Screengrab from Corbyn Run
Show Hide image

Class Wargames: how an obscure board game led to Labour's gamification of power

“Transform the enclosed lands of spectacular capitalism into the participatory playgrounds of cybernetic communism.”

“Play the Game of War, and you will learn how to transform the enclosed lands of spectacular capitalism into the participatory playgrounds of cybernetic communism," says a disembodied voice over clips from historical dramas, demonstrations and famous moments from history.

It's the kind of video you wouldn't be surprised to find on an obscure gaming-enthusiast site, which makes sense since it is hosted on what appears to be just that. Or at least, it would have remained obscure if it weren't for one of those featured in the video, a man who was at the time a left-wing backbench Labour MP by the name of John McDonnell.

Now shadow chancellor, McDonnell told the Labour party conference on Tuesday that his economic team would be playing war games to prepare for government, with the help of an academic called Richard Barbrook. Internet sleuths soon tracked down the site Barbrook helped set up, Class Wargames. The site's main attraction is the video's subject, Game of War, which was reconstructed ten years ago by group of artists, software developers and political activists from an original developed by a left-wing Marxist theorist, Guy Debord.

The video promotes the game's unique selling points and it's not too hard to see its appeal for those hoping to upend the establishment: “Play the Game of War and you will learn how the combatants of the revolution by combining in an unstoppable offensive can impose their will on the guardians of reaction.” The voiceover urges players to learn from the military mistakes of Napoleon Bonaparte and other generals, and warns “the artistic and intellectual vanguard must be prepared to fight and die in the victorious proletarian uprising”. Players of Class Wargames, it seems, are encouraged to learn from military strategy in order to enact their own revolution in real life.

The game was reconstructed in 2007 using photographs of the original and the rule booklet. After creating it, the players then had to learn how to play. “It’s a really complicated game,” says Rod Dickinson, one of the original “players”. While the board game resembles a chessboard, with pieces of different value that can be moved around, the successful player needs to draw on Debord’s theories of military strategy. “The only way you can win in Debord’s game is by disabling the enemy’s network,” says Dickinson. “You can’t win by removing all their pieces from the game.”

While it all seems terribly serious, Dickinson says the video promoting Game of War is at least partly a pastiche, which like the game itself is “playing with these ideas of the historical revolutionary moment”. At one point in the video, the narrator declares that, when Debord and his wife played the game, "the table top becomes an erogenous zone where the inventor and his wife face each other in a libidinous combat".  Dickinson is no stranger to playful misdirection, having been "one of the people involved in making crop circles,” in the 1990s. 

Barbrook himself also hints that the Game of War shouldn't be taken entirely seriously. “That’s an art project we did,” he tells me of the whole Class Wargames site. A political scientist, Barbrook has introduced gamification into the courses he has taught, and it seems like a natural extension to apply similar theories to his work with the Labour party. As well as co-ordinating Labour’s digital manifesto, he was involved in the creation of Corbyn Run, an online game launched during the 2017 general election. In it, the player, using an avatar of Jeremy Corbyn, shakes down bankers in order to collect money for the budget.

Barbrook was at the Labour party conference in part to launch Games for the Many, a pro-Corbyn games website. Launches include an improved version of Corbyn Run – “even Jeremy’s playing it, he thought it was hilarious” - and new works in the pipeline, including the working title of “Tinder for Canvassers”, which Barbrook says was coined by McDonnell himself.

The war games planned for the shadow economics team will not be quite as edgy, with participants seated round a table and asked to make decisions in a variety of situations, which have consequences. Experts will be invited to attend, such as former Bank of England officials. “We’d ideally have the whole shadow cabinet playing,” says Barbrook.

As for Game of War, the project that kickstarted their enthusiasm for politcally conscious gaming, Barbrook and his fellow player are divided. Barbrook says he was “surprised how good it was”. But Dickinson has a word of warning for aspirational Labour activists: “They will be very, very bored.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

Getty
Show Hide image

Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.