The ongoing harassment and increasingly violent threats made towards prominent women in the game industry has just hit the front page of the New York Times. I didn't know what I could add to the conversation about the bizarre online campaign known as GamerGate that isn't already being said, especially after this incredibly well written article by Kyle Wagner. But I feel compelled to speak up on some of these topics, lest the extreme antics of a vocal, bigoted, and misguided minority drown out the voices of the reasonable majority.
Back in the day, my mother expressed concern that my cousin Sarah was hanging out with me at the local arcade, playing videogames in an environment that was overwhelmingly male. Mom wanted Sarah to be able to do whatever she liked, but she worried about appearances and speculation, how the community might label an adolescent girl who ostensibly spends all her time with guys. At the time I thought my mom was being overly protective. Enjoying videogames seemed absolutely normal to me, not a matter of gender. I like Killer Instinct, Sarah likes Killer Instinct, I thought. Boy, girl – it makes no difference.
Sarah’s mom wasn’t too keen on her videogame habits either. Besides any worries about unladylike behavior, she viewed videogames as a frivolous and potentially detrimental activity. Reading was considered the highest of pastimes, watching TV was a much less valued diversion, and playing videogames was the lowest of the low, a complete waste of time. But that was in the 90’s.
Sarah’s mom now plays Candy Crush, and she loves it. Oh, how times have changed.
An older woman is probably the exact opposite of the image conjured by the label of “gamer”. And yet, the definition of a gamer is simply one who plays games. (And often more specifically, one who plays video or computer games.) People often envision the traditional “gamer” as interchangeable with the archetypical comic book nerd, a 13-30 year old, straight, white male. But that is woefully out of date.
I used to work for a Casual Game company that sold mostly Hidden Object, Time Management, and Match 3 games. The gameplay in these titles was not based on action, precise timing, or twitch reflexes, which is why the company used the “Casual Game” label, it had nothing to do with the expected level of user engagement. The majority of our customers were women and over the age of 40. That’s a lot of grandmothers playing games on their laptops. And yet, the image of the “gamer” hasn’t changed in 20 years.
It starts to become difficult to identify who is and isn’t a gamer. And that’s because the label is an anachronism. Gaming isn’t much of a subculture anymore. It’s popular culture. Everybody games. Even the staunchest opponent of videogames has probably played Windows Solitaire. They’ve probably also tried Minesweeper, Jezzball, and SkiFree. And who doesn’t appreciate Tetris? With the rise of smartphones, new games are just a finger tap away. It must be impossible to find anyone who doesn’t enjoy some kind of interactive media.
With such widespread acceptance of games, the term “gamer” loses its meaning. The label is so out of date that many have already declared it dead, done, over. Someone clinging to the “gamer” identity probably would feel threatened, as their dominant position as the targeted demographic of the videogame industry erodes. Young dudes aren’t the only game in town anymore. (I mean, they probably never were, but marketing is a powerful thing.) Once the golden boys of a misunderstood pastime, many an old guard gamer is now just a cantankerous loudmouth, complaining about how much the latest Call of Duty sucks, even though he’s bought every single iteration. He’s upset because his opinion is no longer the only one relevant.
In the midst of their vanishing identity, some gamers are holding on to one thing that still pervades internet discourse and the tech community at large; good old-fashioned misogyny.
In July, game developer Brianna Wu wrote an opinion piece for Polygon about the daily harassment women face working in the videogame industry. Come October, Polygon reported that she had to flee her home amid death threats. And she's not just a player, a fan, or a game critic; she makes games for a living. Even she is not safe on the internet.
At it’s essence, the GamerGate movement is a small-but-vocal group desperately struggling to keep female interlopers out of their subculture, lest the girly cooties end up changing the face of videogames. They see gaming as a last bastion of their own sophomoric brand of machismo, a meritocracy of nerd literacy that female influence will only spoil, killing the fun with the sanitizing specter of social sensitivity and justifiable disgust at blatant sexual objectification. So they’ve set out to harass, discredit, slut shame, and straight up terrify women right out of the videogame industry.
After being pandered to for years, it scares these dudes to see a new reality emerge in interactive entertainment. Instead of remaining a boys’ club, the videogame industry continues to expand, welcoming a more diverse pool of players and creators. In their desperation, they’ve launched a movement to try and regain control of videogames. GamerGate is the new War on Christmas.
Gorged on a social media diet of “Fake Gamer Girl” and “Friend Zone” memes, the GameGate dudes have lost their way. They blame their troubles on women because American society still condones causal misogyny and everyone has story of personal heartbreak that, if properly nurtured, can be twisted into blanket anger at whole group of people. Especially for the prototypical “gamer” of old, women make for an easy target. Ironically, the most visible and therefore most harassed women are the very same people brave enough to blow the whistle on problems within the game industry. Way to kill the messenger, guys. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Honestly, I’m already tired of talking about this. I’ve had plenty of debates about Anita Sarkesian on Facebook – spoiler alert, I’m on her side – and while I believe it’s necessary to stand up against sexist bullying, it can be exhausting. I can only imagine what it must be like for these women, living with constant threats of death and rape, just for speaking up at all. It’s shocking to see how otherwise reasonable gamers can instantly become so obstinately defensive. The very mention of feminism is enough to elicit overblown kneejerk reactions and a hyperbolic fear of change. “Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they.” Aren’t we forgetting the teachings of Master Yoda?
The thing is it doesn’t need to be this way. Remember in the olden days, when you felt like an outsider, when you were the weird kid that didn’t fit in, videogames were there for you. Imaginative virtual worlds were there for you to explore, and it didn’t matter who you were. The game never discriminated. To a certain degree, gaming culture was the language of outcasts and misfits.
But now the bullied have become the bullies. Ironic, don’t you think?
So come brothers and sisters in gaming – but mostly you dudes causing all this bizarre nonsense – let’s drop the ugly underside of game culture and embrace its original inclusive ways. Listen to the victims of harassment, support the oppressed, reject prejudiced fear mongering, and embrace the diversity in the game community at large. Sure, you might feel like a smaller fish now, but that’s just because you are in a much bigger pond – an ocean, really. So is everybody else. Don’t strike out against the newcomers, don’t tread on the enthusiasm of those who’ve come to love the medium as much as you do, don’t judge women based on what games they’ve beat or what comic books they’ve read. Just be cool, man.
These women, they aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Move along. Move along.