Monday, September 8, 2014

The Politics Of: #GamerGate

In case you haven't heard of #GamerGate, here are two really excellent explainers. In a nutshell:
  1. The spark was lit when an ex-boyfriend of a game-designer (woman) wrote a piece on her that started allegations that the gaming news industry was corrupt (that she was sleeping with gaming journalists to get better reviews?). Also that gamer-journalist had donated to crowd-funded games they'd later reviewed (positively).
  2. The spark lit into an Internet consuming flame with people choosing sides and various game creators and reviewers being harassed out of their house or out of the industry.
  3. Ostensibly, the furor is being driven by the revelation that gaming journalism is corrupt and gamers, having woken up to that reality, really don't like modern gaming journalism.
That's the above-the-water part of #GamerGate. The part below the water looks like this: Lying Greedy Promiscuous Feminist Bullies Are Tearing The Gaming Industry Apart (headline from Brietbart). The battle demographics appear to be between white, male, young self-identified gamers and (a) female game-designers / journalists and/or (b) their allies in the (gamer) media.

In other words, it's an electronic / online gender-war.

How Do We Know?
The smoking gun in the #GamerGate dialog is the difference in critic and user-score for several games such as Gone Home and Depression Quest.
Gone Home (Meta Critic)
Depression Quest (Meta Critic) -- Received Mostly Positive Reviews from Critics (not reflected here)

On the left are the reviews by the media. On the right? Reviews by users (the 'gaming public'). These are the two games that came up in the conversation. The Omnivore had played Gone Home (before the controversy broke) and looked up Depression Quest after.
  • Gone Home is an an award-winning 2013 first-person game where the player takes the part of a young woman in 1995 returned home from a trip abroad and finds her younger sister and parents missing from the house they moved into while she was away. Taking place at night, in the middle of a severe storm, you wander the house unlocking audio-diaries of your sister to find out what happened (and piecing together the mystery of where your parents are). 
  • Depression Quest is a text-game by Zoe Quinn (the game-designer from #1 above) which is supposed to give you a view into the world of depression. It won some smaller numbers of awards and had somewhat more 'mixed' reviews--but for a game that has almost no graphics (static pictures), what seems to be a very truncated decision tree, and is, well, by its own admission, not supposed to be fun, it had quite a run.
These are both very, very non-traditional games for today's audience*. They have no combat, no traditional RPG-style puzzles, no advancement mechanics (treasure, leveling, etc.), and their subject matter is unlike anything attempted before. Gone Home explores LGBT issues. Depression Quest lets you maneuver your ambiguous main character through scenarios with a limited number of choices trying to ... well ... accomplish anything. Just get by.

So why the big schism?

Proposals For The Degree of Difference

The reasons proposed for the degree of difference are:
  • Corruption. Gone Home and Depression Quest got good reviews because they slept with or otherwise influenced the reviewers in some under-handed fashion.
  • Political Correctness. Both games have specific appeals social justice activists (or Social Justice Warriors in, erm, the parlance). The good reviews are given because the reviewers are left-wing partisans who will give any game friendly to GLBT / Mental Health issues a solid 10 even if it isn't a good / passable game. A less strident appraisal of this is that the games are "Oscar bait" (overly pretentious takes on 'serious' subject matter designed to attract attention of the 'elite'--in this case the gaming journalists).
  • An Actual Honest Difference. Maybe there is a difference between the journalists and the gaming public? Age? Number of female reviewers vs. female players? Something else?

This is the most interesting and perhaps troubling. Firstly, the fact that gaming journals have started (as a result of #GamerGate) forcing their reviewers to own up to any financial connections they have to the game (crowd-funding) indicates that, no matter what they say, there is a problem (some have gone even further and forced those writers not to review games they funded). That's fine.

On the other hand, The Omnivore used to have a gig reviewing games and let The Omnivore tell you: unless you are a very, very big outfit, just getting the games early and for free is a pretty big incentive to write a good review. Sure, if you are IGN, they don't have much of a choice--they have to send you the title--but for others? If you want to keep getting games you have to at least respect your supplier.

Secondly, while there are some serious allegations that maybe the creator of Depression Quest slept with someone there is no indication that the guys who did Gone Home slept with anyone. If corruption is universally responsible for these games getting good reviews, it doesn't seem likely that it's Quid Pro Quo.

Also NOTE: some of the negative reviews for DepressionQuest may be from 4chan raids to drive down the numbers? No one's sure.

