Important: The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, and positions of The Daily Geekette.
My boyfriend is pro-GamerGate.
For some of the people reading this article, that single statement is enough – enough to decide, one way or another, the kind of person that my boyfriend is. On the one hand, some of you might be surprised that I’m dating him, and may assume he’s a person fighting against equality, committed to keeping gaming the province of white men rather than helping the industry open itself up to women and minorities. On the other hand, some of you may now have an improved opinion of him, and think he’s fighting for ethics in game journalism and against the “scare tactics” of anti-GamerGate leaders like Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu. The problem is that my boyfriend is really neither of these things. And that’s what I want to talk about.
GamerGate and Anti-GamerGate have become caricatures of themselves, mired in and abused for the negative connotations they’ve acquired instead of considered on the basis of what they’re actually trying to say. This controversy began with a personal attack, when the ex-boyfriend of developer Zoe Quinn made online, and distastefully intimate, allegations regarding a connection between her and a Gawker reviewer. And, unfortunately, much of the saga of GamerGate continues to be governed, on both sides of the issue, by this focus on ad hominem (I won’t be considering here the physical and violent threats that have too often defined this controversy – for more on those, see my previous article).
(What Google means is that they don’t support harassment, inclusivity, or threats, but that’s not what ‘#GamerGate’ was meant to mean, only what it seems to have become.)
When developer Brianna Wu published an article about GamerGate in the Boston Globe, for example, a post appeared on the front page of the KotakuInAction subreddit, decrying the article’s use of the term “industry leader,” because Wu has only made “one iOS game. ONE.” When reviewer Liana Kerzner attempted to critique some of Anita Sarkeesian’s arguments regarding the portrayal of women in video games, she was “bull[ied]” and “even told by an editor of a prominent gaming website that people lying about me was morally equivalent to [her] critiques of Anita.” The arguments made by Wu and Kerzner should not be undermined on the basis of who these women are or what they have or have not done. They should be measured according to the logic of their inferences.
And IF the inferences made in them are incorrect and lead to false conclusions, then we need to take a step back and ask ourselves why; broad generalizations are being thrown about, with little factual evidence to support them – but neither side is taking the time to empathize with these claims, or try to understand why people are making them. Brianna Wu, for instance, wrote in the same Boston Globe article that, “the true purpose of Gamergate is to intimidate outspoken women into silence by any means necessary.” I would venture to say that a lot of people with pro-GamerGate leanings would disagree with this statement. But here’s Wu’s next sentence: “I was first targeted in October, and my life has been a nightmare of death threats, rape threats, and nonstop harassment ever since.” With an unrelenting and harmfully personalized experience like that, why wouldn’t Brianna Wu think that the purpose of GamerGate is to intimidate? For almost six months, Wu has been vindictively harassed and threatened, until a vocal minority has become a frighteningly real majority for her. If we contextualize her generalization, we can empathize with and learn from it, rather than reactively treat it as a statement meant only to provoke and trivialize.
Similarly, when feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers released a video entitled, “Are Video Games Sexist?” many in the GG camp rushed to claim it as an argument against what critics like Anita Sarkeesian were trying to point out was an issue – even though many of the claims made in the video are factually incorrect or biased. But, taken in the context of these individuals feeling as though the games they have enjoyed and loved are being unfairly and, at times, incorrectly maligned, the rush to support Sommers view makes sense. Here was an academic finally standing up in defense of video games – if people didn’t look too closely at what she was actually saying, eager to finally have some kind of language in which to discuss their frustrations, is it really that surprising? This isn’t to say that Wu’s statement on GG isn’t harmful, or that Sommers’ video isn’t perpetuating myths like “boys will be boys” that do more to restrict representation than support it – it’s only to say that if people generalize, and falsely generalize at that, why are we only looking at it as a way to discredit someone, rather than to understand them?
And the biggest problem with all of this? Issues that should be considered, that should be brought into the conversation, are being ignored or laughed at, simply because they’ve been associated with one side or the other. When The Institution of Game Design at Uppsala University posted on its twitter suggestions for accessibility improvements for GDC 2015, a pro-GamerGate user retweeted a compilation of the University’s suggestions and images with the sarcastic caption, “It would appear that the games development conference is no longer about games development…” and added in a comment below, “is little more than a bullsh*t sensitivity trainings seminar.” Things like accessibility, safe work spaces, and inclusivity are not, let me repeat, NOT bull.
Yes, GDC needs to be about games, but it also needs to be about how to involve the greatest amount of people in making, reviewing, playing, and sharing those games in a way that makes as many of those people as possible feel welcome and appreciated. But because these issues have been associated with anti-GamerGate ideologies – even though, ironically, one of the first tweets on the University’s twitter page when I went to look at it was, “We want to actualize the promise of hard, independent, games criticism – because THIS WORK MATTERS” – they are being treated as irrational and unimportant.
On the other side, the attention paid to the portrayal of women can have negative effects on the diversity of female characters available. When Gillian Flynn released Gone Girl, her best-selling novel about a less than functional marriage, she was widely accused of sexism and misogyny for featuring a female character that was unstable and, in many ways, psychotic. Time magazine’s Eliana Dockterman wisely commented on the problem created by this criticism: “Because there are so few strong women in literature…the burden falls on the writers who do write about women to make them represent all of womanhood. And that’s simply not fair. We should have all sorts of women in our novels – just as we have all sorts of men. Very few writers are creating complex, evil female characters with interesting motivations…It seems sexist to assert that female characters ought to be, at their core, loving and good.”
Studies have shown correlations between anti-prejudice campaigns that seek to control the actions of those they are targeting and a rise in prejudice – just as it seems that saying what women should or shouldn’t be may lead to a more limited and narrow vision of what female characters are. I personally thought that Overwatch‘s female characters, the spunky Tracer, gutsy Pharah, angelic Mercy, sassy Widowmaker, and wise Symmetra, were a great step in the right direction for a genre that all too often privileges the male or the scantily-clad female – yes, some of these women weren’t fully clothed and most of them conform to a certain body type, but they had interesting stories to go with their looks. Unfortunately, some thought they weren’t enough, and criticized Blizzard for what they didn’t do rather than acknowledge the work they had done. We can have women that align with a traditional standard of beauty and are also engineers, or snipers, or healers. We can also have women that have non-traditional body types – but we should be able to have both.
GamerGate has created an extremely dangerous atmosphere of “us vs. them” in the gaming community, when the issues at stake are problems that both sides should be working together to fix. Representations of women in games are getting better (Overwatch is a more recent, and great, example), but there’s always room for improvement, and, most importantly, there’s always room for an open conversation about it – about ways we can work together to achieve a more equal playing field. On the other hand, ethics in games journalism is not just a front for some kind of misogynist shock and awe campaign. It’s a real issue, and a significant hurdle that our industry will have to tackle as it becomes more and more mainstream. The narratives of both sides are harming the other, reducing our ability to truly understand what’s at stake here and how best to achieve our goals. This isn’t supposed to be about SJWs vs. misogynists, or about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s supposed to be about making the thing we all love – VIDEO GAMES – better. I said it before and I’ll say it again, “How can we expect respect for [these games], this amazing composition of creativity and storytelling and skill and imagination, that we all love, if we cannot even respect each other and all that we represent?”
The future of games requires more of us than agenda-pushing at the expense of our community. It requires more of us than personal attacks, or cherry picking arguments, or forcing our beliefs on others. It requires us to be more than #GamerGate or anti-GamerGate. The future of games requires more, and it deserves better.