The Rise of New Gaming

For some reason I have yet to figure out, the abomination that is GamerGate has persisted, even going so far as to spawn an ostensibly academic offshoot that is seeking to “fact-check and peer review” the work of qualified academics under the umbrella of “saving games.” GamerGate has managed not only to ruin the lives of journalists and developers (Anita Sarkeesian, Phil Fish, Zoe Quinn, Samantha Allen, Mattie Brice, Jenn Frank, among others), but it has now caused major companies to withdraw their advertising campaigns from journalism outlets that have done nothing more heinous than refuse to bend to GGers’ demands – I’m looking at you, Intel. Mercedes temporarily pulled their ads from Gawker (who run Kotaku), but have since reinstated the campaign.

The ad focus seems to be one of the more banal things that has come out of GG at this point – no death threats, no rape threats, no one’s personal information being made available on the web. But, as The Washington Post‘s Caitlin Dewey notes,

the incident still demonstrates a worrying new trend among the Gamergate crowd: curbing the speech of reporters they don’t like by threatening their advertisers. For a media empire, such as Gawker, of course, one advertiser won’t necessarily make or break operations. But for targeted sites like Gamasutra, a smaller, gaming industry news site, or Gameranx, a five-person operation, targeting advertisers isn’t just a form of protest: It’s a threat to their very existence.

In other words, the ad campaign can be a very real, very serious problem to the very voices who area already being threatened by the oppressive ideological apparatus that makes up patriarchal society. (And yes, I am a card-carrying feminist.) Put more simply, for those in a position of non-dominance – women, minorities, LGBTQ folk – campaigns like this one cause much more damage, which is precisely the point.

I’ve talked before on this blog about what all this GG business is coming to mean for non-straight-white-male gamers, as well as responding to Leigh Alexander’s thinkpiece on “the death of the gamer,” to turn a Foucauldian phrase. But one thing that I keep coming back to is the idea that it’s time for gaming to evolve beyond the 1980s and 1990s stereotype of the white teenage boy in the basement – which, by the way, GGers are not helping, despite the fact that most of them are probably not teenagers or in basements.

What’s really happening is that those who have hitherto held the dominant position in gamer culture are losing that dominant position, and are fighting with all they’re worth to keep it, no matter how many internet death threats or metaphoric flinging of mud that requires. To quote former NFL Quarterback Chris Kluwe:

The only danger to the things “gamers” enjoy doing (i.e. playing new games), is the threat YOU YOURSELF have created, because for some reason you think sharing your toys with others is going to make the world explode.

Kluwe’s post (which has a fabulous ending) recaps a lot of the ideas already stated by Kathy Sierra‘s idea of the Koolaid Point -

the most vocal trolling and “hate” for a brand kicks in HARD once a critical mass of brand fans/users are thought to have “drunk the Koolaid”. In other words, the hate wasn’t so much about the product/brand but that other people were falling for it.

Put as simply as I can manage, the whole point of movements like GG and its sub-affiliates is the idea that someone is paying attention to something other than you, in which the “you” is the heretofore dominant demographic.

That’s it. GG is a temper-tantrum being thrown by people with so much privilege that it never occurs to them that exploiting the opportunities they have (wealth, education, access to technology) might be inappropriate in certain situations. It never occurs to them that death threats or other threats of bodily harm might not be an appropriate reaction to a delay in a game release, to the “nerfing” of a gun in Call of Duty, to one developer supporting another, or to a feminist speaking about videogames. People who have convinced themselves that feminists are a bigger threat to the world than ISIS or poverty or human trafficking or ebola-and-cholera-and-HIV-combined or institutionalized racism (which they also don’t believe exists).

All because feminists and “social justice warriors” (people who fight for social equality, which is clearly a dangerous thing) have the audacity to suggest that a medium they also love might want to take a critical look at the way it represents women, minorities, and LGBTQ people, because those people also play and love games.

