The following text, which has not yet been copyedited or proofed, was co-authored by Max Haiven, AT Kingsmith and Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou and is forthcoming in TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies in late 2022.
Dangerous Play in an age of Technofinance: From the GameStop Hunger Games to the Capitol Hill Jamboree
Max Haiven, A.T. Kingmsith and Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou
In this paper we explore one dimension of the contemporary cultural politics that gives rise to reactionary formations and movements: the desire for a kind of dangerous play within a financialized world where most people feel trapped in a game they can’t win. We take up three interwoven phenomena from the recent past in the United States, though with implications beyond that context: (1) the GameStop stock-buying frenzy of early 202l, (2) the storming of the US Capitol building on January 6 of that year, and (3) the dramatic rise in popularity of the QAnon conspiracy fantasy that appeared in 2017 and gained significant influence since. By locating these complex participatory phenomena in the context of digitized financialization characterized by gamification, alienation and profound inequalities, we supplement efforts to understand today’s reactionary imagination. We argue that all three might be seen as, in part, forms of dangerous play that both emerge from, rebel against and also, contradictorily, help to reproduce or entrench dominant inequalities. Hence those who wish to counter these reactionary tendencies or propose more radical responses cannot limit themselves to critique; they must also recognize what animates these forms of alienated play.
Early in 2021, almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, the GameStop phenomenon made headlines around the world as a swarm of small-time investors, many of them making their first ever venture into the world of finance, used smartphone and desktop apps to mass-buy shares in an ailing brick-and-mortar video game retailer and other well-known but underperforming public-traded brands (including the AMC cinema chain and the Blackberry smartphone company) (Blakeley 2021; Haiven 2021). These “mass shorting” events were played out in a bubble-prone, cheap credit economy that had been fuelled by years of low-interest rates and quantitative easing, bequeathing the explosive growth of gamified retail digital trading platforms.
Despite this, the enormous whirlwind of enthusiasm manifested in the GameStop saga appeared to be summoned out of nowhere, loosely coordinated (one might more accurately say encouraged) by self-styled (and largely pseudonymous) investment gurus on communications platforms like Reddit and Telegram (Popper and Browning 2021). Yet it was able to, in a few short days, wipe billions of dollars off the balance books of major Wall Street hedge funds who had been “shorting” the stocks of these companies, essentially betting against them. Caught off guard, these hedge funds (essentially highly-leveraged pools of very rich investors’ capital formed to take risky bets) scrambled to buy up stock to cover their positions, driving the price up even further (M. Phillips 2021). When the dust settled a week later, many GameStop investors found themselves having made tidy profits on often minimal investments, though in the aftermath, when rumours, advice and outright lies proliferated online, many others lost significant sums (M. Phillips et al. 2021).
The GameStop frenzy occurred just weeks after the fateful events of January 6, when, following a “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington D.C. at which Donald J. Trump decried the “theft” of his presidency during the previous November’s election, his followers stormed the US Capitol complex forcing legislators to take refuge and leading to five deaths (Leatherby et al. 2021). The event was the nail in the coffin of Trump’s gambit to call into question the results of the election and remain in office and has been widely heralded as a moment of reckoning across the political spectrum. Most notably, it has divided the country’s right wing largely because, as became clear in the aftermath, many of the protagonists of the siege who rallied to Trump’s call to take revenge for the “stolen” election espoused deeply unsettling beliefs ranging from the outright fascistic to the laughably absurd (Lutz 2021).
Meanwhile, these two events occurred amidst the meteoric rise of the QAnon conspiracy fantasy whose adherents hold that a cabal of celebrities, billionaires and political elites are part of a secret satanic child sex abuse and murder ring, and that an insider from the Trump administration’s efforts to bring these evildoers to justice, codenamed Q, is releasing riddle-like messages to their supporters on the darkest nether regions of the internet. A poll from May of 2021 indicated that, were its major tenets of faith classified as a religion, QAnon would rank among the most popular in the United States (Russonello 2021) in spite of a complete lack of evidence to validate its mind-contorting claims.
The GameStop Saga, the Capitol Siege and the Rise of Q – all three events are part of a broader reactionary turn in American and global politics that has emerged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the rising inequality, precariousness and alienation that accompanied it. A full understanding of the cultural politics of this reactionary turn requires an account of the way it has been explicitly and intentionally cultivated by far right political and economic actors, the way this has been enabled and exacerbated by the new socio-political ecologies and affordances of corporate social media, and the longer legacies of far-right and fascistic thought and feeling, notably their deep roots in reactionary patriarchy (Bratich 2022) and white supremacy (Toscano 2020). Our modest contribution in this paper is to draw attention to one particular cluster of elements in this dangerous mix. We are interested in how the heat and light of the GameStop frenzy, the Capitol riot and the QAnon phenomenon emerge in part from the friction between, on the one hand, the corporate-led gamification of everyday life and, on the other, the conditions of financialization that make most people feel like they are trapped in a game they can never win.
Our effort is not to exonerate or sympathize with participants in reactionary politics, but contribute to efforts to understand some of the forces and contradictions that help foster these tendencies. We suggest these phenomena, in part, help consolidate communities of dangerous play that help their participants re-enchant their lives in a moment of profound alienation and frustration. Efforts to counter these reactionary cultural politics requires moving beyond easy (and usually self-serving) demands to return to Enlightenment virtues of truth, evidence and reason, a position espoused by many liberal critics today. Rather, we need to carefully consider what it might mean to engage more thoughtfully with fantasy, enchantment, collective fun and the radical potentials of play.
Gaming the gamifiers? The Gamestoppers of Generation Hunger Games
Protagonists, proponents and prophets of the GameStop swarm were quick to declare that this was the triumph of the little guy over the Wall Street goliaths (Roose 2021). Many proclaimed that the GameStoppers succeeded where Occupy Wall Street, nearly a decade earlier, had failed (Donovan 2021). Hedge funds cried foul; pundits tut-tutted the “irrational exuberance” of the swarm; the newly elected Biden administration made quizzical noises; and RobinHood, the most popular trading app, the heartthrob lovechild of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, suspended the exchange of hot stocks (citing problems with the technological plumbing and internal liquidity, rather than what many suspected: significant pressure from the Wall Street banks and funds) (Skolnik 2021). This led many adherents, participants and supporters of the grassroots investors to note, with outrage and cynicism, that, finally, the “financial elite” was showing its true colours: for all their talk of the neoliberal “democratizing” of markets and their encouragement of everyone to “play” at the great casino, the game was rigged (M. Phillips et al. 2021): When late capitalism’s plebeians finally got a piece of the action, outmaneuvering the bloated patricians, we saw in real-time just how quickly the latter called for a time-out.
