Gamers, Gatekeepers and the Golden Rule: Gamergate and the Real Ludic Century

I was at lunch the other day with my mother when a woman came by the table. She stopped to say that she loved my t-shirt, which had the Portal-inspired logo for The Mary Sue on it. I thanked her and she hesitated, looked at my mother, before saying, “It’s just terrible about Gamergate. I can’t believe it!” I perked up immediately. Out in the real world, outside of the household of other game designers I live with, I never expected to hear the word Gamergate used aloud. The woman told me upon further prompting that she ‘wasn’t a gamer’ but she’s on the convention circuit and knows people who are. She’s heard about the things that have happened, and she’s disgusted.

While we both nodded knowingly, my mother looked on perplexed. After the woman left, my mother looked up and said, “Gamergate? What are you talking about?”

Then I realized. She didn’t know. She didn’t know that for the last few weeks, along with working, I had dealt with death threats over vocally standing up for Zoe Quinn on Twitter. She didn’t know that women I respected, like Mattie Bryce and Jenn Frank, had quit because of harassment. She didn’t know about any of the insanity that has become Gamergate because my mother isn’t a gamer. To her, it was Thursday. To anyone embroiled in this nonsense, it was Day #Whatever since this craziness began.

In the past few weeks, the gaming community has been under siege, embroiled in an invented scandal that has turned into its own internet movement. It’s called Gamergate, and if you haven’t heard about it, I wish I could say you weren’t missing anything. Because to most of the world, you’re not missing anything. You’re only going about your life while the gaming community goes through some of the most serious growing pains I could have ever imagined. If you aren’t a gamer, or aren’t working in the games industry in some way, then Gamergate is just another strange word to you invented by the internet. But to those people who take these things seriously, who either associate with the gamer community or develop and write about games, Gamergate is nothing less than the catch-all word for a cesspool of rage, lies, and hate that erupted a few weeks back.

I won’t go into a full breakdown of the events of Gamergate, because this article did a fantastic job of it for me. But I will give the basics and go from there. Once upon a time, before we ever knew what the hell a Gamergate was, a jilted ex-boyfriend of Zoe Quinn (the developer of Depression Quest) decided that it was all right to created a blog to vent his spleen about his break up with Zoe. This guy’s exhaustively long post included insinuations that Zoe Quinn had slept with reviewers and even her boss to receive professional advancement and good reviews for her game. The fact that these reviews did not exist was irrelevant. The fact that this is a typical tactic often employed against women to discredit them, by insinuating that they could not achieve anything without doing so on their back, is pretty obvious. However, this blog post set off a monstrous response by so-called seekers of ethics, who loudly decried Quinn’s behavior as an example of the nepotism going on in the game design world. And by loudly decried, I mean they threatened her life, harassed her, doxxed (spread her personal information to the internet), harassed her family, and hacked her accounts. All in the name of ethics in games. 

If you see the sick irony in this, you’re not alone. Many designers, journalists, and game enthusiasts rose to Quinn’s defense, and so touched off a back and forth explosion across the gaming world. Gamergate supporters targeted anyone who they deemed ‘Social Justice Warriors’ for harassment on social media if they dared stand up to speak out about the behavior of the internet mob. People from designers like Tim Schaefer and Elisabeth Sampat down to folks like little ol’ me spent countless hours dealing with folks who ‘just want accountability in games journalism!’ Or so they say. It’s hard to hear what point they’re making over all the abuse, the hate, the harassment, and the death threats. I got six. Zoe got thousands. Then Anita Sarkeesian put up her latest video on Tropes vs. Women and received death threats so vile and serious, she had to flee her home. 

But sure. This is about ‘ethics.’ 

And so it went on. And still is going on today. Even though Zoe Quinn has gone online and proven that much of the so-called truths about Gamergate were created by some folks with WAY too much time on their hands from 4chan, coordinated in IRC channels that Zoe watched and recorded, the vocal offended party of gamers who believe that Gamergate is actually a thing.  They feel that the games world is under attack by a group of ‘social justice warriors’ out to change their community, open it up to all kinds of games that don’t fit their definitions and aren’t what they grew up with. They talk about a conspiracy of these SJWs to take away their way of gaming and change the face of games.

It’s too bad they never got the message: that change has already been happening. And it didn’t take a conspiracy to do it.

Contrary to popular belief, the gaming world has never been what is stereotypically believed. First, gamers were never all male. Sure, they were predominantly male for a long time and of a specific demographic, but it was never universal. They were also never predominantly western/American, though that’s the only narrative we seem capable of digesting. To hear people talk about it, games only came from America or Asia, and that’s about it. And finally, despite the overwhelming discourse to the contrary, gaming was never predominantly digital. There was a whole group of gamers that did not just play digital, that were board game, card game, wargaming, tabletop RPG and LARP enthusiasts. However all these people did share one title, now so badly covered in filth that it might never recover. They were all gamers.

