Top-level play and throwaway play
I want to draw attention to two genres of competitive video games that demonstrate a huge spectrum of player behavior, from silly and casual, to embarrassingly, nerdily intricate: fighting games and real-time strategy games (including the sub-genre known as multiplayer online battle arenas—MOBAs). I’ll break them down really quickly here:
Fighting Games: Usually 1-on-1 battles between a diverse array of characters who fight each other in martial arts or street-fighting type competitions. Each player selects a single character or a small team of characters. The characters usually have a certain amount of health, and they fight each other until one player or the other’s health is depleted. What makes these games strategic is that each character has a very specific set of attacks, ranging from simple weak punches, kicks, and slashes, to highly powerful special moves (often with magical or supernatural effects like fireballs or huge explosions), and massive chains of combination attacks. Good players need to master the ins and outs, the strengths and weaknesses of not only their characters, but also all the other characters they might match up against. Example video games, for those who care: Street fighter, Tekken, Soul Calibur, Marvel vs. Capcom, Mortal Kombat, Super Smash Bros.
Real-Time Strategy Games: Can be 1-on-1, 3-on-3, or 5-on-5 battles between larger forces of units who are fighting on a battlefield. Each side has a base which provides safety or defense, and which sometimes generates resources to buy improvements for the players’ forces. One side wins when the other side’s base is destroyed. The strategy comes from knowing how to make quick decisions to manage the resources that are coming in while also mastering the nuances and subtleties of each individual fighting unit. Like fighting games, these units often have options between basic attacks and more flashy and specialized abilities—and even sometimes highly powerful “ultimate” abilities—but the more powerful abilities usually have big limits to how often they can be used. Good players know how to manage these factors of resources and unit composition, while also paying additional attention to the specific terrain of the map or battlefield. Example games: League of Legends, DOTA, Starcraft, Warcraft, Command and Conquer.
Before I go any deeper into game land here, I have to make a critical disclaimer. Although I will be using some of the language and concepts from the competitive communities that play these games, I have no interest in endorsing these games or their communities in any way at all. I’m not suggesting that people go out and play these games, and I am not saying that we should be like these communities. The games—though I sometimes guiltily enjoy them—can often be violent and filled with stereotypes or exaggerated and objectified portrayals, especially of women. The competitive communities themselves would likely even be hostile to us and our politics. Unfortunately, a big chunk of competitive gaming scenes are dominated by proudly elitist attitudes, misogynist and heterosexist bro cultures, and regressive positions around ideas like anti-imperialism, anti-racism, or any of the other values that we want to uphold. My goal here is merely to see some of what they say about winning, and about unhelpful elements that disrupt winning strategies, and leave things at that.
Even though these games are all focused around silly street fights and fantastical battle scenes, what makes them applicable to anti-authoritarian movements (beyond the startling preponderance of masked dudes with dark clothes and menacing gazes) is that core element of strategic games that I spoke of earlier: the judicious use of limited resources and options. The top-tier players of these games—some of whom play as full time jobs, living off sponsorships and tournament winnings—intimately know the minutiae of what is and is not possible in any given situation. They know the wild powers and huge offensives that they are capable of, but they also know the drawbacks and weaknesses that are constantly pushing back against them. They know what pacing is appropriate for what kinds of match-up with their opponents. In team games, these players know the unique roles that they are able to play in supporting the overall team strategy, and they also know when they are capable of flexibly changing roles in the face of what’s happening from moment to moment. If you read their articles or watch their online videos, these players have vocabularies and theories about their games that casual players of the very same games can’t really access at all. Why? Because they have broken down their games to the very basic systems level—often to the point where they are paying attention to things as mundane and technical as individual frames of character animation or specific pixel glitches on a map or battlefield.
If we’re going to win, our movements need similarly sophisticated levels of strategic understanding, with a granularity of detail about what we’re facing and what we’re capable of. We need to understand the array of tactics and strategies that are available to us, and in what situations each is most useful—not just most spectacular. Further, we need to better recognize and manage our limitations—what our activities cost us, in terms of time, resources, and positioning in relation to the systems of oppression that we’re fighting.
I think our movements are a long way from achieving a high level of strategic mastery, and current global developments suggest that we’d better hurry up. However, in contrast to competitive gaming, I don’t think this requires all revolutionary-minded people to become full-time, elite strategy experts or anything. I think the mass and grassroots character of movements makes the strategic work that we need to do potentially far more accessible and horizontally distributable—a form of radical crowdsourcing—if we are willing to set up the kinds of participatory organizing structures that would help us do it efficiently. To make this happen, though, requires some very judicious, focused, and coordinated use of our precious few resources.
