Over the past few weeks, the video game community has erupted into a full-blown culture war. On one side are the gaming journalists and developers, circling the wagons around feminist activist Anita Sarkeesian and feminist game developer Zoe Quinn, and on the other side are legions of self-proclaimed “gamers,” outraged that the games they love are being criticized. The “#gamergate” conflict has taken many outside of the video gaming bubble by surprise. But as a longtime gamer, I've long expected such a fight to break out. It was pretty much inevitable. And necessary. Here's why.
The current brouhaha started with Sarkeesian, who has a YouTube series called Feminist Frequency. Feminist Frequency has long tackled what Sarkeesian feels are negative tropes against women in a variety of pop cultural representations – ranging from the LEGO “Boys Club” to the “manic pixie dream girl” in films.
Around a year ago, Sarkeesian released her first series of videos looking at sexist tropes against women in video games. The videos, the result of a Kickstarter fundraising effort, covered territory that should be familiar to just about anyone who has played the most common video games. Anita criticizes, for example, Princess Peach, the perennial Mario Bros. character that in almost every game is kidnapped and then rescued by Mario, Luigi and other male characters. She also offers the same criticism of Princess Zelda in the Zelda series, and many other female characters from Nintendo games. “The Damsel in Distress,” she explains about this trope, “is not just a synonym for weak; instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we're told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths, they're still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue.”
In her most recent set of videos, released at the end of August, Sarkeesian looks at “Women As Background Decoration,” citing, for example, a "Grand Theft Auto IV" section where you can slap a bound woman, a level in "God of War III" where you drag along a half-naked woman, and a portion of the recently released game "Watch Dogs," in which you visit a sex slave ring.
To much of the world, these sorts of critiques are common – these days we're taught to be introspective about diversity, inclusion, privilege and power in our workplaces, our homes, our politics. But in video gaming, such discussion is rare. Perhaps that explains why, when faced with Sarkeesian's critique, a loud and angry subset of gamers chose not to put out well-reasoned responses showing where they agreed or disagreed with her, but react in the same manner you might expect a crowd of Tea Partyers, eager to defend themselves against what they view as an attack on their way of life.
So Sarkeesian has been deluged with sexist hate of all stripes, from virtually every gaming community on the Internet. It reached a peak when she actually had to leave her home following particularly detailed threats made on her by a Twitter user who knew her address and parents' names.
For years, I've been a member of the GameFAQS video gaming community. The website holds web boards for thousands of different video gaming titles, as well as walkthroughs, reviews and other gaming content. The boards are the place where all the discussion about Sarkeesian over the years has taken place. Here's a small but representative sample of some of the arguments I've witnessed about Sarkessian and the feminist critiques of video games or sexist gamers:
- “She honestly kinda brings this **** on herself.”
- “Normally I would be disgusted by something like this, but she was essentially the Westboro church of the internet. You paint a target on your head and dare people to shoot it...someone's gonna.”
- “These people actually went and taunted the whole goddamn Internet, they got what they deserved.”
- “'Victim'? Please...She's going to milk this for all it's worth. She's gotta keep herself in the spotlight, by any means possible.”
- “Honestly she should have expected this, I'm not saying it's right but it is 100% expected, there was no way this wouldn't happen. She's attacking something that millions of people care about and are passionate about and enjoy just the way they are.
- “The only victims here are the people/hobby she's riding on (so, everyone) with this, yet another, "victim" claim that people like you are actually enabling by defending her and then she can cozily keep her position despite being entirely 100% incompetent
- “If the entire internet hates you maybe you should rethink your life.”
This isn't to say that the GameFAQS or the Internet gaming community is pro-death threat. There were only a handful of such comments that I saw. And there were eloquent comments from some gamers denouncing the threats or stating that we should be willing to deal with Sarkeesian's critique. But the fact is that the sexist gamers are the ones who feel most strongly about the issue, and are so loud about it you'd think Anita Sarkeesian had personally gone around to every male gamer's home and smashed up their "Call of Duty" discs.
The kind of backlash Sarkeesian has received is also heaped on just about anyone who dares to say that games should have more realistic and diverse representations --for instance, of LGBT, and minorities:
For example, here are some posts from a topic in 2012 about a gay gamer convention:
- “Because obviously gay gamers can’t coexist with straight gamers therefore they need their own convention.”
- “The thing is that no one can tell if you're gay... so like why don't they just go to regular conventions?
- “l want a straight white male gaming convention.”
- “You don’t have to acknowledge that racism exists. It’s obvious that it does. Bringing it up all the time isn’t gonna change anything and will just remind people to continue to be racist. Same thing with this gay business.
So it was hardly surprising that a subset of the online gaming community took aim at another target: Zoe Quinn. Quinn is a relatively small-time indie game developer who recently released a free game, "Depression Quest," which attempts to simulate what living with depression is like. One of her ex-boyfriends posted a long rant alleging, among other things, that she had slept with someone from Kotaku (a popular gaming website) to secure positive coverage of her game. Quinn, and Kotaku, were both deluged with hate mail from gamers convinced that they had uncovered corruption in the gaming industry. Thus, #gamergate was born.
This backlash itself provoked its own backlash -- articles and commentary from the gaming press and game developers criticizing the sexist and intolerant “gamer” culture that would drive Anita Sarkeesian out of her home with threats and make thinly sourced insinuations about female game developers like Zoe Quinn. One article that raised particularly wild howls of protest was a Tumblr post by Dan Golding, the director of an indie game festival in Australia. Titled “The End of Gamers,” the post criticizes the sexist smears and threats against Quinn and Sarkeesian, and concludes:
“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.
