Claudia Costa Pederson
Assistant Professor of Art History, New Media
Department of Art and Design, Wichita State University
Keywords: globalization, videogames, art, Latin America, diaspora, empire
A topic first explored by socially conscious artists and designers, the imbrication of videogames with global capitalism is now commonplace in academic discourse. As the work of politicized Latin American designers is deservedly internationally recognized, its basis on a distinctly ambivalent view of globalization goes against the grain of the common understanding of global processes as leveling and homogenizing forces within cultural studies, including game studies.  This complex outlook is shared by the Uruguayan developer Gonzalo Frasca and the Mexican designer Rafael Fajardo, both of whom are well-known figures in the field of social games, which are games with explicit critical perspectives on contemporary issues—in their specific cases the more pertinent because they educate on topics linked with globalization. Frasca designed September 12th (2003), a flash game about drone warfare as a central component of the global conflict led by the United States, the so-called War on Terror; and Fajardo created La Migra (2001), a Java game on the dynamics of border crossing between the United States and Mexico. I will discuss the significance of these projects as anti-imperialistic critiques, which I argue are best understood in relation to the hybrid or mestizo outlook of historical art and activist precedents from which these works draw, including techniques of appropriation and the re-articulation of conventional mass media forms for purposes of cultural critique.
Alongside this work, this essay points to the inherent need to attend to understandings of videogames both as unique forms of expression, as well as products of specific cultural environments. This focus is pertinent to the analysis of the relationship between videogames and globalization because of the increasingly transnational character of videogame production and study, in which Latin America is emerging as a prominent player. Furthermore, the region’s historical “self-understanding” as culturally and intrinsically global and syncretic is a shared facet of both videogame designers in Latin America and Latina diasporas—including the aforementioned designers—and of the emerging literature by Latin American scholars on the topic. Because this literature is not well known, I will briefly discuss it, focusing on recent studies of globalization and videogames. In the end, I understand both these practices and analyses as critical alternatives to North-centered design and perspectives on videogames, and most significantly, as part and parcel of the same epistemic project; namely, the decolonization of knowledge, including its production and circulation in the global context.
Among Latin American videogame designers, Frasca’s work, spanning both theory and practice, is foundational to the creation of Game Studies as an academic field, as well as to game design focused on critical thought, known variously as social, political, serious, or persuasive games. Shaped by personal experiences with media censorship under dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s in Uruguay, Frasca’s notion of “videogames of the oppressed” is also reflective of the transnational character of Latin American intellectual and cultural legacies, including anti-colonial strands. Frasca’s concept builds on Brazilian dramaturge Augusto Boal’s use of theater for conscientização (“consciousness-raising”). Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed expands on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, itself an articulation of decolonial education after Franz Fanon’s theories on decolonization, as well as of Bertold Brecht’s concept of Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect. Similarly oriented, Frasca’s use of simulations is a practice concerned with decolonial education as a perspective critical of Eurocentric and Third World fundamentalism, colonialism, and nationalism. Similar to Boal’s theater, Frasca’s games are based on repurposing or “making strange” a popular medium for educational purposes. Both Boal and Frasca engage “defamiliarization” as a technique aimed at undercutting resolution, or catharsis and immersion—two of the core tenets shared by conventional forms of theater and mainstream videogames. Their aim is similar: to effect conscientização, which means enhancing audiences’ or players’ awareness about the social dynamics portrayed, and thus ideally triggering personal and social change.
Based on this concept of education, Frasca’s September 12th is a stand-alone, free simulation on the Internet about the post-9/11 War on Terror that evokes the cartoonish aesthetics of Sims games. In the game, the player manipulates an aiming reticule juxtaposed on a bird’s eye view of an Arab market square where clichéd images of jihadists circulate among the crowds. As the player shoots at them, she soon realizes that the built-in delay between each shot thwarts accuracy, and that repeated shooting generates more terrorists (as passerby witnesses of civilian casualties transform into terrorists). The message: violence elicits violence. Similar to Boal’s theater, September 12th denies the linear logic of causality, thereby withholding resolution.  Counter to mainstream shooter games which, in addition to consumer products, are also significant recruiting and training tools used by the United States military (as well as fundamentalist groups), the impossibility of winning or losing challenges the conventional strategy of using military intervention (and/or terrorism) to eliminate opposition. In this sense, Frasca’s appropriation and re-articulation of shooter games is best understood as targeting players of such games, who constitute the same pool of potential drone operators targeted by the military—thus turning a recruiting tool into an educational one.
