I wrote an email to one of my ex-girlfriends last night. We dated back in high school, but... well, it was so long ago, I don't really remember what happened anymore. It's not really important. We've remained friends for the last 15-odd years, and lately we've been catching up about some of the big changes in our lives as we enter our thirties. She and her husband have just had their first child, and I quit my job and moved to Japan where I'm building a new life. Grown-up stuff.
She's never really approved of videogames. Any time they come up in conversation she addresses them with a kind of droll cynicism - "Ah, I suppose it must be difficult to tell women what you do for a living", and so on. She considers them childish; pointless. That's not to say she's opposed to them on principle - she has enjoyed certain games in the past, she just isn't interested in 'gaming' as a pastime in itself.
Part of our recent discussion involves the games blogging I do. She asked me why I don't talk to my family much about it. I explained that most of what I write is a reaction to recent events in games culture, or the industry, and to give an example of why I'd rather not bring it up I talked her through the events of the last two weeks.
You probably already know what I'm talking about, but in case you missed it, here's an abridged version:
- Some guy went on an internet forum to publicise text messages and Facebook chats about how an ex-girlfriend cheated on him.
- Said ex-girlfriend happens to be Zoe Quinn, indie game developer and creator of Depression Quest.
- Zoe was already a hate figure among certain sections of the gaming community. The ex-boyfriend knew this, of course.
- Revitalised by this new information, the hate campaign starts up again. A mob of largely-anonymous children begin flooding her with abuse.
- One of the guys she's alleged to have cheated with is Nathan Grayson, who writes for Kotaku.
- Angry mob accuses her of sleeping with journalists to get a good score on a review that doesn't exist(???)
- News outlets refuse to engage with this obvious bullshit, and focus on the abusive mob instead.
- News sites and forums shut down discussion about Zoe's private life, because it's nobody's damn business.
- Conspiracy theories form. Somehow Zoe has the power to bend the entire internet to her will(???)
- Suddenly this is about JOURNALISTIC ETHICS, and the continuing abuse is an unrelated coincidence.
- Journalists and developers look at the evidence and conclude that nothing improper has taken place.
- The protesting, and the on-going tide of personal abuse, continues anyway.
- (Also Anita Sarkeesian released her latest video, sparking yet another wave of threats and abuse)
Explaining to my friend that a group of anonymous gamers flooded a woman with two weeks of constant abuse over allegations made by a bitter ex-boyfriend... without confirming all of her long-established preconceptions of gamers as a rabble of immature young boys... was not easy. I doubt I succeeded. I then composed the most popular tweet I've ever posted, which shows how widespread this sentiment is:
Fun game: Try explaining the events of the last two weeks to a friend who already thinks games are for socially stunted children.
— PurpleChair (@Manpuncher) August 29, 2014
I eventually wrapped up my email by linking my friend to Depression Quest - that low-down filthy text adventure that True Gamers hate so much - as an example of games that are exploring more mature themes and expanding the medium's horizons. It's sickening that Zoe's reward for creating such good work is to suffer a relentless campaign of abuse from a mob of faceless children. And for what? Because it doesn't have pictures? Because it discusses 'feelings'? One common complaint is that it's "unrealistic" that someone in a loving relationship could be depressed at all, which just goes to show how fucking sheltered these goons are.
The last two weeks have been tough for many of my friends and me - people who have spent their lives advocating for games and arguing for their cultural legitimacy, only to turn around one day and find our platform being used to spread toxic abuse. It's goddamn demeaning to all of us - the 'gaming community' - when our public face is a mob of boys chanting "WHORE!" at a woman from behind a veil of anonymity.
"but when u consider the evidence there are legitimate complaints!" chips in some uninvited rando on Twitter, before linking you to a video speculating on Zoe's sex life in lurid detail.
