At the end of a week of sensational and often fear-filled news – which culminated with no fewer than 39 US Congressmen calling for travel restrictions on Ebola-stricken West African countries – millions of Americans were also puzzling over the sudden rise of an Internet controversy known as #GamerGate. What had begun, two months ago, as a quarrel within the online gaming community about the culture of video games, and the credibility of those who review them, finally crossed over into the mainstream media when a video-games critic was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University after receiving credible death threats.
The Gamergate controversy is complex and there is little agreement as to whether its core issue is misogyny in the online gaming community, or the complicity, and duplicity, of video game developers and reviewers in steering public opinion towards products that increase their bottom line, while using smears of sexism and misogyny to misrepresent their opponents’ opinions. The original provocation – a long blog post made by the aggrieved former boyfriend of a game designer, who alleged that she had slept with well-placed industry insiders to obtain favourable treatment – has all but vanished from the current debates as the issue has turned into another skirmish in America’s larger culture wars. As the arguments have assumed greater prominence within the mainstream media, many gamers have insisted that what is really at stake is their right to maintain a politically incorrect culture despite the groundswell of support for critics who would prefer them to conform to more conventional, and politically correct, norms.
It may seem bizarre that video gaming can provoke such heated criticism and
counter-criticism, but it seems less absurd if one considers how lavishly online entertainment has been marketed in recent years. According to the sales, demographic and usage data published earlier this year by the Entertainment Software Association almost 60% of Americans play video games regularly, and about half of the users’ households have more than one fairly expensive electronic device devoted to gaming.
In the last decade the runaway worldwide success of games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty have led the multibillion dollar gaming industry to spend ever larger sums of money developing and promoting their products. Currently their budgets exceed those of Hollywood blockbusters. The budget for Destiny, the latest standout in this competitive field, was a whopping US$500 million.
The marketing muscle of game developers is only part of the story, however. As with other well-funded forms of entertainment – sport being probably one obvious example – the gaming industry inspires hyperpartisan affiliations. Often these are limited to quarrels over which game console, or software brand is superior, and these disputes remain confined to the relatively exclusive internet fora in which aficionados debate such nuances with theological intensity. Part of the reason why Gamergate has become so confrontational is that groups like these are not accustomed to being scrutinised, much less criticised and ridiculed by outsiders.
Anita Sarkeesian, the threatened critic who cancelled her appearance at Utah State University, does raise important questions about the stereotyping of women who are used “decoratively” as non-role playing background characters in many popular games. Commenting on the graphic and completely gratuitous murder of a prostitute in the course of one such game, she notes that “If the player sticks around long enough or leaves and reenters the scene it will repeat itself again and again … [the] audience is expected to briefly gasp at these acts of brutality before their attention is directed elsewhere, towards the next event or set of enemies to be dispatched.” She concludes that “Regardless of the player’s actions in these types of situations the results always paints women in a regressive light as they will end up as either helpless damsels or dead victims…” These are troubling observations
that deserve proper responses from the gaming community. To date, however, such criticism has been met with exactly the sort of violent misogyny that Sarkeesian critiqued in the culture of video gaming.
From afar, Gamergate may look like a piece of cultural ephemera that will soon be forgotten, but it is also a useful reminder of the power of online communities to nudge the public sphere towards issues they deem particularly important. Whatever its merits, the passions enflamed by this controversy seem strangely at odds with the lack of engagement on more immediate and consequential political issues, such as the state of the economy, the progress of a transnational pandemic, or America’s increasingly complex, and complicated, foreign policy. More optimistically, perhaps, the controversy refutes the idea that the supposedly disaffected and politically incurious youth who have disappeared into a parallel world of virtual distractions,
are incapable of activism – however uneven – when the wider world’s political questions intersect with their reality.