Democracy Levels Up: Online Video Games as Liberation Technologies?
by Grayson Lewis
Introduction and Framing
A decade ago, with the internet beginning to show its true potential as a tool for democratic activism, Larry Diamond dubbed it a wellspring of “liberation technology.”1 To Diamond, “liberation technology enables citizens to report news, expose wrongdoing, express opinions, mobilize protest, monitor elections, scrutinize government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of freedom.”2 He heralded software and websites with an overtly social and informative purpose as some of the rising stars in the growing constellation of liberation technologies. The “ blogosphere” was utilized as an alternative source of news in regions and locales with strict, repressive media environments. Later, Facebook and Twitter became legendary as the central tools for organizing pro-democracy uprisings in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya during the Arab Spring of 2010-2012. In each of these countries, masses of citizen protestors communicated rapidly on the social media platforms, managing to bring down recalcitrant dictatorships organically, if not always peacefully. In the years since the Arab Spring, noticeable problems with social media (disinformation, hate speech, and state surveillance) have dampened its efficacy as a liberation technology. This has led some scholars at the intersection of democracy and technology to ask, through what other avenues then might more promising forms of online liberation technology be found? One answer may come from a rather unexpected genre of electronic media.
In recent years — but particularly since the dawning of this new decade — some individuals have begun to realize the burgeoning potential of online-capable video games as a new type of liberation technology. In the era of COVID-19, video games have provided an escape into a fantasy world that seems to be the perfect respite from an indoor life of gloom, isolation, and perpetual news of global health and economic catastrophe. Even older individuals who have previously had negligible or perhaps only cursory interactions with video games have now taken to them as a means of entertainment. Games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Minecraft provide rich and colorful outdoor settings in which players can live a second life, gardening, crafting, and establishing friendships with an array of virtual neighbors. Though video games have been around since the 1970s, the incorporation of the internet has informed their shift from a form of entertainment intended for individuals or small, physically-proximate groups, into a means of mass social interaction. Most major titles that are released today have some form of internet usage.3 It is this possibility for online interactions that takes video games from being merely another form of high-tech entertainment into the realm of a profound social experience. With that evolution comes the potential for the use of games as a means of other, unintended online social interaction — including political expression and civic engagement.
As Hugh Davies of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology notes, “video game activism is understood as the intentional use of digital game technology to bring about social or political change.”4 To this end, a creative and purposeful use of a video game’s mechanics and online social functions with the intent for actions in-game to bring about social or political change in the real world can render a hitherto trivial game as a novel type of liberation technology. Two examples, both from 2020, illustrate how online video games are indeed being utilized by individuals to interact with each other in political ways that were not intended by their creators — as a substitute for closed civic spaces, shuttered due to either state repression or the COVID-19 pandemic. One case saw the open sharing of censored literature and news media on a massive online video game server as means of skirting the prying eyes of authoritarian regimes.5 The other involved the use of in-game protests in lieu of physical demonstrations in the real world.6
Video Games as a Means of Skirting Information Censorship: Minecraft and the Uncensored Library
When upstart Swedish game developer Mojang launched its flagship title Minecraft in 2009, no one had expected anything other than its initial imagining: a colorful, open-world adventure game that promised ‘sandbox’ style gameplay, allowing players to build or remove anything in the world that they desired. Until only recently, Minecraft’s signature boxy, square blocks were mostly used by children and teens to build digital palaces, skyscrapers, or models of real-life buildings.
In March of 2020, however, media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders announced that they had undertaken a project with a novel use for the game which was now a global bestseller.7 Partnering with the niche game company Blockworks, which designs custom Minecraft levels — referred to as “servers” — for customers, they created a downloadable server which contains a massive library filled with censored literature. Referred to as the Uncensored Library, it is a massive, orthogonal structure occupying the center of a server that took designers months to build. The pieces of written and audio media within are heavily-restricted or forbidden in their country of origin, with the journalists who wrote the content being subject to extreme regime-sponsored repression. The works are written out or recorded on in-game books or cassette tapes, respectively, and placed throughout the building for players to engage with.
The Uncensored Library currently contains material from authors in seven countries — Egypt, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Brazil, and Vietnam. Each country has its own room in the building, complete with an artistic diorama in the room’s center that symbolizes journalistic oppression by each state’s government, or in Mexico’s case, the cartels. Russia’s room, for example, features a massive leviathan representing autocratic president Vladimir Putin’s ability to sink any independent media network.
