Paul Sayre famously observed that “student politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low”.
The line sprung to my mind when I first became aware of the phenomenon known as #GamerGate. All of that anger and hatred over some video games reviews?
And yet, while the movement was careering further and further out of control, a faint glimmer of interest started to become dimly visible amidst the general gloom.
In this post I want to disentangle that interesting thread from what is otherwise a horribly knotty mess. In so doing I will offer a single cheer for GamerGate, alongside several well-deserved boos.
In summary, I will argue the following:
Taking the GamerGate argument at face value…
• the movement is propelled by an oppositional spirit that is both historically familiar and very much of its time;
• even the most reasonable advocate for the GamerGate position is undermined by the contradictory nature of the argument they propose;
• the so-called “awakening” brought about by the movement may lead its supporters in a more constructive direction in the future.
What is GamerGate?
For the uninitiated, if such people exist at this point, the story goes like this. (I’ve explained some basic terminology along the way, so parts of this reads like it was written by someone’s dad).
Some guy broke up with his girlfriend, who develops video games for a living. In a fit of pique he wrote a blog post claiming that she had cheated on him with a computer games journalist in order to gain positive coverage for her games. (A claim which is demonstrably false).
Despite not being true, the blog post struck a chord with many committed video games players (or ‘gamers’ as they’re known). An online revolt ensued against what was argued to be systematic corruption in video games journalism.
So the furore was sparked by the (false) allegation that a video game reviews blog was compromised due to a journalist wanting to do a personal favour for a woman he’d apparently slept with. Then further claims emerged of personal relationships between journalists and games developers. It became clear that sometimes games developers write reviews, and sometimes reviewers help develop games, and that reviewers and developers often share the same friendship groups. This hadn’t really been acknowledged before, or at least not as a matter of policy, and it was seen by angry gamers as evidence of a sort of mutual backslapping old-boy’s network.
This revolt then developed, in its more thoughtful versions, into a structural critique of the interrelationship of games journalism and the financial interests within the video games sector.
Broadly, the argument runs that major video games companies (known as “AAA publishers”) seek to use their financial muscle to pressurise games magazines into providing propaganda for their products. Anyone who read NMS, one of the more successful games magazines in the 90s, will know what industry-sponsored games journalism looks like. It hasn’t gone away.
So the original GamerGate position boils down to this: gamers are subjected to reviews of video games that they think could be corrupt. The reviewer might be a friend of the developer, or financially implicated with them. Even worse, the whole editorial line of the blog or magazine that publishes the reviews might be compromised by pressure from AAA games publishers to provide positive coverage.
If only it had stopped there – it might have been plausible.
Alas, the credibility of the entire movement has been fatally undermined by its identification with anti-progressive politics.
GamerGate-friendly message boards and blogs overflow with virulent misogynist and anti-feminist opinion. It’s pretty mindblowing to read some of this stuff. It’s mostly gut hatred of women, but sometimes it’s dressed up as a sort of social theory.
The argument goes that video games should not be accountable to society at large. Games are about escapist pleasure. As such they should not be required to reflect the worldview of so-called “Social Justice Warriors” or SJWs. (SJWs are the American equivalent of do-gooders or the politically correct brigade.) In short, gamers should be free to rape, murder and chop up female games characters if they want to.
It is further asserted that video games have always been a domain of freedom, untroubled by social mores, and should remain so.
At its most self-pitying, the argument develops into a complaint that feminists/ SJWs are indulging in cultural appropriation – video games are our culture and you just want to spoil the fun by remaking them in your own image, you hideous Joni-come-latelys.
The practical consequence of this position has been the death threats sent to female video games journalists and developers.
So, to summarise:
• A vocal group of gamers have grown concerned about perceived corruption in video games journalism;
• An often-thoughtful revolt against this corruption was, paradoxically, sparked by a false claim that a female games developer slept her way to positive coverage;
• Almost without exception, the advance guard of the GamerGate revolt directed their fire on women in the games industry (indeed, often very peripheral figures);
• This reflects the startling level of misogyny and anti-feminism that characterises GamerGate message board discussions;
• And, fundamentally, the vocal advocates of GamerGate reject any dilution of their gaming experience by Social Justice Warriors. Games are pure and should not be contaminated by feminism.