How dare we.

 

I’ll be over here…

So this post came to my attention today, and I think it’s something worth paying attention to, for a variety of reasons. It addresses, at length, the problem of online harassment, the dismissive way we talk about trolling as though it is insignificant, and the way in which lending credence to many online campaigns is damaging not only the targets of those campaigns, but the tech industry (gaming and non-gaming) as a whole. It talks about Kathy Sierra (it’s written by her) and what happened to her in 2005. But, most importantly, it talks about a culture of privilege in the tech industry as highly toxic.

One of the points Sierra makes early in the piece is that the problem of women in tech is not that women are in tech, but that people think their presence and their ideas are actually important.

I learned that the first threat had nothing to do with what I actually made or said in my books, blog posts, articles, and conference presentations. The real problem — as my first harasser described — was that others were beginning to pay attention to me. He wrote as if mere exposure to my work was harming his world.

But here’s the key: it turned out he wasn’t outraged about my work. His rage was because, in his mind, my work didn’t deserve the attention. Spoiler alert: “deserve” and “attention” are at the heart.

A year later, I wrote a light-hearted article about “haters” (the quotes matter) and something I called The Koolaid Point. It wasn’t about harassment, abuse, or threats against people but about the kind of brand “trolls” you find in, say, Apple discussion forums. My wildly non-scientific theory was this: the most vocal trolling and “hate” for a brand kicks in HARD once a critical mass of brand fans/users are thought to have “drunk the Koolaid”. In other words, the hate wasn’t so much about the product/brand but that other people were falling for it.

In other words, women are welcome to speak up, to publish, to make games, so long as no one notices. As long as they do so from a quiet little corner of the internet in which only other women (who also don’t try to talk too loudly) hear or read or play them. A voice is only dangerous if it is loud enough for people to hear – a sentiment that applies as equally to a woman in a boardroom (where she is often talked over) as it does to the internet (where her words go unread or unlinked-to).

But if a woman – or anyone seeking to challenge the status quo – begins to speak up, to become active and visible, then her words are no longer dropping into the abyss. She (or he or ke) is no longer invisible, no longer silent, and that very real, very visible presence becomes a reminder for others that there are more voices and opinions than those held by the supposed majority.

And in tech – in gaming and online – that means that the hardcore, those whose word has thus far shaped the nature of the industry, are no longer the only voices in the mix. Instead of a collective seeking the same kinds of games, telling the same story of heroism and power, there are other voices, other stories, other kinds of narratives, surfacing which challenge not simply what is being told, but the right of those who have thus far been telling it.

And that, I think, is the key to all this. It isn’t simply that women and minorities are starting to speak up, it’s that they’re specifically and explicitly telling the dominant paradigm that it doesn’t have the right to be dominant. And power is a zero-sum game. In order to grant equality to those who have been oppressed, they have to take power from those who have done the oppressing – there is no way for the dominant to remain as they are if the oppressed are to escape their oppression.

And that is not a narrative that the dominant want to hear.

But what, really, does that mean in the context of the tech industry? It means that there will be more games (some which reflect the “old” way of doing things, some which will be “new”), there will be more articles and blogs and thinkpieces with a variety of viewpoints. There will be a lot of noise, and any one person will not agree with all of it. Gain, not loss.

But it will also mean that some things will disappear. Some jobs will go to women or to minorities or to transpersons rather than to white men (in a case where all applicants are qualified). Some “old” games will not be made. Some “new” will not be made, too. Some blogs will no longer draw as much traffic, and will die out. Some will never gain traction, no matter how worthy their cause. Not everyone will play all the games.

And you know what? That’s okay. Not everyone reads Shakespeare. Not everyone watches Romantic Comedies. Not everyone (shocking!) watches Scandal. And that’s okay. That’s the sign of a healthy industry, of advancing culture. So my advice? To quote Frozen, “Let it go.”

I’ll be in a corner, trying to be heard.

