Hackers, gamers and cyborgs

Gamergate began in August 2014 when a slighted and abusive ex-boyfriend of Zoe Quinn, developer of the award-winning interactive fiction game Depression Quest, posted private and libellous information to internet message boards with a predominantly male user base. According to the ex-boyfriend, Quinn had slept with a journalist from one of the major enthusiast press outlets and, as a result, the journalist mentioned Depression Quest in an article. Thereafter, the online mob hid behind claims about ‘ethics in games journalism’ as they launched an attack on a woman for having a sex life.

Gamergate (though not known by this name for the first fortnight) soon escalated.

The damage has been well-documented, with feminist critic and second Gamergate target Anita Sarkeesian appearing on the front page of the New York Times and the Colbert Report to discuss the hateful movement and the death threats. I have previously written a piece for Overland detailing the fallacies of Gamergate’s ‘it’s about ethics in games journalism’ veneer and demonstrating how the movement ignores genuine ethical conundrums in mainstream video game journalism to instead focus on marginal, independent women creators and critics.

Here, I want to situate Gamergate in the context of the broader patriarchal structures from which video game culture emerged. Gamergate didn’t appear from nowhere, and an examination of its origins provides an opportunity to grasp the entrenched patriarchal values of this significant pop-cultural form.

The masters of the computer

The history of video games is inexplicably enmeshed with the history of computing: in the late 1940s, when Alan Turing was formulating the concept of a computer algorithm, his goal was a computer that could play chess competitively. Commonalities can also be traced from video games back to the penny gaffs, nickelodeons and theme park attractions of the late nineteenth century. But it is the people from the early years of electronic computing who created the first video games and who laid the tracks along which gaming would travel for the next half century.

Even today, the study of video games in universities will more often be found in computer science or IT faculties than in the humanities. This is because video games are well understood as software but not so much as cultural artefacts.

At the time Turing was working on his chess algorithm, most ‘computers’ were, literally, women: human clerks hired to punch out desktop calculations to be passed on to gunnery officers to aim artillery or other weaponry. The women, already cheaper than equally qualified men, were gradually replaced with computing machines such as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (the ENIAC), designed at the University of Pennsylvania and funded by the US Army. While several female computers were initially retrained as programmers for the ENIAC, they were removed from the project when the machine was taken to a military base.

The story of computers transitioning from the flesh to the digital, from the clerical (feminine) to the militaristic (masculine), provides a compelling origin myth for the digital computer. By the 1960s, computers were exclusively the realm of rich (and usually military-affiliated) universities, in overwhelmingly male computer labs. Such was the case with MIT’s PDP-1 computer, with which a group of male students created Spacewar!, the first video game.

Even as computers became increasingly significant devices in the last decades of the twentieth century, they remained entrenched in broader patriarchal structures that inscribed them as mathematical, scientific, important – that is, as male. They were embedded, more often than not, in parts of society already explicitly gendered: the science lab, the maths classroom and, when they moved to the home, the son’s bedroom rather than the daughter’s.

It is in such settings that the much glorified hacker culture of the 1970s and 1980s emerged. This new identity is perhaps best documented in The Second Self, Sherry Turkle’s ethnographic work about MIT in the early 1980s, in which she traces a fascinating and complex alternative masculinity, one very much defined by its repulsion of jock culture and physical prowess. These nerdy engineering students are not jocks, but rather the bullied kids who never get the girl.

Yet their relationships with their computers echo a certain masculine normativity all the same: a need to transcend the corporeal, a desire to master and dominate the machine, to have it bend to their will. The hacker ideology functions as a microcosm of broader masculine ideology, even as it provides an alternative for those young men excluded from dominant forms.

This is the narrow demographic (male, university-educated engineering/computer science geeks, many affiliated with one hacker scene or another) that shaped the early years of video game design. Video games would spend decades symbiotically attached to student hacker culture: to the sciences, to computer programming, to engineering and thus to masculinity. PONG, one of the first commercially successful video games, was created by Allan Alcorn, an engineer and computer scientist by trade.

In tracing this early history, it is important to acknowledge the women who were present throughout, such as the human computers of the 1940s, or Ada Lovelace (responsible for significant early contributions to the understanding of computer programming), or Veronika Megler (who co-created the critically acclaimed 1982 video game The Hobbit). But the existence of these women does not render the field less patriarchal – that is, open to men and often closed to women.

It is from this male-dominated computer culture that ideas about what video games should be emerged. This is not a claim that video games are naturally masculine, but rather – as argued by Judy Wajcman in Feminism Confronts Technology (1991) – that both computing and video games were co-opted early on by the ideology of masculinity.

Early video game genres were narrowly and disproportionately concerned with science-fictional and militaristic fantasies of shooting aliens, blowing up missile silos, driving racing cars or saving princesses. The patriarchal inscribing of video games thus enforces itself. As Wajcman notes:

Many of the most popular games today are simple programmed versions of traditionally male non-computer games, involving shooting, blowing up, speeding, or zapping in some way or another … No wonder then that these games often frustrate or bore the non-macho players exposed to them. As a result, macho males often have a positive first experience with the computer; other males and most females have a negative initial experience.

