Emma Vossen is a third year PhD student at the University of Waterloo and the Commentaries editor at FPS. She specializes in depictions of gender, sexuality, and the body in comics, video games, and pornography.
What the Heck is Happening in Games Right Now?
August was a terrible month to be a games critic. It was a terrible month to be a minority who plays games, an indie game developer, or a games journalist. It was an especially bad month to be a woman working in or around the games industry. So far, September hasn’t been any better. I’ve tried waiting for the dust to settle, but it’s been like the “dirty thirties” on social media and gaming websites day in and day out for over a month now. The games industry is well known as a male-dominated field, and in recent years, the profile of this issue has been raised quite substantially as various gaming websites and organizations have made an effort to increase the number of women making, playing, and talking about games. This massive change in the culture of gaming has not gone unnoticed. In the past month, swathes of people have come forward to speak out against “new types of games” and games journalism that have appeared in recent years with an eye to issues of representation and diversity. Sometimes it’s hard for me to fathom that other people see regression where I see progress: in games journalism, in games distribution, in games themselves, and within the study of games as cultural objects. These voices that want games to stay the same have been around forever, but this month they’ve been better organized and much more targeted. Traveling the internet under the hashtags #quinnspiracy and #GamerGate, these groups are aiming their anger at a perceived lack of “ethics” in what they call “games journalism,” as well as towards women working in games. A few women have taken the majority of the heat on this, including but not limited to: game developer Zoe Quinn, the creator of Tropes vs Women in Games, Anita Sarkeesian, and Games journalism Prize 2013 winner Jenn Frank.
The GamerGate controversy was spurred by the assertion that Quinn obtained her critical success in the gaming industry by faking harassment and using personal connections for her own gain, which was seen as the tipping point for games fans who did not like the direction games were heading in. These same fans first became concerned when they noticed the movement towards critiquing the depiction of women in games – which they saw as being led primarily by Sarkeesian’s web series Tropes vs Women in Video Games. Fans then became convinced that such criticisms were ruining the industry that they have done so much to support and foster over the years. Many independent games that are seeing critical success in recent years do not reflect what has been traditionally seen in a standard video game, in terms of gender tropes. Many fans criticize these independent games created by feminist developers on the grounds that they are “not games,” or that they are achieving success and critical recognition through unethical means. They also believe that such games gain large followings because of their feminist and/or otherwise liberal politics and not due to merit. Many accusations such as these have been lobbed at Quinn’s game Depression Quest. The secondary concern that these fans seem to have is that the journalism being produced around explicitly feminist games is corrupt because of friendships, relationships, and financial support between games writers and journalists and indie game developers. Journalists who know Quinn or have supported her career in any way are seen as having a conflict of interest when reviewing or talking about Depression Quest.
All of this has inspired the idea that there is some sort of “conspiracy” going on in gaming journalism, when realistically, what we are witnessing is artists of various types supporting each other in ways that are alternatives to the traditional capitalist systems of making and distributing games, a practice that has taken place in the communities surrounding other art forms for years. One example of this, from my own research, is the underground comics movement. The creators of new and exciting content with more diverse authors and artists had to develop their own support systems, networks, and self-publishing systems outside of the comics industry. Indie game developers and freelance journalists are now using tools like Patreon, Steam, and Kickstarter to do the same, creating and fostering a diverse zinester atmosphere within gaming. These artists are not making a large profit, or usually any profit; they are simply trying to make a little something for their experimental games, or, alternatively, their games writing. These are the types of games that are both challenging and changing the medium and pushing it forward as an artform.
There is a desire for journalists to make public all of their connections with game devs (specifically indie game devs) in order to create a type of journalistic objectivity or integrity. You can see here that this video discussing the topic refers to this time of writing as “yellow gaming journalism and professional victimhood”. I don’t know what to call the opposing side of this debate other than “gamergaters”, or GGers for short, but my side of the debate is often characterized as either “yellow” or, more popularly, “social justice warriors” (SJWs) or just the (ostensibly) pejorative “video game feminists”. Social Justice Warriors itself is an interesting label, as it initially doesn’t sound negative (yes I do fight for social justice! Thank you!), but realistically, it is just the contemporary version of “feminazi” updated to the more inclusive “social justice” to keep up with intersectional feminist politics that are also concerned about issues of race, class, ability, and sexuality as well as gender. When they use the term “Feminist” in a derogatory way it mocks us only for caring about gender politics. Social Justice Warrior on the other hand mocks us for caring about diversity and inclusivity more broadly. This idea has also been broadened from feminazi or other similar terms that referred only to women to include men concerned about the same issues, who you will often seen called “white knights,” a derogatory term often used by gamers to mock someone who stands up for or agrees with a woman on the internet. Again, I need to reiterate that White Knight, Feminist, and Social Justice Warrior are all considered insults.
