Thought Bubble: The Inevitable Demise of #gamergate

Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn brought #gamergate to a crashing halt over the weekend when she shared what appears to be documented evidence that the movement was originally manufactured in an effort to harass women. Assuming it’s true – and the evidence is pretty damning – it would prove that the movement is inseparable from its misogyny, another demonstration of the terrible way women are treated on the Internet.

The conclusion would be almost comical had it not caused so much damage first. The espoused goal of #gamergate was to root out corruption in the gaming press, a concern stemming from the imagined norm of games journalists showing favoritism to friends based on the flawed premise that games like Depression Quest wouldn’t receive mainstream coverage based on merit. In practice it manifested as harassment, much of it directed at Quinn for having the audacity to be an outspoken woman in gaming and for maybe having had a consensual sexual relationship with a writer (I haven’t verified that last part because it’s not any of my business). But some of the concern was authentic, precipitating a examination of disclosure and integrity in the media.

It’s therefore deeply ironic that the #gamergate fiasco produced some of the finest game and culture criticism I’ve ever read. Writers as varied as Leigh Alexander, Liz Ryerson, Devin Faraci, Stephen Totilo, Laurie Penny, and Jenn Frank (and many more) have weighed in with beautifully articulate responses to the harassment. It’s tragic that it came at such great expense, but the gaming intelligentsia has acquitted itself reasonably well under duress.

I’ve avoided weighing in until now, partly because I couldn’t think of anything that hadn’t already been said, but also because I wasn’t sure how to address people who were so willfully ignorant about how entertainment journalism actually works. Now that #gamergate has been exposed as the manipulative efforts of a group of misogynists, that appears to have been part of the design (and the story is still changing at time of writing). But even according to its own logic, the demands of #gamergate – the calls for an end to journalistic fraternization – never made any damn sense in the first place.

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At Dork Shelf, I probably have the closest thing to a local beat that you’ll find in online games criticism, which typically has an international focus. We cover Toronto developers and Toronto events and we interact with prominent members of the community in order to do so. I’ve met many game developers over the course of the past four years, and I am friends (or at least friendly) with most of them.

Does that lead to bias? Probably, though it’s unavoidable. I genuinely like most of the people I’ve worked with (including a few that don’t like me), and I don’t see much value in being mean just for the sake of being mean. I don’t consider that a drawback. If anything, it’s an integral aspect of the job because I need to maintain working relationships. I rely on my personal familiarity with the Toronto scene to find angles that haven’t been covered elsewhere.

The fact is that it’s tough to report on a creative field without earning the trust of people in those fields. The same is true of sports journalism, where Peter King seems to have Tom Brady and Peyton Manning on speed dial if he needs an emergency quote. I have always been aware of those relationships in gaming. If you want to know the story behind a game like The Yawhg or a band like The Blast Processors, you’re going to have to accept the fact that I’ve interacted with the creators in a semi-social setting. I disclosed it by writing the article, working on the assumption that it’s still better than nothing.

Then again, nobody had an issue with those networks before, which makes the past month all the more depressing. #gamergate was so unfocused in its goals that it could never accomplish anything other than harm, and the fact that such blatant harassment was temporarily effective is enough to make anyone feel helpless. All I can do here is add my voice to the chorus stating that harassment and abuse is never justified. That’s why I wanted to write something, even if other people have already said much of what I want to say. Every show of support helps stem the tide.

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So with that, I want to end with something positive.

As bad as the past month has been – and it’s been awful – I remain absolutely convinced that those fighting for inclusivity and progressiveness will eventually win out, not just in games but in society more broadly. But the process takes years or even decades, and it often happens without any immediate landmarks, so it can be tough to keep that in mind while it’s happening.

That’s small solace for those who have been literally driven from their homes and harassed to the smallest corners of the Internet, so I understand the anger. People are suffering now, and noncommittal platitudes like, ‘It gets better’ can be a way of deferring the responsibility to make it better.

I still think it’s a helpful because it offers a small glimmer of hope, serving as a reminder that we are indeed making progress. It’s not something you’d notice if you’ve only been paying attention to Twitter, where things are darker than ever, but the paradigm shift is already taking place.

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That’s why I found comfort in the sheer volume of published responses. I wish the circumstances that precipitated the output weren’t so awful, but there are too many smart people writing about video games to let ignorance and hate govern the conversation for any great length of time. We all lose when someone as talented as Jenn Frank is driven from the industry and we can’t keep allowing it to happen. But there is still no shortage of people willing to fight for the cause.

And yeah, that’s kind of significant.

Though it was criticized as not enough, the open letter (with 2495 signatures) that circulated amongst game developers condemning the harassment of women is a more optimistic representation of the future. Yes, some industry leaders could be more vocal. But the people making games are listening. They’re hearing what Anita Sarkeesian has to say and they’ll gradually absorb the critiques and use them in a more positive fashion.

However, they won’t make big announcements about changing course. They won’t deliberately antagonize the people who currently buy their games. Like Volition – the makers of Saint’s Row and one of the few major studios openly discussing issues related to representation – they’ll simply publish more inclusive video games and count the receipts the same way they’ve always done.

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The retrogressive vision of adolescent male gaming remains relevant only because of its value to publishers. Once those strings are cut – and adult women are already gaming’s single largest consumer demographic – then the market will shift accordingly. There’s no reason to kowtow to gaming’s most anti-social sect when the industry can survive without it.

That’s why #gamergate was always doomed to fail. If there really is a conspiracy in games journalism – if there’s a small cabal of insiders orchestrating the shift away from monochrome shooters – then maybe gamers could cut it off at the head. But the growing influences of feminism and inclusivity are grassroots trends that emerge out of society more generally, where university lectures, television programs, gay weddings and so much else regularly expose people to a more tolerant definition of humanity.

As it relates to gaming, there are more people then ever before making games that don’t fit the traditional profile, and it’s not because of some enforced fealty to a social agenda. An artist like Zoe Quinn sincerely believes that weird stuff is awesome, and she’s going to keep making it because that’s what she wants to make.

The same is true of every developer and media personality accused of being a Social Justice Warrior. No one has ever forced me to write about an independent video game to the exclusion of something more mainstream. I talk to independent developers because I want to hear what creative people have to say. I write about them because I think other people might share my curiosity. That’s it. That’s the extent of the corruption.

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By the same token, I don’t write about feminism because someone will drop an axe on my neck if I don’t. It’s an issue that I care about and that I feel is worth discussing. More to the point, the friendships and social networks that #gamergate is so afraid of go well beyond a shared appreciation of games. Many of us get along because we have a mutual commitment to inclusivity and social progressivism. Games like Depression Quest have garnered praise because many people actually value diversity of creators and diversity of content.

That hasn’t changed just because the Internet got angry. There are so many different people playing and producing games that a monoculture will never be able to satisfy demand. The move towards inclusivity is a market reaction rather than a conspiracy, and I, for one, am grateful for those making it happen.

 

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