It all started with a scandal. One woman slept with other men, and one man took umbrage, posting personal chat-logs with her as “proof” of videogame nepotism and corruption. The result was “Gamergate,” a videogame-related witch-hunt the likes of which none of us have ever seen before.
Gamergate is an online controversy centered around both the treatment of women in videogames and ethics in videogame journalism. The active campaign operates primarily out of the concern that there is a general “groupthink” in videogame journalism centered around feminist and generally progressive concerns.
The rallying cry of Gamergate, if there is one in that confused combination of hashtags and divisive rhetoric, is that it’s all about the games.While Gamergaters will insist that their movement is primarily about ethics and journalistic responsibility in the videogame industry, the reality on the ground is that Gamergate is more of a front. After all, the videogame industry has been talking about ethics in journalism and game development on a consistent basis for years. (Previous flare-ups off the top of my head include Doritosgate, the “EA Spouse” anonymous letter, and the regular debates about reviews and review scores that typically flare up most during the fall when the biggest, most anticipated blockbuster games are released.) The cause itself is a tool used to silence those with alternate viewpoints that don’t align with those who make up the bulk of Gamergate, i.e., young males.
The public enemies of Gamergate are sneeringly referred to as “Social Justice Warriors.” It refers to people like Anita Sarkeesian, the media critic behind the video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games,” which uncovers various harmful ways that videogames portray women; Leigh Alexander, who rarely writes about feminist issues (until Gamergate happened to her, of course) but happens to be a woman writing about games; and even allies or “white knights,” like Polygon’s Ben Kuchera.
The perceived necessity for Gamergate became more apparent as developers and writers — and “Social Justice Warriors” — began coming out of the woodwork with new things to say to an industry that had been stagnant for years. And as these new voices — which, we might want to point out, included a host of openly Christian writers and developers — began to make their way on to the scene, the carefree haze of the pre-modern gamer was disrupted.
Suddenly, a club of satisfied gamers was confronted with the fundamental assertions of feminism and the charge to consider what their games were doing to them and what their games might mean. This is, after all, how art and entertainment mediums grow: through self-awareness, thoughtful reconsideration, and back-and-forth criticism. Sometimes that can get uncomfortable, contentious, and downright ugly. And it did, for years.
Then it got dangerous. Women started receiving death and rape threats, and began to genuinely fear for their lives and the safety of those around them. In addition to those who have been generally silenced by this movement, a number of women have quit altogether, stating unequivocally (and rightly) that videogames are simply not as important as their lives.
The Road to Gamergate
Long before Gamergate, women spoke of simple existence within the videogame industry as a risky, emotionally exhausting affair. Illicit comments, harassment, and a general sense that women weren’t “real gamers” existed anywhere gamers congregated, from convention show floors to underground forums to mainstream game site comment sections.
Then the games started changing. As women became more influential in the games-making process and began creating games themselves, games started to diversify. Gone Home (#5 on last year’s CAPC25) featured a woman as its lead protagonist and involved no tasks besides exploring both a house and the internal struggle of another young woman. Kellee Santiago’s Flower and then Journey helped to redefine the standard console game by presenting the player with a game that involved no violence or real conflict, but instead, focused on quiet, inward play. Zoe Quinn created Depression Quest, which helped the player to understand what it was like to live a life plagued with clinical depression.
These games didn’t replace anything. They didn’t push other big-box AAA experiences off the shelves. Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto didn’t go away. Still, a large group of gamers felt threatened by a combination of thoughtful criticism and creation.
So, as it turns out, Gamergate didn’t start with a scandal so much as it was galvanized by a scandal which eventually morphed into the broader “Gamergate” phenomena, providing concrete “evidence” of a videogame industry owned and operated by a vocal and strategic majority, i.e., “Social Justice Warriors.” Nevermind the fact that there is no real evidence for this claim, nor is there any smoking gun that proves a game got more coverage than it deserved because of some secret agenda to overthrow the male gamer population.
The narrative conveyed by Gamergate is marked by fear, and it includes an implicit assumption that videogame developers and journalists must refrain from politics, worldview assumptions, and general subjective perspective in their work. In other words: Gamergate is about enforcing homogeneity in the videogame space. Gamergate is about silencing alternative perspectives.
It’s all too easy to see the passionate, emotional revelation of alternate perspectives as “attacks” on our own worldview rather than what they really are: articulations of the human experience. The more we are a comfortable part of the norm, the more likely we are to become convinced that all other perspectives are an attack on that norm. What we’re seeing in the videogame space right now is a heightened and engineered retaliation to a norm that is changing.
So here we are with a misguided movement that serves as a way for throngs of threatened gamers to save face, to convey outrage rather than fear and hurt. The space that used to make them feel valued and alive, that used to distract them from real life struggles, now seems to be infiltrated by those very things. They yell, scream, and threaten so that they do not cry.
The arguments coming from the Gamergate side tend to take a brute-force approach with a string of arguments that are conveyed as “calm” and “reasonable.” Many within the movement pride themselves on their possession of “logic,” which is to say they claim to possess objective truths they would like everyone else to accept. The content of these truths remains unclear except in what they are not. They deny that women need a larger voice, that sexual objectification in games is a problem, that meaningless violence in games is a problem, and that videogame journalism ought to concern itself with anything beyond what makes a game “fun.”
Gamergate supporters often claim that reports of threats are either blown out of proportion or originate from some other group or cause (albeit one with very similar concerns). “They don’t represent us,” they say from one side of their mouth. But from the other, they continue to condemn the “Social Justice Warriors” who merely seek to add their voice to an industry in desperate need of new perspectives.
This specific fight taking place on the small battlefield of the videogame industry should look familiar, because we’ve seen it many times before. It’s what happens when a self-centered, man-centered religiosity overwhelms a love for one’s neighbor. For Gamergate, the de-facto religion is a devotion to a hobby that simply hasn’t earned our devotion. Like the false idols of the Old Testament, videogames require protection on the part of their followers, or else they may be destroyed. On their own, these games are beautiful, marvelous things. But when they are crafted into an idol, they offer destruction and hate.
The Rallying Cry of Gamergate
Ultimately, this all comes back to the games. The rallying cry of Gamergate, if there is one in that confused combination of hashtags and divisive rhetoric, is that it’s all about the games. It’s all about the fun. That approach would be an admirably positive one in this discussion — until, that is, you consider the experiences that have been previously offered up by gamers as “fun.”
There’s been a browser-based game in which you can punch Anita Sarkeesian in the face, causing her to become bloodied and bruised over time. There’s the sexualized violence present in games like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto. There’s the offer of a bikini-clad decapitated torso by a game publisher for their most hardcore fans, which was defended by gamers as readily as it was condemned. Most recently, there’s the “honest” fun of Hatred, in which you kill innocent people for no other reason than the titular emotion.
In view of these examples, the rallying cry of bright-eyed escapist “fun” takes on a different shade. These grey areas grow darker every day, until we find ourselves sitting happily in the pitch black of night, yelling angrily at intruders who try to join us with lanterns and flashlights to keep out.
It’s all about the games, the gamers cry. They would never understand.
img via Luke Hayfield