Off the map: Games, gamers and culture wars

For nearly a decade, I’ve written for this magazine on topics related to geopolitics and culture and the need to be acutely aware of the sensitivities of such issues as they relate to content in our products. While I’ve touched upon the consumer side of the equation many times, at least in terms of how end-users will perceive the content we produce, I’ve rarely addressed the culture of the media the consumers are enjoying, as opposed to the local culture of the consumers themselves.

For example, we can talk about the impact of images used in books and how such images may affect the cultural expectations in one locale or another, but we rarely talk about the images in the context of how avid book readers may react. Usually the medium of delivery isn’t as relevant to the key questions about content sensitivities and their effect on a specific culture.

One of the topics I’ve often discussed is the concept of cultural protectionism and how local entities such as a national government will take action to protect their local “narrative,” meaning the way in which their culture, their territory, their history and so on are perceived by people outside their locale. This kind of protectionism has been the motive for everything from tourism marketing to persuasive propaganda to political upheaval and even to military conflict. Cultural protectionism isn’t exclusive to countries either, it can happen among any group that maintains a certain identity, and when it feel this identity is being threatened in some way.

In 2014, this very kind of protectionism emerged in the form of consumer activism, and provided us with an example of what can happen when end-users identify so fervently with a medium they eagerly enjoy. The issue at hand, which continues as of this writing, is what’s become known as “Gamergate,” and it’s been one of the most disruptive actions in recent years and certainly one of the most significant in the game industry as far as its negative impact. It’s an issue that interweaves many threads of discussion, from online harassment and misogyny to the culture wars around conservatism, feminism and the role of anonymity in virtual communities. It’s also an issue that affected me personally, as I remain one of the key targets of this small but vocal crowd of online antagonists. But at its core, Gamergate is a tale of cultural protectionism, where a group that felt it had ownership over the label gamer found instead that it’s just one part of a now global, multicultural and diverse demographic of game players.

This issue requires a certain amount of background before discussion, so I’ll attempt to summarize as succinctly as possible what happened and how we’ve come to this point. The spark that ignited this whole issue was when a games journalist, Eron Gjoni, posted a derogatory piece in early August 2014 about his ex-girlfriend, independent game developer Zoe Quinn, after they broke up. Within days, Gjoni’s post found support from the 4chan message boards, a community priding itself on its anonymity and its tendency to initiate harassment and other malicious behavior for any issue or individual they collectively deem worthy of their negative attention. Many of these people joined Gjoni’s rant, including some notable YouTube broadcasters (such as one known as TotalBiscuit) and the harassment against Quinn quickly escalated. Around this time, game industry commentator Anita Sarkeesian released another video in her ongoing series about the negative portrayals of women in video games. Sarkeesian’s criticism of existing tropes are meant to spur discussion and help the game industry take a critical look at its portrayal of women. Yet to this building crowd of harassers, Sarkeesian was attacking what they hold dear – their “classic” video games that they enjoy and to them she represented a “social justice warrior” (SJW) and “radical feminist” who was aiming to change the industry and take away their cherished games. Sarkeesian had become a target in 2012 when she initiated her video series, but the mob renewed their attacks on her, complete with online harassment and death threats.

As happens with online mobs, this so-called “movement” quickly escalated and took on its own life, especially when actor Adam Baldwin (of the beloved geek TV series Firefly) added his conservative politics to the mix, railing against the perception of an out-of-control feminist agenda, and coined the Twitter hashtag #gamergate. This provided a more distinct identity to what was initially random groups of anonymous individuals in online communities that have long been associated with misogynistic behavior.

By the end of August 2014, the activity had started getting the notice of a wider range of people in the game industry, particularly among independent developers and journalists. Gamasutra.com columnist Leigh Alexander published a particularly pointed piece about how “gamers are over,” essentially denouncing the toxic online behavior and declaring that the gamer identity as typically defined — mostly young, white males — is no longer valid because virtually everyone plays games now. The message and tone of this article set off a new wave of harassment and hatred among the Gamergate adherents and fueled a new level of reaction against other people who spoke out against them, particularly women. The practice of “doxing,” revealing someone’s private information online, such as an address or phone number, was regularly employed by Gamergate adherents against their targets. In some cases they also employed “swatting,” which is alerting local law enforcement to a fake “incident” at their target’s home address in the hope that a SWAT team on high alert would be sent in response.