“Peer” Review

So there’s a new thing happening in the internet gaming-verse, and it’s called #OprationDiggingDiGRA. DiGRA is the Digital Games Research Association, and they have regional and global conferences all over the world every year. They offer venues for scholars of games to present their work, and they publish papers both from their proceedings and from outside scholarship.

DiGRA is an organization of affiliated and independent scholars, most of them with advanced degrees (PhDs) or industry experience or both. They make a living (or part of a living) by doing research into various components of games, whether through the hard sciences, social sciences, or humanities. Their job is to engage games and gamers with thoroughly researched, thoughtful, critical theses based in academic rigor.

#OperationDiggingDiGRA was formed by a few #GamerGaters to “fact check every DiGRA article relating to games,” tweeted by @RogueStarGamez which quickly morphed into “Fact-check, and verify all of feminist papers in DiGRA” when tweeted by @ramzaruglia, who then altered the goal to read “Peer-reviewing and fact-checking of every DiGRA papers [sic] written by feminists.”

Just on the surface level of intention, there is a problem with #ODD – it isn’t actually about fact-checking academic papers, as @ramzaruglia’s tweets reveal. If it were, then no one would care, as academic papers should already be factually accurate (and most academics are willing to make the changes to them if they are not, because no decent academic actually wants to make an argument based on factual inaccuracy). In fact, more than one academic has requested that #ODD either publish or make public factual errors so that they can be remedied.

The idea that gamers could be a useful critical audience for academics working in gaming is actually one that I would embrace in any other context. I think having more gamers reading academic writing on games can do a lot to improve the field, and to educate gamers about the significance of their chosen form of entertainment. It’s good for both the primary audience and the critical audience of a medium to talk to one another, to share opinions and ideas, and to keep each other honest. The concept of fans fact-checking both journalists and academics is, at its core, a good thing.

But that is not what I see happening here. Both because of its origins in #GamerGate and because of some of the tweets made by participants, I am not seeing that kind of open intellectual exchange taking place, irrespective of the assertions of several #ODDers.

What is problematic about #ODD is that it very rapidly morphed in tone from “fact check every DiGRA article” to “papers written by feminists.” That’s a specific biased targeting of a particular type of theoretical approach – and one that is difficult to “fact check” because it’s based in sociological and cultural theory (Butler, Barthes, Foucault, Greer, etc.) and not in anything that can or cannot be proven. An author might get the theory wrong, certainly, but if a #GGer takes issue with Judith Butler, what then? Judith Butler’s theories may be accurately used by an academic, but if the #GGer in question doesn’t like the notion of gender performativity, is it likely that the academic will then “fail” the supposed “fact-check”? I’m thinking that such a thing is more than likely. I hope it isn’t, but it seems to me that gender theory itself is what will fall victim to the “fact-checking,” rather than the criticism of games.

Which brings me to another point. “Peer-review” is not something the average #GGer is capable of offering, because the average #GGer is (and correct me if I’m wrong) not an academic. That’s the whole point of peer review – that the people reviewing the work are the author’s peers: academics. The point of having academics (and gaming academics at that) review the work of other academics is so that they understand the theoretical background possessed by the author, they have a full knowledge of the critical literature, and they know the acceptable methodologies within the field. I’m going to guess (and, again, I could be wrong) that the #GGers engaging in #ODD do not possess this kind of knowledge, and therefore cannot actually offer “peer-review.”

So what I see in #ODD, then, is an agenda-based attempt to “discredit” feminism as a valid form of cultural critique, whether in journalism or in academia. It’s a direct attack on gender and queer studies as valid disciplines, and its intention is to dismantle these fields and discredit those who practice them as being “not real academics” (and practitioners of the humanities in general have been lumped in, as well).

