Header illustration by Sunless Design.
"Everything we make is political," game designer and artist Alex Zandra Van Chestein told me recently, by email, when I asked her about her involvement in the Women's March on Washington.
It's a common refrain, and maybe even an understandable one: Some players want to separate their hobby from the messy, fraught, often painful world outside. But that's completely impossible.
"There's no such thing as being apolitical, because we live in a society that includes others, and everyone has some form of opinion on how we all should relate to one another," said Van Chestein. "I think politics in games are a lot like user interfaces; you only notice them when they're different from what you expect."
Van Chestein will be attending a solidarity march for the Women's March on Washington this weekend. The Women's March on Washington is a massive protest against Donald Trump and his administration, seeking to "send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women's rights are human rights." Participants are looking to speak out, in a unified voice, against the racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, and other troubling elements of Trump's messaging, behavior, and stated intended policies.
"People who want apolitical games actually want games that perfectly match their political outlook, whether they realize it or not. And especially today, when some political tendencies are actively harmful to large portions of the population, games are a terrific medium to showcase positive alternatives.
Van Chestein is one game developer attending a "sister march" (one of hundreds scheduled around the country and the world) the day after inauguration.
"My political leaning is very compassionate, and I'm very worried about what the Trump administration and an unchecked GOP will do to American people who don't have a buffer of wealth and/or privilege to protect themselves with. The rest of the world has to send a clear message that what is happening is not normal and not acceptable."
"Our world, unfortunately, is PVP," said RPG designer Liv Hathaway, cofounder of Armored Studio, speaking of the player-vs.-player paradigm. Liv is attending a sister march in Washington state, and hoping to add their voice to the conversation. "In PVP I learned two things: to focus fire and fight on the flag. IRL "the flag" may as well be the laws we enforce, society, those we elect in power, and so on. It's important we focus on our ideals: what we believe and why, and THEN try to get that flag. This isn't a 'ten-man,' so it's less about the individual heroes, more about the aggregate."
The march is expected to be one of the largest protests in America, considering the trainloads and busloads of folks coming into DC, and the hundreds of sister marches around the world. There is a sister march in every state in the US, and the Guardian reports that solidarity marches and events are planned in over 30 countries.
One woman developer from NYC is attending the March in DC, but asked to remain anonymous when speaking to us about it, thanks to Trump's hateful rhetoric on race and immigration.
"For me, the goal of the march is to amplify those voices that are otherwise in danger of being silenced—both mine and those of others," she said. "It's to take a stand against fascism, and reinforce what we should all hold as inclusive, empathetic ideals. Like all non-citizen residents, I happily contribute to the economy, but didn't get to vote—here's my chance to make myself heard."
"Maybe I'm old school, but I still think demonstrations are important," Paolo Pedercini of Carnegie Mellon University—and a longtime designer of games that examine traditional power structures—told Waypoint by email. He's planning to attend the main event in Washington DC.
"Especially the ones that interrupt the flows of production and consumption (strikes, occupations etc.). I can't think of any significant social change that didn't involve people taking the streets at some point."
Pedercini hopes that the march will unite folks in opposition to Trump's regressive policies, and serve as a base for coalition building. It's never easy, but it is always necessary.
"The generation that came of age under the relatively stable Obama administration is facing its first major challenge, and it will have to rethink what it means to be progressive."
It's not a secret: We're no fans of Trump and what he stands for here at Waypoint. And we all struggle with the concept of a "bubble"—the idea that we are insulated from viewpoints that differ from our own, living in echo chambers of others who agree with us. Pedercini offered a strong—and frank—perspective.
"For progressives in the fields of culture and media this is a dark moment because we lost this culture war. We failed to convince half of the US that a multicultural, egalitarian, and diverse society is a better society," he said.
For Pedercini, one of the problems the left faces is a distinct and painful feeling of going backwards, losing hard-fought ground. "It burns, because holding this ideal as a self-evident truth, we focused on negative cultural practices (policing, criticizing, mocking, patronizing…), which in turn radicalized those who didn't have the education, or the background, or the privilege to enjoy our way of life. And we experienced the limits of The Discourse in the age of filter bubbles and post-truth politics."
"We failed to convince half of the US that a multicultural, egalitarian, and diverse society is a better society,"
A lot of us, anecdotally, feel powerless to change what we perceive to be egregious wrongs in our world. Essentially, that's the point of the march—to come together, show solidarity and show strength in numbers against a man who ran a campaign filled with racist rhetoric, sexism, misogyny, and frankly, terrifying hints of fascism.
So few of us spend the majority of our days working directly on the systems in play: most of us are not civil rights attorneys, professional organizers, or lawmakers. In the game industry, we make games, or write about them, or promote them. It can feel like, as game critic and academic Katherine Cross so eloquently put it in her Gaymer X remarks "repeatedly pressing X to fiddle while Rome burns."
But it is crucial that we don't give in to nihilism, that we embrace the work that we can do to make change.
"I'm not a fan of the term 'activist,'" said Pedercini. "It makes political participation sound like a specialized activity or, even worse, a profession. Everybody can and should be an agent of change in their own vocation. And those who are more serious about it should think in term of power-building and organizing, like Astria Taylor suggests in her article Against Activism."
There is so much value in what we can do, no matter our backgrounds. That's part of why protest is so important.
"Even in a world where everybody makes culture at lightspeed," Said Pedercini, "Certain people are in a better position to work with words, sounds, images, games. And we can use these skills to assist, strengthen, celebrate the work of, say, civil rights lawyers or an environmental engineers."
"I often feel powerless, especially recently, and I've attempted to tackle this in various ways," said Van Chestein. "I keep making games; it's important now more than ever to fill the world with positive representation and inclusive works that can show folks some ways things could be better."
She mentioned getting involved with local politics, attending town hall meetings, and staying informed on movement on both the local and national levels.
"My resources are limited, and I need to constantly keep my needs in mind so I don't burn out again, but I can't sit by and do nothing. There are ways we can all make this world better, even if it's just showing others a glimpse of what it could be."