(EDITOR’S NOTE: Joe’s been writing gaming commentary for NUVO of late, and we wanted him to bring us up to speed on the background of some of the issues he’s been writing about with a tutorial on this thing called “Gamergate” for those of us who aren’t hardcore e-sports aficionados.)
To those outside gaming fandom, the Gamergate hashtag, and all the fervor surrounding it, probably looks like an impenetrable mess of convoluted events, ideas and shouting.
To be fair, it IS an impenetrable mess of convoluted events, ideas and shouting, but it’s a mess that’s far less fun to watch than your standard train wreck. Gamergate has not been pleasant, and it has not been simple.
This brief history is written for people not generally involved in gaming culture, to whom the events and individuals listed aren’t as recognizable as they’d be to hardcore gaming fans.
Additionally, this take’s based on my own worldview and biases, so please keep that in mind.
The feminist critique
Gamergate proper began in August 2014, but the tensions and angers that led to it had been brewing long before that.
Over the last few years, progressive criticism, in particular feminist criticism, started to become more prevalent in the gaming conversation.
Though gaming had long been held as the realm of men and boys, over time gaming demographics shifted to a far more varied audience, with female players growing in number every year.
So, it sort of made sense that gaming’s constant use of skimpy costumes, damsels in distress and other overwhelmingly male-targeted designs would go under the critical microscope.
After all, why should the majority of games be made with only one group of players in mind?
Some gamers, however, were not happy about this. At all.
When feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian launched her Kickstarter to fund “Tropes Vs Women In Video Games,” a video series dedicated to looking at how woman are portrayed in games, she was immediately dog-piled with an endless stream of death threats, rape threats, and bomb threats.
Note: This was before she’d even made any videos.
She hadn’t even said anything yet.
Some gamers were so offended that a woman might say that some games have sexist elements that they threatened her life.
Over video games.
What’s more, when the videos came out, they consisted of the most basic feminist theory possible, pointing out design trends with female characters that gamers had been pointing out for years.
She didn’t say anything all that revelatory, nor did she say that all gamers were sexist or that games should be banned. Only examined.
Yet some gamers took this as a declaration of war, similar to that of now disgraced lawyer jack Thompson, who in the early 2000s tried to push a ban for violent games.
Their hobby was threatened, and they would defend it at all costs.
But what really ignited Gamergate as topic in the broader culture was a story involving indie game developer Zoe Quinn.
Now it gets really ugly
Quinn had already faced harassment before due to her feminist views and the fact that her game, Depression Quest, didn’t qualify as a real game in the eyes of some gamers due to its visual novel-esque elements.
Then, her ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni posted a long, angry rant about their failed relationship, and claimed that Quinn had slept with journalist Nathan Grayson from the game site Kotaku in exchange for a positive review.
These claims were swiftly debunked.
Nathan Grayson never reviewed her game. No one on Kotaku did.
Unfortunately, the powder keg had already been lit, and Gamergate exploded. (The name was coined by actor Adam Baldwin on Twitter.)
Gamergate’s stated goal was ethics in games journalism. Supporters felt that the games media had gotten in too close with game developers, and had become corrupt, handing out reviews and coverage in exchange for favors or simply as a result of friendships.
Corruption is indeed an issue in games media, as it can be in any media coverage of such an enormously profitable industry.
Review embargoes, games being broken at launch, DLC scams and DRM, those are all prevalent issues.
However, Gamergate’s definition of “ethics” is kind of peculiar.
According to Gamergate supporters, gaming has been infiltrated by a left wing conspiracy, dedicated to forcing their feminist, LGBT or otherwise progressive themes into games, whether in the form of more female, gay or racially diverse characters.
To them, criticizing a game due to its portrayal of women is unethical, because it’s bringing in the reviewers’ own personal biases. Only the actual gameplay can be talked about in reviews, otherwise the reviewer’s getting too political and subjective — which is kind of a misnomer, because reviews are subjective opinions.
If you’re asking for objectivity, you’re not asking for a reviewer, you’re asking for a publicist.
Gamergate’s longest lasting mark, and probably what’s it’s best known for, is the explosion of harassment faced by critics and other games journalists, many — but not all of them — women.
There’s been vitriol, and threats and no small amount of anger, and for most of the last year an online war has raged over the charges of “progressive infiltration.”
In the eyes of Gamergate’s devotees, so-called “Social Justice Warriors” (a catch-all term they use for anyone who cared about diversity and social issues in relation to gaming) are trying to ruin their fun with a political agenda.
Hostility is everywhere on gaming forums, and those with Gamergate’s mindset are quick to dish out the “SJW” label.
It bothers you that the female characters are mostly naked for no reason? You’re an SJW ruining the developer’s artistic vision.
You want more diverse game protagonists? Well, shut up. Games are art, so you can’t question the developer’s artistic choice.
As a cultural event, Gamergate pretty much ended when Stephen Colbert mocked it on national television.
Gamergate as a movement, however, is still alive, along with its attitudes.
It’s gotten to the point where every time a game DOES come out with a protagonist who isn’t the Hollywood-standard white-guy hero, Gamergate members immediately assume it’s because some “feminazi” got to the game devs somehow, because of course they couldn’t have decided to use such a character on their own, they had to have been forced.
And any time the portrayal of women comes up, there’s going to be a shit storm.
The current state of the gaming conversation is one of simmering tensions. No huge controversies or explosive arguments have happened recently, at least not any more so than usual, but it’s a less than ideal peace.
Change is occurring in the games industry. Genres are dying and being reborn, and diversity of game types, and game protagonists, are trickling into the medium at a higher and higher rate.
But some people feel threatened by that change; they feel that the games media has abandoned them and turned against them.
And like with all change, it never occurs easily.