You’ll have noticed a couple of things about the way I presented the argument above.
Firstly, I didn’t name names. You can find the names and the details of what happened to them if you want to google it. Personally I think the victims of GamerGate are entitled to their privacy, and I would much rather think and talk about the ideas behind the movement rather than identifying the innocent people caught in its crossfire all over again.
Secondly, I haven’t linked to any sources. Frankly, I have no desire to link to any of the sites involved. Some of these people are absolutely out of control and I don’t want to expose my blog to a torrent of spam. If you dispute anything I’ve said, please let me know, but I assure the reader I have done my research.
Thirdly, I have tried not to dismiss GamerGate outright on the basis of the misogynist stuff. Don’t mistake this for an apology for sexism. The sexist views that GamerGate has amplified are utterly horrendous. It’s really worrying. The only reason I haven’t engaged with the dark side of GamerGate at length is because far better writers than me have nailed it already. I presume we can agree that victimising women is completely ridiculous.
As a final caveat, I should stress the possibility that there is a massive silent majority of gamers who sympathise with the corruption argument but hold no truck for the sexism. They’ve been keeping very quiet if they’re out there, but then that’s what silent majorities do. If you are a gamer and you fit into this category, you are not under attack.
Honestly, the eggshells you’ve got to walk on with this stuff!
The curate’s egg
So what did the GamerGaters get right? Well, it seems to me that there is at least the outline of a decent media critique in the original revolt against video games corruption.
Let’s depersonalise the issue, and cleanse GamerGate of its sexism for the purposes of argument.
Say the revolt had been sparked by something else. A game being reviewed favourably, perhaps, by a journalist who turns out to be the brother-in-law of its developer. Or a game getting a few good reviews from journalists who turn out to be flatmates, and who owe rent to their landlord, who turns out to be the game’s developer.
Or a games magazine, facing financial difficulties in maintaining a physical presence in news stands, accepts investment from a major games publisher. The editor then treads softly when discussing the products released by his magazine’s financial backer.
These aren’t outlandish scenarios.
As with the example of the Westminster bubble, one can easily understand how a group of human beings who all work in the same sector will start to get to know each other. And when that happens, it’s pretty difficult to prevent relationships developing. And so you get lobby journalists going for drinks with backbenchers, or games journalists going for drinks with games developers.
It would be a tough regime that sought to prevent people forming personal relationships with people they meet at work. The issue is whether personal bonds result in professional malpractice. And in this sense, the demands placed by GamerGaters on bloggers and journalists to disclose their links with developers is not unreasonable. It’s like requiring politicians to make a public statement of their outside interests. Transparency. Who could argue with that?
The fact that many casual observers of GamerGate subscribe to the view in the quote at the top of this piece – namely, that video games reviews are too insignificant to merit consideration in terms of journalistic ethics – has led them to miss the point. They either think the ethics argument is a red herring (it’s an excuse to dress up gut sexism as something more profound) or they think it’s just trivial nonsense.
But I think this is unfair. It’s surely reasonable to hold all journalism to some basic ethical requirements. Video games are presumably as deserving of transparent and fair coverage as, say, music or films.
If this was a backlash against film magazines that pretend Hollywood blockbusters are great, in return for interview access to A-list actors, I think people would take it more seriously.
GamerGate has probably exposed some slackness by journalists in terms of disclosing their private interests. It’s also raised awareness of the insidious pressures exerted on journalists by the significant financial interests in the games industry. These are good points.
The problem is, they’re good points extremely badly made. Somehow, GamerGate has managed to use the above material to justify the hounding and intimidation of women. Oops.
It’s a bit like people who identify the interface between politicians, the media and industry, and then blame it all on the Jews.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before
Does anyone else have a feeling of déjà-vu?
