Tuesday, September 9, 2014

No country for Old Gamers

Bringing feminism to a gaming console near you
I have never liked feminism. Then I watched Anita Sarkeesian. This may sound melodramatic, but in the light of the developments that loosely run under the tag of "#Gamergate" these days, melodrama is called for. I won't bore you with the details of the conflict, for which you can turn to the trusted explainers over at vox.com. The reactions from the community of people calling themselves "gamers" has been so much out of proportion that "melodrama" isn't beginning to cover it. When people are forced to ask the police for protection and flee their homes, you know that something has gone terribly wrong. The hatred that Sarkeesian, Quinn and others are receiving bars no relation to the quote on quote "provocation" they are posing to the gamer community at large. I guess I'm too old to ever have named myself a "gamer" (the term didn't exist in my really active days), but I certainly would've. Now, I can only try to make a firm stand, rebuking the stupid attitudes of my teenage years and agree with the many who came before me in renouncing the term.

But what is Sarkeesian's crime, exactly (I can't add anything to the Quinn-controversy for lack of knowledge)? The critique hurled at her is agitating, pursuing her own agenda, being a cash-grab, forging evidence, only presenting one side of the issue, not being a real gamer, polarizing, using (sometimes manufactured) extreme examples to generalize and to split the community. But I argue that in truth, much of this is just at the forefront, a facade, erected unconsciously to obfuscate the true problems that are running deep below in the community and which make this discussion so vitriolic and, in Sarkeesian's case, even threatening her life.

Guess she has more supporters than anticipated.
Let's just dismiss the most obvious of the allegations. Is she a money-grab? The Kickstarter she started asked for 6000$, she got way more. Some are arguing that she's keeping the money. I don't know, and simply, I don't care. The money's hers, and as long as the product she promised for it is good and forthcoming, she can buy her own yacht for all I care. So far, it is. Is she agitating for her own agenda, advancing feministic goals? Of course she is, and it's not like she would make a big secret of it. Heck, her Youtube channel and blog sport the title "Feminist Frequency". That's perfectly legitimate, and if someone wants to start a Youtube channel "Masculist Frequency", they're perfectly in their rights to do so. I just sincerely doubt they will reach the clarity of argument Sarkeesian is reaching. Doesn't she present tropes against men? No she doesn't, because her video series is about tropes vs. women. Obviously, not everything is sunny in male gender models, and I hope she will take them on as well. But please, one thing at a time. Isn't she a real gamer? I don't even know how someone can be so delusional and entrenched in his bubble that he would honestly think someone would make well-researched videos arguing for better games while simultaneously hating the medium. That's bordering schizophrenia.

So, are some of the examples she uses to illustrate her points - like the infamous killing of the strippers and dragging their bodies around in "Hitman" - not representing the core gameplay experience of the game? Well, yes. I never played "Hitman", by the way. So why do I know this? Because Sarkeesian says so herself. In the video. Which, of course, you have to watch and understand in order to know. In the same vein, "forging evidence" doesn't really factor in, because Sarkeesian admits herself that the open-world-games she draws these examples from aren't explicitly demanding the action of you. 

Now, what I don't understand about the whole discussion is just why so many people are totally angry about Sarkeesian, but in turn don't even bother to learn the arguments she's making. There are videos out there dissecting Sarkeesian that don't even get her most basic arguments, like Thunderf00t's infamous one (which is in turn dissected at length here, in case you're interested). So let me spell it out for those of you who want to be angry without watching or understanding her videos:

Anita Sarkeesian does not want to take your toys. She doesn't demand a purge in video games or that no other shooter will ever be released. She isn't opposed to violence in games on principle, not even on violence on women. She is opposed to violence on women in a sexist framing. 

This is what people like Thunderf00t and, sadly, some of my own friends, simply aren't able to understand. What Sarkeesian is criticizing is topmost the lack of agency for women. In these games, they are objects. They are goals to be achieved, consumables to be used, or entertaintment to be had. What they are not is characters. Instead, the center of attention is firmly on a dominant male that is out to rescue them (or in some cases, partake in the exploitation). This is what makes Thunderf00t's video so incredibly dumb, because it's the part he doesn't get. The problem is that women are constantly needing rescue and not able to fend for themselves, like in the subplot of "Watch_Dogs", where the player has to bust a sex-slave-worker-ring. It's not sexist that the hero stands up against sexual enslavement of women. It's sexist (and, furthermore, deeply chauvinistic) that we need a male to rescue the day by using violence. And not getting this part is not getting the critique. 

