Back in 1999, gamers banded together to demand an end to the accusation by mainstream media that violent video games were in some ways to blame for that decade's school shootings. Fifteen years on, just last week, and a woman due to give a speech at a university cancels the event in light of security measures implemented to prevent threat of a "Montreal Massacre" style attack. Her crime? Making feminist videos critiquing video games.
In the past week, the New York Times ran a front page story that put Sarkeesian's cancellation of her university talk due to a "massacre" threat in the same sentence as movement known as Gamergate. The Washington Post, and The Guardian weighed on it too. Sarkeesian appeared in Rolling Stone and Newsweek following the pulled event, her name in the ascendancy once more, largely thanks to the same anonymous abusers who would see her silenced. The mainstream media saw a woman who talks about sexism in games being hounded by anonymous sexist trolls online, and #Gamergate creator Adam Baldwin questioning her abuse and belittling her experiences in since-deleted Tweets. The mainstream media made a broad connection and had themselves a field day. Deja vu.
I'm fed up with all of this. I'm fed up of having a pastime and an identity that I treasure and believe in dragged through the mud because people would rather sling abuse and trade insults and invent "sides" and cling to a social media construct rather than engage in meaningful communication. This all started with a break-up made public and (unfounded) allegations of a developer sleeping with a journalist for positive coverage, and it has developed into a nebulous movement that has attracted all sorts -- from criminals to anonymous trolls, from disgruntled gamers determined to strike back against a press that has seemingly abandoned them to right-wing opportunists with a passing interest in games and a greater interest in scandal, from lifelong gamers protective of their sub-cultural identity to moderates who have tried to steer the conversation around to real talk about representation and ethical standards and how we all need to take a long hard look at ourselves.
Everyone has been shouting, and the volume has been disproportionate. Whatever Gamergate was supposed to be about, and it was hard to ascertain those goals back in late August let alone seven weeks down the line, the prevailing narrative has been one of internet trolls, (mostly female) developers threatened and forced from their homes, victory dances on Twitter when cultural critics have been run out of the industry, all the while defenders preach cyclical arguments about journalistic ethics needing to be addressed.
Ah yes, the games press. Let's turn to those August articles that declared gaming culture and the gamer identity to be a thing of the past -- most of them boasting inflammatory headlines that did a disservice to the writing within. When many came to read those articles, those headlines had already lit a fuse and the message of inclusion was lost. We spent years fighting that Nineties stereotype, the one that Jack Thompson tried to convince everyone was real -- and suddenly those articles seemed to be acknowledging that Thompson may have had it right.
To look at Leigh Alexander's inflammatory piece is to read early the lines "'Game culture' as we know it is kind of embarrassing" and "'Games culture’ is a petri dish of people who know so little about how human social interaction and professional life works that they can concoct online ‘wars’ about social justice or ‘game journalism ethics,’ straight-faced, and cause genuine human consequences. Because of video games." It's an angry article, fuelled by righteous indignation at some terrible things going on. But it's actually a warning rather than condemnation. It's structurally all over the place, and Alexander mingles her opinion in with her appraisal of the mainstream media, which makes it a little confusing and tricky to determine her standpoint, but ultimately she's prophesying:
"You should be deeply questioning your life choices if this and this and this are the prominent public face your business presents to the rest of the world. This is what the rest of the world knows about your industry -- this, and headlines about billion-dollar war simulators or those junkies with the touchscreen candies. That’s it. You should absolutely be better than this."
To return to the latest debacle, and the threats faced by Sarkeesian and developers such as Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, Alexander was right about this, at least. The rest of the world doesn't have time to sift through the quagmire of opinion and misinformation, they report what they see. And what the NYT saw was a feminist critic silenced by supporters of an online mob. It may well be the case that this is an unfair portrayal of the hashtag movement, and many followers of the movement have strongly condemned this despicable act and others like it against outspoken developers and members of the media, but that's what the term "Gamergate" has come to mean for many.
It's crunch time, really. Time to move the conversation away from a social media convenience and have a discussion in more than 140 characters. The hashtag can't be saved, but gamer culture can. Gamergate as a collection of people is not a hate group, but as a consumer movement its brand has been irrevocably tarnished.
