Bringing Politics Into It: Organizing at the Intersection of Videogames and Academia

Introduction: The View from the Intersection

“Over the last two decades, women have organized against the almost routine violence that shapes their lives. Drawing from the strength of shared experience, women have recognized that the political demands of millions speak more powerfully than the pleas of a few isolated voices. This politicization in turn has transformed the way we understand violence against women. For example, battering and rape, once seen as private (family matters) and aberrational (errant sexual aggression), are now largely recognized as part of a broad-scale system of domination that affects women as a class. This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of people of color and gays and lesbians, among others. For all these groups, identity-based politics has been a source of strength, community, and intellectual development.” (Crenshaw, 1241-1242)

People who inhabit these sites produced through multiple relations of ruling, are at present the most active in this quest for an identity and a politics based on it. They are, to borrow a phrase of Eric Wolf, People Without History, and thus people without names of their own choosing.” (Banerji, 20)

Every identity has a history. When I call myself a videogame player and creator, a student, a researcher, a feminist, a community organizer, or a mixed-race woman, I invoke my own stories, but also the stories of many others. The intersections where our paths, stories, and identities connect become points of contact, points of commonality and sharing, but also points of contention. Who gets to call themselves by these names? What work are we doing when we self-identify in this way? How are we being identified, in turn?

Intersectionality, a term first coined by activist and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is typically used to describe the ways that different identities and forms of structural oppression, such as patriarchy and white supremacy, overlap and interact with one another. Over the course of the past few decades, the concept has been depoliticized and transformed into a buzzword, especially in academic circles, where it can be used to shut down discussion of specific oppressions. By separating the word itself from histories of struggle, intersectionality is reframed and cut off from its ability to act as a tool for anti-oppressive movement-building (Bilge). Despite the way that the term has been coopted, I still find the metaphor useful, both because it reveals something about the complexity of identity, and because it avoids naturalizing that identity. Intersectionality evokes an image of overlapping roads, and roads aren’t just travelled, they’re built. Roads have a history, which is intimately tied up with empire, trade, domination, and exploitation. By directing the flow of people and resources, roads help give shape to our society and relations of power, while also being shaped by them. They both enable and constrain, in ways that are often invisible to those of us with more privilege and mobility. But here the metaphor starts to fall apart, because we are never travelling just one road at a time, but many interweaving roads that culminate in what sociologists might call our “social position.” We are always at an intersection

The intersections I occupy matter, because they shape my view of the world, my material interests, and the types of experiences I have to draw on. Much of the history of feminism and identity politics more generally can be summed up as the process of making the personal political, or to put it more accurately, “recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual” (Crenshaw, 1241-1242). Personal experiences have always been political, but it’s only when they’re framed as such that they provide an avenue for collective action. This may be why the first battle is usually over who and what can be called political, and why feminists are so often blamed for “bringing politics into it.” As Sara Ahmed points out, when something “becomes political” it becomes a problem, which means you, as the person who pointed it out, will be seen as the origin of the problem. You become the problem, because making you the problem is easier than dealing with the problem you exposed (Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life).

As videogames have become an increasingly bigger part of my life, I’ve learned to recognize and name many different problems. The problem of targeted violence against women, queer, trans and non-binary people, indigenous people and people of colour, disabled people, and other oppressed groups. The problem of being erased, marginalized, or misrepresented. The problem of being exploited and used by people with more power and money. These problems aren’t unique to games, but it was through games that I first learned how to think about them, speak about them, and act strategically in response to them. Although videogames are often imagined to exist in a separate realm disconnected from “serious” political matters, they can also be the route through which people find and develop their political voice. By examining some of the political conflicts that I’ve encountered at the intersection of games and academia, and drawing attention to their social and economic roots using critical theory and historical materialism, my hope is that this text can serve as a travel companion or feminist toolkit for fellow travellers who might be struggling to find their way.

I begin by providing a quick overview of the two “industries” I work within–videogames and academia–and the current economic crisis, to provide some context for the analysis that follows. In the second chapter, I discuss some of the realities and limitations of community-building under capitalism. The third chapter covers some of the theoretical roots of my work, focusing especially on historical materialism, and connecting this to the concept of praxis, while the fourth chapter is a critique of liberal ideology and meritocracy. The fifth and sixth chapters discuss the rationale behind safer spaces, the pushback against feminism and identity politics, and the rise of neo-fascism.

The arguments and strategies I put forward are a reflection of my experiences navigating the game industry and academia while engaging in anti-oppressive community organizing. As I’ll note in the next section, the type of work I’m doing has no neat beginning or end, but is part of an ongoing process which stretches back at least six years. This toolkit will consist of a selection of blog posts and organizational documents I’ve already written, most of which were created for a non-academic audience, along with some additional commentary to provide context and help fill in the gaps. While the blog posts have already been published online on my personal blog, I believe there is value in revisiting this work as part of my doctoral dissertation in order to make a statement about what can and cannot be considered “scholarly research,” and what our current standards and expectations say about the role that academia plays in our society.


