If you’ve been paying attention to the world lately, than like me you’re probably a little angry, frightened and exhausted (Crabapple, Molly. “We Must Risk Delight After a Summer of Monsters.” VICE. Aug 28 2014.). I feel this way even though none of these issues affect me directly: I could be perfectly unaware of them or I could be more informed about them and I would still be going about my days the same way. Most of my writing in the last three years or so is about how that one game from half a decade ago is full of, like, symbols man. Sometimes I get a little miffed when personal friends tell me that they don’t read my material because they’re not into games or they haven’t played the game an article focuses on. I’m miffed because it’s perfectly common—for them and for me—to read an essay about a film or a book that they haven’t personally been an audience to. One might not get as much out of the essay than someone more familiar with the subject, but one still might enjoy it; they might even be interested enough to check out the source. That doesn’t happen with games writing, though, and every once in a while I’m reminded about why people want to give games and gaming culture as wide a berth as possible. In recent weeks, several women have been brutally harassed by online hate campaigns. The details of these campaigns (and other related bullshittery) can be followed in an article by Ars Technica so I’ll simply link you there if you want to learn more, just be aware that most of that material comes with a trigger warning for misogyny, slut-shaming and rape (Johnston, Casey. “The death of the ‘gamers’ and the women who ‘killed’ them.” Aug 28 2014.).
There’s some talk about this consumer-king (Burns, Mathew. “The King and His Objects.” Magical Wasteland. Aug 22 2014.) and how this most recent outcry against women who have demonstrably improved the culture around games will be the last. The previous culture of self-indulgence and ego-stroking mass marketing is on the decline, so some have suggested that if this isn’t the death knell of the old boys’ club, than it’s coming (Golding, Dan. “The End of Gamers.” Dan Golding. Aug 28 2014.). Let the record show that my reaction to this rhetoric is a skeptical “we’ll see.” At any rate, there are certain positions from the belligerents that I would like to address because I want to make my position clear.
Harassment is a difficult thing to talk about because it’s always happening. On the day equidistant to Anita Sarkeesian’s most and second-most recent episodes of Tropes vs Women she was harassed. The day after her newest episode was released she was harassed more. She’s always being harassed by somebody who “hates her” or “disagrees with her” or “thinks she’s lying/misrepresenting” or whatever. Even when the tide is out, the ocean is still there. On occasion, my partner will contribute an article to this blog. I encourage her to contribute her ideas and criticisms because I think they are interesting and valuable and I think that others would agree. However, even though she could get a lot more traffic if she contributed to sites other than this one, she won’t because she knows what happens to women with opinions on the internet. A lot of women are chased from the internet. They give up their careers and they stop contributing to the culture because they’re sick of it and games aren’t worth the toxic environment that surrounds them (Sampat, Elizabeth. “The Truth About Zoe Quinn.” Elizabeth Sampat. Aug 27 2014.). These women either don’t have the support network to survive the fear and harassment or they aren’t patient enough to have their ideas so flagrantly disrespected by an obviously uncritical audience. They shouldn’t have to put up with that and they know it so, like my partner they deliberately keep their voices small (and easily stolen) or they don’t bother. I’d like to remind everybody that while many great minds are fleeing this culture, many more refuse to participate to begin with. Harassment doesn’t just affect everyone already participating, it’s affecting everyone that could participate. Every site with an unmoderated comment section, every hate-forum and every angry-opinionated gamer nerd with a YouTube channel means countless bright women shrug their shoulders and say fuck it.
Maybe there’s such a thing as objectivity, but as a subject in the world, I can’t actually be sure. I think I read about objectivity once though. It doesn’t seem very nice. In seriousness, journalism does not strive for objectivity. It strives for information. Journalists report information and they connect it together coherently in an attempt to publicly explain phenomena. Objectively dropping data into charts does nothing without the journalist explaining their own conclusions. The journalist isn’t objective, the journalist is a storyteller. When gamers express outrage at a lack of objectivity, they’re really expressing outrage at a lack of their subjectivity. Admitting that others see their reality differently is admitting that they are limited to one perspective. When they attack a woman for confirming her biases, they’re doing it to protect their own bias. Everyone is biased: they don’t get to choose not to be biased. The world is not a double-blind study of a single phenomenon. Even if it were, no study is complete until it admits its limitations and suggests further areas of research. The world is an incoherent mess of perspectives and objectivity is a comfortable illusion that comes after ignoring every perspective but one. The emotionally-inept harassers who’ve somehow convinced themselves that personal attacks and threats justify protecting the sanctity of their toys aren’t even pretending to be objective: they lost the right to “cold, detached objectivity” several tantrums ago (Pullen, Luke. “Objectivity and Modernism.” The Conversation Tree. Aug 22 2014.). They weren’t objective when they complained that Gone Home wasn’t a “true game,” they weren’t objective when Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade mourned the death of free speech and they aren’t objective now.