The genius of the Library is its use of the Minecraft platform. As the second best selling video game of all time, it has one of the largest player bases in the entire world, with 126 million monthly players in 2020, spread across dozens of nations.8 This includes players who live under overtly censorious governments who would otherwise ban the sale and possession of a game that would be critical of the state. For example, the distribution and sale of the popular 2013 military-themed game Battlefield 4 has been forbidden in China for “content that endangers national security and is all about cultural invasion.”9 But many authoritarian regimes do not see any danger in their populations playing a title that consists of collecting different types of blocks to build artistic and creative structures. Thus, the use of an unassuming game like Minecraft as a platform likely extends the Library’s potential audience. Players in Egypt might have previously used Minecraft as a way to stay connected with friends, perhaps engaging with others about personal topics as they worked together to build a structure on their shared server. Now, they have the additional capacity to visit the Uncensored Library server and listen to audio recordings of reportage by the censored national newspaper, Mada Masr. Vietnamese citizens, who face government firewalls and legal restrictions from accessing regime-critical blog posts, can now find some of those blogs by heading to Minecraft, instead of a heavily-surveilled internet cafe.
Currently, the Uncensored Library contains only a handful of texts and audio clips, but Reporters Without Borders has stated that the Library will continue to grow. Its featured section in 2020 contained articles that detailed the methods with which media-repressing regimes are dealing, or failing to deal, with the coronavirus. Autocratic and semi-authoritarian regimes which are not one of the Library’s main countries that are present in this section include North Korea, Hungary, and Myanmar.
Video Games as a Means of Peaceful Virtual Demonstration: “Free Hong Kong” Protests on Animal Crossing
From its inception nearly twenty years ago, the Animal Crossing series was known for its charming array of characters and penchant for the gamification of quotidian tasks like gardening, interior decoration, and fishing. The humans and anthropomorphic animals that populate the game provide the aesthetic of a welcoming virtual neighborhood. For the most part, Animal Crossing, like Minecraft, was never expressly political. The newest installment of the game series offers the ability for players to visit each other’s virtual island-homes online, where the players’ in-game characters can speak and interact with one another. This feature is primarily used by players to show off their island’s native fruits and their home decorations to friends. But it acquired a more serious use entirely when it was used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in the Spring of 2020.
The uprising against Hong Kong’s city administration and the larger Chinese central government with its Communist Party began in March of 2019, in response to a bill that would have allowed Chinese extradition of Hong Kong citizens to the Chinese mainland.10 Concerned with a larger loss of freedom and independence from Beijing, Hong Kong citizens continued to demonstrate amidst police crackdowns throughout late 2019. It was not only regime security forces that pushed protesters indoors, however, but also the onset of the novel coronavirus. As the city, the rest of China, and indeed vast swathes of the world dealt with the pandemic in early 2020, pro-democracy activists sought innovative ways to maintain their protests. To do so, they looked to the newly released video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a vehicle for their resistance.
By early April 2020, many Hong Kongers had begun sharing their political grievances with fellow players on Animal Crossing, including some major organizers of the latent real-world demonstrations. Some methods of in-game protest mimicked the physical rallies that had become a staple of life in the beleaguered peninsular city — characters stood together on one player’s game island, shouting popular slogans like “Free Hong Kong, revolution now,”11 in cartoon speech bubbles. Players would also set up their own pixelated protest signs with the slogans in English or Chinese, or images of relevant political figures. Other virtual protest means were more creative, taking advantage of the game’s mechanics — demonstrating characters lined up in front of a row of digitized pictures of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in the ground, before ceaselessly whacking the effigies of the unpopular politician with butterfly nets. At many rallies, players even adorned their characters with virtual protest clothing like gas masks and black shirts, mimicking their uniforms out in the real world. The shirts often featured pigs or dogs, the animal symbols of the Free Hong Kong protests. These were the products of an innovative feature that allows players to design clothes or the aforementioned signs and posters for their characters. The camaraderie between protesting players, and the realistic, if not garish outfits and visuals, allowed demonstrators to recapture a semblance of their fight for freedom, even when separated by disease and confined to their homes.