In the case of the GameStop “pop,” the most hyperbolic of these statements ranged from the absurd to the dangerous. On the one hand, the notion that the (momentary) losses of a handful of turgid hedge funds represents a meaningful challenge to the hegemony of Wall Street (many of whose other hedge funds and firms made plenty of profit from the GameStop episode) displays a remarkable degree of political and economic illiteracy (Blakeley 2021; Henwood 2021). It was later revealed that RobinHood and other apps had received major backing from – and thus massively benefitted – hedge funds not at all unlike those who bet against GameStop (MacMillan and Torbati 2021). Such a situation stretches back to the dot-com collapse of 2001, where cheap credit and a stream of speculative bubbles untethered tech financing from any grounding in actual production. In later years, this frothy enthusiasm was to fuel the rise of social media platforms that became primary drivers of the GameStop frenzy in the first place (Perez 2009). On the other, the chagrin of many at the chicanery of the “financial elite” to stop the GameStop games bore unmistakable echoes of anti-Semitic and other conspiratorial thinking that had, in recent years, seen a terrifying online resurgence only to burst forth in all its chaotic fury in the January 6th storming of the US Capitol (Traverso 2019; “GameStop Stock Spike Awakens Classic Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories” 2021).
The GameStop frenzy cannot in and of itself be said to have a unified ideological orientation. Not only did its participants come from a wide range of perspectives, if the rhetoric that surrounded it is any indication it was animated by a kaleidoscopic mix of political positions, expressed in tones ranging from the absurdly strident to the stridently absurd. We characterize this phenomenon less as a political movement than as a politicized form of play that took place within and against the larger game of financialized digital capitalism. Focusing on the carnivalesque qualities (including their grotesque elements) brings the event into focus as a moment of ambiguous collective joy which encompasses both utopianism and cruelty. It expressed rebelliousness against the typical rigged neoliberal “game” most people are compelled to play, and if it, for a few days, crowned the beggar king, it did so in ways that both prophesied the coming political storm and tamed its furies.
However, unlike more traditional and socially-embedded expressions of the carnivalesque (Lachman 1989), or even more recent forms of carnivalesque protests (Graeber 2007), it is important to note that the demographics of the GameStop frenzy skewed profoundly towards men and the already relatively well-heeled: according to one study, 88% of participants were men and had an average income almost twice the American median (Hasso et al. 2021). In this sense, we must see the GameStop investing frenzy as continuous with, rather than a break from, the reactionary patriarchal and petty-bourgeois dimensions of financialization (Reed 2021).
In this sense, it stood in stark contrast to other, previous and much more earnest if unsuccessful efforts to “hack” or subvert digital financialized capitalism’s own emergent tools. For instance, the Strike Debt movement that emerged from Occupy Wall Street had tried, starting in 2012, to crowdfund money to use the same subprime and distressed debt markets that had bred the 2008 crisis in order to buy up vastly discounted and near-default medical debts and then forgive them, setting debtors free (Haiven 2018, 199-204). Around the same time an art/activist cooperative dubbed Robin Hood Minor Asset Management (not to be confused with the RobinHood stock trading app) created an algorithm to follow the activities of the world’s most successful investors and use it to offer “the precariat” access to a “hedge fund for the 99%,” offering working people access to the lucrative returns on investment usually reserved for the wealthy (Ibid., 140-142). Each of these efforts and several more, often emerging from the realm of artistic experimentation, went beyond the simple boycott and attempted to use the emergent tools of digital financialization to dismantle the proverbial master’s house. Most such efforts advanced from a radical or leftist position that saw them as tactics within a broader strategy of social change rooted in notions of solidarity towards systemic transformation.
While the GameStop frenzy saw its protagonists frame themselves as the underdogs of digitalized financialization, it stressed their right to compete in place of any real notion of solidarity and did not espouse any unified call for systemic change that went beyond vague and typically ill-informed calls for deregulation, usually in line with the demands of free market think-tanks. In this sense, the overarching politics of the GameStop frenzy was, confoundingly, both vociferously antisystemic and also squarely within the dominant neoliberal ideology. In that sense, they were reactionary, both in the sense that they were based in reaction (rather than any substantial vision) and in the sense that they (often without knowing it) drew on a long legacy of right-wing thought that blames the ills of capitalism on government, regulation and efforts towards redistribution.
It was perhaps for this reason that revenge was such a common theme in the rhetoric of the GameStoppers (Haiven 2021): finally, the little guys (emphasis on “guys”), the perpetual losers, were going to beat high finance at its own game, using the very tools high finance had provided. Some argued this revenge represented the overture to a revolution that, by using the “masters’ tools” of online trading apps, would transform the markets to finally become a truly democratic space for fairplay and competition where the zealous, talented and otherwise meritorious could rise to the top (Toy 2021; Skolnik 2021). Others, more cynically, simply revelled in the momentary transformation of literal and figurative fortunes. The overriding theme that encompassed all positions, and was amplified by their very diversity, was that the GameStop escapade was itself a kind of giant game where, for a moment, thousands (perhaps millions) of people found a strange, momentary loophole – a way to, for once, game the gamifiers (Herrman 2021; Authers 2021).
Yet underlying these and other outraged or cynical claims from GameStoppers was a more fundamental truth: they had played the financial system within the rules, adhering to the instructions and resources afforded to them, and when, for a brief moment they won, retail investors were shut down and punished (Muzio 2021; Macey, n.d.). RobinHood and other similar apps represented the fruits of an unholy alliance between Silicon Valley and Wall Street which, inspired by the volatile popularity of earlier Chinese technologies, “gamified” the distended and highly professionalized activity of stock trading, making it accessible to a vast range of people with the equivalent of pocket change, rather than only the rich with significant disposable income (Heide and Želinský 2021; Chen 2016).
Specifically, the GameStop frenzy and the apps that enabled it emerge from a moment when the demands for financial returns have encouraged the tech sector (perhaps second only to finance itself in profitability) to dedicate massive resources to gaining, keeping and extracting value from the attention of technology users (Zuboff 2019). Gamification has been a key strategy for this: the application of the principles and techniques of game design to a wide range of activities not conventionally associated with play, including banking, education, fitness and exercise and, indeed, stock trading (Jagoda 2020). While this is typically offered as a form of liberation from routine, boredom and convention, deWinter, Kocurek and Nicols (2014) note, that it often represents the infiltration of work discipline, surveillance and exploitation into new terrains: the classroom, the factory floor and the in-between space once associated with leisure. For these authors and others, gamification is seen as the front line of the capitalist annexation of play.
