by Paul Gomila

First things first, let me say this: I love video games. Gaming has given me some of my fondest memories and dearest friends, and I imagine it’s done the same for many people. However, I can’t say that I’m always proud of gaming.

By now, you may have heard of a series of events referred to as “Gamergate.”  If you haven’t, allow me to give you a brief and simplified version of the events. On Aug. 16, a man named Eron Gjoni wrote a blog post about Zoe Quinn, a game designer and his ex-girlfriend . Gjoni dropped heavy inferences that Quinn had slept with a gaming journalist to garner positive reviews for her new game,Depression Quest—this was later proven to be untrue. Both this allegation and the game itself proved rage-inducing among a particular group of gamers. Depression Quest is less of a video game and more of an experiential process designed to give the player a feeling of what it’s like to live with depression. The idea of story, text or narrative-oriented games is not new. Titles such as Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, and Journey have all been hugely successful in that genre.

On Aug. 28, journalist Leigh Alexander wrote an article about how “gamers are over,” arguing that the culture and identity of “gamers” is at an end. This may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to cultural space for gamers. With the industry already making small steps to cater to new audiences (female gamers now actually outnumber male gamers), some of the so-called majority of gamers feel that their white-heterosexual-young-male pastures are being restricted too far. Add this to the Quinn events, and you get a subsection of very angry and defensive gamers.

Throughout that time, Anita Sarkeesian, host of the gaming blog Feminist Frequency, was doing a video series about tropes verses women in gaming. Naturally, the same group of gamers that were upset with the previous events was offended by Sarkeesian’s critique. The types of gamers fueling Gamergate are quick to defend themselves against claims of misogyny and unfair treatment of women in both the gaming industry and games themselves.

Photo Credit: Paul Gomila
Photo Credit: Paul Gomila

It seems that Gjoni’s post was the spark that set a particular group of gamers on fire. The fire jumped from Gjoni and Quinn to Alexander to Sarkeesian, and soon enough there was a movement among this group of gamers to “expose corruption and bad politics in gaming journalism.” In the following months, these women and others received threats of murder, rape and other violent acts, all in the name of transparent journalism. After having their personal information, addresses, even social security numbers, etc. exposed to the Internet (a form of attack known “doxing”), some of these women have been forced to flee their homes and quit their jobs. The movement that spawned from these events is now collectively known as “Gamergate.”

Not surprisingly, there is much more than meets the eye here. Themes of misogyny, misanthropy, communication and journalism ethics, cultural territorialism and patriarchy (and most dangerously: angry white guys on the Internet) are all at play here. Multiple camps are rising on each side of the argument, with multiple voices within those camps calling for different measures for different reasons. Junior gamer Alden O’Barr referred to it as a “twisted mess.” However, hidden among the all-caps rage threads and death threats are some very serious issues about male identity, culture, communication ethics and gender equality.

The most serious issue here is the severe lack of respect toward women in gaming. It should be noted that the industry is getting better, albeit very slowly, about its treatment of virtual women in video games themselves, but that does not speak to the treatment of real women in the industry. Despite slight improvement in the past few years, women often play an aesthetic, weak, secondary or stereotypical role in video games (“BUT WHAT ABOUT SAMUS,” cry those in denial).

The followers of “Gamergate” seem to be quick to deny or ignore this rather blatant issue. Furthermore, communication studies professor Dr. Curtis Coats had this to add: “It seems fairly clear to me that there’s a kind of anti-feminist, misogynist, patriarchal thread running through video games,” and that “there is a lack of willingness to address [misogyny] as a core problem.” This is not to say that all male gamers are misogynists, or that game designers actively try to keep women below the glass ceiling or design weak female characters. It does speak to the atmosphere that surrounds gaming culture. Coats also commented that the gaming industry system is one that “limits the possibilities for women and that puts them in this position now of real fear of being threatened.” This speaks to the true nature of the issue: it isn’t though the industry professionals are all misogynists, but the system itself that allows the misogyny in gaming to continue.

Another major issue speaks to the resistance to criticism and change among some gamers. Women (read: all people) have the right to criticize media however they see fit. This is the only way media and art (yes, I consider video games an art form similar to film and literature) can grow and expand into new, and perhaps more fruitful, territory. The anger this sect of gamers is feeling seems to come from some internal conflicts with that criticism (specifically criticism from females about women’s roles) and not being able to handle the fact that “their industry” is changing. These feelings, as tragic and close-minded as they may be, aren’t completely unfounded.

Gaming began with white heterosexual young males—that’s just how it happened. Therefore, it’s natural, though still unfortunate, that the industry grew through its adolescence focused on that demographic as its target audience. This led to a sense of fierce entitlement from that demographic, due in part to the Internet age and how it granted the ability to anonymously cry out disdain for certain games. This immediate feedback allows consumers to dictate what happens in the gaming industry; if enough of the consumer population is displeased, changes happen. Even with that power, it’s time for white heterosexual young males (including myself) to relinquish our control over this industry and embrace the fact that women (and every other kind of human) deserve equal treatment in these spaces. It’s about damn time that a AAA design studio should be able to put a female character on the cover of a game and still have it be wildly successful.

Under the misogynistic layers of the “twisted mess” there is a group of people under that are seriously pushing for stronger ethics in gaming journalism, and their concern isn’t unfounded. Companies often pay reviewers to play their games and incentivize good reviews with beta access or access to launch parties and events. Unfortunately the voice of reason gets muffled under the din of misogyny and sexism caused by a vocal minority of the community’s members.

There is also a lack of formality among gaming journalists. O’Barr commented, “No one can tell the difference between a blogger and a real journalist.”  Overall, it’s time for industry professionals and journalists to come to an agreement to be transparent with the public and support the legitimacy of gaming journalism. This cannot be done, though, if one side is slinging claims of sexism and misogyny and the other refuses to properly deal with those claims.

So where do I stand? I believe that there is a need for a unified code of ethics for journalism in gaming, and for journalists to be transparent and objective in their reporting. However, harassing, assaulting, and otherwise harming individuals will never be an appropriate method of promoting this or any other ethics goal. I also believe that the industry needs to face its own misogyny and actively work to create a more equal and respectful atmosphere both in the real world and in the virtual worlds they create. Steps, small and steady, are being taken to reach this goal, but we can’t expect the industry to make great changes on its own. As a community of gamers we need to challenge the norms of our medium.

In the end, Gamergate is an equally powerful and frustrating example of the fact that gaming isn’t just the exclusive world of nerds (and I use that term affectionately) anymore. The events of gaming culture have real-world consequences, and games deal with real-world issues.