I don’t know what more to say in a summary of the events other than this: There is no conspiracy. And if there was, it would be made up of a group of gamers using their desire for “journalistic integrity” as a front for their campaign to expel women (and the journalists and publications that support diversity in gaming) from the gaming community. I won’t give anymore details as to the events of the past month, because not only is there way too much to cover, but many other sites have summarized this information already. If you don’t know anything about the harassment campaign and their “beefs” with Quinn and other “corrupt” games workers, you can read about it here, and here and here. Also if you want to read Quinn’s awesome Cracked article reflecting on the passed month “5 Things I learned as The Internet’s Most Hated Person” you can fly over here. If you want to see a great summary of the actual chat logs used to plan and organize the campaign against Quinn – including conversations about how to “get Zoe to commit suicide,” you can see them here. . Trigger warnings abound, obviously.
The chaos that has ensued on twitter, tumblr, 4chan, reddit, and comment sections everywhere contains organized harassment campaigns, including but not limited to real life protests of games journalism, boycotts of certain gaming websites, web documentaries outlining the conspiracy, hacking and doxing the personal accounts of women in gaming, and threats of physical harm against these women. All of these actions indicate one thing: there is officially a mass hysteria over what I am going to call the “feminization of games”.
Feminization is a word that holds a lot of weight, and I am not using it lightly. It does not simply mean being more associated with women; it means taking on the characteristics of something feminine, which, when you take it one step further, often means taking on the characteristics of something that is considered by society to be “bad”, or at the very least, “less than.” As John Vanderhoef explains in his article on the topic “there has been a long history of linking mainstream or popular culture with the feminine for the purpose of denigrating both.” “Playing like a girl” is considered an insult, and many gamers seem to see the idea of catering to women as the ultimate negative result of “yellow” games journalism and Social Justice Warriors. Games that appeal to women who don’t typically play games, such as Candy Crush or Farmville, have long been feminized (and demonized) as “casual games.” You can often see GamerGate comments, videos or other articles that make reference to games like Gone Home (my absolute favourite game of the last year), as an example of how “shit games” or “non-games” have received a lot of critical success because of their politics and not because they were simply great games. For myself, the feminization of games has had positive consequences. First and foremost, it has resulted in there being a consideration of women as significant audience members when developing games, which can be seen in interviews and talks given by writers at Bioware. Furthermore, games journalism has evolved to see myself, a women, as a member of its audience when writing reviews! Well, sometimes at least. A lot has changed since I started playing games twenty years ago. This is something we can all agree on, yet the dividing point has to do with the reception of these changes.
