On a sticky summer night outside a bar in Brooklyn, Felix Biederman, one of the co-host of political podcast Chapo Trap House, was talking to me about Metal Gear Solid 2 as I sipped a rosé. “It’s the most prophetic video game of all time,” he said.
Biederman is by far the biggest gamer on the podcast, and it’s become somewhat of a running joke to cut him off before he talks about this game.
“Hideo Kojima predicted a future where the problem was not a lack of information, but too much of it, and it made people sort of insane and docile,” he said “Not docile because they were afraid, but because they’re so unsure of the nature of their reality. I think the most terrifying thing in Metal Gear Solid 2 is that the government is not this comprehensive evil with a master plan, more so it’s beyond anyone’s control. There’s just so much information and so many sides to everything that you’re paralyzed.”
Biederman, who has the kind of physique that makes you believe he could kill a man with his bare hands, and I were sitting with two of Chapo Trap House’s other hosts in the back patio of a bar. They’re celebrities of a sort in leftist political media. Every Monday, you hear Virgil Texas, Matt Christman, Felix Biederman and Will Menaker crack wise about politicians, sometimes interview activists about their causes, and make fun of right wing writers like Ross Douthat.
Chapo Trap House is where the phrase “dirtbag left,” comes from. They believe in a more just world but they don’t believe that you’re gonna get it by being nice. This attitude has gained them just as many fans as it has detractors. By a large margin, they have the most popular podcast on crowdfunding website Patreon, with over 20,000 subscribers. They have a book coming out on August 21 called The Chapo Guide To Revolution. Nevertheless, “Chapo” has become a buzzword among some people on the left to mean “blowhard, irony-poisoned bro.”
Normally, the guys talk politics, and even did so during our chat, hitting topics like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent win in the Democratic primary for the 14th congressional district of New York and how CNN reporter Jake Tapper unknowingly retweeted a picture of Biederman wearing a fake military uniform.
Gaming has always been an undercurrent in these conversations, though, with the hosts sometimes making offhand jokes about Fortnite or Fallout. Three of them have started a Twitch channel, which at this point is mainly a place for Biederman to stream himself playing Fortnite with his friends.
Gaming has become a point of contention for them, too. Note that that’s three of them, not four, who have started that Twitch channel. Christman is an outlier and has been the antagonist in debates where they’re talking about the fundamental value of video games.
For Biederman, video games come as naturally as breathing, and on the evening we met he was having a good time holding forth over Metal Gear Solid 2.
“I thought that boss fight where Raiden fights all the Metal Gear Rays is so good,” he said. “You do take down a few of them, but, he can’t do it. You lose. You give up. You don’t lose because you are killed. You just give up. It overwhelms you.”
“I’m sorry,” Virgil Texas, another co-host, said. “I divined none of that.” Texas had tried Metal Gear Solid 2 while house-sitting over a weekend. Biederman had come over and gotten angry with him for skipping the cutscenes.
Texas also plays games, not with the fervor of Biederman, though he occasionally plays tabletop games with Kotaku video producer Chris Person. He has dark hair and glasses, and a slightly nasal voice, and he slumped back in his chair as he spoke. He was also recently voted as the most handsome member of the podcast in an informal poll on their Twitter account, narrowly beating Biederman.
“I only played the original for Nintendo and it was fucking boring,” Matt Christman, co-host, said. “What, I just wander around this green ass screen? This sucks.” Christman spoke with confident forthrightness. For much of the conversation he was silent, with a slightly judgemental gaze, drinking his beer, but when he spoke up it was with absolute surety of what he’s saying.
“Matt and I have a spirited gentlemanly disagreement about the salutary nature of video games,” Texas said.
“They turn your brain into mush,” Christman said by way of explaining himself.
One of the goals for the new Twitch channel is to see if the guys can convert Christman. But when we chatted, Christman seemed resistant to changing his mind. He and Texas have already had a live debate on the merit of video games. Christman believes that the immersiveness of games will inevitably lead to an all encompassing, dangerous obsession. Texas believes that games are no more or less harmful than any other artform.
“I was at an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez victory party the other night and someone came up to me and said, ‘Virgil, you won that debate,’” Texas said.
“Everyone that meets you says you won the debate,” Christman said. “Everyone who meets me says I won the debate, checkmate motherfucker.”
“I’ve met more people than you,” Texas said.
“I don’t know that we can quantify that,” Christman said.
When I pressed Christman on why he thinks games are so bad, he said that he believes are a form of entertainment so insidious that they remove the people who play them from reality. He said that people who play games can become so obsessed with them that they shut out the outside world.
“And I reject that argument,” Texas said, “because, frankly, anything that becomes an all-consuming obsession will rot your brain, probably.”