The sad state of gamer's controversy skills
Instead, gamers (and I use the term pejoratively here) are instead projecting a version of what they think Sarkeesian said on her. She makes an easy target, one has to say. Not only is she female and therefore automatically a fish-out-of-the-water in the gamer world, she's also attacking their favorite playthings and ripping away a curtain of self-indulgence that the gaming world has far too long hid behind. I guess the awareness of this is why on the Gamer's Developer Conference in 2014, not only Sarkeesian but many other women as well were put firmly into the foreground in a conscious display of furthering the agenda that so many of her critics complain of. 

The gamer community is deeply misogynistic. It has always been, which is why nobody took special note until people like Anita Sarkeesian showed up. Being told that you had it all wrong and are, in fact, not the opressed nerdy underdog but the perpetrator, is shattering a world view, and no one takes kindly to this. If I was younger, I would most likely not be here defending Sarkeesian but also quoting instances of where she's distorting a game in question and desperately trying to make straw arguments of just why the abuse of women in a game in question is an integral part of the storyline. 

Not Sarkeesian
But Sarkeesian doesn't allow you to retreat to these well-estalished defense lines, and that's why she's so much more potent a threat to the gamer community than the previous attacks it suffered. She's a gamer herself, which makes it harder just do dismiss like the previous critics who tried to link games to mass shootings and similar absurdities. As games are becoming an older medium (unfortunately, Sarkeesian manages to show that they're not necessarily a matured medium), this was only a question of time.

This means that the schism of the gaming world is nothing to lament. If the gamer community is unable and unwilling to change, the only possible course is for as many people as possible to disown them, denounce them and demand better games for ourselves, because we should by rights represent the bigger market share. I mean, 50% of humanity are already on board. Let the gamers have their Hitmans, Call of Duties and whatever. Give us games that challenge us, that tell meaningful narratives and that manage to create characters I care about without relying on harmful tropes. If only one major publisher will change its ways, this victory should be celebrated, and Sarkeesian, who rightfully earned the trophy of Ambassador from the Game Developers Conference, will have a big part in this victory for the hearts and mind of all people out there playing video games. She certainly won mine.


  1. Wow, you work fast!

    Thanks for grabbing the bull by the horns with this one. The international coverage of this whole #gamergate affair is seriously lagging behind and this shouldn't be an US-only discussion.

    I've followed the whole thing rather obsessively since last weekend from a somewhat cynical outsider perspective of general interest in infowarfare. So I pride myself with having an understanding of both sides of the conflict and their respective views. Obviously you should take that with a grain of salt; I'm hiding behind a shady anon after all.

    First some meta-ish observations:

    1. Twitter is a horrible discussion platform. This is why both sides are pretty much locked in digital trenches with no chance to win anyone over from the other side. You can't make a meaningful statement about structures as complex as #gamergate in 140 signs. At the moment the frontlines are as followed: The anti-#gamergaters claim that the whole mess is some sort of psy-ops planned by mysoginists from the /v/- and /pol/-boards of 4chan who lured in the naive masses to fight their dirty fight to root out the feminist elements in gaming culture for them. Even if the movement has adopted some worthy causes like the advancement of journalistic ethics on the way, it is still tainted from its beginnings and therefore the #gamergate trademark should be abandoned. The pro-#gamergaters argue that it never really was a gender issue and the Zoe Quinn kerfuffle just ignited a major protest against corruption in gaming media, especially the indie scene.
    As you can see this is an asymmetric discussion which would need careful, deliberated contributions. Never, ever gonna happen on Twitter.

    2. Size matters. Reading through the infamous hashtag you will find that the pro-gaters have an distinct advantage in numbers. This allows them to produce more content (blog entries, podcasts, images, YT-videos) in shorter time which solidifies their narrative. The anti-gaters are on the defensive here.

    3. Outside of Twitter the groups don't differ much. I would consider the Escapist Magazine's Forum the homebase of the pro-crowd and NeoGAF the opposite's. If you skim through both forums you will find angry, but surprisingly decent users on both sides. Both groups claim for themselves to be misunderstood, another hint for the asymmetric nature of the conflict. They are pretty good at self-moderating, banhammering is used against obvious trolls only. Both forums are giant echo chambers, there is simply no neutral discussion ground.

