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Interview: Politics of Play with Alexander Gertz

1968 Press hosted an event recently with Alexander Gertz, the academic editor of a fantastic new board game, Hegemony, which attempts to combine politics with tabletop gaming. Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory playfully simulates a whole nation. Players take control of the Capitalist-Class, Working-Class, Middle-Class, or the State and fight for their ideological victory.

We interviewed Alexander in collaboration with Royal Holloway University of London, discussing the politics of play, the future of board games and how gaming and politics can and do intersect in new ways.

Alfie Bown: Hegemony is a tabletop game that really confronts politics directly, and it responds to the fact that lots of board games are very political. There are obvious examples like monopoly, right through to quite complicated examples of board games and tabletop gaming. So lots of board games are very political, but they don't really like to admit that they are. For instance, the things that you have to do in order to win a game and the kinds of enjoyment and competition that you're expected to have in the experience of playing a game can often be quite politically charged.

This politics can often be that capitalism, or it might be patriarchal, or perhaps imperialist - different games have different politics, but politics is always kind of embedded within them. So what Alexander and his team have done with this fantastic game is to try and build a game which directly confronts what politics are.

Alex, perhaps you can start by giving us some history of what this game is, what the idea was, how it's come about and tell us like where it's at now.

Alexander Gertz: OK, let me keep it brief about the game itself and what the idea behind it was. It wasn't my idea per se. It was the idea of the founder of Project Games, Varnavas Timotheou, and the company itself is a startup based in Cyprus. He had an idea which, as we discovered in the process of its development, many other academics had at one point in their academic career as well. He wanted to combine the academic material with something that would enable a broader audience to experience the works of academia and also to engage with that kind of material in an interactive way.

And obviously, for this goal, the medium of a game was, well, a perfect medium to use because it would enable people to play with other people sitting at the same table. At the same time, it would also enable us to introduce them to political and economic themes.

Also, you just mentioned that with many games, we generally seem to try not to debate the topic of politics. You've probably heard classic phrases like "keep politics out of my games" and so on, which is not even a realistic possibility, to be honest, because games, and all sorts of media for that matter, are political at their core. So the idea here was: Let us just confront this issue of politics head-on and let's create a game about politics.

But at the same time, there were important guidelines that we set in order to avoid running into problems. I mean, politics are a very passionate topic, and politics can lead to very heated discussions. We wanted to create a board game to kind of materialize these discussions and give the players or the discussion partners something to hold on to. So that's why we have very strict guidelines on how to actually do that.

We wanted to keep the game as non-normative as possible to avoid any kind of problems. We wanted to create a simulation in the game which would not propose any kind of political solution, which wasn't overly biased toward one political agenda or another. The idea was to create a simulation of politics and economics, which would create some sort of blank canvas, on which the players could interact with each other and then maybe confront their own political and economic ideas they have, or maybe even go all the way out and maybe try to follow different political ideas or economic ideas, which they normally would deem as something that is completely not in their worldview.

AB: I think that last point is really important and let's just describe the game itself as well in that context. I've been lucky enough to have played it out a couple of occasions. Basically, in Hegemony you've basically got four characters or positions. The board is square and there are four sides. One side plays as the working class, one side plays is the middle class, one is the capitalist class and one finally, one is the state.

So the game tries to kind of explore how these four things relate to each other. So each player has different tasks and the relations between them are designed to sort of reveal how capitalism is structured by asking you to sort of negotiate the relationship between these four classes or groups that exist in a capitalist system today.

What you were just saying there is very interestingbecause the two times I played, I played as the working class, which is the class I would myself tend to support. But you are also saying that it's interesting to take on a class whose politics you might not always have and experience the the imaginary world of the game from the perspective of a capitalist, right? So it might be interesting for an anti-capitalist person to actually play as the capitalist class, do you think? Could capitalists be convinced to support working class ideas by playing as them?

AG: I mean, the first idea would be maybe to somehow try to weaken this ongoing political polarization that we have going on nowadays. When it comes to politics, people define themselves often through their political views, and that self-identification also happens in defense against other political views.

That can also happen in a very passionate and sometimes even borderline aggressive way. So to be able to in - a simulated context - identify with a different class in the gamified environment also gives the ability to lower the defenses a little bit in order to approach each other differently. This would mean engaging with each other not as just as the defender of a particular ideology but as a person.

AB: On that point, you mentioned that when you've been testing the game, a lot of people actually really get into the role that they have been assigned. So it almost seems there's some sort of role play going on where people really sort of embody the role. How do you see this sort of politics of play, because I thought that was really interesting and you don't want to tell people what to think but that you are interested in encouraging them into certain forms of play, that then might lead to them finding their own political space or even educating the players?

AG: Exactly, the educational aspect is complicated. Essentially, we just wanted to provide this simulation so that you can try it out with up to four players in four different roles.

Players can try out some set of policies, try some economic strategies, and some action cards, which are all based on the real world and contemporary politics. But we never expected that people, and that happens like 90% of the tests we have - really start to identify with the class they're playing with.