In a recent article by Leigh Alexander, she gives a brilliant break-down of the rank stagnation that has overtaken large portions of the gaming world. Marketing towards the perceived male demographic long ago created the idea that the world of gamers was occupied and defined by men, for men. Women and anyone outside of the normative were just outsiders, objectified, marginalized, and ultimately inconsequential to the overall market and culture of gaming. She paints the picture of Gamergate as the death throes of a festering heap of glass-eyed, vacant, culture zombies, unaware of the way they have been turned into rapt consumers of a vapid ethos backed by a marketing machine. And she’s got a lot of points about the consumerism, the lack of exploration of anything outside of the normative, the disgusting rage aimed at anyone trying to change the status quo.

But one thing about this article bothered me almost as much as the shouts of the haters on the internet. In the article, Leigh Alexander says that ‘Gamers are Over’, an idea echoed by many since this nonsense began. I get that what she means is that the long-since static culture of male-dominated, consumer driven gaming world is dying a slow death, and that Gamergate is just the death rattle. However, in the same breath as people have begun speaking about this new world of gaming, they spew victrol against the gaming community that was based on the stereotypes that have plagued games forever. And in that same breath, those declaring gamers and gamer culture as over are becoming the very gatekeepers they are railing against. Except now, the gaming world that was before, full of  “young men queuing with plush mushroom hats and backpacks and jutting promo poster rolls” in their “listless queue” (quote: Alexander), is relegated in all its facets to something meant to be burnt to the ground and left behind, a relic of this new ludic century (a term created by Eric Zimmerman his a manifesto about the future of games). And the conversation becomes a shouting match of absolutes, all over one issue: what will the gaming world look like going forward?

This isn’t a conversation of absolutes. It can’t be. Because the gaming world was never JUST a world of young men in their basements banging away at the latest AAA shooter. The new gaming world isn’t JUST going to be a world where every game is inclusive and thoughtful (although wouldn’t that be nice). It is going to be complex, full of different kinds of people playing games and exploring what different play spaces have to offer their lives. It’s going to be the casual gamers and the LARPers, it’s going to be the people playing League of Legends and Magic professionally alongside the people designing personal stories on Twine and in Unity. It’s going to be Warhammer 40K and Farmville, Dystopia Rising and Destiny, World of Warcraft and Fiasco. And it’s going to be all these games in conversation with journalists, thinkers, scholars, writers and critics. It’s going to be Anita Sarkeesian and John Romero. It’s going to be Eric Zimmerman and the Nordic LARP scene. It’s going to be hardcore fans of Killer Queen rubbing elbows with NERO players and hardcore Netrunner players.

It’s everyone. It’s all of us. And nobody gets to define games because they’re all games. 

And you’re all playing them. And whether you want the term or not, that makes you a game player. A gamer. What have you.

That’s the future of gaming in my eyes. That is the real ludic century.

So yes, this new world is full of a lot of different kind of people. However, mark me on one thing: 

This new world has room for all kinds of games. What it doesn’t have room for is harassment. It has no room for discrimination or othering. That is the kind of socially-regressive, morally bankrupt bullying and soap-box insensitive rhetoric that we have seen throughout this Gamergate and perpetuated, hopelessly unchecked, for decades. In the past, the kind of angry internet ranting or socially unacceptable behavior that has become equated with gamer culture has been swept under the rug with a sigh and a ‘what can you do.’ Well, we can do a lot actually. We can speak out. We can create the community we want and make sure it has room for everyone to be treated well. We can make sure that games don’t perpetuate that culture by creating a hostile environment for people based on race, gender, religion, sexuality, body type, culture, ethnicity or economic standing. Those are the ground rules because they are, in my eyes, the lowest common denominator for a society that is evolving and growing in the twenty-first century.

This new expansive gaming world has no place for definitions on who can be a gamer, but it does need a golden rule. And that golden rule is: don’t be a dick.

(And it should require no explanation that being a dick includes harassment, threatening, discrimination, objectification, exclusion based on identity, or perpetuation of shame culture. But since this hasn’t been a no-brainer in the past, it bears repeating.)

These horrible few weeks, full of harassment and fear, are the growing pains of a culture long ago poisoned by its own fears of inadequacy, of a medium and its supporters struggling for legitimacy and battling for supremacy of identity. And these fights have cost us so many who just walked away, shook their heads and said ‘the hell with THOSE guys.’ Or worse, folks who have come to hate this time of change because of the fear that the good they’ve had from being a gamer in the past is now being cast in a negative light by the screeching voices of the trolls and harassers on the internet. But I refuse to look at this new age of gaming as a place where anyone, not the haters and not those shouting that ‘gamers are over,’ can take the lead to sanitize gaming of the corners they don’t like. This is a big sandbox. We can all play in it.

But just remember that Golden Rule. Because it’s the difference between rational conversations, and Gamergate. And I for one am getting tired of the latter and could do with some more of the former. 

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