    4. Classical methods of dirty infowarfare - used by both sides - aren't working as effective means of counterinsurgency against these tech-savvy crowds. They know their medium. No amount of cherry picking the ramblings of interfering lunatics as general characterisations or derailment tactics ("#gamergate is dead. Let's use #gamerethics instead.") have worked until now.

    1. Since you've focussed on Anita Sarkeesian, here's my evaluation of her strategic performance:

      On the positive side she managed to solidify the anti-gate crowd and claims a leadership position together with Zoe Quinn. Her stuff gets linked, she is often retweeted and generally the main source of content for the anti-gaters. Most articles and opinion pieces on the big gaming websites use her as source for quotes or symbolic figurehead against the "dying" gamer stereotype.

      The way she wields this power is a complete disaster. Of course I'm assuming she is genuinely interested in exposing the misogynistic undercurrents in contemporary gaming culture and enabling people to question said culture. Maybe that is assuming too much, I don't know. Seriously, haven't these people ever heard of scandal management? They could have killed the whole thing on day one easily: Obviously Sarkeesian is well connected in the gaming media community. All that was needed were some half-assed excuses and promises of better "transparency" - the ultimate post-Wikileaks buzzword - combined with some coverage how the abusing and harassing of Zoe Quinn was way out of line, hurting games and players in general and another glaring example why the good fight needs to be fought. That's it. It would have been over in August. What did these airheads do instead? Published a coordinated attack on "the gamer" with their usual click baiting headlines, instead of targeting a very small, distinctive subset of the community. Result: It backfired. Heavily. Not only allowed it a disgruntled, frayed community to rally under a single, identifying banner ("gamer" is a pretty retro term and has been on decline for years), but they started a pretty genius counteroffensive with their #notyourshield movement. Rule of thumb: Any article written about male dominated gaming culture since last week not mentioning #notyourshield is either the result of sloppy reporting or narrative bending. You can debunk it, devalue its worth as a campaign - I don't care - if you're not even mentioning it, you've failed in propaganda 101 and are providing the other side with ammunition. Because let there be no mistake: #gamergate is heavily influenced by classic conspiracy theory thinking. Almost anybody supporting the movement imagines some kind of feminist agenda behind every publication of the media, which immunises them against critically scrutinising their own views.

      I'm starting to consider that this hilarious mismanagement of the whole affair is actually some sort of ingenious tactic by the feminists, because nowadays the pro-gaters are calling out any misogynistic or abusive commentators who are trying to sail under the #gamergate flag. Even on 4chan's /v/, THE defining benchmark of a hostile environment, some minimum of self-moderation can be observed. Granted: They simply don't want to give the other side the satisfaction of being able to point out to them, but the fact remains. 4chan/v/'s support of The Fine Young Capitalists' indiegogo campaign for women in video games is something the anti-gaters haven't really found an answer for also. So they ignore it. Argh.

    2. It is the humble opinion of this anon that we have seen the peak of Sarkeesian's influence in gaming culture. People who haven't heard about her before, will most likely get to know her by her involvement in #gamergate and be biased correspondingly. Old-school feminist C. H. Sommers used the opportunity to side with the pro-gaters; maybe that isn't a bad thing, her stuff seems pretty solid. We'll see if The Fine Young Capitalists will be able to build on their underdog image or crash like a one hit wonder.

      At least the following terms were overused in this fight and have lost their power of intimidation: "misogynist", "social justice warrior". If this continues much longer we'll loose "abuser" and "harassment" too. To be an "indiedev" isn't cool anymore.

      All in all, it has been some bad weeks in gaming culture, but a great feast for infowar nerds like me. A feast for crows.

  2. I have to admit, I didn't delve that deep into the forums, discussions and stuff. I encountered Sarkeesian not a month ago, shortly before the #Gamergate shit really hit the fan. I liked her videos, embedded one here and didn't think much of it. I saw in the Youtube sidebar that some people refudiated her videos, but I didn't really care because the previews showed the direction in which it was going (the allegations that she isn't "real", which are simply stupid).

    When #Gamergate hit, I was on vacation and unable to partake in the discussion or to really read the stuff, so I only barely scratched the surface. But from just watching her videos, there is zero reason to hate her like she's hated. For me, the overreaction is clearly on the side of the gamer community. While it's certainly not a deescalation strategy that Sarkeesian is running, I understand why the doesn't run it. It's useless with this crowd. She's a polarizing figure, and she resolved to use the leverage she now undoubtly has (by the way, much enlarged by said overreaction of her critics) to further advance her agenda.

