Sure, my name's Raj Patel. I'm 44. I'm from Austin, Texas.
Now, in terms of experience being a journalist-activist, basically activism is what I've been doing for a very long. Effectively since I was five and wanted to raise money to end hunger and rented out my toys as a way of contributing to famine relief in Africa. The most popular toy, of course, was a mechanical electrical game where you -- sort of like Space Invaders but lower rent. The journalism and the writing part is the way that I found to be able to do that activism in ways that I feel like I have something to contribute. But, I mean, I've been involved in protests like the World Trade Organization protest in 1999 in Seattle, protested against the World Bank, protested against nuclear arms, fascism. I see it as part of the duty and privilege of growing up with the life that I've had that I get to stand up with people who have not had those privileges and get to be schooled by them, too.
That's my sort of potted background, if you like. But tell me -- ask me more specific things and I can give you a better set of answers.
Yeah, sure. That's a good place to start. We're just setting down a baseline for readers here.
I don't know if you've seen this, but Wikipedia calls you -- I guess they're citing it from another source that isn't online -- "the rockstar of social justice writing." Do you feel that that's fair to say? Or is that laying it on a bit thick? [Laughs.]
I think that that's Wikipedia doing what it does.
[Laughs.] It gets to one of the questions that I've been reflecting on a lot since you asked it, which was: What is it for videogames to arrive?
The reason I want to jump to that is because when one thinks -- what is it for Wikipedia to say something? Well, you know, it is what it is. It's claims that come and titles that we occasionally get and improved upon by a bunch of contributors and then it ends up on a website and gets recycled in other new ways, and all at once we're sort of skeptical and understand the context of it. It can either take on bigger importance or become trivial. And that -- it's a context of understanding: Well, Wikipedia says this so what do you make of that?
When you ask the question, "Well, what is it for videogames to arrive?," you have to have a similar kind of answer: Well, arrive for whom? I was trying to come up with a sort of analogy of, "Well, what is it for jazz to arrive, for example?" Jazz is what it is. There are millions of people around the world who think it has arrived. It is absolutely legitimate and fabulous and wonderful and can make our world bigger. But, you know, unlike videogames it's not massively lucrative. But it has its aficionados and it has its incredible literature and amazing practitioners and its stars and its failures. What is it for jazz to arrive when in many ways it's already there? I guess the question about Wikipedia is also a question about context, which is also a question about jazz, which is also a question about videogames.
[Laughs.] Everything is everything is everything is everything.
Well, yeah, but it's specifically about -- I think context does matter.
Oh, I absolutely agree. And I was asking mainly, ironically, for some context on you. [Laughs.]
I guess to preface, obviously I sent you over a couple of Rorschach-type questions.
And I think something that is similar and sort of the reason we got introduced is by way of Saru, when I asked her who was helpful to her cause of swaying or changing public opinion and scrutiny on food supply. You call it in the subtitle of one of your books a "hidden battle." I guess just as a starting point, I'm curious what the pushback and journey was to getting gatekeepers to care about food and food supply in the way you were writing about it?
That, in a sense, it's still an ongoing battle. The hidden battles and the rest of the title was "for the world food system" is still a work of education for me. I still -- I was at a conference of food-system funders just a few weeks ago and I had to sort of live in the fact that the food system is not just a supply chain. It's not. The food system isn't about farmers on one end and consumers on the other. It's about a whole system of things that make certain things possible and other things impossible. So, it's about laws, it's about resources, it's about power, it's about governance, it's about political imagination, it's about union organizing, it's about tastes and fast tastes have changed, about marketing, a bunch of other things. That isn't the supply chain. Those things are hidden.
And so, when I talk about the hidden battles of the world food system, part of the struggle has been educating not just funders but thought leaders of various kind and pushing back against the constraints of governments, which is very much organized along the supply chain. So, part of the ongoing work -- and I think that you're going to be banging your head up against this as well -- is precisely around getting people to think outside the confines of the coders are over here and the people with the repetitive strain injury from their thumbs are over there and that's the link.
