A belated addition to the Malestrom series, exploring male anger online.
I was away for a couple of weeks in late August and returned to find the blogs and social media aflame with two related arguments dubbed #Gamergate and #Quinnspiracy. The former, centring around Anita Sarkeesian and the release of the latest Tropes vs Women in Videogames series, was a flare-up of a long-running saga; the latter an ugly story that saw the personal life and character of a obscure female games developer being dragged open, raked over and exposed across a billion internet connections.
As I read more and deeper into the affairs, several things became apparent to me. The first is that there is real and quite extreme anger on both sides. I don’t think Laurie Penny is far wide of the mark in dubbing this a culture war.
My second observation is that the gamers’ side to the dispute does not just comprise straight white males, and that one particular sub-plot within this drama – the hashtag #NotYourShield – actually makes a good and important point about feminists and others bolstering their arguments by co-opting the identity and opinions of other women and members of other populations to which they often do not belong. I’ll try to return to this point another day. Nonetheless I think it is true that the vast majority of those most involved have been men and I don’t think it is inaccurate to see this as primarily a dispute between feminist women and gamer men.
That said, this is not about a fair (intellectual) fight with legitimate points and a bit of right and wrong on both sides. Why? Because the actual arguments have been completely subsumed by irredeemably appalling behaviour on one side and one side alone. If anyone would like this to be an informed debate about the extent and implications of sexism within the creative artform of games design, well forget it. If anyone thinks this is really a debate about corruption and nepotism within games media, you are kidding yourself. That would be like looking at the Battle of the Somme and saying “what we are seeing here is a difference of opinion about the legitimacy of the expansionist aspirations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” We’re way beyond that now.
#Gamergate and #Quinnspiracy matter for one reason and one reason alone. Groups of (primarily) men have been conspiring to incite large online mobs to bully a couple of individuals into silence and submission through organised intimidation, harassment and fear. That is it. That is the story. Nothing else matters. Yes, the anger and hate aimed at Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian is genuine, but it is the anger of the witch-hunt, stirred up, self-perpetuating, like a howl of feedback that hears itself and amplifies itself ever louder. Every point that can be thrown in here in response is utterly irrelevant
But she brings it on herself because… No. Stop right there. There is no excuse for bullying, threatening and intimidating people.
But don’t you know what she said about…. No. Stop right there. There is no excuse for bullying, threatening and intimidating people.
But Social Justice Warriors are always doing…. No. Stop right there. There is no excuse for bullying, threatening and intimidating people.
To understand how profoundly irrational the anger of gamers has become, one needs to step back and ask a simple question: So what?
Let’s suppose, just for a moment, that everything said about Anita Sarkeesian were completely true. Let’s accept that she has cynically encouraged, exaggerated or faked the abuse she has received online in order to encourage donations… well, so what? If I’d given her money, I guess I’d be a bit pissed off, but I haven’t and as far as I can tell not one single person who has given her money has got any concerns, and not one single person who has got concerns has ever given her money.
Suppose her videos are indeed inaccurate, cherry-picked, unfair attacks on the broad games industry. Well, so what? That would make her an ineffective cultural critic. She would become another one of those rare creatures: someone on the internet who is wrong. Here’s a profound truth about cultural criticism. Critiques are only as powerful as they are accurate. If her videos are completely inaccurate they can be completely ignored.
As for Zoe Quinn, well again, supposing all the worst stories we have heard about her are true. Supposing she really did cheat on her boyfriend and sleep her way to a few good reviews of her game, Depression Quest. Suppose for a moment that every single journalist who has ever written something positive about her or her game had been in receipt of sexual favours…. well, so what? What is the worst thing that could happen as a consequence? How many people who spent money on her game off the back of a review now feel cheated and want their money back. Can I hazard a guess that the answer is somewhere in the vicinity of none?
The truth, of course, is that when we step back and look objectively, even if the worst things alleged about these two women were true, it would not begin to explain the volume and temperature of the hostility towards them. So what does explain it? In part, I think, it is the psychology of the crowd. Way back in 1841, Charles Mackay wrote in his classic work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:
“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”
So why pick on these women in particular? Why not, say, evangelical Christians like Jack Thompson or David Barton who do not just critique and deconstruct the content of videogames, a la Sarkeesian, but actively campaign to have them banned?
The standard answer here is because they are women and the gamers are a cohort of angry men defending male privilege from female encroachment. I’m sure there’s a degree of truth to this, but it is not the whole story. Again, let’s play ‘what if…’
What if feminists/progressives/’social justice warriors’ etc wanted to formally and legally ban games makers from selling products featuring chisel-jawed white men as heroes and women portrayed solely as helpless princesses, sexual playthings or eye-candy. What makes anyone think they would actually succeed? Feminism’s more authoritarian strains have abjectly failed to excise the exact same tropes from action movies and TV, and have abjectly failed to do something similar with hardcore pornography. Does anyone seriously believe there is a material risk that next year or next decade gamers will not be able to fill their shopping baskets with macho, sexist shoot-em-ups if that is what they want to buy? Of course not.
I am quite convinced that gamers are not motivated to attack Sarkeesian and others like her by any genuine threat to their hobby and specific gaming preferences. What is motivating them is much simpler and more primal than that. Quite simply, they feel insulted. They do not like having it pointed out to them that some of their favourite games are puerile, sexist fantasies, or the implication that those who play them are themselves puerile and sexist. They do not like being told that the industry in which they have invested their identity remains, in many ways, immature, adolescent and dumb. The attacks on Quinn and Sarkeesian are are not really motivated by their fear of losing something close to them, but a response to being told something they do not want to hear. And ultimately, they cannot effectively attack the message because deep down they know the message is actually true, so instead they attack the messenger and do everything in their power to destroy them.
Ian Steadman made a very good point in his New Statesman article about Sarkeesian. For years, creators and consumers pleaded to have gaming taken seriously as a creative pursuit, even to be considered as an artform. In recent times, they have been granted their wish. One consequence of being treated seriously as an artform is that one can be subject to critique befitting that status. There are a whole bunch of #Gamergate infographics doing the rounds which add up to a manifesto of sorts. Here’s a typical one. It includes the principal demands:
“This is about keeping irrelevant politics out of video game news”
“This is about keeping the press from dictating art and public sentiment.”
In these, #Gamergate is not demanding that games be treated like any other creative, cultural or artistic pursuit. Criticism and reviews of film, TV, theatre, art, literature etc are entirely immersed in politics and always have been. Nor is this a preserve of the left. When Fox News pundits scour TV shows and movies for ‘liberal bias’ they are doing exactly what #Gamergate insists must never happen to them.
Deep down, #Gamergate is about gamers being offended and insulted that they are not being afforded the respect they believe they deserve. All the time, they are behaving like a kindergarten full of spiteful toddlers at worst and a busload of sulky, oversensitive teenagers at best. Ultimately the only cure for their malaise is to grow the fuck up.