A couple of nights ago, I got up to go to the bathroom. Still only partially awake, I flushed and stumbled back to bed, only to hear the gushing sounds of the toilet overflowing. I seriously considered just letting it keep going, but I did a U-turn and went back to plunge out the blockage and sop up the mess with towels.
That’s how I feel about writing about what’s going on with what has stupidly become known as “Gamergate” in the last month or so. (The title itself flatters the pretensions of the worst people drawn to it.) I really don’t want to, I’ve been trying to avoid it, but this whole thing is not going to go away. The truth is, for those of us who know both the medium and its audiences, the last month is not a sudden rupture that changed everything. It’s just an unveiling of a long-festering set of wounds.
That dense nest of pain and abuse raises such complex feelings and interpretations in me. I hardly know where to begin. I’m just going to set out some separate thoughts and hope that they ultimately connect with one another.
1) If there is such a thing as “a gamer”, meaning someone defined in part by their affinity for video and computer games as a cultural form, I’m a gamer. Games have been as important to me as both a leisure activity and a source of inspiration and imagination as books. Before I ever venture any deeper into the stakes of Gamergate, my most elemental reaction is raw disgust with other gamers who have the unmitigated arrogance to represent their feelings, their reactions, their ugliness as “what gamers think”, as if they’re the “us” being put upon by some other “them”. On several forums that I used to frequent before this last month, I’ve had the displeasure of reading other long-time participants anoint themselves as the representative voice of “gamers”. My first impulsive thought is always, “Look here, sonny jim, I was playing Colossal Cave Adventure on the campus network in 1983, and Apple Trek on an Apple IIe when you weren’t even a lustful thought in your parents’ minds, so don’t say anything about what real gamers think. I didn’t vote for you. You don’t represent me. You don’t represent most of the people who play games.”
2) As a result of my background, at academic meetings about digital culture and games, I’ve often identified myself, somewhat jokingly, as a “native informant” rather than a scholar who comes to games as an object of study with no prior affinity for them. (Which of course earned me a pious, self-righteous correction at one meeting from a literary scholar who wasn’t aware that I also work on African history about how I might not know that the word ‘native’ has a complex history…) In that role, I’ve often found myself suggesting that there were insider or “emic” ways to understand the content and experience of game and gameplaying that many scholars rode roughshod over in their critique of that content. In particular, I’ve tried to suggest that there are dangers to reductive readings that only take an interest in games as a catalog of racialized or gendered tropes whose meaning is held to be understood simply from the act of cataloging. Equally, I’ve observed that seeing games as directly conditioning the everyday social practices and ideologies of their audiences (particularly in the case of violence) is both demonstrably wrong as an empirical argument and is also a classic kind of bourgeois moral panic about the social effects of new media forms, something that often leads to empowering the state or other forms of authority in very undesirable ways. I’ve argued, and still would argue, that at least some kinds of mobilizations through social media against racist or sexist culture are both too simplistic in their interpretations of content and counterproductive in their political strategies. I’m not going to stop arguing that certain kinds of cultural activism are stuck on looking for soft targets, that they avoid the agonizingly difficult and painstaking work of social transformation.
But this is another reason I hate the people associated with “Gamergate”. They are working hard to prove me wrong in all sorts of ways. I’d still argue that the kind of tropes that Anita Sarkeesian has intelligently catalogued are subverted, ignored or reworked by the large majority of players, but it seems pretty undeniable at this point that there is a group of male gamers whose devotion to those tropes is deeply ideological in the most awful ways and that it absolutely informs the way they think of themselves across the broad spectrum of their social lives, including their real relationships to women. It seems pretty undeniable at this point that there are men who identify as “gamers” who are willing to threaten and harm simply to protect what they themselves articulate as a privileged relationship to gaming.
3) But then, my protestations about complexity have always been checked by my own experience as a game-player and as an academic thinking about games. I’ve always known that the “Gamergate” types were out there in considerable numbers. Ethnographic studies of game culture have been thinking about this issue for years. Players themselves have been thinking and talking about it, every time they’ve tried to think of ways to defeat griefing, ways to keep female players from being harrassed, ways to make more people feel comfortable in game environments.
In one of my essays for the now-defunct group blog Terra Nova, I noted how odd it was to find myself in virtual worlds like Ultima Online and World of Warcraft playing alongside teenagers and adult men that I intuitively recognized as the kind of people who had bullied me when I was a kid. Profane, aggressive, given to casually denigrating or insulting others, enjoying causing other people inconvenience and even real emotional pain, crudely racist, gleefully sexist. Not all of them were all of that, but many of them were at least some of that. In many environments, there were enough men like that to ensure that everyone else stayed away, or avoided many of the supposed affordances of multiplayer gaming. But maybe this is part of the problem, that geeks and nerds, especially those of us who identified that way back when it got you a lot of contempt and made you a target for bullies, convinced themselves that being victimized automatically conferred some kind of virtue you on you. Maybe the problem is that I and others always felt that “Barrens chat” was the work of some Other who had infiltrated our Nerd Havens, when in fact it was always coming from inside the room. I remember once in junior high school when the jocks were bullying a mentally disabled kid by shoving him inside the shed where all the equipment was kept and then holding the door closed on him. They yelled for a couple of the geeky kids, including me, to come help them keep the door shut while the boy cried and banged and tried to get out. And it was so uncharacteristic for the jocks to ask us to join in that we almost did it just out of relief at being included.
