I can say with total seriousness that I never thought anything would come of it. I was just in the pub with some mates from the office one Friday, I guess it was a little before that by-election, so it must have been July. Look, I mean, that whole election: the guy stands down because he was fiddling expenses, then the replacement candidate they get has to drop out for fiddling his business expenses, then the Conservative they put up against him is fiddling expenses in six different countries and the Lib Dem drops out midway through because the woman he turns out to be having an affair with works for the accounting firm used by the MP who had to resign in the first place. All I’m saying is, we’re not the ones who made a joke out of it.
So, anyway, we’re there in the pub, the Barley Mow, I think it was, just off Curtain Road, and we’re talking about the by-election, and I say, “You know what we should do, we’re a games company after all, wouldn’t it be great publicity if we stood an avatar as a candidate? Somebody from our next game.” Beer’s practically pouring out of our noses at this point, everybody’s adding this or that idea to it; and so we agree, yeah, we’ll pay the deposit, come in dead last behind the Monster Raving Loony candidate, and a few more people will have heard of Pirate Ops II: Barbary Shore than would have otherwise. Might even help us move a few of the games nobody buys like Blockheadz and ArtAttack, too.
Looking back, I think it was because we picked a pirate. I mean, it was a game about pirates, so it seemed only natural to have the captain run, Captain Cromm. The press conference was hilarious. We were all drunk, as you can see in the YouTube footage. The guys from Wired asking Captain Cromm about his climate change policy, him saying, “Avast, ye, scurvy dogs! Blow me down is an old sayin’ among sea dogs, but it ain’t an environmental policy!” So that conference footage goes viral, and, of course, he starts picking up votes. I wanted to knock it on the head then and there. I mean, we were probably going to get a good 3 percent in such a small constituency, and so we were sure to get some reports in the broadsheets and some attention in the clickbait shit the BBC is forced to do now. And so we could all spend our golden years shitting ourselves next to our care robots in our company’s retirement home, laughing at the fact that Captain Cromm from Pirate Ops (by Play Systems Gaming!) would be the first virtual candidate to receive votes in a UK election.
But I guess people were angrier than we thought. I mean, we’re two weeks before the poll and he’s leading. Leading! Captain bloody Cromm, famous for hanging his dad from a yardarm and killing all the hands on the Roebuck in the backstory of Pirate Ops 1, is leading all the other candidates in Market Haltemprice. By 10 percent! No one knew what to do if we actually won, which, even then, no one was thinking was a remote possibility. I was fielding calls from all kinds of media, more than we’d ever dreamed of, blokes from America, Japan, even fucking al-Jazeera, when I saw Jimmy’s number come up on my mobile. I was almost happy to talk to the boss, because I was clueless about how to handle it.
“Love what you’re doing. Fucking love it.”
“Thanks. Really, thanks a lot,” I said. “Uh, Jimmy, have you given any thought about what we should do now? I mean we hadn’t really expected the Captain to—”
“I say ride the wave, baby! Ride the wave where it takes you. Downing Street here we come, ha ha ha ha ha ha…”
So I thought, why not, what harm could it do? Let’s actually run a campaign, why don’t we? Jimmy gave me the week off from the Shoreditch office, and I went up to Market Haltemprice, and we had some virtual town hall meetings with the Captain. People were having fun. You had teenagers and these alpha gamers asking him crazy questions about parts of the Pirate Ops backstory no one knew the answer to, everyone having a laugh; but then there was a woman at one of the meetings, and she says her brother has some kind of lung condition, that he’s been kicked off benefits. Some company the Department of Work and Pensions hired has said he was healthy enough to work after they put his file through a computer programme they’ve designed to find benefit cheats. He’s tried to work. He’s died. This woman is standing up at the meeting and she says no other candidate will even listen to her, they just fob her off. She’s saying that this is the only place in Britain where she feels like she can be heard. So what is Captain Cromm going to do for her? She wants to know.
Now, mind you Sanjay is doing all the responses for us up to this point in a room off to the side of the main hall, and this one has us sweating. Shitting ourselves, actually. What are we supposed to do, make a joke of this? This woman’s dead disabled brother sent to die in the workhouse by an algorithm masquerading as a company?
