Guy Debord, the maverick Situationist philosopher, practiced living as if it were a game because he theorized that doing so could spark a revolutionary upheaval. “The sole thrilling direction remains the fragmentary search for a new way of life” beginning with “systematic provocation” that transforms existence into an “integral, thrilling game,” a 24-year-old Debord asserted in 1955. And in the years following the May ’68 uprising, while he grew increasingly reclusive, Debord privately dedicated himself to inventing Kriegspiel, a military strategy board game.
Half a century later, in practically every domain of human endeavor, whether it be selling cat food or meeting up at a bar or planning an insurrection, an operation is struggling with how to “gamify” itself. A dozen or more recently published books cover the application of gaming to life – from alternate reality game designer Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken to Tom Bissel’s Extra Lives and Tom Chatfield’s Fun Inc. But the one author who really glimpses what the future holds is media theorist McKenzie Wark. In his seminal manifesto, Gamer Theory, published in 2007, Wark makes the profound ontological claim that it is no longer a matter of transforming life into a “thrilling game,” as Debord believed, because life under consumerism has already been gamified.
“Ever get the feeling you’re playing some vast and useless game whose goal you don’t know and whose rules you can’t remember?” asks McKenzie Wark. “You are a gamer whether you like it or not, now that we live in a gamespace that is everywhere and nowhere. As Microsoft says: Where do you want to go today? You can go anywhere in gamespace but you can never leave it.”
If Wark’s proposition is true then every being, from friends to fedoras, has become either a player or a prop in an immersive global game of consumerism in which no matter what we do or how we play, capitalism gains. A bold claim, for sure, but Wark’s argument transcends philosophical quibbling: it offers us a profound way to rethink the future of internet-enabled activism.
The tactical genealogy of nearly every major online activist organization can be traced back to the fortuitous sale in 1997 of a Berkeley, California, gaming and screensaver software company whose flagship product was You Don’t Know Jack, an “irreverent” trivia game. The $13.8m sale of Berkeley Systems made husband-and-wife founders Wes Boyd, a computer programmer, and Joan Blades, a vice president of marketing, overnight millionaires. With an excess of leisure time, they founded MoveOn and brought activism into the digital age.
Within months of its formation, MoveOn established itself as a brilliant pioneer of leveraging the nascent internet to transform everyday people into political activists. MoveOn’s success was arguably due to its unique mixture of the spirit of gaming with activism. By connecting members with each other on a local level, MoveOn built a decentralized, grassroots network capable of pulling off surprising nationwide missions that were fun, game-like … and had a political impact.
In 2003, for example, MoveOn members held voter registration house parties and collectively made 300,000 calls in a single afternoon; volunteers visited the offices of every US senator to voice opposition to the impending war; then, in a stunning kickoff, they organized public peace vigils on every continent and in thousands of small towns … with only six days notice. MoveOn’s website at the time conveyed optimistic exhilaration. Members used an ActionForum to sway the direction of the larger organization by posting suggestions and voting up or down on the ideas of others. Those ideas that achieved a critical mass were then acted on by the group. Powered by digital flows, offline campaigns were going viral and not just at MoveOn: from our small office in Vancouver, Adbusters watched in awe as practically overnight Buy Nothing Day became a global sensation. All of us were getting a taste of what might happen if a vibrant activist community were to emerge from a playful cyberspace.
Today, digital activism has reached adolescence and its adult years look to be more game-like than ever. At Adbusters we’ve got KillCap brewing, an anticonsumerism game built on the simple premise of escalating missions that target the visible signs of consumerism: 10 blackpogs, or in-game experience points, for walking away from Starbucks, 15 for defacing the Golden Arches, and 25 for subverting American Apparel’s patriarchal advertising. Here the proverbial “ladder of engagement” that online campaigners reverently talk about becomes a literal leader-board where the highest rank goes to the most active jammers. The beauty of KillCap is that knowing such an urban game is being played alters one’s perception of the city and what constitutes a political act. A jammed billboard, an anticorporate prank and a capitalist hit with a pie, rather than being seen as isolated events, all become signs that jammers are earning blackpogs in KillCap, an exciting game you’ll also want to play.
KillCap works by appropriating the gamespace of consumerism for radical play where jammed corporations become opportunities for leveling up. But it is just the beginning of a whole new kind of activist game. A clue as to what comes next can be found in the emerging field of indie storytelling and roleplaying games. Here the emphasis is placed on the construction of an alternative reality, a counter-narrative that reimagines life. Picture a roleplaying game that takes place in real life where players become actors in an unfolding story whose final scene is global revolution.
Out there, right now, I anticipate that an eccentric game designer is working to craft precisely this kind of narrative activist game that weaves a story bold enough to disassociate players sufficiently from the mores of consumerism. Once “in character,” perhaps players will find the courage to live without dead time, to assume a heroic posture toward life, to embrace a destined overthrow of the corporatocracy. With a strong story line, compelling characters, sufficient players and an element of playful risk, the game world takes on a life of its own. Played seriously enough it becomes reality.
Combining all of these elements is WikiSwarms, perhaps the most rebellious game of all: one that upgrades the MoveOn ActionForum to the needs of playful social revolution. Imagine flashmobs of jammers that appear suddenly, function without leadership, and are the pure manifestation of an anonymous will of a dispersed, networked collective. Targets are suggested, actions are proposed, manifestos drafted … everything is voted on and next steps chosen within minutes. One hour, neoclassical economics departments across the nation are flooded with Kick It Over manifestos, and the next, an impromptu anti-banker street party is being held on Wall Street. One day, a thousand volunteers show up unexpectedly at a nonprofit and ask to help out for a few hours, and the next, overnight guerrilla gardens appear in backstreets. In the downtown Niketown a flash-trial has convened to sentence the swoosh to death row, and online hacktivists are leaking emails that expose city council shenanigans. In this kind of metagame, where a constant people’s assembly determines the rules and objective of the game, anonymous players vie to influence the erratic swooping of the swarm. Welcome to the thrilling world of WikiSwarms, the culture jammer game being played right now in which the future of the Earth is at stake.
The revolutionary spirits of the future – the next Bakunin, Mao, Malcolm X and Debord – will be the ones who create these kinds of fluid, immersive, evocative metagaming experiences that are both playfully thrilling and, as a natural result of their gameplay, an insurrectionary challenge to the capitalist state. We are not far off from a time when revolution is an unauthorized game modification played across the gamespace of entire cities, states and cultures … a kind of radical play that re-enchants the world and transforms our subjectivity, a détournement of the symbolic order at the deepest level.