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The paranoid style in video game culture

What can a 60 year old essay teach us about the Sweet Baby Inc. controversy?

Logo courtesy of Sweet Baby Inc.; Illustrated elements by Sonny Ross

Hi! I’m Mikhail Klimentov. You may recognize me from my past video game coverage at The Washington Post (see: my investigation into the “culture of fear” at TSM, or this profile of the studio building a successor to StarCraft and Warcraft). In previous editions of ReaderGrev, I’ve covered the Xbox exclusivity freakout and the bad practices of a bad esports organization.

If you value reporting and criticism, consider supporting the work I do alongside Jacob Wolf, on Patreon.

Last week, I revisited Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics. The title called to me. The essay is a diagnosis: of a popular tradition, the mindset that informs it, and the speech that flows from it.

“When I speak of the paranoid style, I use the term much as a historian of art might speak of the baroque or the mannerist style,” Hofstadter wrote. “It is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself.” I will be excerpting the text liberally throughout. It’s a good read!

Hofstadter adapted his essay from a speech he gave around the time of the 1964 election, pegged to the rise of Barry Goldwater as the Republican Party’s standard bearer, but his historical ambit is broader. The titular paranoid style, he theorized, was a recurring and categorizable feature of political discourse. Hofstadter offers as examples the 18th century panic over Bavarian Illuminism, the anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic movements of the 19th century, and fears of Communist subversion perpetrated by high-ranking U.S. officials in the 20th century. And what distinguishes a political paranoiac from somehow who believes, banally, that secret societies are bad, is a frame of mind prone to leaps “from the undeniable to the unbelievable,” Hofstadter wrote.

There are other criteria of course. The paranoid mind is nourished by lurid details. Alleged Masonic practices — wine quaffed from human skulls; oaths threatening steep penalties (dismemberment, mostly) for disloyalty — inspired feverish discussion among the fearful. Anti-Catholics, meanwhile, foresaw an inevitable “Catholic war of mutilation” waged against heretics. The paranoid also envision their ideological enemy as unappeasable and all-capable, an “amoral superman,” Hofstadter wrote. “[The enemy] makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.”1

Then there’s what Hofstadter called the paranoiac’s “quality of pedantry.” (There is a long, very quotable passage in the original text that I will do my very best to not just copy in full.2 )

“One should not be misled by the fantastic conclusions that are so characteristic of this political style into imagining that it is not, so to speak, argued out along factual lines,” Hofstadter wrote. Paranoid scholarship is nothing if not meticulous. He cited, as one example, an influential tract on the Illuminati, in which the author carefully compiles reams of data about the history of the secret society — only to propose, suddenly, that the Illuminati caused the French Revolution. “What is missing is not veracious information about the organization, but sensible judgment about what can cause a revolution,” Hofstadter quipped. In another example, Hofstadter calls out a book by a prominent businessman — laden with footnotes and citations — promoting the theory that Eisenhower was a likely Communist agent.

“The singular thing about all this laborious work is that the passion for factual evidence does not, as in most intellectual exchanges, have the effect of putting the paranoid spokesman into effective two-way communication with the world outside his group,” Hofstadter wrote. “His effort to amass it has rather the quality of a defensive act which shuts off his receptive apparatus and protects him from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas.”

Perhaps most crucial is the apocalyptic cast favored by the conspiracy-minded.

“The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events,” Hofstadter wrote.3 “History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.”

What does this have to do with video games? Well, if you’ve spent any time online, particularly in gaming or fandom-y circles, some of the characteristics outlined above as the hallmarks of the paranoid style may feel familiar to you. Most recently, some part of the game-playing audience has convinced itself of a plot by woke game developers, consultants and journalists to ruin video games and enrich shadowy woke financiers.

How did we get to this point? Let me explain. (I’m going to try and summarize this as thoroughly as possible while also moving briskly; for a more formal description, this WIRED story is a good primer.)

Late last year, the video game consultancy Sweet Baby Inc. came to the attention of trolls in some of the darker corners of the internet: /v/, kiwifarms, etc. The 16-person studio offers sensitivity reads, as well as writing and narrative services. Essentially, it’s an auxiliary team hired by developers to supplement work where appropriate. Some of this work has to do with diversity and representation — ensuring that non-white characters aren’t caricatures, for example. Other work is largely unrelated to those subjects; some recent reports mention the team writing random quips for bad guys to say in combat. Their most notable credits include Alan Wake II, Spider-Man 2, and God of War Ragnarok. These are generally considered to be pretty good (and popular!) games.

On these forums, though, accusations begin to surface that Sweet Baby Inc. was ruining the games they worked on. Crucially, too, some users notice that Sweet Baby Inc.’s employees aren’t uniformly white. I am probably underselling the extent to which this upset people. On one forum, the first page of the thread about Sweet Baby includes multiple derivations of the n-word. As an exhibit in its evidence against the studio, the top post points out that the CEO of Sweet Baby Inc. is a Jewish woman. The same post speculates about the team’s “possible pedophelia,” citing the presence of a spiral in the studio’s logo, which the post likened to symbols reportedly used by pedophiles online.