Such advances can be considered part and parcel of the longstanding entanglement of neoliberalism and techno-utopianism, whereby people’s desires for a more inclusive and democratic society are positioned around the allegedly endless promise of new platforms and digital media more generally (Barbrook & Cameron 1995). To these ends, such apps built on both infrastructural and ideological changes in the preceding decades. In one regard, we had the neoliberal deregulation of finance (which continued in spite of the 2008 financial crisis – (Blakeley 2020) and the expansion of handheld digital technologies and apps, carefully built to harness, harvest and excite users’ attention in ways not dissimilar to gambling or substance addiction (Hwang 2020; Zuboff 2019). Conversely, we had the ramping up of a neoliberal ideological response to the very rising socio-economic inequality neoliberal politics had fostered: the democratization of finance (Skolnik 2021).
The digital gamification of personal finance builds on and answers a tendency within financialization more generally. As Randy Martin (2002, 2007) argues, financialization is not simply the dominance of the capitalist economy by hedge funds, private equity and asset management firms, nor is it only their incredible direct and indirect influence on state policy. It is, additionally, a transformation of social life and subjectivity towards a horizon where anything and everything of value is reframed as an “investment” and the world is recast as a series of risks to be privately, competitively managed. Haiven (2014) argues that, rather than the grim imposition of a dystopian nightmare, this element of financialization is often experienced or promoted as a form of personal liberation and opportunity and fundamentally relies on the cultivation of social agency. Komporozos-Athanasiou (2022) shows that, even if it might encourage individual competition, financialization also creates conditions within which new “speculative communities” cohere. Financialization, then, both generates the conditions for and also, at the same time, relies upon fostering new forms of individual and collective participation.
Though the GameStop protagonists came from a wide range of social, economic and demographic backgrounds, they announced themselves as, and its makeup largely reflected, a movement of youth. Many Millennials and Gen Zers reported fond childhood memories of buying console games at GameStop, adding to their fury when they realized (shortly after the swarm began) that certain Wall Street overlords were betting against the company (M. Phillips et al. 2021). This was also a generation that had grown up in the full, naked light of financialization and experienced first-hand the interminable “slump” of the post-2008 moment when, in spite of the rising fortunes of markets, working people and especially young people experienced grinding economic hardship and precariousness when compared to previous generations (Harris 2017; McNally 2010). These generations grew up on a world of ubiquitous handheld computing (the iPhone was released in 2007 and smartphones quickly became omnipresent), where everything was increasingly “gamified” with apps that “disrupted” almost every aspect of daily life, from retail, media entertainment and education to sex, romance, food and health, all layered with a thick coating of hype and rhetoric flavoured by a vaguely liberal rhetoric of choice, democracy, empowerment and diversity (Lay et al. 2021).
Yet some major energy of the GameStop swarm brewed in the general, overarching feeling for many of being in a huge competitive game one cannot hope to win, orchestrated by forces too large, too opaque and too unanswerable to ever be challenged (Levitz 2021). This is also, after all, Generation Hunger Games, who grew up reading the bestselling book trilogy which began in 2007 (and by 2014 had sold 30-million copies) and then watching the blockbuster movie quartet (which remain among the highest grossing films of all time) (Tompkins 2018). That is a story about a young woman from what appear to be from the Appalachian coal fields who, to save her younger sister, volunteers to take her place as a “tribute” in a sadistic gladiatorial spectacle to which a post-apocalyptic American mega-state called The Capital forces its colonies to annually send children as constants. One tribute survives to achieve fame and fortune by killing their competitors. In the course of the trilogy the main character and her friends participate in the games but in various ways refuse and rebel, eventually leading a revolution. One constant dramatic feature of the story is that the heroine constantly escapes one game to find herself in yet a larger game, leading to events at the climax of the trilogy when, broken-hearted and war-crazed, she assassinates her one-time ally, the president of the revolutionary republic, unable to tell if she is still in the games. She then retires with her fellow competitor/comrade to a life of post-traumatic paranoia.
In hindsight, the popularity of The Hunger Games should come as no surprise from a generation of children and young adults who were, at precisely this moment, being beset on all sides by a digitalized world that increasingly feels to many like an unwinnable but high stakes game (Fisher 2012). This is the same generation that grew up watching Game of Thrones, another cinematic franchise about an unwinnable war of all against all. It recently helped the South Korean Netflix series Squid Game – where debtors become contestants on a lethal reality TV game show for the exclusive voyeuristic and sadistic pleasure of a global elite – become the most streamed show ever. It should perhaps, then, come as no surprise that such a generation would, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century find a hero in the murderous looser and avenging patriarchal angel depicted by Joaquim Phoenix in the 2019 blockbuster Joker (Haiven 2020, 141-7). Who’s laughing now?
Here it would be important to note the way in which reactions to gamified financialization’s disruptions of the lifeworld open onto reactionary forms of what participants imagine to be resistance. #GamerGate, where (almost exclusively male) video game fans created a vicious real life game to target feminist game critics and designers, exemplifies the twisted ideological warren of beliefs that allow patriarchal revanchism to cast itself as the heroic rejection of a persecuted minority (Massanari 2017). Importantly, that frenzy arose thanks in part to a rumour that the video game industry and the approach of its publications were being “gamed” by feminists using their sexual wiles to unfairly gain an advantage.
Gamification may refer in a limited sense to the application of game mechanics, rewards systems and procedures to other spheres of life and activity, however in a broader sense it helps us to index the cultural and increasingly operational logic of a now-digitized capitalist economy (Lay et al. 2021; Rey 2014). The general feeling is that the game, itself, is “gamed,” adjusted in a million inscrutable ways to ensure that the winners will always continue to win, and the losers continue to lose. Such an unwinnable logic feeds into both the anger and apathy often associated with the affective tenor of an entire generation. But it also, importantly, it also helps to shape the tenor of resistance.
An Alibi for Continuous Play
We suggest that the pleasure GameStop “barbarians” took in their spectacular acts of ‘mass shorting’ was not only based on their momentary success at a game where they had habitually been the losers – it was also the joy of discovering a collective power to change the game’s rules. The same might well be said of the twisted joy of the Capital rioters who, having been taught to distrust the finite game of American electoral democracy (which they believed had been stolen) “broke into” a rigged game and claimed a new set of rules. There is, in general, a cultural mood or idiom in which those who perceive themselves of having played by the rules, but who also know the game is rigged, gravitate to momentary, joyful if dangerous outbursts of saturnalian exuberance, keen to turn the world upside down.
