Feminist Illuminati: Academia, Feminism, and Gaming Mix Poorly

19 Mar

Today an article by Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw – “A Conspiracy of Fishes, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying about #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity,” published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 59.1 (2015) – came to my attention. Sadly, it lives behind a paywall at Taylor & Francis, so unless you’re an academic or willing to cough up some money, it will remain inaccessible. (If you do have access to an academic library, you can likely find a copy, however, and I would encourage you to do so.)

In some ways, the fact that Chess and Shaw’s article is locked within the Ivory Tower is deeply ironic, given that one of their points is that “The opacity of what we do, how we do it, and the language we use is often so far removed from the publics we are discussing that academia, itself, becomes part of the problem” (209). This is not a problem exclusive to games – any field into which academia dips its proverbial big toe encounters this barrier constructed of jargon, elitism, and paternalism which we call “academe.” Sadly, what this generally means is that normal, everyday people dismiss academics as being out of touch; we are, but not typically in the ways in which people think we are. Most academics are discussing subjects that are immediately relevant and significant to the sociopolitical world, just in terms and forms which are completely impenetrable to the uninitiated.

And this leads to an inherent distrust of the very people who are likely among the most equipped in the world to deal with the problems in those fields. It isn’t a good situation. When one combines this aversion to the academy with the typical response to “feminism,” as Chess and Shaw observe, things only get worse. And when this is compounded within game studies and, more frightening yet, games more broadly (fans and industry), it turns into the stuff of nightmares.

Some months ago, DiGRA (the Digital Games Research Association), an academic organization supporting the study of all aspects of games and gaming, became the subject of inquiry for a spin-off group of GamerGaters referring to themselves as #OperationDiggingDiGRA (more on them here and here). The Twitter hashtag, with a repeated group of individuals asking questions and making comments about the “feminist conspiracy” underpinning DiGRA, spawned, apparently, by a Fishbowl panel hosted by Chess and Shaw at DiGRA’s 2014 conference.

What happened, explain Chess and Shaw, is that their open symposium-style panel (“Fishbowl”) and its attendant public Google Document designed for the audience to take notes and make comments had somehow come to the attention of GamerGate, who began to doctor and comment upon said document:

On September 1, 2014 we began getting emails that indicated someone was commenting on our Google Doc. The one that caught our eye was a comment that read: ‘‘guys, use the comments thingy, leave the thing unedited please. It won’t look credible to anyone outside of 4chan if doctored around.’’ Reviewing the edits, it had apparently been edited and commented on since late at night on August 31. One edit simply replaced ‘‘identity and diversity in game culture’’ with the word ‘‘penis.’’ Another deleted the title entirely and replaced it with ‘‘I fuck kids- op.’’ That version also altered nearly every paraphrasing of participants’ comments to include something about ‘‘sucking cock.’’ Finally, someone reverted it back to the original added a note stating: ‘‘It’s impossible for us to mess with it too much, because it can always be restored to a later version, like what I just did.’’ Another comment encouraged everyone to make a copy of the document, just in case. Being busy and uninterested in following the sophomoric edits via the log we made a copy of the original version and deleted the shared doc. We wondered, however, how anyone came upon our notes from an academic conference in the first place—or, for that matter, why anyone would find them interesting. (211-212)

The very fact that GamerGaters felt entitled to change a document in order to present it as evidence is itself evidence of a very different kind. Obviously, many of the original “edits” were simply there as trollish pranks – one assumes no one would believe that the spontaneous appearance of the word “penis” in a document was evidence of a feminist conspiracy in the academic ranks.

Naturally, this document alone was not the basis for such a claim. Instead, the document – discussing identity politics and gender-related issues – was mixed with journalists’ reports of harassment against Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, blogs and thinkpieces about women in gaming, and Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and presented as “undeniable” evidence of a conspiracy within feminism (as though “feminists” are all members of a unified secret cabal) to destroy videogames.

When mixed with the fact that many academics – including those in game studies – receive federal grants for their research, this supposed feminist conspiracy took on a new level of nefariousness. After all, federal money funding a secret feminist cabal has to be insidious, right?

On September 9 ‘‘Sargon of Akkad’’ posted a YouTube video titled, ‘‘A Conspiracy Within Gaming.’’ The video promises that ‘‘The smoky-room Communist meetings in gaming actually exist, they’re just done in the brightly lit halls of academia’’ (Sargon of Akkad, September 9, 2014). (213)

Sorry. Secret Communist feminist cabal. But what is interesting – both to me and to Chess and Shaw – is that somehow the status of ‘academic,’ typically conflated with “egg-head” and “tweed-wearing” and often dismissed by our students as pedantic and arrogant (at best) or out-of-touch and meaningless (at worst) became, to GamerGate, a legitimate threat:

In part, what appears threatening about academia is an assumed social standing: ‘‘It’s going to be impossible to fight against, because academics are viewed as intelligent people with  authority in their particular disciplines’’ (Sargon of Akkad, September 9, 2014). Evident in the IRC chat log, comments on the video, and numerous sites where the information was circulated, is that academia simply does not make sense from the outside. More than that it is perceived as threatening. (214)

Chess and Shaw go on to say that the opacity of academic discourse (a phrase in-and-of-itself that illustrates the academic tendency toward unnecessary obfuscation) is inhibiting legitimate conversations between fans and academics, and I can’t say that I disagree. What I do think is more wishful thinking than truth, however, is the idea that by becoming more accessible in our language and criticism that we, as academics, will be any less subject to being blamed for participating in feminist conspiracies.

GamerGate, as a whole, is not a movement built on or persuaded by logic or fact. Attempts by dozens if not hundreds of academics (some of them on the DiGRA listserv) to explain game studies to #OperationDiggingDiGRA participants came to a messy and mutually frustrated end, with neither side convinced whatsoever by the other, and those of us with English degrees tearing out our hair at the plethora of grammatical errors on one half of that conversation.

That isn’t to say that conversations can’t or shouldn’t happen across the Ivory Fence; they can and should. My point is more that academic transparency isn’t going to solve or inhibit movements like GamerGate.

In-and-of-itself, academic transparency is a good thing, something for which more disciplines ought to strive. It enables the transmission of knowledge, something sadly lacking these days, as not only GamerGate, but climate change denial and utter ignorance about basic female anatomy proliferates among the more conservative portions of the political population.

One of the conclusions at which Shaw and Chess hint – and one with which I can’t disagree – is the idea that academia is trying to change the status quo, except that it isn’t so much a conspiracy as it is overtly and directly advocating for change. But we don’t all agree on the direction that change ought to take, or even whether change is what is necessary. That said, academics, as a whole, tend to be liberal-minded advocates of advancing knowledge, in any and all possible forms that knowledge might take.

And yes, some of us are feminists. Some of us are advocating for more diversity, more tolerance, less objectification of women and less oppression of minorities. We are the proverbial and hated “social justice warriors,” but it isn’t a conspiracy in the sense of being at all hidden. We may use difficult language that the untrained find hard to penetrate, but we aren’t doing it in order to hide anything; we just speak a different language.

2 Replies to “Feminist Illuminati: Academia, Feminism, and Gaming Mix Poorly

  1. I totally want to make shirts and a handshake for the Communist Feminist Cabal. I need that in my life.

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