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The invisible hordes of online feminist bullies

GamerGaters say social justice warriors want to destroy video games. That’s a myth

August 11, 2015 2:00AM ET

GamerGate, the ongoing battle for the soul of gamer culture, has touched on everything from concerns about ethics in the field of video game journalism to questions about what kinds of players count as “real” gamers in the first place. It’s also the name under which a subset of largely white male gamers has launched harassment campaigns against feminist game makers and game critics such as Anita Sarkeesian, Leigh Alexander, Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu.

This loose group of gamers is lashing out as the subcultural clubhouse they have long considered their own begins to include new members. As games gain in cultural and artistic legitimacy, they are also increasingly subject to critique by those who are new to gaming, including women and people of color, and those who view games primarily as artistic works to analyze and deconstruct. GamerGaters have characterized their campaigns as a defense against attacks from these newcomers.

GamerGate insists that it is a leaderless movement (one of the reasons it is difficult to articulate its demands). But if there is no one spokesman, there are several bannermen around whom supporters gather. Some, such as YouTube game critic and GamerGate supporter TotalBiscuit (a.k.a. John Bain), attempt to present a positive face to the public, using Nixonian language about the “moderate majority” of the movement to avoid taking responsibility for trolls and abusers. Others, such as Breitbart.com conservative columnist Milo Yiannopoulos, use GamerGate as an opportunity to gleefully goad progressives, describing feminist game critics as “far-left loons” and writing hit pieces about GamerGate targets such as Wu, Sarkeesian, Shanley Kane and Randi Harper.

One of the main GamerGate arguments is that tech bloggers who write about identity politics in gaming are interfering in the free market, shaming developers who make content that isn’t inclusive and advocating for representational quotas and political litmus tests to determine what games get released.

But the hordes of feminist bullies GamerGaters think are seeking to ban, censor or water down video games are mostly a myth. In truth, GamerGaters are grasping for any rhetorical tools they can find to ensure that, as gaming culture grows to become increasingly inclusive and diverse, game developers will continue to cater only to their tastes. This often means that GamerGate supporters argue out of both sides of their mouths on topics such as freedom of speech, creators’ rights and the marketplace of ideas. Their willingness to pivot on such issues on a case-by-case basis reveals GamerGate as a movement more dedicated to maintaining the status quo in online culture — one that privileges the opinions of straight white male users over everyone else’s — than to furthering a particular philosophical outlook.

The market has spoken!

GamerGate’s mishmash of arguments can be seen in its recent reaction to the progressive hashtag #GamesSoWhite, which gained traction on Twitter after a piece by freelance writer and game critic Tauriq Moosa critiqued user responses to a new game, “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” asking “why we got a hundred articles … about less pretty grass physics” but not a single query about the lack of people of color in the game’s world.

GamerGate supporters were quick to call Moosa’s critique a case of sour grapes: Game developers were not excluding one group or another from their games because of spite; they were simply making games they thought had the greatest chance to be best-sellers — and if the most marketable video game protagonists are white and male, so be it. Of course, gaming’s changing demographics suggests that this may no longer be the case. Recent data from the Entertainment Software Association show, for instance, that almost half of gamers are female. Despite such statistics, GamerGaters argued that the free market had spoken in favor of these games and that it was wrong of game critics to castigate game makers simply for paying attention to their bottom lines. 

Feminists critics aren’t out to harm gaming culture. They are helping the art form grow and stretch in new directions.

But the free-market logic that fueled these criticisms of #GamesSoWhite did not save feminist critic Sarkeesian, whose 2012 Kickstarter campaign to create a series of videos exploring negative tropes around women in gaming garnered more than $158,000 (she was seeking only $6,000). The videos have received millions of views. Despite being a free-market success, Sarkeesian received thousands of hateful, threatening tweets, including rape and death threats. Apparently, sales numbers are adequate to explain the exclusion of some groups from gaming culture but crowd-sourced approval cannot be used as evidence of a widespread desire for more thoughtful game criticism.

In reality, it is the trolls of GamerGate who are disrupting the marketplace by harassing, doxxing and hacking the websites of game critics trying to provide their audience with an in-demand product. Critics can’t censor game developers or stop them from making the games they want to make. But a sustained campaign of hate can and has driven female writers fearful for their safety off the Internet.

Let the creators create!

Another tack GamerGate has tried is to argue that the game developer’s artistic integrity must be sacrosanct: The creator should be the final arbiter over what content is included in the game, and anyone who doesn’t like it should create their own games.

Except, as Moosa pointed out in his article, this logic was not applied when game developer Garry Newman made his survival game “Rust” more diverse, randomizing the race of the avatars that would be tied to a player’s profile. Yet far from supporting Newman for making a bold artistic choice, GamerGaters — some upset at being assigned black avatars — instead railed against the decision, demanding that the developer restore the game to the mode they preferred, one in which all avatars had white skin, or that he introduce choice into the game so that no one would be forced to play as a person of color.

GamerGate has targeted indie developers who took their advice and made games of their own. The complaint, in this case, was that because these creators made something with a social justice message, their products could not be considered “real” games — presumably because they do not appeal to “real” gamers (who are assumed to be straight white adolescent males). GamerGate supporters questioned whether “Depression Quest,” an interactive game created by developer Zoe Quinn in which players assume the role of a depression sufferer, was even a game. One commenter on Metacritic called it “a joke,” while another accused Quinn of hiding “behind a sensitive topic in order to deflect any and all criticisms of said game.”

Other games have faced similar criticism. “Gone Home,” an interactive story game by the Fullbright Co. with feminist and queer-friendly themes, was, according to one GamerGater, “praised only because it engaged with LGBT issues.” Complaining about “Gone Home” and “Sunset,” an experimental interactive story by Belgian game developer Tale of Tales about a civilian housekeeper’s experience of a Civil War in a fictionalized African country, Yiannopoulos wrote:

I guess video games seem an easy, trendy place for middle-class anxiety merchants and professional panickers to release their “transmedia” experiments. That might have been true if they weren’t seriously asking $20 for the privilege of beta-testing their new women’s studies essay on our downtime.

GamerGate considers it a foregone conclusion that feminists and so-called social justice warriors are out to harm gaming culture. But in truth, these critics are helping the art form grow and stretch in new directions.  Engaging with critiques of all stripes — aesthetic, technical and social — is a productive and useful process for designers. By attempting to silence game critics with perspectives and politics they don’t like, GamerGaters attempt to ensure that game culture remains stagnant, stuck forever in a kind of artistic adolescence. People who care about games and want to see them taken seriously would do well to reject their arguments as well as their toxic tactics.

Megan Condis got her Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the fall she will be joining the faculty of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She writes about masculinity and sexuality in gaming culture. A video game version of her dissertation is available to play for free at her website.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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