The binary of the notions of play and games has long been the subject of academic debate across a range of fields (Walther 2003). Not all play takes the form of games and not all games are exclusively about play. As we shall describe below, the idea that play is fundamentally open ended whereas games are inherently rules-bound is often misleading. We suggest that play is a fundamental element of life that often takes the form of games in particular historical and contingent ways that are entangled with social and economic power relations. The channeling of play into specific games is one exercise of social power. The refusal to play the assigned game, or the role one is assigned in a game, can be a form of rebellion and resistance. So too can be the determination to play by different rules, or to “play” in contexts that are determined not to be games. The GameStop frenzy and, we argue, other reactionary manifestations, operate in this tension between play and games. They see people playing in the “wrong” circumstances, by the “wrong” rules, with the “wrong” objectives. Yet these forms of dangerous play are not free of the conditions and “games” against which they rebel. They are shaped by and in fact often reproduce the power relations they seek to escape.
Unlike their predecessors, these forms of dangerous play have characteristics specific to an age of digitized financialization. They emerge from and are of a piece with a gamified world, where each individual has been habituated to imagine themselves as “player one” in a labyrinth of interlocking, rigged games. This was a swarm that generated itself out of the condition that Geert Lovink (2019) characterizes as “platform nihilism”: the particular form of alienation amidst ubiquitous social media, boredom amidst incessant distraction, emotional flatness in a digital world of constant affective stimulation and excitation. In a similar vein, James Bridle (2019) observes that any hopes that access to a world of online information would dispel the phantoms of reactionary conspiratorialism are now laughably jejune. In fact, the opposite is true: the quantity and velocity of information, as well as its dominance by corporate platforms in an arms race to harness our attention and data, lead into flight of compelling narratives and communities that offer structures within which complex systems of power find conveniently simple explanations. For Bridle, rather than a new Enlightenment, the digital era threats to be a New Dark Age defined not by transparency but by opacity and the strange paranoia that breeds in the darkness.
In his perceptive essay “Gaming the Plumbing”, Alberto Toscano (2013) argues that the rise of algorithmic high-frequency trading (HFT), by which warring supercomputers at rival high finance firms swap millions of investments in the blink of an eye, comprising about three quarters of the global volume of financial exchanges, represents a contradictory impulse within capitalism that illustrates this New Dark Age in which we find ourselves. On the surface, such trading is typically orchestrated by computers seeking to take advantage of and thereby profit from the split-second differentials in prices between markets (arbitrage), moving high volumes of capital very quickly to make massive profits in ways no human could (Grindsted 2016). Since the communications infrastructure, computing power and technical capacity to do HFT is way beyond any organization except a major financial firm, and since these trades now represent the most lucrative way to capture market returns, it essentially creates a financial ocean dominated by a few players, where most of the “retail” investors swim around like tiny krill intended to be eaten by digital whales. In essence, the game is “gamed” from the start (Bryan and Rafferty 2018).
More profoundly, Toscano links this to the broader collapse of what Fredric Jameson (1988), meditating on postmodernism decades ago, calls “cognitive mapping” – the ability of human actors to develop workable models of causality in the world. Elsewhere, Toscano has followed Jameson in arguing that the ideological confusion of our moment, including the rise of what we call conspiratorialism, signals the attempt to construct an operational cognitive map of reality from the fragments of knowledge, ideas, ideologies and impressions gleaned from a chaotic world. In terms closer to our focus here, cognitive mapping represents an effort to discern the unwritten rules of an increasingly chaotic game one is forced to play (Toscano and Kinkle 2015). For Toscano, HFT fundamentally transforms the game-field of finance and introduces a level of complexity and speed to the game that no human can comprehend or respond to. Such trends are exacerbated by financial firms literally “gaming their plumbing,” seeking to place their HFT computer’s servers ever closer to deep sea cable landings and other internet infrastructure to gain millisecond advantages over their rivals, the cumulative effect of which is a kind of never-ending techno-financial arms race (Bridle 2019). The result, as summarized by Picketty (2014), is a widening gulf between between, on the one hand, the returns on investment made by the rich and, on the other, the general rate of economic growth. As Milburn (2021) notes, this growing gulf has profound intergenerational effects: youth are typically excluded from asset accumulation (unable to buy housing, for example) and find their investments in their own human capital (education) to be highly disappointing on austere job markets.
Play is an open-ended terrain upon which particular social and economic interests utilise games – confined areas that challenge the interpretation and optimizing of rules and tactics – to enact power relations across time and space. Financialization in this regard is a game we are all compelled to play, but a game that is itself “gamed.” Its fundamental operations are intentionally and persistently skewed in favour of a financially-enriched subclass. The common experience of being a compulsory gamer in a game you can’t help but play yet which you can never really win helps explain the scattershot of ideology which animated the GameStop phenomenon.
James P. Carse’s 1986 cult classic Finite and Infinite Games (1986) provides a helpful schema to examine this entanglement of games, power and play. Finite games are those with clear and eternal rules and limits that one can obey in order to succeed, where success is to end the game with a beneficial outcome. A quintessential example is chess, where an ancient set of rules guides competitive play towards a defined conclusion based on the simulation of medieval warfare. By contrast, an infinite game is characterized by the adaptive proliferation and modification of rules, and success is the endless continuation of play. A parallel example might be medieval combat role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons which, though there are rules, is driven forward by imaginative improvisation of a “dungeon master (who narrates the world) and players (who narrate their specific characters within that world) and strives not towards a defined conclusion but ever-outward world-building. There are indeed rules in Dungeons and Dragons (and massive tomes dedicated to them), but the point of the game is not to win, per se, but to keep the story going: the rules are more of an alibi for continuous play than a rigid framework.
For Carse, the finite/infinite schema stretches to fields well beyond the realm of games and has profoundly spiritual overtones – essentially arguing that, in reality, there is only one totalizing infinite game of open-ended play in which all other games transpire. This schema is useful for unpacking the power and logics of the GameStop phenomenon as the result of gamification. The ideological messaging of neoliberal financialization has, for decades, been that “the market” is a kind of finite game. On a general level, this message has been – most seductively articulated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – that if one works hard and plays by the rules, success is guaranteed (Harvey 2007). This message tends to work ideologically not because there is substantial evidence to affirm it (most people who work hard and play by the rules remain poor, and a great many “successful” people are cheaters or inherited literal or symbolic capital) but because it offers a lens through which it becomes easy to blame others’ success on cheating or its lack on laziness (HoSang and Lowndes 2019). In this view, elites are rich because they cheat, and the poor are poor because they refuse to play by the rules.
