a10 – Book review: Respawn: Gamers, Hackers, and Technogenic Life by Colin Milburn

Respawn: Gamers, Hackers, and Technogenic Life by Colin Milburn

2018. Duke University Press.

By H-Cat

When I first started working with the Slingshot collective 10 years ago, I felt like I had to stay quiet about loving certain video games. To the hippies and punks who made up the Slingshot Collective at that time, any mention of video games or computer technology was often met with annoyance and tense shoulders. These were folks who were radicalized in the cow pastures of Woodstock, in all-ages punk shows at The Gilman, and in the decades-long struggle to defend People’s Park. Many of them had dropped out of mainstream culture long ago—none of them owned televisions, more or less video game systems. To them, the video game was a sign of defeat: it was a sign that they had failed to end capitalism, that “the machine” was still in operation despite their best efforts to throw their bodies upon its gears.

How could I explain to my new comrades that I’d been radicalized as an environmentalist and anti-capitalist while playing The Secret of Mana, Zelda, and Final Fantasy? How could I express that so much of who I am emerged as part of the cosplays I started doing with my gamer friends in high school? How could they understand that the values I learned from videogames had everything to do with why I attended the WTO protest in 1999, and that gaming and game literacy helped me recognize that I had a role to play in the movement against neoliberal globalization?

In the years since I first joined this collective, more and more gamers and hackers have become part of the Bay Area radical community. Gamers make up a contingent of radicals whose “Woodstock moment” was gathering in the streets in Guy Fawkes masks to sing GLADOS’ song from Portal while protesting Scientology, and in smol ways and large, hackers and gamers bring our unique understandings to the global and local struggle against capitalism, white supremacy, ecocide, and gender violence. Sure, the hippies and punks don’t always seem to get what we’re doing, but they’ve gradually become awesome allies for the new types of projects we bring to radical spaces—projects that include the creation of open-source software, the implementation of locally-owned MESH networks, and also educational activities about things like encryption, net neutrality, and surveillance (not to mention RPG and board game nights!).

This gets me to what I like about Colin Milburn’s book, Respawn: Gamers, Hackers, and Technogenic Life (2018), which is to say it’s a book written for gamers and by a gamer. Anyone who wasn’t radicalized through game culture probably isn’t going to get what’s going on in this book (sorry), but to those of us who were, this author is a worthy bard, and the stories he tells are hella helpful for making sense of the somewhat ephemeral moments of resistance that emerge within, alongside, and out of gaming culture. Using schlxr skillz like research and archives, he weaves together tales of gamer resistance with careful attention to detail, but not without a few lulz, some lite L337speak, and some deep philosophical reflection on what it means to pwn.

Milburn’s theory of pwning is something to be reckoned with. If, as Milburn argues, to pwn something is to take responsibility for mistakes that have been made, how do we pwn GamerGate? Likewise, the author invites us, as gamers, to engage the question of how we might take responsibility for climate change, ending the book with a thoughtful examination of the environmental destruction and labor abuses caused by the gaming industry itself.