On the eve of the anniversary of the capitol riots, indy video game developers Jason and Jeremy Hammond are drinking homemade wine in their kitchen and getting pumped to live stream their game on Twitch for its official release.
The date — January 6 — is intentional. Smash MAGA is the unapologetic satirical gamification of anti-fascism, Jason says. The style is based on an old Nintendo game called Smash TV, but in this game the violence isn’t mindless, it’s targeted. The final level is a three-way fight on the senate floor against riot cops and rioters in a reimagined version of the January 6 fascist insurrection. The boss is a gigantic QAnon Shaman wielding a spear tipped flag who shoots floating cue (Q) balls and throws chamber chairs.
“We wanted to make a game that is relevant to the politics of 2020 and allows people to reimagine the different scenarios in the past year,” says Jason.
The twin brothers created the game using open-source software, and you can play it for free on Steam as of today. Their ultimate goal is to use the game as a way to share resources on how to form an anti-fascist group and carry out mutual aid, but so far it’s had low engagement. They speculate that’s because it’s been banned by all the major app stores for a variety of reasons, including “offensive references to targeted groups such as MAGA,” (emphasis my own) and violating Google’s “sensitive events” policy.
The famously hands-off gaming company Steam, which allows everything “except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling,” initially banned the game for copyright infringement. After months of silence, a different head of Steams’s review board finally responded to the twins rebuttal, saying the ban would be lifted as long as they redrew specific scenes that contained pixelated photos of actual protestors, which could violate those individuals' privacy. Public figures like Trump or a zombified Rudy Giuliani on the other hand, are fine, and the inclusion of copyrighted material, like MAGA or business logos, that get their windows shattered in the game, are covered by fair use laws. The brothers asked an artist friend to redraw the flagged scenes and once they resubmitted the game. It passed.
The twins said they feel like there’s been a chilling effect on anti-fascists’ presence on social media ever since Trump publicly embraced fascists and declared Antifa a terrorist organization. Social media and tech companies were heavily reprimanded for their role in spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories in the lead up to the Jan 6 insurrection, and were subsequently forced to revise their policies. Many of those policy changes, however, lump anarchist content and accounts along with alt-right militarized movements like QAnon. One effect has been the alt-right weaponizing these policies to take down antifascist accounts, and now Google using their anti-discrimination policies in defense of Trump supporters.
“I don't think anyone's really questioning, legally speaking, whether or not we’re allowed to make a game that has Trump as a virus as the boss character,” Jeremy says. “But the question is whether Apple or Valve wants to bear whatever potential liability [that could come with hosting extreme views, whether antifa or alt-right] or if they just don't feel like having it. They weren’t surprised that these huge companies might want to avoid controversy over hosting a ‘random mediocre indie game’”
“These companies have positioned themselves in front of people’s rights because they run the platforms that most technology is based on — that we count on,” says Jeremy. Apple’s monopoly in the App Store has cornered the market of hundreds of millions of tech users. “And whatever protections that someone might have against censorship from a government, all of that's irrelevant, because this is a question whether Apple wants to post it on their phone or not. And that's their decision.”
What satire doesn’t usually do (Netflix productions Don’t Look Up and Death to 2021 come to mind as great disappointments to me) is actually offer a way out of the sideshow being mocked. Liberal satire tries to be bipartisan. Anarchist satire, on the other hand, is partisan. One of the levels in Smash MAGA is set at Rush Hospital in Chicago (they thought the architecture was cool), where players confront the horrific absurdity of anti-vaxxers blocking ambulances from being able to deliver patients to hospitals. It mocks the idiocy of something like that and lets the player do something about it, even just symbolically.
“Your life is your comrades around you.”
Also, the life cycle of the characters is touching: “Your life is your comrades around you. So if your own character dies, you become one of the other characters that are following you around throwing bricks, but they have life as well. And you can replenish everyone's life by eating pizza or food.”
This game is unapologetically for those who are pissed about fascism, says Jason; the anarchists, the nihilists, the doom scrollers. Smash MAGA isn’t a counter recruitment tool or a way to create “empathy” with Nazis in the process of being reformed. And it’s also much more than just a slick gag. The brothers have felt the long arm of the state constrict their lives in very real ways and say they genuinely believe in antifascism, even if they face more risks than most when it comes to confronting it irl. But they're also hoping to use the platform to spread information on how to start antifascist/anarchist/mutual aid projects.
Jeremy watched the January 6 Capitol insurrection unfold from his halfway house after spending nearly a decade in federal prison. A few weeks later, he was released and began to adjust to life on the outside in the midst of a pre-vaccine pandemic and a world that seemed to finally collectively acknowledge the threat of fascism, but still marginalizes those willing to actually confront it. And if his name wasn’t already familiar to you, Jeremy Hammond was arrested for hacking a private intelligence contractor in 2011 called Stratfor, which exposed how the company spied on human rights activists and supplied analysis to the CIA. He also leaked the personal information of thousands of people employed there. People on the left tend to think highly of these actions.
As part of the conditions of his supervised release, every single thing he does on a computer or cell phone is live monitored through a private company called RemoteCOM, which he has to pay $60 a month for.
When he and his brother started developing the game in the spring of 2021, the company reported a flurry of what they perceived as red flags to his probation officer — descriptions of a game where you brick Nazis, throw molotov cocktails at riot cops, and shoot masks onto MAGA zombies with a crossbow? His P.O. raised concerns that making the game might be a violation of his supervised release — he’s not allowed to associate with civil disobedience groups — and threatened to bring it in front of a judge.
But because antifa is not an organized group, and the game just includes anti-fascist concepts, his attorney argued there was no violation. They even cited testimony from FBI director Chris Wray that ‘antifa’ is an ideology, not an organization.
“Like a cloud that's over you, listening to you, watching your shit.”
Jeremy is clear that “we’re advocating fighting against fascism right in our statements in the game itself, but that’s not considered involvement or contact. I’m not attending secret 'antifa' meetings or anything like that.”
Still, the implied threat of going back to jail just for developing this game felt like a “like a cloud that's over you, listening to you, watching your shit.” A violation in this case could land him back in prison for six months to a year, but he says he’s not too worried about it, “Because it's such an obvious free speech violation,” he says.
The brothers are spending the whole day streaming their game on Twitch, and they promise prizes for the highest scorers. This is just a game — but one they hope people will play on their cell phones while they're on a bus on their way to a demo.