GamerGate and Masculinity

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GamerGate and Masculinity

GamerGate is still around, and it continues to tell us more about the people behind the hashtag than it ever could about 'ethics in journalism'.

NOTE: While Nick and I were writing this piece, and putting the final touches on it, US television network NBC announced that an upcoming episode of popular crime drama Law & Order SVU would be focusing on the climate of intimidation and threats surrounding GamerGate. Which, is not only weird, but proves that understanding this phenomenon, and coming to grips with it, is more important than ever.


Five months have passed since a rogue tweet by Adam Baldwin gave form and fuel to the misogynist pyre of “Gamergate”. It took a month for a million tweets to accrue to the hashtag, as many as 100,000 a day. One estimate made two months in put the participants in the “movement” at 10,000 unique members. In a world that contains a reported 700 million PC gamers (without factoring in consoles or “casual” gaming), that’s a drop in the ocean. Gamergate is perhaps most interesting as an example of how easy it is to build social cohesion in the modern era; it shows us that hashtags can instantly instantiate “movements”. These 10,000 are a lockstepped phalanx of concerted dudebros, mounting a Thermopylae-like defense of masculine privilege.

At the end of a year that included such Herculean resistance to basic empathy and critical thought, and a refusal to even try to understand things from outside of one’s comfort-zone, one of the lights in the darkness has to be Anita Sarkeesian. In the Feminist Frequency Annual Report for 2014, it was announced that her incisive critique and tireless activist drive will be brought to bear on representations of masculinity in video games. This is overdue and welcome, and Sarkeesian will doubtless deliver challenging and productive insights.

But we can get started ourselves.

Manly, masculine men!
Let’s talk about gamers and masculinity. Few commentators have managed to resist Leigh Alexander’s call, made days after the purulent boil of gamergate burst,  to recognise gamer as an identity category like “woman”, ”man”, “black”, “white”, “gay”, or ”straight”. It makes sense; identities are an easy way to navigate a complex web of social relations. They help us figure out our boundaries, and most people want gamergaters on the other side of whatever boundary they erect. But the contention that the “gamer” is dying, should die, or isn’t dead yet, combined with the comparatively tiny numbers of active GamerGaters – the 10,000 brave Spartans locking shields and wielding hashtags to keep the Social Justice Warriors from the gates – point to the uselessness of the category. After all, when not tweeting with handy hashtags that identify them, what are these GamerGaters doing? Playing games, certainly, but also working, studying, dating, raising children… all activities during which they aren’t necessarily “being gamers”, but they are still moving through the world, interpreting and making claims about the way it works.

“Gamer” isn’t an identity, it’s a way of relating to the world, and it’s sadly now completely toxic. GamerGaters have carefully and nauseatingly outlined their worldview for us in their attempts to resist challenges to it. They feel the rise of what they see as not actually games - releases like Gone Game, Journey, Depression Quest - is a direct threat to the primacy of tentpole genres, such as the first person shooter. The FPS is a genre in which violence usually plays a leading role. It’s a genre in which the majority of inputs manipulate weapons, the majority of the modelling is around the physics of bodies and bullets, and the majority of relations are comprised entirely of violence. They often include one mouse button for fire, one for secondary fire, one for reload, multiple weapon slots, upgrades, ammunition types… but only one button for ‘use’ which usually functions for everything non-violent, from turning on a light switch to talking to another character. If I hit ‘e’ to interact with objects and to talk to people, that’s pretty much literally objectification, and it’s foundational, hard-coded into the fabric of almost every FPS. Battlefield 4 is a classic example of this - you can interact with your firearms in any number of ways, but manipulating the world and the people in it is vastly simplified. There are a dozen keys for blowing shit up, but only one for everything else.

By resisting critical challenges to this model, gamergaters are telling us that they are OK with it. If an FPS isn't an FPS without violence, isn't that worrying?

Live by the sword...
We think it is. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the boundaries between the real world and games aren’t as clear as you might like to think.  We don’t believe for a second that video games turn people into killers – but various militaries have long acknowledged the benefits of games for recruitment and training. America’s Army, quite a good mulitplayer shooter (and we played a lot of it), was specifically developed as a gateway for gamers to transition into the US Army.