Everybody is talking about Gamergate rather than any of the actual issues, and all that really involves is trading statements on semantics. What is required now is conversation and resolution, and for that to happen people must put down their pitchforks. We can absolutely talk about gamer identity and whether or not it's dead (Jon already did), we can talk about socio-cultural context when it comes to appraising games and how reviews work, we can talk about codes of ethics, we can talk about diversity in gaming and the rise of feminist critique (and the backlash against it), but it's time to move the discussion away from this bubble of endless, entrenched cycles of the same arguments... that's what #Gamergate is really. Saying "I believe in Gamergate" means very little right now aside from buying into an "us vs them" narrative that helps no-one and fosters abuse. That is not to say that those who remain part of the Gamergate movement for whatever reason are abusers or misogynists or bad people at all -- but by framing discussions as a battle or a war, the scene has been set for atrocities to be committed, and that is what we've seen -- death threats, rape threats, vile abuses because someone dared to make an opinionated video here or disagreed with you there.
I find it staggering that Anita Sarkeesian faces daily abuse simply because she had the temerity to make videos assessing games from a feminist perspective. I find it incredibly sad that a large proportion of the responses to her plight have echoed a variation of "prove it" when it comes to that abuse. Adam Baldwin has decried victim culture while shaming those receiving threats and abuse with a profound lack of human understanding and empathy, but frankly he's wrong. We're not taking this seriously enough -- it's not a case of not feeding the trolls. Inaction and vague legislation has brought about an age of anonymous slander and abuse flung without consequence. It's a wider problem than the games industry, but that doesn't mean we have to be okay with it.
Gamergate has been a wake up call, but in many ways it's the exact inverse of what Alexander headline proclaims. gamers are far from over, but we've got work to do. Eurogamer's editor Oli Welsh published an article at the end of last week calling for a reclamation of our culture, and he's right. If you got angry at the August articles then you shot the messengers. Sure, the messengers were fairly confrontational and maybe even a bit smug, but the furore of the last couple of months has served to prove the points made in those missives. The babyish in-fighting, the cyclical arguments, the entrenched positions -- to the wider world and the mainstream media it proves that they were right.
We're all better than this, consumers and communities and media alike, and we're all culpable. But we need to drown out the voices of the criminals and the abusers and the trolls because it's really hard to have a proper conversation when a cohort of pricks are shouting over you. It's also important to recognise that gaming is more progressive and inclusive than it has ever been. If there is a small, deafening group who are against the notion that gaming is for everyone then such backlash is at least indicative of the fact that we're getting there. If that makes you afraid, don't be. The same experiences and the games that we've always enjoyed will still be available (if you don't believe me, just look at films), there'll just be a greater variety and spectrum of choice, enjoyed by more and more people each day. That's a good thing.
However, we all need to work together to continue making progress and proving the haters wrong, and I think it's safe to say at this point that any site worth their salt understands that there are important things that need talking about. Outside of the trenches of this fabricated war, there's so much common ground that it makes the past two months all the more frustrating. Websites need to be upfront about their willingness to engage in conversation, and communities need to recognise that there's merit in critiquing the things that we love. What we need are more voices, more perspectives in every facet of this industry. If you are truly dissatisfied with the state of games journalism and cannot see a way forward for the sites that you're castigating, start your own. There has never been a better time to create a YouTube or Twitch channel, it has never been easier to start your own site or blog. But for everyone concerned, transparency and honest communication, as we have seen top to bottom over the past few years, is a fundamental necessity.
For our part, we'll keep talking about games and inviting everyone to join in the conversation too. Sometimes that might involve cultural issues and perspectives because games don't exist in a vacuum, or maybe because a triple-A publisher is talking bollocks again. But we'll continue to support multiple perspectives, open-mindedness, creative freedom, and the idea that gaming is for everyone who wants in. We'll continue to try and be as honest and open as we can be, and mindful that each of our opinions is just one in a sea of many. We've always asked for your feedback in terms of reviews and coverage and that won't stop now. We've already been in discussions over the past month regarding our review system, and how we can make our critical guidelines clearer and better, and we'll continue to do so as well as seek to create clearer documentation regarding our own ethical practices and community guidelines. We won't tolerate harassment or abuse, and we won't let gamer culture be defined by those who peddle such destructive behaviour.
If you've gotten this far, thanks for reading, and do let us know what you think. I'd love to start a weekly community column to run thoughts and comment pieces that won't fit in the box under our articles if that's something that interests people. Let us know if you have suggestions in terms of content (sadly none of us writers have much power beyond that), if there are parts of the critical process that you'd like to see more of, and so on. Most of the feedback we receive, whether onsite, through social media, or via email is enormously positive, and I'd like to thank everyone who reads this site, especially those who've stuck with us over the past few years as we've suffered setbacks and had to ring the changes. Now it's time to work together to continue to create a space where we can all talk about this fantastic, brilliant, wonderfully creative industry, and by doing so show the mainstream media why gaming is awesome.