Sunday, October 19, 2014

Another Long Collection of Thoughts About #GamerGate

NOTE: This was originally a piece that was intended for publication elsewhere. Length, however, became an issue (a shorter, "to the point" version is in-production). But I still wanted a "one-stop" source for my positions on the Recent Unpleasantness as a whole, because it helps make certain social-media interactions mercifully shorter.

I have a lot to say about the so-called “GamerGate” controversy, much of which I’ve already said but much of which I’d wanted the opportunity to say with more clarity. So to keep this from running too long (Spoiler Warning: I will almost certainly run too long, anyway) and losing your interest I’m going to forego the use of flowery “clever” segues between thoughts and lay this out categorically.

But if you’re impatient to get down into the comments and start debating what variety of heated-adhesive and which species of fowl would be best suited to my tarring and feathering and want the TL;DR version right-off? Fine: I think of GamerGate alternately as a joke that got infuriatingly out-of-hand and an outright campaign of hate and harassment either dense (or pretending to be dense) enough to think itself otherwise; and it’s goals (both stated and implied) are the exact opposite of the self-betterment that gaming desperately needs - and was (not accidently) right in the midst of achieving when this foolishness started. In short, I find it to be a wholly destructive thing with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

That’s the short version. If you want the long one, keep reading.

Firstly: To my “Gamer” bonafides: 
I’ve been playing, following, studying and loving video games for about as long as I can remember. Some of the happiest moments of my childhood are centered around video-games. I’ve waited overnight in lines for video games. I got into stupid schoolyard fights about video games (kid, “GamerGate” ain’t nothin’ – I survived SNES vs. Genesis!) I saw The Wizard in movie theaters. I wrote a book about games. I do a silly internet show about games.

There’s an NES, an SNES, a Dreamcast, an N64, multiple variations of GameBoy/DS/3DS portables, a Wii, WiiU, Xbox360 and corresponding game collections in the room adjacent to where I write this, along with Genesis games for a clone console (which is also for running Famicom carts) and space reserved for a PS4 the next time I’ve got the money/time set aside. I’ve got Captain N: The Game Master on DVD. The whole run of the series. The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, too. The first and last issues of Nintendo Power are framed on my wall. Would you like to know which currently-available breakfast cereal tastes exactly like the long-discontinued Mario/Zelda cereal from the mid-80s? Ask me. I have very strong, specific opinions about Mega Man.

So yes, I know my video games. And for a long time I was very protective of the idea of “gamer” as a cultural identity. Mostly, it was because I came up as a gamer in an era when devoted video game aficionados really did tend to be a specific subset of (then) youth-culture who were misunderstood and occasionally ostracized by the mainstream, and was smack in the midst of young-adulthood when the gaming Censorship Wars were going down – Joe Lieberman and Night Trap, Jack Thompson, that whole mess. I get the need to form “community” around shared interests and to strike a “wartime stance” when those interests (and, by implication, oneself) become a “target” of one kind or other.

But today? Sure, I can see why the “subfandoms” of gaming – your Final Fantasy acolytes, your Nintendo diehards, your master-level devotees of Pokemon, Starcraft, various fighting franchises, that one guy (or gal!) who’s still really, really into Bonk - still exist and serve a purpose… but when gaming is as mainstream and widely-spread as book-reading, movie-watching, TV-viewing and music-listening? The idea of “gamer” as a “cultural identity” honestly begins to sound a little… insipid, really. In a world where my mom and a Korean StarCraft pro are both “gamers” in as much as they both play games, there’s just no reason to still be acting like there’s a secret-handshake to get into the clubhouse (unless your “putting it back on” for a larf when attending an event like PAX.)

Especially when dicing ourselves up into “hardcore” and “casual” camps serves not the interest of “gamers” but of making it easier for the bloated, greedy Hutt’s that are EA, Activision, etc to market to us. Taking unironic “pride” in the hardcore-ness of your game-buying preferences is like being “proud” of how much money you’ve given to Coca-Cola over the years – enjoying the fruits of Capitalism doesn’t mean you need to start forming religious devotion to corporations. Or their products.