    That being said, I sincerely doubt that the core of the conflict really is the problem of Tweet length or her communication managment. The core of the matter is best expressed, I find, in the title of Thunderf00t's video: "Feminism vs. Facts". It's the idea that Feminism is the enemy, out there to take away your toys. While many feminists aren't people I'd like to share a room with, Sarkeesian manages to make a rather calm and sharp argument, which is how she won me over (again, until recently, I was more on the masculist side of things). I have yet to see the same clarity in argument on the side of her detractors.

    1. Very nice entry.
      We have gone through much of the same development, except mine started about five years ago. When I was young, and very often lonely, I would creep around the internet and mock people who had opinions I thought were wrong. And feminist ideas were always easy to mock, because so many people instantly agreed. Felt good. But when I looked inside, and looked long and hard, I found that that's not who I want to be. Anita Sarkeesian's videos on feminism where one of my first actual introductions to the topic, some months before the kickstarter campaign went up. I'm glad that today, two of my favourite voices on the internet came together.
      (Und das ich meine Beunruhigung über Zitate von dir in der WikiMANNia zumindest relativieren kann. ;) )

    2. The "feminazis out of ma vidya gaems!!!" silliness is pretty much dead in the water at this point, even if most of the #gamergate proponents aren't realising it. But by taking the term "gamer" and creating a narrative of inclusion around it, they killed the old boys club themselves ironically. Sadly that doesn't mean they'll start to see Sarkeesian's videos in a new light now. Her brand is too tarnished, I don't think she will be able to gather a new audience in this crowd.
      If you take a look at the stuff TFYC is putting on YT as campaign updates, you will see their view doesn't differ from femfreq very much: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KszuGqKxTk8 What is missing is the flaming hate in the comments. Granted, they have far less viewers, but this number might grow and if it does, I'm willing to bet the discussion will stay somewhat civilised at least.
      Is this terribly unfair and biased against Sarkeezian? Hell yes! Does that matter? Meh. The message gets out. In the end it doesn't really matter who opened the door in the first place.

    3. Thanks!
      (Die Zitate sind ziemlich krass out of context)

    4. I think you're missing a point here. Sarkeesian will not win any new supporters in the "gamer" crowd, for sure. No one ever wins over the partisans. What she does is winning over the independents by the droves (to stay in political vocabulary), such like me, who didn't care much one side or the other before. That's why the gamers are becoming a very small and isolated subgroup so fast. Many people who were just subsumised under the label "gamer" before (every male playing video games) are now distancing themselves from the term, which makes being a "gamer" a choice rather than the default. This mirrors the triumph of feminist ideas on other fields, where the patriarchal default was replaced by at least perfunctory agreements with gender equality.
      That Sarkeesian is a strongly polarizing figure means, as you describe, that she won't win anyone over. My guess is that she will become a figurehead, relatively radical in comparison to what comes after her, as most leaders of a certain ideology (using the term not negative here) do. This will allow a new generation later to distance themselves from her and earn their own merits.
      But one thing's certain, and that will be Sarkeesian's feat as much as anyone's - there's no turning back now.

  3. Just for clarification: We are in agreement insofar that the broadening of the gaming culture is a win for feminist ideas over the long term, even if it paradoxically emerged as an adverse reaction to the feminist movement itself.
    But I'm not seeing the broad distancing from the "gamer" term. To the contrary, very likely "gamer" will be the general description of a gaming enthusiast in the future, especially because it was adapted by the very diverse #gamergate proponents. Alexander Macris, the publisher of the escapist magazine, compared it to "gearhead" in his "The State of Gaming note": http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/editorials/12223-The-Escapist-Publisher-Issues-Public-Statement-on-Gamergate. It's worth reading.
    In the end this will leave "gamer" depoliticised and hard to attack as the go to stereotype for the feminist culture changers.
    If Anita Sarkeezian will be remembered as a leading figurehead of this progress or simply an early, but flawed, radical... well I'll hope you'll tell us in fifty years or so in your then world famous history blog ;-)

    1. We'll see. Whether or not the term survives, though, isn't exactly the issue. The distinction for the groups is there, and it won't disappear, no matter how you call them.

