Trolls, Feeders, and Button-Mashers: What Competitive Gaming Can Tell Us About Unhelpful Anti-Authoritarian Tendencies…Part 1

Note: Reading this again, it looks like I was in the mood for a polemical tone. If you happen to be a new reader here, please note that I’m not trying to hate. I think disagreement, even polemic, can be healthy. If you think I’m being too mean or sectarian here, go ahead let me know. No use talking about the unhelpfulness of something by doing so in an unhelpful way.

I feel like anti-authoritarian revolutionaries in the Pacific Northwest just can’t get a break. In the 90’s and early 2000’s, we had the anarcho-primitivists running around spitting nonsense and flashing their arrogance, strutting as if they owned the movement—even while they shouted everyone else down by saying that we didn’t own the movement. Now, thanks, it seems, to some Californian winds that have blown north—which themselves seem to have blown in from entirely different European climates—we have new currents of nonsensery causing anti-authoritarians like me to stare at the ground, saying nothing, for fear of the denunciations that will surely come. Insurrectionism, anti-civilization anarchism, and even nihilism seem to be ruling the day around here—at least in terms of public expressions and articulations of revolutionary ideas. If you aren’t down with those politics, it can feel mighty lonely sometimes.

But I feel too old for this. I want to win, and I believe that anti-authoritarian politics, that anarchism, has powerful tools to offer toward that purpose. The problem is, all these bad ideas keep hogging anarchism for themselves. I’ve grown tired of sitting quietly and waiting for each self-righteous and noisy fad to wind down, so that anarchism might have some space to breathe and blossom in the positive directions that I think it might go. The fads just keep coming, they keep anarchism stuck in the same ruts year after year, all the while hoarding and suffocating so much of our best language, history, tactics. I’ve had enough of that.

I want to win, and it is this sentiment that I keep circling back to when I get all into a huff like this. I want to win, and I think these tendencies are mostly unhelpful, and often actually harmful to our chances of winning. This owes in large part to the fact that many of these tendencies have very different ideas about what winning even means, or they eschew the idea or possibility of winning altogether. Fine, fine. They should believe what they want, but let’s at least be real about the ways this screws things up for the rest of us.

In this piece, I want to help explain why I think current insurrectionist-heavy tendencies are unhelpful to those of us who actually want to win a social revolution. To do this, I’m going to make an analogy to something that is almost as strange, subcultural, and insular as anarchism itself—competitive video games. I recognize that this analogy might not feel fitting or useful for all readers, but it’s been exceptionally helpful for understanding my own approach to radical strategy, so I’m going to indulge it here. Let’s see what it can show us.

What is the game and what is winning?

As so many of us self-serious, fist-clenched revolutionists have told ourselves so many times, social revolution is not a game. As playful as it can sometimes be, as much dancing as our revolution might need, it is also certainly ugly, painful, real. People go to prison. People burn out and lose all hope in life. People die. There are incredibly important things at stake here; I know this well, with my own emotional scars to show, and I’m not about to be dismissive about it.

Nonetheless, there are definite, instructive parallels between strategic games and the conflicts that anti-authoritarian revolutionaries are engaged with against systems of global oppression. Those who are charged with maintaining those systems of oppression know this, and that’s why military and intelligence forces regularly run war-game scenarios, why economists run all sorts of simulations using game theory, and corporate strategic literature is rife with references to sports or board games like chess or go. Games have things to teach us. In imaginary play situations, they can give us practice at the kind of strategic thinking that can actually make a difference in real people’s lives.

At their core, here’s what strategic games—be they sports, board games, or video games—are: they are specific scenarios of conflict, between forces with opposing aims, who must judiciously utilize their limited resources and options to outmaneuver, overpower, subvert, or outlast their opponent(s). This is a pretty good match for what revolutionary anti-authoritarians are trying to do. We have our forces, those of us who want a world built around solidarity, freedom, and ecological justice. There are the myriad opposing forces, who, either out of indoctrination, coercion, or malice, are in the business of defending current oppressive social systems—capitalism and imperialism, the state, patriarchy and heterosexism, white supremacy, ableism, religious oppression, etc. The conflict takes place in concrete times and places: our workplaces, schools, government institutions, neighborhoods, homes, forests and oceans, bodies, and even our minds. Thus we have our conflict, we have our forces (or teams, or players), and we have our scenario (or board or playfield). I think we can agree that the game analogy holds so far.