It's a much bigger ecosystem. It's still hard to talk about. It's easier to talk about now for me than it was a decade ago partly because of people like Saru and partly because there's a lot of noise coming from lots of different places around food and social change. And so, that makes it a little easier to be able to say, "Well, if you're worried about or are interested in thinking about labor in the food system, then look at this process outside of McDonald's fast food." And people are much readier to be able to see that.
But I'm not seeing the same stuff happening in the same way around gaming and around technology even though, for example, there are huge conflicts with some of the inputs that go into electronics. I was just hearing about on the BBC about some atrocities that were happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo around some of the places where some of the rarer metals that go into the consoles that people will buying for Christmas are sourced. Those conflicts are absolutely vicious and horrible and bloody and murderous, but they're not politically or clearly articulated as being part of the electronics complex. So people ultimately understand them as, "Oh, it's those Africans at it again.” Rather than understanding how it is that we're complicit in fueling that conflict.
Mmhmm. I think when we spoke however long ago it was, you mentioned stuff like that is just really far outside the type of conversations that you'll see in, like, an IGN or on a typical games site.
I don't know if you have any insight into this, but why is it -- is it just that maybe the media isn't a good ally in addressing these sort of social issues from those perspectives? Is it because videogames aren't "good enough" to make people in other pockets of the media care about these things? What do you think that means that that stuff can't seem to get penetration there?
Well, in a sense, I don't want to put words into IGN's mouth but I imagine that their response would be the same as, say, the Food Network's is when you start raising issues of child labor in food supply which is, "Yeah, you know, that makes us feel really bad. That's not really what we do. What we do is celebrate the joy of eating with celebrity chefs and thought leaders and the beauty of cooking. You're coming to us with a story about children dying so that these ingredients can be made cheap. That's not really our game."
"And why should it be? We're the Food Network. We're not the Child Poverty Network. That's somewhere else."
That's absolutely accurate. I actually interviewed a co-founder of IGN and, in fact, just posted it last week. That is, more or less, their position. But, you know, with this sort of reporting that I'm doing, I'm not expecting an IGN to be interested but I've had this saga and have pitched about 30 human-rights publications and I get the feeling they're getting an allergic reaction solely because I'm mentioning the word "videogames." They'll write about corresponding topics in other industries.
That's so interesting. I mean, did you get a chance to look at that John Lanchester piece?
I did, yeah. It was a few weeks back, but yes.
I mean, I loved the way that he frames right at the beginning how the mainstream media ignores gaming and the gamers return the favor by being desperately apolitical.
That line really captured it for me. There's a two-way sense of animosity. It's not just a bourgeois, "Oh, the children play their sort." And it's actually frustrated young men. Basically, that's it.
As opposed to understanding that this is a billion-dollar industry -- I have to say it does rather boggle my imagination that there's not as much attention paid to some of this. But I think in part it's because while everyone has their iPhones, it's not so that everyone is playing the same game on it and so it's much easier to write about Apple than it is about the software that feels so ethereal. Whereas there's physicality to -- there was a lovely piece in The Guardian recently about someone who managed to get Foxconn factory by desperately needing the bathroom. I don't know if you saw that a couple of days ago. It was a masterpiece.
But what was interesting about it was he has the material kind of arrangements that look like barracks and look like strange prison-camp conditions that are much more material that therefore -- that are a step in the manufacture of something that everyone has. Whereas, with a game, it feels much more divorced from the physical world because it's platform-independent in many ways.
Yeah, I mean, you said it was "dematerialized." There's sort of always been a disconnect with this stuff in the sense that it's never been real, but it exists on these same screens that frequently we hear or read about all these other topics about other areas of the world we all live in.
I think obviously one of the questions that maybe I will just blatantly ask: Is it naive? Is it wise to seek comparisons to other industries for progress like this? I feel like it must have been easier to get people to care about food because everybody eats.
But is there anything the game industry can learn from the sort of stuff you write about and whether it's possible there?
Well, I'm not sure that the game industry has -- I think there's much more to think about in terms, as you asked earlier on, the hurdles to communication about understanding. It may feel like the code is just the code and it can float in the cloud, but the cloud isn't actually made of cloud. It's made of very material things. It involves very material operations of power all being made to use certain kinds of things in order for the material world can flourish. I think part of your mission is to try and rematerialize the cloud and to actually show some of these chains of exploitation that make it possible for someone to pay $60 for a game and disappear into it for several days.