Political Correctness
On the other hand, if the leftist media is, well, leftist, it's possible that the driver is a wish to appear correct. That's not unfeasible. There are trends in journalism--both online and offline and there are a good number of women game journalists--some of whom have been very badly treated by the gaming populace for entirely unrelated reasons. If you accept that some portion of the 'Gamer' public are misogynistic then it is not a super-leap of logic to think that game reporters (especially women who draw a pretty substantial share of ire) might be more 'politically correct' than, say, white, male, 20-somethings with lots of disposable income for $60.00 AAA title games.

... However.
The Stanley Parable
This is The Stanley Parable--a game that places you as a cog in a huge corporate machine and ... things happen. Take a look at the stats: of 47 professional-reviewer gaming houses, EVERYONE but ONE loved it. For ordinary people there is a substantial backlash.

The Stanley Parable fits the same formula as Depression Quest and Gone Home in terms of action: There are no puzzles, no violence, no (real) threat of death. It's another of these innovative games that the less you know about the better.

The key, though, is that The Stanley Parable doesn't have any Social Justice aspect. There are no GLBT characters, no mental illness issues, nothing like that. The divide isn't as -huge- as Gone Home or Depression Quest--but the trend is there: The Stanley Parable really, really delighted critics. It's hit and miss with other gamers.

So that leaves ...

A Real Difference
What could distinguish game reviewers from gamers? It might be gender--but no one I could find knows what the spread is. How about age? That's entirely possible. If your average reviewer was playing in their 20's ... in the 90's ... they're in their 40's now. That could cause a difference in perspective--sure. How about this, though: What if it's the job of reviewing things themselves?
Note how many movie critics treat formulaic stories like romantic comedies or buddy cop movies with such disdain, even though audiences love them. That's the effect of repeated exposure. Very few of us will see more than one rom-com a year, but your average movie critic will see nearly all of them. They know the tropes and gags and story beats so well they can look at one scene and tell you who is going to be in the next scene and what will happen, because they've seen this movie in various forms over a hundred times in their career.
If you are used to--and forced to play--a steady diet of games, when you see something innovative it's going to light you up as a critic. Look at Boyhood. Boyhood is a film that was shot over decades using the same cast. The young actor grew up--the parents got older. By the end, the movie was, plot-wise, kind of a mess--but there isn't anything like it.
There's nothing politically correct about Boyhood--and to be fair, a lot of people liked it--but 100% of the critics liked it. The average viewers were ... not as universally impressed.

What's Really Going On With #GamerGate
What's really going on with #GamerGate is a natural critical response (critics are more swayed by innovative games than the general public) which is amplified by tribalism (identity politics where people feel personally insulted when they perceive their group is attacked) into the current conflagration. You don't have to have a journalism industry rife with corruption for your readers not to trust you--you just have to have enough of a different perspective to have a divide of some sort and then allow people to pour their hurt feelings--whatever those are--into the gap.

This looks like an argument over journalistic ethics but it's really a battle between two sides, each who perceive the other as bullies. To the game journalist or game designer who gets dog-piled by anonymous haters it looks like massively powerful, implacable spectral forces aligned against them (as well as good old gender-based harassment). To the gamers it appears that powerful gate-keepers of the industry have set themselves up as a judgmental elite who are out of touch and driven by nonsense ideas of what a game should be.

The idea that game designers or even game journalists are 'feminist bullies' (to use the Brietbart article's term) is a non-issue: games are created by money. Critics--even hosts of Social Justice Warriors--are going to make little headway if the titles they dislike continue to sell. That's where the power is--and everyone should know it. Social Justice 'reviews' of games like Grand Theft Auto also aren't going to make headway: If they could, according to the conspiracy theorists, we'd already see it.

If you can't handle having girls online when you play or you fail to see how a big game company can fumble a public relations issue the problem isn't them--it's you. If you think you're taking back some territory by scaring a young woman anonymously you have to see that you've already got whatever it is you think you're taking--and if she wasn't anonymously harassing you, you're the one who's out of line.

The Omnivore isn't a current enough gamer to have been deeply involved with #GamingGate--but he has seen this pattern before. With tabletop pencil-and-paper role-playing games in the early 2000's there was a spat between Traditional Gamers and Indie gamers (this lives on to some extent today).

There was even the same "Is-This-A-Role-Playing-Game" pattern repeated for traditional gamers questioning the intensely focused 'indie' RPGs. For that matter, there were even 'rules' for what was considered an "Indie RPG." As with the cover-story of responsibility in journalism, the issue with tabletop RPGs had its own 'high-ground' (indie games were underdogs in the RPG-world and the designers were explorers in a new domain of games and game types).

