It has not been a good few weeks in videogames culture. It’s been a shameful, embarrassing, dark time. It’s been a time defined by vitriolic and misogynistic attacks on women who dare to make or critique videogames and birther-movement-level conspiracy theories about the corruption supposedly at the core of videogames journalism. It’s been a time of a predominately male internet mobs emerging from the likes of 4chan and Reddit hacking websites, making death threats, and distributing leaked nude pics. Most of them, no doubt, think they are fighting for freedom and integrity and truth. But, really, it’s a mob of white men rioting after a hockey game. They don’t even know what they are fighting against anymore or who the enemy even is, but if your car is in the road you damn well better be sure it is getting flipped.
Perhaps the greatest summary of the week is given by Midnight Resistance writer Owen Grieve when he tweeted: ‘Fun game: Try explaining the events of the last two weeks to a friend who already thinks games are for socially stunted children.’ It’s a tweet that has been constantly on my mind. How do I explain what has been happening in videogames this past month to a readership that doesn’t follow along videogame news on a daily basis without confirming all the worst stereotypes of videogame players? The answer is harsh and simple: I can’t, because all those stereotypes have a foot in ugly reality. There exists, as this past month has demonstrated, an audience of misogynstic male gamers who care way too much about defending the conservative status quo of videogames.
Better people than myself have already written incredible overviews of the overall saga. Grieve’s own essay at Midnight Resistance provides a great overview, and at The Guardian, Jenn Frank summarises the events and explores some of the grosser strategies executes by these gaming communities against women in the industry. Essentially: game developer Zoe Quinn (already hated by the 4chan crowd for releasing a game about emotions that lacked graphics) had a stack of personal information leaked to 4chan by an angry ex-boyfriend. This information – which was and remains nobody’s business – included suggestions of relationships between Quinn and a videogame journalist. Suspicion as to the integrity of videogame journalism by gamers has existed for decades, and includes sexist attitudes towards women players and developers. And so in this instance, 4chan and other online forums users had the perfect convergence of everything they find wrong with videogames: critics and women. The rotten core undermining videogames.
And then, halfway through it all, Anita Sarkeesian released a new video in her ‘Tropes Versus Women’ series of videos. These videos provide the most straightforward and accessible critique of gender representations in videogames. This is first-year undergraduate arts degree stuff: uncomplicated concepts like the male gaze or objectification explained in plain ways by someone who clearly knows a lot about the medium. They are good videos, and they are years overdue. Sarkeesian has received some of the ugliest hate campaigns from people ever since she successfully kickstarted the video series, with her naysayers going so far as to create games where you bash her up. This month, with the bored gamers already in a furore over a woman having sex, the new video infuriated them. Death threats forced Sarkeesian to leave her home. Because she put a video about videogames on the internet.
The most recent mutation of this ongoing misogynistic campaign has been the #gamergate hashtag on Twitter, where a broad range of (again, overwhelmingly male) gamers call for ‘integrity’ and ‘ethics’ in games journalism. This call for integrity and ethics is simply a veneer for the ongoing hate still being targeted at Sarkeesian, Quinn, and anyone who dares support them (at the time of writing, it is critic Jenn Frank under fire for her above-linked Guardian article). Note that nobody is going after the mainstream games journalism outlets or the big publishers they are caught up with; it’s only ever the individual writers and developers with a concern for social justice and diversity. This is not a point that can be made too lightly: this was and remains a concentrated, right-wing political attack on perceived progressive ideas in videogame design and discourse.
That said, pinning down a single cause or motivation to an angry internet mob is like trying to pin water to the inside of a bucket. Almost certainly, there are people in the #gamergate hashtag who are unaware of its origins in a misogynistic campaign. They are there because they truly think games journalism truly has an ethics and integrity problem. Which it does, as does all journalism. It’s a constant ongoing discussion. But the ‘ethics’ and ‘integrity’ these people have a problem with is the challenging of a status quo, not its perpetuation. It’s a concentrated political attack that, ironically, wants an ‘integrity’ – that is, a reporting of the ‘facts’ provided by game publisher marketer firms without question.
Meanwhile, with conspiracy-theorist passion, publicly available social media feeds are screengrabbed and put beside high scoring reviews. Red circles are drawn around time stamps and arrows show causation. Every friendship becomes part of an agenda.
So rather than providing yet another thinkpiece demonstrating how miserable this all is (there are enough of those, and I would highly encourage you to read each piece I link in this article), I thought a more useful contribution would be some historical context. How does something as absurd as this even happen? What is so wrong with a popular medium’s culture that people legitimately think women and consumerist journalists have an agenda to deliberately ‘ruin videogames’? Who even cares about videogames enough to think that is even happening?