Similarly conceived as an educational game, Fajardo’s La Migra tweaks conventional play mechanics and tropes, in this case to address “(il)legal human traffic at the U.S.-Mexico border.”  The game is an online adaptation of the arcade game Space Invaders (Taito/Midway, 1978) that puts the player in the role of an Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) agent patrolling the Rio Grande. Instead of an alien ship and shooting beams, the player controls a Ford Explorer while shooting flying handcuffs at crossers. Crossers on the Mexican side are safe, but on the American side hits on the targets will cause them to immediately attempt crossing again, thus creating a continual challenge to the agent/player. The only way to stop the flow of crossers is to run them over. A reference to the mounting human toll of U.S. immigration policies, the piling corpses also impact game play, as the piles eventually cause the player to lose control over the patrol vehicle. Like September 12th, La Migra shows that dehumanization (the objectification of the “other”) is a dialogical process, as one cannot dehumanize without becoming dehumanized.
The similarities to Frasca’s work are many. Like him, Fajardo denies a win/lose outcome, instead confronting the player with the permanent “reality at the US/Mexico border,” which he typifies as “a game of chance, where the stakes are survival.”  Like Frasca’s, the work is in part autobiographical, as Fajardo is a Mexican immigrant. From this position he also uses the game to speak to “the politics of otherness” (xenophobia); as he puts it, “(il)legal immigration exists because the informal economy of the United States depends on human traffic.”  As with Frasca’s game, Fajardo’s work is steeped in syncretic traditions, with sources ranging from other games by contemporary Latin American and feminist artists, as well as historical art and activist antecedents, including Arte Povera and El Teatro Campesino. Lastly, La Migra is likewise meant to circulate marginalized experiences and perspectives. In this spirit, the game is created on Cocoa, a programming environment discarded by Apple. As such it follows a long trajectory of “border aesthetics” (Guillermo Gómez-Peña) where reuse and recycling (of the North’s technological debris) are not only strategies of survival, of making do, but are also understood to be counters to and reconstitutions of dominant cultural codes and binaries. In this same vein, both Frasca and Fajardo appropriate and reroute videogames, a medium used to buttress imperialist and commodity culture, for conscientização—thus literally empowering players’ (or consumers’) learning and potentially contributing to the medium’s transformation.
While Frasca reported objections to the game as an oversimplification of a complex matter at the time of its release, I can attest to the effectiveness of his and Fajardo’s works as triggers for involving first-year college students, many of whom are gamers, in discussions about various topics addressed by both designers, among them: the political implications of mimesis within historical and contemporary imperialist projects, how ideologies are codified through formal means, and how such projects link to interrogations of assumptions about the cultural backwardness of Latin America and Latina diasporas. And while representing an abbreviated glimpse of social games designed by Latin American and diasporic designers and artists, the practices of Frasca and Fajardo suggest altogether the overall gist of kindred projects, including games by artists and collectives noted by Fajardo, as well as others: Coco Fusco, Ricardo Dominguez, Fran Llich, Ricardo Miranda, Rolando Sánchez Ponce, Ivan Abreu, and Micha Cárdenas, to name a few. All these artists engage in the appropriation, infiltration, and re-articulation of mass-produced games and videogames as a way to challenge, teach about, or otherwise speak back to power. The Latina transgender artist Cárdenas’ recent writings about her own games succinctly encapsulate the stakes of this work; namely, the development of a “science of the oppressed” involving the “reimagining [of] knowledge production in the service of oppressed communities and social movements” by bringing “such a knowledge production from below, desde abajo, to the status of science.”  In this sense, these practices share the underlying ideas of historical currents in art and thought on which they build; namely, that colonial and imperialist projects are inherently tied up with the control of knowledge (of culture and creativity), and conversely, that decolonial projects are also always linked to the capacity for appropriating and absorbing dominant culture. Because contemporary culture is global and mediated by media technologies, videogames are an important site of negotiation. As such, these artists and designers have the potential to reach transnationally, not only reaching players (and students), but also shaping practices of like-minded artists and designers elsewhere, who are similarly interested in developing digital games beyond their status as commodities.
