The following column was originally published a year ago. This week, citing threats of violence, organizers canceled two panels related to harassment and the gaming industry planned for next year's South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.
On a recent Tuesday evening, more than 50 current and former students of USC’s game design program gathered to talk video games. Student projects were shown and critiqued, but soon students were debating what it means to be labeled a “social justice warrior,” a suddenly trendy term in the video game world thanks to the ongoing battle in the player population known as “gamergate.”
Consider gamergate an ownership tug-o-war. Do games belong to their growing audience, or will a broader reach destroy all that’s pleasurable about them — the sex, violence and profanity? You know, the fun.
But framing gamergate as only a debate is too kind. From the moment the term emerged as a hashtag in mid-August, it was ugly, messy and convoluted. Female game designers and critics who spoke out about the medium’s future experienced harassment, including threats of rape and death.
And this week gamergate became associated with a threat of mass murder. Cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian canceled a Utah State University appearance after school officials received an email that promised, according to a transcript obtained by the Deseret News, “the deadliest school shooting in American history.”
Even before the Utah threat, one member of the USC community, home to the country’s most prestigious game design program, said, gamergate is “making me embarrassed to say I play video games.”
Who could blame him? Video games, long targeted as inspiration for mass-shootings across the country, were now explicitly tied to a particularly heinous threat. And thus gamergate — after months of vile social media hatred — was national news.
Nominally, gamergate is a revolt against the intellectualizing of the medium, a belief that games should be judged for technical merit rather than their content or cultural relevance. It’s a fear that the sort of criticism often applied to film, television and music will result in a politically correct makeover of the entire medium.
This panic is wrongheaded. See Jennifer Lopez’s “Booty,” the blood and nudity on “Game of Thrones,” or even the bleak view of humanity present in the film “Gone Girl.” Criticisms of the aforementioned works haven’t resulted, as far we as know, in threats of a school shooting.
Sarkeesian regularly states that finding fault in parts of work is not a dismissal of it. Her videos on the Feminist Frequency website are casual, friendly — indicative of someone open to a discussion.
Her prominence is representative of gaming’s slow march to maturity — the realization that games really are the cultural force the community has long insisted they could be.
When this column first wrote about gamergate this summer, industry professionals expressed hope that the movement, such as it was, would subside. Instead, its attacks are even broader and more confusing.
Just this week, gamergate supporters lashed out against the website Polygon for a largely positive review of the Wii U game “Bayonetta 2,” which raised questions about “deliberate sexualization and objectification.” Gamergate forums argued misogyny is “something unrelated to the game” and shouldn’t be in a critique.
While gamergate as a term only dates to this summer, it represents a long-festering divide in the video game community, a world that has only recently begun to shake its reputation as boy’s club. The rise in recent years of independent games has gradually shifted the cultural conversations.
To non-gamers, or those who drifted away from the medium when it became focused on shooters, these more approachable games are broadening the audience and the scope of what games can discuss. Yet to what is considered a small-but-vocal part of the game community, independents represent something of a threat, a challenge to the ideal that games cultivated over the last decade and a half.
Gamergate message boards have starting circulating lists of which games should be supported, an attempt to send a message to the industry with its dollars. What do they want? More games like “Killer Is Dead.” Why? Because, one commenter wrote, it has a “gigolo mode — a mode where you could stare at women’s boobs on dates, then sleep with them.”
Independent developers have been vocal about the odious nature of gamergate, but large companies have largely been silent. This has led to the slow and uncomfortable realization for some that this is the audience that has been catered to and pandered to, given gore and nearly-bare breasts with the false justification that games should be message-less and purely digital toys.
This week’s very public death threats on Sarkeesian brought to the fore what even those who love the medium have long known but try to ignore: The game community can often be an inhospitable place. The trend in online games, from “Hearthstone” to “Destiny,” is to place greater controls on how strangers can interact. This isn’t because people play nice.
Dealing with it — or, rather, learning how to ignore it — was the subject of a keynote address from Sony executive Adam Boyes, who works with independents. He framed the video game community as one grappling with the idea that more of one choice does not equal less of the other.
“Think of any other place in the world, any other aspect of life, any other industry, where there would be a group of people who would come and say, ‘I don’t want this, you shouldn’t sell it,’” Boyes told an audience of mostly indie developers. “Imagine walking into a Chinese buffet, ‘Yo, beef and broccoli? … I don’t want that. Get out of here!’”
So while big business is quiet on gamergate, there is one reason for optimism: Gamergate will ultimately be bad for business. To use Boyes’ metaphor, who would want to dine in such a hostile environment?
“We live in a world now where options are incredible. They’re the things that drive commerce, drive choice and drive personality,” Boyes said.
“The reality is we should be going for more options.”
Follow me on Twitter: @Toddmartens