This requires a two-pronged attack: at the same time we need to account for the homogenous ‘gamer’ demographic of young men that games journalism and marketing themselves cultivated over the past decades, and the ongoing sexism and discrimination that such a homogenised demographic comes with. There’s no start to this ouroboros – they are both different aspects of an increasingly insignificant hobbyist core of self-identifying ‘gamers’ who were once the sole target audience of the industry’s output, and who now need someone to blame for the status quo of videogames shifting to no longer be devoted to them and them alone. They need someone to blame for videogames becoming, of all things, normal.
Videogames have long been entrenched in masculinist computer science and hacker cultures. That is not to say, of course, that women have not been central actors in computer science and hacker cultures and industries since the later parts of the nineteenth century (see N Katherine Hayles’s work for extensive, historical observations on the gendering of technology). Rather, these spaces became highly delineated as male spaces for male people, as the ethnographic studies of Sherry Turkle among others have shown. In particular, as the videogame industry was rebirthed after a great crash in the mid-80s, as one focused on home consoles and PC gaming, the popular discourses circulated by videogame marketing and journalism shifted to cultivate an audience of ‘gamers’: young, western men and teenage boys with a disposable income.
Graeme Kirkpatrick, as part of a comprehensive study of gaming magazines in the UK through the 80s and 90s, demonstrates the change in tone and perceived audience, from that of concerned parents and hobbyist creators to a carefully cultivated audience of male, teenage ‘gamers’ concerned with the ‘gameplay’ of a given videogame work:
As gameplay is established as the elusive yet central concept and gamer habitus is fixed around it, so the magazines change their mode of address, becoming more confident in their audience. In the formative years of gaming’s field the magazines assume multiple, sometimes conflicting readership positions. Later, this is no longer an issue: 1990s gaming magazines are aimed at teenage boys and they insert games at a point in the culture appropriate to this.
Thus the ‘gamer’ was born. Not just a person who plays videogames, but someone who lives and breathes videogames. Someone who can bond with other gamers over their shared appreciation of gameplay. Someone who will boast about how quickly they can finish Super Mario or how much better this game is from that game. Someone who will, most important of all, continue to purchase a certain kind of game.
From the mid-80s onwards, the ‘gamer’ identity was created and cultivated as a particular target consumer base through gaming magazines and marketing. For the nerdy kids that could self-identify as gamers, it was something to embrace, something to be, and, for the videogame publishers, it was a known, homogenous group that can easily be marketed to. They were sold an identity, they took it, and it persists today: ‘I’ve been a gamer my whole life.’ Or, alternatively, think of how many people feel the need to caveat any comment on videogames with, ‘I’m not a gamer, but…’ The imprinting of a ‘gamer’ identity was so complete that those who aren’t gamers felt unable to comment on games.
There has, though, always been subcultures in videogame consumption and production. Anna Anthropy’s recent book on the communities around the game ZZT is just one example of a vibrant underground community of creators and players. But, by and large, it was the blockbuster, corporately made and distributed games, that got the coverage from the gaming press. The last decade, however, has seen increased exposure to these other games made by other people for other audiences. Independent developers, broadly defined, have new ways to access development tools, and more importantly, can distribute directly to an audience. Videogame production is no longer constrained to those with the budgets and resources to make huge, blockbuster productions. As Anthropy says in her previous book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: ‘Publishers claimed game creation as their private territory. And for a while, they convinced a lot of people that their claim was legitimate. But that’s over now.’ On the other hand, smartphones and tablets have put a massive ecology of videogames in every person’s pocket. Playing videogames is no longer just for those who are committed enough to buy a $500 devoted box to put under the television.
It is no longer sustainable for games journalism to ignore these more diverse audiences. They can no longer afford to speak to just that core gamer demographic of young men that they initially helped construct. When games like Depression Quest, Dys4ia, Minecraft, Angry Birds, and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood exist and reach such levels of critical and popular acclaim, an outlet dedicated to the medium of videogames simply can’t pretend videogames belong to a single demographic any more.
And so enters the conspiracy theories. The very audience that games journalism and marketing has cultivated since the 90s (and, to be sure, still largely relies on, as gaming site Kotaku’s poorly considered response to the current saga demonstrates), is no longer the only audience. There are no fewer Call of Duty or Assassin Creed or Grand Theft Auto games than there were ten years ago, but now there are also a whole range of other games as well, thus making those core games a slightly smaller percentage of all possible games. To the core gamers, this seems like an attack. In reality, it’s just a balancing of some vastly unfairly distributed power.
