Marx at the Arcade
Marx at the Arcade
Haymarket Books: Chicago, IL, 2019
Judging by the frequent and spirited debates Karl Marx would have with anyone who would stop to give him the satisfaction, a time-shifted Marx would have been very online. @RealKarlMarx, therein soaked in online culture, might have also found himself a game player and perhaps one not shying away from the Historical Materialism of today’s most popular artistic medium. We, as people broadly on the left, have neglected gaming at our peril. Jamie Woodcock’s Marx at the Arcade represents an important step into that fray—theorizing play, games, and their labour from the left. As Marx himself may have shouted if he were born a couple hundred years later: “Where we dropping, comrades?”
The answer? Right into Game Studies.
Over the last few years, games workers have begun to unionize, queer groups have started to take back gaming from fascist trolls—especially in the Indie scene, and openly Marxist theorists have begun to find a space within Game Studies. Marx at the Arcade, like Luigi in his haunted mansion, clears out the cobwebs and names the spectre haunting gaming. Woodcock’s text ties together several, hitherto disparate, branches of research and commentary into and of gaming. The text brings together modern labour movements, games criticism, and history under the umbrella of Marxist analysis.
Marx at the Arcade is broken up into two sections. The first is a look at the history of video games through a Historical Materialist lens and a look into the production of video games from the same labour-focused theoretical perspective. The latter is an application of Marxist theory to games and the culture that surrounds them. It takes a stop in various modes and genres to explore a Marxist interpretation of each. In its structure and reading, Marx at the Arcade reminds me of a dedicated Marxist reimagining of Frans Mäyrä’s An Introduction to Game Studies—a primer text and resource for someone about to jump into their own research.
The first section looks at the history of video games, the work that goes into making a game, and finally the current efforts to organize labour in the games industry. By reading these three things through the critical lens of Marxism, Woodcock weaves together the complicated legacy of the labour of games. The earliest video games being snuck under the eye of the Military-Industrial Complex’s funding connects directly to the hacker and “playbour” culture of today. There are a good number of histories of video games out there, but few take the specific focus of labour as a unifying theme.
The closing section on union organizing in gaming is what really brings the first half of the text together. The potent historical analysis that proceeds it is welcome and refreshing, but capping that with an analysis of the emerging unionizing of the games industry brings it to life. The sheer cliff of alienated labour and fetishized commodity that is the games industry has proven to be a historic challenge to organizing that space. It’s only in the last few years that the dislocated sectors of games labour have started to band together. Marx at the Arcade pairs the materialist analysis of games labour with an analysis of games as art and culture.
This latter half of this text serves to give a springboard to the bounding potential for exploring video games from a Marxist perspective. Touching on three topical issues for today’s Marxist gamer, Woodcock addresses the ties between gaming and the Military-Industrial Complex, games that attempt, succeed or fail, to be openly political, and the intersection of online gaming and the rise of today’s fascist right. The focus on labour and production doesn’t leave this section behind, rather, these social issues are illuminated through that lens. There’s always a tendency to segregate “social ills” from material causes—Marx at the Arcade doesn’t fall for that trap.
Possibly the most salient examples from the text are the exploration of video games and weapons manufacturers and the specific case of prominent neo-nazi Steve Banon. The link between these apparently tangential bodies is, as Woodcock’s text outlines, actually material. Marx at the Arcade explores the financial ties between game publishers and arms manufactures when they license the usage of real-world guns. The text also explores Steve Banon’s early work at the edges of the games industry before emerging at the forefront of contemporary fascism. Both of these cases, and the latter half of the text as a whole, are stark examples of why abandoning the political analysis of gaming has left it to worse hands. That said, the future is hopeful.
Left gaming is on the rise. Some of the high water marks of the last few years have been: Ludopolitics: Videogames Against Control (which I reviewed here), Marijam Didžgalvytė’s Left, Left, Up series, Game Workers Unite’s efforts to unionize the game’s industry, and the deeply personal Crash Override by Zoë Quinn. Not to mention all of the queer Indie devs, organizers, and others working outside the spotlight. Woodcock’s text fits right in and unifies some disparate elements under a single theoretical framework. The book opens up the doorway for future research and takes us one step closer to left gaming.
As I outlined at the start of this review, this text reads like an introduction to a field that is just emerging. This is not a critique of the text as such, but a reminder that we as games researchers have a mountain of work before us. Marx at the Arcade is an outline of a doorway, a sign pointing to the horizon. The torchlight of Historical Materialism often reveals a path fraught with obstacles and gaming, to the surprise of no one, is no exception.
The text covers a few of gamings left-leaning characters, but leaves out one of my favorites. To paraphrase the words of Solaire of Astora: We must “cross the gaps between the worlds, and engage in jolly co-operation” to organize games labour.