There was a time back when I was a teenager when I could always count on organized protesters of a particular religious bent to get together and try to shut something down. Usually it was something they hadn’t even seen or heard or read, and I know that’s true because Harry Potter is the most popular Christ story since the original, and yet it’s been a constant presence on challenged books lists since 1999 for promoting un-Christian witchcraft.
Those people are still around, of course, but in the tech-centric social media world they’ve been supplanted by a new group with different uniforms but a startling similar aim. Gamers, specifically right-wing reactionary gamers, have become the new religious right looking to blast art they don’t like from the face of the Earth.
It’s kind of an odd thing to have happened. Once, there was a pretty significant debate over the censorship of video games. Video game activist Jack Thompson crowed that violent games made people shoot up schools, Doom was accused of promoting devil worship and Congress held hearings on the subject. Much of the rhetoric calling for the censor or banning of games was coming from the same voices who protested Marilyn Manson and Dogma. Games were often already heavily censored by the American branch of Nintendo, with the bloodless Super Nintendo port of Mortal Kombat being pretty much the entire debate in microcosm.
However, though there was a lot of talk about official censorship there was never really any serious chance it would happen in America. Video games were declared free speech by the Supreme Court in 2005 in a 7 – 2 decision, and Nintendo had given up their dream of completely family-friendly entertainment by 1994. Mature content became a badge of honor to the gamer community. It was proof that the medium couldn’t be stopped by moralistic thugs determined to protect us from ourselves.
That was the status quo for a long time until the rise of social critiquing of games came about. Journalists like Leigh Alexander and Mattie Brice as well as YouTubers like Anita Sarkeesian began looking at game content, both narrative and mechanical, and examining what that content said about us. It was not, as a lot of gamers like to claim, a call to censor or ban that content. It was just looking at it in a more thoughtful and nuanced way. With games now protected by all the power of the First Amendment, you would think that discussion over them could flourish more freely since they were in no danger of being taken away.
That’s not what happened, though. Organized retaliation against the concept of conversation and dialogue in the form of 4chan ops and GamerGate happened instead. Sarkeesian’s videos were constantly flagged on YouTube in an attempt to take them down and online campaigns to have various journalists discredited or fired became a new way of life for anyone who dared deconstructing games from a social justice perspective. The message was clear: shut up. Stop talking right now.
This was the first way that gamers became the new apostles in the church of censorship, and it’s more related to the religious protests in the ‘90s than many realize. At the heart of the movement to shut down game critique is an appeal to tradition and purity. Discussing how sexualized avatars contribute to the objectification of women in the real world or how playing games with sexist content makes sexist behavior more likely gets framed as an attack, similar to how women entering the workplace in greater numbers in the 1980s was often framed as an attack on the traditional gender roles celebrated in The Bible. Whenever women or other minorities speak up against systems that oppress them it challenges the idea that the current norm is good, and if the norm is not good, then we are bad for having supported or participated in it.
Criticism of the status quo, no matter how mild, is felt like an attack on a person’s morality. Religious people in the ‘80s who were comfortable with traditional gender roles took the idea of someone else rejecting those roles as a judgment. Likewise, players who are perfectly happy with a white, male-centric, violent, heteronormative status quo in gaming feel judged for that happiness when marginalized people and their allies speak up about how it affects them.
Alongside the wave of socially conscious critics has also come a brilliant new world of indie game development. Individuals and small teams have access to both the tools to create games and tremendous distribution systems thanks to Steam and the mobile phone game platforms. Free from the massive sales expectations of Triple A gaming, and therefore less beholden to the status quo, these games are often the ones that social critics applaud. They take chances on main characters being non-white or female or gay. They play with subverting tropes instead of relying on them.
Consequently, these games tend to be ones that critics interested in new, more diverse fare get really excited about. The problem is that now there is a whole community of gamers dedicated to hating absolutely anything that these critics enjoy, and they often go on dedicated harassment campaigns to try and shut down the games or drive them away.
For instance, That Dragon, Cancer has just come out, a game I’ve been avidly waiting for more than the last two years. It’s a game about navigating the world of parents whose son is diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of cancer as a baby. The game was inspired by the experiences of creators Amy and Ryan Green, whose son, Joel, lived to the age of five after being given only four months to live when he was one.
It sounds like a beautiful bit of interactive art, and as someone who has watched way too many people lose to the dragon I had a personal interest in playing it once I get paid this weekend. Unfortunately, Feminist Frequency gave the game a good review, and so of course the horde has descended on Steam to flood the forums with cries of “feels-marketing” and saying the Greens are immoral for not donating profits to cancer research. Bear in mind, none of these people have actually played That Dragon, Cancer. They just hate it because a bunch of other people they normally pick on all got together and said it made them feel something.
Don’t believe me? Here’s one who really wants to play Pony Island, but who can’t bring himself to do it simply because game developer Zoe Quinn, a prime GamerGate target, liked it. He otherwise thinks the game looks great, but because it has a vague connection to one of the dreaded others who must be destroyed to preserve game purity he won’t drop $5. Here’s the Men’s Rights crowd judging Broken Age without playing it because it looks like a “raging feminist turd.” When creator Tim Schafer took to Reddit for an Ask Me Anything session, he was immediately flooded by trolls trying to shut down any real conversation.
Once again I’ve come to a point in my life where I just know certain things will stir up a group of organized protestors. Just as church groups would get together and make signs or write letters, this gamer mob can always be counted on to gather on message boards and plan a strike. They use DDoS attacks and hordes of sock puppet accounts on Twitter instead of standing outside a concert, but the result is the same. What’s disturbing is what they attack. The religious right was alarmed by sex and Satanic imagery and realistic violence. The gamer right is fighting a war against… being sad about cancer? Having a black female lead in an adventure game?
The conceit of the religious right was always that exposure, any exposure, to certain information was a gateway drug into a godless, doomed existence. Really, though, it was just fear of change and fear of rejection, a story as old as children choosing different paths than their parents. Mainstream gaming, for all its gun fights and sex appeal, is still a world largely dominated by the same Judeo-Christian American norms. Women are usually ornamental, minorities are rarely present, shooting things is usually the best answer and if not it’s probably getting and hoarding as many resources as possible. For all the outrage, the games protestors fought in the ‘90s were very much in line with their core values. The only argument was over how much blood and sex teenagers should get to see.
Games like Gone Home and Life is Strange and Undertale are all very much rejections of traditional gaming norms. They are the gaming equivalent of a child becoming an atheist after being brought up religious. Lots of players like that for the same reason lots of people enjoy weird indie films or underground noise bands.
Gamers, though, are people who have made games and games culture a core identity. It’s one of the reasons why even though I play games every day, I no longer refer to myself as a gamer. The term has come to refer to a small group who treat playing games as a simulated oppressed class (some even spell it with a capital G). They use games not for enjoyment, but to bolster traditional values that empower a very straight, white male point of view. It’s no different from churchgoers who define themselves by pro-life activism or who spent all their time opposing marriage equality.
The gamer right has its moral crusade, now. It wants gaming to be orthodox and traditional and easy to swallow without thinking too much about it. Even something like That Dragon, Cancer, truly a game I assumed everyone could agree was at least a moving idea, cannot be tolerated. Not if feminists think it’s good, and not if there isn’t any power fantasy to fulfill. The religious right fought to keep sex and murder from interactive media, and their ideological successors are fighting to keep thought out of it with the same, unquestioning zealousness.
Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is available now. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.