In years since the 2008 financial crisis, this message has become increasingly weaponized, taking their fullest form in the politics of Trump, where the lack of success of those addressed as “average hard-working Americans” is blamed on an alliance of nefarious elite conspiracies and parasitic and lazy “special interest groups.” These two are said to conspire to use a vicious rhetoric of social justice to rob the addressed subjects of their entitlement to compete for success (Hochschild 2018). The obvious fact that Trump himself was a cheat, a man famous for bending or breaking the rules, did not contradict his incredible appeal to many who felt cheated by the very system that had enriched him. The cynical doubleness of both knowing the system is rigged yet demanding it be made fair (often through vengeance) yet also admiring the cheater and imagining the world is made up only of cheaters is a key dimension of reactionary thought. Here, Johan Huizinga’s (1949) distinction between the spoilsport and the cheat is instructive: whereas the spoilsport is hated for ruining the game by calling the participatory sham into question and therefore implying the stupidity and gullibility of the other players, the cheat is often esteemed, even by their victims, because they help maintain the legitimacy of the rules and structures while also bending or breaking them. Yet Huizinga’s analysis would be fruitfully complicated by attending to Sarah Ahmed’s (2010) theorization of the feminist killjoy: those considered to be “ruining” the game are often those who have been disempowered or oppressed within it who dare to make their reality speakable.
On a more specific level, the message around the “democratization” of finance has been that the market game is one that inherently, necessarily and eternally rewards the smart, perseverant and meritorious and that the true inequality in society is not due to wealth or its absence but differential access to markets (Martin 2015). Drawing on the liberal aspirations of neoliberal thinkers like Hayek or Friedman, the argument for the onward and outward march of markets has been that, because they do not care about the colour, creed or ideology of their participants, they are inherently morally superior, fairer and more efficient than any other mechanism of organizing human activities and should thereby be trusted to run most social institutions (Harvey 2007). The only roadblock is the way that those (temporarily) enriched and empowered by those same markets might use their power to protect their position, rather than allow free play, for instance by prohibiting participation or raising the costs of entry to newcomers who might become rivals (Nesvetailova and Palan 2013). Thus, the answer is to remove barriers to entry and allow all (or, perhaps more accurately, force all) to play the game. That game is presented, then, as a finite one: the laws of supply and demand and a modicum of state enforcement of contracts serves to create constraints in the form of a rigid arena of “fair play” where, like chess, an almost infinite number of moves are permitted.
The contrary reality, of course, is that finance in the expanded sense is more accurately conceived of as an infinite game where the rules are constantly changing. As the above discussion of HFTs indicates, the technologies are changing so quickly and so momentously that they render the play of small-time retail investors largely insignificant (Bernards 2019; Lewis 2014; Pasquale 2016). The bailouts that followed the 2008 financial crisis demonstrated that “too big to fail” players would be spared their losses and allowed to keep playing (Blakeley 2020). The LIBOR Scandal offered a glimpse into the kind of everyday collusion and bending of rules that is extremely common behind the scenes among the world’s largest investment banks (Rohde 2012). And the fact that it is almost always the former employees of these banks (or their partner institutions) that, worldwide, staff the offices of the regulators tasked with overseeing finance once again indicates that the rules governing markets have less to do with the “laws” taught to economic majors and MBAs at the world’s most prestigious (and expensive) universities than they do with backroom wink-and-handshake agreements made by these schools’ alumni, for which frat parties and conspiracies to hush up campus sexual assaults are better training than econometrics classes.
The overarching argument connecting all these naked contradictions is the pervasive sense of being trapped in an unwinnable or rigged game. In spite of its perplexing bracketing out of the long history of white racism, Arlie Russel Hochschild’s (2018) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right unpacks a particular affective politics driven by a sense of aggrieved fair play: the myth is that hard-working white Americans played by the rules but were robbed of the American Dream. While occasionally this narrative has vague anti-elitist politics, it is predominantly aimed “downward” on the ladder of socioeconomic privilege, with Hochschild’s interlocutors reporting an often vehement and visceral loathing for those “special interest groups” (women, racialized people, etc.) who are made to appear (by sensationalist media and in the unquestioned common sense) as having cheated in the game. As Daniel HoSang and Joseph E. Lowndes (2019) note, the notion of unscrupulous cheaters abusing the generosity of the system is one with deep racist roots in America, but one which has become detached from race and ascribed to various other social groups, and also globalized (M.S. Fisher 2012; McLean 2018). By contrast, Hochschild’s informers appear to be surprisingly more accepting of pernicious industrial and corporate interests in the area, even though the latter have been utterly destructive for local communities, because markets do not “make” (and hence also do not “break”) any fair play promises – unlike state and federal government, whose consistently failed promise of safeguarding ‘fair rules’ has made them entirely untrustworthy in the eyes of these communities.
Although many among those storming the Capitol in Washington on January 6 were organized neofascists and white supremacists eager to seize upon the insurgency (Lavin 2021), evidence also points to the fact that most were an uncoordinated swarm of malcontents with a confused hodgepodge of ideologies and goals, though almost all were aligned to the causes on the right side of the spectrum (Pape and Ruby 2021). Images of exuberant protesters, predominantly men, some of them jovially dressed, “playing around” in the Senate Chamber, reclining in the offices of reviled politicians or posing for photos amidst the gold-and-marble palace of democracy reaffirmed the impression that this event was driven in no small part by a kind of dark jouissance: the pleasure of a collective transgression. Here, at the very site the rules get made, a “basket of deplorables” who – just like the swarm of GameStoppers – felt themselves the losers of some rigged game, got to momentarily break or remake the rules. Contrary to the kinds of collective joy experienced by protagonists in mass protest actions or movements of liberation, theirs, in both cases, is a collective joy more reminiscent in American history of rabid witch-burners, the picnicking anti-Black lynch mob or of a long history of anti-Asian or anti-Latinx riots (Fretwell 2021; Grandin 2019; Hartman 1997).
Dispassionate Rationality in an Irrational System
The Frankfurt School’s work in the 1930s and 40s gravitated towards the question of how conservative conformity and radical reaction might, in spite of their apparent antagonism, be deeply connected. For instance, in their analysis of the authoritarian personality Adorno and colleagues (Adorno et al. 1950) sought to demonstrate how those who espoused a deep belief in laws and order, rules and obedience became so keen to license lawless, chaotic, cynical and sadistic fascist parties that, in almost every way, made a mockery of these principles in their actions while swearing to defend and embody them. Erich Fromm (1965) likewise sought to demonstrate how an authoritarian fear of freedom contradictorily leads to both an obsession with rules but also allows the breaking of them in the name of their enforcement. Similar concerns animated the later Giorgio Agamben’s (Agamben 2005) meditation on the State of Exception, wherein (following Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt) sovereign power vests itself not in the legitimacy of its rules but on its ability to break them. Yet, as Achille Mbembe (2003) adds, this should come as no surprise to students of colonial history, where Europeans constantly broke the rules they imposed and abrogated the fabled “rule of law” in the name of their (or their preferred racial subjects’) commercial and geopolitical interests by mobilizing the ideologies of racial superiority.
