Anita Sarkeesian, #Gamergate, and the myth of the boys club

Let’s get something perfectly straight—I had no problem with Anita Sarkeesian back when she was asking for funding on Kickstarter for her Tropes vs Women in Video Games videos. I didn’t donate because I hate Kickstarter (which is an entirely different topic), but I thought and still think that the inexplicably fierce backlash to something so innocuous was totally unacceptable. Around when Gamergate started, however, I was shown a clip of one of her videos where she claims that a Hitman level that takes place in a strip club includes the strippers as female representations of female sexuality that exist only to be punished for some weird sexual gratification of the player. “Okay,” I thought, “she’s clearly never played Hitman, because that’s ridiculous. You’re not supposed to kill anyone but your target. That’s the entire point of the series.” Fast-forward to the present day, around two months after Gamergate began, and my opinion of her has taken a steep nosedive thanks to some truly misguided things she’s said about the movement, those in it, and what their motivations are.

I don’t usually write opinion pieces. In fact, I hate opinion pieces. However, Sarkeesian recently went on The Colbert Report and completely mischaracterized the movement I’ve been a part of from the very beginning (and thus have a great deal of firsthand knowledge of), and no one is going to call out the outright lies she claimed to be true. I know this because the past two months have proven that the media isn’t on Gamergate’s side; from Leigh Alexander criticizing us on Time’s website to the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, MSNBC, CNN, and two dozen or so other outlets taking potshots at us and mischaracterizing our motivations and members as loudly as they possibly can without giving us equal airtime to pick apart the many double-standards and outright lies their allegations rely on, they’ve been squarely in our opposition’s corner. As an example of something that we’ve never had the opportunity to clear up, Gamergate did indeed spring out of the “Quinnspiracy” as it was known and the initial allegations of sex for positive reviews were disproved, but the birth of the Gamergate tag coincided with the discovery—and thanks to the Wayback Machine, indisputable proof—of a Kotaku writer writing about and reviewing games made by friends on at least two separate occasions without disclaimers (see my Gamergate history here for links to those incidents and miscellaneous examples of journalistic impropriety).

First, let’s address the idea that Gamergate isn’t about ethics in game journalism, something which Sarkeesian claimed on Colbert. I would agree with this—while the movement began with concerns over ethics in game journalism after game journalists released 8 articles on different sites harshly declaring that “gamers are dead” (along with plenty of epithets and ugly insinuations as the cherry on top), and there’s a picture included in my history of Gamergate showing a sharp increase in uses of the #Gamergate hashtag as soon as those articles went live, this has since become a much bigger issue. See, when gaming sites were hurling insults at us and telling us that we were women-hating monsters when we were complaining about their proven bad behavior (Wayback Machine never forgets), people rightly felt that there was a disconnect between the gaming media and fans and flocked to the hashtag since it was their only means of having their voice be heard. Similarly, when big media outlets like those mentioned earlier began running one-sided hit pieces about how we’re all women-harassing manchildren filled with bitterness because women are finally coming into the industry (I guess all the female gamers I’ve known over the years don’t exist), those in the movement realized that the problem is much bigger than just gaming journalism: the one-sided articles about Gamergate prove that journalism of all kinds is a festering mess of groupthink and ideological back-slapping. Don’t believe me? That’s fine; unlike those who oppose Gamergate with vague statements about this nebulous group that exists only to harass women, I actually believe in showing proof.

In mid-October, Gawker “writer” (and let’s be honest, that’s an incredibly generous designation) Sam Biddle wrote on his Twitter that Gamergate is “reaffirming what we’ve known to be true for decades: nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission,” following up his tweet with “Bring Back Bullying.” You need only look at those who favorited these tweets to see the problem. Take Dan D’addario, writer for Time, who favorited it. He’s hardly the only one; Cultural Editor at Ars Technica Casey Johnston also favorited it. Don’t just take my word for it—go through their favorites yourself and you’ll see the tweet there among similarly ugly stuff. Other people to favorite one or both of those tweets are writers/editors for Kotaku, Business Insider, and others. While Biddle and his editor wrote it off as wit, I think it’s painfully obvious that it’s not witty or even humorous so much as it’s outwardly hateful and bitter toward the movement that’s gone on for two months despite the efforts of him and his colleagues to stop it.

As if that wasn’t ugly enough, Newsweek ran a story deliberately twisting numbers that still didn’t make Gamergate look threatening. These numbers were debunked almost immediately, and the reasons behind the otherwise-reputable Newsweek running such a biased and inaccurate story become depressingly clear when you look at the tweets from the writer who wrote the story. “Bullying—actually—is good,” reads one. “Actually, bullying owns, chrome-dome. Why don’t u go hang out in space” is another one, addressed as a reply to an anti-bullying tweet from NASA’s account. These are the people driving the narrative that states that Gamergate, a movement comprised of men and women who have spent two months being attacked from virtually every media outlet, are actually just obsessed with keeping gaming male-dominated. It’s nothing more than a massive strawman for them to use to hand-wave away our concerns.

