bias, and keep a critical but open mind.”2

Before turning to discuss political videogames, it is first worth considering the long history of political games. Beginning in the early 1970s, Bertell Ollman, a Marxist professor from New York, set about thinking through what a left-wing political board game would involve. On playing Monopoly, he noticed that the game does something unusual. People “play Monopoly as individuals and take individual credit or blame for the result. Skill and luck are each considered personal qualities. In neither case can anyone else be blamed if you lose.”3 Yet this bears little relation to the actual experience of property accumulation under capitalism: “There is a real monopoly game going on, but you haven’t been invited to play. More than likely, you could not aff ord the stakes.” Ollman then set out to fi nd “the critical, and especially the socialist, game.” In the process, he discovered that in the over four thousand years of board game history, there have been examples of what might be considered political games. Ollman asks: “Is it only a coincidence that in chess, the medieval game par excellence, a knight or a bishop can corner a king?” He also gives the example of Roarem Castle, a game dating back to nineteenth-century England that “satirizes the lives of the still-powerful aristocracy.”4

Through this research, Ollman stumbled upon a version of Monopoly called Anti-Monopoly. It turned out not to be what he was looking for, but he did learn something meaningful from the game’s creator, Ralph Anspach: Monopoly had actually been intended “as a critique of the very system it has done so much to promote.”5 Anspach claimed that the real inventor of Monopoly was a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie. The game was invented in 1903 and originally called The Landlord’s Game, featuring tiles named “Lord Blueblood’s Estate” and “The Soakum Lighting Co.” By 1925 the game became known as Monopoly and featured the following text in the introduction:

Monopoly is designed to show the evil resulting from the institution of private property. At the start of the game, every player is provided with the same chance of success as every other player. The game ends with one person in possession of all the money. What accounts for the failure of the rest, and what one factor can be singled out to explain the obviously ill-adjusted distribution of the community’s wealth, which this situation represents? Those who win will answer “skill.” Those who lose will answer “luck.” But maybe there will be some, and these, while admitting the element of skill and luck, will answer with Scott Nearing [a socialist writer of the time] “private property.”6

This is a pretty clear anti-capitalist message for the game. However, the modern version changed that introductory text to read, “The idea of the game is to buy and rent or sell property so profitably that one becomes the wealthiest player and eventually monopolist.”7 The game’s mechanics—“the lopsided accumulation of wealth” — draw on two of Caillois’s notions — agôn (competition) and alea (chance)—in the process transforming what is the systemic problem of capitalism into something that is celebrated.8 However, unlike in the real world, each player begins with the same amount of wealth. This is because for the game to be fun, Ollman argues, the players have to have an equal starting point.

Ollman then struggled with this problem of how to design a game that could focus on inequality, but that people would want to play. His solution was the board game Class Struggle. While it is not that easy to track down today, the Interference Archive in New York has a copy, which I have seen but unfortunately not played. The game tries to overcome the problem posed by Monopoly by having players assume the role of classes rather than that of individuals. The premise is that “capitalists and workers” are “roughly equal in power, though of course the sources of their power are very different.”9 The board game was made and distributed, with an image of Karl Marx arm wrestling Nelson Rockefeller on the box’s cover. The chance cards have messages such as “You are treating your class allies very badly” and “Your son has become a follower of Reverend [Sun Myung] Moon.” Scrawled on the middle of the board are the phrases “Socialism (The Workers Win!)” and Barbarism (The Capitalists Win!).” The game went on to sell 230,000 copies when it was launched in 1978. While the story of the process of distributing the game is interesting, it is worth drawing attention to the fact that “a small group of striking workers at Brentano’s Bookstore asked him [Ollman] to pull the game.” When he refused, they thought he was a sellout trying to make money off workers, and “then used his refusal to promote their own fight.”10 So the game itself became part of class struggle too. Despite this, Ollman maintained his faith in his project’s potential, later noting, “As long as there is a class struggle . . . there is a great need to help young people understand what it is, how it works, and where they fit into it. . . . The game could still contribute to this important work.”11

This pedagogic, or teaching, element is particularly powerful with games as it allows players to interact and experiment with a system. In this way, videogames hold possibilities for doing what Ollman tried with board games. The political games made by Paolo Pedercini and published as Molleindustria are a good example. His Phone Story is pitched as “an educational game about the dark side of your favorite smart phone. Follow your phone’s journey around the world and fi ght the market forces in a spiral of planned obsolescence.”12 Designed for smartphone devices, the game “attempts to provoke a critical reflection on its own technological platform.” It is based around four mini-games, each covering a part of the supply chain, from coltan mining in the Congo, factory workers in China, e-waste in Pakistan, and consumerism in the Global North. The plan for the game was to redirect the proceeds (which was 70 percent after iTunes took its 30 percent cut) to grassroots organizations that are fighting corporate abuses.