As Jack Bratich (2022) points out, to understand the resurgence of reactionary and fascist or fascist-adjacent ideology and activism today we need to reckon with its deep foundations in patriarchy and the state form. In our terms, the contradictory dream of being both the unanswerable rulemaker and impune rule-breaker is a desire coded deep within hegemonic masculinity and also the logic of modern sovereignty. This desire can express itself in many forms. These can, in certain historical circumstances, manifest as fascistic politics. But they also manifest in the kind of doublethink of financiers keenly observed by ethnographer Karen Ho (2009): on the one hand, the masters of the financial universe see themselves as rule-bound servants of the market, playing by a set of specialized rules in the name of promoting efficiency, wealth and vitality in the global economy; on the other, almost all (after a drink or two) will confess their cynicism, acknowledging that, for all intents and purposes, the game is rigged by “insiders.”
Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (2002) hinges on just such an argument. Their larger point is that, under the rule of capital and its systemic imperatives to produce surplus value, and in the care of the hopelessly confused bourgeois class who must serve capital but mystify their service as progress, the enlightenment virtues of reason become profoundly perverted and turned towards the relentless subjugation of humanity, rather than liberation. From international arms races, where an allegedly neutral science is tasked with developing ever more sophisticated killing machines, to the everyday class war, where modern industrialization makes humans into cogs in a productive apparatus oriented towards profit for its own sake, capitalism applies the Enlightenment’s tool of dispassionate rationality to produce an irrational system. Such a system necessarily gives rise to fascistic tendencies for a number of reasons, among them the feeling, especially prevalent across the intermediary petit bourgeoisie, that only authoritarian rule can stop cheaters (both above and below them in the class hierarchy) from gaming the system and thus restore the allegedly rational order. That fascism will necessarily suspend the rules to do so is accepted as the price of restoring the fairness of the game.
One of the approaches Horkheimer and Adorno take to unpacking this dialectic is an excursus on the Marquis de Sade’s 1797 novel Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded that paired violent pornography with philosophical musings. Here, detailed descriptions of joyfully immoral, brutalizing sexual games are intended to whet the appetite for a suite of proto-Nietzschean theoretical excursions. For Horkheimer and Adorno, Sade’s relentless skepticism towards any externally imposed morality makes him the true shadow of quintessential Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, who likewise preached the relentless questioning and transcendence of any external limits on thought and action as the highest moral virtue. But whereas Kant optimistically proposed that a world built on this principle would generate a peaceful and fair order of self-knowing, self-willing peers, Sade follows (and celebrates) the same principles to their horrific end: an endless game of lust, cruelty and abuse where the strong have no qualms about toying with the weak.
To put it in the terms this essay has introduced, Kant proposes the Enlightenment as a finite game where individuals play by the logical rules of reason in an orderly and generative way. It was an idealism that is mirrored by (and directly inspired) Adam Smith’s conviction that well-regulated free markets provided the optimal playing field for economic life (Perelman 2000). Sade (and, later Nietzsche) propose the Enlightenment as a kind of infinite game, where those with power make and break the rules as they see fit, but use the myth of the finite game to mask that reality.
Horkheimer and Adorno thus suggest Sade (who predicts a fascist worldview) sees clearly what Kant (who predicts a bourgeois worldview) must mystify: that reason itself does not necessarily produce a fair, moral order and can be transmuted into yet another expression of force. Importantly, for the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment this is not inevitable but transpires for historically specific reasons stemming from the way capitalism and the bourgeoisie, precisely because they justify themselves as the only trustworthy guardians of the Enlightenment project while at the same time turning it towards irrational accumulation, cause the Enlightenment’s collapse inward.
The self-mystification is key: the bourgeois must constantly spin narratives about the fairness and finitude of the game of which they are the perpetual winners and beneficiaries (Marx 1852). They perpetually win and benefit (as a class if not as individuals, whose fortunes vary) because the game is rigged in their favour in a million ways that owe more to structural momentum than intentional conspiracy. Horkheimer and Adorno wryly comment that while the whole narrative of Juliet is framed around the protagonist’s refusal to obey the pre-existing (Catholic) “rules” of morality and obey only her desires; yet her desires are fundamentally shaped by the frisson of violating the established codes of morality (on observation that Jacques Lacan (1989) would later take in a different direction). In other words, the infinite game of violation only makes sense, and is only fun to play, in reference to the broken rules of the finite game.
It’s never just a joke
Numerous scholars and commentators note that the siege of the Capitol flowed from a churning torrent of right-wing culture fed not only by residual reactionary ideas, but also new tendencies germinated on the dark side of the internet, including notorious forums like 4-chan where a juvenile hacker culture breeds casual and explicit racism and misogyny with an ironic smile (Askanius 2021; W. Phillips and Milner 2021). Gabriella Coleman’s (2015) study of the early tendency towards this political doubleness in the global hacker assembly Anonymous already points towards the digital chaos pursued for the fun of it and for subcultural capital which can swing both left and right. In the intervening decade it has clearly swung much farther right than left, with the notorious aforementioned #GamerGate events as a key signpost (Massanari 2017). While such shifts in gaming culture were driven by the economic logics of expanding markets to non-white and non-male players and audiences, this conspiratorialism would later blossom into more fulsome misogynistic cults, notably the so-called InCel (involuntary celibate) online subculture which directly inspired several acts of deadly real-world patriarchal violence (Bratich and Banet-Weiser 2019). In response to these horrific events, and the other real-world consequences of these swarming actions, protagonists would frequently espouse the defense that “it’s just a joke” (Scott 2021).
Likewise, the neofascist homosocial cult, the Proud Boys, who were one of the more organized tendencies at the January 6 riots, at least initially expressed their atavistic “Western chauvinist” ideology, their policy against masturbation and their absurd black-and-yellow uniforms (which make them look like caddies at Mussolini’s golf club) as both real and a joke at the same time (Feuer and Robles 2021; DeCook 2018). In all these cases and more, reactionary ideologies increasingly first espouse themselves first as farce, then as tragedy, first delighting in the offense and attention they create, then “doubling down” as it were on the absurd tenets of faith. It is partly a game. A very dangerous game.
