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On #gamergate: Where’d Games Go?

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Photograph by Anita Sarkeesian

by Joseph Spece

Like many ugly controversies, the beginnings of #gamergate are linked to the end of love — well, the end of a relationship, at least. In this case, the former boyfriend of independent game developer Zoe Quinn, Eron Gjoni, charged that Quinn had received positive media coverage for her game Depression Quest by then-boyfriend Nathan Grayson. Though these charges appear to be specious (a search of the blog in question, Kotaku, turns up nothing by an on-the-level-sounding reply to said accusations by Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo), they nevertheless set off a campaign of virulent harassment against Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, and other female members of the gaming community. Said harassment — much of it through social media outlets — has run the gamut from doxxing to death threats.

Defenders of #gamergate assails note that the controversy is at least as much about journalistic ethics in gaming and the position of ‘game as art’ as any supposed gender-based ‘culture war’; others are convinced that such suppositions are nothing more than a concerted effort to cover sexist hate-mongering ex post facto.

At Wikipedia, the worker ant named ‘gamergate’ has seen her page disabled for recent vandalism. Other stats say that the tag ‘#gamergate’ has been used over two million times on social media between September and October of this year. A random sampling of tagged text is sure to disturb; there’s little doubt that a tender net of nerves are at the nexus of #gamergate truth and fiction.

On the backs of high-profile media outlets like Comedy Central and the New York Times, #gamergate continues to smolder into November. As it is presented by said outlets, however, the controversy amounts to little more than at-large, big-culture misogyny in gaming’s niche market; only a few traces of #gamergate’s original call for journalistic ethics and aesthetic theory have surfaced alongside this more reassuring, certainly to the mainstream media, girls vs. boys debate.

Reassuring. If not endemic. If not volatile, shallow, and hysteric. Reassuring. Within the confines of our favorite binary, most of us recline with blockhead aplomb, sure of an intractability that hugs like a lover. One asserts to herself: ‘I, at least, know what it is to be a woman,’ and elsewhere: ‘I know what it is to be a man’; and all else is bar-top nodding, shrugs, knowing glances, bromides, and—should the company be wrong—cowed silence. But still, still: that surety. That static identity.

When I feel positive that I, myself, am one of the few guys in touch with gender’s valences, I need only think back to last week’s bender to realize how inured I am to masculine ‘standbys.’ How nearly every exchange (or overheard exchange) shunts into sex-determined parlance, every pause in conversation stitched with ‘I’m a regular guy,’ or ‘I’m a regular girl, what can I say?’ (Or, in Steven Colbert’s overdrawn, kinda-self-mocking, kinda-sadly-earnest interview with Anita Sarkeesian, ‘I’m a man, baby!’ [Which really means ‘I’m a heterosexual, baby!’]).

In my acquaintance with #gamergate coverage, critic Anita Sarkeesian has received the most consistent media exposure. Much of this attention — especially on social media platforms — has been, again, inexcusably hateful. A defined opinion nearly always draws ire, true; an attack on our favorite binary will draw still more; but few will argue that the campaign leveled against Sarkeesian, Quinn and Wu reveals just how hotly we plan to defend gender solidity and, for men especially, how badly we’d like to be left alone with privilege.

Sarkeesian began public study of popular marginalization of women on Feminist Frequency in 2009, and was first subject to harassment and scrutiny while attempting to fund the project “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” in 2012. Foils notwithstanding, the project was funded by 2500% of its original goal, and has since published dozens of videos ‘explor[ing] the representations of women in pop-culture narratives.’

Sarkeesian is due a great deal of credit for her curatorship of feministfrequency.com; for her outreach; for her general willingness to be cynosure for #gamergate ire and, yes, its predictable ameliorative upturn in the public eye. Still, it seems to me — specifically insofar as the controversy has become a ‘popular matter’ — that Sarkeesian’s feminist ambitions have stalled examination of #gamergate’s main creative fronts. And while Sarkeesian is certainly entitled to her theoretical trajectory, nearly all of gaming’s extra-sexual content has been subsumed in the gvb conflagration. It needs reinstalling.

