tobias c. van Veen is SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Communications at the Université de Montréal. Writing in both popular and academic publications, tobias’ work explores questions of race, becoming, and technology in culture, music, and philosophy.
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” — Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)
“Marxism is dead. I’m in it for the lulz.” — Groucho Marx (reanimated)
There is nothing conclusive to be said about enduring violence save that it endures through its violence. When encountering the shifting yet systemic violence perpetuated by elements of a gaming culture obsessed with finding pleasure and prestige in the very play of violence, the individuated enunciation of critical theory finds itself tasked with sharpening the aphoristic insight. By embracing the strategy of the inconclusive and epigrammatic, the tension of play and desire at the intersection of technocapitalism, gender, and power can be articulated to the gaming cultures of militarisation.
Drawing from a series of asides conceived during two Roundtables on GamerGate (Part 1 and Part 2), the following speculative theses mobilise the counter-tradition of the aphorism that serves to punctuate critical theory. Critical thought condenses into speculative theses when it is distillation of the thetical and not explication of the certain that is required. Every time I return to Adorno’s Minima Moralia — that incomparable series of pointed reflections on the culture of fascism — I am lead to reflect upon how it is through the intimacy of the individuated aphorism that an incisive account of the uncertain event takes place. The individuated and speculative enunciation of the aphorism is all the more necessary, as it was for Adorno, when the massing of a mob mentality marks out personal lives for exclusion or worse. Like Adorno, with the pointilism of a necessarily unconcluded series of theses I have “intended to mark out points of attack or to furnish models for a future exertion of thought” (2002: 18). I have likewise, in similar ascetic spirit, undertaken a “renunciation of explicit theoretical cohesion.” There will be no conclusion because there can be nothing conclusively said about the ongoing.
• • •
1. Forced resurrections
GamerGate, pronounced dead in October 2014, haunts the internet like a ghost of misogyny past. As Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games depicts, mainstream videogaming has traditionally depicted virtual worlds where mythical figures of powerful masculinity dominate through violence and magic; where women are damsels in distress or sexualized objects for the male gaze. But rather than surrender these fictitious tropes to the past, GamerGate seeks to forcefully resurrect them as truths of the present. Far from a farce, its alarming mix of coordinated and lone wolf attacks on feminist and independent games developers, critics, and journalists — anyone and anything seen as questioning or critiquing its sacred realm of male gaze video games — remains a tragedy not only for gaming, but for net culture as a whole.
2. Sociotechnical totality
Granted that the “whole” of net culture encompasses the worldwide dissemination of mobile and other computing platforms, the impact of GamerGate must be understood not as a minor turf war on the internet, but as the symptom of a complex, transnational, and transcultural aggression that aims to reverse social and political gains made by racialized, marginalized, and othered genders and sexualities.
3. Hashtag harassment
“GamerGate”— a hashtag first invented by an actor, Adam Baldwin — is a fiction, a crafted appearance of a consumer revolt, a masquerade of angry masks. All of which does not make it any less real. It is an assemblage of multiple and at times competing interests. At the very least, its adherents are divided between those who are critical of games industry journalism — the majority of whom David Auerbach calls the “moderates” — and those whose primary interest appears to be an outright attack upon feminism in any shape or form. Moreover, GamerGate has become a bastion of advanced trolling. Such trolling both harms and helps GamerGate; the very harassment tactics that undermine the movement’s message (“ethics in games journalism!”) are also those precisely blamed upon trolls (“this wasn’t the real GamerGate!”). Trolling is undoubtedly deployed as a way to attack feminist targets while deflecting responsibility for doing so. At the same time, true trolls play in the fray. And undoubtedly (as Auerbach argues), GamerGate has become beset, if not plagued, by trolls. Yet GamerGate persists precisely because its adherents persist: because more than just trolls carry forth the hashtag. Because of this constitutive smokescreen of compositional confusion, any such sketches of GamerGate as an object of sociological study are necessarily preliminary, if not misleading, due to both its plasticity and the impossibility of observing the movements of GamerGate as a whole. Thus what is called “GamerGate” here is but a sign, a fictional construct, a signifier of a swarm, a kind of metaphor for the state of stateless, disassociated actors whom regardless of intentions or aims nonetheless produce entirely real effects of violence.
