What was the Soviet Union’s gaming culture?
Something you mentioned in passing that struck me was that there wasn’t a rich gaming culture in the Soviet Union, despite access to comparable gaming technologies. Can you say a little more about that?
In English at least, there’s very little research on gaming in the Soviet Union. We know from surviving arcade cabinets that what titles did exist were somewhat derivative of Western products.
I’m guessing that’s because they were produced in the aftermath of the infamous 1959 “Kitchen Debate,” in which Americans showcased models of middle-class homes in Russia to claim the superiority of the capitalist lifestyle. That prompted Khrushchev to direct more resources to consumer goods and modern amenities. So these early Soviet games were probably more of a symbolic catch-up with the West than an organic, heartfelt endeavor.
There are a couple notable ideological features, though. There appear to have been no high scores (supposedly to deter individualism), and the cost per play was very high (supposedly to curb addiction or deal with the limited supply of arcade cabinets). Most games had some kind of military theme and skill-based gameplay, which was probably meant to justify the investment in utilitarian or ideological terms.
In the 1980s, you start to see more independent endeavors in the Eastern Bloc, like games incorporating Eastern European folklore, homebrew games, and early creative software, like demoscene.
And, of course, there’s Tetris, which began as a technical test at a research institution, was developed as a side project, and ultimately spread virally — not at all unlike SpaceWar!, the first video game in the West, did twenty years before!
To me, the fact that it took a British company to turn a self-evidently brilliant game like Tetris into a global phenomenon is indicative of the repressive climate surrounding digital entertainment in the Eastern Bloc.
In general, I’d say most of your games are anti-neoliberal rather than pro-socialist. But what role can games play not simply in diagnosing the horrors of capitalism, but also in articulating viable alternatives?
That’s something I’ve been pondering for a long time.
It’s easy to use video games’ cybernetic bias toward control and instrumental rationality to articulate a critique or satire of bureaucratic capitalists and neoliberal systems. But at the same time, I worry that utopian games may have a cathartic effect, causing players to fall back into easy escapism and power fantasies.
In my games Nova Alea (about gentrification) and To Build a Better Mousetrap (about managerial capitalism), I tried to negotiate these tensions to produce more desirable outcomes, while still keeping the main conflicts within the capitalist present.
But, yes, it’s probably time to come up with dynamic, playable visions of a better future. The key would be to convey that a socialist world is not the end of history — peaceful, conflictless, utopian, etc. Rather, it’s the conditions under which we can actually start working on solutions that work for everyone and for the planet we inhabit.