Being a target doesn’t vaccinate you against being an abuser later on. In fact, it creates for some gamers a justification for indulgent kinds of lulz-seeking bad behavior, a sort of lethal combination of narcissistic anarchism with the sort of revenge-fantasy thinking that’s normally only found in the comic-book monologues of supervillains.
4) What I’ve seen since “Gamergate” became a thing is that some of the older male gamers who have always been clear that they were just as annoyed by subliterate teenager brogamers on XBox Live, that they also hated griefers and catasses in MMOs, that they also think badly of the most creepy posters on Reddit, lots of these guys who postured as being the reasonable opponents of extremists of any kind, have turned out not at all the disinterested or moderate influence they imagine themselves to be. I’ve watched guys who claim to think that everyone’s being overexcited by this controversy becoming profoundly overexcited themselves, and very much in a one-sided way against “games journalists”, “neckbeards”, “feminists”, “the media”, “social justice warriors” and so on. At around the one-hundredth post professing not to care very much about the whole thing, you have to turn in your “I don’t care” card. Most of them say, half-heartedly, that of course it’s bad to harass or issue death threats, with all the genuine commitment of Captain Louis Renault saying he’s shocked about the gambling in the backroom of Rick’s Cafe Americain. They usually go on to specify a standard for harassment that disqualifies anything besides Snidley Whiplash tying Penelope Pittstop to the railroad tracks, and a standard for “real death threats” that disqualifies anything that doesn’t end with someone getting killed for real.
I can’t quite say I’m shocked by these non-shocked people, but I have found myself deeply disturbed to see significant groups of formerly reasonable-signifying male posters in various forums accepting without much dissent sentiments of tremendous moral vacuity like, “If you post feminist criticisms of games, then you just have to expect to get harassed and attacked” or “Well, some guy on XBox Live threatened to rape me during a game of Call of Duty, you just shrug it off”. I’ve been wondering just how wrong I am about people in general online when I think the best of them, or how misguided I am to try to see the most interesting possibilities in how someone else thinks, if it turns out that when the crunch comes, the people I’ve thought would have their hearts in the right place are instead too busy frantically defending their right to download Jennifer Lawrence nudes to care about much else.
5) The assertion by many “Gamergate” posters that they represent the economic lifeblood of the gaming industry is just demonstrably wrong. And this is an old point that should have long since had a stake driven through its heart. The current criticism is focused on various indie games, which the gamergaters charge wouldn’t get any attention at all if “social justice warriors” weren’t promoting them. But the fact is first that the most economically successful games in the history of the medium have not been made with the sensibilities of the most devotedly “gamerish” game-players in mind. Moreover, the history of video and computer games is full of interesting work that didn’t cater to a narrow set of preferences. Today’s “indie games” have many precursors. Arguing for the diversification of tropes, models, mechanics is good for gaming in every possible way. It’s not that companies should stop making games for these “gamers”, it’s more that the major commercial mystery of the gaming industry is that so MANY games should be made for them, considering how much money there is to make when you make a good game that appeals to other people too or instead. Maybe this is what accounts for the intensity of the reaction right now, that we are finally approaching the moment where games will be made by more kinds of people for more kinds of people. Fan subcultures are often disturbingly possessive about the object of their attachment, but this has been an especially ugly kind of upswelling of that structure of feeling.
6) Many of the most strident gamergate voices are bad on gender issues but they’re also just a nightmare in general for everyone involved in game development (except for when they ARE game developers). These are the guys who hurl email abuse and death threats when they don’t like the latest patch, when they think a game should be cheaper (or free), when they have a different idea about what the ending to a game should be, when they don’t like a character or the art design or a mechanic. These are the people who make most games-related forums a cesspool of casually-dispensed rhetorical abuse. These are the people who make it a near-religious obligation to crap on anything new and then to be self-indulgently amused by their own indiscriminate dislike. So much of the fun–the enchantment–of gaming has already been well and truly done in by gamergaters in other ways: they have destroyed the village they allegedly came to save. Much of what they do now is a bad dinner theater re-enactment of the anti-establishment sentiments of an earlier digital underground, one that elevates some of the troubling old tendencies and subtexts into explicit, exultant malice.