I was really proud of Sanjay; his answer was brilliant. I don’t remember it exactly now, something like “My candidacy might be a joke, me hearties, but these stories are real. Only you can know what you’re going to do in that booth, but you can be sure even avatars like me have hearts when we hear stories like yours, ma’am…” She started crying. I think I was crying a bit too. The whole place was applauding and the woman even came up to hug Captain Cromm, but, of course, he was just a bloody projection, so she went right through him. Nearly fell off the stage, but I caught her just in time. I wish I’d caught the rest of it in time.
The next poll that came out after that footage went viral had us up 15 percent. The other candidates freaked out and went into overdrive, but it was already too late. The Captain won a comfortable victory. Our Conservative and Labour opponents standing there crushed, their wilting little rosettes dangling from their lapels. You probably remember the hashtag. It came from his victory speech, just the words “#PlunderWestminster, me hearties!”
So everyone’s psyched but clueless, again. I wanted to let it go, again, but Jimmy insisted we actually use Captain Cromm to vote in Parliament. I didn’t like the idea, and neither did the papers. They ran stories about what it meant to have an avatar in parliament: “Where does it end, one man one hologram?” But we’d won, and if we’d fucked off they’d have had to hold another by-election and the publicity for us would have been total shit. So we did our best. We had an intern present for all the votes, and there was a screen on which the Captain was displayed for his speeches. He actually had better attendance than most of the Ulster Unionists during that parliament.
Social media loved it. They start asking us if we’re going to stand candidates in the general election. I was about to send off the email that said “Hahaha, we’ve all had a laugh, but politics is serious business…” when, I guess, Jimmy decided to preempt me.
“Yes,” his video conference announced to the world the next morning, “I am pleased to announce that Play Systems Gaming will be standing candidates in every constituency in the UK at the next election.”
It’s madness, yes I know. Reading this––if anyone ever reads it––you’ve got to be thinking “How the fuck did this ever happen?” But you forget the way things were then. Protests, people getting chucked out of their houses, chucked off disability, people dropping out of school, food banks, the paedo dossier thing, expense scandal after expense scandal, fucking Brexit, and people were still mad as hell about the Iraq war, too. At that point, anything was possible. And, Jimmy figured, we had a big back catalogue of games, we might as well bring some of our old characters back to life to run for office. Might boost legacy sales. That was when the political division was created at Play Systems. I was put in charge. I was scared. Of course, we didn’t have the personnel to run 650 characters for 650 seats, so the idea struck me that we’d have primaries in the constituencies. We’d have local people turn up and compete with each other to see who would stand as, say, Lord Voyna from Star Hammer, or Farmer Sully from Barnyard Blitz. The locals could vote for them, and, that way, it could be both real and fake.
I have to say, that election was the most exciting time of my life to that point. I remember when the Play Party reached 10 percent nationally. We’d done a load of statistical work and we targeted eight seats we thought were vulnerable. Not only were we leading all of those, we were poised to knock out the leader of the opposition in his own constituency. Nobody knew what to do. The debates came along, and, of course, they wanted to exclude us. The BBC was having none of it: “We cannot extend a platform for what is essentially a promotional exercise for a video games company.” People rang them day and night and that was how it happened. You literally cannot buy that kind of publicity. Believe me, we’ve tried. After a month of fighting us, the BBC sent out a press release in the dead of night saying that Sir Oswin DeQuincy, the leader of our party, main character in Opium Nights, would be permitted to take part in the debate with the other party leaders. The party, by this time, was on 26 percent of the vote. The main party in the government was on 29 percent.
We had to agree to all kinds of crazy rules: Only one person could operate Sir Oswin during the debates. We couldn’t respond directly to any candidates. We were only allowed to make opening and closing statements, etc., etc., etc. Total rubbish, but, of course, we agreed.
I should say that by this time, I was getting kind of starry-eyed about the whole thing. I went to a few of those primary elections, and it completely made me a believer. You saw people who never came to political events there: kids, people who hadn’t held a job in years, people who spent all day playing video games; they all turned up, and they argued and debated. They wrote the platform for our avatars, and, in the end, everyone was behind them. So much energy and excitement. I was interviewed a bunch of times saying stupid things like “We’re the only real party in UK politics, and we got there by being fake.”
On election night we were all on tenterhooks watching those numbers come in. Some people were even crying. When the tally came up, it was Play Party 32 percent, Conservatives 23 percent, Labour 14 percent, The Greens 12 percent, UKIP 3 percent, Lib Dems and all other parties making up the rest. We went absolutely ballistic. Sir Oswin, with his dainty, lilting RP, came out to say that he would be meeting the other party leaders to discuss forming a coalition.
