A rebellion against moral crusaders

Christina Hoff Sommers is promoting an article at Spiked about #GamerGate as fantastic and honest. Let’s see.

Video games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. They can be enormously time-consuming and often require a considerable level of dedication to master. However, there are good reasons for non-gamers to be paying attention to the video-games industry right now – it has become the site of a rebellion against moral crusaders and their relentless push to politicise every aspect of culture and society.

That’s not a good start. It’s never a good start to claim that it’s only analysis or criticism or interrogation of X that is political, while mere X itself just is, politics-free.

That’s not right. Video games aren’t some natural phenomenon that simply happened, with no human interference. They’re a human, social creation, and as such they are political.

That doesn’t mean that what’s political about them was necessarily planned or coordinated, it just means that consumer preferences and demographics are not apolitical.

Games have been subject to right-wing moral panics in the past, Allum Bokhari continues, but now the panic is on the left.

Similar to the old right, the new cultural warriors argue that games promote violence and reinforce so-called rape culture. Arguments that games perpetuate sexism and racism are also fairly common. Instead of being seen as mere escapism, the tastes of modern gamers are portrayed as dangerous and subversive, a threat to right-on values. Gamers ought to be feared and shunned.

Really? Critics of gaming are saying gamers ought to be feared and shunned? I haven’t seen that.

In any case, this idea that “mere escapism” is – because it is mere – completely non-political and unable to shape or influence attitudes and behaviors is…fatuous. Why would that be the case? Why would the content of “escapism” simply slide off people like rain? Why wouldn’t the content do what content does, and help to shape our thinking? Especially if we consume it apolitically, without thinking or questioning?

The growing contempt of the games-industry elite for the preferences of gamers has accelerated in recent months.

Now that’s classic Spiked, pretending that any kind of criticism of Things As They Are is an “elitist” war against preferences.

Following a major confrontation between gamers and activists last August over allegations of journalistic favouritism, article after article has been published decrying the gaming community for its alleged bigotry, sexism and narrow-mindedness. The worst examples of ‘social-media harassment’ were used as an excuse to present gamers as a mass of hateful savages. To those familiar with the regular and sometimes absurd panics over football fans, this language will sound familiar.

However familiar the language is, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

If people are saying that the social media harassment is representative of all gamers, then they’re making a gross error, if only because that can’t be known. But if they’re saying, for instance, that the culture of gaming seems to be compatible with social media harassment, then they’re saying something at least defensible.

But gamers have started to fight back. They have taken to social media in huge numbers to defend their hobby against the new onslaught of cultural warriors.

Wait. Isn’t that just confirming the claim that a lot of gamers seem to go in for social media harassment? When “to defend their hobby” so often means “to call Anita Sarkeesian a lying cunt who should be killed”?

With most gaming journalists taking the side of the activists, gamers know they can only rely on their own voices. Gathering around YouTube personalities (who now have several million hits on their videos) and a small number of friendly journalists and academics, the movement known as GamerGate has taken the entire industry by storm. It has dragged prominent figures like Jimmy Wales and huge companies like Stardock, Electronic Arts and Intel into the fray. And it simply refuses to go away.

The movement has no specific list of demands, but it is quite clear what its general attitude is. It wants the cultural warriors out. It wants the cosy clique of activists and journalists to lose their influence. It wants the demonisation of gamers to end. It wants diversity, not conformism.

To put it another way, it wants the cosy clique of activists and journalists silenced so that the cosy clique of gamers can proceed unchanged.

The backlash has achieved considerable results already. A major gaming site bucked the industry trend and decided to allow open discussion on its forums. The processing giant Intel decided to pull advertising support from one of the centres of anti-gamer misanthropy. Gamers have taken on the ideologically disciplined, well-connected forces of the authoritarian left – and they’re winning.

Hmm. Have the ideologically disciplined, well-connected forces of the authoritarian left been issuing a lot of death threats? Have they been issuing any? Have they created any games that involve punching one of their perceived enemies in the face repeatedly?

To me, it suggests that there is a crisis brewing for the cultural warriors. In their attempts to police language and culture, they are alienating the very demographics they used to rely on for support. This isn’t a right-vs-left battle, it’s an authoritarian-vs-libertarian one – and the authoritarian side is hemorrhaging support (if, indeed, it had any to begin with).

If we are at the point where women, minorities, and left-wing sympathisers prefer to support right-wing libertarians over the authoritarian gaming press, it suggests something interesting is taking place in this surprisingly large arena of cultural politics. The full results have yet to be seen, but I suspect it won’t end happily for the new class of moral crusaders.

