Liz Ryerson is an independent game designer, composer, writer, and digital artist. Her work aims to re-evaluate the ways we experience and understand digital spaces – and examine the strange, forgotten threads of game history that might lead us into new territory. Her game ‘Problem Attic’ explores the troubled psychological landscapes of its protagonist through willful abstraction and unconventional game design choices.
First Person Scholar Highlights are a way for us to boost the visibility of the excellent games writing on the web. These are (in our humble opinion) timely, thought-provoking, and well-argued pieces that contribute significantly to the tenor and tone of existing games discourse. This inaugural Highlight is “On ‘Gamers’ and Identity,” a blog post (cross-posted, with permission, from Liz Ryerson’s excellent blog) that does an incredible job of navigating the personal in constellation with broader social and theoretical contexts surrounding the recent controversies in the videogame industry. If you enjoyed this commentary, please consider contributing to Liz’s Patreon.
On ‘Gamers’ And Identity
(this is, in part, a continuation of my “on right-wing videogame extremism” post from a couple weeks ago)
when i was in sixth grade, shortly after the Columbine shooting happened, i remember having a strange conversation with my mom. after seeing a report on TV, i said something like “i just don’t understand why these school shootings….” before awkwardly trailing off, unsure what i was trying to say. she asked, completing my thought “you don’t understand why they happen so often?” i paused briefly, thinking, and then replied “no, i don’t understand why they don’t happen all the time.”
disillusionment was an everyday reality in rural Ohio, where i grew up. i felt it as a tremendously overwhelming truth, a constant feeling of being trapped in an infinite sea of identical houses, churches, fast food. this sea was constantly breeding fear and paranoia, and the communities that did exist here all seemed to be religious and usually relied on making members of their community feel terrible as possible. i didn’t want to have anything to do with them. but there was a thing for someone like me, who wasn’t very into Christianity and didn’t feel very connected to her body and didn’t want to damage it through drug use. you could easily find some connection to other people in the area through media and, in particular, videogames. i remember my deep, knowing nod when a friend’s coworker at a bar in Ohio simply responded with “Mario 3” after i told him i liked videogames. it was this great universal truth i immediately understood. even in the biggest cultural wastelands, geek culture seems to flourish somewhere – through Magic: The Gathering tournaments or local game stores, even sometimes at places like Walmart. when there is nothing else to base your identity on or invest creative energy in, things like videogames easily become your life. they’re a drug, the thing that keeps you going, feeling free, feeling connected to people, and feeling like you’re someone.
being a “gamer” becomes your identity.
“‘gamers’ are over” is a sentiment i’ve seen circulated around a lot in the past week or so in response to the horrible misogyny and threats that have come out of this whole#gamergate thing, but i think it might just be talking around the heart of this issue. i don’t blame anyone in the press or game devs for feeling unsafe, feeling angry and losing their patience, even quitting games. but the constant harping on gamers as ‘entitled manbabies’ (while perhaps true in one way) is just using the same old lazy language employed against games in popular culture and misses out a lot of the dynamics that are actually going on here. (not to mention calling them insane or deluded or deranged uses the same sort of tactics the harassers use on women). the disillusionment people on the gamergate hashtag people feel is real – one borne out of the industry’s bloat and creative stagnancy, the sudden turns towards social consciousness in the media, a loss of a feeling of greater ‘consensus’ in game culture because of the splintering of media and, especially, feelings of inaccessibility into spaces that are now influencing game culture at large.
Cameron Kunzelman’s frustrated conclusion after engaging with a #gamergate tweeter is telling: “It seems to me that the participants in #gamergate are all there for different reasons and that it is mostly an accidental coalition that has formed out of a sense of being wronged.” the aforementioned long, rambling conversation between him and #gamergate tweeter Adam Haux which was mostly about game reviews, ended in this exchange:
many of us connected to games see many details #gamergaters have espoused about the connections between game journalists and game devs as comical (because of how little they understand how much everyone is actually connected), random, or arbitrary. this well-circulated graphic linked by Gameranx editor Ian Miles Cheong (supposedly from 4chan), for example, lists SJW (social justice warrior) game journalists to boycott. the reasoning behind this list seems arbitrary and to only have a surface awareness of what’s happening, as there are women writers who have written socially-themed articles for those websites that are not included, whereas some other people on there might have never written any socially-themed articles for said websites at all, or have poor reputations for it (ala Ben Kuchera).
