Online Activism meets Digital Gaming: Protesters are now taking to the virtual streets

On: September 27, 2020
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About Frederikke Christiansen


   

Online activism has allowed for many positive changes to occur within socio-political sectors via social media campaigns and online petitions; now, digital gamers have taken an interest in activism. The innovative form of online protesting has caused quite a commotion with the online community, but is it effective enough to have a lasting, substantial impact on society?

Introduction

2020 has been no stranger to socio-political movements, but would you have imagined that during a global pandemic, when people couldn’t take to the streets to protest, they would instead take to the virtual streets of digital gaming? This idea may seem slightly radical, but it is exactly what happened. While people were forced to stay home due to government restrictions, some protests concerning the Black Lives Matter and the Free Hong Kong movements couldn’t go forward, but activists would not let that bring them down. Instead they demonstrated though digital gaming on ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons,’ ‘The Sims,’ ‘World of Warcraft,’ and many others.

Just like every other form of online activism, attempting to raise awareness on digital games has its own set of affordances and constraints. This post aims to analyse the effectiveness of online activism through digital gaming by looking at slacktivism, performative activism, and government interference and surveillance.

Historical Context

While activism is not a new concept, online activism is. Online activism – also known as digital activism or Internet activism – is where “digital tools (the Internet, phones and social media) are used for bringing about social and/or political change” (“Digital and Online Activism”). The concept sprung up in the 1990s with the introduction of the Web 2.0 and the dot com bubble. From there, online activism escalated with the creation of social media allowing users to have a platform to express their views and opinions. 

Previously, online activism was seen as data activist groups releasing information gained through hacking government accounts to hold the elite accountable – also known as “hacktivism.” This type can be seen in online initiatives such as Anonymous, Wikileaks, and whistle-blower Edward Snowden (George and Leidner).

Today, while these groups and initiatives are still operating, ordinary users have also taken online activism into their own hands. There are numerous tools users can find online to aid them in their activism needs, such as online petitions (change.org), social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), blogs, (“Digital and Online Activism”), and now digital gaming. 

Digital Games as Activism Platforms

While somewhat out of the ordinary, gamers have chosen to alter the affordance of digital gaming to accommodate current, trending real-life movements. But with “2.5 billion video gamers across the world,” it is no surprise that socio-political movements have spread to the world of digital gaming (Dixon). 

In 2017, users utilised the virtual world ‘Second Life’ to raise awareness for people with disabilities (Bloustien and Wood). Later that year, ‘Second Life’ became the grounds for the online movement “Avatars against Trump,” which highlighted the users’ dissatisfaction with the US presidents’ stance on immigration from Islamic countries (Cole). 

More recently, a wave of movements washed over the world with the death of George Floyd, a black man killed in police custody, and issues attaining to the debate of Hong Kong’s independence from China. The pandemic forced users to utilise their virtual worlds to protest and spread their messages there instead. Users did this in the form of demonstrations and rallies, which involved “showing signs with political slogans, images and symbols; shouting or chanting” (Cermak-Sassenrath 96). This can be seen in a tweet by Joshua Wong [see fig. 1], who started the protesting trend on ‘Animal Crossing’ where he chanted “Free Hong Kong” with symbols and images surrounding his avatar. 

Fig 1. (@joshuawongcf)

A vital affordance of digital gaming is its reach beyond the games themselves. Since its release in March 2020, ‘Animal Crossing’ quickly gained a cult following with its appealing game aesthetics, which lends itself more likely to be shared on social media platforms. Further, some online individuals may just want to watch others play, which extends into video streaming services like YouTube and Twitch, extending the reach of the message (Schofield). A creator held a rally on ‘The Sims,’ which gathered approximately 200 people, while live streaming the event on Twitch and then later posting it to Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr [see fig. 2].

Fig 2. (@EbonixSims)

The Effect: Slacktivism and Performative Activism

While the idea of protesting socio-political movements via digital gaming may seem like an effective way of getting messages across in a non-violent manner, experts question the success of this technique. The Pew Research Center surveyed American users about the power of platforms as tools for “raising awareness and creating sustained movements” with the majority believing “they are a distraction and lull people into believing they are making a difference when they are not” (Auxier and McClain). This idea has been embedded in the creation of “slacktivism” and “performance activism.” Slacktivism “refers to people who are happy to click a ‘like’ button about a cause and may make other nominal, supportive gestures. But they’re hardly inspired with the kind of emotional fire that forces a shift in public perception” (McCafferty). Similarly, performative activism is “defined as activism that is done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to the cause” (Ashe).

Looking at digital gaming, it would adhere to the notions of slacktivism and performative activism; while the intent behind the online protests were most probably good, in the end, all it created were some screenshots of virtual characters chanting slogans, hoping to ignite change but failing to see the complete effectiveness of the tool. 

This might be a harsh opinion on the topic as change is a relatively subjective idea. If you believe spreading knowledge creates change, then the tool is effective; If you believe action creates change, then it falls short.

The Politics of Digital Gaming

Just like any other media tool, Digital gaming also deals with government interference and surveillance. 