    2. Which distinction do you mean? Between feminists and anti-feminists? If so, you are overestimating the second groups influence on the overall gaming community in this strange new #gamergate world. The two oppositional blocks in this conflict differ in their priorities only which I would label anti-corruption and anti-misogynism roughly. Depending on which side of the fence you're standing, you'll prioritise fighting an influential (and likely imaginary) clique of indiedevs and journalists who happen to have a feminist agenda or you'll rally against an influential (and likely imaginary) misogynistic core group at the #gamergate movement who hide behind unknowing sheeples.
      Both sides declare for themselves to be against any form of harassment and try to create a narrative of inclusion for their own group. And frankly the progaters are doing a damn good job at it. They quickly call out any offensive commentators in their own ranks, create tons of inclusion positive media in the context of their agenda, created a powerful submovement with #notyourshield and delightfully cherry-pick the crazier and similarly harassive rants of the fringe elements on the other side.
      I just don't see a big anti-feminist backlash in all of this, the concerns of the big majority of the progaters are genuine if somewhat naive. And if there really is a secret cabal of patriarchic trolls behind all this laughing their asses of, I have to applaud these guys. They've fooled me. But as far as I can see, their super evil strategy backfired, the new gamer is pretty much reformed.

    3. Nobody except a very tiny circle talks about the corruption problem and the indie scene. Most everyone talks about mysoginy.

  4. Respectfully, that is simply not true and seems to be a result of filter bubble bias. What are your sources?

    1. None, that's simply my own subjective impression. Sorry for not making that clear.

    2. Ah, ok. Well as I said the pro-gamergaters corruption concerns are genuine and widespread in my opinion and not just some kind of an internet front shop to hide behind. The misogynist angle is pushed more by the anti-gaters and they are the smaller group in raw numbers, but have better mainstream media coverage. Which would explain your impression.
      In fact there is some rather impressive amateur investigative journalism going on in the pro-gater scene, exposing some shady dealings between some IGF judges and the maker of Fez which was mainly ignored in mainstream. Please note: I'm not validating any of their claims, just making a point about the honesty of the corruption background.
      If you want to follow this up, I can provide you with some links tomorrow. Otherwise I can only recommend you jump in this beautiful mess yourself. Really, it got it all: Likable characters on all sides, betrayal, even some smarmy attempts by the political right to side with the gamers against the evil feminists. Rightwing nuts in agreement with gamers! It is awesome!

    3. If I get it right, the corruption scandal is about Zoe Quinn. That's a case I know not much about, as I wrote, because the Indie scene is nothing of interest to me. I only followed the Sarkeesian debate in detail, and corruption plays no part here. And in the Sarkeesian debate, for me the stakes are clear cut, as well as the influence.
      That being said, I definitely don't think that the corruption thing detracts in any way from the question of mysoginy. Even if Quinn is bribing someone, and even if Sarkeesian is a money grabber, the discussion about female representation doesn't lose any of its impact.

    4. Your approach is honorably idealistic, but I'm afraid you might loose some perspective on the big picture. The corruption / misogyny angles are connected on the meta. If you are concerned about Sarkeesian's influence and impact on the scene, you have to follow both discussions. Her influence is dwindling rapidly, exactly because of the alleged corruption and connection to ZQ. We are not talking about a small minority of disgruntled nerds here, which she could never have reached one way or another. Her media network of feminist positive gaming sites is taking some heavy hits in user counts, advertisers are starting to back out. The AAA producers are more than a little disgruntled, this whole debate is taking attention away from their products. If the goal is to spread female representation in games, Sarkeesian's strategy simply isn't working.

    5. I still think you're overstating the case. In my eyes, the discussion was a breakthrough for the question of female representation in games, and the corruption thing is already outshined by this. Whether or not Sarkeesian herself will continue to wield influence or not is secondary (though I believe she will). The important thing is that the agenda she's enforcing has reached the mainstream, especially in game development and in game journalism, and it won't recede, no matter whether or not Sarkeesian will be hit by the Quinn fallout or not.

    6. That's as valid a prognosis as any at the moment, assuming you mean the gaming culture mainstream with "mainstream". Because the real mainstream is out there playing video games and never heard anything about any of this.
      I humbly propose you'll write a follow-up in a month or so when the fog of war has cleared up a little an we'll see better where we stand. Deal?

    7. Let's say a year, that sounds more useful. However, I don't know whether I can add anything substantial then, because I only joined in the discussion after it did spell into the mainstream. And no, I'm not talking about gamer mainstream. For example, Vox had a piece (I linked it), and here in Germany, the major newssites were running pieces about it as well. It's by no means confined to the gamer culture anymore.

    8. Allright, maybe I'll hold you to it. Until then: Stay excellent!