by Todd Martens
This column is usually dedicated to discussing video games, but in the past week and a half, you’d be forgiven for not having the stomach to play one. I haven’t.
Infighting, finger-pointing and the airing of dirty laundry have dominated the late summer in video games. For those who have played an online multiplayer game, this may sound like any other day in video games. But it’s not. Now the attacks are so threatening in nature that even the FBI has taken notice.
A long-simmering schism among select, very vocal members of the gaming community and others in the industry has come to the fore over the last two weeks, resulting in unprecedented levels of death threats and harassment directed at game designers and writers — many of them women.
This is not, to be clear, some trash-talking in a “Call of Duty” match. The hateful social media posts, a number of them threatening rape and crippling injury, have been so violent that some intended targets have gone into hiding.
The fury started in mid-August. The exact incident, in which the spurned ex of a female independent game designer reportedly published embarrassing personal details of their relationship and accused her of infidelity, is now beside the point. That moment has become an excuse, an opportunity to rail against designers and writers who are attempting to intellectualize the medium — “social justice warriors,” as they’ve been labeled by their online assailants.
These “social justice warriors” are seen as capable of destroying the very essence of what some players love about video games: violence, fantasy and scantily clad women.
Far from making a point, the ugly reaction has instead exposed the rage and rampant misogyny that lies beneath the surface of an industry that’s still struggling to mature.
Much of the ire has been aimed at Anita Sarkeesian, a respected pop-culture critic whose series of videos under the Feminist Frequency banner analyzes sexism in mainstream video games. On Aug. 26, she posted to Twitter that “some very scary threats have just been made against me and my family. Contacting authorities now.”
Sarkeesian, whose biting, unflinching observations have long made her a punching bag for those who feel she’s attacking the games they love, has been candid on social media in exposing the recent barrage of harassment. “I hope you die” is one of the few tweets slung her way this week that’s actually printable.
Her most recent supposed offense is posting a video that analyzes how top-shelf video games often resort to using women as background decorations, such as a cringe-inducing strip-club setting of the gunfight in “Mafia II: Joe’s Adventures,” in which bullets soar over the body of a dead, barely clothed exotic dancer.
Attempts to reach Sarkeesian this week have thus far been unsuccessful, as have attempts to reach a number of the other women affected. But anonymous message board postings calling for a game designer who’s been outspoken on social issues to receive a “good solid injury to the knees” is not uncommon.
On Thursday, video game site Polygon broke the news that the FBI this summer reached out to a prominent game organization to discuss alleged harassment and cybercrimes in the industry.
“We want to keep the community safe, and we don’t want people to be harassed by anybody,” said FBI spokeswoman Emily Yeh, who confirmed that the organization met with the International Game Developers Assn.
The online vitriol has become so disturbing that an appeal for decency has been endorsed by those who work for game powerhouses such as Ubisoft, Riot Games, Microsoft, Telltale Games, Sony and more. This month more than 2,400 industry professionals signed an open letter seeking an end to offensive behavior in the game industry.
“We believe that everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or disability, has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened. It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish,” read an online petition started by indie game developer Andreas Zecher.
Still, at least one zealous group has formed a nascent Twitter movement to combat what is seen as the increased cultural criticism being applied to video games. It should be noted that the word “movement” is used loosely, as it’s not quite clear what those tweeting with the Gamergate hashtag are after, other than an end to all serious critiques of video games.
“Can we please just keep the agendas out of video games? Entertainment is meant to be the furthest possible thing from politics,” states one Gamergate supporter. And another: “It’d be nice if the gaming industry/gaming journalism would just … focus on games over politics.”
Such views seem driven in part by a few recent developments. It’s only in the last few years that game journalism has more regularly delved into the sort of cultural criticism common to other forms of mass media. Hobbyist media was once focused largely on product or game mechanics, but as the game audience has broadened and more have recognized the medium as a legitimate cultural force, more have also started to question if games are as smart as they should be.
And then there’s the rise in independent gaming, which has given us games that tackle depression, poverty, slavery, classism, LGBT concerns and other nuanced social issues. The fear, apparently, is that their success — and their support by those who offer cultural commentary on the game sector — will cause those who make big-budget games to conduct a little soul-searching, and in turn make their games more inclusive (or politically correct, to use a more charged term).
To most of us, this sounds swell. The indie game sector has proved what those who have loved games have known all along: namely, that the digital world is good for much more than shooting things.
But the recent brouhaha makes one wish that those old gamer clichés still held true; that the most serious of players were loners — dudes who sat alone in a room, illuminated only by a monitor. The dark at least kept the community’s most unsavory aspects hidden from view.
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