Thursday, October 9, 2014

Biased Opinion - The Screaming Temper Tantrum of "GamerGate"

If you have missed the raging storm of undirected and pointless fury that has been dubbed "GamerGate" by its supporters, then you should probably count yourself as lucky. To bring those unfamiliar with the faux controversy up to speed here is a brief synopsis: On August 16th, Eron Gjoni, the jilted ex-boyfriend of game developer Zoe Quinn, wrote and posted a sleazy, tell-all screed of somewhat dubious validity about why he had broken up with Zoe, and her alleged cheating during their relationship. One might think that this poorly conceived rant airing his dirty laundry would have resulted in a few people pointing out what bad judgment Gjoni had displayed by posting it, but instead some people seized upon the fact that one of the men Quinn had a relationship with was Nathan Grayson, a writer for the gaming website Kotaku. This was quickly decided to be evidence of "corruption" in gaming journalism, complete with claims that Quinn had only had a sexual relationship with Grayson in exchange for a favorable review of her free game Depression Quest. Never mind that Grayson never reviewed Depression Quest, and only made a single mention of Quinn as part of a larger article that touched upon multiple topics, in their eyes this was justification for an all-out assault upon her (and, oddly, not him). Minor league celebrity and major league conspiracy theorist Adam Baldwin got involved in the issue on twitter and dubbed the events "GamerGate". And then the portion of the internet dominated by individuals with the maturity of small children exploded.

Under the banner of "GamerGate", the disgruntled, infantile portion of the population who identify themselves as "gamers" launched a campaign of harassment against Zoe Quinn. And by "harassment", I mean rape threats, death threats, and other threats of violence, including the revelations of personal details about Quinn that would permit people to locate her and directly harm her if they so chose. When the fact that their attacks were blatantly misogynistic in nature became painfully apparent even to members inside the "movement", the "GamerGate" proponents loudly declared that their campaign was actually about "ethics in game journalism", but didn't really do much that was different than before, except now they included individuals like Anita Sarkeesian, Jenn Frank, and Leigh Alexander on their hit list. The stream of misogynistic harassment and vitriol continues more or less unabated, but as of yet, the "GamerGate" proponents have yet to identify a single legitimate instance of actual corruption in gaming journalism. Before I go any further, let me repeat that: "GamerGate" proponents have yet to identify a single legitimate instance of actual corruption in gaming journalism. GamerGate proponents have spun wild conspiracy theories, including wild theories that game journalists are censoring them whenever a website like Reddit or 4Chan gets tired of the GamerGate parade of disinformation and hatred and shuts down conversations on the topic, but they have not identified any actual ethical lapses by any actual game journalists. Milo Yiannopolous, who never met a conspiracy theory he didn't like (and who is just about the last person a rational individual would turn to to learn about journalistic ethics), uncovered an online group where gaming journalists talked to one another, and hyped this non-ethical breach as a massive scandal. And by "uncovered" I mean Yiannopolous talked about something that the game journalists involved had publicly talked about for months. "GamerGate" proponents are still flailing about ineffectively, searching for actual substance to justify their unfocused rage, and still failing to find any.

But that doesn't stop the "GamerGate" proponents from venting their rage - almost always venting it in the direction of women, many of whom aren't even journalists. One might wonder, for example, if "GamerGate" is about corruption in gaming journalism, why so much ire had been directed towards Quinn, who is not a journalist. Or why so much vitriol is directed at Sarkeesian, who is not a journalist either. The answer seems pretty clear: To the extent there is any coherence to be found amongst the mostly incoherent rage of "GamerGate", corruption in games journalism isn't the target, women are. But the larger point is that "GamerGate" is really, at its heart, a screaming temper tantrum thrown by children that people like Frank, Alexander, and Sarkeesian tried to treat as adults. And for their pains, they got in return, wails of rage and anger.

Shortly after "GamerGate" got started, several articles were posted concerning "gaming" culture in general. ArsTechnica published an article titled The Death of "Gamers" and the Women Who Killed Them, BuzzFeed posted an article titled Gaming Is Leaving "Gamers" Behind, and Gamasutra put out a piece titled Gamers Don't Have to Be Your Audience. Gamers Are Over. Kotaku phrased their article differently, stating We Might Be Seeing the Death of an Identity. Even Forbes got into the act, publishing The Gamer Is Dead: Long Live the Gamer. These articles all shared a common thread - that the gaming industry was moving beyond niche status as the basis for a geeky ghettoized hobby to become a mainstream past time, with all of the attendant benefits and drawbacks that this entailed. These articles generally made the point that when "video game player" had become a description that could fairly be applied to such a large segment of the populace, talking about a "gamer" subculture populated by "gamers" was not a particularly valid approach any more. These articles were, at the very least, the potential start of a conversation about where games fit into the culture at large using fairly commonly used rhetorical devices such as "The Gamer Is Dead". In short, these authors that wrote and organizations that posted these articles, assumed that their target audience of readers was mature enough to read these pieces and respond in an adult manner.