I recently re-read a favorite poem by Laura Riding — a singular, philosophical, and difficult Modernist who receives little coverage outside the largest twentieth-century anthologies. The poem, “I Remember,” includes the lines ‘It has become less horrible to be,’ and, ‘It has become less foolish to be.’ Watching Sarkeesian’s interview on The Colbert Report, I can’t help but feel Riding was wrong on this fore. The foolishness, the guilt, the absolute guilt I felt watching Colbert bait Sarkeesian, then lay on a thick layer of disinterested ironic posture; the guilt I feel being drawn to watch the Patroits every Sunday, knowing the NFL is little more than poorly officiated violence and masked business venture (can you feel it rising up? the ‘Hey, I’m a guy, I like football, what of it?’); the guilt of giving attention to nasty political commercials, softcore porn snippets in the guise of nighttime TV adverts, all this just to get back to football or Syfy’s Face Off. The ravel of it!

Anita Sarkeesian was there, too. Introduced by a ‘#GAMERGATE’ headline and the predictable Mario/Luigi on-screen graphic (the general public appears to be placated by these smiling, fist-in-air sprites). Smiling at Colbert’s stupid hyperbole. Responding with hackneyed, if ‘appropriate,’ phrases like ‘challenging the status quo,’ ‘male-dominated space,’ ‘boys club,’ and ‘Well, maybe the princess could just save herself.’ Sarkeesian is there at the unveiling of her own entrapment: she appears as a puppet in the very den of gender norms, prime-time TV, in recognition — if you believe a video like “The Ms. Male Character” on Feminist Frequency — of the problematic male/female binary while operating entirely, willingly within it. She is the subject to Colbert’s Hollywood sovereign, properly preened for audience by the jacks backstage. On FemFreq videos, she bemoans the simplicity of the binary without situating any alternative; she is the very picture of big-business newscasting reinscription, complete with her own reporter’s mien of on-screen graphics, clips, commercials, celebrity appearances (Lily Tomlin at a Pac-Man machine wagging a quarter? Really?) SOTs, fade-ins, and fade-outs.

Meaning: how are those of us interested in gaming’s aesthetics or gaming’s independence to understand Sarkeesian’s purported interest in gaming and the female gamer’s (or character’s) place when:

(i.) She rarely examines games as de facto artobjects worthy of creative mention for their visuals, writing, musical score, voice acting, coding, or overall design;

(ii.) She nearly always front-loads with and maintains the centrality of the feminist cause; and

(iii.) She chooses to air her theoretical concerns in high-profile popular forums whose business it is (or whose business it has become) to generalize and dilute.

My questions about Sarkeesian’s investment in gaming per se are only heightened after a read of her recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “It’s Game Over for “Gamers.” The title itself is depressingly in line with Sarkeesian’s punning, gestural mode of proclamation. It’s as if she’s at the helm of some torch-and-sickle-wielding cadre that will unseat the ‘sacred boys club’ (her oft-repeated phrase of choice). There is scarcely a whit of content in the essay that doesn’t pander to either inflated bogeyman talk (‘testosterone-infused,’ ‘violent macho power fantasy,’ ‘systemic problem,’ ‘harassed and threatened,’) or install her as a veritable seraph of Good Values (‘families and friends of all ages,’ ‘games are for everyone,’ ‘quirky and emotional,’ ‘win and have fun’) who eventually paves the way even for good ol’ Ma to ‘spend an inordinate amount of time on her iPad.’ Here, again, the insistence on the binary is Sarkeesian’s. The one-track concern is hers (and, quite frankly, ours). Focus on art has completely given way to an opportunistic focus on politics.

There are those who invest in such a thing as the ‘purity’ of gaming, not as a ‘niche subculture’ status symbol, but as a deep imaginative passion: players, graphic artists, writers, composers, voice actors, coders. There are indeed those who reckon games to be more than simple ‘hobbies.’ I’m saddened to think that the opportunity to bring a measure of invested attention to the passion of such developers and artists, to publications like CartridgeLit and Boss Fight Books, has been missed. I’m saddened to think that anyone has ended up fearing for her life because of an asserted opinion or a relationship break-up. I’m saddened that more of us don’t scratch our heads while watching Wonder Woman battle Darkseid in a bathing suit.