Chapter 1: Two Industries and a Crisis

“This is a time of great upheavals, momentous changes, and uncertain outcomes; fraught with dangers, including the very real possibility of collapse as well as the growing threat of repressive social control systems that serve to contain the explosive contradictions of a global capitalism in crisis. Certainly the stakes bound up in the raging conflicts of our day are too high for the usual academic complacency. I believe that the most urgent task of any intellectual who considers him or herself organic or politically engaged is to address this crisis.” (Robinson, 1)

“I’m going to get right to it: any critique or reporting on games that doesn’t include an intersectional perspective on the presence of capitalism in games is incomplete. There’s little else more avoided than the topics of anti-capitalism and class politics in games press and conferences outside of the usual fetishized rags to riches fables. Having money to start with is already a large part of this, but how our societies are organized by valuing people and things by their monetary value above all else structures how we talk about games. It says who gets listened to, who gets noticed, and who is valued.” (Mattie Brice, “Our Flappy Dystopia”)

Recently both the university and the videogame industry have taken center-stage in what some have called a “culture war” between, on one side, leftists and liberals advocating for new social norms and policies to combat systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression, and on the other, those who claim that these measures go too far, are ineffective, or undermine “free speech.” While this war has taken place on a variety of fronts, there are two aspects in particular that have directly implicated me and my work. These include GamerGate, an ongoing harassment campaign which began in 2014 and has largely targeted outspoken feminists and marginalized[1] people working in or around the game industry, and the right-wing backlash against “political correctness,” safer spaces, and identity politics on university campuses. Uniting the two is the growth of the so-called Alt-Right, a loose coalition of far-right groups, websites, think tanks, and media personalities that operates mainly online, and has helped push fascist views and talking points into the mainstream.

Though typically referred to as a clash of values or ideas, the growing conflict between Left and Right is a symptom of a broader social and economic crisis. Capitalism is a deeply unstable and unsustainable system that is dependent on infinite growth, and while crises are a recurring feature, some are starting to wonder how much more capitalism can expand within the limits of our finite world. At the very least, we are heading towards a period of instability that the existing liberal establishment seems poorly equipped to deal with (Robinson; Smith).

In the wake of the crisis, governments in wealthy, white-majority countries are now deploying many of the same neoliberal austerity measures that were forced on countries in the Global South[2] by institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These measures include privatizing public assets, cutting social services, and eliminating environmental regulations, workers’ rights, and other barriers to “free trade,” a euphemism for the domination of giant multinational corporations and conglomerates. Meanwhile climate change and other ecological disasters are rapidly approaching a point of no return as capital relentlessly seeks out new sites of investment in the form of ever-more dangerous and destructive resource extraction schemes such as fracking or deepwater drilling. Unemployment and precarity are also on the rise, while consumer and student debt levels are reaching record highs. All of this is inflating the pockets of the super-rich at the expense of everyone else, a situation that was put into stark relief by a 2017 Oxfam report stating that the eight richest men now own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population (Hardoon; Wolff; Smith; Harvey).

While this level of inequality may be unprecedented, many of the underlying structures which produced this situation have been a part of capitalism from the very beginning. As Marxists have long argued, the current crisis isn’t the result of a “corrupted” capitalism, which, with a few tweaks, can be restored to its former glory, but the unavoidable product of a system based on private ownership of the means of production, the division and exploitation of the working class, and the endless accumulation of wealth (Wolff; Smith).

In their book Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Videogames, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter argue that “video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire— planetary, militarized hypercapitalism— and of some of the forces presently challenging it” (xv). Noting the massive scale of the global game industry, its close connections to the military industrial complex (particularly in the United States), and the capacity of games to serve as testing grounds for new technologies of social control and resistance, the authors provide an overview of the many ways that games and global capital are intertwined. To do so they draw on terms like “immaterial labour” and “cognitive capital,” both of which point to the increasing role that information and communication appear to play in the development of contemporary capitalism, from the rise of just-in-time production techniques that depend on advanced logistics and communication technologies, to the growing importance of intellectual property and financialization. While I take issue with the idea that information or thought is somehow “immaterial,” I also find these terms useful in that they allow me to make connections between the subject that I study (videogames) and the context in which I study them (academia).

From their birth, videogames and academia have been closely intertwined. The first videogames were created in research facilities at Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and other universities, using equipment paid for by the United States Department of Defense during the Cold War (Dyer-Witheford & De Peuter). This origin story is telling. For all that academia maintains an image as a bastion of progressive thought, the active role it has played as part of the military industrial complex in supporting imperialism and anti-communism should not be forgotten. By partnering with private interests, universities also play a role in funneling public money into private hands. As Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades note in Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education, when “taxpayers pay for the federal research that professors perform in universities, they effectively subsidize the corporations that partner with universities to develop technologies based on [that] research” (6). This tendency is only becoming more pronounced as universities are consumed by the same neoliberal logics that increasingly govern the rest of society. The result is a system that prioritizes “public-private partnerships” over work that lacks clear commercial implications, as demonstrated by the mass defunding of humanities programs. The romantic image of the university as an institution dedicated to the “public good” must be put in tension with the acknowledgement that academia has always functioned, at least in part, as a means of advancing private and state interests, and cannot be disconnected from the mechanisms of power that operate elsewhere.

The politics of an institution, or an industry, can be seen in which bodies are included or accepted as the norm, and which bodies are treated as trespassers (Ahmed, On Being Included). Over the course of six years I’ve seen many examples of marginalized people being pushed out of academic and game-related spaces because their politics, their outspokenness, or their very existence caused “problems” for people in positions of power. This was often carried out through repeated acts of violence, by which I mean both the subtle ways that people are informed that they don’t belong or that they are worth less, as well as more direct forms of exploitation and aggression. These acts include everything from off-hand sexist remarks to sexual assault, doxxing (publishing someone’s private information online), stalking, surveillance, online/offline harassment, death threats, withheld wages, forced overtime, and jobs that don’t pay enough to cover the costs of staying alive. When carried out by and against certain groups of people, they form a pattern that reproduces oppression and marginalization.