That's a hard thing to show. It's much easier just to show the game.
That's why people -- that's why there is this sort of flourishing literature about it. But, you know, I think the struggle is to actually have these stories that connect the material conditions of production.
Well, but what do you think? Is there a line or maybe a context, like you said? Where is it fair and unfair to compare the game industry to the food industry?
It's interesting. I mean, of course the purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon lends that particular question a very interesting and contemporary slant, right?
Well, and you had to know I was going to ask you about that about as well. [Laughs.]
Well, but insofar as Amazon is recognizing that it can't -- that actually retail does involve physical things. Whereas in the game industry, games don't have to fight to maintain its position as a venue where you can buy and sell second-hand games despite writing that Microsoft wanted very much to end retail's involvement because as far as Microsoft was involved, the sort of sociality of hanging out at a GameStop was not a part of the product. That actually what they were selling was just the game, whereas what gamers wanted was much more the sort of social experience of going down to GameStop or wherever it was to buy and sell and trade and feel like the economy was partly theirs.
But that seems to me to be the sort of point of disjuncture, really. Food needs retail. That's how it gets to you. Whereas -- although consolidation has always been part of the food system and just three or four, or four large companies that were the world's largest grain traders. Some of those companies are 100 years old. But consolidation and concentration in the food industry is all over the place. In Stuffed and Starved, I write about the supply chain that's like an hourglass. It's wide and the bottom and narrow in the middle and wide on top.
That sort of picture of supply chain kind of works, I imagine, with games companies. But I imagine the bigger players there are the distributors as well, insofar as a game company wants to control everything from input to output and profit probably as much as possible. That's a trend that we certainly see through the supply-chain consolidation that's happening in the food industry. With a certain amount of coders being hired on contractual bases and insofar as externalities in the production of consoles and what-have-you can be squeezed you and insofar as workers are disposable in the manufacture of consoles and the manufacture of electronic equipment. That's something that companies tend not to give a shit about. And that's very familiar to the food system.
But, you know, I think that there is a lot further to go in making that analogy work because at the end of the day, when you buy a game, it's not going to -- you're not actually going to have anything to hold in your hand.
Yeah, I mean, similarly, when you talk about people giving a shit or not giving a shit. With the ongoing work you're doing, maybe you can talk about the evolution of this or how this has shifted. Can you talk about the biggest headaches there have been in terms of getting the average food audience -- whatever that would even be -- to care about the things you're writing about and trying to raise awareness of?
The biggest thing has been around dissuading people who care, for example, about animal welfare or about pesticide issues to give a shit about the people who are most directly affected by that, which is the humans who are in the fields being sprayed by these pesticides or workers in the foodservice industry or in the world of meat production, for example, who tend to be the worst paid people in food economy or people in the economy in general and who can be people of color. It's just really interesting that people can -- before I started writing there was a lot of concern around organic food, for example. Everyone wanted -- this whole organic food thing is this very individualistic craze where, "My body is a temple and I don't want strange things coming in to pollute this temple but I don't really care if they pollute other people's' temples because that's why I'm paying top dollars. I don't really care."
The big argument for organic food is not about occasionally being exposed to certain kinds of pesticide but rather to make sure that workers in the field are not routinely being exposed to things that will kill them and have demonstrated birth defects in their children. It's just -- that thing will really remain very, very hard to get people to give a shit about when it comes to organic food, for example.
Yeah, I mean, I may be misremembering, but if I recall, in Saru's most recent book she writes about slavery with tomato-picking. Do you know what I'm talking about?
I do, yeah. And it is modern-day slavery. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Southern Florida have campaigned against the kinds of behaviors that were prosecuted under the laws that ended slavery in the United States. So, it's not even sort of an analogue to slavery, or it's not like slavery. It was prosecuted as slavery. And people were in incredible and horrific conditions there. But, you know, at some level, horrific conditions in fields and in factories is one thing but I still boggle at the idea that people who like organic who see themselves as painted as a virtue that organic allows. Even they have a meticulous resistance to the idea that organic is not just about them.