Now’s the time for continued critical and earnest examinations of videogames as an art genre, not simply as a backdrop for hot-button political issues. I wager now is also a time to deepen our understanding of masculinity, femininity, and the limits of gender and gender analysis through gaming’s immediate lens: through Samus Aran and the full aspect of lonely Zebes, through Amaterasu-as-wolf, the styles of touch and toggle in Shadow of the Colossus, a bossy controller in Slender: The Arrival, and the impact of deeply sexy character renders in Resident Evil 5. Now’s the time to let gamers (be not afraid of this term, friends) address #gamergate questions through their own creative devices.


About the Author:

Joseph Spece is editor at SHARKPACK Poetry Review. His honors in verse include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, artist fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Corrente Prize in Poetry from Columbia University. His first book of poems, Roads (Cherry Grove), appeared in 2013.

  • Ross

    I wish I could say I been “waiting for this” but I didn’t know I was until I read it. What deep down has pissed me off about #G coverage is that it’s all about girls, not about games. #therealshit #josephspece4prez

  • TheNaiveCynic

    Imma have to start, unfortunately, by discussing people. Which sucks – I’d love to stick to discussing games, if only people wouldn’t be working so hard to throw their ideology everywhere…

    First, a factual inaccuracy (Unless you’re talking about videos outside of the Tropes series) in your piece: “… and has since produced dozens of videos …” Nope. 6. Six videos. Half a dozen, not dozens. Tropes Vs. Women has only made 6 episodes with allllll that funding, and all that time, and many of them have been made with a level of research that would take no more then a week for the layman.

    I’ve been waiting for a point to be implied or stated for a while now; that the critics of gaming’s’ treatment of gender roles seem to have their criticism VERY entrenched in their own view of what they expect from each gender. It doesn’t seem like they view gender roles as an outdated social construct – They just seem to see TRADITIONAL gender roles as bad. There are still a great many roles and behaviors critics of gender-based stereotyping seem to expect from men and women based on their gender – Hell, most or at least some of their gender-based arguments to me seem like they come from a stereotypical view. (Just a different one.) Which I find deeply disturbing.

    And indeed to address the main point of your argument; It would be nice if we could go back to video games, and view both people and game characters as individuals, rather then looking at them (And condemning them) through a checklist of stereotypical traits.

  • dsvw56

    Factual errors in the second sentence. Stopped reading there. Sick of people trying write about GamerGate while doing absolutely zero research.

  • Andreas Heinemann

    I think you may not have done enough research on this one.

    “Though these charges appear to be specious (a search of the blog in question, Kotaku, turns up nothing by an on-the-level-sounding reply to said accusations by Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo)”

    The reply you mention, actual directly references this article:

    http://tmi.kotaku.com/the-indie-game-reality-tv-show-that-went-to-hell-1555599284

    Which is an article about failed game jam, which is mostly a rewrite of some one else’s work, with a statement from Quinn herself tagged onto the end, and of cause Grayson gives Quinn a chance to plug her own game jam which she is currently taking donations for.and otherwise support her version of events.

    Stephen Totilo claims this article isn’t a problem because it was published 31st march and the two didn’t start their relationship until “early April”, but the article does exist tough, I am not quite sure why you didn’t find it.

    You might also need to know that Grayson is a relative newcomer to Kotaku, earlier this year Grayson worked for another site called Rock Paper Shotgun. While there he published this article:

    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2014/01/08/admission-quest-valve-greenlights-50-more-games/

    It is an article about 50 games released simultaniously on the online game service Steam. And while Quinns game, Depression Quest, is only 1 out of these 50 games, it is referenced in the title, the articles only picture is from Depression Quest, and Depression quest is one of the 3 recommendations that Grayson gives out of the 50 games.

    Neither of these two articles disclose the fact that Grayson and Quinn are friends, and that Grayson is featured in the credits of Quinns game.

    I think you may have been a bit too quick to judge in this case. I would suggest you take a second look.

    Just because you have progressive ideals, it does not mean you are incapable of doing wrong and in my opinion Gamergate is very much a “does the end justify the means” discussion. A group of people with laudable goals has taken to questionable methods in order to achieve those goals, and when their misconduct has been discovered, their defense is that they did it for the best of everybody.

    Andreas Heinemann

  • Nick B!

    Let’s be honest, the “facts” about GamerGate are going to change based on who you’re asking, and this representation is as good as any other. But the demand for attention on video games here, not gender, and the dressing down of Anita Sarkeesian is what’s exciting. “a veritable seraph of Good Values.”