With Gamasutra’s publishing of the inflammatory column, the Gamergate crowd protested by targeting the website’s advertisers in September, starting with the tech giant Intel. In a knee jerk reaction, Intel removed its advertising from Gamasutra, contributing to the perception of a major victory among the Gamergate supporters. Over the next few months, Intel would realize the tremendous mistake it had made and by early January 2015, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced in his keynote at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that Intel was committing $300 million in a broad initiative to not only fix the obvious diversity problems in the game industry but in the entire technology sector, starting with full representation at all levels within Intel. This action has since inspired other companies to increase their diversity efforts, such as Apple’s public commitment of $50 million in March 2015.

By October 2014, the overt misogyny of Gamergate began to get widely noticed. Major media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other outlets correctly identified Gamergate for what it is: a convoluted mob without any single agenda or voice but with a clear misogynist streak. Even though the harassment campaign tried to change the focus of their vitriol to being an issue over ethics in games journalism, they were mostly unable to escape the perception that this was a group striving to exclude women from somehow interfering with their gamer culture. In other words, they supposedly weren’t ranting against Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and others’ involvement in the industry as women, but rather the way that game journalists are too close to game developers and the perception of a lack of objectivity in game coverage and reviews. Unfortunately, this additional façade increased Gamergate’s appeal among new followers.

As for my part in all this, as the executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), I was proud that our board of directors issued a statement in late August 2014 to denounce the harassment and misogyny; at the time we were the only major industry organization to say anything about the issue. And because I was so outspoken in many media interviews on the topic, I quickly became another key target of Gamergate — seen as another key “SJW” and as “the gamers’ enemy” and yes I received death threats as well as constant harassment and derision on Twitter and on Gamergate blog posts. Never mind my 20+ year history in the game industry and the fact that I’ve likely worked on many of the games the Gamergate proponents enjoy, and never mind the fact that I’ve likely been a gamer longer than most of these harassers have been alive. The fact that I am an industry figure willing to stand up and vocally oppose their actions made me worthy of their hatred. I’ve been blamed and accused of some of the wildest, most ridiculous conspiracy theories; in other words, I’ve been a convenient enemy to hate and help fuel their conspiracies and internal cultural narrative.

This whole issue continues to rumble on in the virtual communities, and for better or worse, for people who don’t pay attention to Twitter or Reddit, Gamergate has been virtually invisible. Indeed, even at the annual Game Developers Conference in March 2015, I had some long-time developers ask me about the issue because they had no idea that it had been raging for months and had never heard the term “Gamergate.” The harassment continues, although not nearly as intensely as a few months ago, and at this time the echo chamber known as Gamergate mostly continues to regurgitate familiar statements and arguments, never offering any new insights or thoughtfulness about whatever they were supposedly raging against from the start. Unfortunately, women developers and their defenders are still being harassed and targeted, and while the US Federal Bureau of Investigation has been involved since even before August 2014, the agency hasn’t made much progress in apprehending the worst of the mob due to issues around anonymity, free speech and many of the actions being performed by juveniles.

So to return to the cultural protectionism point I raised earlier, I’m prone to cast this episode in that light, particularly given my perspective as a geographer and culturalization strategist. Imagine that there’s a culture (mostly young males) high in the mountains that adopts a certain enjoyable pastime, a local cultural tradition (video games). For a long while, they’re mostly the only people enjoying this tradition and it becomes familiar and comfortable for them and their tribal name, gamer, represents their specific culture. Every once in a while, outsiders (such as women) will wander into their territory and might be accepted but are never really considered part of the culture and certainly aren’t really allowed to use the gamer label (or if they do, they’re often accused of being “fake gamer girls” or doing it only because their boyfriends play games). This isolated culture continues to grow and companies continue to make goods that this culture enjoys (including overly sexist depictions of women).