These people look at a game like Depression Quest and they can’t comprehend what could possibly be good about it. There are no graphics! It’s about something boring like mental illness. This isn’t what we were told a videogame would be in the future. They are meant to be realistic and immersive virtual worlds where we can live out all of our fantasies! The same goes for Gone Home, a beautifully realised game that explores teenage girl sexuality and riot grrl culture in the 90s. You don’t shoot anything. Nothing ‘happens’. How could these games possibly be received well by a videogame press? Well, it must be a conspiracy.
So videogame journalism has been invaded by these ‘social justice warriors’ who wish to destroy videogames with cultural criticism and writing more diverse than consumer advice. As Grieve rightly notes, the fear of any sort of cultural criticism of the medium of videogames comes from a history where any criticism of videogames was the thinnest veneer of wanting to censor videogames. People see Sarkeesian discussing sexism and think of (now disbarred) attorney Jack Thompson and his multiple lawsuits against the Grand Theft Auto games. So now, any form of progressive social politics in writing is a sign of wanting to censor videogames, of wanting to somehow profit from them when, really, it’s just the consequence of videogames finally, at last, becoming just another pop cultural form with a diverse range of audiences and commentators and creators, finally getting the critical discourses it deserves.
Which is not to say games journalism is without its problems or above criticism. As I say above, games journalism created the very audience that is now attacking it. There has been a sense for a long time now that games journalism and publishers are too cosy; that games journalists are, essentially, just writing advertisements for games and rarely saying anything particularly critical. And, undeniably, the gaming press exist largely to drip-feed information from publishing marketers to a consumer public. Publishers choose what they want gamers to know, and feed that information to games publication outlets, even as those same publishers simultaneous hire all the ad space in gaming magazines and websites. The threat is obvious: depict us badly, we won’t advertise on you. There is also, of course, the occasional accusation of straight-out bribery, which I’m sure has happened. Or the rare case of a journalist being fired after a publisher puts pressure on an editor. But outright corrupt proceedings are the exception, not the rule. For the most part, positive coverage of games is manipulated by very savvy and very powerful PR branches.
A story: in late 2012, I went on my first international press trip. My editor at Hyper magazine messaged me and asked if I was free next week because he needed to send someone to go to Montreal to play upcoming games Assassin’s Creed 3 and Far Cry 3 in order to write previews. The games’ publisher, Ubisoft, paid for my airfare. They paid for my taxis and my fancy hotel room. There was about a dozen or so journalists from different parts of Europe (Australia counts as part of Europe for most games companies), and each one had their own handler. Their was the PR handler from Ubisoft Germany for the German journalists, the one from Ubisoft Netherlands for the Dutch journalist, the one from Ubisoft Australia for me. Each had a credit card to buy their journalist whatever they needed. The handlers weren’t malicious about this: they worked for a company that gave them an open tab and they were going to have fun with it. They’d take us to fancy restaurants and buy us absurd cocktails. During the day, at Ubisoft, we’d be herded into a room where we could play one section of each game for a few hours. Developers would talk to us beforehand and tell us what was happening in this part of the game. Everything was carefully cultivated to try to make our experience of this sliver of a much larger game as positive as possible. You had the developer right there telling you about this section while you played it. How could you not appreciate it? I remember leaving with a deep air of excitement for these games that I had previously been very skeptical of.
I wrote my positive previews and then, when the games came out months later, they were not that great at all. The section I played of Assassin’s Creed 3, for instance, was a good six hours into the game and not at all the introduction I thought it was. I don’t think I wrote bad previews of either game; I’m really quite happy with them. But there is no denying that they were slanted to a more positive tone because of how I was treated by the publisher. As far as Ubisoft was concerned, all that money they spent getting me from Melbourne to Montreal was just the cost to help increase hype around these upcoming games. For Ubisoft, my ‘previews’ were just six-page ads.
Is this corruption? Maybe. But it’s also simply the way consumer entertainment journalism works (for better or worse). The publishers have the content that the presses need locked down, and you will only access it under the circumstances they set. No games outlet can afford to pay to send a freelancer from Melbourne to Montreal. Heck, most outlets can’t even afford to pay a freelancer at all! And even if they did, if Ubisoft doesn’t let you in the front door, what’s the point? Mainstream games journalism is intimately connected to the PR arms of the big publishers, and the big publishers do all they can to use the press to send out exactly the message they want, and the press can do very little about it.
This isn’t a new or unique claim. This is how mainstream consumer games journalism functions. It’s about what consumers can buy in the future, and whether or not they should buy it. So #gamergate starts with an annoyance at this long-held (and justified) belief that games journalism and ‘the industry’ are too intimate. That intimacy is, of course, part and parcel of reporting on a commercially driven cultural industry, but its makes its readers frustrated all the same. It’s a valid critique: status quo, consumerist games journalism is intimately connected with the games industry, and not nearly vocally critical enough of its interests.
