GamerGate has morphed from a seemingly-innocuous case of infidelity to perhaps the single dominant issue in the blogosphere in less than two months. As such, yet another piece on the subject might seem like overkill, but as of this writing I have yet to see a comprehensive analysis of the place GamerGate has in a larger, historical context. To date, the majority of the discussion has been about whether GamerGate is about ethics in gaming journalism, or whether it is merely the Trojan horse that carries a legion of misogynists to make the world of gaming a dangerous place for anyone who is not a white male.
While this question dominates the current discussion, it is merely a part of a larger battle in video games, which in turn is a part of a larger Culture War. The recent developments in the video game “theatre” of this war have the potential to be extremely damaging to one of the combatants, as it has exposed its true colors to a wide audience for quite possibly the first time. If the correct message is taken from the GamerGate saga, it may not spell the immediate end for the defeated camp, as its ideology currently dominates popular thought. As such, change will be a slow burn, but it will be achieved.
In a sentence, games became a space ripe for battle thanks to its evolution from a nerd culture staple to a pop culture staple. For much of its history, video games were the domain of the ultra-nerdy, pimply-faced computer geek. To be sure, a much wider demographic of people played games growing up, especially with the rise of the console. But for most people, games were just another tool, a means to an end. It was just one of the possible things you could do with friends or by yourself after school or over the weekend. Activities like watching TV, playing outdoors, or hanging out at the mall were all simple substitutes.
Being a hardcore gamer meant that the game was the end, almost to the point of obsession. There were no substitutes. Instead of spending Friday nights going to the school dances and seeing what sort of mischief you could get into at a friend’s house afterwards, all-night LAN parties were the order of the day. The level of dedication and involvement most hardcore gamers showed, combined with the fact that this attention was focused on an inanimate portal into a virtual world, led to a stereotype with negative connotations. You were anti-social, didn’t fit in, you were just weird.
Then Halo came along. The advancement of the first-person shooter, combined with the introduction of online console play, took gaming to another level. The further advancement of gameplay, graphics, and the ubiquity of high speed internet connections turned gaming into an experience that could be shared with people across the world. 15 years ago, the pinnacle of gaming for the average guy was having a few friends over and shooting at each other a bit in Goldeneye 64. Now, it is teaming up with those same friends and engaging in complex tactical battles against people from all over the planet, in extraordinarily vast, deep, rich virtual worlds that closely resemble reality.
This transformation of gaming was mostly a visual, graphical transformation, versus a change in the content and the basic style of games. The increased visual appeal in addition to the increased depth of the games introduced a more movie-like quality, with the added bonus that the user could be immersed in it. With that movie-like quality came movie-like attention, movie-like money, movie-like marketing campaigns and movie-like releases. Video game tournaments have the capability to draw crowds in excess of 100,000. At the very highest level, individual gamers can earn millions, and have millions of viewers watch their newest videos on YouTube. As it stands now, video games are a $100 billion industry, fully entrenched in popular culture.
Through it all, our LAN-partying “gamer” never really changed, he just got older. The games kept improving, so he kept playing, even as the industry crept into the purview of the general population. It is this intersection between gamer culture and popular culture which has caused fireworks of late, owing to the fact that the former is male-dominated while the latter, as has been discussed in the manosphere for quite some time, is female-dominated.
Most would take issue with the idea of the LAN-partying gamer image as masculine, but it is more to do with the games themselves, and the environment that surrounds gameplay. On a very base level, most games involve an unstable situation which the user must survive. This dynamic is true of the real world, and although females are also subjected to this reality, throughout history it has generally been males who have had to navigate through the uncertainties of the world in a more direct manner. Think male hunters as opposed to female gatherers. Video games force one to play the hunter with efficiency, or the consequence is death.
The negative stereotype surrounding gamers is ultimately borne from the fact that this sort of masculinity is engaged only virtually. Why spend so much time shooting zombies and imposing your will on level bosses, when you can break down barriers and impose your will on the real world? The perception is you can’t, and thus the complete and total immersion into the virtual world marked the gamer as weak in the real one, rightly or wrongly.