Objectively, videogames are built with metals mined by slaves in countries marked by endless civil war. Those metals are refined by exploited labourers working in unsafe conditions and encased in plastics that poison ecosystems and contribute to an over-reliance on fossil fuels. They are developed by armadas of overworked temps conditioned to lay-offs after every project. Games foster addiction until they are discarded to repeat the cycle of waste and spending. Videogames are marketed as masculine power fantasies to an increasingly hostile homogeneous group of insecure men and, when criticized, the monied few that truly benefit from the industry retreat into dismissive irreverence. Objectively speaking, videogames are evil. The only reason they are worth spending any time on is that they might bring joy and encourage thought, and neither of those virtues necessitate the evils that currently define their culture. None of that is necessary. Gamers aren’t necessary.
Some of the attacks against Quinn are rooted in her relationship to a journalist working at Kotaku. Quinn, a developer, weaseled a good review of her game out of her friend at Kotaku, so the story goes. That has since proven to be untrue. Still, somehow accusations of corruption permeate this issue: women sleeping their way to the top, politically-motivated hiring to meet some affirmative action quota, the like. Like a well-oiled machine, nobody notices nepotism until something seems to be wrong with it.
When I was in college, I was a part of what was called “the undergraduate affairs committee” for the psychology department. Fancy, right? I was one of two undergraduate representatives who sat in on the meetings and voted on changes to the psych department’s course and module offerings. At the time, the department was a bit of a mess, it did not adequately teach all the skills needed by its students and many courses were redundant or too closely overlapped other courses. I signed on to pad my resume, and hearing profs talk about students without students present was a fascinating experience for me. The man who started and chaired the committee was eventually muscled out and most of the more assertive reforms were smoothed over to satisfy the old guard. Anyway, one of the more vocal members of the old guard complained that we should not restructure the department for the average student, we should focus on the exceptional students and let the average ones drift through the pipeline to the end of their degree. Let us focus on the grad-students-to-be, he reasoned, and everyone else can focus on getting what he called “A gentleman’s C” and instead make a network of friends—a gentleman’s club—that will carry him into a career. Let’s tend our own garden, he meant, and let “them” tend “theirs.”
Now, 19-year-old me actually was a really shitty representative of his fellow undergrads because I didn’t speak up and represent them, but that’s another story. My point is that it is normal, in fact expected, that different tribes form and that each protects their own. Look at your favourite sport, it’s not unusual for major-league athletes to have brothers and fathers in the same league. Politicians raise and support politicians, artists support other artists and so on. Right now I’m writing the first draft of a chapter for a book on game studies. I’m hesitant to make this public because book deals are notoriously tenuous, but there it is. I’m working hard on it, I’m excited about it and I believe that I will contribute something worthwhile to the editor’s vision. But the only reason why I was given the opportunity was because the editor made a submissions call at a conference I’d never heard about, another man in the audience was familiar with my writing and mentioned my name in a conversation with the editor. Right now I’m a member of both Critical Distance and Good Games Writing and I’m a part of ongoing, exciting projects with both. The former I’d informally volunteered to help and the latter approached me after I wrote one of these impassioned diatribes. I don’t think I have a much of a voice in games culture, but I’m associated with two outlets that do. I’m proud of my work, but I didn’t earn anything. Most of my opportunities came because I knew a guy.
Marginalized people don’t know a guy. Most women don’t stick around long enough to make the right impression on the right people, most queer people aren’t noticed by large outlets unless those outlets deal explicitly in queer issues, most people of colour aren’t stably employed by far-reaching cultural outlets so they aren’t likely to have much of a resume to bring to publishers. And the odds of finding stability only get lower for those that belong to more than one of those groups. Of course this is a long and widespread tradition of any media: one must be an unpaid intern for the necessary four years until they make the right impression on the right person at the right time. This isn’t right, but it’s also not unique to games. When the editor-in-chief of The Escapist leaves to form his own publication, only to take on former writers of The Escapist, he’s going with the proven recipe for success. When someone from the outside finds success then questions of political motivation start floating around. Most organizations depend on their constituents for recruitment. If one wants to create something, one looks to their friends to help create it, or at least to look at it once its finished. Extended to jobs, though, this has a real economic effect and contributes to the economic marginalization of “the out group.” Jenn Frank argued exactly this point (“The Rolodex.” Gamasutra. Mar 27 2004.).
