Moving Forward

Video games should feel awesome. For the past several weeks, they haven’t felt that way to me. Gaming culture has some serious problems. If you don’t already believe that, I probably can’t convince you, but maybe we can both be a little better regardless.

Here’s a short version of the past several weeks. Two women, Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, created two different interesting video game things within the same week. They received horrible death threats from a group of people, mostly for because they’re women. A larger group claimed these women had exploited their fans for money, whether death threats were warranted or not. In the days to follow, these people organized around the hashtag #GamerGate on Twitter. They claimed to be against corruption in games journalism, and their broad definition of corruption included having conversations about sexism in and around games. They’ve said everyone should boycott studios and journalists who openly support these women or feminism in general. Many of them continue to viciously harass and threaten people. At points, Quinn and Sarkeesian left their homes due to specific threats from people who knew where they lived.

That’s not the whole story, but a lot of the lost nuance is sexist tripe. Every day has brought a new horror story. Jenn Frank had been considering a career change, but the harassment her article elicited ultimately convinced her to leave The Guardian. Double Fine’s website website went down from what looked like a DDOS attack; Tim Schafer has been getting screamed at on Twitter since he said developers should watch one of Sarkeesian’s videos. Anyone with sufficient reach who condemns these actions is currently getting hate mail. The whole mess has made national headlines, and it’s miserable to wonder if the world will use this composite when they consider video games.

I could talk about games journalism ethics and why #GamerGate’s ideals will never survive contact with reality, but L. Rhodes has covered that amazingly well. I could say women don’t want to destroy the industry, but the GDC Europe 2014 #1 Reason to Be panel is perfect for showing that. I could explain why I don’t think it’s possible to “just talk about games” now, if it ever was. If the internet’s treatment of opinionated women hasn’t stirred such a belief in you, I doubt I can.

Far from perfect

Leigh Alexander’s post about why video game culture sucks has made some people angry, but really, she’s right. You should read it and judge for yourself, but ultimately the writing is on the wall. Taken wholesale, video game culture is a mess, even if individual games and their players are awesome. Mikey Neumann is right to ask in his PAX keynote, “Why are we so interested in policing each other’s joy?” Some would suggest these notions are incompatible. They are not. The things we love are imperfect; that doesn’t mean we can’t still love them. In her videos, Sarkeesian says it’s fine to enjoy problematic games, but we should strive to make better games–or at least consider how the ones we like are viewed by others. It’s fine to enjoy things that could be better. In contrast, #GamerGate calls for boycotts.

For some people, that’s not enough, because the things they like are so important. When you’re really into something, it’s tempting to place your opinion above someone else’s. Let’s say for a moment you really are the hardest of the hardcore. Your rank is monumental, forever scrawled into the moons of whatever virtual worlds you topple. You are an uber-nerd; others should hang onto every word you have to say about games. Let’s pretend you sound like this, with me cast as you:

“Bet you don’t know all the games with ‘451’ in them. Which King’s Quest is the best? Wrong, it’s 7. Bet you aren’t old enough to have phoned a friend with internet access because you were stuck in Monkey Island. Speaking of which, what’s the worst LucasArts puzzle (there’s only one right answer)? What kind of maps did you make in Warcraft 2? Who would you cast as Wade in the Ready Player One film? It’s pathetic that more games can’t do narrative agency like Gunpoint did. What’d you think of Ben Abraham’s Farcry 2 permadeath play? Or Tom Francis’ peaceful GalCiv 2 diary? Or Ralph Koster’s book? They’re all old, how have you not read them all? Blink-only Dishonored. Fallout: New Vegas with no kills. ‘Supreme ghost’ Thief. LHS Bikeshed. How do you manage to play Skyrim without SKSE? Do you only play AAA games? Not even indie IF? Jesus, I bet you only play dice-based tabletop RPGs. And have you even heard of roguelikes?

Filthy casual. You’re not a nerd. You don’t belong. That thing you like sucks.

