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Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Few Thoughts On #GamerGate or Why It Needs To Die



            Up ‘til now, I had resolved to keep my silence on #GamerGate.  This was primarily because I am really nothing more than a casual gamer (with exception for Pokemon and Civilization, and a handful of gems like Portal and Gone Home), and therefore felt that I did not have the necessary depth of familiarity with the video games industry.  I had followed the general trends of events via several online presences whose intellectual and professional integrity I have nothing but the highest regard for, and noted more and more that not a single one of them had anything positive to say about it.  And over the past few weeks, with more and more tales of fear and threats surfacing almost daily, I began to feel that a turning point had been reached; #GamerGate is no longer a video games problem.  What’s more, it never was one to begin with- it’s a cultural problem.  And we need everyone to speak out against it. 

            I will not do a full recap of events, since that would take far more time than I currently have at my disposal.  For some different perspectives on this whole circus, many of which include links to further sources if you really want to wade into the swamp, I recommend taking a look at MovieBob’s most recent post on the subject, as well as a much-quoted response to the many defenses of the movement, a TIME article about the greater importance of this step in the development of video games, and the rebuttal to the movement posted by Todd in the Shadows to blog page for Nostalgia Chic’s website. 

            If you are reading this and are as of yet unaware of the general course of events over the past few months, please read the above links before continuing.  I am not concerned so much with how #GamerGate began, although that was sickening enough.  My worries center around where it is now, and the troubling signs I see in the near future. 

            As far as some have tried (some earnestly, some halfheartedly, some cynically) to turn #GamerGate from an attack on a single woman’s personal character into a general “reform movement” for gaming journalism, the primary problem with #GamerGate is this; it was and is too divided and too scattered to ever be effective in this regard.  In broad terms, the entire population of people (I won’t even bother using the term “gamers” here) who claim or have claimed support of any kind for #GamerGate or its appropriation of the #NotYourShield hashtag can be sifted into two general groups.  The far larger of the group is, most likely, people who are not bad people, who likely do not contribute to the waves of hate and threats that have sullied countless online forums, and who actually do believe that earnest efforts to reform the gaming industry are needed.  That said, actual statistics proving or disproving this are impossible to obtain, so in terms of the numbers on each side it is entirely possible that the reverse is true, and the second category of #GamerGaters are truly the majority of the movement.  Unless proof to that end is ever forthcoming, however, I will give humanity the benefit of the doubt, and assume that that is not the case.  I sure hope it isn’t. 

            The second group- the group that essentially started the movement and have been holding the reigns ever since- consists of a probably small, yet highly organized, group of racists, sexists, misogynists, trolls, ignoramuses, and small-minded, frightened man-children.  It is a group that senses the cultural and demographic shifts pushing them to minority, side-show status within an industry they have hitherto dominated.  It is a group that realizes that the true of future of games, like the true future of humanity, lies in plurality, in increasing diversity, where all stories of all kinds have the potential to find their way into games that reach the levels of high art achieved by other storytelling mediums like poetry, books, film, music, dance, and so on.  And it realizes that that journey into the realm of genuine art can only come about with the changing and, in many cases, elimination of many of the less-savory aspects of past and current gaming culture under the harsh light of public scrutiny.  And it fears this, more than it can put into words. 

            So they waited for the right opportunity to strike.  And when Zoe Quinn’s butthurt ex, whose name, if there is any justice in the world, will be lost to history, let loose his libelous diarrhea of adolescent rage, they saw their chance, and began striking out.  Not against any actual sources of questionable journalistic practices in gaming that do exist and should be dealt with, but rather against token developers and online personas who had been directly challenging for years their cherished worldview that there was nothing wrong whatsoever with the gaming environment they know and love today.  These people have acted with intent to emotionally harm, and quite possibly, with intent to physically harm as well.  Reform was never something to be taken seriously.  It was merely there to be used as a shield. 

            It pains me to use the word “they” in contexts like this, since it can easily lead one to exactly the kind of mental segregation of humanity I am so often railing against.  However, it is necessary now, as it sometimes is, to draw a distinction between those people directly (or even passively) involving themselves in the torrents of abuse, and those who have made genuine, albeit hopeless, efforts to rechannel the movements into something constructive.  We must be conscious about our use of the term, but in this case, it is necessary. 