Here's my thoughts on that: There are indeed legitimate concerns to have about games journalism. By far... BY FAR... the biggest source of these is the issue of funding. If you want good quality games journalism, someone has to be willing to pay games journalists grown-up salaries. More often than not, especially online, the money comes from advertising revenue paid for by the same big publishers that they are supposed to be reporting on. This is a conflict of interest that sours everything they print, to some degree or other - it's been so long since I read IGN that I genuinely forget they exist sometimes. As businesses these organisations have certain responsibilities to their employees (and, to a greater extent, shareholders) and it's inevitable that they'll conservatively support the people who pay them.
The fact that so much focus has been on the issue of two people having sex, instead of the ongoing multi-million dollar financial mechanisms that compromise the integrity of just about all professional games websites, speaks volumes. As the 'debate' shifted from simply harassing Zoe to crusading over JOURNALISTIC ETHICS, other connections between writers and developers were dug up by armchair detectives combing through old blog posts and twitter streams. And as this turd of a conspiracy theory has curled its way out onto the pig balls of public debate, it's also worth noting that the journalists and developers being accused of collusion are all being linked together because of their association with 'social justice' - nobody gives a fuck about Geoff Keighley's personal life, or who Reggie Fils-Aime is playing golf with, but any tweet that provides trolls with another half-arsed excuse to try and get Patricia Hernandez fired has traction.
IT IS OBVIOUS THAT THE ISSUE OF 'JOURNALISTIC ETHICS' IS BEING USED TO CAST A VENEER OF LEGITIMACY OVER WHAT IS, AT ITS HEART, A CAMPAIGN TO ATTACK 'OUTSPOKEN' GAME DEVELOPERS AND JOURNALISTS.
This is the reason why no major news outlet is taking the campaign seriously - not because Zoe Quinn hacked Arsenal Gear and gained control over the internet.
There are campaigners out there who genuinely think that any friendship between journalists and developers is an immediate conflict of interest that illegitimises their reporting. I can sympathise with this sentiment, although I have to add that I think it's kinda misguided. I basically see two sides behind this line of thinking - people who have no experience of game development or journalism (who simply don't know what they're talking about) and developers who are angry because they don't know any journalists and feel unfairly ignored (which is a valid criticism of an unfair system, but I don't consider it a sign of moral decay - people can't write about you if they don't know who you are, and sadly there isn't some Meritocracy Fairy who will get journalists' attention for you, which is one of the many reasons I hammer on about the importance of networking in Advice For Students).
If you genuinely want to talk about journalistic ethics, I fully support you! My advice is to write down your complaints, wait until this current stuff has blown over (maybe a month or two?...) and then start asking questions instead of immediately throwing accusations around. Consider reading some books about the subject while you wait. At this point in time it's impossible to have any sensible discussion about these issues without some anon derailing things with irrelevant gossip about people's private lives - it's impossible to discuss 'legimate concerns' when they are so intimately related to this kind of personal abuse, and I'm not going to humour that.
Ethics, my arse.
I'm not here to address that pile of shit, but to wave my hands around and postulate about what it represents.
What is a gamer? If your answer was "Who cares?" then congratulations, you win! And that is the core of the issue. One of the biggest fault lines running though these events has been the complete lack of meaningful 'gamer' identity.
The most common framing of this situation among what you might call the 'anti-feminist' camp is that of patriotic Gamers rallying together to defend their beloved pastime from a bunch of women (and brainwashed men) who want to lay down rules about what you can and cannot put in a game. I've already written about what a fundamental misunderstanding that is, and I'm not going to repeat myself here. But aside from how baseless it is, it also reveals a very profound misunderstanding of who they are dealing with. I've been playing games ever since I was a child. I'm a very vocal supporter of games. I've spent years of my life studying them and building a career out of making games and contributing to games culture. I am clearly a 'gamer' by any reasonable definition, and yet I am frequently portrayed as being on the side that wants to destroy gaming. Things like this are why I find it difficult to take these accusations seriously.
And of course, the same can be said of pretty much everyone being accused of trying to destroy games. A vocal minority of gamers seem to take it upon themselves to draw lines and exclude journalists, critics, game developers - people with a demonstrable history of love for videogames, who (in most cases) have been contributing constructively towards games for most of their lives - from their own narrow definition of 'gamer', purely because they have incomprehensible opinions about how gaming relates to wider culture. When someone like Tim Schafer is getting "suicide suggestions" from people who claim to LOVE GAMES, then there's some incredible mental gymnastics going on.