File that, because it’ll be important a moment or two from now.


Secondly: To my politics and/or philosophy: 
Everything has a political dimension to it. Everything. Often implicit, sometimes also explicit, but always there – especially in places where it’s not “intended.” GamerGate has so many political dimensions (gender conflicts, class-stratification, age/generational disagreements, international unease, economics, the environment, you name it) it may as well have its own Unified Field Theory… but we’ll get to that.

I’m not an “apolitical” person. I have very strong, long thought-upon opinions about most important issues, and I vote/advocate/agitate/etc on their behalf when I feel it is necessary or I have something to contribute. What I don’t have is a particular allegiance to a specific political school of thought or “philosophy” outside of a very broad pragmatic view that broken or flawed things about a society or system should either be fixed or discarded and replaced in whatever fashion achieves the best result.

I respect the academic study of philosophy and the idea of esoteric/hypothetical debate over this or that point, but in the real world results generally matter (and have more lasting impact) than animating schools of thought. ”So do the ends justify the means?” Well, that depends on which ends and means we’re talking about on a case-by-case basis. For me, adhering with any rigidity to political “philosophy” or “ideology” is like being a carpenter who shows up to build a house but declares he will use only a hammer – no saw, no screwdriver, no wrench, no drill, just a hammer - because he is a “Devout Hammerist.” Sounds ridiculous, right?

So when I see something broken/flawed in society and am looking at solutions to fix/improve it, I could care less whether a solution is philosophically Capitalist, Socialist, Objectivist, right-wing, left-wing, Libertarian, Authoritarian, whatever - all I want to know is if it will work and what will the immediate effects be. Beyond that? There’s an imperfect world to keep improving and a better tomorrow to get to, and I’m for using every tool in the damn box (and inventing some new ones, when necessary) to get there. Fortune, after all, favors the bold.

So, then, to GamerGate.


What it is: 
This is already feeling long, so I’m not going to mince words: Pretending that GamerGate did not originate as a slew of woman-hating (in the guise of being against “Social Justice Warriors,” of course) creeps gleefully and viciously attacking a female game developer (whom they already hated because they felt her game didn’t “deserve” a place in the Sacred Holy Temple of Steam) who then propped-up a fa├žade of having done so “only” because of some noble commitment to fighting various other concerns (some legit, some only legit-sounding) that so-called “gamer-culture” had about game journalism to pad out their ranks and feign legitimacy doesn’t make it not so.

Furthermore, even if one were to consider the (demonstrably false) premise that “GamerGate” has grown in such a way that it’s problematic origin-point is no longer relevant enough to hold against it… well, it just doesn’t hold up. Setting aside the fact that real-life doesn’t run on some kind of weighted “morality points” scale whereby filling up your blue “good works” meter lowers/negates the red “evil deeds” meter; the “movement’s” actions hence reveal that it has remained very-much “on topic” from where it was at the beginning.

No one disputes that ethical issues plague journalism in the ever-shifting digital age, consumer journalism especially and games journalism in particular. But not only does “GamerGate” not seem particularly interested in many of the medium’s most prominent longstanding ethical concerns like stage-managed preview-events, lavishly-ornamented “review copies” or aggressively favorites-playing public-relations operatives (at least to any meaningful/visible extent); it often doesn’t seem to see them as a big deal at all.