Incidentally, that gaming has exploded to reach the masses as it has suggests this “weakness” has now spread to society as a whole (see here, and here). That is beyond the scope of this piece. What is relevant here is that video games, a predominantly male space, have now entered the mainstream. Thus any and all messages conveyed must be “appropriate.” It was ok if only a few harmless geeks ingested some off-brand media, since they were losers nobody listened to or cared about. Send the same sort of messages to everyone, including the “cool kids,” and there might be a problem, since they set the trends and have the influence.
Feminist Game Critics Want to Change Games – Not Add New “Representative” Niches
Enter the feminist video game critic.
The rise of video game culture into pop culture, and the money and power that came with it brought about a powerful medium with which political and cultural mores could be shaped. Such a large, fundamentally masculine entity such as video games suddenly garnering the attention of multinational corporations was never going to be tolerated long by feminists and their allies. The media has framed the response by gamers to the views brought forth by feminists in the following manner:
GamerGate is ostensibly about ethics in gaming journalism, but in reality its misogynistic core is tainting whatever aims the actual movement is trying to achieve
This is a disingenuous supposition. Underlying the mainstream critiques of GamerGate is a theme of gamers having their clubhouse invaded and not liking it. Brianna Wu, a game developer, said as much in an article she penned for the Washington Post last week. This visual is actually a very good tool for explaining the faults of the argument the anti-GamerGate crowd is making, as there are only two reasons an outsider would want to enter a clubhouse he or she is not privy to.
The first is because he or she appreciates the environment in that clubhouse, wants to experience that environment, and is willing to be constructive in furthering and supporting that environment. The other reason is that he or she wants to destroy the clubhouse and its environment, for whatever reason.
The feminist video game critique is clearly driven by the second reason. Perhaps the most prominent critic is Anita Sarkeesian, who is the creator of a series of videos on YouTube which examine how women are portrayed in video games. According to her, the representation of women is generally demeaning or dis-empowering to the extent they are represented at all. She has every right to express these views without harassment, and my point here is not to address her specific concerns, but rather her general concern that female representation is a huge problem in gaming.
Sarkeesian has purportedly identified a problem with a product, which has not been addressed sufficiently. In most situations, this presents opportunity. The creation of a new product which fixes a problem is a source of value in the marketplace, which is rewarded handsomely. Rather than taking this line of action, Sarkeesian would rather complain really loudly about it. Interestingly enough, she did receive upwards of $150,000 in funding for her YouTube video project, which on one level may suggest that the rethinking of women in video games is a subject the market may be interested in.
Yet wouldn’t a better use of that money have been to actually fund video game development in that image, bringing forth a tangible product that represents its ideals? If female under-representation in gaming is really such a scourge on the industry, real, tangible steps towards bringing a more “ideal” product to market would have been welcomed handsomely. Yet Sarkeesian and her allies choose to complain about the existing product. Having entered clubhouse, she is essentially screaming and banging pots and pans together to call attention to the fact that she does not like the furniture is arranged and that it must be changed.
This is at the crux of the vitriol Sarkeesian and others like her have received. The fact that they are women is not the source of the negative pushback they are getting – this would make it misogyny. It is the fact that their opinions are being couched as rock-solid fact and used to force feed sweeping changes into the industry, an industry these critics had no time for when there was no Call of Duty around, grossing $1 billion on the first day of sales.
To the credit of Brianna Wu, she has at least made tangible steps to address what she may consider a problem in the gaming industry. She is a game developer, and helped to start an independent game studio which seeks to produce games with female protagonists. As far as I’m aware, nobody tried to stop Wu in this endeavor. The video game industry has not colluded to prevent her work from seeing the light of day or being assessed fairly. Her product has been brought to market and assessed by the market, so it can only be surmised that the source of Wu’s angst is her unhappiness with that assessment. Invading the clubhouse is seemingly not enough; the red carpet must accompany the invasion.
