So Pike found an article online with the amusing and attention-getting title The Fascist Politics of the Infinite Respawn and, because I am not doing anything better with my copious qualifications, I thought I would take a look at it and provide a critique. I shall forewarn you, this is certain to be a long post and liable to be nothing more than masturbatory self-importance and a bunch of political jargon that has little use outside demonstrating that I know what political jargon is.
Maybe some Latin, too!
Now, the article isn’t without some merit. Indeed for a medium to be considered an art, saying meaningful things is part and parcel of the deal. If we look at, say, movies, it’s very easy to find a very wide range of movies that have commented very seriously on a very wide range of political and social issues, from all kinds of angles. And we can find plenty of writing about what movies which don’t avowedly take a political torch up are saying as well; whether that be a feminist perspective on why strong women always get killed or a political examination of what hyper-macho 80’s action movies are all about.
I should state that I tend to shy away from overly analyzing every single movie/book/game etc. that comes along. Yes lots have things to say, and many more betray prejudice (conscious or simply not cared about) on the parts of their creators, but sometimes a big dumb action movie is just a big dumb action movie and trying to read more into it is silly. Still, the article I linked to is one which talks about an entire swathe of game mechanics and their implications, rather than any particular game, so I feel it’s worth engaging with. The argument, essentially, is that the mechanics of your typical modern FPS are ultimately “fascist” in nature, because they simultaneously represent A) The immovable and perfect State, in the form of the player character, and B) The numberless and overwhelming Enemies, in the form of… well, the numberless and overwhelming enemies.
A word about fascism itself. Fascism is a political philosophy with a single concept at its core: That the People and Polity should be the same thing, indeed must be, and that any other scenario is quite literally against the natural order of things and will by definition lead to the destruction of “Us”. It is important to note that Fascism does not consider this the consequence of living in a chaotic world or a lack of understanding on anyone’s part – it is a deliberate and concerted effort on the part of “Them” to destroy “Us”. “We” is fairly easy to define; “We” as a Nation (the only legitimate political unit for Fascism) are the natural owners of This Land who speak This Language and have This Culture. We have existed in this form since the mythical time immemorial (cf. just about any national origin myth you care to mention) and only in recent years, usually due to internal treason, are we being undone by alien influences of some nature. I reiterate that these aliens are acting very deliberately, with full knowledge of what they are doing and it’s consequences.
This leads itself to a whole host of interesting issues for the Fascist. We can see one of the most relevant if we take a look at Eco’s writings on the matter (You will generally find yourself enlightened if you ready Eco’s writings on any matter), most specifically the following quote:
When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers of Ur-Fascism must also be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.
Eco goes to one of Fascism’s absolute core contradictions here; the Enemy (and Fascism MUST have an Enemy because it is defined entirely in terms of “Us” and “Them” and cannot exist without both) are both cockroaches and masterminds; we are both superhumanly glorious as a people and fundamentally threatened by the enemies. Both parties are simultaneously incredibly strong and completely vulnerable. This is necessary for the Fascist; the Enemy must be strong enough to necessitate the Fascist’s proposed solutions (Obviously if They were actually a bunch of feckless layabouts with barely the mental ability to read, We would never be in any danger from Them), but We must be strong because the foundation on which Fascism is built shows and requires this to be fact. We are at risk of being overwhelmed despite the fact that we are almost divine in our nature and the greatest of all nations, and the fact that our enemies are “rats” and “cockroaches” and – a perennial favorite of the Fascist – “germs”.
The Fascist narrative is a clever one however; they shift the rhetorical focus, but they can do so damned well by simultaneously appealing to an actual or imagined historical Golden Age and current actual or perceived difficulties, or usually a mix of both in both cases, coupled with identifying an Enemy. The Enemy which is identified is only one part of the true foe of the Fascist, which is essentially anything that dilutes the power of the Race and Nation. This is why they object to homosexuality. Homosexuals do not reproduce and they do not fulfill the ‘natural’ roles of men and women in their roles as breadwinners and reproducers. Here we see how Fascism uses the mythologized past as well; the past was an agricultural idyll where men did honest work on the land and women did honest work creating and raising the young. Enemies are conflated in part due to this. To use a classic example, Jews not only must own the media because they are insidious and have influence everywhere, but the media must be owned by Jews because the media is a fancy, “not real” entity which does little honest work. The contradiction of using the media for propaganda purposes need not be addressed. There is a good reason Orwell’s 1984 has Doublethink as a central conceit.
So how does all this tie into the article linked, and into videogames? The article apprehends a lot of things quite well, in my eyes, but there are a handful of fundamental issues that it overlooks, or at least fails to properly address.