Instead, GamerGate’s dragons to be slayed have all seemed to come from a small, specific set of niches: Mostly women (and/or male allies) aligned with “feminist” or “social justice” causes (racial/gender diversity, LGBTQ issues, etc) in either the journalism or independent game-development spheres; with the intensity of the attacks being largely dictated by a target’s popularity or visibility. The attacks (like all such attacks) come with a tiny fig-leaf of quasi-reasonable justification – initially the idea that certain games and developers were being given an unfair spotlight because they were on friendly-terms or ideologically-aligned with this or that journalist; or that in a worst-case-scenario were gaining dishonestly-positive review scores for the same reasons – that has by now spiraled out into laughably-elaborate conspiracy theories that by now involve (hilariously so) DARPA. At this rate I fully expect anti-fluoridation paranoia, anti-vaccination panic and David Icke’s ”Reptoid Hyptothesis” to become accepted-fact among GamerGate any day now.

Meanwhile, the pernicious (and exceptionally visible!) ways in which the corporate overlords of mainstream game-development can be observed to bend and warp ethics around the press (and vice-versa, in many cases) in order to control the narrative around their products appears to be something GamerGate regards as the industry functioning, well… functionally. That’s not to say that nobody who’s ever so much as clicked the “favorite” star on a Gate-hashtagged Tweet feels strongly about or has spoken out on these issues, but they certainly have not generated the organized, pre-planned “Operations” (complete with embarrassingly-hyperbolic co-opted military rhetoric) that were apparently warranted when it came to punishing Gamasutra for Employing a woman who said something ‘Gaters didn’t like.

In this way, GamerGate reveals itself to be fundamentally a reactionary movement, if not wholly a “conservative” one; not simply opposed to progressive voices in the games media because of what they have to say or which games they choose to say it about because of ideological disagreement (though that’s certainly a common enough thread as well) but because they threaten The Status Quo: Sure, EA isn’t exactly a “hero” to GamerGaters, but their sketchy behaviors are a “necessary evil” part of The Machine that keeps the flow of big, shiny, 60fps, multiplayer-focused, achievement-packed AAA blockbusters that defines so-called “hardcore gaming” coming. ‘Gate’s “core” variety of gamer hasn’t simply hitched their very identity to gaming, but to gaming as it exists right now as an ideal.

Whereas the “SJWs,” on the other hand, not only have less-than-flattering things to say about some of gaming’s biggest sacred cows, their perceived increased prominence (in terms of press coverage, at least) means that they could change the medium in some way. And it doesn’t seem to matter if that change comes in the form of developers listening to criticism about “problematic” issues and choosing to revise their presentations (which GamerGate claims to see as tantamount to “censorship”), or more games that don’t fit the “hardcore gamer” model finding success, or the demographics of game-consumers itself moving away from the absolute-dominance of 18-35 year-old males: Change is bad. The status quo must be maintained.

This helps to explain (in part) why the only remotely positive “real” press attention GamerGate has earned has come from minor-league players in the American conservative political sphere; mainly Breitbart.com’s Milo Yiannopolous (though he didn’t used to feel that way…) and American Enterprise Institute fellow Christina Hoff Sommers – a self-described feminist whose career consists almost exclusively of projecting nefarious motives onto the modern movement. GamerGate may or may not see itself as “right-wing” movement, but in framing feminism and social-justice as change-agents set to “corrupt” a functioning status-quo it aligns nicely with the general through-line of American cultural-conservatism – its “face” may be ”Vivian James,” but its soul is very much Sarah Palin.


”But I’m part of GamerGate and I’m NOT a…” 
This is probably the most difficult part of all this.

GamerGate has been built (and yes, it was built – this is not an organic movement, it just wants to look like one) around a “playbook” of 21st Century activism so broadly-applied that you can find its mirror in everything from the Tea Party (right-wing) and Occupy Wall Street (left-wing) to Re-Take Mass Effect (enviable surplus of free time): A small core with very specific concerns/goals nudging the movements of much larger “outer shell” of seemingly-diverse concerns lured into the collective by appeal to personal causes (”Mom said you can’t play GTAV? Our hashtag includes that – welcome aboard!”)