But something interesting happens. Eventually, this cultural tradition finds a place beyond the traditional gamer’s territory. Over time, more and more people outside their realm are also playing games, and many of these people don’t fit the tribal definition of gamer. One day, after years have passed, this isolated culture of gamers suddenly realizes that the world around them has changed — they’re no longer unique and special, and the companies making their games are also making games for the people outside their territory. Their cherished cultural tradition now belongs to everyone, and they really don’t like this idea. As they panic at this revelation, they lash out at what they perceive to be the most obvious cause of this change — people different from them who’ve invaded their space (mostly women). And while they also lash out at the ethics of games journalism, this small, isolated realm decides to employ highly unethical methods of attack to those beyond their territory, such as constant harassment, public humiliation, doxing and swatting.

Indeed, the world has changed around them. In the United States, nearly 50% of gamers are women. Several years ago the global video game industry began generating more revenue than the film and music industries combined. Game playing is ubiquitous, with a very wide demographic. In the United States alone, the average age of a gamer is now 36 years old. That tribal perception of a gamer being a young male has utterly changed. Just as other major art forms such as literature, music, radio, television and film are enjoyed by virtually everyone on some level, games have reached the point of being the latest entertainment medium to become part of the modern human experience.

Several times I’ve been asked by media outlets and others if anything good will result from all this. My response is a fervent yes, absolutely. There’s no question that this has been a time of turmoil for the game industry, and the disturbing (and illegal) harassment must come to a full stop. Gamergate has been an additional layer of angst added to the already-dynamic environment of an ever-changing industry. As the game industry is so technology dependent, it continues to evolve its platforms, delivery methods, content sources and so forth. In response, there has been much upheaval over the past few years, as evidenced in a variety of ways. For example, the IGDA’s own Developer Satisfaction Survey found in 2014 that over the past five years, game developers had an average of four jobs! Many in the industry were anecdotally aware of an underlying churn but the survey helped shine a hard light on the realities.

So add to the landscape this additional aspect of industry change, that of inclusion and diversity. We all knew that eventually it needed to be addressed, and I myself having attended and participated in countless talks about women in games and diversity panels and such discussions, it’s clear that there’s been a strong frustration with the lack of progress, both in the game industry as well as the broader technology sector. That’s one reason why the IGDA has adopted a “space program” goal of trying to double the number of women working in the game industry by 2025. It’s why Intel has come out so boldly in favor of resolving their diversity problem in the IT sector once and for all. It’s why we’re seeing a plethora of STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) programs arise for young women and people of diversity.

The reaction against Gamergate’s misogynist message has been so strong that in the end, the very thing their isolated culture was railing against is going to actually become a reality. Their cultural backlash has become a catalyst for galvanizing an entire industry to take a hard look at itself and then have the courage to take real, measurable steps to change. Granted, this effort is only getting started and it’s a long-term proposition, yet I remain optimistic. The internet will always have its echo chambers and strong opinions, it will continue to rage on a wide variety of issues and I doubt Gamergate adherents will go away anytime soon. But hopefully social media companies such as Twitter will also realize some hard lessons about how to better manage their platforms, rather than being enablers. And those of us who engage in social media use on a frequent basis can learn to better filter the noise so we can concentrate on the signals that matter.

For the sake of brevity, there are many details I’ve had to leave out of this discussion as it has many layers of complexity and I have no doubt that it’s going to result in many master’s theses and doctoral dissertations in the fields of sociology, communication, journalism, cultural anthropology and information sciences, to name a few. It’s important for us to keep in mind that culture doesn’t always have to be defined by country borders, languages or ethnicities. In today’s increasingly virtual spaces of communication and social interaction, cultural identity associated with mediums, brands and content types are becoming ever more relevant and critical to consider in our work.