Games After Gamergate

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry analyst, design consultant and the creator of leading blog What Games Are. He is currently writing a book called Core Game Design. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Perhaps the greatest testimonial to those who endured Gamergate is not to remember it. To not talk about it at all. To not talk about the origins, the ignominies, the hysterics or the vainglorious carry-on of its micro-celebrities trying to cling to relevance. To completely ignore the conspiracy theories, the ravings, the rants and the brigading. To not even bother to laugh at the feeble Twitter arguments of those convincing themselves that they weren’t fooled. So I won’t. However one aspect that I will talk about is what it did to game development.

A year-and-a-half ago I fulfilled a personal ambition. I got to give one of the microtalks at the Game Developers’ Conference on a subject most dear to me: the magic of games, more specifically their “thaumatic” quality.

“Thauma” is a term that I put out there a while ago to describe the ability of games to transport your attention to another frame of reference and sometimes break your disbelief barrier. Thauma is beyond immersion. Games can take you to other places. Games can place you in other situations. Games can educate you. Games can enlighten you, change how you think about a situation or an idea.

However, their thaumatic power is to affect you on a personal level, when you disengage. Analogous to the dramatic power of some stories, “thauma” is essentially my shorthand for saying “games have a unique and supremely artistic quality intrinsic to all and apparent in some”.

I still think this, but I must admit that Gamergate tested my will to pursue it. In conversation, a lot of games folk have expressed similar feelings. There are the targets of the movement who’ve either had to double-down or get as far out as possible. But beyond them (without de-emphasizing their struggles) in the wider collective of game makers there’s a popped-bubble feeling.

In 2013 games were broadening in all directions and figuring themselves out as a higher art form. Then Gamergate attacked all of that with trutherisms and a mealy-mouthed apologism for its worst excesses, essentially saying “no, games are THIS and ONLY this”. (And something about ethics in games journalism, which nobody who’s a grown adult cares about.)

In 2014/5, as a result, games felt empty. It’s noticeable how certain creators of certain types of games have dropped away, how many quit for their own sanity, found other careers or otherwise disengaged. Most of us who remain continued to not take the GG ideology seriously and yet find its continued presence depressing.

It was (still is) intellectually dead and had no substantive impact (as I predicted it would be last October) but we often couldn’t help gawping and poking at it. And in so doing a thought made its way in: this is what games are. This tweeny shit. This self-entitlement. This disrespect. This egotism. This dissonance. This flat-out ignorance. This self-promotion of the seediest kind draped in the flag of patriotism. This is what we spawned.

I admit I went through a phase where I lost faith in games because gamers disappointed me. Both those who used the movement as a way to jumpstart their careers, but also the kids who bought in. I felt sad for them. The wider media disappointed me. It dished out many deserved roastings for misogynistic behavior and associated lunacy, but there it stopped. The more interesting conversations about the growth of games as a medium stalled, and have only lately begun to resurrect via musings about virtual reality.

If I’m being honest though it was the reaction of the games industry that disappointed me most of all. I’m in a privileged position in that as a consultant and bloggy fellow I don’t have the same job pressures as others who work at studios making games. I’ve earned that privilege having done my time at the coalface, but I get that it’s still a privilege.

But at the corporate level the number of studios that had anything meaningful to say was (and still is) near zero. They kept schtum for fear of backlash. They happily spun a line about being the future of entertainment and experience, but when it came to respecting that work that enough to speak up in its defense? Empty shirts. Hollow men. Cowards.

I struggled with those feelings. It made writing about game design feel robotic and lacking in soul. It made game criticism seem a waste of time. It made mentoring feel like lying. If you know that students will basically end up as hit mob fodder, you don’t really want to do lead them down that path. It made making games the act of a mad person. After all the heartache and grief that goes into making these things, why would anyone bother when your reward is an avalanche of anons using you as a piñata for their personal inadequacies?

I wallowed in a kind of depressed fascination with fanaticism. Gamergate had nothing to really say beyond its initial deranged argument, but the tremendous energy it brought to bear was terrifying. It was watching kids roleplay at being investigators and castigators, repeating learned lines and phrases from one to the next as though they’re mastering new fighting game moves, but with unearned venom. Like parents dealing with dramatic teenagers who act out, dealing with Gamergate was simultaneously infuriating and tedious and all that remained was the hope that most would just grow out of it.

I eventually realized that the whole thing just wasn’t mentally healthy. We spent a year veering from stories of attacks and bomb threats, to stories of the weird gathering places on the Internet that hosted these cultures, to brigading campaigns against advertisers and to numerous other completely insane things. GG eventually acquired the same shape as all other rage media in that solely existed to exist, an audience for an audience’s sake. But beyond that it proved to be a great bilious nothing that reassured us that it wasn’t going away because… Because.

The only consistent theme in the year of Gamergate was its abiding air of resentment. In the forums, the Reddit group and especially in the barmy videos of YouTubers all that really came through was the propagation of a frustrated psychology. These people may have felt they had a toe in the race of something but they didn’t, and deep down they knew it. So they lashed out from their attics and basements, their middle-of-nowhere homes and their part time pizza delivery routes (and insert other stereotypes here) maybe because that’s all that they had. In the end that’s all it was.