Oppositional youth movements have always been messy. Think of the Teddy Boys, or punk. They were both supercharged expressions of rebellion against a society that stultified and repressed the energy of youth. Did either movement have a clear manifesto? Not really. It didn’t really matter what they stood for, it was what they were against that mattered. And they were against a society they saw as corrupt.
The reverence directed towards punk in UK culture is more a reflection of the age of the mainstream cultural agenda-setters than any genuine creative achievements. Does anyone actually listen to that stuff? Clearly not. But the significance of punk was what it unleashed – a dismantling of deference and a realisation that you could intervene in the culture. People had their lives changed by the dynamic of punk, rather than the content of the music itself.
I think acid house is, artistically, a millions miles better than punk. The music still sounds great. But again, the enduring beauty of acid house is not actually the content of the records themselves – it’s the way it liberated people to live more authentically. As with punk, our culture has been enriched in the years since acid house by people whose outlook was transformed by the experience of going to raves. They haven’t made squelchy dance records – they’ve been moved by the communal power of rave culture to live their lives sustainably and in harmony with other people.
Could something similar happen with GamerGate?
Stripping away the veil
Central to oppositional movements, from the 1848 revolutionaries to Situationists to the punks and beyond, is the idea that they are uncloaking the truth. Society is corrupt and built on lies that the youth can see through and hold up to the light.
Something of that spirit clearly propels GamerGate.
There’s nothing especially troubling about GamerGate in epistemological terms. The movement is based on critical thinking about the games industry. Generally, its advocates cite evidence for their claims. A degree of data trawling has taken place to substantiate some of the claims made by gamers about the industry.
In short – they think they’re right and they think their position can be proved.
You don’t have to accept any of the GamerGate position to be comforted by this. Whether they’re right or wrong, or a wee bit of both, the phenomenon was at least founded on the idea of critical enquiry. Critical thinking is a good thing.
Much of the opprobrium from critics of GamerGate has been directed towards the 4Chan and 8Chan message boards where the phenomenon germinated. And to be fair, it’s not hard to find pretty wild material on those sites if you want to hang GamerGate with it.
At the same time, if you spend any time at all glancing through these sites you can’t help but be struck by the creativity, technical virtuosity and wit of many of the people posting on them. I’m in my thirties and I haven’t a clue what they’re on about half the time – this subculture has a constantly-evolving argot that is as fascinating as Polari.
People are always moaning about how young people today haven’t created anything like punk. I think they’re looking in the wrong place. The new punks are fashioning blog entries and message board posts into micro-level works of art.
So we have a movement that is trying to embrace the spirit of critical enquiry and use it to expose corruption in an industry it recognises as worthy of the same transparency we’d expect in any other sector. And it is propelled by some genuinely imaginative and skilled technologists.
That’s not a bad foundation.
But here’s the problem.
Marx and the Reformation
Karl Marx was a German philosopher (as Kolakowski noted in the first sentence of Main Currents of Marxism). Among his many insights, he once noted the difference between the Protestant Reformation and a Marxist revolution.
The Reformation was an internal critique of religion. People who accepted the idea of religion sought to improve it by reforming the apparatus of the church.
By contrast, Marx critiqued the very idea of religion. Religion, in his view, was a comforting consolation and distraction from the brutal reality of life under capitalist relations of production (that’s what he meant by the opium of the people). A proper revolution would get rid of religion altogether.
GamerGate is a bit like the Reformation. It is an attempt to clean up what’s seen as the mess of games journalism within the context of a financially significant industry.
GamerGate would be much more effective if it could shift its analytical framework to critique the games industry in more fundamental terms – as if it was critiquing the idea of religion itself, not one aspect of religion.
GamerGaters demonstrate, through their appeals to evidence and their attempts to investigate the issues that upset them, that they accept the spirit of rational enquiry as the appropriate basis for public conduct. They’re just not asking the right questions.
Hints for ethical games journalists
If games journalism needs to reflect contemporary ethical norms, why shouldn’t the games themselves be expected to reflect reasonable moral positions (like “you shouldn’t rape and murder women”)?