On some level, the grim individuals who are self-centred and myopic enough to be upset at the prospect of having their medium taken away from them are absolutely right. They have astutely, and correctly identified what is going on here. Their toys are being taken away, and their treehouses are being boarded up. Videogames now live in the world and there is no going back.
I am convinced that this marks the end. We are finished here. From now on, there are no more gamers—only players.”
Change a few words here and there, and you could almost have an essay by an immigration activist instructing Tea Partyers to get over the fact that America will no longer be a white nation, or a gay rights icon proclaiming that the United States will one day soon have full marriage equality and Pat Robertson needs to learn to deal.
But there's another element at play here that doesn't exist in the great culture wars over immigration, gay rights or other leading social wedge issues. Video gamers as a group are not a powerful elite the same way other “threatened” groups in the country are. In fact, their hobby is itself often viewed as a refuge of loners.
My feeling is that the bunker mentality that gamers have adopted in response to the critiques from Golding and others is, at least partly, understandable. Gamers have spent their lives being told their lifestyle is marginal, the refuge of nerds who couldn't get a date to prom. Now, gamers feel that the one space where they could say they were on top – in the online worlds of "Call of Duty," conventions like DragonCon and ComicCon, and LAN parties the world over – is being flooded with opinions from people who previously wanted little to do with them.
In light of the attacks on Quinn and Sarkeesian, developers and journalists alike have been vociferously critical of “gamers,” not doing too much to distinguish between the majority of gamers and the loud, angry, sexist members of the community. Virtually every established gaming and tech website, from ArsTechnica to Gamasutra (which wrote that “gamers are over”), to the Verge to the Escapist, has published lengthy critiques of gaming. One of the writers of the upcoming "Far Cry 4" tweeted: “If you are against social justice, you are going to hate some of the things we wrote for Far Cry 4.” One of the creative directors of the Saints Row series admitted that Sarkeesian's critique of his games was accurate and called for change. This has provoked the #gamergate crowd to create a boycott list, which includes virtually every single well-established gaming news website and the developers speaking up against sexism and intolerance. The Reddit community r/KotakuInAction is one of the organizing points.
The sad thing is that even if you don’t believe that there is serious sexism in the gaming community, gamers do actually have serious reasons to be skeptical of their gaming press and developers. Game companies are nickel-and-diming consumers like never before, cutting out large sections of their games and selling them for full price while selling those add-ons for exorbitant fees. Meanwhile, Zoe Quinn may not be a real scandal, but game publishers and journalists who review games have gotten far too cozy – witness how Ubisoft gave an entire audience of journalists free tablets as they prepared to review its (in my opinion) fairly average game “Watch Dogs.”
As if there wasn't enough hostility between gamer culture, feminists and the industry, one additional group joined the fracas: traditional right-wing activists. Christina Hoff Sommers, an American Enterprise Institute fellow who has made a name for herself as a professional anti-feminist, writing a book about the “War Against Boys,” and denying the gender pay gap, joined in the debate with tweets such as: “Term 'rape culture' is sexist. Implicates average guy in a horrible crime. Call people out who use it. It's a form of gender profiling” and “Most gamers seem to support equality feminism. What they reject is today's male-bashing, propaganda-driven, female chauvinism. #GamerGate.” Breitbart London's Milo Yiannopoulos, fresh from blaming Jennifer Lawrence for her own photographs being stolen, tweeted with #GamerGate that advocates for tolerance are “often the most spiteful, hateful, intolerant people around.”
With the entry of Breitbart and AEI, the pseudo-culture war was complete – with a massive civil war between “gamer” culture and traditional conservatives on one side and virtually the entire industry itself and feminist activists on the other.
But what's been lost in all this is that there actually has been a movement in video games to tell more dynamic and positive stories featuring women, LGBT characters, racial minorities and other nontraditional demographics. And these games aren't just the fringe. “The Last of Us,” for example, has numerous prominent realistic female characters, including a lesbian teenage character who as a lead (SPOILERS) at one point has to save her much older male compatriot from ruthless gangsters; it has won more “game of the year” titles than any other game ever released, and sold over 7 million copies.
After the series “Tomb Raider” decided to downsize its heroine’s ridiculous bosom and created a less sexist and more realistic portrayal, in a game where she heroically saves her colleagues from vicious and violent men, the game sold around 6 million copies and has a sequel greenlighted.
Indie games like “Papers, Please,” which include social justice-related themes such as combating authoritarianism and creating a fair immigration system, sold more than half a million copies; following the #GamerGate civil war, developers from across the industry have signed a sort of peace letter calling on all sides to agree that “everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened. It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish.”
What all this shows is that gaming is far from the male-dominated sausage-fest that some of its critics and proponents claim it to be. It is diversifying and drawing in a wider pool of both developer talent and player base. However, we still live in a world where stellar developer Naughty Dog has to boast that 14 percent of its staff aren't men, and where the gaming industry sees fit to use women as props at its largest annual trade show. And it's a world where gamers are often marginalized and mocked by those who don't regularly play video games, where the late Roger Ebert once wrote a long essay proclaiming that video games “can never be art,” and that they are instead “pathetic” when compared to the works of great poets, novelists and filmmakers.
As someone who's spent his life gaming, and who cares deeply about social justice, I believe that the two can coexist – that we can have games that portray women and minorities in inoffensive ways, and those games can still be incredibly fun, and that all gamers won't be tarred with a broad brush because of the brash actions of a few. But it starts by recognizing that there are problems in parts of gamer culture, that games are improving, that we do deserve a better gaming press. If we can come to terms with all that, then we can all game on, in a way that respects everyone involved.