            The result of all this- of the horridly graphic threats, the crashing of websites that refuse to bow down, the leaking of personal information of those who criticize them, and the cowing of others through implied threats of the same- has and can only be destructive.  It is a hindrance to the needed task of addressing real issues with modern video gaming.  It is driving creative, intellectual, and passionate people from the world of game design.  In a word, it is depriving this medium of exactly the sort of figures it needs to mature.  And it needs to stop NOW.  In fact, all you really need to do to fully understand what really drives this sludge is to note that the figures most often attacked and threatened in the most graphic ways….are all women.  Without exception.  That tells you everything you need to know. 

            Why care about this, if, as admitted above, I do no really consider myself part of any particular gaming community?  Simple- because I am a lover of film. 

            “And what the hell does that have to do with any of this?” you surely ask.  How can film, a form of entertainment over a century old and an indelible part of larger human culture, be compared with the new technology of video games?  Again, the answer is simple- film went through the exact same issues with sexism, racism, and general tolerance for diversity that video games are currently going through.  In fact, film is still going through it, because up until just recently the world of cinema has been blowing it big time when it comes to supporting genuine plurality.  And even now, the explosion of diversity in film we are seeing is being driven more by the levelling power of the internet than by any genuine, organized change effort.  We have had 86 Academy Awards thus far, which can roughly be used to date the existence of the film industry as it exists today, and only within the last 5 years have we seen a lone woman, a lone Hispanic, and a lone Asian (the latter two being men) win the Best Director trophy, and only this year did we finally see a film made by a black man win Best Picture.  Only within the past two years have box-office numbers statistically contradicted the assertions of big studios that action/big-budget fare starring women can’t ever be generally popular and make money.  You know that Avengers 2 trailer  everyone is gushing fire about?  How many seconds or footage are devoted to female/non-white characters?  5?  Maybe 7.5?  One of the most influential films ever made is Birth of a Nation, a morally offensive love letter to the KKK. 

            Yes sir, film has been humiliating itself big time for DECADES, if not longer.  And with all the benefits of hindsight we now have, video games are in a position to learn from the errors in the development of film as a medium.  The drivers of the industry can learn from the history of film and avoid many of the pitfalls that has led to cinema in general being shockingly regressive far too long into the 21st century.  That is, IF they can effectively push away and ignore the rants and tantrums of the petulant children claiming the shield of not being anyone’s shield.  This will be a turning point in the developing of video games either way.  It’s only a question of whether or not the turn will be positive or negative. 

            The real reason, however, why it is critical that EVERYONE understand what is happening with #GamerGate is that the real reasons why it exists, and the true forces pushing it to its horrifying extremes, are exactly same the same forces we see driving the Tea Party and the related partisanship that has paralyzed our government for the past 4 years.  While latent racism and conservative/social reactionism were not necessarily the initial cause of the Tea Party,  they were very much what kicked it into high gear once a black man (GASP!) won the Presidency and was able to push through the first piece of truly significant social legislation since Johnson’s Great Society initiative.  This, combined with the general fear within older, white, Christian voters that they are finally losing their very, very long vicegrip on American society, is what has allowed the demagogues of the movement to seize control over an entire party, pummeling its veteran leadership into acquiescing to their demands and exiling them from party leadership when they fail to comply, or simply for uttering the word “compromise.”  There is no other explanation able to bear scrutiny as to why Obama was the first President EVER to have his citizenship called into question, and why to this day a depressingly large percentage of Republican voters believe that he is either a Muslim, or the Antichrist, or both (I swear to God, I am not making this up).   

            With the Tea Party, we see this same basic dynamic- a tiny minority wholly unrepresentative of American society, terrified of seeing its influence inevitably waning, motivated by racism, sexism, xenophobia, and general fear of any form of change perceived as directly harmful to their interests, that has seized control of public means of discussion to bully as many as they can into either open support or silent assent.  A movement that employs language and ideas general and open enough to mask their real intentions and confer legitimacy on campaigns of harassment and cruelty (including, in the Tea Party’s case, vague arguments about deficits, the need to preserve tradition, and opaque claims that government in general is “bad”).  A movement that claims it wants “reform,” yet is unwilling (or unable) to provide any actual specifics about what it wants and how it wants to achieve them.  A movement that demonizes any critique or opposition to its maddeningly unclear goals, and kicks out any within its ranks that dares to disagree. 

