Politically speaking I'm very live-and-let-live. I'm a moderate on most issues, but also an avid debater. I think this is because I have more of an arts- rather than business- or engineering-brain. I give more credence to critique and rhetoric than is fashionable, and through them I learn. That’s how I initially approached the questions raised by feminism in games, representation, legitimacy and so on. At first I knew very little about it, but then poked, prodded and thought out loud and learned.
I admit “white male privilege”, “social justice” and others sounded a little jargony to me. I had a phase where I felt non-specifically tagged. I supported (correction: support) the empowerment of women in the games industry and for their stories of mistreatment, demeanment and marginalisation (and worse) to be heard. But, as one of those privileged cis straight white guys, the blurring of the usual boundary between content and player felt blame-ish. It felt like the finger was pointing at me personally.
It took me a while to realize that the feminists were asking for action, support and consideration. Anita Sarkeesian wasn’t saying that I was personally to blame, or that because I had played games with objectionable content that I was directly promoting misogyny. She was saying that I was operating within a certain framework, a framework that I should really take a step back from and regard. And then consider what I might do to change that relationship. It was one of her Feminist Frequency videos, about how female characters in games are often reduced to a single class (the tall one, the fat one, the weird one, the girl) and depicted using pink coloration that finally made me understand.
So I got to the other side, but because of my journey I think I understand where many current reactions in gamerland come from. In a sense I was there. "Hey," Joe Gamer says in response to Sarkeesian's latest video, "that point you're making about Hitman being misogynist because you maybe might do bad things in it seems to be saying that I'm a misogynist! But I'm not! She's twisting something!" I sort-of thought that for a while too.
Now on the one hand Joe's somewhat missing the point. One rejoinder to Sarkeesian’s videos holds that her videos cherry-pick and amplify and are not representative of the actual games, or by extension the players. In one scene she shows, for instance, the titular character in Hitman beating strippers to death and dragging their corpses around. Joe retorts that that’s not how you’re supposed to play the game, that the mechanics dissuade you from doing so, and that the typical player actually sneaks around that level, bypassing the strippers entirely. Joe says that it’s kind of like claiming Gran Turismo is a car crash simulator rather than a racer because if you really want to do that in the game, you can. But you're not supposed to.
The break here is Joe misunderstands what cultural criticism actually is. Criticism isn't science, but nor is it just flat opinion. It's a carefully considered reading of culture through a lens to see how it fits/stands up/reveals itself. To write a Marxist analysis of a text, for instance, isn't to just read it and bluntly apply the Marx stamp. To provide a Barthes-ian critique is more than simply saying "So I think this story is pretty mythic". Feminist critique is the same. Some accuse it of cherry picking and trolling and not being “objective” (by which they mean analytical), as though to say that the argument should be about numbers. If Hitman is only 1% sexist and 99% not, that line of reasoning goes, then it’s not sexist.
But it's about the cherries. If you saw an otherwise hilarious movie that took 30 seconds out to go on a diatribe against black people, most reasonable people wouldn’t say “hey the movie’s only 1% racist, therefore not racist”. Of course it’s racist. The cherry, as it were, taints the whole of the rest. It calls it into question. The joke about tying women to back of your horse in Red Dead Redemption is uncomfortable, and it makes the rest of the play experience uncomfortable too.
My understanding of what feminists like Sarkeesian are saying is essentially “why do these cherries have to be there” - and that is more a question for game makers than players. Critique is generally about the work itself and what it implies. It asks searching questions and brings a perspective to stuff that we might otherwise have blithely accepted, and that can be valuable. That's why Sarkeesian's work is received so positively in most places. She shines a much-needed light and makes us see differently. That sensation is sometimes uncomfortable, but also valuable.
Similarly games from different perspectives can have the same effect. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest is not a normal game as most of us would traditionally describe that term, nor is Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia. Both don’t dance to the normal beat in many ways, placing the player in a very different kind of situation to the usual active-hero trope. Some players find these games bold, some find them boring. That is, of course, their prerogative. However what’s notable - and has flared up again recently - is how these alt-perspective games and critiques nettle at Joe and Joe’s friends. How they seem to represent a threat to the host.
It has not been a banner fortnight for video game culture. It’s thoroughly galling, in fact, to watch how some of Joes’s friends choose to make their voices heard. They don't tackle the issue so much as the key figures, and cloak themselves in the garb of truth seekers. Theirs is gaming's Tea Party response, gaming’s birthers and gaming’s truthers. It's a world of hugely spun up conspiracy fodder resting on imgur "evidence" with even less credence than propped up the 9/11 Loose Change movement. Theirs is becoming a landscape of farcical videos promising to unveil "the secret truth".
