Flavorwire doesn’t cover gaming a great deal, and we’ve deliberately steered clear of the controversies that have been engulfing the world of game journalism of late for the simple reason that we have little inclination to give more publicity to the assclowns who spend their time harassing female writers and game designers. But, in a depressing demonstration that one can never underestimate the awfulness of the Internet, the whole #GamerGate phenomenon has become, well, a phenomenon, one that’s sort of burbled over from the world of gaming and into the world of pop culture generally (shit, even the New Yorker is writing about it). As such, even if you’re not especially interested in video games, it’s worth reading about the whole sorry business, largely because of what it says about the treatment of vocal and/or visible women in the 21st century.
First, then, some background, because the controversy that’s erupted in the last couple of weeks is the confluence of several narratives that have been burbling away for months now. The one thing they have in common is the gender of the people at the heart of the stories: they’re all women. Of course they are.
For a start, there’s Anita Sarkeesian, whose Feminist Frequency site has been publishing a video series called Tropes vs. Women for the last couple of years. The videos explore the representation of women in video games, and specifically the way in which their roles can reflect sexism in wider society. It’s no more controversial than making a similar argument about the depiction of women in film or on TV, except that the latter media generally don’t have a fanbase of people who define themselves by their consumption of the medium in question (seriously, when was the last time you heard someone who likes movies call themselves a “viewer”?).
With depressing predictability, Sarkeesian’s videos have long been a lightning rod for controversy, right back to when she funded the project with a Kickstarter a couple of years back. This isn’t exactly surprising — the history of men reacting to feminist criticism in a reasoned and measured manner is about as extensive as the history of purple spotted elephants. Still, the saga reached a new low last week after the release of Sarkeesian’s latest video, when she was forced to leave her home after receiving death threats that referenced her home address. (The Verge’s lede put it best — “Trolls drive Anita Sarkeesian out of her house to prove misogyny doesn’t exist” — although for mine, the sooner we stop calling these people “trolls” and start referring to them as the stalkers and abusers they are, the better.)
The history of women being harassed and attacked on the Internet because of their gender goes back way further than Anita Sarkeesian, of course — she’s just the most recent and prominent example of a vocal woman being shouted down because, well, she’s a woman. It proves yet again Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that “humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” — men on the Internet are the default, and women are defined by being something that men are not. If men are attacked, it’s never done in a gendered manner. With women, it’s virtually nothing but.
Which brings us to Zoe Quinn. Much of the shit that’s been flung in the last few weeks has been thrown at this indie game designer, whose game Depression Quest enjoyed significant acclaim last year. For what it’s worth, I loved Depression Quest. I grew up playing Infocom text adventures — Zork, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc. — and I still have a large soft spot for the genre, which in the 21st century goes by the rather more fancy name of “interactive fiction.” Games of this sort fell out of favor in the 1990s, supplanted by flashier graphics and more extravagant production values, but they returned in the early 2000s, and now there’s a thriving interactive fiction community.
History aside, the point is that Depression Quest is part of a burgeoning indie game subculture that’s a fascinating subject in its own right, and comes from a very different place from the big-budget video games of studios like EA and Blizzard. There’s been resistance to such games from the self-described “gamer” community, largely because of the idea that the titles in question are “not games” in the traditional sense. (The point that they play into a tradition that was established long before Wolfenstein 3D created the first-person shooter or Dune 2 created the real-time strategy genre is one that is sadly lost on the 2010s’ guardians of gaming rectitude.) You can read through the user reviews of the game on Steam if you fancy it, where there are about a bazillion complaints that say things like, “I can’t really call it a game since I don’t think the point is to entertain you” and “There is no gameplay here, none.”
Why do they care so much? After all, no one’s making Call of Duty bros play Depression Quest or other titles that have been disparaged as “non-games.” The answer, of course, is that they don’t like having their cages rattled. They don’t like being told that their precious games aren’t exempt from the sexism and ingrained misogyny that characterizes the rest of society. And they don’t like anything that suggests that, hey, maybe the world of gaming shouldn’t be the preserve of misogynistic dipshits.