Phone Story was banned from iTunes three hours after launch. Apple claimed that it breached rules on charity donations as well as two guidelines regarding “depictions of ‘violence or abuse of children,’ and ‘excessively objectionable or crude content.’” However, as noted by a journalist at the time, “the former appears to be crucial to the satirical intent of the game, while the latter is something of a grey area—who is most likely to object to the content here: users or Apple?”13 The game remained available on Android, and through revenue across the various platforms raised $6,000. This total was much less than expected (though it did earn an impressive $630 on iTunes in the three short hours it was available). The Phone Story team decided that the money raised “won’t do that much to an organization but [it] could be significant for an individual who used to earn about $130 a month.” The money was donated to Tian Yu, a worker who suffered serious injuries after trying to commit suicide while working at Foxconn.14

There are three aspects of this videogame that are worth exploring. The first is that it uses the hardware as part of the intervention. The mini-games explore the supply chains that the hardware relies upon. These supply chains are often hidden from the end user, so the act of making these visible is political. The website for Phone Story also contains a number of pages explaining the processes and providing further reading. For example, the discussion of “obsolescence” begins with the following:

When you purchased this phone, it was new and sexy. You’ve been waiting for it for months. No evidence of its troubling past was visible. Did you really need it? Of course you did. A lot of money was invested to instill this desire in you. You were looking for something that could signal your status, your dynamic lifestyle, your unique personality. Just like everyone else.

This is the second point. The videogame plays on the position of the player as the owner of a smartphone to reflect on the economic and social relations, not only of the supply chain external to them, but also of the player’s own role in purchasing and consuming the product. The videogame can therefore be quite an unsettling experience, with the potential to leave the player with a different understanding of a device they use daily. As stated in Molleindustria’s mission statement, the aim is to “reappropriate video games as a popular form of mass communication” and “investigate the persuasive potentials of the medium by subverting mainstream video gaming cliché.”15 The third point is that the videogame goes beyond just propaganda: it uses the money it raised for a political end. In the process, it also highlights the large cut of 30 percent that distribution platforms take — an excessive amount. Molleindustria may not have reached its goal of raising enough to fund organizations fighting in the resistance, but the money did benefit someone within the brutal phone supply chain.

There are a range of other games released by Molleindustria that take different experimental angles on politicizing videogames. To Build a Better Mousetrap is a “management” videogame in which the player runs a “semi-abstract” mousetrap factory, employing and choosing how much to pay the mice-workers.16 As one commentator noted, “[Pedercini’s] done something very difficult, which is to clearly, concisely and with a shockingly dark sense of humor explain the way that our economic system is gamed against working people, by making players recreate it.”17 Molleindustria also released the part-videogame, part–digital art installation MayDay Netparade, developed in 2004 for the political day of action known as EuroMayDay. This was a “virtual demo” that players could join using their own avatar creations, but they had to do so before the date of the demonstration. This process both promoted the demonstration beforehand and left a lasting mark that could be traced afterwards. Other games by the developer include Unmanned, which covers a day in the life of a drone pilot, and A Short History of the Gaze, “an experiential essay for Virtual Reality” that explores the relationship between the player’s gaze (or viewpoint) and violence that is so common in games.

Another of Molleindustria’s videogames that is worth discussing here is Every day the same dream. In this game, the player controls an office worker within a bleak world marked by a drab grayscale palette. The player is only off ered a few options: they can move left or right and choose to interact with select objects. Within this simple control scheme, the player goes through the routine of an offi ce worker, focusing on the banality of the tasks. As David Leblanc has noted, it “is an exercise in boredom, one that moves me to think at the same time, this game is boring and I do not want to play it, and, I recognize this feeling of work and want catharsis.”18 If the player sticks with it (and here I won’t spoil the experience for those who have not tried it), there are some small moments of refusal that they can explore. These actions then shift the narrative for the next day, which otherwise would have been a repeat of the day before. Playing the videogame — if “playing” can be the right term here—allows the player to explore the themes of alienation, estrangement, and refusal. Leblanc quotes the German playwright Bertolt Brecht to make sense of this: “When the rules emerging from this life in society are treated as imperfect and provisional . . . the theatre leaves its spectators productively disposed even after the spectacle is over.”19 This is the potential of playing through Every day the same dream: to upset the notion of work, to question and even subvert the uncanny reality it displays as “normal.”20

