Opinion: On GamerGate

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Over the last few months, a line has been drawn in the sand. On one side of that line are the gaming press and on the other are the proponents of a very loosely defined movement – operating under the hashtag ‘GamerGate’ – campaigning for greater transparency in the dealings of the mainstream games media.

These tensions have been bubbling under the surface for a long time. In 2007, for example, when Jeff Gerstmann (founder of Giant Bomb) was dismissed from his editorial director position at Gamespot many thought that it was a direct result of his less-than-glowing review of Kane and Lynch: Dead Men and the resulting pressure from publisher Eidos on the website’s management team. This incident – and others like it – have made many gamers deeply suspicious of ethical practices in the industry. I can’t blame them.

Can major gaming publications be trusted to be unbiased if they make a great deal of their ad revenue from games publishers? Can writers be trusted to be fair when writing about games made by people with whom they have a personal relationship? Are these conflicts of interest disclosed effectively enough? These are valid concerns and they should be considered and discussed freely. Regrettably, it doesn’t look like that’s what’s happening.

Things came to a head in August when an ex-boyfriend of Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn wrote a blog post implying that she had traded sex for positive reviews. Though this has since been thoroughly debunked, the ensuing fallout has resulted in an ongoing campaign for greater transparency in games reporting. If it were that simple, we’d all be a lot better off.

GamerGate is an incredibly diffuse movement. Indeed, the extent to which it is a ‘movement’ at all is debatable since it lacks any sort of formal organisation or cohesion; anyone can use a hashtag or leave posts on a forum. Consequently, some of the vilest elements of the gaming community have taken up the hashtag to bully and harass women working in the games industry. This is – like concerns over journalistic ethics – nothing new. Sexism in the games industry is a well-documented and heavily debated issue. Female game developers and critics – like Quinn and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian – have faced continual abuse and harassment for a long time but this has exploded in recent weeks.

This whole episode has felt like something of a nadir in gaming culture. The sort of repulsive abuse that many have been subjected to is truly beyond the pale. Threats of physical violence combined with incidences of ‘doxxing’ (researching and publishing personally identifiable information about an individual) have forced many of those targeted to leave their homes out of fear for their safety. No doubt many women working in all parts of the games industry are wondering if it’s worth it and some – like freelance writer Jenn Frank – have already decided that it isn’t. This is abysmal news for all gamers.

Diversity in the industry is good for games. We need unique and varied voices in the games industry to ensure unique and varied content; this is true of all forms of artistic expression and entertainment. Take the 2011 film Bridesmaids as a case in point. It’s hilarious and easily one of my favourite comedies of recent years but – as it is written by women and features a predominantly female cast – if women had been hounded out of the film industry then it wouldn’t exist. If it did, it wouldn’t be half as good as it would likely lack authenticity and believability in its writing and execution.

Even better, having more diverse voices in films hasn’t stopped the male-oriented action genre from thriving (look at The Expendables) and nor will it in games. If people keep buying games like Call of Duty and Halo, developers and publishers will keep making them. Nobody is coming to take your games.

Many have criticised the left-leaning bias of many publications and of the so-called ‘social justice warriors’ (a derogatory term for critics who try to address social issues in their writing) amongst games journalists but, again, the market sorts these things out and if people stop reading articles on websites like Kotaku and Polygon then they’ll eventually cease to exist.

If you disagree with an opinion, you have every right to speak your mind and, even better, if enough people share your views then you may have just discovered a gap in the market for a more neutral or right-wing gaming publication. Careers have been built on a lot less.

You do not, however, have the right to threaten someone with physical, sexual, or psychological violence. You do not have the right to publish someone’s address and contact information on the internet to further this harassment. You do not have the right to perpetuate a culture of fear that prevents people from speaking their minds and drives them out of the industry.

What’s needed from all parts of the gaming community is civil, frank, and open discourse but, in all honesty, that’s probably not going to happen any time soon. Any legitimate discussion about journalistic practices has been overshadowed by violence and any meaningful debate about diversity in the games industry has been tainted by the perceived condescension coming from the games media. To be clear, both ‘sides’ (if they can be defined as such) have faults and threatening language has a tendency to escalate on the internet.

As such, this ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality that has been brewing for almost a decade has now become firmly entrenched and everyone seems certain that they’re not a part of the problem; it’s not ‘us’ using inflammatory language and rhetoric, it’s ‘them’ over there. ‘They’ are the problem. The biggest question I have for people who talk like that is this: who’s ‘they’?

Everybody needs to step away from that line in the sand, take a deep breath, and regain some perspective. Maybe then we can begin to move forward.

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