Wajcman’s point (echoed by many contemporary critics) is not that shooting, speeding, or zapping are inherently masculine activities, but rather that video games become coded as masculine through society’s pre-existing gendered norms, thus connecting games and computing to broader patriarchal concerns. This attracts more men and boys to the form, and helps to ensure most women and girls remain uninterested or excluded.

In more recent years, the technology industry spawned by the nerds of the twentieth century has become a dominant masculinity in its own right. Geeks are no longer Poindexter: they are Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. They are frat-boy billionaires running trendy West Coast tech start-ups.

Masculine computer culture thus occupies a complex position: a field traditionally inaccessible to those who aren’t male or upper middle class, but dominated by those teased and bullied for not being macho, has now obtained a privileged status. The hacker remains an alternative identity to the masculinity of sporting jocks, but it continues to exclude women, even as it has grown in power and influence.

The early history of digital computing has consequences for the ideology of video game design as well as for the way in which these products are received and discussed. Gamergate’s insistence that video game criticism should be ‘objective’ – a notion considered absurd in any other cultural form – stems directly from inherited mathematical and scientific values: a perception that video games are quantitative software, not qualitative creative works.

Meanwhile, Gamergate supporters harbour a persecution complex, considering themselves to be the marginal, bullied nerds of years past, rather than the beneficiaries of a dominant masculinity harassing women out of a cultural sphere.

To be a true gamer

In the mid 1980s, video games changed. The North American industry crash of 1983 was followed by an increase in popularity of Nintendo’s home console and microcomputers, meaning that personal video game machines were no longer poor imitations of crowded arcades but rather the primary mode through which video games were consumed. By the 1990s, video games were no longer just a technology with which hackers and amateur programmers toyed, but also a product in need of a consumer market.

In a 2012 article for Game Studies, Graeme Kirkpatrick traces these constitutive tensions in video game culture through a detailed etymology of the words ‘gameplay’ and ‘gamer’. Gameplay, as it emerges in magazines of the late 1980s, is an inherent quality used to differentiate video games. A video game might have a bad story or poor graphics, but what matters is that it has good gameplay. Gameplay is what the player ‘does’ in the game: the actions they take, the skills they learn. But what the player does in these games created predominately by men is shoot, race, stab, fight and exert dominance.

Gameplay, then, as the normative taste through which the ‘true gamer’ is marked, perpetuates historically masculine qualities. Kirkpatrick explains: ‘The true gamer is the one who understands and appreciates good gameplay and the “gamer’s game” is the one that has it in abundance.’

The emergence of a normalised gamer identity was carefully cultivated by magazine publishers, with advertisements and articles strongly suggesting that a gamer was a particular kind of person – male, young, skilled at ‘gameplay’ and technologically competent. For the Western game developers rebuilding themselves or emerging after the industry crash, a stable consumer identity with a narrow, clear set of values and tastes was ideal. Just as the Wiggles could spend their lives performing the same songs for a perpetual generation of four-year-olds, the large publishers were, from the 1990s onwards, able to tap into the market of young male ‘gamers’ who valued a narrowly defined understanding of ‘gameplay’. The result was an industry churning out iterations of the same games year after year to a perpetual audience.

This had lasting repercussions on video game forms, particularly since the gamer identity was shaped not only through a possession of certain qualities but also through a strategic exclusion of other identities. One example Kirkpatrick cites is a mid-1990s gaming magazine telling its readers that ‘Even the women behind the counter of WH Smith’s have heard of PlayStation by now.’ Even women – who are by definition not gamers – know what a PlayStation is.

The people who do not appreciate ‘real gameplay’ are not true gamers. They don’t understand.

The repercussions of this exclusionary framing, deliberately cultivated to create a stable consumer base interested in the kinds of games that male developers are interested in creating, cannot be underestimated. The misunderstood science nerd converged with a very 1990s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ mindset in which non-gamers ‘just don’t get it’. This allowed a generation of young, white, heterosexual male video game players to consider themselves marginalised and discriminated against: the non-gamers don’t understand us, the jocks bully us and the politicians want to ban our hobby.

The persecution complex of the nerd gamer persists to the modern day and is the driving force behind the enduring notion of a homogenous gamer identity. When journalists report on industry surveys that reveal the majority of video game players to be women, commenters respond that women only play casual games (such as Candy Crush Saga or Farmville) and thus don’t count. The gamer identity sustains itself by dismissing out of hand games that do not measure up against an arbitrary value of ‘gameplay’ (thus ensuring gaming remains relatively marginal) while simultaneously claiming to be a persecuted identity on the basis of that marginality.