In this argument we are echoing the observation raised by multiple game designers that contemporary reactionary conspiratorialism, notably the QAnon phenomenon, bears many of the hallmarks of popular “augmented reality” and multiplayer open-world games and, more generally, the shift towards “crowdsourced” content (Thompson 2020; Berkowitz 2020; Project 2021). Briefly, the extremely popular QAnon fantasy reheats and combines a wide range of existing and historical conspiracy theories, many of them with deep roots in anti-Semitism, to argue, in broad strokes, that political elites, A-list celebrities, corporate executives, billionaires and others are involved in a satanic cult that is abducting children for sexual exploitation and to harvest their vital fluids. The fantasy revolves around a mysterious character, Q, who appeared in online message boards in 2017 claiming to be an insider in the Trump administration helping the President fight back against the evildoers and “leaking” cryptic information to followers. Unlike the Gamestop phenomenon and the January 6 attempted insurrection, the QAnon phenomenon appears to have attracted as many women and men, in part because its narrative gravitates around have been traditionally cast as “feminine” concerns, notably the defence of children (Bracewell 2021).
Game designer Reed Berkowitz suggests that while people’s propensity towards apophenia, “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things” is often used in video games (and perhaps all works of culture) to entice players to solve puzzles, in the “game” that QAnon devotees play is a riddle without a solution, a game without end. Berkowitz (2020) warns:
QAnon grows on the wild misinterpretation of random data, presented in a suggestive fashion in a milieu designed to help the users come to the intended misunderstanding. Maybe “guided apophenia” is a better phrase. Guided because the puppet masters are directly involved in hinting about the desired conclusions. They have pre-seeded the conclusions. They are constantly getting the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message Q is delivering.
These observations have been taken up by members of the Italian radical writing collective Wu Ming (Chinese for “without name”), who were initially suspected for being among the “puppet masters” beyond QAnon because of the uncanny resonance of the phenomenon with themes in their work, notably their 1999 novel Q (written under the project name Luther Blissett) which takes the German peasant wars of the counter-reformation as a stage to meditate on conspiracy, extremism and the nature of knowledge (Frankel 2021; Merelli 2018). In their riposte to accusations of their involvement Wu Ming 1 (a member of the collective) draws on a fellow Italian writer and theorist, the late Umberto Eco, whose fascination with the dangers and the pleasures of conspiracy theory were indelibly presented in his bestselling and widely translated Foucault’s Pendulum (Eco 1989). In that novel, three editors at a vanity press in the disenchanted and hyper-consumerist 1980s concoct a scheme to make money and escape boredom by inventing a fabulous conspiracy theory involving the knights templar and pitching, only to find themselves fatally trapped in the increasingly lethal fantasies of those whom they are seeking to beguile. For Wu Ming 1 (2021), Eco’s novel provides an important catalyst for developing a “genetic history” of the QAnon conspiracy which locates its origins in medieval blood libels but charts its mutations and increasing virulence in the transformations of the capitalist system towards the current moment of neoliberal financialized gamification.
What we are gesturing towards here is the way that reactionary cultural politics of the conspiratorial emerge and take strength from a gamified, financialized world where everyone on some level knows, whether they admit it or not, that the game is rigged but we must play it anyway (Silvestri 2021). Or, if you prefer Leonard Cohen, “everyone knows the dice are loaded; everyone rolls with their fingers crossed.” This gamification, we argue, is both materially and culturally driven by financialization. In this regard, the GameStop frenzy and the Capitol Siege and QAnon offer moments of what appear to be collective counter-gaming, a joyful game in which, for a moment, rigged rules seem to be overturned. These instances can be fruitfully imagined as the dangerous cooperative games of alienated financialized subjects.
Everywhere Play is Free and in Chains
We have argued that such tendencies cannot be separated from a broader socio-political turn towards gamification. The compulsory disposition of being in a game one cannot win, where the powerful constantly change and override the rules they also enforce, gives rise to particularly reactionary fantasies (Kingsmith 2018). These fantasies, when combined with a culture, society and economy based on lonely and competitive isolation drive people towards dangerous forms of collective play. If that is so, we ask: what are the prospects for countering these tendencies? And how can these dispositions, inclinations and cultural politics be reoriented in other directions, towards horizons of collective liberation, social justice and transformation?
Our conjecture is that efforts to counter the rise of reactionary conspiratorialism will require a keen attention to it as a form of dangerous collective play. Such an approach helps us move beyond what we and others see as an unhealthy obsession with demands to “return” to Enlightenment principles of truth, evidence, order and reason. While none of these virtues is objectionable, the demand that they be adhered to typically does precious little to actually challenge their absence in the cultural and social climates within which reactionary cultural politics breed. The irrationality of these politics, we are arguing, reflects a reaction against life in a highly financialized system that is both endlessly gamified and functionally unwinnable.
But just as much, reactionary conspiratorialism exhibits the characteristics of a kind of play that is collective. On one level, this play represents a jouissant rejection of the Enlightenment project, the selection of the irrational, fantastical and absurd over the rational, realistic and serious. On another level, however, ‘play’ represents a shared, double-conscious recognition that the rules of the ‘game’ are malleable and flexible, even as the reactionary mind obsesses over the sacred and essential nature of order.
In developing such an approach, David Graeber’s (2014) unfinished work on the centrality of play to human society (and, expensively, to all life) is illuminating. For Graeber, play offers an equally compelling explanation for the motivation of organisms (and, indeed, even for subatomic particles) than our habitual recourse to theories of evolutionary competition. What if the joy of improvisation, experimentation and convivial silliness were the basis of life (or at least of society and its economies), rather than the struggle for survival through the deadly serious monopolization of scarce resources? Here, Graeber echoes a long history of subversive radical thinking that might be said to include Huizinga’s (1949) Homo Ludens, which argues that the disposition towards play is the elemental feature of human beingness, and George Bataille’s 1949 The Accursed Share (1991), which argues that, rather than scarcity, the human condition (and the condition of all earthly systems) is the need to contend with the scourge of abundance, including through purposeless play, sacrificial ritual, gift-giving and non-reproductive sex.
Like these authors, Graeber wishes to restore play to prominence in social affairs without glamourizing it: “The play principle can help explain why sex is fun, but it can also explain why cruelty is fun.” This approach, especially as it revolves around sex (which, as asexual activists and thinkers alert us, is not fun for all people, even when consensual (Lappe 2016), is reminiscent of efforts by the Frankfurt School, especially Erich Fromm (1965) and Herbert Marcuse (1955), to wed Freudian and Marxian analyses to understand authoritarian and exploitative systems as reactionary mechanisms in order to both repress and harness the power of eros. It also echoes more recent efforts by feminist, queer and anti-racist thinkers to re-centre pleasure at the core of our political understanding (brown 2019).
