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What would Karl Marx have thought about today’s video games?

In a recently published essay, philosopher Antonio Flores Ledesma applies the views of the father of scientific socialism to the gaming industry and its narratives

A ghost roams the consoles: the police are chasing him, he spits fire and is armed
Un fantasma recorre la consolas: la policía le persigue, escupe fuego y va armado.Composición: Pepa Ortiz

In the video game Little Big Workshop (2019), you are the manager of a factory and your mission is to maximize its levels of efficiency. Its characters exist only to be exploited; when they work too much, they fall to the ground, exhausted, as their colleagues dodge them and continue with their tasks. After discovering this game, Antonio Flores Ledesma, from the Spanish province of Badajoz, asked himself the obvious question: what would Karl Marx say?

“Marxism as a system of thought tends to be global, to interconnect everything. This makes it possible to apply his critical model to video games more or less successfully,” explains the doctor of philosophy, who in the essay Marx juega: Una introducción al marxismo desde los videojuegos (y viceversa) (Marx Plays: An introduction to Marxism from video games, and vice versa) applies the theories of the co-author of The Communist Manifesto to the contents and mechanics of different video games. Those of other thinkers, too: throughout the book, Ledesma imagines what Aleksandra Kollontái would have thought about Tomb Raider, Theodor Adorno’s opinion of Hollow Knight or Walter Benjamin’s thoughts regarding retro video games.

One analogy that the writer explores is that of the status quo as the accepted natural order: in the case of video games, the premise or operating logic that is assumed to play. “If we have a system that forces us to internalize certain forms or relations of production, as well as social, political or institutional ones, that affects us in the way we use culture. I don’t think, for example, that the developer of Little Big Workshop actively intended to manifest an ideology, but rather to show the technical manufacturing progress and evolution through investment, from an ideal point of view. It just so happens that this point of view reproduces the ideological elements of capitalism and economic liberalism,” he reflects.

“These issues are usually just ignored as they do not appear as game, development or design problems. A different case is that of titles like Kingdom Come: Deliverance [2018], where there is a clearly fascist perspective,” he says, alluding to the Czech director and screenwriter Daniel Vávra, who in his work addresses the medieval era from the postulates of white nationalism. The heritage of cultural hegemony according to the reading of Antonio Gramsci, orientalism or the treatment of everything alien to Europe as barbarism are other aspects that Ledesma analyzes in relation to the historical genre, where games like Total War: Rome II (2013) present Mediterranean white factions that speak perfect English, while the rest uses an amalgamation of foreignisms with Arabic, German or Russian accents.

The power of criticism

Before writing Marx juega, Flores Ledesma coordinated with Paula Velasco Ideological Games (2020), a collection of essays on the ideological substratum of video games, the need to incorporate a critical vision into their analysis and the narrative power of the medium. It was, however, after reading Utopia no es una isla (Utopia is not an island) by Layla Martínez that he decided to “write a much more popular essay, a more accessible and affordable cultural analysis than what the topics of Marxism and politics usually require.” Ledesma himself emphasizes the introductory nature of the book with respect to the thought of the authors that he quotes, with the idea that someone who has never delved into Marxism can approach it. “I did not want to present it as a monolithic doctrine, but rather as a series of schools of thought that have a common basis of criticizing the system and interpreting reality,” he says. “I would have loved to also introduce anarchism and authors like Proudhon, Bakunin or Kropotkin, but I had to be synthetic. Certain concessions have to be made to a broad rigor in order to be more concise and solid in the discourse.”

In its own way, Marx juega is also a vindication of the exercise of criticism itself, in a context – the world of gaming – so often adverse to political conversation, if not openly reactionary towards the claims for inclusivity of women or people of color. “Criticism is a mediation space that offers different visions, readings and articulations of something that a cultural product wants to present in an immediate manner. It allows for the elaboration of a counter-discourse against that other discourse that, even if it does not contain an authorial intention, is part of the product and its representation of reality,” states the author. “The video game does not necessarily have any responsibility, but the developers could have a greater commitment to being aware of what they are developing, or what effects it may have on the users.”

Is it possible, then, to emancipate gamers? “No, you just can’t,” he laughs. “Acting within the bounds of the market, a video game cannot be emancipator. Knowledge, education and participation emancipate. But it is true that video games, just like music, literature or movies, do educate and promote the assimilation of cultural, social or relational elements, even if they were not made with educational or training purposes. I’m not negative enough to say that a video game can’t turn a minority hating gamer into a good person. It seems like a complicated scenario, but there are support points to change the landscape and build much more open and respectful gaming communities.”

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