  • John Terrance

    Exhausted with non-readers making pithy-boring statements about their unwillingness to explore the entirety of articles; exhausted with statements horribly innacurate-hyperbolic like ‘absolutely zero’; exhausted with the internet sensation that if you’ve read two sentences you deserve to publish three.

    Politely, go puke your bits in a trash can if you’re ‘sick’ of it.

    There’s work being done here and you’re cluttering the space.

  • Jas_9000

    We all read but we aren’t all bookworms. I don’t feel that the term bookworm is offensively exclusive to those who pursue the activity with less intensity. Utility of language should trump political grandstanding. Fortunately that is how it works.

  • Jake Martinez

    It’s quite amusing to me that very few people seem to pick up on Anita’s constant championing of gender binaries and established social constructs under the guise of progressive feminism. As you alluded to, the way that she refuses to contextualize her critique within the boundaries of gaming itself, for example – completely ignoring concepts such as ludo-narrative, either suggests a lack of understanding of the topic, or if one is prone to cynicism, an ulterior motive that has very little to do with gaming.

    This issue is further compounded by an uneducated gaming press and horde of Jessica Valenti style “Tumblr Feminists” who seem to be under the impression that by adding some digital breasts to video game avatars that naturally, the industry will begin producing more narratives, instead of just recycling the same ones – but this time with more commodified “Girl Power” designed to appeal to the same masses that have been consuming the product all along.

    Women leads in games, particularly the big budget games, are incredibly well represented and in fact, are generally far better written than their male counter parts. These games are also incredibly popular with the supposedly evil misogynistic male gamer demographic – but why wouldn’t they be? The narratives are still the narratives that they have been consuming for years. Laura Croft is not ground breaking despite how many times publishers continue to shrink her digital bosoms in response to claims of “sexism” (really, subjective sexualization, but the tumblrina’s have a hard time differentiating between the two).

    I don’t know if you can tell, but as a “Gamer” (meaning: hardcore aficionado of video games) I would seriously like to slap some sense into many of these activists. Not because I disagree with the their aims (if those aims are indeed about creating more narratives in video games), but because their tactics are stupid and their conditions for “victory” seem utterly contradictory. Frankly, in my opinion these are not the people who should be leading the charge. As someone who does care deeply about this, all I see are a bunch of children gnashing their teeth, and wailing about the identity politics they have steeped their world views in and almost no attention actually being paid to video games as an art form, or even identifying or promoting alternative narratives.

    It’s one thing to actively engage in negative critique as a form of social activism ala Anita Sarkeesian, but somewhere a long the way people have forgotten that the purpose isn’t solely to dismantle art or invade male spaces for the sake of making them inclusive. I mean, has this ever worked? Look at film and how much money goes into supporting the same narratives that feminists have been railing at for decades. It should be obvious that unless you actively work to engage and build alternative audiences that you’re going to fail.

    I guess consider me not very impressed with the quality of criticism around gaming these days, nor the intellectual heft of those behind it. Obviously as a new art form, this is to be expected, but then again so is the backlash when a bunch of neophytes (and let’s be honest, potentially self serving media provocateurs) over reach and attempt to murder existing culture by media decree.

  • Jake Martinez

    To be more technically correct about the media FemFreq has produced, 12 topics were supposed to be covered, and to date while 6 videos have been made, only 3 of those topics have been completed. Someone humorously counted it all up and the current rate of produced content has been at $1000 dollars per minute.

    Put it this way, I don’t expect for anyone to get their box set for the $200 contribution any time before the end of this decade.

  • Ruth Manifold

    The “dressing down” of Anita Sarkeesian–this is poor language choice, Nick B! Sarkeesian does state, in fact, that her videos isolate gender issues and that does not preclude her from otherwise enjoying the writing, art, etc. Gender-limited perspective is a systemic problem, and Sarkeesian is only attempting in the best way she can to highlight how video gaming, an immensely influential medium, plays a role in continuing these limited perspectives.

  • Ruth Manifold

    It’s not about “the girls”. It is about gender bias in society, both for women and men. Sarkeesian’s work elucidates how problematic visions of women are also dependent on problematic visions of men. Shadow of the Colossus is a wonderful example of a game that puts forward a more sensitive and nuanced depiction of male characterization.