To the detractors, the feminization of games is creating an environment where they feel as if the games they want (and have always had) cannot coexist with the integration of women who want something different. As Vanderhoef explains, casual games have “become discursive representations of passive consumption and femininity for hardcore gamers and as a result are treated by a significant number in the gaming community as either threatening because they supposedly herald the end of so-called hardcore games or irrelevant because casual games do not count as legitimate game experiences.” I would extend these assertions to the ways in which the GamerGate audience views many personal or indie games (Gone Home and Depression Quest to name two), as well as how they view games journalism addressing games that are perceived as feminine, e.g. in terms of difficulty, reception, impact, politics, representations of race, ability, sexuality or gender. This fear and panic can be seen very clearly in the viral video made by the “Internet Aristocrat” that was widely circulated across twitter and other social media platforms in the past few weeks as part of the campaign against Zoe Quinn. The original video, which the author has expressed people are free to mirror and copy as much as possible, has been viewed 853,036 times (and counting). He explains:
“Gaming journalism has reached a low point over the past five years, it started with pieces that had nothing to do with gaming or game reviews, nothing to do with software or hardware, nothing to do with events or expos. It started to travel off into the areas of social justice and feminism, and opinion pieces and op eds that had nothing to do with gaming. It started to have authors who were condemning the gaming audience as being sexist and misogynistic, as being racist and bigoted, as being overly violent rapists. You can see this on Kotaku, and Rock Paper Shotgun, on Destructoid, on the Escapist, on any website you can name this has been transpiring for the last five years and over the years it seems more and more these outlier pieces have become the standard and that the narrative put forward within them has become more cohesive like a talking point targeted at us as the audience. And there is a reason for that, and Zoe Quinn and what’s happening over the last three days helps to point that out. That’s why this is important and needs to be talked about. It has nothing to do with her as a person and her relationship”
The type of games scholarship and criticism that the author of this video goes on to cite is what I read on a daily basis: writing that examines games, but is also concerned about the progress of games as a medium and an art and the diversity and representations within said pieces of art. The author of the video goes on to talk about preserving the purity of gaming journalism by getting rid of the type of writing that I have been so relieved to see over the past five years, and the type of writing that made it possible for me to find a space for myself in games culture and game studies. One of the many problems with examining games in a vacuum, in game studies or in games journalism, is that it perverts the idea of objectivity towards those who see no problems with the content. As Rock Paper Shotgun put it in their amazing piece about everything that has recently transpired, “just talking about the games, without questioning anything, is you taking a political stance on games because it amounts saying that you completely accept the games at face value. Your stance on their politics is: this is fine. You can’t just talk about the games, because they can’t be pulled apart from the ideas and circumstances that brought them into being. You can ignore problems, or just not see them, and that’s okay. But if you talk about games, you talk about politics.”
This is all to say, talking about “just the game” is not objective, it is your subjective opinion of what “matters” to you as someone who is not concerned with the “politics” of what I am concerned with. We are finally hearing from women who play games, but their voices are not being welcomed by all. It is because of this that we have seen a huge surge of internet harassment of women working in gaming, the hope being that maybe, by hacking their accounts or sharing their personal information, women in gaming like Sarkeesian or Quinn (or the women who admire such prominent feminists) will quit games. The unfortunate thing is that because of GamerGate, it’s working. The common cause of fighting for “ethics” and “transparency” in videogames journalism has allowed for a cover and common “cause” large enough for the GGers to make a negative difference in the lives of women working in games. Some people on the GamerGate side may not be harassing women but they are for sure making it easy for the ones who are. This widely shared graphic for example states outright “This has nothing to do with race, gender or orientation. This is about corruption and collusion in the videogames industry”. I encourage you to read the rest of this graphic to see how misguided the barebones of this movement is. They insist that games are “creative endeavors by their creators” but also insist that “games should not be politicized to further an agenda. Nor should their creators, or consumers, be pressured to change against their will”. Creativity and politics are seen as antithetical here instead of going hand in hand. Many involved truly believe they are doing the “ethical” thing by insisting on this agenda which (as opposed to feminism) is not seen as an agenda but as a sort of state of normalcy. Because of this mass pressure, harassment, and negative attention women working in games have become concerned for their safety and emotional well being. Women are dropping out of the industry like flies, and no one can possibly blame them.
One approach to dealing with this harassment is to ignore the perpetrators or to characterize them as crazy, as children, as trolls, or as just not worth fretting about. I don’t agree with this strategy one bit. As Jenn Frank put it, “the people who have abused and threatened Anita Sarkeesian are not anomalous, are not sociopaths. They are ordinary — albeit anonymous — masses of people, admitting online what they’d like to say aloud. They are not all little boys. Many are adults. Some are women.” She also goes on to say:
“We turn a blind eye toward those superfans. ‘The lowest of the low,’ we nod, ‘the vocal minority! Don’t feed the trolls.’ What we mean is, That’s not me. I know I am a good person. Those people aren’t my problem.”