Experts believe that online activism disadvantages socio-political movements. Online surveillance is easier and cheaper than in person, “with few people and relatively cheap technology, repressive governments can easily gain a comprehensive picture of activists’ online activities” (Pinckney). Further, countries with dictatorships or autocracies “tightly control, or even directly administer, their country’s internet service providers” (Pinckney). An example of this is China’s ‘Great Firewall,’ which censors the type of content users can see and applications they can use while inside the country’s borders. Due to the flood of protests through ‘Animal Crossing’ regarding China’s power over Hong Kong, it caused the popular game to be banned within China. However, government censorship is “not unique to China. In many countries, the World Wide Web has been replaced by a country-specific Wide Web, tailored to the government’s wishes” (Weidmann and Geelmuyden Rød). In many authoritarian countries where certain books and news sources are banned, the digital game ‘Minecraft’ is not. In 2020 a group of users built “The Uncensored Library” within the game as “a loophole to overcome censorship” (Meisenzahl) [see vid. 1].

[vid. 1] (BlockWorks)

Activism through digital gaming is definitely an innovative strategy but whether or not it will have a lasting impact and not just create slacktivism or performative activism in a creative format, we will just have to wait and see. 

Works Cited

Ashe, Lauren. “The Dangers of Performative Activism.” VOXATL on the Internet. 2020. <https://voxatl.org/the-dangers-of-performative-activism/> accessed 25 September 2020

Auxier, Brooke, and McClain, Colleen. “Americans think social media can help build movements, but can also be a distraction.” Pew Research Center on the Internet. 2020. <https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/09/americans-think-social-media-can-help-build-movements-but-can-also-be-a-distraction/> accessed 22 September 2020.

BlockWorks. “The Uncensored Library.” YouTube, uploaded by BlockWorks, 12 March 2020. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7j-Ynup6BM>. Accessed 26 September 2020.

Bloustien, Geraldine, and Wood, Denise. “Visualising Disability and Activism in Second Life.” Current Sociology, 64.1, (2016): 101–121, doi:10.1177/0011392115596025.

Cermak-Sassenrath, Daniel. “On Political Activism in Digital Games.” MedieKultur Journal of media and communication research 34.64 (2018): 87-115 DOI: 10.7146/mediekultur.v34i64.96924

Cole, Samantha. “Second Life Users Are Protesting with Their Avatars.” Vice on the Internet. 2017, <https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/kbgnwa/second-life-users-are-protesting-with-their-avatars> accessed 23 September 2020.

“Digital and Online Activism.” RESET.To on the Internet, 2020. <https://en.reset.org/knowledge/digital-and-online-activism> accessed 22 September 2020

Dixon, Thom. “Digital Activism, Gaming and Hong Kong.” Australian Institute of International Affairs, 2020. <http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/digital-activism-gaming-and-hong-kong/> accessed 22 September 2020

@EbonixSims. “Today’s #BLMSimsRally has been a monumental success across Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr; and it’s still going!! Thank you to everyone who’s participated today! Your voices are being heard and words being felt all over! Thank you to everyone who joined the stream today.” Twitter. 8 June 2020, 3:47 A.M. <https://twitter.com/EbonixSims/status/1269808276520284163> accessed 25 September 2020.

George, Jordana, and Leidner, Dorothy. “From clicktivism to hacktivism: Understanding digital activism.” Information and Organization. 29.3 (2019): 100249, ISSN 1471-7727, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infoandorg.2019.04.001. 

@joshuawongcf (Joshua Wong). “Animal Crossing is Fast Becoming a New Way for Hong Kong Protesters to Fight for Demoracy! The #Covid_19 pandemic has hated public demonstrations, so protestors are taking their cause to #AnimalCrossing.” Twitter. 2 April 2020, 11:09 A.M. <https://twitter.com/joshuawongcf/status/1245639425331056640?lang=en> accessed 25 September 2020.

McCafferty, Dennis. “News: Activism vs. Slacktivism.” Communications if the ACM 54.12 (2011): 17-19. DOI: 10.1145/2043174.2043182

 Meisenzahl, Mary. “Activists created a 12.5 million block digital library in ‘Minecraft’ to bypass censorship laws.” Business Insider on the Internet, 2020. <https://www.businessinsider.nl/minecraft-library-censored-newspaper-articles-online-books-rsf-reporters-borders-2020-3/> accessed 26 September 2020. 

Pinckney, Jonathon. “Amid Coronavirus, Online Activism confront Digital Authoritarianism.” United States Institute of Peace on the Internet, 2020. <https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/04/amid-coronavirus-online-activism-confronts-digital-authoritarianism> accessed 23 September 2020

Schofield, Daisy. “Black Lives Matter meets Animal Crossing: how protesters take their activism into video games.” The Guardian on the Internet, 2020. <https://www.theguardian.com/games/2020/aug/07/black-lives-matter-meets-animal-crossing-how-protesters-take-their-activism-into-video-games> accessed 23 September 2020. 

Weidmann, Nils, and Geelmuyden Rød, Espen. The Internet and Political Protests in Autocracies, 2019. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190918309.001.0001

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