February 22, 2022

Game workers facing authoritarian regimes

Nikhil Murthy

There has been a lot of talk of unionizing in video game circles for quite a while now. People working in the gaming industry desperately need more power, and I want to bring up an important and under-recognized way that power can come into play – how collectivizing can help protect game developers from authoritarian governments.

We often hear about game workers facing labour issues in the industry, and how unionising would benefit them; yet this is usually framed by their connection to other tech workers. Emma Kinema’s recent contribution in her article Organizing for the Future is an excellent example. However, people making games are also cultural workers with political and artistic motivations, a fact that has specific consequences. Particularly, this puts them in conflict with authoritarian governments, and collectivizing, whether a unionization effort through organized global unions or simply solidarity building through informal communities, can provide some protection from the terrible power of the state.

I am currently making a post-colonial 4X game called Nikhil Murthy’s Syphilisation and my biggest worry while making it is that I will end up in jail. Syphilisation is not a seditious game. It is just a game that deals with Indian history and, to speak honestly of Indian history, is to speak of the damage done by V.D. Savarkar and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of India’s current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The mere act of making games can be dangerous in many countries around the world. This is why we need to collectivize.

Nikhil Murthy

Hindu right wing organizations, like the RSS, were responsible for horrific amounts of bloodshed during the run-up to Indian independence and are responsible for countless atrocities that still happen today. To fully understand the harm they did in the past, you have to see the harm that current Hindutva organizations, including the BJP, do today. Making anything meaningful about the history of Indian independence inevitably puts you at odds with the Indian government.

This is particularly scary because of how totalizing BJP’s control is. They have essentially complete control over the executive powers, both nationally and in the state that I live in. They are also uncomfortably close with the judiciary. The police are ready to abet Hindutva in their own ways. The news media does little besides parrot the party line, and worst of all is how convincingly the Indian population has bought into this inhuman ideology.

India is not unique – the mere act of making games can be dangerous in many countries around the world. This is why we need to collectivize. Individually, it is too easy for any of us to be crushed by the mechanisms of a fascist government. Together, we can become something of a spoke in their wheel.

Photo: Jose Gil / Unsplash

Games, culture and politics in India

This is particularly urgent as there is no real Indian opposition to speak of. They do not have enough popular support and the opposition parties seem more interested in eating each other than in challenging the BJP hegemony. Additionally, there is no help to be found from India’s celebrities, neither athletic nor Bollywood. Instead, they range from collaborators to cheerleaders, and at the end of the day, if something happens, I will most likely be alone.

Furthermore, the more visible people who do speak out against the BJP come from fields with established traditions of speaking truth to power. I saw Dr. Ramachandra Guha get arrested during the protests against the controversial NRC-CAA laws, legislation introduced by the government in an attempt to make Indian Muslims stateless. The spectacle of violence offered to one of India’s most distinguished historians by a uniformed police officer is indelible and naturally garners sympathy. When Munawar Faruqui is jailed for jokes he did not make, people are already well used to the intersection of politics and comedy. Video games just do not have the political cachet of fields like writing, comedy or music. When someone from those fields is arrested, it falls cleanly into a well-established narrative and so engenders support from the wider public.

Even worse, your average established political commentator who might share my views is mostly not the type to play or even really understand indie video games. Video games are practically unique in lacking the same traditions of dissidence that are well established in other media forms. How can you expect an uninformed observer to reconcile the seriousness of political persecution with the frivolousness of video games? For many people, the medium of video games is for boys who want to see things explode and not for political commentary. An overlap in political views is not enough to bridge the wide gap of gaming literacy needed to play Syphilisation and defend it to the public at large.

The final nail in this coffin is that independent game development is not going to give me financial freedom. When someone like Salman Rushdie was threatened by fundamentalists, he had the power and the means to leave the country. Being a famous writer can do that for you. Meanwhile, it is almost a given that I will lose money on Syphilisation. This industry gives very few people the financial security that too often seems a prerequisite for political statements.

We are independent game developers – none of us has the resources or the political capital to challenge the authorities directly. All any of us have is the rather frightening fact that we are not the only ones to be in this situation. Javi Almirante, a Filipino game developer told me of his experiences: “Honestly, when I first made Duloga back in 2018, I was pretty scared that a cop would come to my house or target someone I know with an “inspection” where they plant false drug evidence. It’s not something that would’ve been… surprising, had it happened. But the fear was there and it was very real.” He continued, “I had friends who were even scared at the time to even just share the game because they were worried that I’d be targeted.”

Dhruv of Studio Oleomingus, a studio in Chala, India that makes games in the intersection of post colonial writing and interactive fiction like the recent The Indifferent Wonder of Edible Places told me: “I believe, authoritarian scrutiny introduces a latent and automatic fear amidst storytellers … Moreover, accompanying this powerful and automatica vilification of dissent, is a precautionary self-censoring by all those creators who are still able to practice with popular support or by the quirk of caste or economic privilege. Condemning games into becoming either banal distractions or subservient vehicles of nationalist propaganda. I believe that amidst the gradient of such inequity – it becomes critical to celebrate plural methods and traditions that can challenge neo-colonial authority, and help disrupt the economic hierarchies that make such authority seem inevitable. A large and resilient body of creators, authors and activists might be able to censure authoritarian threats, while providing marginalized workers with a bulwark against economic risk and ostracization.”

Photo: Andrew Moca / Unsplash

International collectivizing is the answer 

How do we create such a body? Through collectivizing, both within and outside of India, we have some hope for protection. If I know that my case will get international attention, even if it is limited to a few other game developers, activists and organizers, that affords me significant security. Authoritarian governments have notoriously fragile egos, especially when it comes to foreign criticism. The Indian Government tied itself into knots over a tweet from Rihanna. They fell over themselves to make false claims about a 21 year old simply because she was vaguely linked to Greta Thunberg. They are in constant terror of the international spotlight.

Internationalism is not without its risks, however – the larger gaming community is notorious for its xenophobic, racist and right wing tendencies. Indeed, I think it is much more likely to expect further harassment from them instead of support: I am a brown person making a political video game. I have already had to deal with plenty of personal attacks and I am entirely sure that I will have more in the future. The strong right-wing communities in video games are more than happy to tell me that I should not be making a game like this. Left-wing communities are emerging now in gaming spaces around the world and it is very plausible that this state will not continue for long, but as of right now, the gaming space skews quite definitively towards the right.

This is why it is so important to collectivize and build our own communities of developers, players, organizers, activists and allies protecting not just our working conditions, but also our rights as cultural workers to make art that challenges systems of authority and celebrates plurality and diversity. At the very least, it means that should I go to jail, I will not be completely alone with no one to celebrate my work or mourn my loss. It keeps me from being forgotten.

Despite the dangers of imprisonment and the lack of financial returns, I still choose to make the games that I make. I am creating art and I will not be muzzled by a government that lacks both decency and taste. I would prefer that my passion be less dangerous though.

It is thus very heartening to see the rise of international organizing in video games. This issue is, at its root, a power imbalance that can only be solved through collective action. As collectivizing, organizing and solidarity form and grow internationally, they will create the safety net of people who understand the intricacies of video game development and are naturally aligned with game workers. This will be invaluable for developers like me, because organized labor can serve as a much-needed defense; not just against capital and tech giants, but also against the state.

The time has come for us to recognize a fundamental truth. We have no choice but to collectivize. It is too dangerous to go alone.

Nikhil Murthy is a programmer and designer at Why Not Games.He loves prototyping games and participating in jams. He also really likes breaking down problems with his games to their root causes and likes solutions that solve multiple problems at once.