That's one of the most interesting points at which the gamer culture kind of disconnects from the rest of reality, which is that gamer culture, sure, it has its modes of sociality and people get together and will shout insults at each other as they capture the flag or whatever it is they do. But in general, it's a very sort of individual pursuit with tightly regulated ways in which you can socialize with other people. You know, there's this lovely line in Ready Player One where one of the lead characters goes into one of these silver mills and just as he's killing someone who's there, their response is this line of one of the immigrant workers saying, "Don't kill me. This is my living." And that's why I enjoyed Ready Player One, because it did have this, all of a sudden, a way of bringing workers into the story who were then invisibilized, who were invisibilized in the normal production of the consoles. But there they are farming gold in order for richer players to be able to buy things and level up. Have you read Ready Player One?
I have not, but I'm very familiar with it.
Oh, it's very much in the vein of your research, and it's a rollicking read. I think Steven Spielberg is making the film of it that's coming out this year.
He is. That's right.
What it's all about adds grist to your mill.
Well, it's interesting because when I talked to Saru, she told me that Yelp tends to remove anything pointing to labor issues and that Zagat's doesn't touch on the ways restaurants treat their workers. How did there get to be more meaningful channels of protest for the restaurant and food world? Because that's something the videogame world really doesn't have.
Um, unions. The answer is unions. It's always unions. One of the wisest lines I heard is that workers organize unions and, in fact, the opposite is the case. It's unions organize workers. And insofar as workers in the game industries have been ignored by unions, it's unsurprising that their stories don't get told. And in part, it's because if you look at the coder ethos, the old and bright individual fighting against ignorance and darkness, producing pure genius embodied in code, that means that unionizing among the graduate tech workers is just very hard.
Something I do wonder about, sort of the way labor has coalesced in the games industry is how much of that has to do with the industry sort of being an export from Japan decades ago. I'm curious just from your research, do you see ways that the game industry behaves today that is indicative of Japan decades ago?
That's a great question. I never really thought about it that way. But Japan decades ago still had a very interesting, vibrant Communist party. There's -- Japan decades ago, in Japan, was both this domain of security and for men, certainly, a certain kind of camaraderie and homosociality that allowed people to believe that there was a place for them in the world and that the state was working for them just as they worked for the state or the company or whatever it was. And so I'm not sure that gamers feel that. I mean, I don't feel that. I'm not sure. I'm not there. I guess I'm struggling to see the connection. But tell me more. What do you see as -- where do you get that coming from?
[Laughs.] It's a good question. It's a question that I've had for a long time. It's something I've tried to research and find people who are knowledgeable about it, people who have worked in the East and gone to the West as the industry got established. It's something that a lot of people tend to say, "Oh, that's a very good point. There probably is something to that." But I think just the notion of Japanese business culture is so nebulous that it tends to, on this scale that the game industry is at now, it tends to just echo like typical corporations carry themselves and the way they behave. It's hard to distinguish what the differences might be.
I just know -- I'll give you an example. And I don't think this has anything to do with Japan. But I'm continuing to research cycles of abuses in labor in the game industry and I've been digging through Westlaw, I've been digging through Lexis Advance the last few weeks, and I really can't find any litigation on the books. I'm starting to suspect that might be because employment contracts have mandatory arbitration clauses.
And I don't think there's anything necessarily Japanese about that, but there is definitely this time-honored notion of tradition or just "this is the way things are done." But that's even further confusing to distinguish because that's true of a lot of tech, as well, which may also come from Japan. So, that's at least where this is coming from. But I just have questions. [Laughs.] I don't have any answers.
Yeah. That's definitely something. That's something to ponder. I mean, whether it's Japanese or not, it may also just reflect the billionaires' distaste for labor and hippies' distaste for labor. A lot of the way --
Oh, you mean, like, the hacker movement as an outgrowth of --
Interesting. Do you mean "labor" or laborers?
No, I mean organized labor in general.
When one thinks of the '70s counterculture movement, it's not really stitched up with organized labor unions in any meaningful way. In fact, to be countercultural in San Francisco was not really to ally yourself with a labor movement so much as to strike your own individualist path. So, you know, but here I'm clutching at straws. I don't have as firm a grasp on this as I'd like.
