Video Games and the Contest for Public Policy

I wrote a fairly long-ish essay for Brookings, where I argue that we should think of video games as a new contested space for public policy. It is a manifesto of sorts, setting out why I’m so interested in studying video games as a part of my PhD in strategic communication, and also trying to both tie together and popularize some research that would otherwise be fairly esoteric and trapped behind academic journal paywalls.

Here is a sample:

Video games are not neutral spaces stripped of politics in which people engage in neutral play together. They are vibrant, contested, growing, lucrative, politicized spaces, where actors of all sizes and ideologies compete to influence the minds of their audiences. Video games are where politics happen. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a leader in using games to reach voters. She recognizes, just as the Pentagon does, that games are an important site for political speech, especially when live-streamed. This past October, she hosted a get-out-the-vote event on the video game streaming service Twitch that attracted more than 430,000 live spectators to her channel, the third-largest audience the site had ever attracted to a single stream.

Games can tell us a lot about how the world works. Johan Huizinga theorized in Homo Ludens that play is essential to culture and the formation of society. The concept of play, he argues, is foundational to how humans form their beliefs about rule-based systems, which are the foundation of modern civilization. Video games began as a new way to play with computers but have evolved into rich texts filled with politics and arguments for how the world should work.

The cultural dominance of video games lends them political salience. Studying how video game communities form and discuss issues can offer unexpected insight into how audiences are built and come to share common beliefs, including malignant ones. As an example, consider how video games presaged the rise of the alt-right in American politics. In 2005, the far-right provocateur Steve Bannon started a business to pay Chinese players to farm assets in the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft to sell to other players at a profit. The business itself flopped, but Bannon learned from the experience that video game players can be mobilized outside the game. “These guys, these rootless white males,” he told the journalist Joshua Green, referring to his perceived customers, “had monster power.”

There is a lot to explore here. One thing that caused some eye brows to raise is an observation in the piece that playing video games does have an effect on its players. There are politics involved here, and studying media effects is really hard, and I don’t think the piece is clear enough about how hard that is to study (word limits and all that). I don’t think there is evidence to suggest violent games turn people violent anymore than violent movies do (there is no plausible mechanism for it), but we do know that violent media of any sort can alter our perception to and relationship with violence.

That’s probably something to litigate later, of course. In the meantime, there are other avenues to explore, such as how video games are altering our relationship to free speech. This is a fun one, because as esports have shown, this is a global industry and a global market, which means it is a place for norms about what is acceptable speech will clash between various economic superpowers. The way the military is using esports to recruit people is another one, which I mention but lack the space to explore very much.

Finally, there is the bigger question of how these audiences are being built by video game companies, and what happens when those audiences start to mobilize. Again, this is something I mention in the essay but lacked the space to explore. Lots of questions here about intentionality, self-organization, and even the nature of public debate itself. Hopefully I’ll be able to write about it later.

And, once I’m able to, I’ll cross-post the full text here as well.

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