The game is on.

Complete with death threats and sexist slurs. Congratulations.





  1. says

    So far as I can see, the authoritarian gaming press has, to varying degrees, come down on the side of virtue. If the gamers are winning, as Summers suggests, I’m not seeing it.

    Of course, as an industry insider it’s always possible there’s something I’m not seeing. I wade into the open sewer of message boards only so far. However, I very much doubt that my corporate masters will ever be moved to send out a memo suggesting we ditch diversity or in any way rein it back in.

    That said, when it comes to questionable content I’ve pointed the finger before at Marketing. Devs are, of course, responsible for most of the content, but Marketing departments are a hinge point in this discussion.

    I recall an incident on a famous AAA franchise I worked on. The four-player co-op mode was to have four characters, and we pitched an equal gender balance and diverse racial makeup. We even addressed age, making one of the women an older, Helen Mirren type. Marketing nixed this. They hated the scheme with a passion and, so far as I could see, plotted to squash it.

    How they did so was very interesting. They set up focus groups in the American midwest primarily made up of young males. And they structured the presentation to give them the answers they desired. The dudebros delivered, and some of our women designers, watching from behind one-way glass, were horrified to listen in to some sexist chat by the participants, commenting on the fuckability of the characters.

    So, Marketing got what they wanted: of the four characters there were three white guys, their one concession to diversity being the black woman. There was no arguing with Marketing. They had the metrics from Left 4 Dead to prove whatever the hell they wanted with regards to player selection of women characters to play.

    It’s not just dev culture that needs a sea change, but Marketing also. They have input into greenlight decisions. They have powerpoints with data that can push products one way or the other.

    I’m hopeful that change is coming. But that change will, in part, be metrics-led, it will be founded on the facts about the growing presence of women in gaming, and the realisation that tapping that audience will lead to $$$$$. So part of the solution, crass though this may sound, is more and more women playing games.

  2. says

    leebrimmicombe-wood @1 – I’m not an insider. But just being around the culture a few decades, it seems to me that the Marketing side of things is a major factor. It comes up with things like movies and tv also. As good as marketers are at manipulating us in a lot of ways, all science based and everything, there does seem to be a really strong attachment to sexism and to focusing on appealing to dudebros. It’s hard to wrap my head around it. Speculation gets me wondering if it’s like my experience in a business school, where the business sorts of degrees are pretty heavy on the dudebros wanting to get rich and all that.

  3. says

    They had the metrics from Left 4 Dead to prove whatever the hell they wanted with regards to player selection of women characters to play

    I’ve also had my share of experience (hint: all bad) working with marketing in the software industry. At this point I feel it’s ridiculous that anyone listens to them at all. Feynman was right about marketing: it’s an inherently immoral profession because it depends on lying about something being better than you know it to be.

    What drives me nuts about things like that is that a character’s look is a matter of parameters dialled into a model. Skin color is a mapping function; it should be equally straightforward to be hot pink skinned as white or brown or green. Breasts/no breasts and curves/no curves is a separate set of model parameters from facial features, which also can be dialled to male or female based on a few simple signifiers. Why not let a player be androgynous or look like a pink gorilla if they want to? Why restrict your players??

    As I write this I have World of Warcraft running on my other system and my toon that I’m logged into is my level 90 goblin shaman Finknoddle. The voice pack for the character is a male with a distinctive Bronx accent. Honestly, I think it would work pretty well as a voice pack for a female as well (no insult intended to goblins! it’s how we roll!) It’s a flipping if( ) { statement in some code somewhere. The more editorial control you give people over their characters, the more they feel ownership. Of course I should preface this by mentioning that I used to use a custom Geiger’s alien texture and poly set when I deathmatched in Unreal Tournament. Because it matched how I played. 🙂 There’s a great episode of “Hey Ash, whatcha playing?” about this, where Ash is talking about some of the amazing combinations of toon looks you can do in Saints Row. It’s a matter of programming laziness – or, in some cases (e.g.: Bayonetta) a deliberate desire by the producer to lock players into a voyeuristic model set.

  4. Hj Hornbeck says

    I love that they linked to an old Escapist article. There’s been some more recent news related to The Escapist, such as a “both sides” attempt that had seven anonymous “female game developers” on one side and 17 “game developers” on the other, some of which actively participated in harassment (one person in particular wrote an article titled “In Defense of Rape”).

    And that’s just scratching the surface.