So while a majority of GamerGate is almost certainly not “represented” by the outright-sociopaths directing “gamified” online harassment campaigns that drive outspoken female devs out of their homes “for the lulz” or the agenda-driven opportunists aiming at the same targets but for political reasons… those toxic, entirely-destructive forces are very much in the driver’s seat and thus the “movement’s” goals have remained toxic and entirely-destructive – as they were designed to. And if you “joined” GamerGate because of sincere (however misguided in my opinion) corners about journalistic ethics or “censorship,” you need to understand (or at least consider the possibility) that your sincerity is being used as both shield (irony!) and cudgel for ugly goals that you likely didn’t “sign up” for.

People don’t like to hear that. Everyone likes to think of themselves as autonomous and self-aware, at least to the degree where they can’t be manipulated into something they didn’t want to do or wouldn’t have done otherwise. It’s natural to feel defensive (”You callin’ me a sheep or something???”) but it happens to the best of us; sometimes in big ways like supporting a cause or voting for a candidate, sometimes in small ways like decided to buy one soft-drink over another.

What’s important is being able to acknowledge when it’s happened and take corrective measures if you find them necessary. At this point, I’m think it’s reasonable for even staunchly anti-GamerGate persons like myself to accept as possible the idea that a good number of people with legitimate concerns about the games industry and game journalism ethics who would not otherwise have become… “animated” about those concerns exist within GamerGate and would be well worth listening to and taking seriously apart from the white noise of the thoroughly-discredited “movement.” However! The first step toward being listened to/taken seriously for such folks would be to separate themselves from the true-believer ‘Gaters: You are not using GamerGate as a megaphone for your concerns – GamerGate is using your concerns as a silencer for its hate and harassment.


About “Corruption.” 
…but let’s talk about what some of those concerns were.

Again, make no mistake: It is crystal clear that the attacks against Zoe Quinn that “birthed” GamerGate were about a devoutly-hateful subset of gamers believing that they had finally found A.) An opening to “take down” an outspoken developer they already despised that B.) could then be expanded to take down similar people and viewpoints within gaming culture. This cannot (and should not) ever be removed from any discussion on the subject.

But the sick genius of harassment campaigns like this is that the issues and concerns the progenitors feigned interest in actually are real issues and concerns. The gaming press growing bigger and more professional while also retaining a semblance of the close relations with its corporate subjects more befitting the fan/enthusiast press much of it grew out of raises a lot of problematic issues, particularly given the shameless willingness of some publishers to push the envelope on that particular codependent power-imbalance. The lack of unifying ethical guidelines (or genuine adherence to the same) is a worthwhile thing to question.

Above all else, the idea that journalism – even of something ultimately “trivial” like playthings (at the end of the day, folks, yes… we are talking about electronic toys here) – might be offering misleading or dishonest information to its readers/viewers in exchange for gifts or favors is about as fundamental a concern as one can have about the press. Any press.

Here’s where I stand: What used to be called “payola,” i.e. someone handing a critic an envelope full of money in the understanding that a positive review will be coming in exchange, is completely wrong and unethical on every conceivable level. No serious-minded person disagrees with this.

Everything else, though? Not nearly as clear cut.

On the one hand, game (and film, for that matter) companies sending out review copies of their products with lavish “garnishes” is gauche, and everyone knows what the intent of doing so is even if “being friendly” to a journalist isn’t (and shouldn’t be) illegal. On the other hand… since it’s also not “required” that journalists get the early access they often need to do their jobs, it’s also not feasible to start dictating terms to publicists for most outlets. All any journalist can be expected to do is disclose and be open about the circumstances of access, and for readers to cultivate a cache of trusted critics/reviewers; and to consider that while a devoted fan for whom games are a favorite hobby or a blogger/YouTuber just starting out a fancy resin bust of an orc might conceivably be something ”sooooo cool!” you’d go “easy” on a flawed game in (unasked for, I stress) appreciation for… that’s unlikely to be true for a professional who knows their credibility is one of the main things keeping a roof over their heads.