On another level, these gamers themselves feel victimised because prominent commentators keep saying things "Why are gamers such abusive dickholes?" Clearly blind to the speaker's own relationship with games, there's a lot of people out there who seem to read statements like that at face value and feel outraged that someone would say that literally all gamers are abusive dickholes. Most people would understand that it's obviously untrue, but also that a statement like that comes with a lot of implicit context - chiefly, that they are not talking about LITERALLY ALL GAMERS. But because this word is so ambiguous, and context doesn't always travel well online (especially if one tweet out of a series goes viral and leaves the others behind), some people genuinely think that gaming culture as a whole is under attack from the people who help build it, because [?????????????]
Ten years ago Jack Thompson was threatening legal action against anyone making serious paper, and conservative columnists were describing Mass Effect as "virtual orgasmic rape". That was a time when many of us did feel like games culture was 'under attack', and games journalists everywhere came out to defend it - here's your head Dorito-pusher Geoff Keighley himself defending Mass Effect on Fox News.
What I've come to realise over the last week is that gaming's shrieking mob of patriots view people like Anita Sarkeesian as a similar 'threat'. The language used to talk about concepts like "rape culture" is, for most people, indistinguishable from wild hyperbole like "virtual orgasmic rape". I'll admit: the first time I heard the phrase "rape culture" it sounded ridiculous, but having read more into the subject I can now at least understand it as a concept. Similar to the phrase "gaming widow" it conveys a web of ideas that aren't easily captured in a face value reading. To the gaming patriots, she's just another boogeyman coming to make baseless accusations about something she knows nothing about.
And the thing is, they're totally wrong.
For one thing, when people like Jack Thompson and Fox News say shit about games, it carries the legitimate threat of power. Jack Thompson was an actual lawyer who was actually campaigning to get certain things banned. That element of legal power makes it a legitimate issue of censorship, which... well, we take a nuanced stance on in Europe, but opposes the sacred value of free speech in the US. Fox News is a large broadcasting company which influences the opinions of millions of voters, and misleading them on the 'threat' games pose could affect things like whether or not they vote for a politician who runs on an anti-'videogame violence' platform. Aside from the censorship issue, it also just muddles popular discourse about games with a load of misleading bullshit.
Anita Sarkeesian is a cultural critic. Her videos are clear and rational, and frankly they often just spell out things most gamers come to realise for themselves over time. She has no power to censor anything, nor does she aspire to do so. Her work brings a lot of new concepts into our cultural discourse which are alien to most people in the gaming community. If you really want to criticise her videos then you should approach them from the angle of how well she employs feminist theory, not by nit-picking over production details like this: [source]
A few days ago I noticed some guy on Twitter saying something like "Why does Anita Sarkeesian think she has any right to tell people what to put in their games? You never get this with books or movies"
I broke my usual rule and engaged with this guy, sending him a link to Amazon search results to show that there are actually hundreds, thousands of books of cultural critcism of cinema, and we had a little chat about criticism - what it actually is, etc. It was bizarre! His argument was that nobody should ever have the right to tell game developers what to put in their games. I said that nobody was telling game developers what to put in their games - Anita's videos simply examine their games from a feminist perspective, which can then feed back and give designers a broader understanding of their own work. He said that artists expand their understanding of the world by watching films and reading books and stuff... but he still seemed resolutely opposed to people like Anita making videos that specifically serve that exact purpose?!?!
Anita Sarkeesian is not a threat to gaming by any stretch of the imagination. In my opinion her presence is highly beneficial, and it also reflects videogames' growing cultural acceptance. It shows that videogames are being taken more seriously, that they are gaining cultural legitimacy. This is something that many of us have been pushing towards for a very long time, and to have this weird little subculture jump out to try and 'defend' gaming from its own natural maturity is in equal parts heartbreaking and farcical. They will fail. They will fail for the same reason that Jack Thompson failed - because gamers are growing older every year, games culture is steadily spreading out across the mainstream, and it cannot be forced into a box by a vocal minority. They are a shower of Cnuts trying to hold back a tide they can't even conceive.