Contrary to artists and designers, Latin American cultural scholars are only recently starting to engage with the topic of videogames and their relationship to culture. Still, similar to artists and designers, these scholars understand the emergence of videogames as global media foremost as constituting a significant opportunity to intervene and negotiate the meaning of global culture “from below.” For instance, Argentine anthropologist Néstor García Canclini argues for an understanding of the cultural effects of electronic media, including videogames, in line with a view of globalizing processes that (while still uneven) are also more than just top-down transmissions or matters of transparent coding and decoding (that is, the passive acceptance of mass media’s ideological frames). According to Canclini, globalization is “not just the ‘Americanization’ of the world” but a “highly heterogeneous cultural space.” Viewed as such, media technologies are central nodes of negotiation between the powerful and the weak.  Phillip Penix-Tadsen’s Cultural Code (2016) is, at the time of writing, the only book-length study of videogames by Latin American designers about how Latin American culture is portrayed in popular games. Tadsen follows on the vein of Canclini’s, stressing “use”—including appropriation—as the most significant site from which to understand the relationship between videogames and culture.  In sum, understood as knowledge production and circulation—as processes of multilateral exchange—Latin American and Latina social games and emerging game theory altogether reflect similar views of globalized culture as, in the words of the Chilean philosopher Martín Hopenhayn, “a mass mediated, but also a ‘mass-mestizo’ hybridizing phenomenon.”  As cultural scholars and critics, we would do well to include this perspective to counter still-prevalent views of the “other,” including Latin Americans and diasporas, as either passive victims or dangerous elements.
- An essential text on the subject, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Videogames by media theorists Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, exemplifies this argument by analyzing how gaming reflects and is constitutive of “empire.” A concept borrowed from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “empire” denotes “a system of global ownership, privatized property, coercive class relations, military operations, and radical struggle.” The main assertions of such ideological or anti-imperialist critiques are that (1) videogames are intrinsically linked to “the military entertainment complex”; (2) they justify and normalize “a state of permanent warfare as a response to geopolitical problems”; (3) they “reinforce an ‘us against them’ perspective”; and (4) they “sanitize violence.” Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter, Games of Empire, Global Capitalism and Videogames (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), xxix.
- Gonzalo Frasca, “Videogames of the Oppressed, Critical Thinking, Education, Tolerance, and Other Trivial Issues,” in First Person, New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 85–94.
- Rafael Fajardo, “Pixels, Politics and Play: Digital Video Games as Social Commentary,” in Intelligent Agent 3, no. 2 (2003), accessed February 19, 2016, http://www.intelligentagent.com/archive/Vol3_No2_gaming_fajardo.html.
- Rafael Fajardo. See note 3.
- Rafael Fajardo. See note 3.
- Micha Cárdenas, “Becoming Dragon, a Transversal Technology Study,” in C-Theory, (April 2010), accessed February 19, 2016, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=639.
- Néstor García Canclini, Latinoamericanos buscando lugar en este siglo (Buenos Aires: Paidos, 2002), 61.
- Phillip Penix-Tadsen, Cultural Code (Massachusetts, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 9.
- Martín Hopenhayn, “Globalization and Culture: Five Approaches to a Single Text,” in Cultural Politics in Latin America, ed. Anny Brookbanks Jones and Ronaldo Munk (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 154.
Claudia Costa Pederson holds a PhD in Art History and Visual Studies from Cornell University. She is currently Assistant Professor of Art History in Digital Media, at Wichita State University and Assistant Curator of New Media for the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival. Her writings on videogames, digital photography, wearables, augmented reality, and techno-ecological art are published in Review: Literature and Art of the Americas, Journal of Peer Production, Media-N, Afterimage, Intelligent Agent, Eludamos, as well as the ISEA, DAC, and CHI conference proceedings. Forthcoming book chapters include bio-robotics, feminist media, and video, and will appear in Latin American Modernisms and Technology, ed. Maria Fernandez (New Jersey: Africa World Press, TBA); The Philosophy of Documentary Film, ed. David LaRocca (Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, TBA); and Indie Reframed: Women Filmmakers and Contemporary American Cinema, ed. Claire Perkins, Linda Badley, and Michele Schreiber (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).