It’s been a particularly troubling few months for women within the online social circles I inhabit. The people of Baltimore and any football fan knows about the Ray Rice incident. I don’t need to go into detail about that. And last month the alt-lit (alternative literature) community was hit with multiple rape allegations against two male leaders of that community. There’s a lot to read about that as well and all of it overwhelms me with sadness. And then there’s #GamerGate.
Recently, GamerGate has been all over the news, enough so that the Washington Post wrote a thorough piece about it. To summarize, a very large and vocal group of people (mostly men) who don’t want their video games to change are attacking women, feminists, and other video game critics with death and rape threats. Really. It’s insane. One attack on developer Zoe Quinn on 4chan says: “Next time she shows up at a conference we . . . give her a crippling injury that’s never going to fully heal . . . a good solid injury to the knees. I’d say a brain damage, but we don’t want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us.”
There are enough people doing this harassment to drive some of these women and their families from their homes. By “change,” I mean the people perpetuating GamerGate want to keep games full of clichéd, busty female characters that perpetuate an already-misogynistic industry. I’m simplifying this a bit, but that’s the gist.
I’ve played enough video games over the past 30 years to know that most games with female characters are sexist. Big breasts, unrealistic waists, cliché dialogue define the woman, who is most often the victim (princess to be saved). There are a few exceptions, but it’s a problem.
Why give a shit? You might say, “I’m not a gamer. Why do I care about GamerGate?”
One: No one should be threatening to kill or rape anyone. It’s widely recognized that the trolls who are threatening women are a minority. But keep in mind that this minority is posting nude photo of their victims, along with home addresses and times of future attacks. Some of these threats are severe enough to demand the FBI’s attention. This level of misogyny points to a moral crisis that has spilled over to the tech industry and is something that every kid growing up understands; cyber bullying is a real cultural problem.
Two: The video game industry makes more than the movie and the music industry. It’s an integral and irremovable piece of the global economy. Bungie’s new (somewhat boring) game Destiny was made for half a billion dollars—that’s larger than any budget for any creative project ever. The game sold over $325 million in the first five days. That doesn’t include revenue from merchandise and new downloadable content that the company will roll out in the coming months. The numbers are staggering and only getting larger as the world develops and more people plug in. Many of these hit games are made here, in the United States. Locally, Bethesda Softworks is a leader in the industry. Video games are one of our major exports, not just as a commodity but culturally. This includes passive, mobile games that you have on your phone or tablet. This includes sprawling roleplaying games that eat teenagers’ attention for months at a time. This, luckily, includes Minecraft, one of the healthiest game worlds for young, creative minds.
Three: Games are no longer games. They are, sometimes, high art. A great game can transport you to a world where social commentary isn’t just spouted, it’s experienced. Irrational Game’s Bioshock Infinite deals with race and political issues that are typically reserved for a Don DeLillo novel. The game talks about America with much more depth than most cable news channels. Games can be experimental art, and they’re ubiquitous. In our pockets. In our homes. Indie developers such as Zoe Quinn—who is a victim of GamerGate—make games that address depression and anxiety. Increasingly, these small game companies are creating some of the most compelling and conceptual interactive experiences you can find. And the best thing about them is that they are accessible, inexpensive, and not vaulted inside the white walls of a gallery space. They live everywhere.
We need to give these developers and journalists as much respect and protection as anyone else in the creative world. By allowing them to suffer career-ending attacks, a vibrant and edgy industry is suffering and will ultimately become more misogynistic. Video games are just too amazing and useful to allow a tiny minority to destroy the careers of gifted entrepreneurs.
I’d love to see Anonymous out these trolls. They seem like the only (h)activists with the talent to find out who these people are and do something appropriate. But the government also needs stricter laws against these types of online attacks. It only takes a few motivated troll-hackers to start a movement against a woman they disagree with—once the spotlight is turned on their victim, anyone with an axe to grind swarms Twitter and other outlets to discredit, slander, and attack.
We also need to widen the debate. This isn’t just about sexism in video games. It’s about one of the largest industries in the world and how its fan base treats women. It’s about creativity and the new ways we relate to one another. I am all for net neutrality, but an industry I love is in crisis—so much so that I cannot use this new column to review a video game for City Paper until I’ve said something about GamerGate.
Justin Sirois is the author of the TV-optioned series “So Say the Waiters.”
He lives in Baltimore and loves games.