But I think the fact that there is a conflict (or conflicts) between different forces is beyond debate. I think the really sticky question is whether we can accurately carry over that all-important game concept of victory conditions; that is, games are usually designed to have winners and losers, but is a revolutionary conflict something that can actually be said to be winnable? When I say that I want to win, what in the hell does that mean, and how might my understanding differ from other anti-authoritarian tendencies?

I’m just going to come out and say what I think winning means. I believe that we win when a majority of the billions of people, on this planet are immersed in social systems where they can live and work in dignity, where they can participate equally in the decisions that affect them, where they have access to their proportional share of social and natural wealth, and where surrounding species and ecosystems are respected as well. This means ecological, democratic socialist or communist economies; free and open cultural and gender structures; and deeply participatory, community-based decision-making systems. It could—and probably should—mean thousands of different variations on these themes across the globe, but all of them guided by those key, participatory and liberatory characteristics.

I should emphasize that winning doesn’t have to mean achieving a perfect functioning of all these new systems. Winning doesn’t have to mean perfect lives for 100% of all people. For me, winning means getting at least to the point where the current systems—based on hierarchy, exploitation, and oppression—no longer hold sway, where the powerful have been pushed to lose or disperse their power, and where our fledgling liberated social systems are sufficiently established that they are spending more time evolving and improving themselves than simply defending themselves from threats. In short, I believe we win when the “game” changes from being primarily a competitive conflict against forces that want to uphold oppression, into a cooperative challenge where the majority of social forces are working together to face the trials of building new, far-from-perfect systems. Winning doesn’t mean an end of challenges, it means the creation of a dynamic, cooperative new context in which our society faces those challenges—with limited danger from the oppressors.

So, yeah, I want to win this. Moreover, I believe that this kind of winning is possible. In fact, I actually believe that, as bad as things are right now in the world, we still have a fair shot of achieving this. But if we’re gonna make it happen, we have to speed up our learning curve. We’ve gotta sharpen up our strategies. We need a good, solid “team” of highly diverse and flexible mass movements. And, well, the current crop of insurrectionist, anti-civ, and nihilist tendencies that are so loud and proud right now are just so unhelpful in this regard.

Of course, if folks disagree with my idea of winning, then they have no reason to care about being helpful or unhelpful. Why should they? But that is the biggest issue here. If anti-civilization people don’t even want complex social systems to exist after the fall of the current system, then they certainly have a different idea of winning and they don’t want to help design better social systems. If insurrectionists think that mass movements and long-term revolutionary strategies are the presumptuous territory of an obsolete old Left, then their ideas of victory will tend to be very individualized, spontaneous, or even non-existent. And, nihilists…well…I guess they don’t believe in winning by definition. I get it if they aren’t thrilled about helping to build a massive anti-authoritarian movement that they don’t even believe in.

All these different ideas about winning are fine, and non-sectarianism should be a watchword every day, but the problem is this: even though we might have radically different ideas about victory or its possibility—or even the right to desire victory in the first place—we are still here in the same game. We are struggling within the same context of conflicts, forces, and scenarios. Not only that, but we’re actually all essentially claiming to be on the same team, with the same colors, flags, mascots, etc.

Now, have you ever played on a team with people who have totally contradictory hopes and intentions for what winning or losing looks like? Those two teammates chasing each other in circles in the corner? That one person who keeps stepping away to check text messages? The kid who got frustrated about a missed opportunity so just threw the rest of the game so the other team could win? How fun was it, for how long?

And this brings me to competitive video games. See, video games are designed for a whole range of interests and intentions. There are what are called casual players, who are just occasionally messing around to purely have fun at a superficial level, there are more serious players, who would like to win in their local circles, and there are competitive players—who are committed to spending huge amounts of time to learning the nuances and contradictions of the game so that they can definitively win. What’s interesting is that all these different types of people can be playing the same game, but they have totally different approaches to it, approaches which totally don’t mix in actual play. Playing for a quick fun time, playing to screw around with people after a few drinks, and playing to win a tournament or something brings out totally different decisions…totally different uses of the limited resources and options that each player or team has. That is exactly what we see in the anti-authoritarian movement. A completely messy mix of all sorts of intentions and tendencies, dominated—in my view—by folks who are either uninterested in or unprepared to think about winning.

Competitive video game players, players who want to win, have come to notice and understand some patterns of players who are less strategic or who have explicitly anti-strategic intentions, and they have names for some of those patterns. I think these apply to insurrectionist-heavy ideas and behaviors that we see in the Pacific Northwest today.

I’ll be exploring these soon enough in the conclusion of this piece.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi