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The #Gamergate Question

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Tadhg Kelly

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Tadhg is a video game designer, producer, creative director, columnist and consultant. He has held roles at various video game development, technology and publishing companies. Since the early 90s, Tadhg has worked on all sorts of game projects, from boardgames and live action roleplaying games through to multi-million dollar PC projects. He has served as lead designer, senior producer and a number of other roles at several companies including BSkyB, Lionhead and Climax.

He was a cofounder of the social gaming startup Simple Lifeforms before moving on to becoming a consultant in the game design space through founding noted industry blog What Games Are (www.whatgamesare.com). A recent immigrant to the United States, Tadhg has most recently worked at Jawfish Games, OUYA and for some other studios on a consulting basis.

Tadhg is currently consulting out of Seattle for a variety of companies under the banner of Tadhg Kelly Game Design, as well as writing a book named Raw Game Design to be published next year by Focal Press and a weekly gaming column for TechCrunch. You can reach him at tadhgk@gmail.com.

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Depending on how closely you follow the gaming and tech press, you may have heard of #gamergate. Those of us inside the industry have. This week it’s essentially all we’ve been able to talk about.

What is it? Well the short version is that #gamergate is a reactionary movement on Twitter largely in response to what gamers perceive as an attack on them and the corruption of their media. It started in bowels of 4chan but has taken on a life of its own, becoming a call to do something about a situation that has been perceived to be wrong for quite some time. #gamergaters think a scene has supposedly taken over video games and seems intent on wrecking them for financial gain.

Dozens of YouTube videos have emerged in support of #gamergate, along with hundreds of thousands of tweets. Articles questioning or denouncing it have appeared on a variety of sites but seem to only fan the movement’s flames. Every day brings new revelations, new momentum and new ignominy as this band of conservative geeks goes on the warpath to set the video gaming world to rights.

Flashpoint

#gamergate began a few weeks ago when an ex-boyfriend of Zoe Quinn posted an enormous, pompous and self-important diatribe online accusing her of sleeping her way around the games industry. He posted screengrabs of chats they had, presented his side of the story as the noble and maligned man being led astray by this faerie creature who turned out to be full of lies and so on.

His revenge-porn/character-assassinating rant went all around the gaming world at the speed of rumor and was followed by hacks and “doxxing” activities that purported to show that gamers had been right to be suspicious about Quinn. In its wake a torrent of abuse and more abuse started to build a head of steam. Allegations of conspiracy, of women using sex to manipulate the industry and all the rest of it gained outsized publicity largely due to a video shared by actor Adam Baldwin. And then, somewhere around the same time, Anita Sarkeesian published her latest Tropes vs Women video and the waves of rage and accusations of agenda-pushing in the media began all over again.

However the ignition point came in response to the media’s response to all of the craziness circling Quinn and Sarkeesian. Leigh Alexander published a piece on Gamasutra urging game developers to stop thinking about gamers as their true audience. Gamers, she said, are over. Similar pieces appeared in a variety of venues around the same time (which some interpreted as conspiracy) with this idea that gamers were dead. Thus was a hashtag spawned.

As #gamergaters would tell it, their movement is  about the gaming media, about how they perceive the media to have disconnected from the majority base, and how it has become about dodgy deals and pushing agendas rather than objective coverage. It’s about the cosy relationships between certain journalists and game makers. It’s about how the gaming media promotes and pushes indie games that it considers interesting such as Depression Quest and how this constitutes corruption. It’s about how some gaming journalists contributing a small amount of money to fringe game makers via Patreon constitutes bribery. It’s about feeling not represented. And so on.

Those under attack cry bullshit. They say that #gamergate is actually a co-ordinated 4chan campaign that has swept up many naive muppets, that through it and other tags like #notyourshield and #writeakotakuarticle the social media campaign has maintained a facade of reasonableness while in fact actually being about women after all. To support this, Zoe Quinn lurked on 4chan and IRC and uncovered numerous damning chats between users talking about their campaigns to harass, but also to counter harassment accusations with all manner of dirty tricks. See, Quinn says to #gamergate, y’all have been played for chumps.

Where This Began

The roots of #gamergate are indivisible from the reaction of traditional gamers to women, transgendered people and other non-stereotypes coming into the scene. Current proponents of the movement claim that the debate is not really about that, but in many ways it really is. It’s not to say that most gamers are active misogynists, but rather their default mode of receiving gendered opinions tend to follow certain lines.

Women in the games industry, for example, are often more readily believed to be on the make than men. Women are often perceived to be using their sexuality in negative ways. Women are often far more likely to be said to be crying foul, to be faulted for being imperfect in the how they respond, and to be told that they have agendas. Women are often assumed to begin operating from an inherent position of dishonesty.

One example is Jade Raymond, the producer of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Raymond appeared in many videos promoting the game, just as any producer would, and some in the media noted that she was photogenic. This helped push the game as a great story of how women can be just as successful in games as men, but no no no. Some gamers saw it differently. She was clearly on the make, clearly in need of being taken down a peg. And so they thought it would be hilarious to create a porn comic “satirizing” this.

Another example is Anita Sarkeesian, she of Tropes vs Women. Sarkeesian is one of the games industry’s cultural critics and her videos are presented much like many other critics do. Her tone is factual, intellectual and probing. But in some sections of gamerland Anita Sarkeesian is the Devil. Some feel she’s calling them misogynists. Some feel her videos impinge on free expression. Some fear her work precipitates the medium’s descent into “political correctness”. Often Sarkeesian is personally attacked as a woman on the make. She’s accused of cherry picking in condescending tones. She receives endless threats, is routinely called the c-word on social media and someone even made a game in which you can repeatedly punch her in the face. These are not reactions that happen to male critics.

Zoe Quinn, she of the jilted ex-boyfriend, has also long been the subject of much virtual abuse. Quinn made a choose-your-own-adventure game called Depression Quest that attracted a lot of gaming media attention as a game that pushes boundaries. From the time that it first appeared Quinn has been the subject of relentless accusations of manipulating the gaming media for attention, of concocting fake attacks on herself as a way to obtain exposure, told she’s not a “real gamer” and that hers is not a “real game”.

And the list goes on. Leigh Alexander, possibly the most gifted writer operating in the gaming media, regularly gets anonymous emails and tweets calling her a self-promoting bully and glorified blogger on the take. So too do Jenn Frank, Carla Ellison and many other. Trans-gendered game makers like Anna Anthropy and Mattie Brice receive regular assaults on their life choices from the aether. All of these women constantly and consistently get attacked by gamers who think they’re breaking what gaming should be and hiding behind their shield of womandom.

Who’s A Gamer?

As I say, #gamergate is inextricably linked to all of above, but some voices try to say otherwise. It may have started out as a stunt but the emotional point of gamers being told that they’re over gave it a life of its own far beyond 4chan. A lot of people who don’t conform to the stereotype of the white male basement dwelling angry nerd feel maligned and have taken to social media to say so. Gamers, they say, are much bigger than the harassers.

One example voice is Boogie. A YouTuber with nearly 2m subscribers, Boogie actively says that the conspiracy theories and whatnot surrounding #gamergate are nonsense. He supports Quinn and Sarkeesian, and says that the way they’ve been treated is shameful. However he takes exception to the idea that gamers are dead or that guys like him would be tagged as bigots. The term “gamer”, he says, means everyone that plays games and isn’t going away. Don’t mistake the behavior of a few assholes for the general body of gamers, he urges.

This is a beautiful sentiment, but it’s not true. If it were then there would be nothing needing to be saved, nothing to be -gated. “Gamer” does not represent everyone who plays a video game. The word for that is “player”, much like “reader”, “listener” or “viewer”. “Gamer” is a subset of “player”, a cultural identifier of tribes who align for deeper reasons than engaging in a physical act. People both inside and outside video games understand that, which is why you get plenty of people who play Words With Friends but don’t consider themselves gamers.

Of course gamers are not one uniform club: Some are only fans of certain kinds of game or games from certain platforms. Some consider themselves indies, some hardcore. Some consider casual gamers to be a part of the club, some don’t. Some ascribe the term “real gamer” to a smaller subset, indicating those who commit all the way by buying high end PCs, or meaning non-hipster players.

As gamers see it they are the majority market, the primary reference point around which all gaming culture should operate. Leigh Alexander’s point is that that is no longer true. In terms of raw numbers, gamers are a pretty fixed (or if growing, merely incrementally) audience, and have been for at least 10 years. At a guess there’s about 150-200m of them around the world shifting around from console to console, franchise to franchise, an audience consistently served with ever-more-expensive products from ever-fewer high end studios. They’re certainly a big interlocking set of tribes, but compared to the numbers who play casual, smartphone, casino, sport and social games, gamers are a minority.

Perhaps more significant than the numbers is the politics. Gamers seem to think that they represent the political center of the gaming universe, but increasingly they act like the center-right. They possess a high degree of conservatism for their culture (this is not to be confused with conservatism in the wider political sense). They’re greatly concerned about the gaming culture to come as it relates to the past, maintaining a strong affinity for a shape of the industry and medium of yesteryear. Gamers love their traditional gaming consoles at a time when the rest of tech world considers consoles a weird throwback. Gamers have held onto their PCs and largely rejected newer platforms like tablet or browser as “new-fangled” and not “proper”.

And so the context is not that “gamers” are the center, indie game makers (often snarked at as “social justice warriors”) are the extreme left and “gamergaters” maybe a bit to the right. It’s that “gamers” are the right, and all the casual/social/mobile players are the true center. In that scheme indie game makers are still probably on the left, but not to the extreme that the gamer-centric spectrum would dictate. And where does that leave #gamergaters?

“gamergaters” are the far right. They’re our Tea Party equivalent, replete with all the same inclinations to see conspiracies where there are none and trying stamp out what’s considered fringe or weird by assaulting the people rather than the product while co-opting their language. #gamergaters portray themselves as “oppressed” by the fact there are some indie games out there that they don’t like. #gamergaters feel “betrayed” by the notion that maybe a journalist and a game developer slept together. #gamergaters give credence to all “evidence” that confirms their this-can’t-go-on mentality and ignore everything else. #gamergaters consider removal of their trolling comments “censorship”.

This stance has allowed them to rationalize almost any harassment and to engage in a wide variety of victim blaming. It’s what gave the #writeakotaku hashtag the spur to produce “funny” headlines to satirize the so-called agenda of the pushy media like this:

and consider this fair game.

Realignment

For some in the industry #gamergate is a storm in a teacup, for others (myself included) it looks like the storm has broken the cup. The Twitter hashtag alone generates hundreds of thousands of tweets every day and continues to do so. It’s not just about the harassment either: #gamergaters are generating blacklists of sites not to be looked at, demanding apologies and firings, and in some cases threatening “retribution”. They’re polarized and continue to be polarizing, and going to some very strange places trying to make their argument stick. When you find yourself lauding Jack Thompson as a banner example of how reasonable you are, something’s wrong.

There’s the very real possibility that #gamergate will end up breeding a kind of cultural acid test, much as when the Tea Party types started doing the RINO thing. Counter-reformation movements often do, first starting at a grass roots level where they go unnoticed and then attempting to build a consensus through co-ordination. Their thinking is often that the middle is a ground to be won through deception even if their core positions are contradictory. (And they really are: You can’t expect a “fair” media if you also demand that it only “represent” you).

Imagine, for example, if some reviewer voices or sites emerged that certified games based on whether they are #gamergate-kosher or not. Imagine if #gamergaters became more co-ordinated on Kickstarter, sending mass objectionable-content reports against games that didn’t fit their cultural barometer. Imagine if they actively took down some game makers’ games by hacking their computers and deleting their work. None of these are far-fetched scenarios and some of them have already begun to happen.

It sounds trivial but this is the sort of thing that could actively set the industry, the medium and indeed games themselves back by decades. If we get into a situation where the far right has to be constantly kowtowed-to and wields outsized influence then there will come a point where the choice for game makers is only core or casual, conservatives or mainstream, and the opportunity for a diverse middle ground of experimentation would go away. It’s Destiny or Candy Crush and that’s all.

