Last summer, the Oxford Dictionary declared its Word Of The Year for 2017: ‘youthquake’, defined as ‘a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people’. The ‘youthquake’ propelled Jeremy Corbyn toward unforeseen electoral feats in 2016, declared the Guardian. Yet despite its quasi-revolutionary connotations, youthquake enthusiasts risk misunderstanding the attitudes of those they claim to represent.
A new political dynamic is astir in the minds of young people today. For decades, social scientists have observed the addictive draw of video games. In 2014, a Statista study found that Brits aged 8 to 15 years old spent an average of 20 hours per week gaming. Britain’s NHS will soon launch its first-ever Internet addiction centre, following the WHO’s designation of ‘gaming disorder’ as a mental health condition. As these trends continue to deepen, as recent data suggests, the influence of the virtual world grows. The adverse behavioural consequences of video games are well known, but determining their impact on political opinion has proved a more elusive task. In fact, video games may well be a nascent progenitor of the politics of tomorrow.
Nested in a promise of fun and entertainment, the virtual realm has acted as an alternative pedagogical platform. Governing the online sphere is a libertarian ethos, which designates individual agency and free expression as primary tools to achieving player fulfilment. In the competitive online landscape, competence is demanded, and taking it upon oneself to improve and succeed is elementary. Within this anarchic space, a resistance to authority manifests. Gamer culture rejects the mundane attitudes of traditionalists and the finger-wagging, high-minded pretensions of the nanny-Left. Such temperamental qualities feature in all popular games, and constitute the theoretical bedrock of video game entertainment. Consider one game that inculcates this libertarian ethos – World of Warcraft. Played predominantly by men aged 16 to 25, the game centres around individual character development within an über-competitive social hierarchy. Wealth distribution is non-existent – everything is earned by the player, and failure to enrich oneself results in a suboptimal gaming experience. Azeroth, the world WoW is played in, acts as a microcosm of sentient social relations – trade follows market principles, multiplayer cooperation creates prosperity, and venturing into the unknown amplifies opportunity. The fact that affairs are conducted in a virtual reality make them no less instructive. Rather, a unique opportunity is granted to the player to understand the peaks and troughs of the ‘real world’, with the protection of a virtual safety net.
Or take Fortnite, the ultimate survival game that has swept the globe this past year. Dropped into an expansive world with one hundred fellow avatars, players are forced to find weapons, kill foes and survive – the last man standing wins. The formula is simple, but mightily effective. Success rests on the judgment, competence and inventiveness of the player; the weak meet their fate with cold abandon. Fantasy materialises in this goofy, cartoonish world, as creativity and imagination run amok.
Unsurprisingly, free expression is held dear amongst gamers, although online anonymity can sometimes invite nasty excesses. Game moderators attempt to quash particularly vile rhetoric, but no amount of coding is a panacea. Given its inevitable existence, some practical value can be extracted. In fact, this exposure to vulgar, raw sentiment neatly negotiates a tolerance of unpleasant and offensive speech. The virtual sphere acts as a preparatory academy of democratic hard truths, coarsening its participants for the unavoidable improprieties of adult conversation. Appalling as it may be, this inadvertent exposure therapy readies individuals for uncomfortable language in the ‘real world’, which, in today’s cotton-wool culture, can only be an axiomatic good. It can be ugly, but despite what the gaming world’s most vociferous critics claim, it’s no creeping Fourth Reich.
Creativity and originality are, naturally, hallowed assets. Hence gamer queasiness toward today’s culture of social correction. The curious case of Kanye West, and his subsequent social deconstruction, being case in point. After Kanye tweeted ‘I like the way Candace Owens thinks’ (Owens being a pro-Trump black woman), Kanye was pilloried by the mainstream media and Hollywood for daring to think differently. Those that dare transgress progressive dogma become the subject of social and moral blackmail, particularly dissenters that come from ‘within’. Kanye’s mental health was suddenly brought into question, as was his credibility as a black man.
Those that fall outside prevailing pigeonholes unsettle cultural trendsetters, and like Kanye, gamers disproportionately occupy these spaces. This is the fundamental issue for many who have grown up with one foot in the quirky world of video games. Today’s cultural stewards demand ideological uniformity, and do so under the disingenuous guise of tolerance and compassion. They require we follow a set of rigid ideas arbitrarily authored by those who know best. It is the antithesis of artistry, authenticity and adventure. Most of all, it is anti-fun; for gamers that’s an instant non-starter.
What’s happening on campus is also stirring discomfort amongst young people. Spiked Online’s Free Speech University Rankings found that 54 per cent of British universities ‘actively censor speech’, while 40 per cent employ excessive regulation to stifle debate. Australian students face similar challenges – The IPA’s Free Speech on Campus 2017 Audit found 81 per cent of our 42 universities employed actions and policies hostile to free expression. Cyberspace is rapidly becoming one of the few remaining fertile plots of land for unique and eccentric viewpoints.
Measuring the impact of video games on political opinion is difficult. What is certain, though, is that the mind cannot be torn from its natural proclivity to explore. The virtual world actively encourages this adventure, and promotes the agency of the individual in navigating its precincts. It may be this unsuspecting platform – the platform that conservatives accused in its embryonic stages of infecting the minds of the young with debauched and depraved ideas – that will help keep dialectical freedom and independent thought from drifting further down the cheerless path of collectivism and control.
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