The people who’ve been harassing Quinn, of course, will tell you that it’s about something else entirely — the fact that Quinn dated a writer for gaming site Kotaku, and that this somehow means her game has received disproportionate coverage. There’s been a whole lot of noise about “journalistic integrity,” which is apparently suddenly of interest to Reddit, et al. And this, in turn, has given us the all-in shitstorm of #GamerGate, wherein a bunch of Reddit neckbeards claim to have uncovered a giant conspiracy to push a feminist agenda on the world of gaming and/or just for these brazen women to promote themselves!
No, really — read this hilarious load of shit, for instance, which accuses Sarkeesian of “bothering innocent game developers,” calls death threats “ungallant” and denounces “death threat hysteria” as a way to “stifle debate and silence critics” — as opposed to actually threatening to kill someone, which is apparently fine — and accuses Quinn of trading sex for coverage. Or have a look at this hitlist, wherein various journalists are accused of “ruining our hobby, playing video games.” Awwwww.
It should be noted, in light of all this nonsense, that the whole “journalistic integrity” thing isn’t so much a strawman as it is a giant Christ the Redeemer constructed entirely from hay bales. For a start, the journalist in question never reviewed Quinn’s game. And beyond that, in any industry there’s some crossover between writers and subjects. I have written about music for years, and — shock, horror — I know some music journalists (and actual musicians too!). This doesn’t mean that there’s some giant conspiracy to rid the world of pop music and force everyone to listen to Neu! until the world ends. If only.
It’s the same for the world of games journalism. No one’s gonna pretend that the tech press is exactly a shining example of principled journalism — not when stuff like this happens — but if you truly believe there’s some sort of secret meeting whereby all the nasty feminists and social justice warriors sit down and plan how they’re going to victimize innocent game designers, you probably need therapy. The bitter irony is that in this case, there was a conspiracy — but it was one directed at Quinn herself, because it turns out that a whole lot of #GamerGate was planned out on IRC by, inter alia, a vindictive ex-boyfriend. And hey, here’s the evidence!
It’s instructive, if awfully depressing, to read through the pages of IRC discussions wherein various men discuss how they might go about ruining Quinn’s life. The levels of paranoia and the degree to which the people involved are removed from reality is both startling and frightening — at one point, a user wonders idly if they can “[end] careers and marriages” and get Quinn “federal time for racketeering.” Again, you have to pinch yourself and realize that, no, we’re not talking about Watergate here — we’re talking about a bunch of conspiracy theories formulated by people so threatened by perspectives that conflict with their own that they’d prefer to believe that somehow the entire game industry is biased against the sort of high-budget, high-return games that pay its bills.
In one respect, it seems ridiculous to be arguing about this — we’re arguing about fucking video games, for Christ’s sake. But it’s all too symptomatic of how women are treated on the Internet (and, if you’re wondering just what sort of shit Sarkeesian puts up with, do have a read here or here). I see misogynistic hatred every day in the comments sections of articles written by female colleagues and friends. I never see anything similar directed at men. When I shitcan Beyoncé or denounce Terry Richardson, no one threatens to rape me to death. The worst I get is the occasional sweary tweet from a sad Gavin McInnes fan.
The temptation is to offer sympathy, to shake your head at what these women go through. But this, too, is disempowering in and of itself. This sort of coverage also serves to elevate the importance of those doing the threatening, which is another reason why Flavorwire has refrained from covering this whole sorry business until now. So let it just be said that the fact that women like Sarkeesian and Quinn — along with contemporaries like Molly Crabapple, Laurie Penny, Amanda Hess, and many others — continue with their work despite being subjected to this shit every fucking day, is both humbling and inspirational. But I look forward to the day that it has to be neither.