Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Still no country for Old Gamers

Exactly a year ago, I jumped onto the Anita Sarkeesian bandwagon with both feet. I had encountered her "Tropes vs. Women" series roughly two weeks prior, which got me to really challenge some of the beliefs I had held previously, and when in late August 2014 the #gamergate scandal fully broke, I wrote an article called "No country for Old Gamers" to stake out my position, which is pretty deep in the Sarkeesian camp. This position, I have to say, was a personal break for me in many respects and a harbinger of my turnaround on other related issues in social policy as well, and it produced some serious stress in friendships in which the other guys weren't making the same turnaround, and it still is. In the discussion that I had with some readers in the original article, I had an argument with an anonymous reader about whether or not Sarkeesian was hurting the case, how the #gamergate movement's proclaimed issues ("ethics in video game journalism") and how it would play out in the medium term. He challenged me to take a look again after a month, and I said that this was too short a time and we should make it a year. Well, today it's a year. So, let's have a look how the situation is today, but first, the last bits of the discussion for context: 

Anonymous: 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.

Me: 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.
I want to split the discussion into three several topics, as I feel that these were the major points of contestion: 
1) Did Sarkeesian become the radical figurehead that other players of the movement would distance themselves from with more moderate stands? 
2) Would there be a giant backlash against the attention Sarkeesian was getting at the time, so that she would ultimatively do more harm than good? 
3) Would the debate about ethics in the video game industry at large get more attention and status as a legitimate issue and eclipse the discussion about the representation of women?

Generally, I think the picture is a bit murky. In the following, please keep in mind that the analysis I present here isn't backed by empiric studies and highly subjective. With that out of the way, I want to start with the point that is, in my opinion, the clearest to answer: point 3. 

I think it's fair to say that #gamergate as a wide-ranging movement totally collapsed. Besides a hard core of extremists, the brand is today burned and associated too much with harassment to work anymore. The same is also true for the issues it allegedly wanted to bring to attention.  The latter has to do much with the hypocricy with which the movement did it. While the entanglement of the video game journalism with the players of the industry is indeed a problem, it was transparently only a tool to hide mysoginist attacks on Zoe Quinn and others for the attention their indie games were recieving. 

#gamergate's usage of the same mechanism to damage their opponents (like trying to force IBM, Nvidia and others to withdraw advertisitng from them) was anything but working towards their alleged goals, and the closeness of the journalists to the publishers and developers of AAA titles that often shows in their reviews was never brought to the table at all. This has, in fact, produced a strong backlash against the issue itself: "Ethics in video game journalism" is only a chiffre for #gamergate's vicious attacks and can't even be brought up seriously anymore. For a time, everyone and their mother used "Actually, it's about ethics in X" as the butt of practically every joke. 

Therefore, yes, there was a backlash, but against #gamergate and its supporters. But the movement was, besides its hard core of 4chan and reddit activists (read Noahpinion for how they came into being), never organized in the first place and worked mainly because it provided an excuse and easy narrative to the somehow uncomfortable number of players that knew that it was made uncomfortable by Sarkeesian's thesis, but couldn't exactly articulate how. When #gamergate descended into the fringes from where it had spawned, they remained gruntled, but without home, and have remained there ever since. 

With that out of the way, let's move to points 1 and 2, which aren't really seperable in their effects due to the unexpected actions of Anita Sarkeesian herself, but I'll get to that. 

I can't see any backlash against Sarkeesian in those circles that supported her in 2014. In fact, her position has become pretty unassaillable. The real turning point here was, as far as I can judge it, her appearance at the Colbert Report in October 2014. Given the popularity Colbert enjoyed in #gamergate circles, his condemnation of them was a major step to delegitimize the movement. 

Even more important might have been Sarkeesian herself changing gears. Instead of pumping out the remaining (Kickstarter funded) episodes of "Tropes vs. Women", Feminist Frequency's YouTube channel went silent for almost a year, as Sarkeesian embarked on working on her non-profit and raising public awareness for the harassment issue. TED talks, various conference talks, interviews and more all concerned themselves not so much with video games per se but with the harassment she and others had to endure from #gamergate. 

This move came unexpected for me (and I would assume many others as well) and made the first two points that we raised in the debate more or less moot, as the issues themselves lay dormant for almost a year that was instead devoted to destroy her enemies - a task in which she was incredibly succesful, as I laid out in my observations on point 3. 

However, whether or not this helps or harms her crusade for a more progressive depiction of women in video games remains unclear. For AAA titles, it's too early to say, given the long production cycles involved that would make it impossible for games that come out in 2015 to factor in massive changes in game design from a debate in August 2014. I can point to the FIFA game as an example that might or might not have been influenced (by including the female world cup team), but generally, there's no conclusive movement in either direction. This may of course also be due to the fact that the debate that sparked the #gamergate scandal in the first place was discontinued in favor of the "real world" and the raising of awareness. 

In this, Sarkeesian was succesful. I haven't read any article coming out against Sarkeesian in any mainstream publication yet, and gaming review sites have also drastically scaled back the debate, mentioning the issue here and there but never giving it center stage. As with the question on the influence of the issue on the great publishers, it remains unclear what this means for the future. Sarkeesian was succesful in discrediting #gamergate and raising awareness for the issue of harassment of women (and still doing so, see here for example), but so far, her success in creating a new consensus regarding the represenation of women in games remains mixed, to say the least. 

It will, therefore, take some time to sort out whether or not Sarkeesian's approach to change video games will ultimately succesful. For the moment, she succeeded in destroying the most vicious streaks of the gamer community by making the open harassment, bileful commentary and other forms of verbal abuse something that has no place in public and can only safely be conducted in the closed off sections of the reactionary part of gamer society.


  1. lol the only thing she destroyed was her credibility amongst those that actually BUY them. Especially the minorities, with the way she and her cronies kept dragging out the fighting game community as misogyny destination #1. Never mind that it's always had more females at the top than any other genre. Females that aren't feminists, after all, never count unless they can be exploited. Nothing more than digital colonialists.

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