Products Over People: What GamerGate Gets Wrong
When I was ten and my brother twelve, we got Sunday morning paper routes. He used his money to buy gaming consoles; I used mine to buy comics. He stayed up late most nights gaming, and most mornings he’d be dead to the world in compensation. I was stuck delivering his share of the papers so often (thanks, bud!) that I eventually took over his route. More comics for me! But no fewer games for him — he found other ways to make and save money, because no measly pre-teen sleep schedule troubles would get in the way of him and the hottest new game.
My brother was the first gamer I knew. He had every console on the market (Nintendo AND Sony, not Nintendo OR Sony), and every game worth playing. He taught himself to draw and to code, knowing he would be going into game development (he’s in development, actually, but not games). He and his friends, the second through eighth gamers I knew, had weekly LAN parties in our basement, and I was forced to absorb — goddamn social osmosis — a basic understanding of why “this power supply, Megan, not that one,” was crucial. In return, he stole enough of my comics that we could meet in the middle.
We’re only two years apart in age and with our parents working two jobs, sometimes three in my father’s case, to keep the home ownership dream alive, we spent a lot of time with just each other and our hobbies for company. Our particular sibling language was, is still, formed with the understanding that he was a ride or die gamer, and I was a comic geek for life, and of course, that we’d always have each other’s back. We still talk games and comics and everything geek, sucking the air out of dinner table conversations about cars and retirement savings. But he’s not a gamer anymore, and I’m not a comics geek. He games, I read, but the bone-deep loyalty is gone.
The other day I texted him a link to this storify because we are one in our hatred of PHP (which, did you know? Is the hideous bedrock upon which Facebook is built?). This storify chronicles the harrowing adventures of a not so young GamerGater, stopped short in his latest salvo of harassment, by actual tech developers calling him on his shit. To wit: he threatens to “take away” developer Randi Harper’s Twitter account. Randi shines a light on his thuggery. And then actual Twitter employees fact check him right out of the joint. In case you were wondering, THIS is how it’s done:
I was expecting to have a laugh with my brother — PHP! basic-ass trolls! — but he threw me for a loop by asking “WTF is GamerGgate?” So I had to explain the whole thing, and he had to look some things up, and well, there went all the laughs. His verdict? “Throw them in a sink hole.” I’d forgotten, I guess, that my brother had long since moved on from being a gamer and was now a human person who plays games for fun. That “buyer and user of things” was no longer a core part of his identity. I should have known better because “comics geek” isn’t something I identify as either. Husband, brother, developer, free time power lifter was a better description, now. And in my case, sister, writer, love of comics, eater of cheese. (Cheese: my core identity.)
We’re not bitter ex-geeks, but we both broke with the “geek community,” in his case permanently and in mine temporarily, and we did so for a number of reasons, from time (who has it?), to protectionism, to groupthink, to just plain being tired of having the same tired-ass arguments. For my brother, it was the kids and man-kids who spent more time spewing mindless hate in vent, than grinding or questing or, shit, gaming. It was another blast of hot air over game release dates, platform superiority, or game developer slagging. For me, it was the preciousness that comics fans could treat the latest cash-grab crossover or series of variant covers, while actual human beings were as good as GI Joes destined for microwave experiments. Goodbye geek identity; hello geeking alone. But the funny part about no longer identifying as a gamer or comics geek is that it changes nothing about your friendships or your passions.
What exactly IS GamerGate? My brother proved that even devoted players of games can have missed the whole thing — lucky them. Well, we’ve collected a number of links in this roundtable, and I’ll give it to you brief: an ex-boyfriend of an indie game developer looking for revenge posted details of their personal lives, along with speculations about her sex life beyond their relationship. Because that speculation — I won’t say allegation because the ex-boyfriend isn’t exactly CSIing his way to the truth — included sexual relationships with prominent game developers, journalists, and executives. It was treated as “news.” Of course, it was. Zoe Quin, that indie developer, is a woman, and women’s bodies are always grist for the public mill. Then Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic, released her latest installment of Tropes vs Women In Video Games, and boom, a “movement” was born.
GamerGate is, at its core, an anti-feminist hate campaign. Although it’s wrapped up with concerns about journalistic integrity and the rapidly changing demographics of game consumers, its fundamental concern is that feminists are destroying video games. And they are ostensibly doing it through an attack on gaming culture, an effort to develop new kinds of games, and an effort to make changes in how AAA games are produced and marketed. That is to say, feminists are transforming and radicalizing a subculture and an industry that, according to GamerGate, is inherently apolitical.
Dig into GamerGate’s complaints about journalistic integrity, and you’ll find that this charge is brought to bear only for sites and writers engaged in cultural criticism, not straight reviews. Simultaneously, sites dedicated to straight reviews of games and their mechanics are spared the brunt of GamerGate criticism, despite the fact that their in-pocket writing is the pre-GamerGate gold standard for why games journalism isn’t “real journalism.” But GamerGate sets its sights on cultural criticism because for them it represents corruption, outside influences, special interest groups, and ultimately, a declaration of war. In the eyes of GamerGate, criticism itself is feminism’s primary weapon of choice, and it’s a weapon that’s not meant for and should not be used “against” video games.
