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Lessons from the League

Mike Watson celebrates the social potential of gaming communities. 

There seems to be no end to the daily derision aimed at the millennial generation, and particularly the way they consume media. Glued to their smartphones, PCs and gaming systems, they appear as passive and ethically void entities. At best they are viewed as helplessly beholden to a new virulent strain of media manipulation, at worst they are held responsible for the re-emergence of far-right bigotries—concerning race and gender—that we thought we had moved beyond. Yet perhaps we are too quick to apply outdated media analyses to phenomena that are wildly removed from the media context that they were conceived within.

In the 20th century, immediate cultural interactivity amounted to literally talking back at the television. By the second decade of the 21st century, talking back at the TV has become making the TV, whether that be via gaming, meme production, the posting of homemade videos or the constant publication of combinations of text, video and still images that become incorporated within a vast sensory realm that is constantly updated by its creative audience. Homer Simpson—agitated but essentially apathetic receptacle—is no longer an accurate archetypal model of the beleaguered media consumer. Instead, Lisa Simpson’s saxophone improvisations provide a more fitting account of the new media audience-producer who endures but responds freely to an alienating cultural sphere by producing her own cultural products.

Overwatch’s Zarya, introduced by the company in response to gamers demanding more diversity in representation.

Today, among the forms of internet media most exemplary of the level of free choice we can enjoy are MOBAs, or Massive Online Battle Arena games, such as DOTA (Defence of the Ancients) I and II, League of Legends and Vainglory. These free-to-play games (the first two played on PC or Mac, the latter on mobile devices) feature two teams of three to five players battling to destroy an enemy base accessed via three principal lanes, whilst the enemy seeks to do the same. Games can be played against computer-controlled enemies (‘bots’) or real players drawn from across a pool from within your region, whilst one’s own team members will always be drawn from a player pool or chosen from existing ‘friends’, lending the games a social media aspect. A succession of towers must be destroyed along the way to the enemy base, while computer controlled enemy soldiers (‘minions’) and neutral monsters can be killed for extra gold, which can also be obtained by killing enemy players. That gold can then be spent on weapons, armor, spells and healing potions. The format, which was first seen in a custom version of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos in 2003 (which was the first Defence of the Ancients), has become hugely popular, with League of Legends (released by Riot Games in 2009) boasting over 100 million individual players a month, and rapidly rising.

Parallel to this, online streaming services such as Twitch and YouTube’s dedicated gaming channel attract millions of viewers who watch live streams of individual gamers playing MOBA games whilst commenting in a live chat. With a vast network of players interacting globally, choosing from a range of avatars and strategizing gameplay along with fellow gamers from across the continent or world enables the fostering of a type of community, if not the one envisaged by the political left. It must be recalled that, in any case, both Marx and Adorno envisaged capitalism as providing the impetus and the framework but not the actual means for emancipation. Could new media provide a framework for the development of a communal consciousness?

Perhaps the most obvious objection to such a notion is the issue of bigotry as it relates to gaming and online culture more generally. Studies on the way in which new media reproduces real-world prejudices are commonplace. In 2012, Lisa Nakamura wrote in Queer female of color: The highest difficulty setting there is? Gaming rhetoric as gender capital that:

It is abundantly apparent that the more gaming capital becomes identified with white masculinity, the more bitter the battle over its distribution, possession, and circulation will become. As gaming culture becomes more heavily capitalized both economically and symbolically, it becomes both more important for women to gain positions of power as critics, makers, and players, and more likely that it will be denied.