This leads to like some form of intense Dungeons and Dragons-type atmosphere sometimes, especially when it comes to the voting phase in the game. Sometimes players start to mimic real-world events, which I think is fascinating, and it shows the great properties our game has in terms of being a simulation, but also a little bit frightening because such a seemingly simplistic simulation can still recreate and repeat real discourses.

They are almost life-like often through the arguments being used. For instance, during some playtests there were some arguments which I just encountered one month ago in a newspaper or on the news, and I started to hear them being used by the players in this game in a context that would seem unrelated.

AB: That's so interesting. One of the things I was going to ask you is: do people have really interesting political conversations around these games? So you have answered that: it's really engaged with contemporary politics, and it's encouraging conversation around this topic.

I suppose we could say that people get the chance to experience another ideology. They get the chance to confront their own political and economic parts of their nature, because usually people kind of see themselves as being detached from the political and economic external reality. That's also where psychoanalysis comes in, as a school of thought that has been very critical about this divide between politics and affects or feelings, and has been explicitly saying that this divide the fact it doesn't exist. Politics and economics, as well as other social movements to go directly into the subject, they are are written into your body, into your feelings and into your thoughts.

So, when you're playing as the capitalist class, you actually start behaving like a capitalist because, you know, and then you can actually feel desire towards certain things: you can experience pleasure at destroying the working class as the capitalist or or, you know, privatizing the state and destroying care or welfare benefits. So you get to sort of see how exactly that psychoanalytic point that politics and economics do influence and control feelings and emotions?

AG: Yes, and it also works the other way around. We can experience a feeling of satisfaction when the working class uses a special strike action card and is able to strike across five different companies, for example, perhaps causing a whole industry to come to a standstill. You can see the emotion that generates. There's a lot of very interesting dynamics going on, which we as developers were first not really even sure if players would want to play because as we said, it seems that it is in the nature of games that they like to present themselves as apolitical. A lot of gamers obviously interact with this kind of media because they want to engage in some kind of escapism. They feel that their games are a way to escape reality, while more often than not it's the case that they are still being subjected to the political-economic reality, as we just elaborated earlier, just in a hidden way. But we were quite unsure if people would even want to have a game that talks about contemporary politics and economics, which throws you into the pit of different ideologies.

But so far, I mean, looking at the Kickstarter, it seems that there is that desire. We were surprised by this reaction, that we have quite a few people being ready to encounter contemporary issues and discussing them with friends and maybe a completely different setting than just usually, like in a pub without any games involved.

AB: Tell us a little bit about the research element. The game is called Hegemony after the ideas of the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. Where does the name come from? What kind of research went into this? What other key theorists is it inspired by?

AG: The initial inspiration was definitely Gramsci, and his analysis of a class-based structure, as well as the concept of cultural hegemony. I saw a recent post on Kickstarter in the comments which summed it up perfectly. He said that it seems like in this game it seems like I have to deliberately convince the other players that my ideas are common sense.

That is cultural hegemony as a concept. And this is what we wanted to achieve - the gamers might never have encountered the term before because they are not engaging in academia, but through the game, they just realize what it's all about. That was a huge badge of honor for me.

The goal of the game obviously couldn't be what the main part of Gramsci's writings would have been, namely: To overthrow the bourgeoisie and to install a revolutionary socialistic state. So we kept to the descriptive part of Gramsci's writing where he analyses a class-based structure. These are also things that exist in many other sociological texts and not just necessarily in Marxist texts but in particular the idea of the cultural hegemony as the process of convincing others that your ideology and your set of ideas is the right or the inevitable one.

But since we implemented all these other ideologies in the game - for instance, those of the capitalist - we also obviously implemented the theorists like Hayek, Keynes, and Marx as well. But we always try to keep their descriptive part because the descriptive part of all these theories is pretty amazing. I mean, they're usually very much hit the nail on the head when it comes to defining the social and economic structure of the nation. It's when the ideological part comes in that their own prescriptions (for instance of enhancing wealth) get in the way of things. That's actually when a heated debate starts, but that's where we didn't want to intervene.

AB: I totally get it. I mean, we are saying that games need to be political and need to admit

being political, but you can't just have games which are extremely prescriptive and which say this is what your politics should be because you have to allow the process of play to open those debates and for people to find their own sort of positions and biases within that.

AG: Yes and we wanted to make sure that we had a really good framework because if people would feel some kind of uncertainty in our political framework, in our stance towards these politics, the whole thing wouldn't have been able to take off at all. It was able to take off much more than we expected, which shows us that it worked rather well, especially because so far nobody really was able to place us into some kind of ideology. I mean, we've been accused of many different things, but always to the same proportion. You know, people have been accusing us of making a game that promotes communist propaganda. People have been also accusing us of making a game that promotes neoliberalism or presents either a neoliberal dystopia or utopia. People have been accusing us of being fake socialists or fake neoliberals. As long as there is no consensus on what kind of ideology we promote, it's perfect because that way it still fits our non-normative, non-prescriptive model.

Readers can listen to the full audio interview with Alexander Gertz at our Patreon page here. You can support Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory, and check out its own website here.

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