Yet, it is our problem. It is always, and has always been, and always will be our “problem.” We need to acknowledge the real life effects of shitty people. If we simply say, “oh, those idiots – forget about them – listen to reasonable me instead,” we are missing the point. This is the problem with “don’t read the comments” rhetoric: on an individual level, it is an act of self-preservation, but on the mass level it becomes an ignorance to the depths of the problem. We can’t in one breath say that commenter’s opinions aren’t worth even looking at, and in the next, wonder, “who are these crazy people sending death and rape threats to women?” We can’t characterize them as gross Morlocks that live in another world underground and go about our innocent Eloi existence. We can’t simply ignore them because we are being individually pulled underground and eaten alive. If we keep turning a blind eye to what is happening down there in the comments and letting them run free, people are going to continue to be shocked at who is hacking their email and threatening their livelihood. This is why you hear things like, “who are these people, anyway?” or the worst, “you can’t be offended by stuff like that because they are just trolling you.” “Othering” the harassers by calling them trolls or children or any other variety of names undermines the very real threat that these individuals present – especially when they organize. They are not just trolls, they are other humans who pose a real threat to women in the games industry and I don’t think ignoring them is the solution. Disabling comments or highly moderating comments is great, but we also need to all be on the same page when we acknowledge that a death threat (or a rape threat or a any other type of harassment) on the internet is a real life threat even if it was “intended” as a joke, or worse, a “troll”.
Now, a month after this all started, it is not only journalists being targeted. The GGers have moved on to examining and attacking academics and industry professionals, and specifically, efforts that have taken place in education to either help improve representation in games and games culture, by industry professionals working together. A lot of this concern has centred around DiGRA (Digital Games Research Association) and the discussion that happened there concerning diversity in gaming. After acquiring
the transcripts1 notes taken during a discussion at an academic conference, the conclusion seems to be that the conspiracy is “clear” when listening to us talk about how to improve games. One video that gives a blow-by-blow of the panel (and mentions FPS directly) has this description: “The smoky-room Communist meetings in gaming actually exist, they’re just done in the brightly-lit halls of academia.” The video gives a lengthy description of female academics whom I respect greatly working in games, and concludes that “at best this is naked collusion between feminism infected academia and social justice press in an attempt to pressure developers and gamers and manipulate their method of thinking and at worst it’s an outright conspiracy.” To be clear, we aren’t conspiring or manipulating, we are directly stating that we want to improve representation in games, and we want to make marginalized people feel more comfortable. It isn’t a secret. And, we are not “colluding” with the press; they simply agree with us. What more is there to see here that I am somehow missing it? It would be nice to say, “oh, this guy is crazy and no one will take him seriously”, but the video has been viewed over 28,800 times and the comments are all positive. One commenter laments “Cultural marxist brainstorming…Where is Joe McCarthy when you need him?” and another makes reference to Samantha Allen’s exit from the industry and comments:
“In the real world, this would be called cowardice. If you cannot take some dissenting voices talking down to you than you do not belong in the industry. You SJW cunts have already done enough to warp and damage the industry that I love. So either grow a fucking spine or go away. You are not wanted or needed.”
This comment had a score of +89.
What I am trying to say here is this harassment has become about more than just games or just journalism. It has become about an overall clash of ideologies fuelled by anti-intellectualism and misogyny. Conferences where academics and like-minded industry professionals come together are considered Communist “hot beds” and large corporations are considered vestiges of pure intention. We have come to a total standstill.
Not Your Shield: You are Shielding the Harassers
So, the problem with me saying all of this is that I don’t have a clear solution. Ignoring them doesn’t work, engaging them doesn’t work, so all we can really do is stick together and keep making it known that the behaviours we are seeing are unacceptable. First off, we can try not to undermine the fear or concern people are having about the issue: meaning, don’t accuse people of “faking” or “exaggerating” harassment. Most importantly, please dear god do not derail conversations about harassment. I think this is one of the biggest problems we have seen with GG. There is a movement within GG called “not your shield” who, unlike many GGers, support diversity in gaming and are not involved in any hacking, doxing or threats. They are called “not your shield” because they don’t feel like the SJWs speak for them personally as women, queer people, or people of color who support GamerGate. The idea was to express that GG was a diverse movement not simply made up of straight white men, but also to hammer home that GG is not about sexism or gender, it is about ethics in games and games journalism. Again i’ll draw your attention to that graphic from earlier which features the Not Your Shield hashtag. One article explains:
“#NotYourShield was a collective movement of minorities of all ages and types, stating that they were not oppressed by a straight, white male patriarchy; that they had their own voice and that they were not a shield to be silently used in order for gaming media – and those that gaming media represents – to push an agenda.”