The way that certain types of work are valued or encouraged in academia, while others are devalued also plays a role in reinforcing existing hierarchies. I’ve spent most of my time as a graduate student doing things I wasn’t supposed to do, at least according to the norms of the institution, which insists on a standard set of research methods, writing styles, citations, and publication formats on the one hand, while at the same time preaching interdisciplinarity and boundary-breaking on the other. For all the talk about innovation, the publish or perish model adopted by neoliberal universities often works to limit how much time or freedom academics have to experiment. This system punishes people who decide to pursue “extracurricular activities” such as grassroots volunteer work, popular education, and community organizing, rather than spending those hours attending expensive conferences, applying for grants, or publishing in established, peer-reviewed journals. In other words, it encourages people to make the bulk of their work inaccessible to the general public, while doing everything they can to please their higher-ups.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the institution doesn’t also benefit from the efforts of “rogue” students and community partners, which it regularly coopts in order to help boost its public image and maintain the impression that it is indeed a force for positive social change. In fact, from what I’ve seen, the progressive image of the university is upheld, in large part, by the same types of unpaid labour that are being systematically discouraged and devalued (Vossen; Ahmed, On Being Included).

As is often the case, the people who suffer the worst abuses under this system tend to be those who are marginalized in one way or another. Women, people of colour and indigenous people, people from working class backgrounds, queer, trans, and non-binary people, disabled people, and all those who are systematically oppressed and othered have to deal with a variety of invisible obstacles that have the overall effect of ensuring that academic institutions continue to be dominated by straight, white, middle class, cisgender[3] able-bodied men (Ahmed, On Being Included; Stabile; Mirza).

This has been particularly evident in game studies, a still-emerging field which seems to be suffering from a bad case of collective imposter syndrome. In an effort to establish games as a “serious” site of study, game studies scholars have often ended out celebrating and re-entrenching some of the most the toxic elements of both videogame culture and academia. This includes centring and naturalizing the perspectives of middle class white cis men, while erasing or downplaying structural violence (Miller, “Gaming for Beginners”; Fron et al.; Shaw “On Not Becoming”; Vossen, “On the Inaccessibility”).

At the same time, the push for more feminist scholarship and spaces, both in games and in the university, has helped bring these dynamics to the surface, and created at least some room for feminist communities to form in the cracks of the institution and in the peripheral spaces surrounding the game industry. These communities are not without their own limitations however, either due to a lack of material support, or because even the most radical spaces are not immune to the effects of systemic oppression. In the next section I’ll briefly outline my own experiences with community groups, as well as questioning what community means in the era of neoliberal capitalism.


Chapter 2: Community Under Capitalism

“The power of these primordial communities had to be broken, and it was broken. But it was broken by influences which from the outset appear to us as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral grandeur of the ancient gentile society. The lowest interests — base greed, brutal sensuality, sordid avarice, selfish plunder of common possessions — usher in the new, civilised society, class society; the most outrageous means — theft, rape, deceit and  treachery — undermine and topple the old, classless, gentile society. And the new society, during all the 2500 years of its existence, has never been anything but the development of the small minority at the expense of the exploited and oppressed great majority; and it is so today more than ever before.” (Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, 99)

“How else can we appeal for or to others if we do not do so in the name of community? To ask such questions at this present moment is to make clear that the word ‘community’ does not itself secure a common ground, for such questions suggest, by their very nature as questions, that community itself is ‘in question’, as a question mark, as well as a mark of questioning. It is uncertain what the word ‘community’ does, or what it might do, in the different contexts in which it is named.  For some, community might be a word that embodies the promise of a universal togetherness that resists either liberal individualism or defensive nationalism – as a ‘we’ that remains open to others who are not of my kind or ‘who have nothing in common’ with me. For others, community might remain premised on ideas of commonality – either expressed in the language of kinship and blood relations or in a shared allegiance to systems of belief. Or community might be the promise of living together without ‘being as one’, as a community in which ‘otherness’ or ‘difference’ can be a bond rather than a division. And, for others still,  community might represent a failed promise insofar as the appeal to community assumes a way of relating to others that violates rather than supports the ethical principle of alterity; that is others matter only if they are either ‘with me’ or ‘like me’. Community enters into the debate about how to live with others and seems to be crucial as a name for what we already do (or do not do); what we must do (or not do); or what we must retain (or give up).” (Sarah Ahmed & Anne-Marie Fortier, “Re-imagining communities,” 251-252).

I use the word community, not because I think it’s an accurate description of what currently exists, but as a hopeful gesture towards a potential future. Saying community is a way of making community, of calling it into existence. If community is a set of social relations marked by interdependence, collective responsibility, and mutual aid, something which is created through organization and everyday acts of solidarity, then capitalism works to destroy community, and remake it in its own image, because it’s only as isolated individuals deprived of all other means of subsistence that we can be pushed to sell our labour on the market for a wage. As long as we’re part of a community that can support itself through the use a shared commons, there’s no need to subject ourselves to the demands of the market. Unsustainable, fractured, and exploitative communities become the norm because this is what capitalism requires (Federici, Revolution at Point Zero).

Communities can look very different depending on where you stand within them. My position within the local games community in Montreal has been shaped in large part through my participation in two organizations: first as as student at the Technoculture, Art, and Games Research Centre (TAG) at Concordia University, and later as a volunteer for the Mount Royal Game Society (MRGS). It’s because of my involvement with these two organizations and the communities that surround them that I found my way to feminism, and through that, to anti-capitalism. To explain how, and why, I’ll first have to explain something about the organizations that helped to bring me here.

As the name suggests, TAG’s mission is to produce research about games, technoculture, and art. What​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​research​ ​mostly​ ​goes​ ​unsaid, to the benefit of the university which values the centre primarily for its ability to attract new students and bolster the reputation of its host institution. The vagueness of the centre’s mission signals the absence of a specific political stance or set of values, allowing it to appeal to the broadest possible market, even as it masks the divisions that grow within it. Like the rest of the university, the centre is run in a hierarchical fashion with professors near the top acting as middle managers, and students and staff at the bottom providing the majority of the labour. While TAG has afforded an entry point and gathering place for me and many others who came to the university with an interest in studying or making games, it has also been a site of conflict and struggle, particularly over issues of accountability, gendered violence, and the exploitation of students and staff.

