Politicizing video games

Mount Royal Game Society brings together activism and gaming

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Video games get a bad rap. They are seen as being frivolous and childish, and those who play them are often imagined as being solely young white men, who, when not brutally killing virtual enemies, like to harass and abuse women on the internet. After multiple high-profile incidents of such misogyny – most notable amongst them involving feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian – it is hard to be convinced otherwise. However, gaming and anti-oppressive politics overlap more often than most gamers and activists would perhaps expect. One of the communities helping to bridge these two worlds is situated right here in Montreal.

Over the summer, the Mount Royal Game Society (MRGS) oversaw the creation of a six-week workshop series centred around the relationship between games, gaming culture, and politics. The volunteer-run organization, which hosts meetings and events throughout the year, has a goal to “promote a more welcoming and diverse game culture” and to provide “an alternative space outside of the values and structures of the established game industry.” The Daily spoke to organizer Carolyn Jong, and researcher Tara Ogaick, about MRGS and gaming activism in Montreal.

“Everything is political,” said Ogaick. “Games that […] manifest and consciously address politics are incredibly fascinating.” After moving to Montreal to pursue art and games, Ogaick was grateful to have found MRGS, a community centred around anti-oppressive values, where discussions around safer space policies and accessibility in gaming are held. With explicitly political games such as Papers, Please and The Cat and the Coup achieving small market success, the conversation around the value of politically progressive games is starting to gain momentum.

While the mainstream gaming industry has certainly listened to these discussions, it often does so in order to profit from them. “It’s a really difficult landscape to navigate,” said Ogaick. “There’s always the risk that if [we initiate these conversations] then [they’ll] become accessible to the people who we are trying to work against.”

Indeed, big-budget games that capitalize on harmful representations in the name of “diversity” are not a new phenomenon. Games that do manage to be ethical experience a lot of backlash, as the artists and developers who are trying to create structural changes come face-to-face with those who want to preserve the status quo. “Our goal with MRGS is to keep pushing as much as we can,” said Jong, “to allow people to think about games as an artistic practice [that has political implications].”

Governed by their own internal logic, games can allow players to examine and work through the structures of these fantasy worlds in order to convey complex ideas about societal structures.

Fall is an exciting season for indie gamers, artists, and developers in the city, with the quickly approaching Montreal Independent Games Festival, as well as GameLoop Montreal, an all-day social, educational, and safer space event for everyone interested in gaming culture.

“There is a big gaming scene in Montreal,” said Jong. “There are a lot of people here that make games, study games, [and] write about games.” Mobilizing them, however, has been a challenge. “Even though I go to a lot of activist events and feel really comfortable in those spaces, trying to merge [games and activism] has been hard.”

“What I really like about games,” said Jong, “is how they communicate ideas about systems [of power]. Depending on where you sit in that system, you get a totally different experience [as a player].” Governed by their own internal logic, games can allow players to examine and work through the structures of these fantasy worlds in order to convey complex ideas about societal structures. Without academic and activist jargon, games provide “another in” for those who are trying to educate themselves and others about systemic injustices.

“I would love to have more activists make games,” said Jong. “Game-makers could learn a lot from activists, too.”