            It is this movement that is primarily to blame for the radicalization of the Republican Party and the creation of a system more gridlocked and unproductive than any other Congress since before the Civil War.  It is the forces behind this movement that push against efforts to change cultures within sports, the military, universities, and others that encourage or passively accept sexual violence and harassment again women.  It is these forces that claim slavery was in the past, and is therefore no longer relevant in terms of why racial and economic disparity in the US is so high.  These are the forces continuing to seek ways to deny health coverage to the poor, who push for “voter reform laws” that, curiously, overwhelmingly restrict the ability of overwhelmingly Democratic groups to vote.  That claim that global warming, the greatest threat to humanity in history, does not exist. 

            But I digress.  Coming back to #GamerGate- the end result of the past few months is that the cultural development of video games has been substantially set back.  How far back, no one can say.  And as of right now, like with the Tea Party’s disgustingly outsized influence on our public debate, there is no effective counterweight to this.  All the people, including some dear friends of mine, that would like to have an actual conversation about how to improve gaming journalism have been thoroughly used and drowned out.  There is no real debate going on, just shady and half-formed accusations.  No steps have been taken or even brought forward about how to make actual, real improvement in how games are reported on. 

            What HAS happened is that websites and corporations have been virtually pummeled into submission and silence for doing or saying something- anything, really- that the organized #GamerGaters didn’t like.  What HAS happened is that, instead of inspiring the kind of open, spirited, and yes, painful and uncomfortable discussions that are essential for any change of positive consequence to occur, a climate of fear, anger, and mistrust has suffocated any attempt at real conversation.  The case of Felicia Day, one of the most positive and outspoken voices for games as a force for good, is as clear an example of this as anyone could provide; instead of voicing her own ideas about improving gaming journalism, she kept silent for months, out of fear.  And when she finally did speak, openly expressing her worries about where the movement is headed, she was punished, literally within minutes (on that note, if you haven’t, read Day’s silence-breaking post.  It is incredible, and brave, and wonderful).  What HAS happened is that women and their families have felt compelled to flee their homes, fearing for their very lives. 

            This means that #GamerGate as a social movement, as a reform movement, as a movement any different from a terrorism campaign (see this video as to why the use of the word “terrorism,” in this instance, is not without merit) is an utter failure, because from day one, the people pushing it the most were people who never cared one whit for tackling actual problems within the industry.  This is no different from the verbal assault that was rained down upon a female critic at a movie website for daring to spoil Guardians of the Galaxy’s perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomato (which prompted a pitch-perfect response from the site’s editor).  This is no different from the leeches that obtained celebrity nude photos and launched The Fappening, or the gremlins that tortured Robin Williams’ daughter with photoshopped images of her dead dad.  The exact same forces have been at work here from day one, the same forces of cultural and social reactionism that drive dreck like the Tea Party and give Fox News a reason for existing.  And with #Gamergate, they have been allowed to spread even further.  Which is, finally, why I am arguing that this is a cultural problem.  Not a gaming one.  It is a cultural problem, and we must all be part of the solution.  Because there is no excuse- NONE- for us not to be outraged into action by opening up the news and reading about another woman fleeing for her very life, simply because she opened her mouth and spoke her mind.  There is NEVER an excuse for that to happen.  I don’t care if there ever WAS a conspiracy to hijack the gaming industry (more spoilers- there wasn’t, there isn’t, and there never will be). 

            #GamerGate must be abandoned.  All decent-minded people who actually do want to improve things within gaming must truly come together, get organized, form vetted, dependable leadership, and provide a narrative and a course of action other than what the wretches and misogynists have offered us thus far.  The hashtags have to be abandoned, and new hashtags, new monikers, new mottos and new rallying cries found, because #GamerGate and #NotYourShield are tainted beyond all salvation.  The vultures have come home to roost, and they are not leaving until every bone has been picked dry.  We have to admit, collectively, that #GamerGate is a failure, and start anew.  Otherwise, the same corrosive forces paralyzing our political system and stratifying our society will poison the bright future of games as the next great storytelling medium.  And I don’t want to see that happen. 


-Noah Franc 

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