The bottom line is that if the repeated kidnapping of Princess Peach over the last 25 years of Super Mario games was really such a grave problem in the industry, it would have been addressed. People would have stopped playing video games which featured men blowing stuff up to save the girl, and sales would have dropped. If gamers had wanted to play games which featured tons of Strong, Independent, Empowered women (preferably overweight ones: characters like Lara Croft are no good because they become “objects”), there would have been a market for it.
The customers dictate the gaming content, and to date they haven’t cared for feminist narratives polluting them. As discussed above, the meteoric rise of games came on the back of “gamer culture” as it was prior to its commercialization. Attempting to change the culture just because it has a wider audience now is ultimately changing a winning formula. That is the concern here, nothing more, nothing less. It certainly is not misogyny.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped the media from screaming misogyny at every turn. One of the more egregious examples took place during this segment on MSNBC.
NBC reporter Irin Carmon had this to say about the relationship between games and larger culture:
Misogyny is the air that we breathe…gaming is a piece of culture, a culture like anything else, and it absorbs the same kind of warped messages that we all do about gender and power and violence…
Interviewer: At the same time, I know a lot of gamers would probably respond and say this is just gaming. We’re just having fun, we’re enjoying ourselves. Why do we have to be thinking about social justice issues, why do we have to be thinking about feminism? Why can’t we just enjoy games?
Carmon: I would say there is no world that is not imbued by politics. If you believe that you have no identity, no race, then you are probably a very privileged person. If you’re a woman in this male dominated world, you are always marked by being a woman. There is no space that isn’t inflicted by politics. I think they maybe want to slam their hands over their ears and say ‘leave us alone we wanna do our thing,’ but guess what? Your thing is politics too and it’s just a matter of opening up and listening, you don’t have to agree with all of the critiques. But people have a right to make their voice heard, and I really admire and respect the women who have continued speaking out despite the fact that they’ve been met with unconscionable attacks.
As mentioned before, there is nobody silencing feminist critiques. There has been a lot of “opening up and listening,” it is just that the message conveyed has not been well-received. This rejection has been redefined by the mainstream as “misogynist hate speech,” in attempt to garner sympathy and support on an emotional level. The stakes are very high, and losing the chance to fill a large cultural force such as games with feminist doctrine is a big risk. It means that the millions that play games will be absorbing “warped messages” about gender relations. So when the feminist message met that resistance, the next level of combat began.
In late August, a slew of posts on various blogs and online media outlets proclaimed the “gamer” as a thing of the past, a dying breed. The essence of these posts is encapsulated in the following quote from Dan Golding:
Today, videogames are for everyone. I mean this in an almost destructive way. Videogames, to read the other side of the same statement, are not for you. You do not get to own videogames. No one gets to own videogames when they are for everyone. They add up to more than any one group.
This, along with Carmon’s comments on MSNBC speaks to the crusade of the social justice warrior (SJW): the fight against privilege. Male privilege, white privilege, thin privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, Christian privilege. Essentially any human trait that can be construed to having an advantage in any context is a threat, which must be acted against for the good of all.
With respect to games and gamers, the mostly white male demographic which comprises its most fervent acolytes is a threat to the social justice warrior because the ascendance of gaming into the mainstream theoretically means the furtherance of a mostly white male influence, which in the mind of the social justice warrior, undermines attempts to create an equalist utopia.