While TAG is firmly rooted in the values and structures of the university, it also maintains connections to organizations outside academia. It was through TAG that I first got involved with the Mount Royal Game Society (MRGS). MRGS started as an informal meetup for game-makers organized by a handful of friends, but has since developed into a small, volunteer-run non-profit with a mission to promote the interests of marginalized people in games, support non-commercial game development, and generally provide a counterpoint to mainstream gaming culture and the game industry.

MRGS’ role in the local game ecosystem is defined by a number of contradictions. Through organizing events, it has helped further the growth of the industry by creating spaces where developers can network, learn new skills, showcase their games, and find jobs. Many local game companies as well as a number of commercially successful indie game projects were launched by people who met through MRGS events. At the same time, organizers have worked hard to prevent the organization from being co-opted by those who would prefer that MRGS align itself more directly with business interests. For example, rather than focus on mainstream, commercial titles, MRGS organizers have made repeated efforts to showcase the work of underrepresented and hobbyist game-makers, while also laying down rules to prevent its social gatherings or online spaces from being primarily used as marketing or recruitment platforms. The organization has also played a significant role in promoting the use of safer space policies that prioritize the needs and experiences of marginalized people–a position that has put it at odds with the dominant culture in games, and led to a number of conflicts both within and outside the organization.

Although most of MRGS’ organizers are marginalized in some way, and its politics are implicitly if not always explicitly feminist, the organization’s association with “indie games” has often made it difficult to attract an audience outside the dominant demographic of straight white middle class cis men. While indie games have often been represented as an alternative to the mainstream industry, which is ruled by multinational, “AAA” companies like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts (EA), the bulk of the indie scene has never managed to make the leap from a vague desire for creative freedom, to an anti-capitalist political strategy that would extend this dream beyond the limited pool of people who are either independently wealthy, or can scrape up the venture capitalist funding required to quit their day jobs. Indie games emerged as a response to the crushing realities of factory-style game production, but just like other independent movements before it, it wasn’t long before the focus shifted from economics to aesthetics, and indie games were smoothly incorporated back into the capitalist machine as just another genre of commercially-produced games (Lipkin; Ruffino).

Far from being a solution, indie games are part of the problem. The fantasy of “going indie” provides an outlet for workers who are fed up with long hours and a lack of creative control, offering an alternative to unionization or other forms of collective struggle that would put them in direct conflict with their bosses (Legault and Weststar). Instead of organizing with other employees to fight for better conditions, the more privileged and experienced developers leave to create their own startups, beginning the cycle of exploitation all over again. While startups may initially allow for more creative autonomy for workers, this often seems to come at the cost of longer hours, lower wages, no benefits, and less job security–conditions which tend to exclude people who lack the privileges necessary to take these kinds of risks (Boucher-Vidal; Thompson et al.). Many of those who can dedicate long hours to their work are only able to do so because of the unpaid domestic labour of family members or partners, who are often women. Indie game studios remain very white, very male, and very middle class in part because other groups are systematically excluded, in the same way that they are excluded from the rest of the industry. Market pressures also limit how much indie developers can experiment, since at the end of the day they must still be able to sell their games to a consumer base that is accustomed to certain conventions, genres, and norms. Whatever the internal culture of the company, startups must still compete with larger game companies on the market, meaning that those that fail to reproduce the exploitative conditions, economies of scale, and top-down management styles designed to maximize profits are at a disadvantage. Even when small studios manage to succeed, despite the odds, the ownership structure of a startup means that the benefits will tend to flow to the founders/owners, not the employees.

One of the reasons MRGS supports non-commercial game development as part of its broader focus on diversity is because the dynamics of commercial game studios, whether indie or AAA, tend to result in the same kinds of games being made by the same kinds of people. This link between the content of games, who makes them, and the conditions of their production is crucial. However recognizing this link is one thing–actively bringing about change and building solidarity in an industry where workers and studios are desperately competing for jobs and sales is another. “Capitalism, games, and diversity work,” is the transcript of a short talk I presented at a social event organized by a volunteer-run, women-in-games non-profit called Pixelles. Inspired by the work of Mattie Brice, a black trans game developer, organizer, and critic, the piece speaks to the constraints that capitalism imposes on our efforts to call out or address injustices by creating a situation where our livelihoods depend on “not burning bridges” with gatekeepers who determine whether or not we have access to necessary resources. As marginalized people fighting for inclusion, we’re encouraged to dehumanize ourselves in order to appeal to bosses and investors. When we sell diversity using terms like “untapped markets,” “increased productivity,” and “good PR,” we become just another asset companies can add to their portfolios, supporting the assumption that diversity only matters as long as it helps companies make more money.

This corporate approach to diversity also emphasizes putting women or other marginalized people in positions of power, without challenging the exploitation of poor women and people of colour both here and in the Global South, where working conditions are often significantly worse and wages are generally lower. Large parts of the game industry and the people who power it are routinely ignored, from factory workers in Foxconn’s manufacturing plants, to miners in the Congo, to cleaning staff and “booth babes.” By failing to acknowledge the crucial role that these workers play in creating the devices and performing the labour that allow game development jobs to exist in the first place, the possibility of a truly liberating politics, one which spans across global divides, is foreclosed, and the feminist movement as a whole is weakened (Huntemann and Aslinger; Did).

