A number of popular video games are putting stories of paranoia, anxiety, political fringes and complex conspiracies of power into the mainstream.
The video gaming industry has at least twenty years of conspiracy narratives among its mainstream hits and cult classics.
Although they are works of fiction, videogames nonetheless introduce and normalise stories of corruption, collusion and control among powerful elites, even when many have little overt connection to the particular fears and political contexts of our current pandemic moment.
Conspiracy narratives can easily become accepted pictures of reality when individuals have no other ways of framing stories or understanding events.
COVID-19 conspiracy theories have grown from far-Right roots in narratives about government conspiracies that pre-date the coronavirus.
They can have very real effects, such as a recent large gathering of people in a Melbourne gym of people refusing to wear masks or social distance.
Common features of play in video games, such as exploring a new world to reveal its inner workings and secrets and a heroic play character fighting against the odds, lend themselves to narratives of conspiracy.
Protagonist heroes uncover, resist, and often, if not always, defeat the enemy.
The Deus Ex and Assassin’s Creed franchises are among the most successful game series ever made. Both feature staples of twenty-first century conspiracy theories, including corrupt corporations and the Illuminati.
Conspiracy narratives are applicable to a wide range of settings: Deus Ex takes place in a dystopian near future, while the Assassin’s Creed games encompass a millennia of historical settings.
These stories even cross genres, from hard-boiled detective stories like LA Noire and Max Payne, the steampunk Dishonoured, and the Japanese science fiction Metal Gear franchise.
Against a broad background that normalises conspiracy theories and countless examples of conspiracy narratives in games, it’s not surprising that some lend themselves to specific political positions.
The storyline of Deus Ex and its sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War have terrifying implications in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Deus Ex a sinister global conspiracy organised by pro-Enlightenment forces unleashes a bioweapon – a pandemic – that lets them begin a secretive takeover of the American state.
In Invisible War, the global depression that results from the bioweapon’s pandemic triggers a pro-global military regime in the US. American patriots resist by mounting an armed insurgency against the state and the US Army.
Already, the “infodemic” of conspiracy theories and mis-information has obstructed efforts to fight COVID-19. It’s prominently featured the falsehood that the virus originated from a bioweapons lab in Wuhan and that China, using the WHO, deliberately unleashed the virus to cause a global depression.
These conspiracy narratives have attached to existing right wing conspiracy narratives involving the Clintons and George Soros.
According to Der Spiegel (12 Apr 2020), although much of the misinformation around medical solutions to COVID-19 emerges from near the Moscow Kremlin, the “Chinese/WHO bioweapon/depression conspiracy” emanates from the USA.
It is not impossible that the alt-right and the militia organisations are a key source of this propaganda.
In our times of global political turmoil and COVID-19, normalised conspiracy theories are especially dangerous.
Extreme right-wing political agendas to overthrow democracy are served by undermining trust in governments and social institutions.
Understanding video games is particularly important, as the neo-fascist alt-Right has weaponised radical gaming subcultures and are using them as recruitment beltways into serious militia organisations.
These militias are “accelerationist,” meaning that they intend to “accelerate” social disintegration to create political and social anxiety, within which an ultra-rightwing military coup or reactionary civil war becomes possible.
Deus Ex was played by members of the international neo-fascist group ‘Atomwaffen Division’, 50 of whose profiles were removed from online gaming platform Steam in late 2019 for their fascist imagery.
Atomwaffen Division Steam profiles were also associated with other first-person shooter games that involve a second – contemporary or future – civil war in the USA, such as American Patriot and Freedom Fighters.
Earlier this year, Timothy Wilson – a member of “Atomwaffen Division” – attempted to bomb a hospital treating coronavirus victims in Missouri, in order to increase the case fatality rate in that state.
This is an excellent example of ‘accelerationist’ attempted action.
The Australian white extremist terrorist, Brenton Tarrant – who murdered 51 Muslim people in Christchurch last year – was also accelerationist.
Tarrant’s manifesto was full of memes and internet humour and written for sites like 4chan and 8chan which cross over heavily with videogaming subcultures.
Videogames alone do not radicalize individuals and turn them to violence – even those games that engage directly with current political paranoias and conspiracy theories.
But they do provide models for violent action from individuals.
Lone protagonists fighting corruption among the powerful and secret conspiracies offer imagined heroic narratives that can map easily onto violent ‘lone wolf’ terrorism.
Lev Vygotsky, a social scientist who researched play, argued that it is where “desires and tendencies of what cannot be realized immediately” manifest.
In other words, play is where we can act out fantasies we’re otherwise unable to.
This doesn’t mean that everyone who plays a violent game wants to commit murder, but it does suggest that the kinds of stories that are very popular can give us insights into our collective social and cultural anxieties.
Conspiracy narratives in games suggest, perhaps, that we are anxious about not knowing who is actually running the world and about how they might use their power.
But the stories they tell about answering that question and resisting oppression are typically tales of individual violence, not organised political activism and action.
Gaming contexts such as Deus Ex and other conspiracy narratives provide a cultural environment within which irrational stories flourish.
When they intersect with rising authoritarian politics, they can gesture towards violent action. Even when the links are not so direct, normalisation of narratives of secret corruption and collusion among the powerful lends credence to disinformation.
Dr Helen Young and Associate Professor Geoff Boucher are academics from Deakin University’s School of Communication and Creative Arts and Fellows of the Deakin Motion.Lab.