On #gamergate: Where’d Games Go?


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; 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.