Needless to say, potential partners were not forthcoming. Also, a group of lawyers was rushing through a suit in the courts to try to head off the constitutional crisis we were supposedly creating. It went on for a month; the credit rating plummeted. The Queen announced she wouldn’t meet Sir Oswin, but then somehow Charles announced that he would, and so another crisis started. In the end, thanks to first-past-the-post, Labour and the Tories had just enough MPs to form a coalition to keep us out of office, but with UKIP and some of the backbench crazies, we had enough votes to bring a vote of no confidence before the first budget. You should have seen the PM’s face when we brought that government down. I’d never been so happy.
“It is clear to me that we do not have enough votes to pass meaningful legislation in this house. Therefore, I am forced to return to the electorate and appeal to them to give parties composed of flesh and blood human beings like them and their families—their children, their parents, their ancestors—a mandate to govern their country.”
I don’t know what parties she was talking about, but you know how it ended: 60 percent Play Party. It wasn’t even close.
I admit it: I was naïve. I thought that the people had spoken. Even the press, which had been howling for months, had reconciled themselves to reality, if that’s the word. A couple of tabloids even endorsed some of our candidates, and Missy Kitty from Saints on Fire got a couple of local papers to support her, too (good library policies). Sir Oswin, who I’d decided it was my responsibility to operate now, met the Queen, bowed and presented her with the policies of the Play Party: improved technology education, digitising the NHS, global agreements on net neutrality. Have to say, she was very gracious.
“I don’t suppose you’ll have tea, will you?”
We laughed. It looked like things were going to be okay, maybe more than okay. Then, the first hack happened. It was a vote on integrating European banking records to make fraud easier to track. The party always voted in chaotic ways, but we went into the vote with 254 in favour, yet somehow we lost by more than a hundred votes. I talked to some of the operators of the avatars who had gone wobbly, and they said they’d voted for the bill. I knew immediately what was happening, but I couldn’t get in front of it. Suddenly, members of the party were asking Urgent Questions and causing mayhem on the backbenches. Bills were coming in with language no one had ever seen. I tried to stop all votes until we could locate and stop the hackers, but then the press, smelling blood, piled on, and the other parties too. Suddenly, every motion I put forward was getting voted down, so I called a vote to dissolve parliament: new elections, I’d send out a directive for our candidates not to stand, and, hopefully, everything would go back to normal. More or less.
But that’s not what happened. We won the vote of confidence. The scale of the hack was clear now; I couldn’t even control Sir Oswin. We were passing laws frantically, stuff I’d never seen. It went to the Lords and was rejected, but it came back and “we” overrode the vetoes. We’d somehow agreed to reform the Lords as well without my knowing about it. Dozens of bills passed with narrowly-tailored language relieving companies of corporate liability, workplace safety rules, the lot. I think a bill re-instituting the workhouse even passed. You know the rest: two days later, protests everywhere, police on the streets not knowing who to bash and who to salute. The Party had apparently signed some deal with private security companies that, in the event of a national emergency, the armed forces would be stripped of power and the companies they’d hired would be in charge of security. That was when the first civilians died. And whoever’s reading this, if you’re anywhere near Britain, you know they haven’t stopped since. No one from outside can decide whether to intervene or just to let us kill ourselves. It’s my fault. I know it. Somehow, I still feel like it didn’t need to end this way. That maybe there’s hope. I keep going back in my mind to one of those first few meetings, to this young guy I met in Colchester wanting to stand as Frank Fiorello the Young Fresh Fellow from SkateLord. “I never thought about getting into politics before,” he said to me. “Before, it never seemed real. I’ve never felt more like an actual citizen.” Well, lad, it’s the same thing I said to you then, I can’t make you any promises, but make sure this is your first fight, not your last one.
William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets (2013) and ULTRALIFE (2016), both published by Arcadia Missa, and the epic poem Pull Factor (2016). The video-poem collection Ephemera was posted to YouTube,
work by work, in 2014. His essay “Technofeudalism and the Tragedy of the
Commons” (2016) appeared in the first issue of the Doggerland journal, and he has contributed essays to the “Intersubjectivity” series by Sternberg Press.