If anti-oppressive projects are going to be successful, they not only need to include and support workers around the world, but also those who perform the unpaid labour that is absolutely essential to our collective survival, such as unemployed or retired workers, housewives, students, and prisoners. As Angela Davis, Sylvia Federici, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, and many others have pointed out, unpaid labour is typically devalued or ignored because it does not directly produce profits for capitalists (although it does do so indirectly). It’s no accident that much of this unpaid labour–including housework, child-rearing, emotional support, and other forms of caretaking–has traditionally been performed by women. The sexist culture that persists to this day is more than just a reflection of bad attitudes or a hangover from a “less civilized” pre-capitalist era, it is the result of a gendered division of labour that benefits men at the expense of women, and breaks up the working class into tiers so that they can be more easily exploited by capital. In a similar way, racialized divisions of labour, which are connected to the history of slavery, colonialism, and Western imperialism, and reinforced by laws and institutions, lie at the root of racist attitudes. These biases are perpetuated in large part because workers at the top of the hierarchy benefit from having access to better, higher paid jobs, while the worst, most degrading forms of labour are reserved for racialized people (Davis; Federici, Caliban and the Witch; Costa & James).

Capitalism requires these divisions and exclusions in order to function. This is why “diversity work,” when carried to its logical conclusion, forces us to confront the capitalist system and build solidarity with all members of the working class. Class oppression is not separate from oppression based on race, gender, ability, sexuality, and so on, but something which is created and maintained through these other forms of oppression. Recognizing how these forms of oppression work is crucial to understanding the system as a whole, something which is impossible if we try to either ignore class (as some liberal feminists do), or reduce everything to one type of social relation (as happens when Marxists fall into the trap of class reductionism) (Banerji).

“Demystifying Activism: A 101 Guide to Getting Involved,” is a blog post I wrote shortly after the election of Donald Trump which offers advice on starting or joining political organizations. It sums up my views on community building and anti-oppressive activism by outlining some of the key lessons I’ve learned in the last few years of political engagement. While I have a lot of hope in the utopian possibilities of community, I also feel it’s important to point out the many ways that people are divided, bonds are broken, and collective responsibility is disavowed even in spaces that present themselves as alternatives to the status quo. While the organizations I’ve worked with may help create a sense of togetherness for some of the people working in and around games, they can also play a role in reinforcing the divisions produced by structural oppression. In order to recognize the difference, we need to move beyond the individualistic definitions of classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism favoured by liberals, and push for a materialist analysis that addresses the structural roots of these different forms of oppression.


Chapter 3: Praxis and Historical Materialism

“Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation? They will not gain this liberation by chance but through the praxis of their quest for it, through their recognition of the necessity to fight for it. And this fight, because of the purpose given it by the oppressed, will actually constitute an act of love opposing the lovelessness which lies at the heart of the oppressors violence, lovelessness even when clothed in false generosity.” (Freire, ch. 1)

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Marx, “Preface”)

To paraphrase Sara Ahmed, we learn about worlds through our efforts to transform them (“Women of Colour”). Anything I have to say about videogames or academia comes in large part from my experiences organizing with others to try to change the world around me. It’s because of this that I prefer to refer to my work (which is really our work) as praxis rather than theory. The concept of praxis cuts against attempts to divide theory from practice, thought from action, or to establish a hierarchy where one takes precedence over the other (Freire; Gramsci). Praxis is always both, simultaneously, working together as one.

For Marxists like Georg Lukacs and Paolo Freire, praxis is connected to a particular set of social contradictions or tensions–namely the opposing interests of the oppressors and the oppressed. This distinction between those who dominate and exploit, and those who are dominated and exploited by others, is a key aspect of both Marxism and feminism–the two traditions I draw on most heavily–as well as other branches of critical theory. It’s important to note, however, that these categories describe a relationship, rather than two distinct groups of people. Most of us are both oppressors and oppressed, and the specific way that these categories align with or give rise to different identities also shifts over time. For example, while patriarchy existed under feudalism as well as capitalism, the ways that women are oppressed by men, and the very concepts of womanhood and manhood, have changed as a result of the praxis, or struggle against oppression, of a wide range of people working together to bring about social change, as well as the reactions of those in power.

According to the materialist view of history developed by Karl Marx, all ideas are the product of specific social relations and material conditions. Marx’s methodology, which we now refer to as historical materialism, is opposed to idealism, which assumes the separation of ideas from matter and prioritizes the former over the latter. Instead, Marx insists that “we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process” (The German Ideology, sec. 4).

Historical materialism starts from the understanding that human beings must be able to live and reproduce themselves in order to make history. This means taking care of basic needs like food, water, clothing, and shelter. If we examine how people meet these needs, then we have a basis for understanding the political organization and ideology of any given society.

Human labour is necessary in order to fulfill our needs and transform raw materials into useable goods. In order to make our labour more efficient, humans have a tendency to cooperate and divide up tasks between different people. Through this division of labour, people enter into different relations with one another and with the materials, instruments, and products of labour. As technology develops and the division of labour becomes more complex, the society may reach a point where its members can collectively produce more than they need to survive. This allows some people to stop performing labour altogether, and instead rely on the labour of others by appropriating the surplus (i.e. everything that is left over after the labourers’ own basic needs are met). This situation is only possible however if one group or class gains control over the means of production, meaning the instruments and raw materials needed to make goods, and is able to restrict access in such a way that the labouring class is forced to work for them and give up a portion of the surplus they produce in order to survive. Once formed, these two classes, the owning (or ruling) class and the labouring class, have fundamentally different relationships to the means of production, which results in opposing interests. It’s in the best interests of the ruling class to maintain control over the means of production and maximize the amount of surplus they appropriate because it allows them to live a life of leisure and plenty, while it’s in the best interests of the labouring class to resist exploitation and seize back the means of production in order to improve conditions for themselves (Marx, Preface in A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy; Marx, Gundrisse).

It is these sorts of internal contradictions that animate history, according to the historical materialist point of view. This is an ongoing process, and therefore it’s important we understand our own work as being part of this process. This means being prepared to revise our ideas and strategies on the basis of new evidence, while also keeping in mind that social contradictions are likely to express themselves through our work. Instead of positioning ourselves as outside, disinterested observers, we need to remain conscious of our role as participants in the social whole.