The troubling thing is, it’s quite hard to be judicious, focused, and coordinated when we’re stuck in the anarchist clown car that is the Pacific Northwest scene. Insurrectionist, anti-civ, nihilist, and other similar tendencies are distracting, disorienting, and they sap many of the few options and resources that we have. They practice patterns of discourse and behavior that aren’t just bothersome for their own scenes, but they tend to throw all of us off our game.
Competitive gamers have generalized some archetypes that can help me explain what I’m talking about.
Many people who are familiar with the toxicity of online political debates are probably already versed in this one. Trolls are players who enter into a game—especially team games—with the explicit intention of screwing around with everyone else and trying to get them angry and riled up, all for their own amusement. They use in-game chat channels to spit slurs and insults, all while sabotaging the actual game play. They join a game and pretend to be committed and then, when things get tough, they disconnect from the game and throw off the whole balance of a match. They especially love to call out serious-minded players for hurting a team, when they are the ones actually being least helpful.
The most obvious examples of trolls in our movements are informants, snitches, and agent provocateurs. I certainly don’t believe that all insurrectionist types are agents of the state, and I’m not about to throw out that accusation. However, we know that our movements are full of these professional destabilizers, and there should be no doubt that they are going to be concentrating their energy on the most outspoken, explicitly militant segments of our movement—the insurrectionists. No surprise then, that insurrectionist heavy discussions are absolutely painful to participate in—especially online. They are filled with classic trolling behavior: name-calling, circular logic, more-radical-than-thou accusations, straw arguments, and chest-puffing, all flitting anonymously this way and that. It seems the favorite targets are any anti-authoritarian radicals who dare suggest more tempered positions in a struggle or who in any way seem more “liberal” than their self-proclaimed anarchist standard. For just one example, read the discussions on Puget Sound Anarchists about those anarchists who wanted to raise money for some broken small business windows after the 2013 May Day—troll feeding frenzy. You would think that if only the cops and informants were doing the trolling, they would easily stand out so that we could shine light on them, but the fact that the general tone and manner of insurrectionist discourse—at least in writing—so closely matches troll-type styles, it’s hard to tell one’s enemies from one’s friends.
What’s unhelpful about this? Well, it contributes to a climate of distrust and disorientation, and it makes more sensitive folks—like me—doubt ourselves whenever we posit something different than whatever the most blustery, judgmental voices are saying. And because those loudest voices tend to be goading us on toward more polarized, militant, and mean-spirited positions, it also creates a snowball effect that can have even more serious consequences…even including entrapment.
When people don’t have experience with complex strategic games, or they are uninterested in getting better, they tend to do something very predictable: they just quickly, randomly hit buttons and throw out whatever flashy attacks they can muster, with little regard to the strategic value or consequences of what they are doing. They will repeatedly mash on the same single attacks for game after game, becoming painfully predictable to even novice opponents. They will use their most powerful super abilities as soon as they have accumulated the resources to do so, without thinking about appropriate timing—for example, focusing on only one target when the ability was designed to take out four. They will never hold back to block in a fighting game, or they will only use the one row of punch buttons without ever even noticing the three kick buttons that are right there. Because their game play is so fast and random, they actually do win some times, and can thus create an image that they are better than they actually are. Because these kinds of players are really usually just looking for some quick fun, they are fine with superficial understandings of the way the game works—they just want to see all the bangs and crashes and colored lights that shine when they mash those buttons.
I think insurrectionists provide a picture-perfect model of button mashing. They are friggin’ everywhere, mashing out wheatpasted posters, flyers, and newspapers; smashing in ATMs and bank windows; mashing up newspaper boxes at marches; mashing, mashing, mashing. They are prolific, they are fast, they occasionally hit really effectively in a way that impresses everyone, but mostly they just seem to be flailing around at every possible target…usually with the same flashy attacks each time. Reading their writing, even by their more influential intellectuals, is like watching a brand-new strategy game player who just keeps shooting off the same huge ultimate attacks in the middle of an empty battlefield, waiting for their resources to charge up, and then doing the same thing again. Why? Well, you know, total liberation now! Flames this, flames that, everything in flames! No subtlety, no pacing, no base-building. Just rupture, rupture, rupture. The volume is always at maximum. Fundamentally, insurrectionist seem to have forgotten that the anti-authoritarian game controller doesn’t just have a row of “disruptive attack” buttons—we also have 3 or 4 additional “building constructive power” buttons. Who knew?
