The Battle for the ‘Last Male Space’

Sexual Politics Now Intern Caitlyn Drinkwater gets us up to date on Gamergate and the problematic place of feminism in video and computer game culture.


Computer and video games have a bad reputation for being adolescent male power fantasies. As time has gone by game technology has progressed greatly, but its story telling capabilities have not.


Part of the reason for this is that computer and video games are usually more about the players experience than the narrative structure, and so there has often been a reliance on simple plotlines. At the same time video games have been increasingly targeted at the young male demographic. This has led to the video game narratives to frequently feature a white heterosexual male protagonist operating in a world of stereotypes that exist only to progress their narrative. This can be especially problematic with its treatment of female characters, who are often treated as the male characters ‘prize’ and are being increasingly exploited for sexual content. There have been attempts to change this. There is a growing environment of video game criticism and development that tries to diversify the representation and experiences contained in video game culture, including more positive and developed storylines and representations of women. Potentially, games can be a powerful tool for talking about social issues and conveying messages due to the amount of interactivity they offer. While other art forms require the audience to observe a character that progresses through a narrative, with video games you become that character. There has been some resistance to this development in the gaming culture, as some argue that these developments are detrimental to the quality of the games and only exist because people from outside the culture desire to push an agenda. These arguments often contain hints of misogynistic attitudes and it is not uncommon to see it argued that video and computer games are a ‘male hobby’ and that the presence of feminist attitudes is an unwanted intrusion. Over time the debate has become increasingly hostile and polarised as these two different perspectives struggle for dominance.


The story of the Gamergate controversy begins with Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic. In 2012 Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a short web series that examined the depiction of women in video games from a feminist perspective. In response to this Sarkeesian became the target of extensive misogynistic harassment, including rape threats, cyberbullying and a flash game that allowed you to simulate abusing her. Ironically this attempt to shut Sarkeesian down had the opposite effect. It lead people to view discussion about misogyny in video games as being more important than ever.


In the mainstream media the story ended there, but in the gaming community the controversy has continued. People like Sarkeesian who advocate for greater diversity in video games are often labelled ‘Social Justice Warriors’ (SJWs) and are often criticised for  using the medium of video games to promote a specific agenda. A vocal community of ‘anti-SJW’ or even ‘anti-feminist’ critique has emerged online amongst gamers who attempt to discredit feminist arguments as being misguided or flawed. At the same time they claim that accusations of abuse against Sarkeesian and others are inflated or even manufactured by the victims themselves. It is often argued by some gamers that such abuse is a part of the culture that everyone experiences, and arguing that it is inherently misogynistic ignores the fact that men experience it as well. These arguments ignore the intensity and sexualised nature of online abuse that many women experience in the gaming community and also the fact that some women have been sent death threats in the post in an attempt to increase the intimidation. In this online subculture Anita Sarkeesian is often viewed as initiating the entire social justice debate, and because of this she has become a prominent hate figure. This becomes particularly apparent with the announcement of the new web video project ‘The Sarkeesian Effect’ which attempts to address the detrimental effect that they feel ‘SJWs’ have had on video game culture. Over time the debate became increasingly hostile, and many popular video game websites (such as ‘The Escapist’ and ‘TVtropes’) have had to closely moderate the increasingly polarised discussion of these issues.


It is in this environment that the event known as ‘Gamergate’ has developed. The story revolves around indie game developer Zoe Quinn who developed a game called ‘Depression Quest’ which was controversial for its lack of interactivity (and also, arguably, because it was designed by a female game developer and focusses on what was perceived to be a ‘social justice issue’). While this game received large amounts of criticism it received many positive reviews in gaming journalism, which frustrated many more conventional gamers who viewed the game as pretentious and lacking in content. Like Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn became the victim of online abuse. In August 2014 her former partner wrote a blog post accusing her of sleeping with videogame journalists in an attempt to generate publicity. For some, this accusation was seen as ‘proof’ that gaming journalism and game developers were too closely involved and that developers were using this relationship to push their own agenda.  Some members of game journalism where quick to dismiss such claims and accuse the controversy as being fuelled by misogynistic attitudes.  In response it was argued that accusations of misogyny were unfounded and were being used to ignore legitimate concerns about corruption in game journalism. The conflict between these two points of view came to be known as ‘Gamergate’, which on one side involved many gamers (who came to be known as ‘gamergaters’) accusing game journalism as being corrupt and under the influence of a vocal minority, while on the other side people were accusing a large portion of gamer culture as being misogynistic.  Anxieties around journalistic integrity have been developing for some time, as video game journalists are frequently courted by game publishers to influence reviews. However these anxieties had little relation to the controversy surrounding Zoe Quinn, a small independent video game producer. The accusation of Quinn being a corrupting influence on video game journalism was misguided and seemed more motivated by the fact that she represented an aspect of video games that many gamergaters wished was entirely absent.