That's okay. It's interesting.
The thing that you reminded me of, though, was about not about labor culture but gamer culture. Particularly, in Korea. I mean, I'm not sure whether you'll get to travel as part of this project but the kinds of gamer culture that I've seen in Korea, and to some extent in China and Japan, are quite overwhelming. I wonder whether -- this is pure speculation, but I do think that there's an element to which the design of modern cities and the systematic exclusion of green space for recreation means that it's much more thinkable to end up spending one's days in darkened rooms playing on screens next to rows of other people doing the same thing rather than being outdoors. Of course, now, this isn't to say that there aren't physical activities that many people in Asia do. But I do think that when urban architecture really militates against being outside -- and, you know, this is not just about air pollution issues in China, but just about lack of green spaces in many Asian cities. But then, all of a sudden, that's a kind of gentle push or a shove towards gaming indoors. But, again, this is just me making it up. I don't know this to be the case.
But it seems to be much more thinkable to do that because why would you go outside and scar your lung tissue when you could be indoors and doing something else?
[Laughs.] I can sort of get you a little back on script here. I remember when we spoke last -- hopefully you'll remember what you meant -- but you mentioned that you saw a similarity between videogames and the slow-food movement?
I had in my notes a direct quote from you, which is you called the slow-food movement "a circle jerk of olive oils."
Olive oil, that's right. Yes.
So here's the thing. I mean, what I like about the slow-food movement is that they understood that actually eating good food was pleasurable and that they were very serious about making sure that everyone got to eat good food. And so, their mission was to make sure that workers making that food would have quality wages and two hours of lunch break to be able to go ahead and eat that food together. And that's what I would imagine would be the kind of thing that would be the analogue in the gaming world, which is, look, everyone -- well, not everyone loves to game. But gaming is at its best, it's pleasurable and a social activity and it's something that people can and should do together, enjoy together. But with slow food, there's an organization that's like, "Well, everyone needs to eat and so we have to make sure that everyone gets to eat well." In the gaming world, it's not necessarily the case that everyone needs to game. It's not true that everyone needs to play Call of Duty and so what we need to do is organize for a society where everyone gets to play Call of Duty. So, that's where the analogy might work but then doesn't. It is about this question of need.
But “need” and “pleasure” next to each other, I mean, that's why I like the slow-food movement. It takes this idea of pleasure that a certain community has and runs with it and says, "Here's what needs to happen in the world so that everyone gets to do it." And that mode of understanding how food works and how the world works is something I don't see in the gaming world at all.
Yeah. I mean, when I emailed you over those questions, you emailed back -- you mentioned that the online culture around videogames can be "strange, odd, and a little threatening." I think people are -- I mean, I'm gonna be assuming what I think you mean by threatening. I'd be curious to hear you talk a little bit about how you find it strange and odd. How is that?
Well, it's just -- in general, online culture. I mean, my exposure to this is just "the comment field," where I'll write something and then there'll be a million people -- my direct experience experience with this, of course, is appearing on a TV show and then all of a sudden people deciding I was the messiah or the antichrist. and just being subject to a strange world of trolling that was utterly beyond my control. I mean, it's very odd just to be able to navigate a world of comments. It's a very particular kind of way of needing to pay attention, where you're always -- I'm shit at doing this with social media in general, where you have to be facile with checking your social media and then jumping back again and not checking it and then checking it again and then trying to get some work done. But no, you can't because now someone's taken your post and trolling you in one way or another. The trolling is something I find unusual and strange in terms of human social interaction because I like to see people when they insult me.
As opposed to having this sort of bizarre relationship where they're invisible. I just -- that doesn't do it for me. So, there's that and I struggle with that. This is just sort of about trolling in general, but it's also about the sexism of online culture, which bothers me to no end. I just don't like it at all.
You know, it's fucked up. I don't enjoy being exposed to it. Because every time you have to fight it. I can see why that kind of culture just drives -- perpetuates a certain kind of patriarchy.
Are there nuances of game --
Oh, of course there are.
No, no, no. I mean nuances of the gaming culture that the mainstream understood better, I was going to say.
