Why Reason Magazine is Wrong About Games and Libertarianism

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Libertarian magazine Reason wants you to know that you have libertarians to thank for videogames. “How gaming is making America freer—and more fun,” proclaims the issue’s cover.

It’s hard for me to take this claim seriously, not least because of the indulgently sexist cover Reason chose for the issue. But could there be something to the magazine’s argument that “libertarianism and videogames are a natural fit,” as editor-in-chief Matt Welch told the Washington Post?

First we have to figure out what “natural fit” means. Are they arguing that videogames are somehow inherently libertarian? That is, do videogames as a medium inherently communicate messages in a libertarian manner, and thus are best-suited for libertarian narratives? This is a bold claim to make, since I don’t think anyone would try to make the case that any other medium, such as music or books or television, has an inherent political inclination.

But videogames aren’t any other medium, are they? They’re unique, so let’s accept for the moment the possibility that videogames might be inherently libertarian. What arguments do the writers at Reason use to make their claim?

The only argument the magazine offers to support a claim that videogames are inherently libertarian is its point that “Videogames are all about choices” (from its article “What’s Libertarian about Gamers?”) This article never elaborates on this point, instead focusing on poll statistics about gamers’ political leanings. That’s a culture issue, not a media theory one, so we’ll get to it in a second. For now, let’s think about this idea that “videogames are all about choices.”

The quote comes embedded in a larger paragraph describing opposition to government regulation, so I think we can gather that Reason means “videogames are all about doing whatever you want to do.”

This sentiment certainly meshes well with libertarianism’s core belief in “personal liberty,” which informs the libertarian opposition to most or all forms of government regulation. But here’s the thing: There is no videogame that lets players “do whatever they want,” or make any choices that they want. Videogames are complex computer programs that create highly structured rule-based environments. Those rules—those regulations, even—define and encompass every possible decision a player can make. Playing a game means interacting with and, to your best ability, manipulating the game world’s rules and regulations. (This, by the way, is the reason videogame bugs and cheats are so wonderful, but Reason doesn’t mention them in its argument, so neither will I.) If you choose whether to kill or save a Little Sister in Bioshock, it’s because the programmers created that choice for you, not because you alone have acted to create your own desire and outcome.

But what about an open world game, you say? Maybe Grand Theft Auto V, the very game which Reason claims to be “riffing” in its sexist cover image? GTA V does indeed promise players unlimited choice, so at first glance it may appear that GTA V and other open-world games are an expression of libertarian values. But the game does not actually let players do anything they want. You can only select from a finite set of preprogrammed actions, dictated by the game’s “rules” (its code): shoot this person, steal this car, hit on this woman, choose between this mission or that one, even mop a floor or do some yoga. There are so many possible actions, and so many combinations of actions, that the set of regulated choices may seem infinite, particularly if those regulated choices are designed to seem like “everything” for a certain kind of audience.

Open-world games aside, some of the most critically acclaimed RPGs and adventure games center around forcing players to confront their lack of choice. In Final Fantasy VII, you can’t save Aerith. In Bioshock, you can’t stop yourself from killing Andrew Ryan. In The Stanley Parable, the game itself tells you your only real option is to turn the game off entirely, and it mocks you for continuing to play. These games forefront what other games try to hide: You can’t really have it all.

So videogames as a medium are not inherently libertarian. But maybe we can say that videogames, or at least open-world games like GTA V, market themselves in a way that is appealing to a libertarian mindset. That would seem to lean into Reason Magazine’s assertion that videogame culture and libertarianism have significant overlap.

Reason Magazine conducted a poll which found that respondents who identified as gamers were more likely than self-identified “non-gamers” to oppose regulation of marijuana, energy drinks, 3D-printed guns, Bitcoin and violent videogames. The poll did not ask about regulation concerning equal pay, health care, marriage equality, minimum wage or affirmative action. However, Reason Magazine nevertheless used these results to imply that gamers are largely libertarian.

No poll is ever conclusive. But Reason Magazine’s poll doesn’t even approach conclusiveness. Why then are they so invested in forcing this data to suggest a connection between videogames and libertarianism?

“It’s not that everyone who plays videogames is a secret libertarian, but that their list of shared attributes is now mainstream, and it’s importantly different than what we’ve seen traditionally,” Welch told the Washington post.

Wait, how are these “shared attributes” now mainstream? Reason’s own poll found that self-described “gamers” comprised only 16% of respondents. Yet Welch wants to use videogames and their status as a pop culture phenomenon as a means of arguing that libertarianism is not only “mainstream,” it is “different than what we’ve seen traditionally.”

Which brings us to the magazine’s cover. You want to use the tired stereotype of a sullen, pot-smoking, alcohol-drinking white male playing videogames in the dark while an irritated but sexy woman looks on as a means of arguing that libertarianism is “different than what we’ve seen before”?

No, what’s happening here is an attempt to appropriate games—or more specifically, a very narrow and stereotypical reading of “gamer culture”—as a signifier for technolibertarianism. If it’s technology it must be progressive, right? And if it’s progressive it must be a scrappy underdog fighting against the oppressive man, right? That’s the convoluted line of logic that allows Reason to construe the white male gamer that sits on its blatantly offensive magazine cover as a paragon of oppressed but righteous libertarianism.

In doing so, Reason Magazine wants to erase all the hard-fought diversity that videogames have struggled to achieve for so long: diversity of racial, sexual and ability-based representation, diversity of themes and narratives, diversity of political discourse.

The brand of libertarianism that Reason Magazine seems to be touting focuses on a narrow definition of “free” (much like GTA V’s “unlimited choice” is really just a narrow set of choices designed to appear to be a specific audience’s definition of “freedom”.) When Reason Magazine imposes that brand of libertarianism on “gaming” as a whole, it ignores any non-government-based restrictions or obstacles that prevent other people from achieving their own definitions of freedom: It ignores the fact that triple-A studios actively avoid creating women-lead games, that these same studios keep making similar stories about white male warriors because that’s the only thing they know how to market, or that just about any online gaming experience is rife with sexist, racist, homophobic and otherwise harassing speech. These problems are not solved by decreasing regulation; in the case of online harassment, decreased regulation would surely only make it worse.

That’s why I dislike Reason Magazine’s June “videogames” issue. Much as I love to see people touting videogames as “art” or encouraging new types of people to pick up a controller, Reason Magazine’s appropriation of gaming as libertarian is naive at best, and at worst it’s an erasure of the diversity that videogames have the potential to offer.

Jill Scharr is a games and technology journalist at Tom’s Guide.