And this just makes many of us (by which I mean men, people in the industry or just generally people) hang our heads in shame. For all the progress in games as an art form and the struggles outside the medium to define a voice, there's a segment of those within hellbent on truthing for reasons, cracking awful "Five Guys Burgers And Fries" jokes and demanding a lensed "objectivity" be seen as "truth". But where does this bonkers streak of the gaming community come from?
Like all truther logic, gamer truthism makes internally consistent sense as long as you unfailingly accept a couple of axioms about the key people involved. Chief among them is the idea that gaming has been taken over by a shadowy and self-serving "scene", a co-ordinated commentariat which does nothing other than promote an agenda for its own financial gain, which moves to shut out all dissent, which keeps a majority silenced, and which has the potential - even the intent - to wreck video games. Once you believe that then the rest is just process.
One recent victim of that process is Zoe Quinn. Already targeted as a "social justice warrior" (this is what truthers sarcastically call those perceived to be in the scene) for having released a Twine game that some consider unworthy, Quinn is often interpreted as someone on the make. Since she made a game that’s clearly not worthy but somehow managed to gain attention, the truther says, she’s in cahoots. She hasn’t really done anything yet she’s managed to dupe all these fools into paying her rent via Patreon. She’s clearly just an expert at being a gaming celebrity.
So when her ex-boyfriend's extended revenge porn (and that's what it is, and all it is) appeared it was ammunition. Truthers repeatedly argue that the reason these disclosures are so relevant is because of "worthy" games not getting their due because of a duped media. It just happens to be that the result looks a lot like slut shaming, but the truthers maintain that what they really want is an objective debate. Feeling that they represent a silenced majority, the truthers think they have no choice but to tantrum. Someone who props herself up as representing something and whose personal life "revelations" have shown otherwise deserves to be called out (as they see it). All is as corrupt as they feared, but now they can prove it.
Thus is "evidence" that is little more than confirmation bias and some twerp's jilted feelings getting shared far and wide. Thus do threats become rationalized. This isn’t about a "girl game designer", this is exposé. But actually that’s double-standard nonsense. It's reasonable to have a debate about the merits of any game, and Depression Quest is no exception. It's also reasonable to question the relationship between some game makers and the press. Peter Molyneux has been playing his banjo for his whole career and questions have long been raised about certain sections of the press giving him a pass where they wouldn’t for others. But here's the difference: people may love or loathe Peter Molyneux, but nobody's sending him death threats. Nobody's posting his personal photos for all the world to see. Nobody's lulz-threatening to rape him, phoning his mother and so on.
Yet that's what Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Leigh Alexander, Mattie Brice, Anna Anthropy and numerous others have to deal with. Regardless of what Joe thinks should be fair, some of Joe's friends do not play fair. Nobody’s calling David Cage a manwhore or doxxing his personal information by way of "truth" just because his storytelling games don’t live up to their hype. But I see incidents of same against women writers and game makers every damned day. That's why it's hard not to read many of the attacks etc as being sexualized. There is something about Zoe Quinn and her implanted computer that nettles truther-gamers over and above “objective debate”.
But the Bizarro doesn’t stop there. Where it gets properly weird is when the truthers start accusing the scene of concocting outrage. Where all the hacking, doxxing, shaming and particularly unfunny lulz are actually tricks being perpetrated by scene for attention. "These people are hacking themselves”, the truthers yell, “Look at this screenshot! Look at this transcript of a phone call from some guy. Look at this mis-capitalised header data from someone pretending to be from 4chan. All of this is made up! See the truth!"
Thus are rape and death threats actively dismissed and denied. Sarkeesian isn't threatened for real, don’t you know? She's doing that herself just to get attention. That kind of denial is in many ways just as bad as the threats themselves. Quite apart from the mad notion that a shadowy cabal would form in order to take down something so ordinary as the video game industry, the will to loathe seems so strong that it becomes entirely self-reinforcing.
It also says tons about how the truthers perceive the media. In their world the gaming media has lost its way. At some point there was a happy time when the gaming media used to exist in some more balanced state, when it wasn’t corrupted by The Man, nor by the industry, and could be seen to be honest journalism. Those days, supposedly, are gone. Cats are literally lying with dogs. All is now agenda. All is co-ordination.
This is what motivates the Sarkeesian Effect people and their too-weird-for-clown-college video promising to make a journalistically sound investigation based on secret knowledge only they have. With a staggering lack of self-awareness or parody (and, ironically, being funded on Patreon) we see this argument that journalism in games has gone awry and so what’s needed is gaming’s Loose Change. So the truthers will patch all their “evidence” together, say that it’s not really about sexism but instead about fighting to bring integrity back to a rotten state of Denmark, expose the scenesters who do nothing other than self-promote and fake attacks in order to fan the flames of their indignation, who’ll happily sleep with anyone that might get them ahead and help them make Patreon bank, and to do so against the backdrop of a luvvy and denialist media in the service of a maligned majority that for too long has been silenced.