As the debate continues it has ceased to be about any particular individual, and instead it has become ideological. This can be seen in a particularly inflammatory article titled ‘Gamers are over’ by videogame journalist Leigh Alexander’. Alexander describes ‘gamers’ as being ‘misogynistic manchildren’ who are increasingly becoming obsolete. She argues that the controversy surrounding Gamergate is due to ‘manchildren’ crying out in panic as they try to hold onto what they have seen as their ‘safe space’.  Alexander’s article unintentionally fit the narrative held by the people she was accusing that ‘feminists’ where seeking to claim video games for their own agenda. This intensified the argument as accusations of hacking, death threats and conspiracy were thrown back and forth. Anita Sarkeesian also became a target with bomb threats directed at her public appearances and the FBI getting involved in her case. To separate themselves from accusations of misogyny some gamergaters have tried different tactics, stating that reports of such attacks are often exaggerated or fabricated, and that they themselves are the victims. This also saw the creation of Gamergate’s mascot ‘Vivian James’, a female gamer character who ‘just wants to play games’ and is tired of any discussion of feminism. Ironically while this character was created to be a mascot that proves that gaming culture is not sexist there have been frequent issues with some gamergaters  sexualising her appearance by creating pornographic fanart of her.


Eventually celebrities became involved, with actor Adam Baldwin tweeting about the controversy supporting the view that video game culture was being taken over by feminism. In response many prominent game developers (like Tim Shafer) and popular celebrities (such as director Joss Whedon) became involved criticising gaming culture as having issues with misogyny. Right Wing political advocates got involved and brought the story to a larger audience, portraying it as an example of the ‘feminist agenda’. Notably Christina Sommers has used Gamergate as a platform for her criticisms of contemporary feminism. For some the increased involvement of right wing advocates has been applauded as they felt it added legitimacy to their arguments but to others it is intensely hypocritical. One of the core arguments that supporters of Sarkeesian and Quinn have been challenged with is that feminists and ‘SJWs’ are outsiders to video game culture who have become involved to promote that agenda, and any claim that women who talk about social issues are avid fans of video games themselves is criticised as being deceptive. In comparison many of the right wing advocates are quite open about their lack of knowledge about video games and some even state that previously they were quite critical of gamers, making it appear that they are just using Gamergate to promote their own arguments and to attack what they see as a growing liberal bias of the media. However their presence is continued to be accepted by some gamergaters as they are seen as giving some support to the argument that gaming culture is under attack by feminist values.


While some right wing advocates were quick to voice support for Gamergate advocates this support died down as attacks against women involved in computer game culture became more vicious. In October Anita Sarkeesian held several public talks at universities and reported receiving several bomb and death threats. These actions drew parallels between Gamergate and school shootings, which echoed much earlier criticisms of videogames as encouraging violent behaviour. This further increased the media profile of the event with popular media outlets such as TIME magazine and the NZ Herald. This also led to both Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn making more frequent appearances in the news and on talk shows to discuss their experiences. This media exposure ruined what little credibility gamergaters had.


While the events of Gamergate seem to have passed their peak, the division between ‘gamergater’ and ‘SJW’ opinions and attitudes has become part of gamer culture. While initially it began as an accusation of corruption in gaming journalism, it has developed into a conflict about what video game culture should be. As technology continues to make computer and video games more prominent and more accessible there has been an increasing demand for these games to reflect a more diverse range of experiences, At the same time the more traditional audience for these games feel threatened by these demands, as they feel that they are either detrimental to video game quality or that they are taking away a culture that they always felt belonged to them. This has led to an intense debate between both sides, but the frequent use of misogynistic and abusive tactics has only helped to support the arguments that the misogyny in video games needs to be addressed. This has led to the debate becoming ideological, as gamergaters began to receive support from right wing advocates in an attempt to push their issue, a union that seems to be mostly focused on the two groups discomfort with more empowering representations of women. The attempt to keep feminism and social justice issues out of video games functions as an attempt to preserve what they see as a male space, but it also prevents the medium from developing. This is problematic as it keeps the medium dominated by a white heterosexual male perspective and continues to foster hostility towards anyone who does not fit this demographic.


Caitlyn Drinkwater