Oh, absolutely. I think that there's a lot in -- BioShock is the game that really showed me what it was that gaming could do, and in part because I've read Ayn Rand and I don't particularly think she's as amazing as lots of Americans do. And so it was very interesting to see that world subverted in ways that were really just really creative and thoughtful and deep. And so, I think that the mainstream culture doesn't get that videogames can be very powerful in terms of social critiques. I mean, I haven't gotten very far with Papers, Please, but I'm already enjoying it.
Thanks for recommending it. I look forward to playing it when I actually have some time to that, which will be on a plane this week. [Laughs.] But, you know, I think there's a lot there. I mean, I think insofar as videogames aren't just about blowing things up. We talked last time about That Dragon, Cancer.
I saw A Monster Calls, and I thought that there was some very powerful parallels between that movie and the book that it was based on that I read after it and That Dragon, Cancer. I think that there's power and very deeply felt and very profoundly communicated emotion that the mainstream tends to dismiss, but God forbid that I needed to recommend these kinds of things to other people. But I certainly would recommend A Monster Calls and That Dragon, Cancer because both of them in various ways are about a particular disease and the suffering that it causes and the sort of transcendence one can find through coming out the other side, and people don't talk about videogames that way. But they should. Or they should understand that not all videogames are about Call of Duty.
Right. And I think that's something that inside the culture people don't understand, that people outside, that's all they really know of them.
More broadly, then, what aspects of the hive mind on the internet as far as journalists and consumers of journalism online confounds you the most?
Well, you know, one can talk about the political economy that you've mentioned, right, where it's just impossible to give editors to give a shit because they have such a low opinion of their readers. But, you know, the things -- and this is just about the crisis of journalism, in general, with the rise of the listicle and that sort of minimal level of journalism, there doesn't appear to be the sort of courage one would hope for among commissioning editors to find or imagine that there's an audience that would be ready to read something that's sophisticated and long about the gaming industry other than biographies of -- oh, Christ. What's his name that invented -- at Square-Enix. You know, the Japanese legend who invented Mario, for example. I can't remember his name.
Miyamoto. That's right. Other than those kinds of long-form "this is where he grew up and these are the influences, growing up in Japan, this, that, and the other," I'm stunned the extent to which editors and the journalists that they commission and then audiences have set their bars very low. So, the curiosity about labor, for example, is squashed, even though, as far as I know, people with jobs tend to labor. You know, I think a part of the issue is around communicating in the political culture online of being able to find things where you're able to make the -- just to be able to incite empathy between people. And that's hard to know. As you write this book, the struggle is going to be to find people who will embody one or more sides of your story. I think we talked about this last time.
But, you know, I think that there are ways of pulling deep political and economic lessons out of the human-interest sidebar. And, unfortunately, the book that you're about to write is sort of trapped between those two places: between being the human-interest sidebar and the deep work of political economy that everyone needs to read to understand.
Well, and I mean, on top of that, and as you know and as you've written about, all industries tend to gatekeep certain types of knowledge. I'd be interested to hear you talk about questions you feel remain unasked about the food industry. Are there questions that you feel are unasked about the game industry, though, too? They might be the same questions. I don't know.
You know, one of the interesting and just really something to find out questions in the food industry is about the extent to which speculation shapes food prices. The power that bankers have over everything. I think that in the game industry, while finance is very powerful, it has less of a role in shaping the way that people go about their business than other forces. I mean, that's not entirely true. The fact that Amazon has been able to hemorrhage money for decades and Wall Street has not turned against them and has not driven its stock into the mud has been largely because Jeff Bezos has a silver tongue and that he can talk financiers into understanding what it is that he's doing and the very long game that he's playing. But when it comes to the gaming industry, in general, I imagine that Sony and Microsoft and whoever else are able to make pitches to their investors and the investors will sort of nod their heads gamely and give them as much cash as they need in order to be able to return on a five-year cycle. Which, to be honest, a five-year investment cycle isn't a bad -- that's a big chunk of time in finance.