But the silent majority is not real.
9/11 truthers assumed that they were fighting a fight on behalf of a silent majority too, but it never materialized. Indeed the belief to speak for many is pretty common with many groups that gather in the dark places on the Internet. Either that or groups that believe the sheeple need to be awoken. The outcome is much the same, and is all down to confirmation bias. As people find those of like minds in the online and actively converse with them on the same lines, it seems as though many are nodding in assent. It doesn’t really matter who or what a particular group stands for, sociologically speaking it’s always the same pattern. The group as a whole does not realize how fringe it actually is.
Another common trait with “silent majority” truthers is this: Coming to believe their narrative represents the consensus view, they then fail to see it reflected in the wider media. So they conclude that the media is in on the conspiracy for a variety of money/power/sex reasons and cannot be trusted. In our case we're seeing the emergence of “social justice warrior” blacklists, of saying that since the majority is not being fairly represented this means that activists have to do it for them. All is justified. Pogrom is justified.
But that logic is just not credible. If the argument goes that the Internet supplanted television by giving room to thousands of new voices, it does not make sense to then apply a television interpretation to what’s going on online. You can say that TV is a mass organ that can be controlled (see: North Korea) but when the outlets multiply in their thousands control is just impractical any more. Even China, which expends a massive amount of effort every year (up to and including arresting, charging and imprisoning dissidents) can’t really manage it. Genuine truth gets out.
We live in an age where anyone can set up their own YouTube channel and reach 25 million people, where what was the rule one year is not the next. Where PR types spend all of their time running around after journalists and others and trying to seed stories/beg for attention rather than giving them talking points like (supposedly) goes on in places like Fox News. With the diffusion of media comes the finding of niches over mainstreams, of speciation. Thus it finds every kind of audience worth a click and caters to it. All agendas get heard as a result, regardless of how normative or bizarre.
So if you’re not seeing your viewpoint reflected anywhere except in in the bowels of 4chan and some isolated angry YouTubers that evoke widespread distaste, when the broad and disorganized commentariat is shaking its collective head at the madness, perhaps it’s time to consider that your assumption of a silent majority just isn’t real. That maybe you made it up in your head. Or if you still think that you do represent a silenced majority, perhaps you should do something real to prove it.
Guys, seriously. This prankish zealotry that's become your calling card harms your case. This truther nonsense makes you look like crazies. It's pushing you out, not reasserting your voice. It’s why nobody’s taking your questions seriously.
Your essential questions are about whether there’s a games scene, and whether that scene is ruining gaming. And what the roles of the media mean, meant or could mean in the future. So let’s speak plainly, absent the histrionics or the Five-Guys-isms.
I work in the industry and know a bunch of people in it. No I’m not famous but I am friends with some folks that you think of as the scene. Yes there is a scene. Yes, there are some parties at PAX and GDC that you need to know people to get into. Yes there are people who have found and become friends with one another over the years, and yes those people come from all sides, be they media, developers, PR people, platform people, the list goes on. We’re all part of a loose club.
Big deal. What exactly do you suppose all of us being connected amounts to? The answer is “helpful connections”. “Scene” is just another word for groups of creators and related folks who meet and get to know one another, who like to hang out, to get drunk and swap war stories, who sometimes want to do that as equals rather than in rooms of fans. Scenes help each other, not because they’re all in cahoots but because they know how hard it is for anyone to get to that point.
Your perception of the scene is that it constitutes one large circle of insiders that pushes everyone else out, but it’s not accurate either. People come and go from the scene all the time. There are plenty of people in the scene who don’t know each other, for example, and have never met. It’s all friends-of-friends. Similarly there are many aspects of the scene about which even some scenesters know little. I’m connected to the indie scene through some folks I know, but I’m also a member of the Gaming Insiders group. I’d bet most of you have never heard of it. What is it? A bunch of games executives who talk all day long about the industry on email, many of whom have other connections to the scene.
Is the scene ruining gaming? No. The scene helps make gaming happen because it’s a support network. The scene helps all sorts of games find exposure and visibility, from Rock Paper Shotgun’s support of Minecraft through to certain advocates pushing for us to notice Depression Quest. It’s through the scene that developers like Vlambeer meet super-talented contractors that they then employ to help make Nuclear Throne.
And what of the media? Well, frankly, you’re simply out of your mind if you think that the gaming media of yesteryear was somehow more noble than it is today. It used to be way way worse. Back when magazines ruled the roost, for instance, there were plenty of bought reviews in exchange for promised advertising, feature coverage and the like, and far less ways for those stories to get out. You forget that today you have all these networks like Reddit on which you can gather and hear the real skinny. Back then you didn't, and were duped far more often than now.