But wait, it may actually get more confusing! Take the popular DayZ mod for the game Arma III. Sure, it’s a zombie survival game, so you’re killing zombies, which is a victimless crime, or people who want to steal your stuff, so it’s self-defence, right? Unless you go all jerk and like to camp the newbie spawns for yucks. But to play the game you need to give money to Bohemia Interactive – a company that also produces Virtual Battlefield Simulator 3. VBS3 is a software training package used by professional armies to train soldiers. In fact, VBS was developed from Arma (and is actually made by Bohemia Interactive Australia - check out their entry in the Australasian Training & Simulation Industry Simulation Capability Directory).

Let’s be clear on this – you cannot play DayZ without financially supporting the military-industrial complex, and using technology designed to produce professional killers. In an age where a lot of careful consumers like to know every stage of, for instance, how their food is produced, games like DayZ and Arma are just as much an ethical minefield. GamerGate may have as its tagline that ‘it’s about ethics in games journalism’, but it would be hard to imagine many of them care very much about the ethics in their own backyard. If you do in fact want to be, unironically, an ethical gamer, it takes a bit of careful, critical thought.

...die by the sword.
GamerGate is about “gamers” rallying  to defend a genre of gaming that understands violence as the primary way of relating to others, in which other people – regardless of gender – are reduced to a simple ‘activate’ mechanic, and as easy to kill as to talk to. And then everyone is surprised when they react to criticism by – you guessed it – trying to silence women and other critics with threats of violence.

Leigh Alexander described gamers as socially pathological people: “people who know so little about how human social interaction and professional life works that they can concoct online ‘wars’ about social justice or ‘game journalism ethics,’ straight-faced, and cause genuine human consequences.” I don’t think we can say that with any certainty, though Alexander’s lashing out is understandable in the misogynist heat of August 2014. Anita Sarkeesian has also added that part of the issue is certain toxic masculinity, but we think the problem is that this is not “broken” or “toxic” masculinity at play – it’s just masculinity.

These men have demonstrated that there is little difference between the ways they relate to others inside games and outside them. In fact, the games they play reflect their assumptions about appropriate ways of behaving in  the world around them and they’re unremittingly violent. We believe it is impossible to argue that games cause violence (and, frankly, aren’t interested in even trying to go down that route), but the correlation is inescapable. And these men are students, employees, boyfriends, husbands, fathers… in a world where ABS statistics suggest that 80% of the assaults, 85% of the murders, and 95% of the sexual assaults in 2013 were committed by men. Video games are yet another place where men are violent - and this is exactly the environment and status quo that GamerGate desperately wants to defend. The line between war and games keeps getting blurrier, and GamerGate demonstrates that the use of violence by men to secure their power over others doesn’t stop at the virtual boundaries of a game.

Turn those swords to ploughshares
There is always hope, and 2014 was a standout year for resistance to this norm. Apart from the actions of Sarkeesian, Alexander, Quinn, Wu and others, game developers quietly released a range of games in which violence was the problem, not the solution. Games like This War of Mine, where war is an often fatal interruption to the characters’ lives, and in which violence is scary and risky. Or Alien: Isolation, which passes the Bechdel test, the protagonist is a woman, the antagonist is infamously androgynous, and violence leads almost universally to the main character’s death. There is hope. The Spartans are not all-powerful. We can fix this – by buying better games, by talking about games where we don’t have to use violence to get what we want, and by being mindful of the ways online behaviour bleeds into the offline world.

But mostly you can do this by being accepting of a greater and deeper degree of game criticism. Sure, simple reviews, previews, and developer interviews are useful, and everyone needs a guide to how to level up their Blood Elf every now and then, but games are big enough, important enough, that they deserve more than mere reportage. This industry will probably generate close to $100 billion in revenue this year, more people than ever are playing games, and they are, in general, reaching deeper into our lives thanks to the combination of social media platforms and modern consoles. People meet each other in games, make life-long connections through this grand and fascinating medium; we’re introduced to characters and stories than can affect as strongly as any film or book. Gaming, in a very real sense, is here to stay, is now fully mainstream.

And because of the industry’s size and reach, and its importance and influence, it deserves quality critique. By academics, by feminists, by you, by me, by gamers, non-gamers… it doesn’t matter. More importantly, it won’t hurt. A feminist critique of male privilege in gaming takes nothing away from having fun in Call of Duty, and exposing bad practice in games development won’t stop us spending money on a new tank in World of Tanks.

But it does add to our understanding of gaming. It adds to our knowledge of its place in the world, and its impact on us. And it helps shape the ways we treat each other for the better. We don’t have to use the buttons devs give us to kill, and we don’t have to make death threats to those we disagree with. A little knowledge and empathy is never a bad thing.

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