Such efforts come at a time when neoliberalism in many ways claims to have solved the problem of pleasure once and for all: formal liberal freedoms within a market atmosphere, it is claimed, are uniquely capable of offering an infinite array of consensual pleasures, evidenced by the gradual decriminalization and destigmatization of sexual behaviours once thought “deviant” (Drucker 2015). Indeed, neoliberal digitalized capitalism has given rise to whole new forms of pleasure, including binge-watching serial television, ‘doomscrolling’ social media feeds and entering into (and perhaps destroying) ever more niche online communities – as well as, latterly, a digital resurgence of New Age aesthetics. Far from the grim technocratic future, where all pleasure is repressed in the name of rational efficiency, we are living in a nightmare shared by Huxley, Foucault, Marcuse and Debord where we are constantly exhorted to invest in our own pleasure. If, in its first act, masquerading as the spirit of the Enlightenment, capitalism disenchants the world, now, in its final(?) act it tasks each of us with its individualized reenchantment.
Play and pleasure and power and games are all separate concepts but related by more than etymology. Under late gamified digital capitalism play is everywhere free and everywhere in chains. Video games, which in spite of valiant efforts by independent designers, remain largely monopolized by a handful of corporations that tend to confine digital play to a very narrow spectrum of options (Dyer-Witheford and Peuter 2013; Boluk and LeMieux 2017) engendering the imposition of the rule-base imaginary of games over the radical imagination of free play. Handheld gaming, which is massively popular around the world, is likewise extremely proscribed in form and largely calibrated to use cutting edge neuroscientific research that “addicts” players to digital platforms to retain them as revenue streams, to harvest their data, or to sell their attention in the form of advertising (Macguinias 2020; Zuboff 2019). Professional sports are similarly dominated by a handful of extremely rich franchises whose revenue largely comes from advertising (Jacob 2020; Zirin 2008). Amateur sports are increasingly cited and framed not as fun in and of themselves but as means to cultivate one’s human capital, teaching especially youngsters the values of teamwork, perseverance and “grit” (or “resilience”) and offering people of all ages a means to “invest” in their own physical and mental health, the better to be able to work harder, longer and more successfully (Ikonen and Nikunen 2018; Overman 2011; Pinto and Blue 2015). In the United States, three companies basically control the entire “hobbies” market (which has now expanded to include practically any and all handicrafts) and platforms like Etsy and Instagram encourage the transformation of such play into symbolic or actual capital (Anderson 2019; Luckman 2015; Zulli 2017).
The dictat that we must “do what we love” has, as numerous critics point out, become a punishing universal imperative that normalizes increasingly precarious workers into an economy built on the transmutation of affective labour, personal passion and the desire for fulfillment into new vectors of exploitation and alienation (Jaffe 2021; Weeks 2017). And while we must celebrate and defend the liberation of human sexuality in recent decades, we must also attend to the surprising drop in sexual activity reported among younger generations (Twenge, Sherman, and Wells 2017). This has many contributing factors, key among them those conditions now termed “mental ill health” and the now-ubiquitous libido-suppressing biochemical remedies favoured by the medical establishment to treat them (Serretti and Chiesa 2009; Kingsmith 2019). But we also suggest it may have something to do with the profound stress placed around sex, sexuality and relationships in a neoliberal, financialized age when, on the one hand, most are habituated to a profound competitive isolation and, on the other, when the family (still calibrated around the monogamous pair bond, though now allegedly open to a diversity of gendered configurations) remains the basic and fetishized unit of economic survival (Cooper 2019; Ghodsee 2018).
Neoliberal financialization, in other words, has put play to work in a million ways of which the digital gamification of everything is just one example. On one level, reactionary conspiratorialists recognize this and, in the face of it, sometimes hallucinate the idea of a “return” to a more serious time when solid, fundamental values ruled, notably around gender and sexuality (Traverso 2019). The Proud Boys’ celebration of “traditional” heterosexual monogamy and prohibition of masturbation is but one example of a reactionary response to the gamification of the world (though of course it, too, is a game, and a particularly homosocial one) (DeCook 2018). The seriousness with which reactionary conspiratorialists take their dangerous games (“cosplaying” as military special-ops; play-acting as inheritors of the Boston Tea Party; encouraging wild flights of conspiratorial fancy about a secret order of pedophiles like some adolescent Cards Against Humanity game gone terribly wrong) flexes the same muscles built in a lifetime of futile but compulsory games.
All these forms of reactionary cultural politics provide what all games promise: a sense, even briefly, of community, of shared creativity, of the feeling of being part of something larger and more important, of moving towards some sort of horizon of change. In a financialized world of alienation, of ennui, of isolation and futility, conspiratorialism appears to offer the antidote, but not because it claims to offer an accurate cognitive map that might allow one to chart meaningful social change — indeed, arguably the most successful forms of conspiratorialism offer a vague, contradictory and unreliable cognitive map. This clouded form of mapping is effective because it mirrors the confusing experiences of the game itself. The QAnon phenomenon, for instance, offers not so much a delimited map but an ever-expanding world of construction: the infinitude of MineCraft instead of the finite limits of Risk (Hannah 2021).
What they ultimately provide are communities of dangerous play. That the players may refuse to see it as a game is just part of the game. So too is the game of saying “it’s just a game” when clearly it is not or is no longer. If that is the case, then efforts to counter the lure of reactionary conspiratorialism cannot confine themselves to admonishments to “stop playing” or warnings about how dangerous the game has become (Dentith 2018; “Tackling Coronavirus Disinformation” 2020).
They know. They like it dangerous. They want more.
Rather, such efforts will need to take seriously how to otherwise meet the deeply human needs that are being fulfilled by reactionary cultural politics. We suggest that key among these is the need to play together in ways that reduce themselves neither to the instrumental rationality of capitalist accumulation nor to finding one’s individual competitive advantage within it. Here we want to distance ourselves from positions, such as those advanced by Nagle (2017), that echo the arguments of the far right: that the Left abandoned both materialist struggle and countercultural provocation in favour of technocratic inclusion and semi-institutionalized “identity politics” and, therefore, abandoned both terrains to the resurgent right. Rather, our argument is that cultural politics today occurs within a field of forces that is characterized in part by the particular experience of being trapped in an unwinnable game, such as we have described. Digitalized financialization and its forms of gamification have helped reshaped social subjects and the forms of sociality in ways we are still trying to understand. However, if reactionary cultural politics find traction in the way they facilitate the development of new communities around dangerous play, how might these be energies be redirected towards movements that would transform or abolish digitalized financialized as such?
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