Art has been used as a form of political expression and resistance for thousands of years, influencing and propelling social and political movements. From Pablo Picasso’s Guernica to Beyonce’s Lemonade, art as protest can be found in all forms and in all disciplines. And yet, for mainstream games, examples of overt political engagement are few and far between. There are certainly standouts, such as Missile Command or Spec Ops: The Line, but for most games, politics are more often set dressing than something to discuss. However, with a wave of far-right authoritarianism gripping the U.S. and countries throughout the world, it is imperative games engage their audiences with political discourse. Into this environment, Resist Jam was born.
Resist Jam was a game jam held from March 3 through March 11, 2017, where game creators and activists from across the world came together and collectively made over 200 games related to the themes of resistance and authoritarianism. “As a game developer, as someone who game jams a lot, I was brainstorming with some friends, ‘What can we do?” Tyler Coleman,one of the organizers, says of the jam’s origins. “We can go to protests, we can call our senators, there’s a lot of things we can do that pretty much anyone with a phone or access to a public space can do. But as game devs, the idea of a game jam came up, the idea of making political games,” he says.
“I spent a lot of time after the presidential election in a sort of horrified haze, wandering around hoping that I’d wake up from some sort of awful dream. Eventually, I decided to do something about it,” writes Damon Reece, another organizer, writes.
The theme was a clear choice for everyone involved. “We made this platform to resist structures that stop other people from resisting; our main goal was/is to empower people to create games that critique power structures and make things better,” Reece writes. “We resist because we cannot, in good conscience, stand by while white nationalism and structural oppression wash across the Western world.” Indeed, Coleman takes that one step further, saying Resist Jam is “a global response to issues of authoritarianism.”
Wake Up by Inverge Studios
A quick survey of the jam’s page on itch.io reveals creators from Canada, Spain, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Australia, Brazil, and beyond. While Maize Wallin, another of the organizers, acknowledges “the timing was very U.S. centric,” the organizers were able to bring in both game creators and activists from across the world, adding a global perspective to the authoritarian crisis that can too often feel isolated. “We all move forward together just because of the fact that we are global,” Wallin says.
Hand-in-hand with this inclusivity, the organizers wanted to create more than just a space to put political games: they wanted to teach people. “These gamers are gonna learn how to be activists, they’re gonna learn, it’s not that hard, and they’re gonna learn to do it everyday,” says Wallin, who lead efforts to create workshops on the jam’s YouTube page.
Conversely, “we wanted to try to empower people who had never made games before, make this their first time. If they came to us because they’re more interested in activism and political issues, we wanted to make sure they could still make a game in this medium,” Coleman says. Resist Jam’s workshops covered everything from introductions to the game engine Unity, to increasing accessibility, to game creation as activism. “It’s in this way that, when we have activism workshops and intro to Unity workshops, we place them as equally as important,” Wallin says.
“There had to be quite a lot of thought to how do we make it not game dev centric, and how do we make it not U.S. centric, cause both of those things are really easy to slip into,” Wallin says.
Darby Machin was one of the hundreds of creators who decided to put their game-making talents towards Resist Jam. They and two co-designers made Pivotal. “Voices in unison are always more powerful than one by itself, and seeing the passion and creativity of the Resist Jam organizers and participants really just hit home to me that this was something I had to be involved in,” Machin says.
Pivotal by Darby Machin, qwercus, and Ben Wills
Pivotal calls to mind the recent raids American authorities have been conducting to deport people, but it also channels the long history of people having to flee their homes in the face of authoritarianism and oppression. “I’d been reading several horrifying accounts online of people being forced to leave their homes; people were being taken away from everything they know and everything they love at the whim of those with power and influence,” Machin writes. “So, I took the idea of escape and started thinking of what that process would be like; to have minutes to pack up your entire life in a bag and leave it all behind, possibly forever.”.
Pivotal is but one example of ways the games of Resist Jam engage with these important and often deeply personal themes. Some games examined resistance or authoritarianism from a systemic level. If Not Now, When? places you in charge of a camp of protesters, making daily decisions to ensure their growth and success. These more systems-based games frequently attempt to let players interact with recreations of real world systems and consider the consequences.
Other games engaged resistance through a visual overhaul of well-worn gameplay tropes. Queens: The Resistance Street reclaims the stereotypically masculine space of ‘90s beat-em-up by centering on a queer person defending a mini Statue of Liberty holding a rainbow torch.
Queens: The Resistance Street by Cauã Picetti, Felipe Peiter, and Victor Simões
No two games in Resist Jam approached the theme exactly the same way, but often the most affecting and nuanced games were those that, like Pivotal, told a personal story. Satyagraha combines visual novel and stealth game elements to discuss Mahatma Gandhi’s eponymous philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Roar is about having a panic attack while scrolling through Twitter told through ASCII art. Wake Up is a minimalist game about the slow transformation from bystander to rebel.
“Games can, and do, serve many roles under authoritarian governments, from something as seemingly banal, but crucially important, as escapism to the dissemination of subversive ideas, inconvenient truths, messages of hope, or the rallying cries of movements like #Resistance or Black Lives Matter,” writes Machin.
Now, with the game-making part of Resist Jam over, the organizers are working to solidify the community and keep the momentum. “We want to make sure you don’t make a game in a week about activism and then go back to your day-to-day life and completely drop your interest in the topics,” Coleman says. So now, “the community’s sort of shifting from making games about politics to the simple act of making a game being political,” says Wallin.
Roar by Heather Robertson
“I’m hoping that we can start seeing games almost in the same way music was, at least in the U.S., during the ‘60s and ‘70s, during the counterculture revolution of the hippies […] Music was their system to express themselves,” Coleman says. “I’m hoping in the next decade or so we’re gonna start seeing that from games as the new form of outlet towards expression, towards your distaste for issues in society.”
Videogames are just now developing their own vocabulary for engaging with social and political issues. Through new ventures like Resist Jam, creators are inventing the ways playing and making games can be an act of resistance. “New ideas require new forms,” says Paolo Perdecini in the Resist Jam keynote.
“Don’t just make games in isolation. That’s not going to solve anything,” Reece says. “Speak to people. Speak with marginalized people. Listen to marginalized people—people of color, queers, people with chronic illnesses, disabled people, neurodiverse people. Act as a signal booster for their perspectives, give them a voice. Foster understanding and forge communities. Be inclusive.”
These are not easy times, and while it may be tempting to only look to games for escapism, the games of Resist Jam show how well-equipped games are to communicate ideas and experiences through their interactivity. “Authoritarianism affects all of us,” Heather Robertson, creator of Roar, writes. “To pretend otherwise, to pretend that games are somehow outside the sphere of influence for society, to pretend that authoritarianism—and specifically fascism—isn’t one of the most toxic problems facing the world today, is foolish.”
“Resistance isn’t over and Resist Jam isn’t over either,” says Coleman.
Satyagraha by Pranee McKinlay
All of the games submitted to Resist Jam can be downloaded and played from their itch.io page.
Kyle McKenney writes for Swarthmore College’s student newspaper the Daily Gazette and is an intern at Paste. You can follow him on Twitter @TotallyKyle95.