  5. says

    I wish I could give some insight into Marketing, but as a dev I confess that I have often found myself in an antagonistic relationship with them. I still remember a marketing wonk who insisted we put a feature into a game on which I was the design lead, and when I refused because of lack of time and resource, he went ahead and advertised the feature in the press anyway, so as to force us to put it in.

    So when it comes to Marketing, I’m torn between the Douglas Adams approach (launch all marketing people into deep space) and the Bill Hicks view (they should all kill themselves).

    Joking aside, and I flag those as jokes, Marketing is a key partner in improving some aspects of the product. If we want more women or ethnic or disabled lead characters, we need Marketing on-side. We need metrics they can put in front of the execs to tell them that these are sound creative decisions that will deliver income.

    Much as I hate Marketing, part of the solution (at least for the larger titles) will be Marketing-led. It’ll be about the viability of products in the marketplace. In turn this will depend on the revenue from people who want to see themselves represented in games.

    If there are enough women gamers out there, I hope we can get a virtuous cycle going, so it’s not such an uphill struggle to put women protagonists front-and-centre on the cover.

    I have been in the industry twenty years. I remember, as a tyro designer, when the received wisdom was that women characters did not shift product. Then Tomb Raider came out and crushed that nugget of alleged wisdom. Since then it has been three-steps-forward-two-steps-back, but there has been progress. And compared to the crawl of much of the last twenty years, I’ve seen Tomb Raider successfully relaunched; Mirror’s Edge make it to sequel status; Lightning Returns; Femshep as a viable share of Mass Effect’s market; and an uptick of women’s presence in the gaming space to just under 50%. And this is not mentioning what the indies are getting up to, out in that Wild West frontier where Marketing has a much smaller influence.

    Whatever Christina Hoff Sommers thinks, I rather suspect she’s backed the wrong horse.

  6. says

    Marcus @4, making a character creator for a game is not technically difficult but it is expensive, in time and in resource. Meshes, textures, shaders, rigs, animation sets, audio assets all add up.

    Decisions on these things are made for economic reasons. You can argue they are stupid decisions. You can argue that they are counterproductive as they may reduce potential sales. However, I’ve had to make these exact decisions. And too often the driver is ‘feature list versus time and resource’. Or in other words, making a call on what the essentials of the game are.

    I’m not sure this kind of decision will ever go away. However, if the higher-ups perceive there is a demand for this, that it is a feature that cannot be cut and that resource should be made available for it, the decision gets easier to make.

  7. says

    As an only- occasional gamer, but someone who has been in the commercial side of IT for years , I read the referenced article and wondered if the author was in the universe as the rest of us.

    How anybody can view what the idiots and just plain asses are claiming as a “fight for journalistic integrity” as being at all defensible is completely beyond me.

    The key metric here is that even what passes for the mainstream gamer community (in other words, the most vocal) were appalled at the attacks on the women in the industry, and especially for those calling for diversity and a fight against the background of assumed violence against women. So much so that the focus changed from “those uppity women who want the choices of character be other than bros and women to be killed and raped” to “those uppity women who who want the choices of character be other than bros and women to be killed and raped and who we can lie about being sleeping around to get better reviews”

    But it still groggles the mind that those who are making the economic decisions that should be driving marketing are still buying into this crap.

  8. Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy) says

    Wait wait wait. I’m not a gamer (online chess and solitaire don’t count, right?) so I’m out of the loop here, but has anyone–Anita Sarkeesian, anyone?–suggested nobody should be allowed to create and market sexist games?

    I thought the “culture warrior’s” deal was pointing out perceived sexism and racism. Moral persuasion. Cultural criticism.

    Anyone who calls criticism “authoritarianism” is a fool, and not a harmless one. Demonizing critics is a well-established authoritarian tactic.

  9. Omar Puhleez says

    In everything creative that I have ever done, production has been the easy part and marketing the hard part.
    However, the world of fantasy, ie Tolkien and all that followed after him, has left me cold. Fiction as far as I am concerned must be anchored in reality. Otherwise it trails off into genuine 23-carat bullshit.
    So I could not care less about this sort of games crap.
    But I would add this observation for what it is worth. We live in a world inhabited not by goblins, demons and evil spirits, but by Darwinian selection agents, which arguably weaken those less ‘fit’ for this environment, even to the point of taking them out of the breeding population, whether they want to leave it or not.

    “Hmm. Have the ideologically disciplined, well-connected forces of the authoritarian left been issuing a lot of death threats? Have they been issuing any? Have they created any games that involve punching one of their perceived enemies in the face repeatedly?”