Whose financial interests are served by focusing rage about corruption on a few fairly insignificant indie games developers?
The complaint about Social Justice Warriors is based on the idea that gaming culture is pure and uncontaminated by reality, and SJWs want to ruin everything by imposing their narrow worldview on the culture. But doesn’t that mean that these gamers are insisting that games conform to their own narrow vision of the world as they have invented it in their minds? If so, why is it okay for games to be coherent with one worldview but not another? Especially if one of those worldviews is entirely and deliberately divorced from reality?
How did so many gamers come to share this set of assumptions about women, and the need for absolute free expression in gaming except when it’s a Social Justice Warrior wanting to reflect their own values?
Where is all the money going in the games industry? It’s a pretty massive industry now. What happens to the huge profits?
In short: is it possible that you guys are being manipulated too?
It would be pretty naive for any of us to imagine we’re capable of stepping outside the media-industrial bubble and seeing through the complexity of our society. It’s important to try, though, and central to that is acknowledging the likelihood that your own reality has been constructed by the ideological forces around you. The problem with GamerGate is that its adherents don’t subject their own prejudices to the same scrutiny they shine on others.
The Truther is out there
Which brings me to a related phenomenon – truthers.
I had the good fortune to spend some time in a Bible Belt region of the USA recently. While I was there I had a fascinating conversation with a man who ticked all of the truther boxes.
What did he tell me? Obama is a foreigner. The federal government is a foreign government. The federal reserve is a foreign bank.
He talked about the Illuminati. He quoted David Icke approvingly (except he pronounced it “Ikey”). He said we’re in the End Times. Kennedy was bumped off by the Jesuits.
Oh, and Ebola was created by the United Nations. A few Americans will be quarantined soon, followed by some false flag incidents, and then the UN will take over America.
All of this was presented with the utmost seriousness, and he kept quoting his sources.
And this is the thing – truthers aren’t like crazy fundamentalists who simply believe in something. They actually think they have evidence. They accept the spirit of rational enquiry as the appropriate underpinning for seeking truth. They are, in principle, open to argument.
Now, clearly, the 9/11 truthers aren’t really open to argument – they’re absolutely convinced there’s a massive conspiracy being effected against them. But underpinning their worldview is the idea that they have investigated the issues, sought evidence, and revealed the concealed reality. They have uncloaked the truth.
And that’s what oppositional movements have always done, as I argued above.
The trouble with truthers, and with the more extreme adherents of the GamerGate position, is that they’ve missed the real conspiracy. Truthers who blame the Jesuits or the Jews for the world’s problems, or gamers who blame feminism for their own maladjustment, are mis-directing valuable critical thinking energies.
You want a conspiracy? It’s staring you right in the face. To quote an inside source who cropped up again this week in Ben Bradlee’s obituaries: follow the money, guys.
One cheer for GamerGate
GamerGate has probably been the formative political experience in many young (and some not-so-young) lives. It’s thrilling to feel like you’ve exposed hypocrisy or corruption while the mainstream media tries to cover it up. It’s good to be oppositional, and it’s good to adopt a critical attitude to everything.
I expect that the more thoughtful gamers out there will already be aware of the logical disjuncture in the GamerGate position. It’s hard to reconcile the demand that ethical considerations should guide the reviews of games, when at the same time many of the same activists are denying the validity of ethical criticism of game content. (See Note 1 below)
In years to come I would imagine some of the GamerGate advance guard will look back on the events of the last few weeks with bemusement. “Remember when we first became dimly aware of the influence of hot money on the video games industry – but we missed it because we wanted to tell women how much we hate them?”
Among the bigots, trolls and delusional man-children of the GamerGate warriors will be the first generation of brilliant, politicised, campaigning games journalists. And their first big story will be finding out how their vibrant, intelligent and progressive gaming culture managed to present itself to the world as the final preserve of women-hating losers.
Note 1. I’ve amended this paragraph because it didn’t make sense in the original version – thanks to commenter Island Sunn for drawing this to my attention. S/he quotes me in his/her reply if you want to see the rubbish version!