“And yet this is the easiest thing to make that happen,” Christman said. “Gaming disorder is going to become a recognized condition. There’s no other art form that can claim that.”
“People get obsessive about fucking movies, they get obsessive about football,” Biederman said.
“Please,” Christman interrupted. “No one has gone into a theater and not come out because they fucking died from watching movies, whereas multiple people have done that because of video games.”
“People have died because of football games,” Biederman said.
“Yeah, because they got their brain knocked in or something,” Christman said.
“No I mean, people who go to them,” Biederman said, and at this point, the three of them start talking over each other. Christman brought his fist down and said, “Shut up,” as Texas and Biederman tried to poke holes in his argument. Christman brought up that people play games for up to a whole day, and Biederman countered that, saying that people watch college football for the same amount of time. Texas thought that people who die in internet cafes in east Asian countries aren’t a good barometer to judge people who game as a whole. Christman was steadfast that the immersiveness of games is the problem.
“So your argument is that, based on technological elements, culture is going to become more and more immersive,” Texas said, finally able to get his peers to stop talking, “and that there’s a certain limit, that art should not be that immersive.”
“I’m saying, ‘Watch what happens,’” Christman said.
“Are you seriously arguing that people who spend entire days at college football games don’t lose their families,” Biederman said, “because they’re so obsessed with watching 20-year-olds play a game?”
“My argument is that people will adapt to it,” Texas said. “At the turn of the century, people had heart attacks watching such thrilling films as ‘Train Comes At The Camera,’ and ‘Horse Comes At The Camera.’”
“How many people have just given themselves paralysis because they’ve fallen in the parking lot outside an OSU at Michigan State game?” Biederman said.
“I’m talking about the nature of the engagement,” Christman said. “Not whether it’s more or less harmful in some kind of utilitarian sense.”
“You don’t think the nature of these fucking grown men who become obsessive over unpaid athletes is unhealthy?” Biederman said. “And they play out all their resentments over some state to state rivalry? Why is it not as bad?”
“I’m talking about the way the actual immersion works,” Christman said. “That you do it more than you do anything else because it makes the rest of the world go away, like nothing else does.”
“If that were the case, most of these games that are the most popular would be total abstractions, and they’re not,” Texas said. “They’re still reflective of the human experience. You still play them not totally in a VR helmet, but in a room, often with other people.”
“Not yet,” Christman said.
Texas, Biederman and Christman went on for a little while, repeating the same points and interrupting each other until the waitress came by. Then, Texas turned to me and said, “In any event, [our debate] was kind of like that. We had a spirited disagreement, and I’ll say it was a split decision.”
Still, as the newly minted Chapo Trap House Twitch channel starts being a place for things other than Biederman shooting the shit with his friends, Christman has agreed to come and check out some games. Biederman and Texas plan to bring him on and stream games they think might appeal to him.
“I recorded my part for the audio book for our forthcoming book The Chapo Guide to Revolution,” Texas said, “and the audio engineer asked me about the Twitch channel. I told him about the idea that Matt and I would play Crusader Kings. I would handle the game aspects and [Christman] would give direction and flavor and commentary to the historical novelties. And he was like, ‘oh, isn’t that an alt-right game?’ Because all the alt-right weirdos say ‘Deus Vult,’ which is from that game.”
At this, Christman cut him off. “No it’s not,” he said. “Jesus fucking christ, it’s from Pope fucking Urban the second.”
“They know it from the game,” Texas said.
“Uncultured swine,” Christman said.
The Chapo guys have other plans for their Twitch channel. Last night, Biederman attempted to play Metal Gear Solid with co-host Will Menaker looking on, but ran into technical difficulties. He’s started playing Zoo Tycoon as well as Fortnite, though he said that Fortnite gets them the most views. Texas said that Menaker wants to do a cooking show on the channel, or maybe play poker. Texas himself wants to play Fallout: New Vegas, but roleplaying as Jeb Bush.
“I don’t know if that would get too old after like, five hours,” Texas said, “or if we could finish the game as Jeb.”
“It would get unfunny after five hours, but at hour ten it would be so funny,” Biederman said.
When I asked Texas what faction Jeb Bush would join, he paused for moment, considering the question carefully.
“Well he wouldn’t join the Legion,” he said. “Unless he were roped in. We would be playing him as a coward. I think he would play the field. He just has no spine, you know?”
All of the back and forth over games, the banging on tables and the hurled profanity I realized, watching them argue with each other, is why people love Chapo Trap House. Sure, their vulgarity and their leftist views appeal to a demographic that’s become more and more vocal since the election of Donald Trump, but it’s also that they always go completely 100 on a given topic. Arguments like this are good spectacle. When Christman finally joins them on Twitch, it’ll be riveting. I’m not sure Texas or Biederman will ever convince him that games aren’t the end of the world. But I know I cannot wait to watch them try.