I object to #ODD not on the basis of “fact-checking” (go ahead, and yes, please do share any factual inaccuracies with the authors), but on the presumption that non-academics should be allowed to critique the theoretical approaches of academics in any medium other than that in which academic debates take place; in other words, if you want to discredit Critic X’s work, then publish an academically rigorous article in a peer-reviewed journal explaining why X is wrong… just like X’s actual peers (other academics) would be expected to do.

To offer publication or inclusion on DiGRA panels to #ODDers (without requiring them to undergo the same blind peer review as anyone else) would be to diminish the academe and devalue what it means to be an accredited scholar (not that I think anyone is seriously doing so). But to give credence to #ODDers is to suggest that their version of “fact-checking” is actually fact-checking – a “fact” of which I am very much in doubt.

So do I care if they “fact-check” DiGRA? Not of they’re actually fact-checking. If they are looking up citations, making sure that the citations are noted properly, checking to see that dates and page numbers are accurate, giving accurate data (with citations), and so on – FANTASTIC. I’m all for it.

But if what #ODD is about is finding social and cultural theories and pointing their fingers and howling “I don’t perform my gender! My penis is why I’m male!” or “The panopticon is not a good symbol for a culture of surveillance!” or “The camera lucida doesn’t represent an eye!”, then I want nothing to do with it. It isn’t that I think these theories are all great ways to read games (I don’t, actually), but that a variety of theoretical approaches to a subject is what advances a field, whether each individual use of a theory is “ideal” or not.

What I hope happens is that #ODDers start reading, find a few factual errors, and then become overwhelmed by the enormity of the cultural discussion that they give up in exhaustion, because it takes 5-10 years of advanced study to actually get a cohesive picture of any field, and another 20-40 more to really fully master it, and, let’s face it, #ODDers just don’t have that level of commitment. Not to mention, that by the time an #ODDer were to put in the work? Those papers would long since have become obsolete.

Comfort Zone: The Problem with Seeking the Status Quo in Games Journalism

So as #GamerGate continues to fizzle on the internet, despite its disappearance from much of mainstream Twitter and news, it’s becoming increasingly clear that what GGers are attempting to do is not hold gaming journalism accountable for corruption or shoddy reporting, as they so often claim, but to attempt to restore a perceived status quo from the early 2000s.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a paper considering the toxic fandom of videogames for next week’s PCAS conference (more on that after I give the paper), and looking in particular at what’s been happening with Anita Sarkeesian, #GamerGate, and online harassment, and how all that relates to the history of videogames themselves.

I’ve been following developer Zoe Quinn on Twitter, and watching her expose of 4chan forums; following Feminist Frequency (Sarkeesian); and seeing multiple journalists (Jenn Frank, Samantha Allen, Mattie Brice) disappear from my feed or cease to speak about games. I’ve also been watching other journalists, academics, and developers (Rhianna Pratchett, Leigh Alexander, Maddy Myers, Todd Harper, Zoya Street) continue to talk about harassment, speak out against it, and continue to teach and preach tolerance, diversity, and accountability.

What has struck me – in particular after discovering that my lovely TLF editor has been on the receiving end of GGer tweets on my account – most recently is that GGers aren’t actually trying to reform journalism (which I never thought they honestly were, to be frank), they’re trying to reclaim their perceived identity as gaming “experts” from the 1990s and early 2000s when women were an invisible presence in gaming. When gaming wasn’t as widespread (when 59% of Americans weren’t gamers*), when it wasn’t as diverse, it was a lot easier for the “hardcore” fans to be experts, for their opinions to be reflected broadly across little-known gaming sites and in gaming magazines.

When GGers seek to “reform” journalism, they’re demanding a return to the days when the voices in the games industry on all levels – fans, development, journalism – were homogenous, reflecting a bias created by industry marketers in the 1990s.** In the same way that people (mostly white men) talk about the “golden era” of the 1950s, GGers are looking to reclaim a period in videogame history when they were the dominant demographic in gaming, and their opinions went unquestioned and even catered to.