Historical materialism is a method that encourages us to avoid looking at things in isolation, and instead consider how they relate to one another and how these relationships change over time. In this sense it holds the same basic tenets as systems thinking (Arnold and Wade). However many branches of systems thinking lack a direct connection to history, praxis, and theories of class struggle. While historical materialism is framed as a tool for liberation, systems thinking is frequently detached from explicit political aims. This has been addressed to some extent by critical systems thinking, which is committed to “critical awareness, social awareness, [and] human emancipation,” among other things (Flood, 279). However what exactly is meant by “human emancipation” isn’t entirely clear, particularly when supporters of critical systems thinking fail to name capitalism as the dominant mode of production. “Critical,” in these contexts, simply refers to the capacity to solve problems, and is not about challenging systems of domination in any concrete or defined way.

Action research is another recent approach that adopts a “relational stance,” but is often co-opted and used in ways that betray its more radical roots (McNiff; McTaggart). Although action research embraces the unity of theory and practice, the professional contexts in which action research is often carried out may influence how far practitioners are willing to go in working towards social transformation, and what kinds of transformation they work towards. This perceived shortcoming has led to the development of participatory action research, which is more explicitly anti-oppressive. However, as with systems theory, the core of action research–which involves a cyclical process of planning, acting, observing what happens, and analyzing or reflecting on those observations–can be detached from political goals and turned towards purposes that may benefit people in positions of power (McTaggart).

The fact that academics feel the need to rely on terms like action research and systems thinking to describe their work may be a reflection of the way that Marxism and historical materialism have been marginalized or sidelined in Western academia in the wake of the Cold War and the second Red Scare (Palmer). While this trend may be reversing somewhat with the emergence of “new materialisms,” which involve a renewed focus on the body and its role in politics, as well as broader economic and environmental concerns, Marxism remains something of a dirty word in many academic circles (Coole and Frost). But as Bryan Palmer points out, the “end of Marxism” should be treated with the same suspicion as the so-called “end of history,” i.e. the belief that Western liberal democracy was the ultimate endpoint of history and the “final form of human government” (Fukuyama). As we enter a period of capitalist crisis, Marxist political economy and historical materialism seem, for many of us, more relevant than ever. If radical critique is about getting “to the root of things,” then perhaps critical theory also needs to return to its historical materialist roots.


Chapter 4: Liberalism and Meritocracy

“None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.” (Marx, Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 164)

“Experience teaches us no less clearly than reason, that men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined; and, further, it is plain that the dictates of the mind are but another name for the appetites, and therefore vary according to the varying state of the body” (Spinoza, Ethics, Part III, 4).

If Marxist feminism works to reveal and explain the social divisions that exist under capitalism, then the role of liberal ideology is to mask them. The history of liberalism can be traced back to the European Enlightenment, and the revolutions that marked the downfall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism as the dominant mode of production. While there are many different strands of liberal thought, in general liberalism privileges abstract individual rights over material access, including the right to free speech, the right to freedom of assembly, and above all, the right to private property. The capitalist institution of private property creates a separation between those who own the means of production, and those who own nothing and are required to work for a living. This leads to an unequal division of power in society that remains unacknowledged in the liberal framework, which attempts to bracket off economic matters, separating them from political rights or freedoms. Human beings are imagined as individuals, which, in their natural state, exist apart from society. As Marx suggests in the quote above, society is seen as something which is imposed from the outside, rather than something that is essential to our survival and an integral part of who we are as individuals (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3; Manent; Hallowell).

I address this point of contention in the blog post “Merit is a Myth,” which deconstructs the concept of merit and argues that there is no way to separate our “merit” from the social structures that shape us. As Stephanie Fisher and Alison Harvey point out, popular understandings of what it means to succeed in the game industry (and in academia) are often premised on the myth of meritocracy, which covers up or denies the effects of systemic oppression by presenting success or failure in terms of individual strengths and weaknesses. The unstated assumption is that anyone can make games, and the only thing that separates the “winners” from the “losers” is dedication, work ethic, skill, or other supposedly inherent traits. As a result, oppressed people end out being blamed for the additional challenges that they face, and are further excluded and marginalized, while those who come to games with the necessary privileges are hailed as “geniuses” and entrepreneurs.

Also included in this chapter is a short post entitled “Against Grading,” which focuses on the role that educational institutions play in reinforcing the myth of meritocracy. This piece is based on Louis Althusser’s observation that ideology isn’t simply spread through words or images–rather it’s a system of meaning that is reproduced on a daily basis through our encounters with institutions. By assigning grades to our students, and then determining privileges and opportunities based on those grades, teachers, school administrators, and bosses play a role in shifting responsibility away from systemic oppression and onto students. By subjecting them to our evaluation, we also hail them as subjects, recognizing them as “free” individuals so that they in turn learn to recognize themselves this way. Our students come to obey us, and figures of authority more generally, in part because we treat them as free subjects, encouraging them to view their actions, and the outcome of those actions, as originating from their own “free will,” and not from any external coercive force.

This process also extends to employment. In Willing Slaves of Capital, Frederic Lordon explores the question of how and why workers find happiness or joy in a relationship which is, at its core, fundamentally coercive. Although workers must essentially sell themselves to their employers in order to survive, many seem happy to spend their time doing work for someone else’s benefit. The spectacle of the happy workforce is especially evident in the creative industries, as well as other sectors where people are expected to be deeply invested in the work they do. The game industry, for example, thrives on the “passion” of its employees, who regularly sacrifice their own health and wellbeing for the sake of their work. The predominance of crunch time, where developers work exceptionally long hours for an extended period of time, usually in an attempt to meet a deadline set by the studio or publisher, is often explained away as something employees engage in “willingly” (Williams; Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter). No one is forcing them to do it, or so the story goes, so how can it be a problem? This is how the discourse of individual agency is used to justify exploitation, and erase the role that power structures play in shaping people’s desires.

