How a Forgotten VR Satire Game Got Caught Up in Far Right Propaganda

'The American Dream' wasn't a game many people played, and yet, the far right social network Gab somehow ended up using its artwork.
March 10, 2021, 2:00pm
Artwork from the video game The Ameri
Artwork courtesy of Samurai Punk

Nicholas McDonnell was enjoying the long weekend provided by an Australian holiday when his partner shook him awake to say goodbye, prompting McDonnell to tiredly do what most of us do in the morning: check our phone. Besides the usual crawl of emails, McDonnell saw a "wall of notifications" from people telling him some artwork for his studio's overlooked 2018 virtual reality game, The American Dream, had been co-opted by Gab, a once-obscure social network about "freedom" that's become one of many safe havens for the far right. 

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By the time McDonnell realized what'd happened, it'd been shared pretty widely. Because while Gab is itself a network, it has a sizable presence on Twitter because Twitter is much bigger and socially important. Gab exists on Twitter for a variety of reasons, including recruiting disillusioned far right actors, shitposting, and making liberals as angry as possible.

This explains why Gab would post artwork from a game where the dog has a gun, and why an account for a social network about "freedom" would restrict who can reply to the tweet. It's not actually about promoting some archaic way of life, it's about engaging online anger.

"Our initial reaction was actually to try and make a good joke out of it," said McDonnell. "You know, the game never really did super well so any opportunity to get some buzz or a good joke would have been great. But as the day went on people were getting pretty angry on our behalf and I was kinda confused."

The American Dream is a satirical shooting gallery that came and went in early 2018. Most people didn't play it, explaining why McDonnell considered trying to leverage the attention into sales. It used the America-lovin' nuclear family aesthetic from the 40s and 50s and jokingly imagined a future "where guns become an integral part of the lives of all good American patriots." At one point, a handgun is used to fire a bullet into a beer can to open it. 

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The reason that dog has a gun, by the way, is because the dog, Buddy Washington, is the owner of the American Dream theme park featured in the game and "boy does he love guns," according to McDonnell.

At the time, McDonnell hadn't even heard of Gab, or what the social network represented. 

"There was some confusion, even some people going as far as to think we provided the image," he said. "Once we found out more about them we decided it would be best to make it super clear we wanted nothing to do with them."

A follow-up tweet did try to, at least, promote Samurai Punk's various games.

The reaction was "overwhelmingly positive," according to McDonnell. Gab's original tweet was understandably more popular than Samurai Punk's reaction—1k tweets and 3.3k likes versus 1.8k tweets 8.8k likes—but that's usually how these online interactions go, anyway.

McDonnell still isn't sure how the image found its way to Gab. 

"I think if you just search 'American Dream Gun' the image comes up," said McDonnell. "Hell maybe they played the game. The trick I think is we very VERY intentionally tried to ape that Rockwell-era aesthetic."

He's right about the search—it's the first thing that comes up. 

While showing the game at a PAX event once, McDonnell said an older woman, someone maybe in their 60s, came by and saw the shirt with the same artwork that's in Gab's tweet. With "no spark of sarcasm" in her voice, the woman told McDonnell "oh, that's so lovely."

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).