This is a response – cultural lag – that is ubiquitous within any rapidly changing form of popular culture (I’ve said this before here, here, and here) in which the “original” (“hardcore”) audience feels that the medium to which they have become attached changes on them, and that any change must necessarily be for the worse.

Games journalism is changing, yes. It is changing because the world around it is changing, and because games are changing to reflect and respond to that world.

This new world is a place that GGers find disconcerting and uncomfortable because it is not the familiar place to which they have become accustomed which reflects back their already-held opinions and preferences. It is a world in which people don’t all look like them, don’t all think like them, and – especially – in which people question their right to remain dominant.

This is a problem not exclusive to GGers, or to gamers, but to the whole of Western society, which just happens to have a high concentration among 30-something straight white American (and European) males with access to the internet (aka. middle and upper class). This demographic suffers from privilege – a phrase which is not intended as sarcastic, but as realistic. Those with privilege have a natural inability to see that privilege, and when it is pointed out to them, it causes “suffering”: discovering privilege is uncomfortable, disconcerting, guilt-inducing. Learning about your own privilege is a demand that you then do something about that privilege, that you cease to take for granted that your views are “normal.” To realize that the identity which you have so long identified as “default” is in fact alien to many of the people you know.

It means learning that instead of the hero you’ve long imagined yourself to be, you’re an unwitting – and perhaps unwilling – villain.

And that experience is uncomfortable, disconcerting, even painful. So yes, I understand why GGers want to demand a restoration of their comfortable dominance. But this understanding is not acceptance.

This comfort comes at the price of oppression, of subjection, of dehumanization. As has been true throughout history, privilege is bought at the cost of other voices and viewpoints silenced in the name of “purity,” “conformity,” and the status quo.

If you want to demand accountability in journalism, by all means go ahead. But when you define “accountability,” be sure to also hold yourself accountable – ask yourself, “Whose voice am I silencing? Whose opinion am I erasing? Whose life am I making more difficult? Would my life/work stand up to the demands I make of others?” And if, in the pursuit of what you believe is the truth, you are taking away someone else’s privacy, freedom, security, or speech, you aren’t seeking accountability; you’re seeking comfort, at the expense of human dignity.

It’s time to get out of the comfort zone.

*ESA 2014 demographic report
**Tracy Lien, “No Girls Allowed,” Polygon

AIP/TLF Shut Your Claptrap (Borderlands 2)

The first post in a new As-I-Play series has gone live over on TLF: this time, I’m playing through Borderlands 2!

This is one of those games that I kept considering every time I thought about getting a new game. I played and enjoyed Borderlands, in spite of the huge disappointment that was the Vault ending. But I liked most of the gameplay, I liked the world, and I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of Pandora, which reminds me quite a bit of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

But I didn’t like it enough to actually go out and buy the second game. There was always a hesitation, something that said “meh” every time I seriously considered it. In part, it was because of the fairly anticlimactic ending. In part, it was because I wanted to play it co-op, and my cohorts slowly abandoned me. And in part, it was because I got very good at wandering into places where the enemies were leveled so far above me that I kept getting annihilated.

But the husband bought it for me, so I no longer have to justify spending the money to myself. I can just sit back and play. :) And then babble about it at you.

Define Your Terms: “Criticism,” “Review,” and “Academia”

So today a friend tweeted about a piece in the New Statesman on gaming criticism… sort of. The piece, entitled “Criticism vs. Reviews: Sometimes it’s OK to Care Only About How a Game Plays” by Phil Hartup, makes certain highly problematic claims about the differences between reviews, criticism, and “academic criticism” that sent both the friend and I into fits.

First of all, Hartup conflates “mechanics” and graphics with reviews and “narrative” with “academic criticism,” which makes no sense at all. Certainly, there is plenty to be done with game narrative by academic criticism, but academic criticism also talks mechanics, the impact of graphics, and the demographics and reactions of players… and so on. Narrative is but one component of a game, and is thus only one component of academic criticism, reviews, AND “general” criticism. To assume that an analysis of the “fun” of a game would only appear in a “review” is to fail to understand the scope of criticism (both general and academic).