This use of videogame rules to convey the dynamics of a given system are also used in Papers, Please. In that game, the player takes on the role of an immigration officer in the imaginary Stalinist country of Arstotzka. As with Every day the same dream, the game mechanics here are repetitive and banal. The main choice the player makes is whether to approve or deny an individual’s entry to the country. It is a videogame about bureaucracy, about examining paperwork to make choices that could drastically affect the lives of others. Game reviewer John Walker said the following about how the game explores bureaucracy:

Its lofi graphics and static setting join its focus on mundanity and repetition under pressure to suggest something that sounds about as far away from “game” as you might imagine. And yet [it] remains an engrossing, creeping affair, almost rogue-like in its grip on you to last longer, work faster, abandon principles more freely, and compromise integrity with ever-more consummate ease.21

The process of choosing who to approve and deny is complicated by the fact that the player is paid per each person processed and faces the pressure of needing to make enough money to provide for a family. The spot-the-difference mechanics make the game play out like a puzzle game, while the narrative pushes the player forward. As Walker noted, Papers, Please “explores that intriguing space between what you’ll do to see a narrative progress, and what you’re just too uncomfortable to do even in fiction.”22 In the process it uses a rule-based system to allow players to explore how far they can push, along with depicting the consequences of bureaucracy.

This War of Mine takes on the common theme of military conflict. However, the game subverts it, by giving the player control of a group of civilians attempting to survive in a city in the middle of a modern military confl ict. At night, the player can direct members of the party to head out to scavenge. This can be achieved by bartering or stealing, but the videogame also offers the option of fighting and killing. While this feature speaks to the desperation of trying to survive in a warzone, it nevertheless feels like This War of Mine is falling back into the mechanics of more traditional war games. Still, the sense of danger in the videogame feels diff erent to other games in which the world is viewed through the barrel of a gun: One videogame journalist writes: “There is danger everywhere—from snipers to other civilians to the diseases that come when cities break down. The one thing you don’t do is pick up a gun and fight back.”23

In a way, these kinds of videogames are aimed at an already politically inclined audience. This is not to doubt that some players may have come across these and found them engaging on their own terms, but they are pitched as “political” games. As Marijam Didžgalvytė has noted, “There is an abundance of politically-motivated games, but are they ever going to change anyone’s opinion from one side to another?”24 She makes her point by drawing on a quote by the Swedish fine art curator Maria Lind: “If, when you are about to tell a joke, you make the declaration ‘This is going to be really funny!,’ then in all likelihood the listener is not going to find the joke funny.”

Didžgalvytė points out as an important exception one videogame that has had a much bigger impact than others. The Uber Game was released through the website of Financial Times, which is not known for its left-wing views. The browser-based game starts by asking the player, “Can you make it in the gig economy?” Then the player is allowed to explore what it is like to work for Uber, making choices along the way. The game ends with the total earnings the player has managed to make, but then Uber’s cut of the fares, along with all the expenses—the lease on the car, gas, insurance, any repairs, and so on—are taken off. When the player sees how much they have actually made, they see “they’ve often been earning only half of the minimum wage.” As Didžgalvytė explains, “The game’s point is obvious and its effect is striking, not least because it’s in a place to be played by the Financial Times readership — a group of people that generally praise the gig economy, and its lack of bothersome unionisation.”25 Again, here, the rules of the game provide a reflection of society’s unequal rules. The mechanics work to highlight the lack of agency that Uber drivers have to make a living wage. Although I have now spoiled the outcome for any reader who has not yet played, the realization that comes at the end for the first-time player is one of genuine surprise that cannot be foreseen at the start of the game.