The logic espoused by groups like this is that when a diverse team works on a game with a diverse cast, that is a form of political messaging, which is bad, because these groups consider themselves non-ideological. (lol.) Diversity in and of itself is also bad, unless it’s justified in some way — and of course, most justifications don’t count because they’re “woke.” From there, any of the game’s other bad qualities are downstream from external interference on behalf of diversity, because any work done by teams like Sweet Baby Inc. distracts from other game development work which would have presumably made the game better. (If you’re keeping score in the real world: So far, there’s been no evidence presented showing that Sweet Baby Inc. actually ruined a game.)

This is not particularly pleasant to research or write about. It is bad for the soul to dwell on these kinds of people. Still, I think it’s worth being clear about where this discussion originated and the tenor of the original conversation. To call back to Hofstadter for a second: These people may have some factual information about the studio — chiefly, that it employs some non-white staff — but only a tenuous grasp on reality.

At some point, a user on the video game storefront Steam created a group to identify games featuring work by Sweet Baby Inc. One of the group’s users told Kotaku that it helped him make informed decisions as a consumer: “Sweet Baby Inc. is a symptom of other ideological worldviews that I believe have taken hold of the Western world, media, and gaming as a whole,” he said. (Remember the apocalyptic cast I mentioned earlier? “They're treating this like a holy war,” a Sweet Baby employee later told WIRED. ”It is taking on a cult-like vibe.”)

Sometime after this Steam page went up, one of the studio’s employees took to Twitter to call out the group and its creator, asking people to report both. The request backfired, drawing attention to Sweet Baby Inc., with the group’s cause taken up by a handful of major YouTubers (and the scores of smaller creators riding in their slipstream). Reporters who have opted to cover this bizarre sequence of events, meanwhile, have faced harassment for their work. The problem? Their articles have delivered insufficiently conspiratorial answers to a rather simple question: “What does Sweet Baby Inc. actually do?”

When Hofstadter wrote about the leap “from the undeniable to the unbelievable,” this is what he meant. It is undeniable that there are consultants working on video games, some of whom are explicitly at cross-purpose with people who believe that diversity is a bad thing. The leap, then, comes from imagining that these people subvert the creative intentions of the developers who hired them; that the decisions these consultants make — which are, of course, ideologically motivated and aimed at bringing down The West — “ruin” video games; or that the video game industry is hiring consultants because they are in thrall to woke institutional investors — all claims I’ve seen made about Sweet Baby Inc.

The boring truth is that studios hire consultants willingly. They implement their work (or don’t) by their own choice. Sweet Baby Inc. has said this, as have some of the developers that team works with. But these days, as players invest more of themselves into brands and specific companies, the perceived failures of those brands and companies can come across as genuinely apocalyptic. What if a game is bad? What if a game is bad for reasons that are hard to articulate? What if a game is bad for reasons that are hard to accept? What if a game is bad, but you’ve spent 6 months girding yourself for the game’s release because you bought into the publisher’s marketing plan?

As an evidentiary standards pedant, I think it would be pretty hard to prove that a video game studio failed because of the work of a subversive cell. I work a 9-to-5 job! I know how difficult it can be to get one person to do one thing, let alone to organize a company-wide woke conspiracy when you are not actually employed at that company. But the unappealing simplicity of “they can’t all be winners” coupled with reactionary racial politics and — let’s face it — a lot of free time in front of a computer4 is fertile soil for paranoia.

“Any historian of warfare knows that it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence,” Hofstadter wrote. “But if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, we can see how many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination.”

On streams and videos reaching millions of viewers, across subreddits and forums, the feedback loops of accumulation and analysis and absorption of information summon to mind the image of the expanding blob at the end of Akira. If things seemed bad in previous centuries — the lurid accusations, the pedantry, the lack of a sense of proportion — social media has only amplified the worst tendencies of the paranoid style.

Hofstadter ends his essay with a joke: “We are all sufferers from history,” he writes, “but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” How quaint! Rest assured, the disparities of the past have been righted. Since the advent of the internet, the paranoid have more than evened the score as it concerns meting out suffering.

Thanks for reading ReaderGrev! If you have a tip, I can be reached on Twitter at @LeaderGrev, or via email at mikhail (at) readergrev (dot) com.

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  1. The enemy’s omnipotence stems from the elusive nature of victory within this worldview, particularly as it concerns popular values, rather than articulable, negotiable, or attainable goals. “Since [the movement’s] goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid's frustration,” Hofstadter writes.

  2. Paranoid movements, Hofstadter writes here, “have had a magnetic attraction for demi-intellectuals.” He’s a funny guy!

  3. All italics in this quote are in Hofstadter’s text.

  4. There’s a lot more I’d like to write about this that feels out of scope for this essay. I’m writing this footnote as a sort of IOU. Maybe I’ll do a bulleted “random observations that didn’t make it into draft 1” issue next week.