As to friendships/relationships between press and subjects? That’s been thorny for as long as there has been such a thing as journalism; and as much as I hate the phrase “There are no easy answers…” in this case, it’s true.

This is a place where I can only assume I’ll be breaking ranks with some colleagues: I think that the “ethics panic” in the early days of GamerGate may have nudged some areas of games journalism to take too hard of a line on inter-industry friendships. And while doing so is within the rights of publishers and individual journos… I think it does more harm than good.

I am a great lover of video games (see above); but as a critic/journalist I live more in the world of film. And in that world, the idea that the press would be walled-off from filmmakers on a personal level is regarded as absurd – and for good reason. Whereas major studios can spend billions to get the word out about their blockbusters, smaller and independent films rely on journalists who develop particular fondness for certain films and filmmakers as a big part of their quest for eyeballs. To put it bluntly: One of the main reasons you’ve heard of (now) major filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, Kevin Smith and (more recently) James Gunn is because they formed either fan-to-fan connections or outright friendships with critics and (recently) movie-bloggers who became (uncoerced) “advocates” for these then-upstarts and their work.

I happen to think it would be a huge mistake to restrict the potential of such relationships to yield similar results for gaming in the name of some hypothetical inoculation against accusations of “bias” later on. While I absolutely support critics who remove themselves from reviewing their friends’ work voluntarily out of personal policy or concern about the appearance of impropriety (and have done so myself – my casual acquaintance with some of the principals involved is mainly why you didn’t see me review The Angry Video Game Nerd Movie yet) well…

…honestly? The possibility that being friends (obviously romantic/sexual relationships are another matter entirely) with a developer might lead a journalist to be more “forgiving” of this or that flaw in some egregiously inappropriate way (oh lord, now I have to talk about freaking review scores…) is so miniscule (in multiple senses) as to be barely worth a thought next to the possibility that two people who love games – one an amateur critic, the other an aspiring developer – might “hit it off” at a gaming con and keep in touch over the years until one day the now-established critic looks into an indie game because they recognize their friends’ name in the credits and that’s how a great title that might’ve been overlooked otherwise becomes the next Minecraft.

Yes, “objectivity” is important. Obviously. But despite gamer culture’s (geek culture as a whole, really) tendency to assume that everything worth expressing about a work can be so expressed as a numerical equation… it’s just not the case. And no ill result of “bias” is worth sapping emotional connection, humanity or heart out of games journalism - whether it’s in the form of reducing all reviews to “objective” number scores with no aesthetic/emotive component or putting harsh restrictions on friend-making.


But what about “collusion?” 
This is the big one, right? The one place where GamerGate’s feigned concerns for “journalistic integrity” (a joke when they treat this walking embarassment as the model modern journalist) and it’s actual concerns that the “wrong” people and viewpoints might “take over” their hobby. Is there “collusion” among gaming journalists and gaming academics of similar ideological stripes to “push” certain themes to the forefront and nudge the culture in a certain direction – and, if so, is that a problem?

I can’t really speak to the first question, since though I work for a gaming-centric site I’m primarily a film critic and my video-game show is… well, a bit silly. So I don’t generally get invited to those types of parties, suffice it to say. But I have a hard time believing the Illuminati-level type of conspiring people have imagined going on therein (seriously guys… DARPA!?)

But is it possible that games journalism and gaming academia are too ideologically similar in an “echo-chamber” sort of way? Oh, sure – I just don’t see anything “sinister” coming out of it. Annoying? Absolutely, I still get the shakes remembering that moment in time where people suddenly wanted “Ludonarrative Dissonance” to be a commonly-used term we talked about all the time. But some “progressive cabal” within gaming conspiring to nudge the medium into a decidedly different direction than it’s currently headed while simultaneously working to remake “gamer culture” in the same way? This Alex Jones nonsense? Nope, don’t see it.

Tell you a secret, though? I kind of wish I did. And by “kind of,” I mean I absolutely wish I did.