This was nonsense. The issue--to a degree on both sides--was superiority. People felt their way of playing was better and that people who played their way were better people. This was projected into the dialog at all levels--sometimes (although rarely) explicitly. Then, as now, we see the need for inclusion and exclusion (is Gone Home a game? Is My Life With Master a role-playing game?) as the 'tell'--the 'fin above the water' which lets us know there's a darker shape buried underneath.

The Politics of #GamerGate
There actually are politics (perhaps not surprisingly). Noted actor and conservative Adam Baldwin (Firefly / Chuck / The Last Ship) weighed in on the side of the gamers. Basically, it's Gamers right, Journalists left. If you are wondering how that can square with BioShock's (anti-Ayn Rand, Anti-Tea Party) or, say Grand Theft Auto's (anti-Law and Order)'s popularity it's obvious: your media doesn't reflect who you are as much as you might wish it did.

Added Note: The observation that #GamerGate is not just American and that there are feminist components that support the '#Gamers' side came up on Twitter. That's obviously true: the 'sides' are somewhat ideologically permeable at specific cases (such as pro-feminist FYC who had a feud with Zoe and therefore came down on the side of the #Gamers--read the explainers). The pattern here is that when someone accuses you of being X-ist, the most commonly seen defense is to ally with a friendly 'X.'

In other words, Republican's dislike of being called racist aided Herman Cain in 2012. Herman Cain therefore benefited from both being black and from leftist calling Republicans racists sufficiently enough to catapult him to the #1 spot for a little while.

Secondly, while the left-right divide may or may not exactly apply outside America's borders, if you look at, profile-wise, who is on what side, it's pretty clear that outlets like Brietbart disliked feminists well before #GamerGate came along and have had bones to pick with "liberal media" for decades. The idea that outlets like HotAir share an honest common cause with gamers who want better reviews of their games is wishful thinking--if someone entirely external is allying with you, it behooves you to ask why that is.

* Let us note, though, and this is important--although foot-noted--that they are not entirely new. Gone Home has roots in the original Portal game (which The Omnivore played and enjoyed--no, not the one with cake) and Depression Quest could trace back to a lot of places like Executive Suite. The fact that most gamers, today, have never seen these--and they are 1980's vintage, doesn't mean they are unprecedented.


  1. [Veronica here]

    I was there for the whole indie-vs-trad-rpgs (as you and I often hashed out over beer) and *this is different*. I mean, if we take the worst jackasses of that conflict (say the Pundit vs. whoever-on-the-indie-team) and compare them to what Zoe is going through -- it does not compare. There is a level of raw misogyny and nerd-rage here that shapes this in very terrible ways.

    By the way, I'm one step removed from ZQ, as in I have a few face-to-face friends who are face-to-face friends with her. Some of those friends got caught up in this. And I'm sitting here in an office surrounded by young tech dudes, any one of which could right now be tweeting rape-death-murder threats to some of my friends.

    And in a post-Elliot-Rogers world you better bet these women are afraid. Zoe is for-reals afraid to go home. Literally. She cannot stay at home.

    Seems to me grousing about the games media is missing the script.

    1. You're being awfully one-sided here, painting one group as villains and the other as tragic victims. The fact is, the anti-GamerGate crowd is just as guilty, if not MORE so, of those crimes than the ones who post under GamerGate.

      For instance, The Fine Young Capitalists were DDOS'd based on a beef Zoe had with them over their policy about transgenders. She apparently did not actually read the policy, called them out on Twitter about their extremely liberal policy ("If you identify as a woman, you are a woman," basically), and got her followers to crash their website. And this was a program to get women into game development, DDOS'd by the people supposedly on the side of getting women into game development. It was then funded in large part by the same "misogynists" that you paint as the eponymous victims in your tale. The Fine Young Capitalists, despite their noble goals, STILL, to this day, have not gotten any media attention from the mainstream gaming websites.

      Let us then consider the case of Wolf Wozniak, founder of the Wolfgame development company. When the issue started he sent out a tweet that he had been sexually assaulted by Zoe at a friend's wedding, and Zoe's side immediately shamed, harassed, and threatened him into deleting his tweet. In any other space that would be called "victim-blaming," but apparently here it's "justice."