They are the “moderates” in this debate, but are also one of the reasons why the dust won’t settle, why the harassment seemingly hasn’t stopped. They believe that the misogyny of GamerGate is not present, and instead believe that SJWs are using feminism as a “shield” to protect themselves for the accusations of wrong-doing. The NYS group has been compiling information on various people working in the games industry who they have identified as SJWs, and who they believe are part of the GG conspiracy or general nefarious activity. Sometimes, you will see them state that they are sure some of these people are innocent, and that they are simply making connections and aren’t trying to imply guilt. Yet, when you list someone’s name and expose them to the GG movement at large, you become responsible for the harassment that they receive. Even if you personally are only looking at documents readily available on the internet, even if you aren’t approving of the harassment, and even if you are not claiming the people you list are guilty, you are exposing them to the GGers who will harass them, who will dox them, who will hack their accounts. You may not be targeting women specifically, but that doesn’t mean that the larger movement isn’t doing just that. You may not want women to flee the games industry, but others do. You may not see yourself as a bully, or you might not be the bully whose punches are connecting directly to these victims, but you are the one pushing these people directly into the laps of the harassers.
Maybe these people you name are never even harassed, maybe they simply quit games after being “implicated” by you because they fear the harassment they may receive. Not everyone is blessed with thick skin, and no one should have that be the only reason they stay working in games. I understand you care passionately about games, and so do we, but there are some things that are simply more important than the state of games and games journalism. People’s livelihood, careers, personal well-being and physical safety are all at stake here. How selfish are we, if we are more concerned about games journalism then making the harassment stop? I don’t think I can convince you that there is no conspiracy, I don’t think I can convince you all that us at FPS, or the Games Institutes, or GI Janes, or the University of Waterloo aren’t part of that conspiracy. But maybe I can convince you to join us in defending the women who are being harassed from other GGers. Even if you do believe in the conspiracy, you must agree that they don’t deserve to be scared from their homes, to be harassed day in and day out, to have their bodies be degraded online. Please take the energy you have spent digging into “possible” connections between academics, journos and the industry, and turn it towards protecting people and distancing yourselves from the larger GGer movement. Ethics is the issue here. Take you concern about ethics and turn your focus just slightly, even just for a moment. You don’t have to be a Social Justice Warrior to see that there is something wrong here. Games culture is toxic and we are all just trying to fix it.
Just this week the worlds most famous indie game developer Notch sold his company and game MineCraft to Microsoft. He wrote a letter stating that he was leaving his company for various reasons but partly because he recently was caught up in a twitter storm when “the internet exploded with hate against me” over Minecraft’s EULA. He didn’t appreciate all the attention and states that he is going to go back to making small fun games and that “If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.” Notch explains that he knows he is often seen as “a symbol of some perceived struggle” but insists he is “a person, and I’m right there struggling with you.” He concludes his exit from the limelight by saying the sale to Microsoft is “not about the money. It’s about my sanity.” It seems that is what a lot of the recent flood of resignations is about: privileging sanity over money. I hate to make Notch into a symbol all over again but I think this message is so important. Notch is a human, Anita is a human, Zoe is a human. Everyone working in games is simply a human trying to make games, write about games or even just improve games because they love games. We are not political robots trying to further a global feminist takeover. We are just people who want to feel safe and happy. We all can agree there is something wrong with games culture. Let’s also agree that you can’t fix the toxicity in games culture by harassing people in prominent positions on either side. Because culture is made up of the actions of each and every one of us we can only fix gaming culture by changing our own actions. Games culture is toxic. Even for a man who is beloved by his fans like Notch it is toxic. Many gamers seem to feel a sense of entitlement to a say on the actions of everyone working in games. They feel they are entitled to some control or influence over the actions of individual people and the way they make and talk about games. But the thing is none of us are entitled to any of that. Yes, you have been playing games a long time, so have I, but that simply makes you a person who plays games. Companies, writers, and games websites don’t owe us anything as consumers. If you don’t like what you see, write your own reviews, make your own games and leave these critics and developers alone. Be the change you want to see in the world and we will do the same.
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