Full marks

I hesitate to say too much about Karl Marx or Marxism in response to a book written by someone who could list their profession as ‘Marxist theorist’, but I do need to point out that I don’t consider myself a Marxist, and that I don’t believe that Marx or Marxism has a monopoly on progressive politics, or on the analysis of politics and economics. Other strains of thinking predate Marx and have continued to this day in parallel to Marxism—Marx was personally involved in the expulsion of libertarian socialists from the First International in the early 1870s, since which time Marxists and anarchists have enjoyed a somewhat antagonistic relationship. However, while Bakunin’s argument (in Statism and Anarchy and elsewhere) that Marx’s ideas would produce a new form of tyranny might appear to have been grimly validated by the horrors of Bolshevism, most Marxists today see the class struggle as something to be led by the working class themselves. The work of Marxist theorists in analysing the structures and ideologies of capitalism is not invalidated by historical enmities, and nor does it seem to me to lack utility simply because I favour libertarian methods and aspirations—in fact it is often extremely valuable, as is the case with Jamie Woodcock’s Marx at the Arcade. I just find it a bit daft that grown-ups want to classify their intellectual endeavours by pledging allegiance to a long-dead superhero…

The dead are always subject to resurrection, however, and Woodcock begins his discussion with Karl Marx’s ludic revenant as seen in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. His presence there is clearly a gift to someone wanting to write about videogames from a Marxist perspective, but the figure of Marx himself is not central to most Marxist thought, and Woodcock sensibly treats this digital lich as little more than an amusing point of departure (although he does note an ironic tension between Marx’s methods in the game and those employed historically). This is a good indication of his writing style, which is composed and focussed, but also playful and at times informal (an authorial ‘I’ creeps in occasionally, and it’s always good to see an academic writer admitting that they occupy a subject position).

A Marxist analysis of a particular industry is likely to be a pretty dry, technical matter. In this case, Woodcock is not just examining an industry, however, but an emerging cultural form, which again, might point the way towards a dauntingly theoretical monograph, but Marx at the Arcade is both short, and eminently readable. Of course it just skims the surface—it’s something of a preliminary survey, as although games studies as a discipline is starting to get established now, Woodcock may be the first writer to specifically apply himself to a Marxist approach to games. A thorough breakdown of the making and playing of videogames would need to constitute a very large tome, but Woodcock’s ambitions are more modest. His book is an argument for those interested in games to examine them through a Marxist lens, and it is also an argument for Marxists to take an interest in this most widespread and economically significant cultural practice.

Having said that, he manages to say a surprising amount in 163 pages of text. He sketches the history of games, examines the structure of the industry, and takes a good look at a number of genres. He also digs into the history of workplace relations and labour organising within games development, a very dynamic situation, which he says changed considerably during the writing of the book. He looks at ‘Gamer-gate’ and the general prevalence of alt-right ideology within the social world of gaming, and also surveys that small minority of independent games made with an explicitly progressive perspective.

As he’s researched this stuff and I haven’t, I’m not in a position to respond too critically to his work, although I felt that his history of the medium left out some important stuff. Specifically, the widespread development of games for home computers, and their distribution on cassette tape, that took place during the 1980s. In Britain at least, there was no branch of W.H.Smith or Boots which didn’t have a spinner full of games on cassette for use with computers like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, and Commodore C-64. The selection available for such machines was far more thematically diverse than that available for the era’s primitive consoles, in my experience. This was the first point of contact with home videogames for many people of my generation, and the most obvious sign of the existence of this strange activity for those that didn’t play. Although it may not have been commercially significant, it’s where many of the UK’s developers started out, and is doubtless a significant piece of the history of global games design and industrial practices. However, Woodcock’s account of commercial videogames focusses exclusively on arcade machines and consoles during this period. Whether this is a considered omission or not, I can only guess, and of course it seems like an important period to me, because it’s where I come from as a gamer…

The remainder of his account is solid, and I found him the most interesting on workplace activism in the industry, although his dissection of the cultural politics of some major games was also fascinating. In a less rigorous way, I’ve been thinking some similar things for years, and it’s really no secret how the industry is shaped by the expectations and preferences of a particular subset of gamers. The industry’s longstanding relationship with the military is less well-known, and helps account for its rather limited understanding of what human activities might be considered ludic when simulated. His thoughts on the impossibility of any true political diversity in the Civilization games were particularly resonant for me. I won’t paraphrase the book, and I don’t really need to recount his argument for the relevance of Marxist theory to videogames: as I said, I’m no Marxist, but the unequal power-relations, coercive practices, and ideological structures of the industry and its products will disclose themselves to any reasonably informed examination. It should be a no-brainer. This book’s a lot of fun, and very well argued.

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