Thus “gamers,” or at least that stereotype, had to be sacrificed. Recall that the part of the gamer stereotype is being an anti-social weakling who didn’t get out much and was likely to be ridiculed. These shortcomings were tapped into by most of the anti GamerGate articles when painting a picture of the average GamerGate supporter, as if to say “these guys are losers, nobody should care what they think.” A more explicit playing up of the loser frame was put forth by Sam Biddle, editor of Valleywag, an arm of Gawker. He recently tweeted the following:
This was followed up later by Max Read, editor in chief at Gawker, who after engaging with GamerGaters enraged with Biddle, posted the following:
Representatives of Gawker, one of the largest, if not the largest social justice warrior enclave on the internet, established themselves as the guy who stole the nerdy kid’s glasses and laughed at him while he fumbled about trying to find them. In other words, they played the very role of the “privileged” individual they have constantly tried to denounce. All because of the gamers’ refusal to comply with the SJW narrative.
This message from such a large media entity led to a backlash on Twitter and elsewhere, which culminated in sponsors such as Mercedes Benz, Adobe, Intel, and Nissan backing away from Gawker and similar sites which espoused the anti-GamerGate position, particularly the “nerd bullying” angle of Biddle and Read.
The response of the GamerGate crowd to the SJW attempt to bully and shame gamers into submission suggests that the SJWs have picked the wrong fight. Gamers have long been natural allies of SJW causes, owing to their position as outcasts for most of their existence. Even though they are mostly white males, they were mostly not the cool kids, meaning they qualified for SJW protective status as a group without privilege. That the rejection of feminist ideology was then followed up with full-scale SJW shaming tactics normally reserved for “racists,” “bigots,” “homophobes,” and other culture war criminals (i.e. anyone who didn’t unquestioningly accept their doctrine) alerted the gamers. They have begun to wake up and understand that their dissent is not to be tolerated.
On a simpler level, the SJWs picked an opponent which is as qualified, if not more qualified to wage a digitally-based war. It is one thing to use social media to eviscerate a prominent middle aged “bigot” for whom sending emails is an unnatural action. It is another to go after a group deeply entrenched in the ways of the internet. Indeed, the decisions of sponsors were spurred on by an uproar within online communities such as Reddit and 8chan, which worked together to voice their concerns in a large way. I suspect this has taken the SJWs aback. In many ways, gamers are perhaps first group that can effectively take on SJW tactics and use them against the SJWs. This has big implications for the Culture War generally, of which GamerGate is a part.
Is this the Reversal of the Ideological Trend?
The error of the SJWs in turning on gamers in the Culture War mirrors one of the largest errors in the history of actual wars. Over 70 years ago, a certain European power turned on another European power, with which it had a prior agreement. The perpetrators totally underestimated the nature of the operation, thinking that a certain large, frozen country could be easily vanquished within a few weeks. They were wrong, and were wholly unprepared for winter. The loss of men, time, and weaponry, in addition to starting a two-front war led to their ultimate demise, when prior to that they were in a position of strength.
Similarly, the SJWs have, like it or not, elevated themselves into a position of strength in the Culture War. The GamerGate saga underlines this, given the flood of support the anti-GamerGate side has received from heavyweights in mainstream media, both traditional and online forms. Yet, even with the advantage of currently dominating the cultural narrative, the anti-Gamergate SJW camp hit the self-destruct button.
The reality is that GamerGate would have blown over in a week if a few white knights had done the unthinkable and let a girl on the internet look bad for a few days. The zoepost, if left on its own, probably would have been forgotten as the ramblings of a butthurt guy, with a further manosphere diagnosis as another case of oneitis for the wrong girl. It was only when the SJW sympathetic parts of 4chan, Reddit, and prominent video game forums systematically shut down discussion of the issue that it started snowballing, as the conspiratorial elements of the zoepost began to look like legitimate concerns.
The discussion blew up, and the SJWs became more and more defensive, decrying any and all criticism of their position as misogynist hate speech. With their most recent move, an explicit attack on gamers and gamer culture, they risk starting a reversal of the multi decade encroachment of their ideology into all aspects of life. For those who are interested in normal human interaction, and not living in an Orwellian world, this is undoubtedly a good development. How far the reversal will go is yet to be seen.
All that can be said right now is that the cool winds of fall are warning of the freeze to come, and the SJWs are stuck without winter apparel.