Even if we recognize the systemic factors behind crunch and other labour issues, it can be difficult to imagine an alternative. Many of us have been taught that capitalism is the best possible system, and that change (insofar as change is even necessary) must be brought about by gradual reforms implemented in a top-down fashion. This view is summed up by Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan, “there is no alternative” (Fisher). However a growing number of people refuse to accept that we are indeed living in the best of all possible worlds, pointing to massive inequalities and daily experiences of abuse and violence in order to demonstrate that the “perfect system” promoted by political, media, academic, and business elites continues to produce a great deal of suffering for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Some have attempted to construct their own alternatives to the status quo within existing structures and institutions, in order to provide a space where marginalized people can socialize, organize, create, or simply exist without the ever-present fear of violence. Building on what I’ve discussed here, the following chapter explores the processes, policies, and conflicts involved in creating safe(r) spaces in games and academia, using my own experiences as a starting point and touchstone.


Chapter 5: Creating Safer Spaces

The Mount Royal Game Society was one of, if not the first game-related organizations to adopt a safer space policy in Montreal. The policy, which was initially based on a text posted on the Geek Feminism Wiki, has been modified over the years and includes a set of guidelines or general principles that event participants and organizers are expected to abide by in order to make the space safe(r) for marginalized people. Following MRGS’ example, a number of other organizations and collectives in Montreal, Toronto, and New York have adopted similar policies for their own events and spaces. As one of the main organizers for MRGS, I gained a great deal of first hand experience dealing with the issues and conflicts that came up in regards to the policy. While reports of abuse have been relatively rare, these incidents and the resulting fallout have substantially changed my outlook on the games industry, academia, and feminist community building.

The lessons we learned through those experiences were eventually recorded in the Mount Royal Game Society’s Guide to Running Safer Spaces, a document I produced in collaboration with two other organizers. The document includes an explanation of what safer spaces means to us, basic principles we follow, considerations for who should be in charge of handling reports, suggestions for intervening, and rebuttals to common arguments against the use of safer space policies. While our approach to safer spaces is likely different from that of many other organizations and community groups, we have found that the policy has had a polarizing effect, leading to conflicts between those who support the idea of prioritizing the needs and decisions of marginalized people, and those who would prefer we stick to a more conventional model based on existing institutional policies or the criminal justice system, where all parties are treated as if no inequalities exist. Our primary argument against the later approach is that the game industry (like society as a whole) is not an even playing field, and ignoring power imbalances will only result in more marginalized people being pushed out of games, since they are already at a disadvantage. If MRGS is committed to challenging the established norms of the industry, then its policies should reflect that by altering the balance of power–to the extent, that is, that such a thing is even possible within the existing system–and allowing marginalized people who experience violence or abuse to decide for themselves how they would like us to handle the situation.

Safer spaces are based on the recognition that most spaces are not safe for people who are oppressed or marginalized. Often, however, the ways that they are made unsafe are largely invisible to others. The blog post “A Partial Guide to Treating Women with Respect and Avoiding Subtle Sexism,” which is based on both first and second-hand experiences with sexism in games and academia, speaks to the way that oppression, particularly in more privileged, liberal-minded circles, often takes the form of a “million tiny papercuts” that build up over time, rather than the more dramatic and overt forms of violence we associate with words like oppression. These include things like unwanted romantic advances, or ways of speaking that automatically assume women know less than men. The consequences of these acts range from mildly annoying to potentially life-threatening, but even if the individual acts themselves, taken alone and deprived of context, appear relatively harmless, the collective impact can be devastating, particularly when combined with other forms of oppression.

Speaking up about these experiences can mean inviting more targeted violence into your life. The pushback against safer spaces and other feminist and anti-oppressive practices has often been highly gendered in nature, so that the very act of sensing violence, of being sensitive to it, is turned against you, and presented as a personal flaw. Feminists of all genders are charged with being oversensitive, attention-seeking, spiteful, irrational, weak, manipulative, and vain–insults that have long been used to denigrate women–and these qualities are assumed to justify more violence, threats, even murder. As I’ll discuss in the next chapter, liberal institutions are often complicit in this reactionary violence, a trend which was evident during GamerGate and is even more obvious now as the conflict between neo-fascists and anti-fascists continues to escalate.


Chapter 6: GamerGate and Neo-Fascism

As videogames have moved from a niche hobby to a global, multi-billion dollar industry, the scope of games, the types of topics they address, and the number of people working on and playing games has expanded. Gaming companies can no longer afford to cater only to a select audience of white, cis male, middle-class, able-bodied gamers, and those who do are more likely to face criticism from the public. These changes have opened the doors, to some degree, for those who have struggled to find a space within games, but they have also sparked anger and resentment. While GamerGate began as a harassment campaign targeting a specific female developer, the campaign was quickly recast as an issue of ethics in gaming journalism, attracting a much broader audience, including many who had a bone to pick with so-called “social justice warriors” (a pejorative label used to describe people advocating for socially progressive views, including feminism, identity politics, multiculturalism, etc.). While targeted harassment directed at marginalized people in games is hardly unusual, the scale of the backlash generated by GamerGate seemed to be unprecedented, and continues to this day.

