In these turbulent times, it can be hard to focus on making video games. The world is on fire! Tightening up the graphics on level three probably won't do much to put it out. Ramsey Nasser was feeling that way, so he decided to make games about punching nazis.
"It's something that has come up with me and my friends," Nasser, who's created two games about the subject, Handväska and Dialogue 3D, told me over the phone. "It's like, 'What the fuck are we doing with our lives? This country's democratic institutions are openly under attack, and we're tuning a jump mechanic on our latest game.' Even outside of games, in software engineering and computer science, the research I do is pretty esoteric. I do compiler theory stuff and programming languages. Even that is far out there. But if we can't be frivolous, if we can't be esoteric, if we can't be ourselves anymore because we're so worried about the situation, that is its own defeat and oppression."
This year, Nasser has made two protest games: Handväska and Dialogue 3D (the former of which was a collaboration with developer Jane Friedhoff). Handväska was inspired by a photo of an old Swedish woman walloping a neo-nazi with her purse, and Dialogue 3D replicates the original Wolfenstein 3D, except every time you try to shoot enemies, a text prompt with some variation on "Are you sure it's OK to do that?" obscures your screen, referencing current debates about violence against nazis.
"I made [Dialogue 3D] because I was very frustrated," he said. "Like, all the sudden, violence against nazis is a thing to debate when real nazis show up, but in the entire history of video games, this has never been an issue. And the best way to say that out loud, that I could find, was to make that game."
Nasser made Dialogue 3D in particular because he wanted people to realise, on their own, that bickering while other people play by entirely different rules will, inevitably, put them at a big disadvantage. He didn't want to just say it. He wanted people to understand intuitively and systemically.
Dialogue 3D and Handväska tap into history, both that of video games and that of the real world. The thing that surprised Nasser, however, is how recent a lot of this history is. The photo that inspired Handväska isn't from some ancient time when nazis roamed the earth on the backs of dinosaurs. It was taken in 1985.
"That photo was from fucking yesterday," said Nasser. "It's from Sweden, and it was the local Swedish neo-nazi movement going on parade. So this was way after the second World War."
Nasser and his collaborator, Friedhoff, were inspired by the photo because they felt it's proof that many Western conceptions of what it means to battle fascism miss the mark. They're more Captain America or Call of Duty than the reality of everyday resistance. Nasser and Friedhoff wanted to make a power fantasy that wasn't about a granite-chinned soldier, because those are hardly the only people who fight when this stuff is happening on home turf.
"The woman in the photo had no public life," said Nasser. "She was just a person in a town. She passed away a few years after that photo was taken, and the town wanted to build a statue of her, but her family declined. It's not what she would have wanted. She's just this person that hit nazis. It isn't just this glorious Brad Pitt, broad-shouldered macho kicking-off-the-hinges type of thing. It's everybody. It's total societal rejection of hate."
Despite making these games, Nasser views violence against nazis as a grim necessity rather than something people do for fun. He's Lebanese, and the violence he's witnessed has left a mark on him.
"I grew up in Beirut," he said. "I haven't seen what my parents grew up with in the civil war, but I've seen my share of actual street fighting and actual paramilitary unrest. So violence is nothing that I dream about or want, but the question I cannot answer is, 'How does a non-violent movement confront a violent movement?' I don't have an answer to that, and it terrifies me. All I can think of is, you exterminate it by definition."
"I had an argument with a Lebanese friend of mine who was also freaked out that I was very comfortable with Richard Spencer being punched," he added. "A question that he asked was, 'Well, if there was a radical Muslim out on the street, would you also be ok with him being punched?' I said, 'Yes! Do you forget where we grew up?' If hate and violence and oppression are the cornerstones of your ideology, there's no room for you in a society I want to build."
Nasser's background also gives him a unique perspective on protesting. Sustained protest can be exhausting, whether you're making games or marching in the streets. It can feel like banging your head against an impregnable wall as everything around you continues to deteriorate. These actions, however, create ripples. And those ripples matter.
"I can't stress enough how important [protest] is," said Nasser. "I was in Beirut in 2006 during the war with Israel and, before that, during the invasion of Iraq. There were times to be legitimately frustrated with the West, because of America's support of a horrific war that Israel waged on us and a completely illegal invasion of Iraq. There were hundreds of thousands civilian casualties. You constantly heard that sentiment of, 'Wow, these people just fucking hate us.' Because that's what these actions say, right?"
"But the image of ongoing protests is very visible," he continued, "and people seeing that delivers an equally clear message that this is not an all or nothing thing, that there are huge components of the population that are willing to go out and be visible and reject what's happening. And I remember being a kid, seeing that and how much that matters. It was like, first of all, things are complicated. The West is complicated. Which is not news, but is a reminder of that. And second of all, it's humanising, right? It's exactly that."
Every little bit, Nasser explained, counts. That's what he's been trying to get at both through the messages in his games and through the act of making them.
"There was a large White House team that advised on Asian-American affairs, and they resigned in protest," said Nasser. "That is entered into the history books. Every SNL sketch is, too. That is a form of resistance. Protest games are lateral to that. In addition to all of this other stuff, people whose art form is making games are taking time out of their finite lives to say, 'No this is not what we want. This does not represent us. Here's a thing I made that says that.'"