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HONK HONK

How Untitled Goose Game became a left-wing meme

To some, this goose is leading a movement.
Amrita Khalid
By Amrita Khalid

Tech reporter

Ashley Jones, a 30-year old aspiring video game developer, noticed the goose while attending the People’s Vote March in Central London back in October. A hand-drawn sign of a goose chasing a cartoon figure of Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accompanied by a caption: “It’s a beautiful day in the UK. And you are a horrible prime minister.”

It wasn’t the only waterfowl he’d see that day. Other protest signs featured a goose—the same one, actuallyclutching an EU flag in its bill, or the slogan “Honk if You Want to Remain.” 

That goose is the hero, or perhaps anti-hero, of Untitled Goose Game, this year’s breakout hit of the video game world. Players take on the point-of-view of a goose, whose sole objective is to wreak havoc on a quiet English village. House House, the indie Melbourne-based studio behind the game, released Untitled Goose Game back in September for desktop and Nintendo Switch—and in October, the game quickly became the top-selling Nintendo Switch game in the US, beating several Nintendo classics. Just this week, the game was made available for Xbox One and PS4.

Somewhere along the path of popularity, though, the goose became more than just a symbol of mayhem. Now, it’s become a leftist icon on the internet and in real-life—hence its appearance at an anti-Brexit rally.

For many, the goose’s appeal to progressives, particularly those who live in the UK, is no surprise. Labour voters are younger, and are more likely to play video games in the first place, explains Declan Peach, a game designer from Nottingham, England who serves as the vice chair of the UK chapter of Game Workers Unite, a group that aims to unionize the gaming industry. And the game’s setting in rural England became an easy stand-in for the part of the country that voted Leave on the Brexit referendum.

“I think many Labour supporters thought of the game as a sort of outlet for their frustration, by having a goose irritate some wordless caricatures of those they culturally oppose,” wrote Peach in an email. “It just so happens that our way to emulate this comes in the form of a goose.”

House House has been clear about the fact that the goose isn’t meant to have political motivations. “The goose is this chaotic neutral character. They’re just an animal who’s not really aware of what they’re doing,” said Jacob Strasser of House House in an interview with The Verge.

The creators of the game even playfully pushed back against the idea that the villagers were hardcore Brexiteers. In a tweet, House House claimed that the game was set in an alternative reality Britain where the goose had already chased then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher out of office, leading to the end of the Tory Party.

It’s true that the goose in Untitled Goose Game seems to exist as an unbiased agent of chaos in the English village. It seems equally thrilled to ruin the daily routines of women, men, children, people of color, white people, the old, and the young. And the fact that the goose is in a pastoral English landscape seems mere coincidence: One can just as easily imagine it raising hell in the middle of Times Square in New York City, or at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. 

So how did the goose become an icon of the political left? Charlotte Hryse, an office manager in Berkeley, California, first noticed political memes centered around the goose crop up a couple of weeks after the game’s release on Sep. 20th. One of the first featured the goose with a baseball bat in its bill, along with the phrase “You mess with the honk, you get the bonk,” which she saw gaining traction among antifa groups. The meme has since spread to coffee cups and t-shirts. Another meme features the goose setting fire to several “anti-goose” signs, along with the anarchist slogan “No Gods, No Masters”. 

After Hyrse spotted a meme of a goose stealing a radio from a Pepe clown, a famous symbol of the alt-right, she was inspired to create her own Facebook meme page: Untitled Leftist Goose. “I realized that the alt-right has lots of characters and symbols and memes, and that they use these well,” said Hyrse. With the exception of Gritty (the Philadelphia Flyer’s mascot that has become a left-wing avatar), she said, the left has few such icons. 

“I think the goose represents a bit of a harmless recklessness, of the little guy against the man. You’re just a disempowered goose but you want to wreak some minor havoc in these people who are kicking you out of their spaces. It speaks to wanting to reclaim power,” Hyrse told Quartz.

Dave Dynes, a 37-year old casino dealer from Southern California, has also become well-acquainted with the goose’s political bent: He posts several memes a week on his Untitled Goose Memes Facebook page, one of the largest centered around goose memes, with roughly 60,000 followers. Dynes told Quartz that he believes that the goose appeals to leftists because it appears solely to “disrupt the status quo.”

While the goose doesn’t have political leanings, the humans who have embraced it clearly do. House House tweeted a plea to its British fans a week before the UK general election. “NON-GOOSE TWEET: if you’re in the UK, please, please, please go and vote for a Labour government on Dec 12th END NON-GOOSE TWEET,” read the tweet. A picture of the goose, bedecked in roses, the symbol of UK’s Labour Party, was attached.  

There’s yet to be an example of the goose being co-opted by the far-right. But like all memes, the goose has no allegiances. Goose memes, even when they’re anti-capitalist or political, are always playful. Most recently, the goose has crossed paths with perhaps the last feel-good millennial meme of 2019. The meme features the goose honking at an elderly farmer through a hedge. The caption? “Ok Boomer.”

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