Under the guise of protecting free speech, GamerGaters have accused feminists of censorship, harassed those who speak out, and attacked media outlets that publish feminist critiques. As I discuss in “GamerGate and the Right,” the core of GamerGate’s activities, the people it’s targeted, and the impact it’s had on the world of gaming and beyond, suggest that it can be characterized as a right-wing, reactionary campaign. It has also played a role in the rise of what is now called the Alt-Right, providing a testing ground for many of the strategies and tactics that have since become hallmarks of the neo-fascist movement. While fascism is often associated with specific figures, symbols, and tactics, the surface level details of fascism are much less important than the historical role it has played in suppressing the Left and disrupting any attempt to establish an alternative to capitalism. Fascism is a movement that emerges during a period of crisis and has its mass base in the middle class–a relatively privileged sector of society that benefits to some degree from imperialism, white supremacy, or other oppressive social structures. This base uses violent, organized force as a way of protecting their privileged status by turning against those who are lower in the social hierarchy than they are (Robinson; Parenti; Trotsky).

Neo-fascists have used GamerGate and the Alt-Right as a means to push their views into the mainstream, linking fascist conspiracies such as cultural Marxism–the idea that academic and cultural institutions have been infiltrated by (Jewish) Marxists who are trying to undermine and destroy Western society–to more popular terms like political correctness (see for example Lind). Liberals have often participated in this process by helping to popularize the idea that safer spaces, trigger warnings, “callout culture,” and political correctness are indeed a threat to “free speech,” while protecting fascists and conservatives who try to normalize oppressive language and far-right talking points. As I point out in “The Limits of Free Speech,” this simplistic and one-sided view of free speech has become a dangerous tool in the hands of a growing neo-fascist movement.

It’s important to note, however, that the liberal support for fascism is driven not by ignorance, but by material interests. The imperialist wars in the Middle East, the industrial practices that created climate change, and the implementation of austerity policies, all of which have been carried out by liberal capitalist institutions, states, and corporations, are some of the major factors that have contributed to the growth of fascism. Similarly the repression of grassroots, leftist movements such as Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, “fourth-wave feminism,” and the anti-austerity movement has meant that many people who are fed up with the status quo and seeking change are left with no alternative to fascism. As I write in “Fighting Fascism,” while it is important to confront fascists and prevent them from gaining power, people who would oppose fascism also need to address the conditions that produce fascist movements in the first place, including patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism, and provide a viable alternative. A feminist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist movement that is well organized and able to make real, material gains for its members will be far more effective in preventing fascism from growing than a political strategy that is limited only to “education” or awareness-raising. Social change only happens when enough people act collectively to apply pressure in the same direction. Building the networks and organizations capable of making that collective action both possible and sustainable on a global level is a major challenge, and we’ll need every tool at our disposal if we’re going to succeed.


Chapter 7: Unlocked Doors and New Beginnings

“Feminism, in giving you somewhere to go, allows you to revisit where you have been. We can become even more conscious of the world in this process of becoming conscious of injustices because we had been taught to overlook so much. A world can flood once we have let it in, once we have unlocked the door of our resistance.” (Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 31).

There is something deeply colonial about the way knowledge is typically produced in academia. It’s all about charting new territory and staking your claim, as if knowledge was something an individual could own, rather than a shared cultural legacy. When we let go of the pressure to create something new, we may find ourselves covering old ideas in new ways, or in new places, acting as a kind of intermediary or doorstop for people who may have been locked out, for one reason or another, from the passages we inhabit. We may even find that there is something particular about our experience after all, a door only we can open, because we’ve been through that door many times before, or because others have opened doors for us.

In Living A Feminist Life Sara Ahmed describes her method as “putting a sponge to the past” (22) and seeing what gets soaked up. This is more or less what I’ve tried to do, using my own life experiences and the things I’ve written in the past as a springboard for a broader theoretical reflection on capitalism, liberalism, fascism, and many things in between. While I have been highly critical of liberalism, I hope it’s clear from the trajectory I’ve followed that liberal feminism can and often does act as an entry point for a more radical politics. Although it’s important to highlight the limitations of liberalism, it’s only by coming up against these limits, through direct experience, that I learned how to move past them. Marxists who sneer at identity politics, intersectionality, feminism, and so on are only cementing their own irrelevance, as are liberals who continue to bracket off economics from the rest of social existence. The push for more diversity in the game industry must go hand-in-hand with calls for unionization and international solidarity, or neither one will be successful. A holistic, intersectional approach that can re-unite cultural critique with collective action, and which leverages workers’ economic power in the fight against patriarchy and white supremacy, will be crucial moving forward in these dangerous times.


[1] Marginalization refers to the process of pushing people towards the edges of a society or group and away from centres of power. Marginalized groups often have limited access to resources, and little or no political representation or power. The terms marginalized and oppressed are sometimes used interchangeably, although they have slightly different connotations. Marginalization can also be understood as one facet of oppression, which also involves exploitation and control extending over a long period of time.

[2] The term Global South is typically used to refer to poorer countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America which are exploited by countries in the Global North, including wealthy areas of Europe and North America. Global South is often used as a replacement for older terms like “Third World” or “developing countries,” but can also be used to refer to north-south divisions within wealthier countries.

[3] A cisgender or cis person is someone whose gender identity and presentation corresponds with the sex assigned to them at birth. In other words, they perform the gender identity and role that society considers “appropriate” for someone of their sex.


List of Blog Posts and Documents


Chapter 2

“Capitalism, Games, and Diversity Work.” Jan. 24, 2016.

“Demystifying Activism: A 101 Guide to Getting Involved.” Nov. 14, 2016.


Chapter 4

“Merit is a Myth.” Jun. 28, 2016.

“Against Grading.” March 6, 2017.


Chapter 5

“The Mount Royal Game Society’s Guide to Running Safer Spaces.” Dec. 20, 2016.

“A Partial Guide to Treating Women with Respect and Avoiding Subtle Sexism.” Sep. 14, 2015.


Chapter 6

“GamerGate and the Right.” Oct. 21, 2014.

“The Limits of Free Speech.” Jun. 23, 2017.

“Fighting Fascism.” Feb. 5, 2017.




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