Hartup also claims that

there’s a problem with this academic criticism, and it’s that modern big budget games – the AAA titles as they are called – often don’t stand up to criticism very well. When you bring that extra level of scrutiny to bear on a Thief, GTA V or Watch_Dogs, they fall apart. Daft plots full of holes, stupid or unappealing main characters, absurd mechanics – AAA games are heaving with them.

This kind of evaluation of academia and the games industry is endemic to developers’ and fans’ frequent dismissal of academics in the field; they somehow assume that if things fall apart when an academic lens is applied to them, that the fault is with the academic lens. I’m sorry, but no. If a game can’t hold together under scrutiny, then the fault lies with the game, not the eyes looking at it. Perhaps instead of saying that the problem is with academia for exposing these holes, that the problem is instead with theholes themselves. We don’t blame Ebert when a movie is bad and gets a bad review – nor do we blame Laura Mulvey when we see an instance of objectification in film. The same principle applies here: if academics expose flaws in a game, the fault is with the game.

And here’s my other issue with Hartup’s assumption – he seems to think that we cannot enjoy a game that has problems, which is equally silly to his assumption that the lens is at greater fault than the game. No one would venture to suggest that Die Hard is a great piece of cinematic art. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun movie (or that I haven’t seen it well over a dozen times in spite of the fact that I know it’s not a great work of art). Watch Dogs or Call of Duty don’t have to be hole-free in order to be enjoyable or to contribute something to games.

Hartup’s final assessment is that we can’t have reviews that engage with all three genres – review, “general” criticism, and academic criticism. Certainly, his point that the time-commitment for games is considerably greater than film or theater is a valid one; as an academic who writes on both plays and games, the time I spend prepping for a games piece is significantly higher than I do for one on Shakespeare (I can read a Shakespeare play in 3 hours or less – playing through Dragon Age II takes a lot longer than that, to say nothing of having to replay it to make different choices, or the final exhausted turn to the Wiki to cover the myriad of choices that I can’t possibly make).

It explains why a review might be cursory or why an academic article can’t contain all components of a game, but ultimately Hartup fails to actually explain why a piece couldn’t still engage on a complex level with the content (gameplay, narrative, graphics, “fun”) of a game in terms that fit all three ostensible “styles.”

In fact, what it comes down to is that Hartup seems to want to justify laziness rather than make a cogent argument for why games criticism should have genres. Now, as an academic, I actually think that his conclusion isn’t wrong: it’s important for us to have reviews that answer the “should I buy it” question; it’s good to have casual criticism written by fans; it’s also important to have academic criticism of a burgeoning art form. It is also true that not every piece will (or should) combine all three components, but it should not be the case that anyone should have to restrict themselves to only one of these. In many cases, a piece of general criticism will contain elements of review-style evaluation, and an academic piece might in fact do the same.

What bothers me about Hartup’s argument isn’t his ultimate conclusion, then, but the way he gets there. He suggests that because it’s hard, it shouldn’t be done. He suggests that because AAA games have significant flaws, that we should only focus on the “fun” (which is how games got into the current mess about misogyny and non-representation in the first place), and not consider them from a critical/academic standpoint. In short, he suggests a division between popular culture and academia that displays lamentable ignorance about how powerful popular culture is.

Games, whether they have plot holes or not, are one component of a popular culture that both reflects and shapes the way human beings interact with one another and the world. To presume that “fun” things (like Call of Duty) do not engage in this discussion is to ignore their power. To do so is dangerous. It has the potential to silence many voices, to enable propaganda, and to ignore the influence of media on our lives. To engage in criticism is to recognize the power of the milieu and to interact with it, to accept or deny or seek to change those components that have the potential to influence the world at large.