4. Ludic Agape
It is worth recalling that Anita Sarkeesian begins her the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series (“Damsels in Distress”) with the disclaimer to “remember that it’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its problematic or pernicious aspects” (my emphasis; 0:40–0:52). It’s a guilty pleasure, so to speak, to entertain fantasies of power and mythical violence. Such enjoyment is precisely what drives developers to produce virtual fantasies and for players to play them. Likewise, it is enjoyment that drives critique: it is out of love for gaming — and not some moralistic condemnation of gaming as but a “useless” fantasy — that one takes up the challenging task of deconstructing the tropes and narratives that dominate its sphere. This is the point made by Leigh Alexander and yet so often misunderstood: it is because gaming can be so much more than the narrow privileging of heteronormative male desire as a supposed universal fantasy — along with its passification of women as sexualized and distressed objects in need of rescue (or rape) — that “gamers are over.”
5. First with Farce
As another speculative philosopher of the future noted, he who controls the past, controls the future; and he who controls the present controls the past. Even if GamerGate has taken George Orwell’s strategy into account, it has failed to grasp his political point (or rather: GamerGate has always been at war with Oceania). GamerGate has tried to depict itself as a clean-cut consumer movement calling for “ethics in games journalism;” the only problem is that the internet archive bears witness to a detailed campaign of abuse and harassment that offers evidence only of decidingly unethical behaviour. Faced with the digital accumulation of personal testimony and reportage that debunks its propaganda, GamerGate has tried to rewrite history by strategically controlling the content of its Wikipedia page. Similar to its “ruin-life” campaigns against indie developers and games journalists, GamerGate has organised to discredit editors representing viewpoints critical of GamerGate’s self-spun history. GamerGate can only assert its historical (and epistemological) legitimacy by erasing the archives of dissent. The ensuing editorial battle over GamerGate’s Wikipedia page required the attention of the crowdsourced encyclopedia’s highest ruling body. Yet the troubling decision-making process of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee has revealed how deep the culture of misogyny runs through Silicon Valley: by purging several prominent (and feminist) Wikipedia editors from contributing to GamerGate and other articles related to gender, Wikipedia has tarnished its reputation as a (somewhat) reputable “people’s encyclopedia.”¹ And therein lies the real tragedy: that a farcical band of distraught, “angry young nerds” have managed to tragically undermine one of the internet’s very exemplars of collective achievement: the communal archive of the past itself.
6. Sacré Coeur (de Jeux)
Ryan Broderick has argued that GamerGate is but the lashing out of an “angry white nerd” culture that is staring down its increasing irrelevance. Faced with losing its assumed privilege of internet dominance to evolving forms of social media — such as Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest — where women, people of colour, and other marginalized groups have carved out alternative net cultures (even if under various umbrellas of consumerism), GamerGate and other antifeminist groups have taken it upon themselves to reclaim (as all reactionary groups do) the mantles of power by invoking “tradition.” Videogaming and its masculinist tropes appear to represent the very sacred heart of the amorphous GamerGate culture, its doxa of tradition; videogames, as the source of enjoyment and pleasure, are its halcyon days, when men were the ones mashing the buttons and women the pixellated damsels in need of rescue.
7. Propaganda Play
If GamerGate was actually concerned with ethics in games journalism, would it not examine the site where ethics is most strained — where, in short, videogaming is used, and abused, in morally questionable ways? To address this question, GamerGate would have to question its masters: it would have to confront how the games industry actively colludes with the military-industrial complex to weaponize videogaming as a military teaching tool and propagate its first person shooters as recruiting propaganda.²
Andersen and Kurti, for example, have argued that Call of Duty furthers a general militarization of society, fueling a cultural politics of enjoyment that rewards simulations of combat, particularly kills (see Andersen and Kurti 2009). Combat simulation has been developed in a reciprocal relationship to modern warfare. It was during the 1991 Gulf War that videogame interfaces were displayed to the public as a “surgical” means of deploying and guiding “smart bombs” (Berger 1996). The metaphors used to describe such “clinical” strikes evoked cleanliness and precision, as if medicalized signifiers could obscure murder. As Baudrillard dryly observed, in its televised surreality of click-deaths “the Gulf War did not take place” (1995). In the “War on Terror,” videogaming interfaces are similarly used to pilot armed drones, and drone pilots are likewise recruited from videogaming circles, thereby squaring the circle.³ The increasing blend of real to surreal in the militarized use of videogaming interfaces needs to be thought alongside the development of recruiting games such as America’s Army, which bluntly serves as US military propaganda. These activities all suggest ethical conflicts in the gaming industry. Various first person shooters employ military personnel to advise on gameplay. A troubling thesis emerges in all of these cases: for mass killing to take place, ethical distanciation is achieved through virtualization. If “gamer culture” stands at least in part for anti-establishment lulz — given that its underlying subcultures intersect libertarian and anti-authoritarian strains of hacktivism — then who programmed the lulz of gaming to always be on guard for the militarized nation-state?
