Version 6.00 of Dota, which updated what was still just a Warcraft III mod, was released in 2005 during George W. Bush’s presidency. Since then the game has received over 100 patches, each adding decimal values or letters to the version number, all the way to 6.88f. And as Dota changed, so too did America. The Iraq War waxed and waned, Barack Obama won election then reelection, and the Great Recession threw the global economy into tumult. And on December 12, 2016, as a Trump administration got closer and closer to the White House, Dota—now Dota 2 after its rebirth in Valve’s hands—metamorphosed into version 7.00: the first whole-numbered update in more than a decade.
Guiding Dota from 6.00 to 7.00 has been IceFrog, the game’s mysterious developer. Little is definitively known of IceFrog, save his bilingualism in English and Chinese and the fact that he has a couple of cats. But he emerged from the collection of developers who had worked on Dota over time (including Steve “Guinsoo” Feak, who contributed to the creation of League of Legends) to seemingly single-handedly oversee the game’s development. The result has been the transition of Dota from mod to standalone title boasting tournaments with prize-pools in the millions of dollars.
IceFrog has been one of the sole constants that has characterized Dota amidst myriad changes. And that is of note: for over a decade, a single person (for the most part) has controlled the development of a game played by millions all over the world. That person, behind a veil of secrecy, has succeeded in creating an exceedingly balanced and polished competitive experience. And in doing so, he has earned the trust of those who play it. You would be hard pressed to find a creator—of videogames, other media, policy or anything else—as widely approved-of as IceFrog.
But as is the case with moments of significant change, version 7.00 has prompted conversations about those in power. In a Reddit thread about the update, one user writes that “It’s solely due to Icefrog that Dota has had so many years of brilliant balance. Games designed by committee are rarely balanced so well, let alone for so long.” This comment expresses satisfaction with IceFrog’s monolithic leadership of Dota 2. Alone, he ensures that the game remains balanced in a way that a collective might never be able to.
A reply to the Redditor’s stance, on the other hand, views Dota 2 differently. It asserts that “his [IceFrog’s] testers, the pros and the entire fuckign [sic] community, all of us helped make this game what it is, tons of heroes, suggestions and changes also came from the community.” This user has a more democratically pluralistic understanding of the game’s development. It is not IceFrog, but the community and all of its moving pieces that have shaped and shifted Dota 2. 7.00 isn’t IceFrog’s update—it’s all of ours.
The dynamics of the thread’s discussion speak to tensions in America’s current political climate. Foremost, there’s IceFrog’s status as Dota 2’s mastermind. Justifications for his creative control over the game often evoke arguments in favor of autocracy: if the game is enjoyable and expertly balanced—if the trains run on time—it doesn’t matter that power is totally centralized. Of course, IceFrog is a game designer, not a fascist dictator. The videogame-playing community is especially familiar with auteur figures like IceFrog and Ken Levine (once upon a time) whose devotion to creative visions can deliver groundbreaking experiences.
IceFrog is no autocrat—but he does exert largely unchecked sway over the rules of a game that is essentially an economy simulator. Players earn and save and spend in-game gold, and internalize behavioral patterns, according to the laws that IceFrog puts in place. (The out-of-game microtransaction economy of Dota 2 is a different story, as it is Valve’s handiwork.) And in addition to internalizing behaviors and actions, players internalize IceFrog’s presence. Another response in the aforementioned Reddit thread claims that “Icefrog is Dota,” and thereby regards the creator and the game as one. The two are inseparable.
If, in Dota, the creator and the game are one, under autocracy the ruler and the state are one. Hitler, for example, was Germany, as Germany was Hitler. Such elision of creator and product (for a state, in essence, is the product of policies and histories) benefits from the process of gaslighting, which this Teen Vogue essay deftly explains in relation to Trump. By promising to “make America great again,” Trump has manipulated people into believing his presentation of the past and trusting his vision for the future. He peddles decontextualized narratives of national doom and personal exceptionalism with an ultimate goal befitting an autocrat: the construction of a reality in which his absence is unimaginable. His vision of renewed greatness is one in which greatness hinges on him—in which Trump is America and America is Trump.
IceFrog, to be clear, is not Donald Trump. The former has been admirably committed to the genuine wellbeing of his game and its community, and the latter threatens democratic underpinnings and countless lives. But to understand the ease with which individuals can accept tremendous change and absolutist politics, you need look no further than Dota. History has proven that regardless of the extremity of IceFrog’s changes, Dota ultimately absorbs them. While heroes and items and strategies fall in and out of fashion, it’s almost impossible to imagine the game being anything but what it is in this exact second. Previous versions exist only as the nostalgic citations of weathered old-timers. Memories of Dota on Warcraft III’s dated engine become tinged with Dota 2’s flashy graphics and mechanical improvements. There was nothing before there was 7.00.
Videogames, however, for all of their worth, do not trade in as dire of stakes as the White House does. IceFrog and Dota 2 do not actively gaslight, and it’s undoubtedly easier to lose track of a videogame’s history than that of a nation. But although governance is not a game, it has winners and losers. And we will know that Trump has won if, one day, we come to the realization that there was nothing before him.
Niv M. Sultan is a writer based in Washington, DC. He’s into culture, politics, history, and mediocre-but-lovable flag football teams. You can follow him on Twitter and check out his website.