So, you know, I think that there may some dissimilarities there. But, you know, for me, I think that the questions that don't get asked is, "Where does all this material stuff come from? Where does the energy come from? Where does the tantalum and what else-have-you in these consoles, where is that being manufactured? Who suffered in order for them to be part of your phone?" And those kinds of questions don't get asked even though as we speak, our words are being transmitted through the ether and are being -- we're touching the stuff in order for us to have this conversation, and yet, of course, it's so much in the background and why should we care? It is a naturalized part of our environment now. But why shouldn't we? Why shouldn't we care? Why should we enforce ignorance upon ourselves about this sort of thing when, again, the irony is that in a second we'll stop talking, I'll listen to the radio and hear about people dying in the Congo and they'll be dying over fights in order for us to have the plumbing that we need in order to have the conversations that we need. And so, in a very deep way, of course, it does matter. And it takes work for us to forget. Undoing that work is hard. But that's the topic you have at hand.
At least in America, maybe elsewhere, do you think -- I guess I'm just thinking back on Rockefeller's day. Were we just as ignorant as far as where our stuff is coming from in those days? I mean, has that changed? Our awareness?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, when one thinks -- one of the classics of early 20th-century literature is Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which you may have been forced to read as a young man in a U.S. high school.
[Laughs.] I was forced to read it, but I also think of this project as being in that vein but about another industry.
Well, so, Upton Sinclair -- so, this may or may not be good news, then. He said that he aimed for America's heart and hit it in the stomach.
Yeah. And he was pointing to the condition of workers and he ends his magnificent book with the words of a street recruiter shouting about how socialism in Chicago is possible and one day socialism will come and Chicago will be ours, America will be ours. And, of course, that is yet to happen despite many people's belief in the inherent socialism of Barack Obama. But the effect to American consumers was much more about, "Oh my God, there's basically poop in meat!" But no one gives a shit that there's blood on their cell phone. I'm forgetting the name of a campaign that worked a little while and shamed some cell-phone manufacturers into behaving a little better. The fact is, actually, no one particularly cares that there's blood on their cell phone. So, you know, there is a struggle ahead. And, you know, I think that in the Rockefeller's era, there was a struggle then, too, that people didn't really know where their food came from. In fact, it's been in Britain for certain classes, they never knew where their food came from.
What is the difference between a Jeff Bezos or even, to use a more recent example -- the head of an Uber and a Rockefeller? What seems to have shifted in that century in between?
Not much. I think certainly the Rockefellers were shit-scared of Communists. They were deeply, deeply troubled by the potential rise of Communism in a way that these days you don't see Travis Kalanick living in mortal fear of the rise of the Red Menace. And instead, they're much more worried about -- you know, although you do see occasional sort of flashes of concern from the billionaires about what's going to happen with the preppers. I don't know if you saw it, there was a very interesting that the New Yorker put out, about the new billionaire class of people preparing for doomsday in Silicon Valley. You know, there is a certain constellation among those folks that in the event of bad things happening, they ought to perhaps spare a thought for workers and that's why there's sort of an interesting push among Silicon Valley types for a minimum wage and for an income grant and a way of protecting themselves from the turmoil that deep inequality would provoke. But I see it, I think, a little bit different from the Rockefellers. I mean, the Rockefellers were just, "No, capitalism is much better than socialism and that's what we need."
[Laughs.] Another thing that obviously occurred in the century in between is the rise of the internet. I'd be curious to hear you talk about how you feel the internet has impacted or stymied activism? Are we replacing narcissism with progress?
I've seen the internet being very useful for activists, for example, in South Africa where everyone's on WhatsApp and it can be -- the minute, for example, there's a fire in shack settlements, the word will go out on WhatsApp and you can get people mobilized very, very quickly. And people in shack settlements there will check Facebook maybe once a day at the local library and just sort of check in with one another. But, you know, the physical infrastructure is limited and people's phones are not smart phones. They're not checking it all the time. But I don't think that -- I mean, I do think that social media in general is not the sort of thing you need to be doing if you want to be happy.