I for one think we need to do more to prevent that.

Where Is The Industry?

In the middle of last week I considered creating a social media campaign to combat the spread of #gamergate called the “Cherry Pledge”. My thinking was to circulate this:

1. Read this text.
“I pledge my support for all game makers, journalists and participants in the games industry who believe in its positive and progressive future. I support all efforts to develop that medium in all directions. I support all the people involved and act from the point of view of assuming that they are all honest, open and sincere. I reject all intimations of otherwise, all abuse, all harassment, all deception and all slanderous campaigns that seek to drive voices out of the industry, its media or its player culture. I pledge my support for this campaign with this cherry.”

2. If you agree, sign this petition [Sidebar: this would be a change.org petition].

3. Copy and paste the above text onto a page on your blog, site, corporate website, social media profile, wherever. Anywhere visible.

4. Change your social media avatar to a picture of a cherry or cherries. This step is vital because as you then post the image will spread again and again, reinforcing the message.

5. Tweet, Facebook, Instagram (etc) your support using the #cherrypledge tag.

Unsure of whether this was a good idea or would it merely fan the flames, I posted it on Facebook. As I happen to know a fair few people in the games industry I figured I would get either a voluble yes or no from various voices I got only a few isolated responses. For the most part my industry friends stayed silent. Indeed the general silence of the games industry on #gamergate troubles me deeply. It’s a vacuum begging to be filled.

To be fair the IGDA (an industry body that represents many of us) has issued a statement condemning harassment and is working with the FBI. Similarly a couple of notable game makers like Tim Schafer have been involved, and an open letter flew around Medium that attracted thousands of signatures. But that’s basically all so far.

Development studios and publishers seem content not to do anything and let #gamergate play out by itself, but what are they letting happen by doing nothing? #gamergate asks a very big and difficult question of the games industry, not its fans or its journalists. It asks whether the games industry is content to placate ugliness, whether video games as a medium can ever grow beyond their conservative wing – and if so will it be the industry as it exists that brings that change about, or will it be left to outsiders?

Personally I don’t think it’s enough to simply stand by.

The Lessons Of #gamergate

There are some highly significant lessons coming out of #gamergate, things that we should all be paying attention to as we attempt to move forward:

  1. We need to acknowledge that there is a disconnect between the gaming media and at least a subset of its readers, but that disconnect isn’t about agenda-pushing so much as relate-ability. If anything it’s one of education, of providing the bridge to bring the rest of the readers along for the ride.
  2. There is a large lack of understanding among gaming fans regarding scale. Many readers seem to think that because Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian or Anna Anthropy attract some coverage in the specialist press that this constitutes them becoming “powers” with the ability to change the face of the industry. This isn’t even remotely true.
  3. There is similarly a massive disconnect operating among a certain wing regarding the role of the gaming media in general. It is, after all, a specialist free press that markets games to potential customers. It’s an entertainment press whose history is in many ways far more shady than it is today. The games press is able to talk much more openly than it ever could because it’s all about digital (infinite pages) and community (valued readership). Lots of gamers don’t seem to see it that way though. They think they’re being served corporate swill. They think even posts like this are in some way trying to fool them. That particular delusion has to be unpicked.
  4. But the biggest lesson for me has been this: This whole debate is divided by chosen media. The anti-#gamergate sector has largely been communicating in the written form, thinking that articles that gain a few hundreds tweets and a couple of thousand views constitute success. By contrast the pro-#gamergate sector is largely communicating through social media and YouTube, and some of its content is garnering over a million views. The anti- posts are generally debate-heavy and intellectual. The pro? Tabloid, emotional, paranoid and personal. That’s why its message is reaching so much further. If ever anything made the case that video blogging has become more important than text, #gamergate is showing us why in spades.

Conclusion

All in all I find #gamergate to be the most depressing thing to have happened in games for quite some time. We think we’ve come so far, and we have, but it seems there is so much further to go. Nonetheless we have to go there. In the long timeline I don’t think that what it is to be a gamer will die, but I do think it will evolve. My sincerest hope is that we do so soon.

 

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