Austin Fabry-Jenkins recommends some top Nintendo Switch games for progressively-minded folks to try.
The global gaming industry is estimated to be worth over $150 billion, more than both the global film industry and music industry. Currently almost one third of Australians over 14 own a gaming console. As the left, we’ve got a bit of a problem, despite these massive numbers of people consuming video games, the world of gaming is often dominated by conservative politics.
Gamergate arguably launched the cesspool of Men’s Rights Activism into the mainstream; games like Grand Theft Auto still thrive despite the celebration of violence against women, any move to include people of colour, LGBTIQA+ people or women in video game development is often violently opposed by largely male fanbases.
Economic exploitation is also rife. Gaming companies use loot boxes as an extra revenue stream with little regard for who is buying them. Research from the UK shows that 40% of children who play video games have accessed a loot box, with most studies demonstrating their unambiguous link to problem gambling. Gamers are often sold a product that looks nothing like the advertisement, with aggressive deadlines leading to half finished games going to market (see Cyberpunk 2077). The aggressive deadlines and crunch culture don’t just impact the consumer either, creators are finding themselves increasingly burnt out and psychologically destroyed by what is on paper, a dream job. While workers in these spaces are getting increasingly organised,(just this year Activision workers walked off the job to demand safer working conditions for marginalised people) union busting is common.
So keeping in mind that owning a Nintendo in and of itself is inherently problematic (they do not grade well on the anti-slavery index), what is the socially conscious gamer to do? If you want to play games all day but still sleep at night, here’s a few that are worth your support.
Tonight We Riot
The nirvana of left-wing gaming. Tonight We Riot is an old school crowd brawler about a dystopian not-so-distant future where the capitalist elite control elections, the media, and the means of production. You don’t play one character in this game, rather you play a mob of revolutionaries that grows as you liberate workplaces, and shrinks as an increasingly militarised police force guns you down.
Crowd brawlers aren’t particularly common nowadays, so the mechanics and strategy take a little getting used to, but the real joy is in the comedy writing in between levels. Prepare yourself for headlines like “Pollution is good for workers actually” as the media desperately try to curtail your movement. Best of all, Tonight We Riot was created by the Pixel Pushers Union 512, a worker owned gaming cooperative that operates on the principles of shop democracy and equal sharing of profits.
Donut County is a cute, fun, silly puzzle game where a band of shady raccoons swallow up the world in a mysterious hole that gets bigger as it eats more things. It’s also a beautifully written metaphor for colonisation and gentrification, and explores how you can maintain a friendship with a person who has historically oppressed you. The writing is genuinely hilarious, and even though its message is obvious, it never feels preachy. The puzzles are relatively simple, but incredibly satisfying, and you can wrap up the game in an hour or two. Donut County was created by Ben Esposito, an independent solo game designer from LA.
Untitled Goose Game
It is a lovely day in the village and you are a horrible goose. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you may have heard that Melbourne gaming company House House produced the most popular video game ever made by an Australian company in 2019. For a period of time, Untitled Goose Game not only topped the Australian and UK Nintendo charts, but globally it had charted ahead of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This game makes the list because House House are generally good folks, they were one of the first sign ons to the “Pay the Rent” campaign, and the goose has since been claimed as a trans icon since the developers refused to give it a gender. No gender, only honk.
This game is not left-wing and it was made by Nintendo – a pretty evil company. But we need strong bodies when the revolution comes, and this is shockingly a pretty decent game. It’s also largely free of fatphobia, which is basically non-existent in the world of fitness gaming.
Imagine a cross between Animal Crossing, Farmville and Minecraft where the reward for your efforts is the townsfolk disclosing their deepest vulnerabilities to you. Stardew Valley is a simple roleplaying game where you’re a farmer in a community that is facing immense pressure to change from the introduction of a new supermarket.
You can farm different crops for different seasons, raise animals, swing a sword at monsters in the local mines, and encourage your friend Shane to see a therapist about his drinking problem. What makes Stardew Valley stand out, is that in a world where role playing games are increasingly charging players extra for expansions, add-ons and updates, Stardew never does. The developers have been known to roll out gigantic updates that add hours of gameplay for anyone who already owns the game, meaning that there is never any real ‘finish’. You can also get gay-married which is nice.
Pro tip: When you’re in lockdown with a partner or a housemate, click and point adventure games make for ripper group entertainment. Similar to Tonight We Riot, Read Only Memories takes place in a not-so-distant capitalist dystopia, in which major corporations have taken control of the public service. You play a journalist helping the first sentient android uncover what happened to their creator when he goes missing. Aside from the anti-capitalist politics, this is the most explicitly queer game I’ve ever played. Almost every major character comes from one of the letters of the LGBTIQA+ community, and the game offers a range of pronouns for players to pick at the start. It comes from MidBoss, the development arm of GaymerX, a not-for-profit that works to elevate the voices of queer creators and characters in gaming.
Another independent Melbourne creation! The Gardens Between is a beautifully designed puzzle game where players must manipulate time to progress forward. TThe reason this game deserves a mention is because portrayals of women and girls in coming of age stories are almost entirely non-existent in the gaming space. The Gardens Between presents a young, female character confronting a major life change, it presents a beautiful and platonic friendship between a boy and a girl, it shows the girl as boisterous and sporty, while the boy is timid and gentle, and it does this without any real fanfare. It’s set against a backdrop of 90s working class Sydney, and its core message is that we can’t move forward without looking back. It made me cry.
Gris is the OG indie darling of the Nintendo Switch catalogue. A game by Devolver Digital, it’s a platformer about enduring pain and bringing colour back to your world. I say it’s a platformer, but not in the traditional sense, you can’t die and you can’t make a mistake, any movement forward is the correct move. In this way the gameplay is designed to almost perfectly reflect the struggle of having a mental illness, you’ll get stuck, you’ll get frustrated, but your choices are never a mistake. Realistically, it’s a pretty cheesy metaphor, but it’s beautiful and incredibly fun.
Austin Fabry-Jenkins is a gamer and union organiser.