You might notice the intrusive way that I cite my sources. I do this because I don’t want you to skim past a hyperlink, I want you to know who wrote the article I cite, where it was printed and when. I want you to know so badly that I’ll break the flow of my writing to tell you because I think it’s that important. Any form of writing is dependant on other writing. I don’t have very much money and I don’t have a very big influence on what gets read so I’m not much use to my colleagues otherwise. However, I want the space that I do have to call attention to other writers, specifically marginalized writers. All that talk about nepotism up there creates a culture where certain people are pushed away from the conversation: it’s so much harder for a person of colour to access opportunities. So when a publication offers jobs and award nominations exclusively to the kinds of people who already have jobs and awards, it pushes large swaths of people to the margins. Yes, everybody wants to hire the best writer in existence for their publication, but the best writer doesn’t really exist. Writing is not a skill a person can quantify. You can’t weigh words against the time it takes to produce them. Yes, there are clearly defined rules of writing, but there are cases when it’s appropriate to break them. Writing is a practised skill, but one that requires a lot of judgment. It requires a writer. A human writer.
Think about objectivity again. There’s a desire to detach and dehumanize any association with games (again, this is a larger cultural issue not unique to games, but let’s try to keep this conversation under control). There’s not a way to separate the writer from their writing. The idea of a meritocracy sounds nice but it isn’t possible to measure the quality of a writer in the way that it’s possible to measure the speed of a car or the storage capacity of a hard drive. When claims of meritocracy circle hiring practises and the entire hiring pool is homogeneous, it implies that the marginalized belong in the margins. Those different experiences should be taken as hiring points, but they’re held against the marginalized to protect the culture fit. Awarding excellence doesn’t just make people feel good, it adds a point to a person’s CV, it makes them more hireable in a woefully underfunded profession. I honestly wonder sometimes if Kotaku and Polygon understand the reach of their influence. Yes, hiring Well-Known Journalist makes them look good, but if they don’t, Well-Known Journalist will be just fine. Well-Known Journalist will find a job somewhere else. The chances large pubs don’t take, the people they pass over, probably won’t be fine and their voices will remain unheard. Committing to diversity means taking a risk on someone untested, taking a little more time mentoring and supporting them and letting the occasional sure bet pass. But if anybody can survive the blow, it’s one of these major publications.
The fact is, most mainstream gaming outlets aren’t beholden to their readers. They aren’t beholden to anybody: they can rock the boat and lose a lot of people because they’re a really big fucking boat. When they forbid their staff from supporting patreon developers, they’re putting products ahead of people (Beirne, Stephen. “Kotaku’s Policy on Patreon Support.” Normally Rascal. Sep 2 2014.). They’re valuing the status quo over the marginalized voices that challenge it and implying that the people who support patreon artists (who are on patreon because no one else is willing to support them) are not welcome to contribute to Kotaku.
Enough for Now
That was a lot more than I intended to get into but I want to express my reasoning and my support for the women being harassed and the innumerable people working to improve the culture and discourse around games. I wanted to clarify my stance publicly because, as I’ve been reminded many times, women don’t have a choice about where and how they stand, they’re attacked and usually abandoned by moderates who would rather not be bothered. So even though before long I’ll be going back to essays about Shao Khan as a tragic figure or the chocobo as a symbol for rebirth or some fucking thing, I implore any reader that has made it this far to remember that this unwelcoming, toxic, terrified culture is persistent. The harassment of Quinn and Sarkeesian is not just a temporary accident; this is normal.
[Edit: I’ve changed a link to the roundup of events relevant to this article from one on Polygon to one on Ars Technica to more accurately match common content and to eliminate the apologetic tone of the Polygon piece; I’ve also changed the source of Stephen Beirne’s article from it’s original location at The Flame to his personal blog, Normally Rascal as per a general request on social media.]
Further reading: Alexander, Leigh. “‘Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over.” Gamasutra. Aug 28 2014.
Shaw, Adrienne. “On Not Becoming Gamers: Moving Beyond the Constructed Audience.” Ada: A journal of Gender New Media and Technology, 2. June 2013.
Fearson, Rob. “They Shout Louder.” We Make the Cops Look Dumb. Aug 27 2014.
Romano, Aja. “The sexist crusade to destroy game developer Zoe Quinn.” The Daily Dot. Aug 20 2014.
Steadman, Ian. “Tropes vs Anita Sarkeesian: on passing off lame anti-feminist nonsense as critique.” The New Statesman. Aug 27 2014.
Hamilton, Mary. “Do real names really make people nicer online?” metamedia. Aug 28 2014.