As much as sexism (for example) is not the fault of games or memes, there is a very real sense in which the portrayal of women in gaming reinforces gender stereotypes, often being clearly sexualised for the pleasure of the male player. The success of the attempts to introduce more varied female roles has been questionable. Blizzard, the makers of the first person team shoot-em-up Overwatch (released in 2016) released this statement upon the introduction of the character Zarya—a Siberian weightlifter— to the platform, as a response to fan feedback:

We’ve been hearing a lot of discussion among players about the need for diversity in video games. That means a lot of things. They want to see gender diversity, they want to see racial diversity, they want to see diversity along the lines of what country people are from. There is also talk about diversity in different body types in that not everybody wants to have the exact same body type always represented. And we just want you to know that we’re listening and we’re trying hard and we hope Zarya is a step in the right direction.

Whilst these efforts are laudable, players have a tendency to sexualise female characters beyond their role in game representation through fan art. Overwatch ‘slash’—the name given by gaming fans to player created graphics—ranges from crude drawings to more advanced computer-generated graphics and even animations, and features a strong element of pornography. The Reddit thread ‘Overwatch Porn’ showcases a range of gifs, animations, comic strips and still images of female Overwatch characters in solo, lesbian and straight sex scenes. So the Chinese climatologist, Dr. Mei-Ling Zhou, a character who wears glasses and has generally studious appearance can be seen spread-legged, partially undressed as her thick winter clothes—worn to withstand the cold of her arctic outpost—are cast aside. What this goes to show is that society will port into gaming all manner of bigotry even in spite of developers’ and many gamers’ wishes to the contrary. Though should this overshadow the ability for Overwatch, like League of Legends, to bring players together from across the world and to allow for unprecedented levels of user choice?

It is true that gaming tends towards a sexualised view of women even when they play traditionally masculine roles (as huntsmen, soldiers, champion gamers or scientific researchers), though what such studies often fail to note is that these bigotries are precisely problems ported into gaming from other societal realms, and predate new media by millennia: as such the existence of bigotry online cannot be a critique of social media or gaming as phenomena in themselves.

Games such as Overwatch have a high level of user customization—via its custom game setting—allowing for novel game formats rather than a simple response to the developer’s preordained formats. Such customization is common to League of Legends and World of Warcraft with the format of the former actually arising from a customised version of the latter. It cannot be denied that gaming (as with internet memes) is getting closer and closer to embodying the kind of horizontal media experience that one assumes critics of media hegemony have wanted to see all along. Surely we should be emphasizing this aspect as much as berating gamers for not having corrected societal attitudes to gender as they freely choose how to express themselves as media creators.

That all media are used to impose dominant gender values on the masses comes as no surprise. Whilst we must be careful not to disregard such a critique, we need to hold it in mind jointly with an inquiry into the novel physical relations of power enabled by new media. In so doing we might acknowledge the negative attitudes that shore up class, race and gender divides while recognising the potential for new power relations to emerge. Though is it possible to see new media as simultaneously both positive and negative?

To some extent, Adorno and Horkheimer showed us the way, though they were some decades off interacting with issues of new media or of gender, race and sexual orientation. In the preface to the 1944 edition of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, they state that:

In the unjust state of society the powerlessness and pliability of the masses increase with the quantity of goods allocated to them. The materially considerable and socially paltry rise in the standard of living of the lower classes is reflected in the hypocritical propagation of intellect. Intellect’s true concern is a negation of reification. It must perish when it is solidified into a cultural asset and handed out for consumption purposes. The flood of precise information and brand-new amusements make people smarter and more stupid at once.

Characteristic of Adorno, what is given with one hand is taken away with the other as people’s wits are both sharpened and dulled by advanced capitalism. Given the enormous stakes that make an escape from domination near impossible, one can but hope—whilst avoiding becoming shrill and naive—regarding the possibility of deliverance from societal reification. Adorno and Horkheimer, together with the rest of the Frankfurt School, had seen social revolutions and reactions fail epically and disastrously in their own time. It is hardly surprising then that the suspicion of capitalism predominates and Adorno’s radical (for its silver lining) negativity assumes the crude binary assessment of the mass media we are familiar with. However, the capacity for the media to make people smarter—and yet stupider—is hinted at.