At the beginning of this piece, I outlined how much I love video games. You may have gathered that a lot of that love centers on the “retro” gaming of my formative years, and you may have assumed that this is because I am, in fact, a gigantic child. That’s probably true, but I also genuinely find that gaming (and gamers) have taken a sharp turn within the last decade so – roughly-parallel (but perhaps coincidental) to the decline of Japan as console-gaming’s driving force and the rise of the West in the same space – and become something that I increasingly don’t recognize and feel alternately bored and repulsed by.

I look at a medium where once upon a time I could walk into even an average-sized arcade and be presented the opportunity to play as men and women of many races and creeds (even ones that didn’t actually exist!) along with animals, robots and all manner of beings (ditto!) that has now devolved (in mainstream spaces) into an endless succession of the same gruff, boring Daddy Figure starring in variations on two or three genres and I think… how did we get here?

I look at a medium that once (however crudely at times) had ambitions to tell stories well beyond the expected capacity of Hollywood… but then I look at how Hollywood responded (overall) to The War on Terror with measured concern, criticism and even some outright condemnation of gung-ho militaristic zealotry, while video games response was simplistic military hardware-porn with endorsements by Oliver North (seriously!) and I think… how did we get here?

I look at a “gamer culture” that welcome me back when few did now largely seen to be circling the wagons to tell the “wrong” kind of people who may enjoy the “wrong” kind of games to just get out… how did we get here?

I look at a “gamer culture” that fought hard for the medium to be taken seriously as any other art form, but now seems in a hurry to abandon that victory if it means being culturally-critiqued… how did we get here?

I look at all that, with GamerGate as the last straw, and I think… Man, I wish there was a “progressive/feminist conspiracy” to remake games and game-culture! Because right now both of those things are in the worst shape they’ve been in since The Crash of ’83; and while I’ve had occasion to think (and indeed continue to think) that a second “crash” of this blighted mess the medium has become might be pretty damn beneficial overall… if and when it happens it’s going to be messy and painful. For a lot of people. Maybe everyone. I’d like to see anything that can be done to prevent it at least tried - and like I said at the beginning: I don’t care what “philosophy” or “ideology” a tool for fixing this problem comes from – I only care that it works.

In conclusion:
And in the end, that’s where GamerGate and I will simply never see eye to eye, even if all the doxxing and harassing and sexism and bigotry were to suddenly go away… at the end of it all, GamerGate is premised on the idea that the transformation of gaming into a more inclusive space is a bad thing. That diversity is a bad thing. That the influence of feminist and “social justice” critique are bad for the medium. That gaming becoming (as it was once before, I once again point out!) less overwhelmingly dominated by retrograde masculinity, “macho” single-mindedness, reactionary militarism and Stern Daddy Figure patriarchal power-fantasy is a bad thing.

Whereas I look at all that and all I can think is: Yes, please, more of that! More progress. More activism. More change. More voices. More diversity. More types of characters. More types of reviews. Hell, more things being written than just scored “consumer-reports” style reviews. And yes… more attention to (and from) gamers who don’t currently get counted as “gamers.” And if some (even most – though it is nowhere near most) in the gaming press are more interested in covering, talking to, seeking out and spotlighting material that can speed that transformation along? I don’t call that “corruption” – I call that media-journalism performing its highest possible function: Encouraging both the medium and the audience to grow, progress and improve.

Because while I don’t believe that gamers should ”die” (and neither did the authors of the supposed ”Gamers Are Dead” pieces and you know they didn’t and pretending you thought they did so you have one more thing to be pretend-outraged about is shamefully silly) …y’know what, folks? The notion (factual or perceived) that “real gamers” should primarily refer to one type of person – specifically the angry, entitled, reactionary, change-fearing corporate apologist type of person – because “that guy” is easier for EA etc to shovel increasingly-empty experiences at for maximum profit?

That - the notion - cannot die fast enough.