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26 September 2017

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.”

By Julia Rampen

“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.”

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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. 

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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.”