Nowhere has this played out more exemplarily or more violently than with Gamergate. It represents thirty years of this consumer-base-cum-identity’s self-sustainment butting heads with the sheer ubiquity and pervasiveness of contemporary video games. When critics wrote articles that condemned the toxic masculinities and normativities of gamer culture after the initial abuse hurled at Quinn and Sarkeesian, Gamergate solidified as a movement with a name, protecting gamers everywhere from those who would dare question the sanctity of their identity. The claim that ‘gamer’ is an exclusionary label that works to homogenise notions of who plays video games was translated by supporters of Gamergate into a direct attack on their identity.

The rise of the cyborgs

In her 1985 essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, Donna Haraway uses the notion of the cyborg as a way of thinking about how humans engage with technology and the world. An explicitly feminist alternative, the cyborg does not exist separately from and in ultimate control of its world (as with Enlightenment Man) or its technology (as with the hacker), but is spliced with both, always already a part of its world, always already partial and fragmented and viewing from somewhere. It’s a call to embrace the mediation of the world on the subjective human, in direct reaction to a conceptualisation of ‘man’ that only ever applied to those with enough power to understand themselves as somehow separate from the world they control and to think of their viewpoint as somehow objective. Where the hackers and their masculinist ideologies about technology favour domination, efficiency and transcendence, the cyborg is a creature of cooperation, submission, corporeality and embodiment.

If, through the hacker and gamer ideologies of the twentieth century, we can trace how video games sustained a patriarchal culture that actively excludes women, then the cyborg provides an alternative way to imagine our technological interactions. This is especially relevant in the context of recent years, when developers and critics have championed video games that directly challenge assumptions about what a game must be.

Video games such as Merritt Kopas’ Lim, Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia, Zoe Quinn’s own Depression Quest and Fullbright’s Gone Home fly in the face of normative design. Unlike traditional games, which typically empower the player to make choices that ‘matter’ or to take actions that are globally significant, each of these focuses in its own way on disempowerment, by placing tight control over the player’s actions. Gone Home, for instance, is a short game about returning from overseas in the mid 1990s and exploring your family’s new house by walking around and looking at objects. Through these simple, banal actions you learn about your father’s stresses, your mother’s boredom and, centrally, how your younger sister is coming to terms with her sexuality.

It’s a beautifully paced, heartfelt and endearing video game, but you wouldn’t know that by reading the user reviews on a site like Metacritic. ‘The only semblance of gameplay Gone Home has to offer is 90 minutes worth of pitiful, painfully easy exploration … To call this a video game is insulting!’ complains one of many gamers furious the game costs $20. In this comment we see all the normative ideologies of the gamer identity and its beloved gameplay in conflict with games created by and for people who do not consider themselves gamers in the narrowly defined sense: the game’s too short, too easy, lacks conventional gameplay and, ultimately, an insult to ‘true’ video games.

Technology is no longer the domain of hackers alone. It is now used every day by people with no interest in understanding or mastering it (Apple computers ‘just work’, we were told in a turn-of-the-century advertisement). Video games are the same. For normative video game culture, obsessed as it is with objectively understanding and mastering intricate systems, new video game forms (art games, experimental games, ‘walking’ games, interactive text games, casual games, mobile games and so on) that emerged both by and for a diverse audience of cyborgs offer nothing. For those who have played video games strictly in the narrow hacker-gamer paradigm, a game in which the player goes for a walk, or pokes at some colours and sounds, or flicks a bird at some pigs, does not provide enough to possess gameplay. This normative, if increasingly insignificant, culture is unable to account for why games that lack gameplay are being so well received while military shooters and criminal simulators are being criticised. There is, according to gamers, only one possible explanation: collusion between developers and journalists.

That is where Gamergate comes from: an ingrained, cultivated, formalist and narrow comprehension of what constitutes a ‘true’ video game. Influenced historically by the male domination of computer culture and reinforced by an industry in search of a stable market, many gamers are unable to account for – and in fact feel threatened by – the nascent and diverse field of developers and critics creating and evaluating video games beyond these normative ideas. Gamergate does not represent a marginalised, discriminated identity under attack so much as a hegemonic and normative mainstream being forced to redistribute some of its power.

But normative ideologies don’t die easily, and both Gamergate and ‘gamers’ are here to stay, at least for a while. Twenty-five years, seventy-five years or several thousand years of patriarchal structures (depending on how you look at it) will not disappear overnight. Just like men’s rights activists or the Tea Party – other groups of the powerful masquerading as the oppressed – Gamergate will continue to appeal to gamers who are incapable of differentiating cultural criticism from censorship, more diverse forms of video games from ‘bad’ video games, and diversity from discrimination.

Gamergate isn’t a war against women. It’s a battle against women, in a war that’s been going for much longer.

Brendan Keogh

Brendan Keogh is a senior lecturer in the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology. He is the author of A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames and co-author of The Unity Game Engine and the Circuits of Cultural Software.

More by Brendan Keogh ›

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