The political legacy of that period, which might be best described as a kind of state-capitalist bureaucracy—with its monopoly on force and its massive surveillance capacity—has left us all cynical; reduced by default to an Adornian stance. We see massive social injustice maintained by a cabal. We are aware of the impossibility of toppling the elite, yet we must carry on, so we hope, yet not too much, as hope risks blunting our cynicism, and cynicism helps us feel our edges. This is the inheritance of the millennial, who does not have to assume a pose in adopting Adorno’s critical negativity. And yet, due to advances in technology the millennial is afforded the possibility of slipping through a wormhole into a shared communal experience whereby a great – infinitesimal – level of choice is given momentarily to them. This is the appeal of meme and gaming culture, which is missed by theorists too eager to use gaming to confirm their critique of social bigotry—a critique that is entirely correct in both its sentiment and targets but does little to help us understand the potential opened up by advances in technology that have rendered much of the media theory we hold dear to seem redundant.

Indeed, while Adorno’s default negativity chimes with today’s younger generations, the culture industry model formulated by Adorno and Horkheimer, whereby people are tricked into perceiving that they have a wide choice over the media objects that they purchase or ‘enjoy’ and which they then passively consume whilst being brainwashed by the establishment, can no longer be held to be entirely accurate as a description. This by now common sense model is not only so accepted as to be easily ignored, it also risks demonising new internet media and thereby ignoring its potential in bypassing the staid dialecticism that has characterised leftist cultural debate for more than 150 years. Unfortunately, there is a very real sense today that the academic who aims to enlighten students through a steady dose of leftist critique is, against all intentions, actually perpetuating a canon that at best risks spoiling someone’s entertainment and at worst closes areas of enquiry that might actually further the leftist cause by taking as exemplary the capacity of gaming and social media to create choice and models of community. Perhaps we need to pay heed to the crucial detail in Adorno’s critique: media makes people stupid, yes, yet it makes them smarter too. What then might be the other inherent contradictions of the media? And particularly new media? Could it make people more isolated, and yet more community-based? And should we be ignoring the benefits of smarter, inherently collective individual choices in our negative predilection to see only stupidity and isolation?

The power relations of gaming need to be judged based on what is specific to interactions within gaming, on what it means to exercise choice while being entertained as part of a team, rather than as passive, solitary consumers. This, together with the enhanced potential for choice-making within new media, should be celebrated and built upon so that the positive aspects of gaming and social media might be deployed as a challenge to negative social phenomena. That is to say that we ought to take as positive the range of choice that people are offered via new media. The lack of choice is the root of societal subjugation according to virtually all key media theorists. While nowadays choice is abundant, the dominant strain of media theory seems to carry on applying the same tools as their predecessors (Adorno, Baudrillard, Debord, Mulvey, Sontag) with little or no modification. If the lack of choice has been the dominant argument against the cultural industry, the abundance of choice ought to be seen as good, although it must also be noted that this choice operates within the confines of capital. Even so, we cannot deny there is more leverage for the media user than ever before, and that the millennial, having grown with a consciousness of media manipulation like no generation prior to them, is well positioned to exploit this. There is a huge capacity for bringing people together through gaming and social media, which is specific to these media and not ported into them from society.

Beyond this, it is time to stop berating millennials and their antecedents for failing to take up where we left off: for not solving the problem of bigotry that they inherited from us. We should instead see value and take inspiration from their efforts to carve out from within the rotten society they were born into a space for a—albeit limited—creative maneuver.

Mike Watson is a theorist, critic and curator based in Italy who is principally focused on the relation between art, new media and politics. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Goldsmiths College and has curated at both the 55th and 56th Venice Biennale. In May 2016 he published a book entitled ‘Towards a Conceptual Militancy’ for ZerO books. Mike has written regularly for Artforum, Frieze, Art Review, Radical Philosophy and Hyperallergic. He lectures at John Cabot University and The American University of Rome.

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