That’s not to dismiss the actual harassment Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, and others have received. They were confirmed to have fled from their homes after having personal information and threats posted. However, I find it strange that pro-Gamergate voices have literally received syringes and knives in the mail and the media has conveniently chosen to ignore this entirely. The truth, as stated by Slate writer David Auerbach in a great piece about how to end Gamergate, is that “Gamergate’s flaws are, for the most part, flaws of the Internet, of online discourse, and of humanity.” This is why there have been threats made against and by both sides. We do civil debate a disservice when we refuse to engage others because we can’t see past their side’s most extreme voices, and the topic devolving into a manichean “good versus evil women-hating monsters” affair has accomplished nothing but exhausting everyone on both sides of the issue.

The worst part of all of this is that real sexism exists in gaming. Take 2013 game Remember Me as an example; developer DONTNOD claimed before the game’s release that it almost didn’t find a publisher after several of them rejected it because of its female protagonist (apparently telling DONTNOD that female protagonists don’t sell). That’s an absolutely ridiculous thing for a publisher to believe, and I would love to fight against this kind of thing. That’s not what Anita Sarkeesian is fighting against, though.

Nothing makes this quite as clear as an article she wrote in the Gamergate-bashing New York Times in which she states that “the time for invisible boundaries that guard the ‘purity’ of gaming as a niche subculture is over.” She also writes that “even though I was playing lots of games, I still didn’t call myself a ‘gamer’ because I had associated that term with the games I wasn’t playing — instead of all the ones I was playing.”

I’ve never thought of gaming as an exclusively male hobby. In fact, here’s a Wayback Machine snapshot of my site’s “about” page from a year ago, well before Gamergate was a thing. Quoth a slightly younger version of me, “I’ve loved video games since pretty much forever; growing up, I used to force my babysitter to play through the entirety of the original Mario for the NES because she was crazy talented at it. In fact, I have a ton of gaming-related memories like that. For example, when I was 7 or 8, I’d always have my parents rent this one game for the Sega Genesis (it’s either Landstalker or Light Crusader, and I’m like 80% certain that it’s Landstalker) and invite a friend from down the street to come over and help me play it. Neither her nor I ever managed to get past the first part of the game because we evidently sucked at games. Someday I’ll finish Landstalker (and/or Light Crusader), though. It’s a matter of pride at this point.”

Notice anything? How about the fact that my two notable gaming memories from the early to mid-90s revolve around girls playing games? I never thought that this was bizarre or out of the ordinary. In fact, one day in high school I was playing Golden Sun on my Game Boy Advance before class and a female classmate approached me upon seeing my total ownage of the final boss and asked me what my trick was. We swapped strategies, and that was that.

The problem is that Anita and those who subscribe to her method of thinking believe that gaming is a male-dominated hobby so fiercely that they refuse to see the women in the hobby. To them, the dudebros in Call of Duty commercials are indicative of all gamers, conveniently ignoring the fact that male gamers have shown no problem with women in gaming or female protagonists. Apart from my childhood experiences, I personally loved Child of Light, Remember Me, Memoria, and other great games with female protagonists (The Longest Journey was even the game that sparked my love of the old-school adventure game genre). Many of us also love abstract puzzle games that don’t have characters (I actually finished an Android match-3 game called Sparkle 2 recently). This doesn’t fit into their narrative, though, and the real sexism goes unaddressed, glossed over in an attempt to be outraged at an exclusive culture that’s never actually been exclusive. If Anita played Half Life 2, Portal, and Mirror’s Edge like she claims in her New York Times article, then she’s a gamer. She can choose to not identify with that label, but it’s what she is by definition. In fact, the only actual debate I’ve ever seen regarding the term has nothing to do with women, instead revolving around whether playing exclusively “casual” games (like those often found on iOS and Android) makes one a “gamer” (personally, I’m of the belief that it does).

Put simply, there’s no boys club. No one ever wanted gaming to be one. Can we maybe fight against the industry’s actual ills instead of fabricating them? Can Gamergate get a month without being lied about and misrepresented so that we can actually try to accomplish something ethics-related instead of constantly being on the defensive? Gamergate isn’t defined by its worst members (and if collective guilt is the name of the game, aren’t game journalists all guilty of antagonizing their readers and failing to disclose relationships that they had with their subjects when writing articles and reviews about them?) and generalizations like that have never accomplished anything positive in human history. Whether she likes it or not, Anita Sarkeesian is a gamer, and if she’s unwelcome in gaming’s eclectic subculture, it’s only because of all the time she’s spent actively lying about us. That said, gamers are remarkably forgiving—just look at some of the people we’ve allied ourselves with over the course of Gamergate, places like Breitbart that most of us would never agree with normally—and given enough time, I’m sure that she’ll be as welcome in gaming as anyone else.

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