    The online environment of social media, gaming and the rest of it, has IMHO ‘wasted’ a lot of peoples’ time and a not insignificant number of lives – of the gullible and inexperienced who get sucked in and take it all too seriously.
    For what it is worth, my own maternal grandmother was born in 1878, and spent most of her youth isolated in the Australian outback. The first movie she ever saw was screened some time in the 1930s. She was appalled, because she witnessed a murder onscreen, and with her own eyes. “It was a terrible, awful thing to see,” she told me many years later, and would repeat that periodically over the ensuing years. She never went back inside a movie theatre again, and lived out her days in isolation, save for a small valve radio set, on which she only listened to the 7 pm news, just before she went to bed.
    She never watched TV except once: an episode of ‘Lassie’ in which the melodramatic plot involved an evil loan shark who had a mortgage on the family’s farm and was threatening to foreclose. (Yes, she had been passed over by the 19th C music hall and all it stood for.) She could not get over that, either.. “That terrible man wants to take that family’s farm!” If she had known how to dial a phone, I am sure she would have called the cops straight away.
    I have no idea what she would make of the modern electronic world. But like quite a few far younger than herself, she would have had a hard time separating illusion from reality.

  10. karmacat says

    What the hell did I just read? Is Summers trying to say these gamers are an oppressed group? Is she saying gamers are so important to civilization. Guess what? It is all just fucking computer games. Civilization will not crumble if all computer games are lost. We will find other ways of distracting and entertaining ourselves. Obviously I am not suggesting getting rid of these games. It seems though that Summers has lost touch with reality. You know what is really important to civilization? It’s people and their relationships and how they treat each other. If games are more important than relationships in your life, then it is time to do some introspection. Games have an important place in society but it is not the most important.

  11. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Lee, I didn’t know you were in the industry, let alone a developer. Thank you for giving that insider perspective. What you note depresses the hell out of me (but doesn’t surprise). But the fact that you’re there, and that you have the moral compass that you do, makes me feel a bit better.

    Thank you.

  12. says

    Thanks, Josh. My experience of the industry from the inside is that many of the people in it are on the side of the angels. Not all of them, of course, but plenty.

    Now, my experience may be skewed. For example, I worked in a Swedish studio for a number of years and you could not find a more progressive environment.

    However, in the studios where I ply my trade, making big console product, there is a strong tendency towards risk-aversion. There’s a lot of money involved, people’s jobs are on the line, and the margins are tight. It’s a fiercely competitive market, with a lot of product chasing a limited pool of $$$$. This is why the higher-ups tend to tack towards what they know, and look backward rather than forwards.

    I’m looking forward to the time when the bosses know, backed by metrics and Marketing, that women are a key part of the audience and that we cannot treat them as an afterthought. That featuring a woman as protagonist will shift units.

    This is why I look forward to the success of games such as Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge and Hellblade. It’s why I hope Infamous First Light does good numbers. The success of these products makes my job so much easier.

  13. says

    I shouldn’t be surprised that Spiked is printing incoherent twaddle, but it’s still odd to see it criticising something for politicising culture, when that’s pretty much all that Spiked does, and of launching a culture war, when boasting about fighting in the culture wars had used to be how Spiked described itself.

    Oh, well.

  14. says

    (1) – the “fantasy” genre predates LOTR, indeed the “fantasy” label is quite rightly applied to *all* fiction – what changes are the characters (sword-wielding barbarian/obsessed sea captain/spurned lover hieing off to the foreign legion/forlorn spinstress/hard-boiled detective/asylum inmate imagining he has turned into an insect), the appropriate (or inappropriate) setting/situation, and goals of the charactors.
    (2) – as has been witnessed by prior events, the anonymous nature of possible communication in our brave new world* is a great enabler for those who who wish to speak their honest concerns without fear of oppression and unjust retribution. Unfortunatly, that same anonymous nature also enables the charlatan, bigot, sadist, bully and just plain criminal. And our legal system is always lagging behind the nature of criminal acts (insider trading used to be knowing ahead of time when a transoceanic cargo of commodities would dock, law enforcement at first didn’t believe a crime such as SIM hacking was possible, marital rape wasn’t considered a criminal act until recently, online harrassment wasn’t even possible before the advent of the telephone)
    (3) Again, combining anonymity and the inability of police and victims of harrassment to adequatly assess the seriousness of a threat makes possible the scenario where men & women can feel forced to leave their homes in fear or lives put in danger by someone subject to a spurious SWAT home invasion
    (4) There are all too many unbalanced individuals, with seemingly unfettered access to firearms, who themselves cannot distinguish between fiction and reality.
    * It may be enlighening to consider the context of Miranda’s utterance of that line in The Tempest


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