in this one (via Leigh Alexander, apparently taken from a #gamergate tweeter though i can’t find the original source), people in the games press are linked together, often with barely tangential, small threads. some of the information on here is probably not true. i, for one, do not fund Jenn Frank on Patreon (but i might start!).
at heart of this mapping, however arbitrary, there is the idea that a group of people they have no real access to or influence with is changing videogame culture. this is, in fact, exactly what is happening. they may be ignoring the obvious, ever-present problems that continue to plague videogame culture and culture at large, like (male) friends hiring or awarding (other male) friends. or the persistent problems of inaccessibility and exclusionin indie game circles i’ve talked about in previous articles. or, even more present, the game industry’s buying out of the press which has been a documented controversy for years (which Lana Polansky talks about in her recent piece on payola), most notably embodied in the Kane And Lynch review scandal from 2007, or how way the “Doritogate” controversy brought to light the “tragic, vuglar image” of game journalist’s relationship with game companies of two years ago. these are real issues that have been affecting the industry for a long time, but they’re not ones that this group seems to pay much attention to or care about.
instead, they’re choosing to focus on deeply misogynistic conspiracy narratives of lone manipulative women or queer people using their sexual prowess to manipulate and define who gets recognition or awards. and these narratives are made even more bizarre with their intersections to much deeper and more pervasive conflicts of interest that veer hard right, seemingly for no logical reason, towards deep misogyny. many of these people, like the guy who made the above video, might be frustrated gamers rushing to take advantage of this whole controversy while it’s still in the cultural consciousness and find an audience for themselves. women and LGBT people are the already strongly established outside interlopers to their culture, and slut-shaming and victim blaming are deeply ingrained past-times in the language of pop culture. so the sudden presence in the media is taken as the most obvious explanation.
let’s be honest – the industry has failed “gamers” because our culture has failed them. for me, being in a place like rural Ohio was so tremendously unempowering, and made me feel so much like i was so far from being able to ever influence the larger culture that i felt like i at least deserved the videogames everyone else i grew up around seemed to get to cope with all of it. that feeling, like you’re “owed” media, is the default response of our culture to not being able to exercise any kind of other real autonomy or control over any other aspects of your life. critical personalities who cynically evaluate media from entitled perspectives like Yahtzee Croshaw or TotalBiscuit or JonTron, therefore, speak tremendously to these sense of values and shared culture. other popular media constantly reinforces and echoes these ideas until they become a phenomenon, a consensus, a way of looking at your existence, and when pushed, a venue of life and death.
i’m worried, as always, venturing into writing about this subject again. the problem is that those private gardens of videogames are no longer merely private gardens, but real, tangible territory with real causalities – where real harassment, doxxing, hacking, and violence happens. fantasizing about committing acts of violence on the people who you perceive to be the architects of your misery is one of our grotesque cultural pastimes, one that the culture of aggressively-masculine marketing around videogames has certainly only just added fuel of the fire of – one that’s constantly enacted on the beings and bodies of the weak and marginalized.
and yes, i remember how ridiculous the rhetoric about violence in videogames around an event like Columbine was to me as a sixth grader, how they don’t understand how abstracted and silly the violence in a game like Doom was, how it was all simulated, how little of a basic understanding they had of how games work. but as those debates have largely dissipated over the years, videogames have only become more violent, have only ventured much further into simulated realism meant to more convincingly substitute for a disappointing and disempowering reality, have only catered much more deeply and pervasively to the entitlements of their users, and have only become more ingrained and ever-present in culture. where we stand now, videogames have deeply entrenched themselves as the primary venue for disempowered people to elect themselves as servants and act out the sociopathic fantasies of the ruling class. videogames literally train soldiers. if you feel disillusioned, if you feel not particularly smart or skilled, videogames are there. no surprise, then, that this learned rhetoric is further blurring the lines between fantasy and reality and creating a battleground in such a seemingly arbitrary part of popular media. no surprise that this battleground is very real.
the problem is these violent impulses are self-destructive at their core. they’re not actions of autonomous actors, they’re culturally programmed. they’re the impulses of a suicide bomber throwing himself into a crowd of people. they’re deeply emotional, deeply disconnected, and deeply afraid of what’s happening in the world – and that’s what makes them scary, and very real. and that’s why we need to see them for what they are – fear, and understand how and why they’re deeply intertwined with our culture.
if we want this stuff to go away and stop being a problem, in whatever form it takes, then we need to be able to map the source of it, to provide context, and to understand that at some fundamental level we’re all in this together.