Today’s gaming media has never been more active or honest. Through outlets like Giant Bomb, Kotaku, Destructoid, YouTubers and the like a multitude of voices can be heard. The communities that form around them are barely corralled (I mean this as a virtue). The amount of quick analysis, exposure, true feelings about games and the reduction of paid reviews and the like is palpable. The conversation has long stopped being anything like a co-ordinated press organ of previews, reviews and columns and instead become delightfully anarchic. Sure it’s still a bit slushy sometimes (I’m particularly worried about the ethical standards among YouTubers) but still.
You often seem to carry on with this wacky notion that media journalism is a form of reporting similar to news media, talking about how journalists should behave like hard-hitting Woodwards and Bernsteins, but seriously think. A lot of gaming journalism is essentially a benign form of marketing. Coverage of E3, for example, is just video’d enthusiasm and debate over infomercials. The bulk of articles on sites are positivist coverage of new games, and that’s what you actually want to read. It may sound great in principle to have some uncorrupted soul-searing journos on the beat for the truth, but this is video games. There isn’t much truth to be found.
So if the scene is real but benign, its connections largely a boon rather than a hindrance and the extent, quality and honesty of the media is vastly improved, where does that leave the truthing? Out in the cold.
Depressing though it is for many of us inside the walls to watch you have your bonkers say through the #gamergate hashtag, bonkers is all that it is. "LOOK", you say, "SEE". And we look, and we see, and what we see is a sort of sad ranting on a virtual street corner about the perils of flouridation. We see lulz that really aren’t that funny and we see folks targeted for “justice” or “retribution” or something that amount to sending around private photos and exposing one side of a toxic relationship, and a crowing that this constitutes a victory of sorts. We wonder just how long it will be until this becomes a matter for law enforcement.
Rather than go that way, I’d say this to those of you who still feel aggrieved by a lack of a media voice: Start one. Set up your own media organ. Not some janky "tell all" blithering video, but your own serious gaming news site. Everyone else has, so why don't you? If you truly believe that your silent majority exists then create a site that provides the coverage that you think is missing. Set up your podcast to talk about your views on your terms and be the reporters that you think are absent. None of these things are hard to do, really just a matter of registering a blog on Wordpress.com and off you go. Try. Validate your perception of the silent majority and see how far you get.
Maybe you’ll get quite far, who knows? Maybe you'll actually be a part of the conversation rather than feeling shut out. Maybe you'll see that your demons really aren't demons at all, that your shadowy and manipulative cabal intent on filleting games for its own ends is actually just a group of geeks making cool stuff. Who knows, maybe you'll even grow to enjoy what they do.
It being PAX weekend, it’s an odd time for this issue to have stirred once more. PAX is situated on the border of Seattle's downtown and Capitol Hill. Cap Hill is the gay neighborhood, the young neighborhood. Depending on your reading that might seem ironic, but I think not. Seattle is the Emerald City. Seattle is Nerdvana. Seattle is a city that is consistently ranked the most progressive (and in my experience, just plain best) in the United States. As a place for all the sundry of geek to gather, it's rather apt.
There are many women at the event, a relatively good feel about what’s going on and (so far at least) not much about this argument boiling over into everyone's fun. There was mention of a protest, but it all came to nothing. Most people seem to be having fun watching games, playing games, cosplaying and whatever.
It’s comforting in a way. Like many I've found the last two weeks hard going. The truthers have seemed to go completely mental and drag all of us through a particularly torrid sewer on a swell of indignation that feels out of place. Leigh Alexander’s been retweeting some of the terrible replies that she’s receiving every day. So has Anita Sarkeesian. So has Zoe Quinn. Between them and some others a persistent picture of man-lunacy has emerged that is all too believable on the one hand and all too ridiculous on the other.
Perhaps the most depressing part is how many good voices have expressed the sentiment that gaming doesn’t deserve the games it gets. That, unlike other media, our fans are this and only this. More than a few of us have mentally thrown up our hands. Phil Fish has decided to get out entirely, but I hope he changes his mind. There's a lot of genuine hurt, not the callous "butthurt" that the lulzists (and for some reason, Adam Baldwin) claim, but genuine hurt. People taking to their beds, people being depressed, people saying the hell with it and thinking about going to work somewhere else. It's bad, worse than any time I can remember.
But if you do feel that way, think on this:
The truthers are a small minority. Most people actually don’t think that it’s cool to drag Quinn’s failed relationship out into the public for all the world to gawp at. Most people agree with Sarkeesian when she says there are some aspects of gaming culture that should be questioned rather than being assumed to be the default. The Tea Party fizzled. The 9/11 truthers eventually just went away. The birthers ran out of steam. All such movements do. I can't guarantee that there won't be more incidents but this too will pass.
I'm minded most encouragingly of this Buffy-themed tweet from Anita Sarkessian upon learning that Joss Whedon was in her corner: “I just realized something, something that really never occurred to me before. We're gonna win!”
Indeed we will.