Thoughts on GamerGate

I wrote about GamerGate for JWA, just some thoughts about why the backlash against women has been so intense. But I also felt it was important to offer some constructive suggestions for how both games and gamers might be more inclusive without losing autonomy or self-regulation.

The Gaming Community:
I think Extra Credits had the right idea–if players are regularly muted or red-flagged by other players for outbursts, threats, or other inappropriate behavior, they could be set on mute as a default, or flagged as problematic (and players could unmute them or play with them at their own risk). Or they could be suspended for some period of time. As long as there is some consequence for behavior, players will regulate themselves as they would in real world situations.

The Games Themselves:
I want to see more female PCs. I want those PCs to have level caps equivalent to male PCs–you shouldn’t be denied the ability to equip certain armor or weapons because the female characters aren’t strong enough. It would be nice if there’s parity: if you have multiple character options, there should be more than one female character. For equipped armor and default clothes, there should be at least some clothes and armor that actually cover you. You can even have equal opportunity clothing: some options that cover you and make you look tough, regardless of gender, and some that are essentially bikinis or codpieces with shoulder pads that either a guy or girl can wear. (Hey, some guys may WANT to show off their characters’ pecs and abs!) And it would be nice if not every seedy joint in a game is a brothel or strip bar. I’m also hugely appreciative of games where the NPCs don’t always default to assuming the PC is a straight man, with the women flirting and the men treating you as a friend or a threat; it’s great when there’s a possibility of male NPCs flirting and female NPCs just treating you as a person.

GamerGate: Why We All Lose

(This article originally appeared at jwa.org.)

Let’s face it, admitting you’re a gamer right now will probably invite more horror and social stigma than at any time since the 1980s.

For those who haven’t been following the cringe-worthy horror of GamerGate, it started slow, with game creator Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend venting on his blog about their breakup. The post was then picked up by anonymous commenters on the Reddit and 4chan forums who made unsubstantiated accusations that Quinn slept with gaming journalists to get better reviews for her games. Quinn, it should be noted, is known in the industry for creating independent games like the award-winning Depression Quest, which aimed to help educate people about what it’s like to live with a debilitating mental illness. Members of the forums launched the GamerGate campaign to argue that women like Quinn were invading and ruining the community and had to be stopped at all costs. Those who flocked to the GamerGate banner then began a hate campaign against female game designers and commentators that included “doxxing”: posting terrifying death threats with the women’s addresses on Twitter or the women’s blogs. Anita Sarkeesian, whose YouTube videos offer a thoughtful feminist critique of video games, not only had to flee her home, but later cancelled a talk at Utah State University when the school refused to ban concealed weapons during her visit despite threats of a school shooting.

I’ve talked a lot about GamerGate with friends as the situation unfolded. One male friend argued that games have always been a safe refuge for guys who feel rejected by the outside world. No matter how poor their social skills might be in real life, in an online game they could be valued members of a team or clan, running a successful mission. No matter how downtrodden they felt, they could indulge in the power fantasy of defeating a warlord or avenging the (titillating) rape and murder of a character’s girlfriend.

But as games began to go mainstream, the influx of new players caused a cultural shift. All of a sudden, there were players who were adept at the games, but also had social skills, leaving those awkward geeks feeling left out at their own party. And there were female players who objected to women always being portrayed as the victims or trophies in those power fantasies.

My friend didn’t condone the violence of the GamerGate reaction, but he understood their frustration—he was fine with adding some feminist games for women, but censoring those male power fantasies was still censorship. And what did you expect would happen when men with poor social skills, who already felt marginalized by society, felt that their community was being co-opted and their voices were being minimized? That women also feel their voices are being silenced is beside the point for GamerGaters—the culture is male and women are the interlopers. That my friend and I both grew up playing Mario and Quest for Glory, but that he is automatically included and I am perceived as an interloper, is also beside the point.

I think the fact that gaming is still seen as a pursuit of male geeks despite both current demographics and the long history of women in games is why the GamerGaters are so angry and why they’ve chosen these scare tactics: In their minds, this is their community, and always has been. The fact that women have always been part of it challenges their version of history (something we’ve also seen in the Jewish community, among others). And the growing number of women in gaming further threatens their right to decide the norms for “their” community. The only solution is to silence not only the women whom they perceive as a threat, but anyone who dares question their right to do so. The Onion’s parody of GamerGate highlights how effectively the campaign has managed to silence criticism.

Despite the impassioned arguments of male allies like Chris Klewe and John Scalzi against GamerGate, actress/producer Felicia Day posted that now, when she sees guys wearing tee shirts with game logos, she no longer automatically thinks of them as potential friends; she has to calculate whether they might be threats. For my own part, GamerGate has frustrated and angered me because I love how good, original storytelling opens up new worlds to me. And video games go a step further by letting us enter into another character’s skin, see the world through new eyes. If creators are threatened and harassed for telling stories of women, or people of color, or other groups rarely heard from in this medium, then we are going to lose the depth and complexity video games can offer.

The GamerGaters are afraid of change, but what they should be afraid of is stagnation—there’s no point in companies spending millions on expensive production values, quality voice-acting, and fast servers for games that will only sell a few dozen copies. The high-quality games GamerGaters love rely on a huge market and a broad community, and if they want more of those amazing games, they will need to accept that theirs aren’t the only voices that matter.

On the Road

My dad and I have been reading Huck Finn together, and that got us talking about road trip narratives. He argued that the Odyssey is the original road trip story, and that got me thinking about what else would count: Three Men in a Boat? Definitely. Travels with Charley? No question. Canterbury Tales? Yeah, I could see that. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed? No, that doesn’t feel right. Neither does Lord of the Rings. So why not? What distinguishes a road trip from a story that happens on the road?

I’d argue that there are three elements that make up a good road trip narrative. First, and most critical, it really is about the journey, not the destination. There may or may not be a goal to the journey, and it’s unimportant whether the hero accomplishes that goal–in several of the stories I mentioned, the heroes never get where they’re going, but that doesn’t make the stories any less satisfying. LOTR and Committed don’t count because there’s a critical story question that has to be answered: It’s all about stopping Sauron, or deciding whether or not to get remarried, and every event in both books either furthers or hinders those goals. None of the stopovers in the Odyssey give Odysseus a single tool he needs to reclaim his wife and home.

Second, the people and the land are one: we learn about the place through the people we meet, rather than through the natural beauty of the scenery. And in most cases, we meet people from all walks of life to get a fuller picture of the world.

And third, the hero has companions, either human or animal. If the hero were alone, the story might become man vs. nature, like a Jack London tale, man vs. himself, because it’s really about his inner journey, or man vs. society because wherever he goes, he’s an outsider. But by bringing company along, the journey becomes a shared experience–the hero may go through important internal changes, but what’s happening externally is just as important, and the reader is invited to be a part of it.

If anyone wants to argue that I got something totally wrong, or that I missed something crucial, I’d love to hear! Also, bookmarking this article on our need for more road trip narratives about women, because I think it’s hugely important.