      When some users tried to edit Zoe Quinn's Wikipedia page to offer a less biased view, she doxx'd them. Two of them were doxx'd, in fact, and one was transgendered. Let me point you again to the above statement that one of Zoe Quinn's issues with The Fine Young Capitalists was that they were not fair with their transgender policies. But obviously the BEST policy with transgenders is to put all of their personal information on the internet and call for a witch hunt. Her side has the DEFINITE moral high ground here, I agree.

      And, lest we forget, there are the MYRIAD of death threats and harassment that has been issued by people on Zoe's side. The hashtag #IStandWithJontron, which originated to show support for popular YouTube personality JonTron after a disagreement he had with people on Twitter, was almost immediately co-opted by people on the side of "social justice" and was soon filled with death threats, insults, and harassment. Milo Yiannopoulos, one of the only writers to give some account of the supporters of GamerGate, was issued death threats for his article on Breitbard. I would normally say that regardless of your stance on any political issue death threats are entirely unwarranted but, no, I agree, let's go ahead and call for his death because he happens to disagree with you. That's a great way to grant your side legitimacy and come off as the heroes.

    2. continued...

      People posting under the #NotYourShield hashtag, which was created to show that the "SJW" crowd does not immediately speak for all minorities, have been harassed so much that many of them now need to post pictures proving their minority status. Let me state that again: one side of this argument IS FORCING PEOPLE TO PROVIDE PERSONAL INFORMATION OVER THE INTERNET because they just, for some reason, find it astounding that not everyone believes in their side of this story. Because people on one side of the issue will not take a person's statement about being black, gay, transgendered, female, etc. at face value. And the side that requires that proof is not the GamerGate side, I can tell you now. Because the GamerGate side is ACTUALLY about including everyone, and not just the "everyone that happens to believe in our side."

      And WHY did that hashtag have to arise? It arose because of all the gaming journalists against GamerGate wrote article after article after article blasting the supposedly "all-white, all-male, all-straight audience" for refusing to allow any minorities into the gaming space and being misogynists. Which is an absolutely ludicrous claim given that BY THEIR OWN STUDIES women account for half of the gaming public.

      At least the side of GamerGate attempts to police their own. They seek out people posting under the hashtag who harass others and tell them to stop. They call out people posting under the hashtag who threaten or insult the opposition. Meanwhile what have I seen from the other side? Nothing but attacks and insults. Cries of "nerd," "misogynist," "idiot," etc. GamerGate followers have been compared to terrorists, wife-beaters, slave-owners, chemical weapon dealers. They've been called sexists, misogynists, and racists. They've been accused of being pedophiles. And not one person from the other side, not ONE person have I EVER seen attempt to call their own out for any of these insults.

      At least GamerGate admits its faults. At least GamerGate isn't attempting to censor discussion with insults, lies, and slander. So thank you for your utterly biased account of the issue, Veronica. Consider this post a polite rebuttal. It's more than your side has ever seemed to be able to put together.


    3. By now there is plenty of evidence that #notyourshield was full of white boys pretending. Were they all? Probably not, but you can’t blame us for being suspicious. Zoe didn’t dox the wiki vandals; she linked to a page where they were doxed. Then she deleted her tweet when she got called on it.

      She did this while hiding in fear of her life.

      You don’t believe that, do you? But it is true. Get that into your head and you’ll see this different.

      (Time for the Atwood quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” This is simplistic, but kinda true, and I think sums up much of what is happening here.)

      Then you say this: “At least GamerGate isn't attempting to censor discussion with insults, lies, and slander,” which OMG WHAT THE HELL?

      #gamergate tried to drive a woman to suicide! — which was openly discussed in the IRC chat logs. And no, “it’s a joke,” “cherry picking,” or “a few bad apples” doesn’t fly.

      Anyway, the people being harassed by the “SJW” crowd are free to provide evidence, but after seeing the IRC chat log how can we believe anything #gamergate or #notyourshield says?

      And, look, one solid point: you cannot escape the misogyny around all of this. Full stop. Women in geek spaces have been talking about this for a long time, and while the (mostly) men who attack us have learned to try to turn the victim card back at us, the patterns are clear. Women are driven from their homes by angry men who say the same things Eliot Rogers did. The women are afraid.

      The men who get called “nerds” or “virgins”? Yeah, that sucks. I wish we could all be better people. But the responses are disproportionate.

      I’m a woman in tech. I see the day-in-day-out of this, young men boiling with rage. And yes they are misogynistic. Don’t like the label? Don’t be the thing.


    4. Oh, and I’m a Social Justice Techno-Mage. Warriors are so yesterday.


  2. "It's not a game! It was never meant to be a game! "

    -- Rollerball

    -- Ω