Besides these videogames about work, there are other examples of politically themed videogames. In the US there have been many variants of anti-Donald Trump games, like Punch the Trump. In the UK, a videogame called Corbyn Run was released to support the Labour Party, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, in the 2017 election. The player takes on the role of a pixelated Jeremy Corbyn, running after the then Prime Minister Theresa May and another Conservative politician. There is a battle bus labeled “Lies,” referencing the additional money that the Brexit campaign leaders promised for the National Health Service and failed to deliver, as well as the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. As Marijam Didžgalvytė notes, “It’s a fairly linear form of entertainment as (admittedly amusing) propaganda.”26 There are no game mechanics to convey some feature of capitalism, nor a structural critique of society. As Rosa Carbo-Mascarell, one of the developers, explained: “It was important to us to seem accessible, while still maintaining a level of political satire. Since launching, we’ve received a number of messages from people saying they’ve changed their vote, thanks to the game.”27 Unlike Class Struggle, designed with the more ambitious aim of producing a tool for political education, Corbyn Run was intended to push a clear message in the run-up to an election through a contemporary medium. In this way, “Corbyn Run is another form of essential engagement, at a time when young, perhaps first-time voters are being courted by politicians and party supporters more vocally than ever before.”28

So far in this discussion, we could say that there are two different kinds of political videogames: the explicitly “political,” and often marketed as such; and those, as identified by Didžgalvytė, designed to actually achieve a political outcome. The latter are an example of the old maxim “show, don’t tell”; instead of declaring the intention beforehand, they allow people to make up their own minds. Didžgalvytė explains:

Good art gives rise to new insights, while better art arms the spectator with tools for concrete action. Video gaming’s immersive properties are unequalled by any other medium, and has the potential to teach and share tools that question the status quo, both implicitly and explicitly.29



  1. Patricia Hernandez, “There’s No Such Thing as a Game without Politics or an Agenda,” Kotaku, August 30, 2012, available here

  2. Quoted in Chris Baraniuk, “Video Games Become Political as US Election Looms,” New Scientist, October 28, 2016, available here

  3. Bertell Ollman, “Ballbuster? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman,,” in Dialectical Marxism: The Writings of Bertell Ollman, avaialable here

  4. Ollman, “Ballbuster?” 

  5. Ollman, “Ballbuster?” 

  6. Quoted in Ollman, “Ballbuster?” 

  7. Quoted in Ollman, “Ballbuster?” 

  8. Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 13. 

  9. Ollman, “Ballbuster?” 

  10. Keith Plocek, “Most Popular Marxist Board Game,” Mental Floss, August 12, 2014, available here

  11. Quoted in Plocek, “Most Popular Marxist Board Game.” 

  12. Molleindustria, “Phone Story,” Phone Story, 2011, available here

  13. Stuart Dredge, “Apple Bans Satirical iPhone Game Phone Story from
    Its App Store.” Guardian, September 14, 2011, available here

  14. Molleindustria, “Phone Story.” 

  15. Dredge, “Apple Bans Satirical iPhone Game.” 

  16. Molleindustria, “To Build a Better Mousetrap,” To Build a Better Mousetrap, 2014, available here

  17. Joseph Bernstein, “The New Marxism Comes to Computer Games,” BuzzFeed, May 5, 2014, available here

  18. David Leblanc, “Working at Play: Alienation, Refusal, and Every Day the Same Dream,” First Person Scholar, December 14, 2016, available here

  19. quoted in Leblanc, “Working at Play.” 

  20. Leblanc, “Working at Play.” 

  21. John Walker, “Wot I Think: Papers, Please,” Rock Paper Shotgun, August 12, 2013, available here

  22. Walker, “Wot I Think: Papers, Please.” 

  23. Keith Stuart, “War Games – Developers Find New Ways to Explore Military Conflict,” Guardian, July 15, 2014, available here

  24. Marijam Didžgalvytė, “The Uber Game Shows the Latent Power of Political Video Games,” Kotaku, February 8, 2018, available here

  25. Didžgalvytė, “The Uber Game Shows the Latent Power.” 

  26. Marijam Didžgalvytė, “‘Corbyn Run’ Highlights the Stakes of This Week’s British Election,” Waypoint, June 6, 2017, available here

  27. Quoted in Didžgalvytė, “‘Corbyn Run’ Highlights the Stakes.” 

  28. Didžgalvytė, “‘Corbyn Run’ Highlights the Stakes.” 

  29. Didžgalvytė, “The Uber Game Shows the Latent Power.” 


author

Jamie Woodcock (@jamie_woodcock)

Jamie Woodcock works as a researcher.