(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.