Instead, the portion of the audience that identified with "GamerGate" reacted by throwing what can only be described as an epic screaming fit. Many of the "GamerGate" proponents seem to have never read the articles in question, and in some cases seem to have not even actually seen the titles, referring to them as all being "Gamers Are Dead" articles. These articles have been asserted by "GamerGaters" to be a huge affront to gamers. "They are insulting us by saying we are dead!" many "GamerGater" have fumed. Many "GamerGate" proponents seem to prefer to ignore the sordid, misogynistic basis for their movement and identify these articles as the catalyst for it (a claim that is specious, as one will discover when reading the articles, as all of them are explicitly reactions to "GamerGate", which means they cannot be the cause of "GamerGate"). But when anyone who isn't in the tiny, but very vocal minority that identifies with "GamerGate" sits down to read these articles, the very childishness of the "GamerGate" response becomes readily apparent. "Gamers" were given the opportunity to show that they didn't fit the stereotype of the socially maladjusted child-men that popular culture had long held them to be, and in the most spectacular way, the "GamerGate" proponents failed this test. After years of self-identified "gamers" insisting that games and game-players should be treated as adults and not basement dwelling troglodyte babies, the gaming press presented a series of articles dealing with the gaming community in an adult manner, and the response of "GamerGate" was to scream and shake with anger.

Sadly, this is the common thread that runs through "GamerGate", and even predates "GamerGate" among certain segments of those who self-identify as "hardcore" gamers. For years many fans of video games have insisted that their preferred media could and should be treated as an art form. So when Anita Sarkeesian took them up on this claim and engaged in critical analysis of video games from a feminist perspective, which is something one does with a serious art form, one would think that gamers would have been pleased to have the object of their affection finally being taken seriously. One would be wrong. Gamers have expressed outrage that their precious games are being evaluated in this manner. They have expressed this displeasure with a vitriolic campaign of constant harassment leveled at Anita, including among their spurious charges that she has lied about the games she has evaluated, that she hates games and never plays them herself, and that she has invented stories of harassment in order to claim victim status. These claims, as one might expect, are dubious at best, and most of them are either rooted in the objector's ignorance of the topics Anita is discussing or are simply blatantly falsehoods invented to personally smear Anita. The reaction displayed by "gamers" in all of these cases, amounts to nothing more than an infantile temper tantrum.

Similarly, when a game developer like Zoe Quinn tackles a serious subject like depression and creates a game like Depression Quest that explores the topic in a serious and sober manner, one would think that gamers would appreciate that their medium had an entry that dealt with an adult topic from an adult perspective. One would once again be wrong. Even before Eron's diatribe against her, Zoe was reviled for having the temerity to make a game that some gamers didn't like. Making a game that doesn't involve running about and shooting or stabbing people in the face, it seems, is an affront against "true gaming" and, predictably, the seething rage-filled wing of "gamers" reacted with torrents of abuse and harassment. And during "GamerGate" many of the complaints about "games journalists" seem to have reflected a similar sentiment. Demands have been issued that call upon game reviewers to limit themselves to "objective" issues, like frame rates, control responsiveness, and how detailed the game graphics are, demanding that issues related to the story, including sexist, racist, or otherwise unsavory elements found in games, be left unremarked upon. But if one wants the medium to be taken seriously, then these are the very issues upon which game reviewers should be focused. Almost no one who reviews a film spends much, if any, of their time talking about the quality of the lenses used to film the piece, and instead they discuss elements like the plot, character development, and whether the film had questionable content including displays of sexism or racism. A reviewer tackling The Legend of Bagger Vance might fairly consider the racial implications of Will Smith's character as a representative of the long-standing, and problematic trope of the "magical negro". And if they do so, no one in the ranks of the cinema going audience is going to scream that this reviewer should go back to evaluating just the film speed used to capture the scenes in the movie. By demanding "objective" reviews, the proponents of "GamerGate" reveal that they are still sitting at the kiddie table and are not mature enough to be taken seriously.

The upshot of "GamerGate" is this: Time and again its members have been given the opportunity to deal with the world in an adult manner. Time and again, they have conclusively failed to do so. The reason that "GamerGate" remains a movement that almost no one regards as a serious expression of anything other than inchoate rage with heaping helpings of misogyny is that, thus far, its members have not done anything but behave like spoiled children. The "movement" such as it is, may have gotten Intel to pull advertisements from a single website, but that isn't an indication of anything other than the fact that screaming rage sometimes gets someone to try to appease the mob. What is striking is how empty the rage is. Even when one gives those who support "GamerGate" the opportunity to explain what they think is wrong with games journalism, they rattle off a collection of points that are either entirely specious or demonstrably untrue. They complain that a cabal of "games journalists" are keeping "their side of the story" from being told with biased articles (conveniently ignoring that outlets such as Forbes and The New Yorker have published articles on the subject and also found the "GamerGate" side lacking in enough merit to include). In many cases, the arguments of "GamerGate" proponents boil down to "only write about games in the way we want you to", which would be a standard that itself would violate anything resembling ethical journalism. Perusing the conspiracy theory laden websites that argue for the "GamerGate" position, it becomes clear that the reason that media outlets have not included their "side" in their articles is that the "GamerGate" side is devoid of any merit. In the end, "gamers" have been given the opportunity to show that they, and their chosen art form, have grown up, and in turn "gamers", at least those who have rallied under the banner of "GamerGate", have demonstrated that this has yet to happen.

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