Let’s break that down: According to GamerGate, feminists employ the tools of cultural and media criticism to analyze games and gaming culture. This is indisputably an attack, and it’s an effective one: the great fear of GamerGaters is that they’re losing a culture war to “professional victims” and “casual gamers;” social justice activists and mass culture alike. What’s at stake is who delineates the limits of game culture, who gets to be called a gamer (or not). Who are are the real gamers in all of this? Who cares? When Leigh Alexander wrote in August that gamers are over, she became GamerGate Enemy Number One. But she was right; gamers, as a unified and distinct subculture that makes up the primary audience of gaming marketers, are over. The money’s in the mass audience now.
GamerGate’s inability to grapple with the mainstreaming of gaming culture, and the resulting increase in cultural criticism from both within and without, is exemplified by its calls for journalistic integrity. The claim is that gaming journalism is poor and generally corrupt, that because gaming has grown to be a multi-billion dollar industry, it is incumbent on games journalists to do better, and that finally, this problem is best addressed through consumer activism. Well, yes. Games journalism could and should do better by its readers — what a coincidence that all AAA games are also five star games. But what a coincidence too, that GamerGate is much more interested in preventing indie developers from making friendships with cultural critics, than it is with policing major developer’s carrot-and-stick treatment of games journalists as whole.
Games journalists should disclose their funding sources? Fine. Games journalists should firmly and clearly declare bias. Of course. Games journalists should not be friendly with developers. Hey, wait a second. Games journalists should be answerable to their readers AKA consumers. Uh, no. Maybe not.
I should point out here that there are many different kinds of journalism, from investigative, to advocacy, to citizen, and that cultural critics aren’t necessarily considered a branch of the big journalism family — especially when it’s intimately connected to academia, as is the case with much cultural criticism of games and even comics — but there are some core principles of ethical journalism. Those principles do not include an edict to not be friends with potential future subjects, or to be friendly with current subjects. They do not forbid ideology, but rather, require journalists to state the facts, ma’am, and let everyone involved have their say. They don’t much address the practice of cultural criticism, expect insofar as cultural critics too must declare conflicts of interest and must not slander or commit libel. Don’t lie, but have all the opinions you like.
But ok, let’s address the big concern: that games journalism doesn’t represent the community, and that it should, in some fashion, answer to the community. And well, no. Nope. Not at all. Just as journalists must not act as marketing departments for corporate interests, neither should they be confirmation bias machines for readers. A core principle of ethical journalism is that it should see the community with clear eyes and report on its problems honestly. To elide a lack of representation in favour of a Consumer Reports style recitation of specifications is a gross failure of journalistic ethics. To write with an eye to satisfying reader-consumers, to make them feel good about themselves and their community, at the cost of ignoring problems within that community, is nothing less than shameful pandering. As Leigh Alexander puts it:
…[w]e also have to scrutinize, closely, the baffling, stubborn silence of many content creators amid these scandals, or the fact lots of stubborn, myopic internet comments happen on business and industry sites. This is hard for old-school developers who are being made redundant, both culturally and literally, in their unwillingness to address new audiences or reference points outside of blockbuster movies and comic books as their traditional domain falls into the sea around them. Of course it’s hard. It’s probably intense, painful stuff for some young kids, some older men.
Truth is the highest principle of journalism, and the truth is, there are a lot of problems in the gaming community and in geek culture as a whole.
It is time to put away childish things. Not the games themselves, or the comics, action figures, or cosplay, but the kind of consumption-first fandom that prizes consumer products over people. The overidentification of people with products, culture with producers, criticism with attack. Culture is more than corporate directives and convention swag.
What does GamerGate look like to people who’ve moved on? Baffling. Myopic. Violent. Sad. “I’m going to hax you,” my brother said. “Oldest threat on the internet.” When I told him that a whole movement had grown up around that initial harassment campaign (based, it’s worth reminding you once again, on an assumption of sexual payola that never occurred), he just said, “a movement? lol, sure.” GamerGaters may have a point in there somewhere and may have started some nice initiatives, but this is an old tactic, one that anyone who’s been active on the internet for long, or in political activism, should quickly recognize. Sparked by an ex-boyfriend’s carefully designed accusations, nurtured by 4chan troll campaigns, championed by racist, sexist Firefly actor Adam Baldwin and conservative non-gamers Milo Yianopoulos and Christina Hoff, this is a movement that was born in misogyny, achieved a mass audience through misogyny, and continues to shelter those who have a long history of degrading and gaslighting women, and even those who get their rocks off threatening women’s lives.
So you’re not an anti-feminist and all you care about is ethics in games journalism? That’s great. But what are you to Adam Baldwin, Milo Yianopoulos, Christina Hoff, 4chan, and violent anti-feminists? You are useful. You are their shield.
And yes, GamerGate was founded to harass women. We've all seen the IRC logs. Part of the plan: recruit others to be their useful idiots.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) October 11, 2014
So stop standing with people who WANT you to be their useful idiots while they threaten women. You can't pretend you don't know anymore.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) October 11, 2014
GamerGate is a manufactured controversy, papered over a manufactured hate campaign. There’s nothing ethical or honest about it — it’s driving women out of their homes and the gaming industry. And for what? Your fandom identity? Is your core identity comfortable with where GamerGate has brought you? Scrap the movement. Start fresh.