Fucking gross, right?

Geeking out over shared experience can feel great; comparing the size of your nerd cred to someone else’s is boring. There are some amazing things in that paragraph, but I somehow doubt the tact will convince anyone, at least outside of irony. That kind of crap won’t change anyone’s mind. So, what will?

This hobby is built on obsession. It’s supposed to be about craving more, not demanding less.

We’ve all heard complaints about “fake girl gamers.” We’ve all seen someone sneer at casual games. We’ve all been mocked on the internet. What many of us don’t see is the constant, daily abuse women inside the industry face. If one single good thing has come from the last month, it’s that sexism around this hobby will never be more obvious to everyone than it is right now. I don’t think there’s any one factor that leads to treating people this way, but a two-step cure seems obvious.

The first half is exposure to people who are different from you (or their works); the other half is admitting you’re not always right, and that other people matter. The former involves new experiences, which are usually pretty awesome. The latter is almost always hard, rarely fun.

Games are able to put us in bodies and minds different from our own. They can take us to places we’ll never go, empower the weak, and humble the powerful. If you can’t see potential there–if that doesn’t excite you–ask yourself why. Really dig in and try to figure out why new experiences aren’t worth having. Because the only reason I can think of to actively shun the unfamiliar is garden-variety prejudice.

There’s nothing wrong with games just for fun, but plenty of games already meet that desire–to say nothing of the ones that manage all of the above. If you still don’t like Gone Home or Papers, Please, that’s cool, we’re good. Rest assured, no single game will ever kill the industry or even make it worse all on their own. No one is coming to take fun, mainstream games away.

On the other hand, convincing the world and game developers that your culture can’t handle basic human empathy will go poorly. A portion of #GamerGate has created a games news site with a mission statement of purely objective journalism. Some of the [trigger warning] conversations they’re leading are terrible–a perfect example of people who have lived in their own heads for too long. This isn’t about curating good journalism or promoting healthy debate; it’s about slamming the door on people who are different.

Play more.

A friend and I recently had a heated discussion about a specific game genre. I have no doubt that, overall, I’ve played more games than he has, especially indie and oldschool PC titles. I read absurd books about games as cultural, literary texts. I had better scope than he did.

Who. Cares. There’s no substitute for experiencing games directly; you can recommend titles, but don’t expect to change someone’s mind based on your credentials. You can lead someone to Spelunky, but you can’t make them dig it. A lot of people have a few things they like, and they don’t think they need anything else. Maybe that’s depressing, but how people act should be much more important. If someone just wants to have fun playing a few games and they don’t spend their evenings terrorizing other humans, they’re not the problem.

However: If you really, honestly care about games as a medium of creative expression–if you have strong feelings about player-driven narrative or elaborate game systems–you have to push yourself into unfamiliar territory. If you care about games as art, you need to be all in. If you’re still comfortable calling yourself a gamer, which is absolutely an uncomfortable word as of late, you should be able to create feelings for games outside of your feelings for their creators. You don’t need to like or agree with them, but you need to have an open mind. You need to play things outside of your normal fare.

I plan on doing that more often. This is me promising to play more games outside of my comfort zone, because I want to understand them better. If you really think games are important, I’d ask that you do likewise. I have some vague ideas–really elaborate strategy games, interactive fiction by indie authors–but that’s for the near future. For now, let’s all try to think twice about what’s worthy of our attention. Stand up for others when you see abuse. I’m not able to substantially affect sexism in games, but I can suggest some games you may otherwise never play, and I think exposure to new ideas makes us better people. My life has been thoroughly changed by things I never expected to like.

Unless something really horrific happens, I’m done making formal posts about this specific route of abuse; I’m not done writing about how sexism sucks, and I’m going to keep supporting people I respect for as long as they’re being harassed. I’m not suggesting there’s some kind of middle ground–threatening or harassing someone is never okay.

Okay. Let’s make ourselves better and respect people who deserve it.

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