Now another story: while I was in Montreal, it just so happened that the Mount Royal Gaming Society was having their monthly meet-up. Separate from its massive commercial studios, Montreal has a vibrant scene of indie developers who meet up in bars to chat, collaborate and offer feedback. I hung around for a few days after Ubisoft stopped paying for my hotel, sleeping on a friend’s couch. He took me to the meet-up, and ensured I spoke to and saw all the different local indie developers he was excited about. There, I met Henry Smith and was shown his game Spaceteam, which remains one of my favourite iOS titles. I would go on to champion this game made by a guy I met in a bar, on social media and in a review. I wanted people to be excited by this game I was excited by.
This is fundamentally different than being flown around by Ubisoft to play big, blockbuster games in carefully monitored situations. Through friendships and social networks I found a wonderful game that, as a critic of the medium, it is my duty to champion.
It is exactly these kinds of connections that #gamergate is attacking. Not the corporate interests of PR and journalism outlets, but the personal networks and contacts utterly vital to reporting on and being aware of a vibrant and diverse culture of creators beyond the interest of commercial publishers. They don’t care that Sony gets bands like the Foo Fighters to play at massive parties each year at the trade show, E3, to an audience predominately made up of invited journalists. But the fact that a writer for Kotaku lived with some developers whose free game she later wrote about is apparently a sign of deep corruption. They are furious that a game critic, whose job is to inform a readership about happenings in games culture, would have publicly disclosed personal friendships in that culture.
Of course, these smaller games and developers and writers that depend on personal relationships over unobtainable PR budgets consist of a much larger percentage of women – and queer and non-white developers and writers, precisely because they are not that core male gamer audience that games journalism and the games industry cultivated for themselves. Because games have become so much more diverse and normal and played by so many more people, the way they are covered as a cultural form is shifting. And thus we come back to the sexism at the heart of #gamergate: it was never about ‘ethics’ or ‘integrity’ but about protecting the status quo, about ensuring that games journalism is only ever consumerist advice, that writers toe the corporate line they are fed and never, not once, critique a game’s depiction of women, a studio’s labour conditions, or a game made beyond the corporate agenda. It is about keeping women and minorities out of games. It is about fighting against diversity and fighting for a return to homogenisation. It is about maintaining privilege.
Which is the irony and the difficulty of writing about it at all: there are issues with games journalism that are synonymous with the ones #gamergate are complaining about. But they don’t care about advertising and PR companies and free hotels and capital, because that is the very industry that created their identity for them. Videogame journalism has ceased to be purely about consumer advice, and now ‘gamers’ – an identity cultivated explicitly to read and engage with games journalism as consumer advice – feel something is wrong. Games dug its own grave.
A lot of why it has boiled to a head now (beyond the perfect storm initiated by a slighted ex-boyfriend) is a simple truth: videogames are normal now. They are cool. They are popular culture. Angry Birds and Call of Duty are Taylor Swift and Michael Bay. Lana Del Rey sings about them. They are talked about in Vice and The New Inquiry. They are still made and played by teenage boys, but also by young girls and middle-age women. ‘Gamers’ are no longer the only people who play videogames, as Leigh Alexander and Dan Golding both draw attention to. Gamers are not the only audience of videogames anymore than films are only for cinephiles or books are only for bookworms. These people that call themselves gamers think that the word applies to all people who play videogames, but studies have shown it is a gendered and exclusionary term, where far fewer women videogame players feel confident with it as an identity than men, regardless of how many hours they actually spend playing games. It’s an identity: ‘real’ gamers like hardcore (read: masculinist) games and don’t waste their time with casual (read: feminine) games. It’s why every time a new survey shows that more women play games than men, the reaction is always to point out that they only play Candy Crush and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Whatever kind of games women play are not the games core gamer culture is interested in and, thus, any coverage or credence given to those games is part of the perceived problem.
When it was necessary for corporate interests, a ‘core gamer’ identity of young males was cultivated to buy the products of an industry scrambling to come back from the brink. To be sure, they still are. The large publishers and the major games journalism outlets are still more afraid of upsetting gamers than they are of speaking to a more diverse audience. But both have been bypassed by the emergence of creators and writers beyond the core gaming industry. Which is not to say, necessarily, that we are seeing the end of the gamer identity, but we are seeing what was only ever a small, consumer-focused subculture kicking and screaming itself into the realisation that this is all they ever were, and that videogames as a diverse ecology of cultural forms – commercial, popular, niche, personal – is moving on without them.