Yes, games do tend to provide an endless stream of undifferentiated enemies for the player to destroy and, yes, they do tend to do so in a fashion which gives little to no insight into them as people. But this is a necessity. First, games are fast-paced and involve large numbers. It would be very impractical to give every single person you kill in your average CoD a background and some characteristics, and I sorely doubt that it would be remotely enjoyable to play. Second, and similarly, games are made on a timeline and a budget. I dearly wish there were more games which offered the player more options with greatly diverging consequences, but that’s simply not the path that was taken, a failure of the art and medium certainly but far from inherently political in any way except, perhaps, love of the dollar.
Still, whilst I feel there is merit in criticizing how games present the enemies, I find the argument that the Player represents the Fascist State/Nation to be a rather shaky one. Indeed the player’s avatar is generally a superhuman force who performs impossible feats of endurance at the very least, but what is the alternative? There are games out there where the player is a very vulnerable figure, even manshooters (ARMA II being the obvious example), and they certainly have their place but I sincerely doubt that “realism” would serve CoD very well (No matter how much they might want to proclaim themselves a realistic military shooter).
It’s my opinion that the article has things backwards. Games use an arguably fascistic attitude in order to serve their ends, and thus they must have elements of fascism in them. My interpretation approaches it from the other direction – games make use of “fascistic” elements not because they are fascistic, but because they happen to share propagandistic tools. We see exactly the same tools employed by all manner of people, from state ideologues in fascist dictatorships to comic book writers in countries where free speech is sacrosanct. That the fascists happen to make use of such rhetorical tools does not ipso facto mean that using such tools makes one a fascist, nor that the tools themselves are fascist. We can use another example brought up by the article, that of zombies, to expand on this point.
The article states,
The zombie genre, in its various media incarnations, has been using the unstoppable mindlessness of its enemies as a justification for brutality for years. There’s a definite streak of fascist thought in the vanilla concept of zombies, although it’s usually complicated and subverted by the now-cliché “We Are The Real Monsters” subtext.
Now, despite the caveat, I take considerable issue with this assessment. The zombie genre is not a pro-fascist one (Overtly or subconsciously or otherwise), but one which generally opposes the “mass” against the “individual”. The enemies are by their nature a mindless undifferentiated mass of bodies; the survivors are by their nature the ones we can identify with, if only by virtue of the fact that they can, you know, speak and otherwise emote. But again we are seeing things conflated when they shouldn’t be. The survivors in any zombie fiction are by definition individuals when measured against their foes. This is often read as a critique of unthinking capitalism, as indeed it very much was in such movies as Dawn of the Dead, but could just as easily be read as a caution of communism (A horde of creatures acting in instinctive unison to exterminate the handful of individuals still alive by either devouring or infecting them). The critiques provided by zombies are thus not inherently fascist, but rather they are inherently individualist. It is true that the Fascist at times has recourse to utilize such imagery, especially in the Anglo world with our extremely strong emphasis on individualism. For the American demographic even more so the zombie doesn’t have a fascist narrative but a survivalist, libertarian one, which emphases self-reliance, individuality, and generally a rejection of whatever structures may exist to help. There are those on the American right who have a very similar set of talking points to this, but it’s due to a similarity of perceived past and as a means of capitalization on current discontent, not necessarily an actual confluence of either goals or attitudes.
Similarly all polities utilize a mythologized past and concoct a present and national identity to some degree. These things are not natural, they hinge on collective agreed-upon beliefs about the past. Individuals may differ and disagree but the overarching narrative of any body politic has to be held to be generally true by a fair proportion of the population if said politic is to be effective. This does not necessarily have to be fictional, but human history is an ugly business and few, if any, can lay claim to a bloodless history. Still the fact that fascists utilize something everyone else utilizes does not make everyone fascist, any more than David Duke drinking milk makes all milk-drinkers Grand Wizards of the KKK.
The same thing applies, then, in their assessment of games as vehicles of fascist ideology or rhetoric. We have things that we might identify as Fascist in nature but only if we take the attitude that “Fascists do X, games do X, games = fascist”. We see in the article that the case is very clearly laid out; “I don’t mean to imply that the developers of these games are full-on fascists. In my opinion, however, their design decisions are a clear demonstration of fascist ideology expressed through the video game form.” This statement only works if my above one is held to be true, for if the game makers are not fascist, and the games don’t share fascist characteristics, the point has nothing to stand on.
None of this is to suggest that games should not strive to have more nuanced, deeper narratives, that they should not seek to humanize the other (Sometimes – but as I said, sometimes a big dumb action movie is just that and I don’t WANT Saints Row Goes Forth to have some huge thing about everyone you run over). These are very valuable things that games absolutely should be pursuing in order to grow and to begin saying more. I just think that the article in question is ascribing rather more to the current situation than it can justifiably be saddled with. Games may lack imagination and depth at the moment, but that is due to risk-aversion on the part of publishers long before it is due to fascist ideology, consciously implemented or otherwise.