What’s unhelpful about this? A number of things. Because they are so fast and so prolific, they confuse people—even longtime anarchists like me—into thinking that they are playing the game correctly. When they occasionally do something cool with their militancy and spectacle, they fool us into thinking their path might actually bear fruit. It won’t. While the militant tactics and the powerful rhetoric that these folks employ really are useful in the context of a powerful, massive movement, insurrectionists are usually using them way outside of a strategic context. With the limited time, resources, and options that we have, and our small numbers, every time we hit the attack button when we should be hitting our build buttons is a huge strategic waste. Huge. Moreover, when the fun and spectacle wears off, when things get dirtier, harder, less anonymous, when the amorphous “some @narchists” settle back into being very real parents, coworkers, partners, bill-payers, we will end up losing a ton of the people who got caught up in rush of the button-mashing, because they will have burnt out without having ever seen how much deeper, how much more enriching, diverse, and powerful the movement could have been. It’s a one-note kind of radicalism, it’s a one-riot stand, and it doesn’t make very many people stick around for the long-haul—especially since part of that button mashing includes moving and traveling from place to place all the time!
It’s one thing when people’s actions just set themselves back or just disorient us, but it’s something entirely worse when their actions directly strengthen the opponent. In the sub-genre of strategy games called Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs), there is a phenomenon called feeding. When a player rushes in too hot too quickly, or when they make lazy mistakes, they end up getting themselves killed by the other team, which then makes the other team significantly stronger. When the same players keep doing this over and over, their teammates will likely scold them as feeders. Whether intentional or not, they are serving more to feed and nourish the opponent than they are helping their own side. Because they are so busy dying and feeding, dying and feeding, they not only neglect their own in-game evolution, they force everyone else on the team to step in and defend them and carry them through the game.
Folks can deny it all they want, they can denounce my opinion as sectarian, they can trot out whatever pre-fab justifications about the state that they’d like, but I will argue that insurrectionists are feeders. Through hyper-militance and adventurism, they absolutely feed the state and other opposing forces. Of course, the state will seek to disrupt any movement that it deems a threat, so we should always blame it before blaming comrades for whatever repression it causes. However, before we’ve even reached the point of actually being a threat, insurrectionist antics give the state the pretext to pre-emptively marshal huge numbers of resources to repress us. When that repression comes down, it doesn’t just come down on the loudest, it comes down on all anti-authoritarians, creating a chilling effect on our activities, sowing paranoia, and siphoning off time and money into legal defense for actions that do not actually move us any closer to our goals. At this stage of the game, how are black bloc smash-fests building the movement we need, in proportion to the heat they bring down on us, the public fear they generate (and they do generate fear if you actually talk to non-anarchists), and the legal defense fundraisers they require—which could have been fundraisers for actual, sustainable anarchist counter-institutions? I love considering strategic arguments to the contrary, but watching the difference between the systemic responses to the 2012 and 2013 May Days, for example, all I saw was a state that has become nicely fed, while the constructive anti-authoritarian impact in the Pacific Northwest has drastically declined. Stop feeding, please.
What do we do with this?
I have no illusions about this piece changing the outlooks or behavior of insurrectionist types. I am not a sectarian and I can understand that they will keep doing what they are doing. Apparently they think they have good reasons. I don’t want to spend my own precious resources and options trying to stop them; I don’t want to be the movement police. But I don’t have to be quiet about how unhelpful I think they are, and I don’t have to hide the fact that I would love to outnumber them so much that their ideas become as marginal as I think they should be.
But the way to get closer to a winning direction is not to stomp and whine and ask these folks to stop. The only way is for more strategically oriented anti-authoritarians to come forward—boldly, publicly, militantly—with a different kind of politics. We need to show new ways of pressing anarchism’s buttons, in fresh, innovative, and coordinated ways. We need to delve deeper into how revolutionary conflict actually works, and what winning actually looks like, and we need to share this with each other using increasing levels of detail, sophistication, and accessibility. Once again, we win by judiciously using those few, precious resources and options that we have in order to build dynamic, flexible mass movements. So let’s do just that.
In practice, I think this looks like slowing down for awhile, while building strength to really speed things up in the future. I think this looks like a big increase in strategically oriented local writing and discussion events. It looks like a flourishing of popular education projects to evenly disperse valuable skills across our communities. It looks like developing our abilities for healthy communication and debate, so that we can isolate and expose the trolls. It looks like putting down long-term roots in neighborhoods and communities where we will experiment with anti-authoritarian possibilities for the long-haul. It looks like honoring the courage and creativity that militant anarchists do show to all of us, while pushing that militancy to be more visionary, more diversified, more sustainable, and more rooted in large-scale grassroots power than the current tendency toward clandestine, lone-wolf attacks. It looks like a lot of things that folks, even some of the people I complain about, are already doing—but doing it with more strategic focus and coordination.
For those anti-authoritarians who agree, who are also interested in building revolutionary movements that can win: we should get together and play.