But if you want to get activism done, then there are ways in which the internet can be very useful. But, you know, I don't spend any time at all on Facebook and I'll be on Twitter maybe five minutes every couple of days. But I'm happier that way and I know I am because when activism needs to happen, I'll get it through text message or a phone call or something like that rather than something that requires a great deal of attention in which I'm engaging in the kind of exchange of information that gets to make other people much richer. But I think that the internet can be useful. I think it's a tool and as long as -- and communication technology is useful. But it also can overstate and distort what's happening. The Arab Spring -- I mean, a lot of the interesting things that happened in the Arab Spring happened in factories where people weren't really on Facebook and they weren't in Tahrir Square but they were rising up against their bosses, for example. That stuff was done in Arabic without someone's Facebook there to document. And so, then, it became much less visible to us over here. But, you know, I think insofar as social media can facilitate organizing, it's great, but insofar as it substitutes for organizing, it's awful. So you know, I think the answer is organizing is much better for activism than imagining that we can just substitute for it by just making sure that everyone's on the same Facebook page or likes the same Facebook page.
[Laughs.] You wrote in Stuffed and Starved, and at least this true of confectionary, that there's "an emphasis on utility to everyone except the consumer.” Is this true of all industries, to an extent?
I think that consumers in the gaming industry have a bit more say over the products that they're buying in part because it's not clear that playing Call of Duty is going to be as bad for your blood sugar and for your health as chomping down on a bar of candy. With levels of -- in the food world, with ultra-processed food in general being associated with poor health, it's certainly the case that that's much harder to evade than the choice that pays or not $60 for a game.
Yeah, that's the No. 1 thing you'll see people say as a way of protesting in the game industry, at least as a consumer, that they'll "vote with their dollars." Is that actually an effective way of being heard or making any sort of impact? Won't their money just be replaced by somebody else's money who will buy it?
I think boycotts can work in very limited circumstances when there's lots of other things going on. I mean, for example, me boycotting World of Warcraft makes no difference at all. I have boycotted World of Warcraft and clearly no one gives a shit about that. Why not?
Well, because, it's not a very well-organized protest. It's not the sort of thing that comes also with a bunch of demands about why I'm boycotting World of Warcraft. Is it that I want orcs to be better treated and represented?
Unless there's a good bunch of organizing, then merely withholding my cash is no signal at all. So, you know, there does need to be much more in terms of specific demands and specific asks. and offline demands and engagements in which boycotts matter. There's a lovely theory of things that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was keen that people do when people were asking, "Well, surely if we boycott South African oranges in the times of Apartheid, we're just hurting workers in South Africa."
He goes, "No, no, no. If you just boycott and do nothing else, then you aren't getting us very far. But if you're educating one another and you're going to protests and if you're standing outside the South African embassy and if you're making Apartheid and white supremacy unacceptable, then the boycott matters and it's part of something bigger. But merely voting with your dollars doesn't matter at all."
Yeah, I guess it goes back to what you said about the tendency in game culture for individuals to be apolitical, which I think is changing to a certain extent.
Well, I'll ask you this one final question, which is intentionally broad and something I'll ask you because you are familiar with videogames: What do you feel videogames have accomplished?
It's an interesting question. They've certainly managed to turn themselves into a vast and highly lucrative business and they've created news way for imagining and seeing the world and imagining it different. At their very best, they can offer new ways for people to connect with one another in ways that are unexpected and joyful. And I think that they've offered ways for people to find one another who may not have been able to do that.
But I also think that they've also prepared joys that in some way and cultures of individualism and have attenuated our sense of the physical and the real into simply auditory and visual stimuli when the world is much richer than all of that. So, you know, I think that there are victories good and bad. I mean, I see the potential of things like augmented reality being very rich. I think that there is stuff that remains to be tapped in the world of videogames.
But I do think that videogames matter. It does need to be hitched to more political sensibilities, and part of the accomplishment of videogames is to almost be free of all of it. I mean, the most -- [Laughs.] I was just thinking about the politics of the first videogame I played cooperatively. It was, of course, about killing Nazis. Wolfenstein came with its ready-made bad guys of of course the Nazis. There was always that political subtext that made it okay to do something that was at that time still pretty weird, when you're going around the dungeon and it looks like your actions are causing the death of something. That's a weird -- is it okay to be doing this? Back in the day when we were playing those games on some PCs, the 486s on a very slow network.
But, you know, I'm looking forward to better politics coming out of the videogame industry and accompanying the videogame industry. I wouldn't actually expect the industry itself to do that. I think it comes on activism.