Every single element of this sorry escapade points me back to the same conclusion: They are young and full of vim, and we are old and slightly less ignorant.
How are you supposed to discuss cultural criticism with someone who genuinely believes that nobody should have the right to comment on a piece of art for fear of somehow tainting the sanctity of the artist's original vision? Or people who think that a games journalist being friends with a game developer is on par with Watergate? How is any adult human being supposed to 'hear both sides of the story' when one side is an egg avatar moralising about a grown woman's personal life?
Gamers have grown up and diversified, to the point where there is no single 'gamer' identity. The passage of time means that those of us who grew up playing games in the 80's - or earlier - are now grown-ass human beings with a wider range of interests, a broader understanding of the world, and a few personal responsibilities that are a bit more important than defending Grand Theft Auto's honour. We never stopped playing games. The culture war is over and, inevitably, we won. Our victory came on the back of Wii Sports, seven years ago. The cultural acceptance that young gamers enjoy today is the result of our work over the last two or three decades. You're welcome.
At the time when this article was starting to take shape in my mind (these zingers don't write themselves!) Leigh Alexander pretty much took the words right out of my mouth with this piece on how games culture is leaving 'gamers' behind. The frightened mob who are currently digging into positions around their fragile banner of 'gamer' identity are preparing to battle an enemy who isn't even going to show up. We don't need to - we are gamers, and we don't need their approval. We're also mothers and fathers, and doctors, and skydivers, and craft beer enthusiasts, and venture capitalists, and trainspotters, and jugglers, and accountants, and game designers, and whale hunters, and queer folk, and politicians, and lawyers, and journalists, and milkmen, and airline pilots, and grandmas, and grandas, and wrestlers, and cultural critics, and astronauts, and cyborgs, and communists, and musicians, and foodies, and cops, and ballroom dancers and LITERALLY EVERYONE.
At present, I think the events of the last two weeks represents kind of breaking point - a extinction burst of violent anarchy preceding a cultural revolution.
The games industry's continuing tradition of marketing videogames as a sort of dopey pastime for boys who want to play at being superheroes is dying on its feet. Games are exploring broader subjects and providing more granular experiences, and we should all be proud of that. At the same time, more and more people are looking at games like Battlefield: Hardline and the recent events in Ferguson and realising that our established culture is creating some really distasteful stuff; unlike Jack Thompson, our criticism comes from within games culture - our issue with Hardline isn't the violence, but the uncriticial representation of police militarisation, and nobody is talking about banning anything. What the Proud Gamers looking to defend gaming culture (and hence, their sense of identity) from external threats like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn fail to understand is that they are not external threats, but internal revolutionaries. You don't like them? Wait a few years and more figures will emerge to challenge the status quo - maybe you'll get on with one of them instead. Maybe you'll be one.
I choose to hope that the coming years will be marked by a profound recasting of 'gamer' identity - for example, an understanding that many gamers have grown-up shit to do, and shouldn't be expected to sit down and play for hours at a time. I've always said that the true signal of cultural acceptance will be when there's a regular gaming column in Cosmopolitan, and right now I think we might actually get there. It's time for the industry to acknowledge that gamers have grown up. We're buying houses and starting families and staring at our PS4s and wondering why there are so few fucking games being made for us. I would be quite satisfied if I never had to rescue Princess Peach again. Obviously I want developers like Nintendo to keep doing their thing so I have games I can play with my kids in the future, but my own tastes have moved on a little over the last 20 years, and only a handful of AAA game creators are addressing that - in this regard, indie developers are enjoying a captive market. I want more actual adult content... I want political thrillers, I want bleak endings, I want less Terminator and more Rashomon. AndI'm going to get it.
Regardless of how she feels about them, my ex-girlfriend's child is going to grow up in a world where videogames do not carry the kind of negative stigma they had when we were young. I don't give a flying fuck what you think about Zoe Quinn.