8. Final Fantasy
GamerGate can only find limited success by deploying the only gaming method it has mastered: force. Its advertising boycotts of gaming review websites have repeatedly failed, if anything because the numbers speak for themselves: GamerGate’s “constituency” is no longer the dominant consumer force in gaming. Thus GamerGate’s turn against the distribution and production of games it deems transgressive of its masculinist status quo must be understood in this context: if GamerGate can block game development, reportage, and critique that tries to diversify and cater to a broader gaming audience, it can constrain gaming to a limited set of approved male gaze fantasies. Ultimately, such a containment operation cannot succeed. But in the short term, the effects can be extraordinarily damaging. GamerGate has intensified its efforts at blocking games development and distribution by (women) games developers. One of GamerGate’s most vilified targets is Giant SpaceKat indie games developer Brianna Wu. Though GamerGate tried to downvote Wu’s Revolution 60 on Steam’s Greenlight, the game garnered winning support within sixty hours. But such success must be balanced against the ongoing death threats Wu receives, forcing her out of her home and to cancel a tradeshow appearance at PAX East. The virtual outburst of GamerGate’s antifeminist fantasy must be held to account for the actual violence it wrecks upon lives and careers — as well as the damage it does to a future, still to-come, in which all kinds of games, and gamers, are welcome.
Adorno, Theodor. 2002 . Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso.
Andersen, Robin and Marin Kurti. 2009. “From America’s Army to Call of Duty: Doing Battle with the Military Entertainment Complex.” Democratic Communiqué 23:1 (Spring): <http://www.lib.sfu.ca/sites/default/files/10730/cmns130_enda_scholarlyarticle.pdf>.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1995. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Trans. Paul Patton. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
1. Wikipedia has sought to clarify ArbCom’s “disciplinary” actions, arguing it has not “purged” any editors. Rather, Wikipedia has stated that while Arbcom may censure certain editors, it will not ban them from the site entirely. Such a defence, given the overt manipulation of Wikipedia’s ArbCom by an organised internet mob conducting systemic harassment campaigns, falls incredibly short.
2. It should be noted to any would-be commentator that critiquing war games (first person shooters or otherwise) does not mean calling for a ban upon them. This particular but by no means unique author has been an active player of FPS sims since Wolfenstein 3D. If one is to critically consider “ethics” in the games industry, it must begin with a radical critique of one’s own beliefs, desires, and fantasies. This does not mean censuring manufactured desire, but acknowledging (and countering) the powerful interests that seek to control it as a means to control you. The virtual world is limitless: there’s room for everyone in the field of fantasy.
3. For the similarities and differences to piloting a drone and playing a videogame, see the documentary DRONE (2014). In particular, see this excerpt. For media reportage, see “On the frontlines with US drone pilots” (Guardian, 2014) and “Turning video gamers into the ultimate drone pilots” (CBCNews). For differing opinions from military personnel, see “Air Force Drone Pilots Say Their Job Is Nothing Like a Video Game” (Kotaku 2012) and “Drone Pilots Say Their Job Is Not Like A Video Game” (Business Insider 2012). While the former articles ought to be carefully read for their sensationalization of videogaming as a militarized form of warfare, the latter articles deserve significant scrutiny for the role they play as military propaganda, for the purposes of assuaging public fears over the documented use of video games for military indoctrination.