Sadly, Free Hong Kong’s Animal Crossing rallies did not last long. Upon catching wind of the use of the game for free speech purposes, Beijing effectively banned the game, blocking imports of physical copies into its borders, while preventing sales of digital copies on Chinese versions of the Nintendo Switch. While some ingenious Chinese and Hong Kong gamers have found ways to circumvent the ban, it is unclear how many are utilizing their contraband copies of New Horizon to engage in Free Hong Kong demonstrations. Meanwhile, alternative games like Grand Theft Auto V saw use as a similar venue for virtual, in-game protests by Hong Kong activists.12
Other protest movements also seized upon the use of Animal Crossing for their peaceful, virtual activism. The recent Black Lives Matter marches for racial justice in the United States, for example, have been accompanied by their fair share of similar Animal Crossing rallies.13 Similar to the Free Hong Kong demonstrators, some of these American protestors assigned digital Black Lives Matter clothing to their game characters and gathered on each other’s islands around signs and messages that featured victims of racial police violence. In November of 2020, Nintendo ultimately asked businesses and brands to “refrain from bringing politics into the Game,”14 though this language would seem to still allow for protests organized by individual activists.
Going Forward: Implications for the Future?
Thinking past these two types of application, could there ever be room for using electronic games to directly conduct core functions of democracy? In the face of growing concern about the epidemiological dangers posed by traditionally large, crowded American campaign events, U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar held a widely-viewed event for their reelection bids on the popular game Among Us. 15 The presidential campaign of Joe Biden, meanwhile, created a level in the game Fortnite designed to engage young players with Biden’s electoral messaging.16 This raises questions about the logical conclusion of the uses of internet-capable video games to enhance freedom. Perhaps there is a not-too-distant future where candidates hold more of such rallies, or where political parties can even hold entire nominating conventions through an online game. If warfare, global health crisis, or further authoritarian closure of safe civic space make such practice of important political freedoms impossible, citizens could then turn to games as a means of running for elected office and engaging in key political activities. The use of Minecraft and Animal Crossing for the exercise of civil liberties within circumstances of repression and state-censorship has certainly begun to raise questions about its future implications for the contingency of political activism and democratic engagement abroad. These trends suggest that we now live in a world where online video games are no longer a simple form of entertainment, but possibly a novel and transformative mode of liberation technology. Much like with the emergence of social media a decade ago, it is now becoming clear that video games have the potential to provide creative and empowering ways of enhancing and preserving global democracy at-large.
1 Larry Diamond, “Liberation Technology,” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 3 (July 2010): pp. 69-83, https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.0.0190.
2 Diamond, “Liberation Technology,” page 70.
3 So much so that by 2015, PEGI (Pan European Game Information) had discontinued its labelling descriptor for video games that contained online content because such labelling was superfluous.; “ “PEGI Annual Report 2015,” (Pan European Game Information S.A., 2015), page 6, https://www. isfe.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/pegi_annual_report_2015.pdf.
4 Hugh Davies, “Spatial Politics at Play: Hong Kong Protests and Videogame Activism,” In DiGRA Australia 2020 Conference Program, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, February 10-11, 2020, http://digraa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/ DiGRAA_2020_paper_46.pdf.
5 Courtney Linder, “This Library Is Filled with Government-Censored Content-but You Can Only Access It in Minecraft,” Popular Mechanics (Popular Mechanics, March 18, 2020), https://www.popularmechanics.com/ technology/design/a31700848/uncensored-library-minecraft/.
6 Daisy Schofield, “Black Lives Matter Meets Animal Crossing: How Protesters Take Their Activism into Video Games,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, August 7, 2020), https://www.theguardian. com/games/2020/aug/07/black-lives-matter-meets-animal-crossing-howprotesters-take-their-activism-into-video-games.
7 “The Uncensored Library,” Uncensored Library, 2020, https://www. uncensoredlibrary.com/en.
8 Imogen Donovan, “Minecraft sales surpass 200 million, with 126 million monthly players,” VideoGamer (VideoGamer, May 19, 2020), https://www.videogamer.com/news/minecraft-sales-surpass-200-millionwith-126-million-monthly-players-.; “Servers By Countries,” Minecraft Multiplayer, https://minecraft-mp.com/countries/.
9 Liu Jiayi, “Battlefield 4 banned in China over national security,” ZDNet (ZDNet, December 27, 2013), https://www.zdnet.com/article/ battlefield-4-banned-in-china-over-national-security.
10 Reuters Staff, “Timeline: Key dates in Hong Kong’s anti-government protests,” Reuters (Reuters, May 30, 2020), https://www.reuters.com/article/ us-hongkong-protests-timeline/timeline-key-dates-in-hong-kongs-antigovernment-protests-idUSKBN23608O.