This week is a weird anniversary for me. It was a year ago that I found myself specifically targeted by GamerGate. I’d been through several minor waves of harassment by them before because of critical coverage of the movement since it started, but being a straight white guy and a pretty minor figure all around it wasn’t that bad. But then, Breitbart tech editor and alt-right media darling Milo Yiannopoulos decided to try and destroy the life of one of their most effective documenters of harassment, I got mixed up in it and the next thing I knew, I had to bring the Harris County Sheriff’s Office out to my house to try to prevent a possible SWATing. If you need the details, they’re here.
I’m not really here to talk about GamerGate, though. As a cultural phenomenon it’s largely over, though the mainstreaming of harassment, doxing and other online terrorism that is its legacy is ongoing for the foreseeable future. I want to talk about gaming as I knew it before GamerGate, and gaming as I know it now.
Before 2012 my viewpoint on games was uncomplicated. I was a media critic, but fairly unversed in looking at the world through any other lens beyond the one I was born with. My thoughts on bad behavior in the game space amounted to “don’t play shooters on multiplayer because teenage boys will call you names.” Basically, I gamed like I lived inside Twisted Destiny’s “Let’s Play.”
It wasn’t until I read about the massive harassment of Anita Sarkeesian for her then-completely still unmade series Tropes vs. Women in Games that I started to realize that gaming was not really as hunky-dory as I thought it was. At least, not for anyone who didn’t resemble me. As GamerGate followed that, there was simply too much evidence that racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotries were systemic problems in gaming, both the products themselves and the culture around them, to ignore. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, and that changes what and the way you play.
“It's really hard to enjoy my job after GamerGate,” says Brianna Wu, developer of the recently released Revolution 60 Special Edition and frequent harassment target. “I'm not an academic, I'm a software engineer. I got into the game industry to make games — not to be an activist. But after seeing so many people choose to do nothing — I don't really enjoy games like I used to. The truth is, there's an incredibly dark underside to the industry. Rather than stand up, most everyone here stuck their heads in the sand.”
One of the things Wu pointed me to is a recent study done by the International Games Developer Association. There’s been much talk about increasing diversity in game-making. IDGA partnered with Sarkeesian and Intel early last year to launch a $300 million initiative designed help fix the tech industry’s diversity problem. Thus far, it’s not been terribly successful, at least at the top. The IGDA study found that only 3 percent of non-whites in games hold senior management roles, and of people in the industry who make $150,000 a year or more, only 3 percent are women.
“I think that Gamergate has brought awareness and benefits of our industry's extreme discrimination problems — but only to women that chose to say nothing,” says Wu. “The ones that were targeted, like me, will never be the same.”
Maybe this is one of the reasons that, as a reviewer and a player, I’ve abandoned Triple A gaming almost entirely. The last major title I was invested in was Mortal Kombat X, and even then I only watched the story mode on YouTube. Before GamerGate, I tackled stuff like Bioshock Infinite, Sleeping Dogs, Tomb Raider and The Last of Us.
These days I’m way more likely to play the console port of an indie darling. I just finished replays of Life is Strange, Firewatch and Gone Home, as well as finally delving into Oxenfree. My current obsession is the remake of King’s Quest, which is on track to be my game of the year provided the episodic release finishes up before 2017.
Games like these are much more likely to be made away from the good old boy network, involve a greater diversity of people, and by extension avoid many of the stale tropes I can no longer pretend aren’t there and aren’t problematic. That’s not to say Triple A gaming isn’t trying. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and the Dragon Age titles are living proof it is, but it’s much more difficult to steer a giant cruise ship than it is a speedboat.
On the other hand, I think that GamerGate was indirectly (and completely unintentionally) the catalyst for the next great wave of gaming inspiration. Before GamerGate, Zoe Quinn was a little-known game developer who made visual novels. Now she’s partnered with surreal erotica author Chuck Tingle to make a dating simulator. Without GamerGate, I never would have heard of Ian Danskin (and by proxy, Errant Signal), and his videos are responsible for finding out about a good chunk of the games that have become my new favorites.
“The rise of feminist discourse in gaming as a way of pushing back against GG has led to me hearing about some games I might not otherwise have heard of,” says Danskin. “Feminist Frequency keeps a Steam Curation list, for instance. Offworld might never have existed, or at least not existed in that form, if not for GG. And, despite some of its flaws, I think it was a net positive. Offworld, I mean.”
The other benefit of GamerGate was that it was so loud and so toxic that a lot of people who needed to be convinced there was an issue in gaming at all started to pay attention. Twitter finally banned Yiannopoulos for one harassment campaign too many, and YouTube has started de-monetizing videos that promote harassment. It would be nice if Patreon would follow YouTube’s lead and make harassing people no longer a viable cottage industry.
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Still, it’s exhausting living in the fallout. It’s a rare week that goes by without me having to ban someone from my author pages on Twitter and Facebook because I wrote something that hurt the alt-right’s feelings, and every bit of crap GamerGate invented to make my life miserable is out there in neat little collections to be pawed over by nitwits with irrationally angry grudges. Since GamerGate targeted my young daughter as well, I’m always nervous in geek settings like comic conventions that she attends with me. You never know when some Gater is going to walk by and recognize us.
“I know my girlfriend is more self-conscious at gaming events,” says Danskin. “We were at a Smash tournament a few weeks ago, and it was nerve-wracking knowing that there were probably Gaters in attendance and we didn't know which ones they were.”
In the end, though, I still love gaming. I do it most nights, and I find the growth of the medium to be ever more impressive. However, watching what’s happened over the past several years has made me a lot more aware of the sort of things I want to support, and the ones I want to avoid empowering because there is no such thing as art without politics. What we choose to consume and what we choose to accept define a lot about who we choose to be. GamerGate taught me that uncritically consuming decades of sexist, violent media makes more people who tend to be sexist and violent in real life. When I play now, I look for the opposite of that. I no longer let such things pass unexamined.
Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is out now.