Resentment is a serious consequence of social networks, and one that they’re all bad at dealing with. On any social network there are far fewer people who are successful (usually in quasi-tiers) and then there’s everybody else looking in through the window at the party. For many this means they get to contact their heroes, but for some it’s a cause for jealousy. She’s so lucky. He’s such a shill. She knows the right people. He’s in their pocket. She sleeps around. He’s corrupt.

And then come the attacks. GG taught us that the wonderful connectivity of the Internet has a side effect. You get to talk directly with fans, but also become a target, always an @mention away from being called a goony beard man trying to impress a she-twink, always a click away from a “satirical” game where you can punch that bitch who ruined everything in the face. It taught many us that we have to aggressively protect ourselves, both physically (especially if you’re a woman) and emotionally. It said that you’re part of a great club, but there’s a part of the club that will resent you no matter what you do or who you are. And sometimes it will act out.

I feel sorry for people who feel that way, but it doesn’t mean I have to put up with them. Imagine you’re like Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting trying to laugh off his childhood abuse, and I’m Robin Williams simply saying “it’s not your fault” over and over. It’s not your fault that they have issues. It’s not your fault that you’re a symbol of something uncomfortable in their psyche.

It’s not your fault that your game speaks to a lot of people and a few rage-ridden dip shits feel it threatens their whole world view. It’s not your fault that some of the kids are ignorant and buy into this crap (most of them will eventually wise up anyway). It’s not your fault that you maybe had a couple of breaks that others did not.  You are not responsible for the resentment of others.

What Gamergate really taught me is the importance of developing the belief that what you’re doing matters. This is something that authors, filmmakers, artists, musicians and more tend to find easier to do than game developers. They have a longer creative tradition, one that values and reinforces the idea of the important artist. They trust that far more of their audience is with them than against them and that the fringe-y few are just that.

In games culture this is not a strong tradition. Instead ours is a culture of acquiescence. Many games are services, for example, and so they’re actively in the business of figuring out what makes players engaged, happy and rewarded so that they’ll keep playing. They want players to buy the next game, the next installment, the next pack of in-game gold, the next virtual hat, the next Kickstarter. Consumer-rights types are correct in asserting that games are a very commercial culture, and the industry plays into that at all levels. Customer relations are very important.

But that does not mean resentful types should have free license to shit all over everything you do and then drop the mic. It’s time to stop being cowed in the face of the negs. It’s important if we ever want games to grow, to be more than they are and to explore their thaumatic (or whatever you want to call it) potential. As artists, journalists, educators, developers, publishers, critics, influencers, podcasters, curators, reviewers, designers and so on none of us has any responsibility to the fans beyond making sure that what we make is great. We’re not their targets, their puppets or substitutes for abuse just because their own lives are disappointing.

Of course I speak of the negative few rather than the positive many. There are always have been – and will continue to be – way more fans who love the game and the game maker, who attend events like the upcoming PAX and enjoy themselves. Go anywhere these days and you’ll find people who enjoyed games, cried at the ends of games, are super sportsy about games and so on. There is far more love out there than is usually willing to speak up, but it’s there and its love is true.

But the 50k (that’s 0.01% of people who play games) who banded together to collectively demand that game designers fix their emotional problems by “saving games”? You owe them nothing. Not your attention, not your response and certainly not your work. The only reason they’ve turned up to yell is that you made something. If they want to disrespect that then you certainly don’t owe them anything at all.

And so what of games after Gamergate? It’s a simple choice.

One choice is to play up to the gaters or their softer cousins who want vidya to go back to the way they believe it was. This I would not recommend. For one thing the past as represented by nostalgia was never real, and for another there’s no way to ever satisfy the expectations of those who believe that games have gone off track. That sort of thinking is about the believer herself, not the medium or its output, and it’s toxic.

Some people are determined to believe that a single episode of Law & Order based on their own antics destroyed the reputation of video games because of journalism. Good luck to them in their recovery from that pathology.

The other choice is to focus on creating the future. In the industry we’re in something of a stalled pattern at the moment. 2015 may have been be a banner year for the gamer who always wanted Shenmue 3 to happen, but creatively it’s been pretty dull.

Many new fronts (mobile games particularly) seem to be going through transitional slowdowns wherein they’re trying to figure out what’s next. Meanwhile more traditional console haunts have experienced a kind-of resurgence but it lacks fresh momentum. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One still feel like late-stage products in a paradigm that doesn’t really know where it wants to go next, and so are cranking out more of the same.

But there are sources of inspiration. There’s Volume. There’s Her Story. There’s Funomena’s projects, Alphabears and Nuclear Throne. There’s the work of Telltale and Double Fine. There’s esports. There’s whatever weird and wonderful things pop up in the VR space. There are plenty of reasons to trust that the creative side of games will find its way despite the buzzards. Two years ago I had faith in the creative momentum of games. A year ago I lost hope because of Gamergate.

Now I have it back.