The past few weeks have been thoroughly depressing and disheartening. Starting with an utterly awful revenge-porn fuelled attack on a female game developer, horror has piled upon horror as a small but vicious and resourceful gang of bullies have made death and rape threats to female developers and critics and their supporters, including, in some cases, publishing hacked private information about their families. Critic and film-maker Anita Sarkeesian, no stranger to nasty responses to her work, was forced from her home after this latest wave of threats to her safety. Adding gross insult to injury, the bullies responsible proceeded to distribute fake or irrelevant information supposedly "proving" that the women being targeted were actually faking the attacks on themselves in order to seek attention; a derailment aimed at heaping yet further attacks on the victim.
"The war on games is over; games won"
This situation is thoroughly horrible. It's all the worse because it's happened at a time when gamers should be in a celebratory mood. Never in history have gamers been better served by the technology, the media, the creators and the companies who make up the industry. Never in history have games of all sorts - from AAA through to indie through to casual - been so successful. Games have won the culture wars; the threat of censorship or regulation has disappeared. Ill-informed politicians and tabloid journalists rarely turn to games as a scapegoat any more; those who attempt to do so end up just looking silly. Games' most fearsome enemies, people like Jack Thompson and Leland Yee, have been disgraced and silenced. The war on games is over; games won. Now the borders of gaming expand every day, as a new wave of developers explore different approaches to the medium and new creative and critical voices emerge to chart new paths, while existing genres and game types become more refined and more glorious with each iteration. There's never been so much to play, so much variety and so much scope.
Games, for absolutely everyone involved - hardcore, casual, whatever - have never been more plentiful and more interesting. It's a brilliant time to be a gamer. So why are we tearing each other apart about something as simple and reasonable as equality? How the hell have we ended up in this awful place where "social justice warrior" - literally, someone who fights for a more just society - has become an insult?
I think part of the reason why this shocking, bullying behaviour has escalated into such a widespread and bitter conflict is that the reaction of a great many people to awful behaviour by gamers is to say, "not all gamers are like that." A great many of us identify with the term "gamer" - it doesn't just mean someone who plays games, it means someone steeped in game culture, and as such it's quite an important identity to many people. When we read, "gamers are doing this awful thing," it feels like an attack on that identity. Unfortunately, our reaction is knee-jerk; instead of condemning the awful thing and trying to find ways to help to stop it, we take offence, leaping up to attack the person who has dared to smear our identity.
On the other side, we find some people who, while absolutely on the side of the angels in this debate, have gone down the path of declaring that the "gamer" identity is a horrible, corrupted relic of days past, a term which should be abandoned and left for the knuckle-dragging misogynist man-children to claim. Proper adults who play and enjoy games, these commentators suggest, shouldn't demean themselves with the label "gamer."
"'[G]amer' really is an important identity to a great many people - the vast majority of whom are, in fact, 'proper adults,' or well on their way to being so"
This isn't helpful or reasonable. It misunderstands the fact that "gamer" really is an important identity to a great many people - the vast majority of whom are, in fact, "proper adults," or well on their way to being so. A great many of my friends, within and without the industry, think of themselves as gamers. It truly does mean more than "someone who plays games"; it's a subculture in itself, loosely organised but globe-spanning, founded upon obsession yet generally diverse, welcoming and filled with warmth. The dreadful behaviour of the past few weeks is the work of a small number of people, all the more upsetting precisely because it's such an aberration from "gamer" identity. Suggesting that the word "gamer" itself and the culture it labels have been irreparably corrupted by these events just invites hostility from people who feel strongly about their gamer identity; it actually lends credence to the otherwise ridiculous notion that gaming is "under attack" (when in fact, for the first time in its history, gaming actually isn't under attack at all).
This does not excuse the "not all gamers!" response. Just like the famous "not all men" line, it's a classic derailment tactic; it's an attempt to turn the discussion away from the people who are actually being victimised (the women who, let's not forget, are still being targeted with streams of abuse, rape and death threats, hacking attempts, stalking both online and offline, hate campaigns directed at their families, friends and employers, and plenty more besides) by getting offended and shouting "we're not all like that, and by implying that you're actually victimising me now." Derailment has been par for the course in this discussion - first, the bullies claimed that they were actually trying to expose "corruption" in the games media (which seemed to boil down to "some developers are friends with some journalists"); now, they claim that they're trying to defend "gamers" from an evil conspiracy to destroy them by, er, pointing out that some of them bully women and minorities online.
The important thing to come back to, I believe, is that while "not all gamers" is a terrible response to current events, since it ignores and derails the discussion of actual bullying and victimisation which is occurring, it is also absolutely true. I said at the outset that what we are dealing with is a small number of vicious and resourceful people, and that's undoubtedly the case. They puff up like cobras to try to disguise their small numbers, creating fake disposable accounts on Twitter or Reddit, or confining themselves to anonymous boards where it's impossible to see how many people are actually involved. Sure, a much larger number of people, mostly ill-informed and often children, have been caught up in the "media corruption" or "gamers under attack" narratives they've spawned, but the core of this bullying is a group of people whose numbers are in the low hundreds or perhaps even just the dozens; it's from them that the truly nasty, often illegal actions have come, and it was they who concocted the cynically composed derailment arguments. They're terrible people, damaged and criminal, but they are few in number. This is no comfort to someone receiving countless graphic death threats, seeing their personal data shared online or being confronted on the doorstep of their private home, of course; but it is the truth and it's important. There is no silent majority of gamers who despise feminism and want women and minorities gone; there is merely a tiny band of wicked, howling degenerates who have found that the echo chamber of the internet can make their voices sound like the roar of a stadium crowd.
"If 'gamer' is our label, our identity and our subculture, then we - all gamers - bear responsibility for our reactions to the bad behaviour of those who claim to act in our name"
Not all gamers are misogynists, or homophobes, or transphobes, or racists; very few of them are. Not all gamers are abusive or nasty; very few of them are. Not all gamers are angrily opposed to new critiques and new perspectives on the medium; most of them welcome it. Yet here is the rub; even if not all gamers are responsible for the horrors of the past few weeks, all gamers do have a role to play in fixing this situation. If "gamer" is our label, our identity and our subculture, then we - all gamers - bear responsibility for our reactions to the bad behaviour of those who claim to act in our name. The bullying and victimisation of women, minorities and those with a social conscience is being done in the name of "gamers"; our responsibility, as a consequence, is to take a stand, to say "not in my name" and, where possible, to report, remove or shut down the egregious abuse that has polluted our subculture.
I am a gamer. It's an important part of my identity, something which has shaped my life to a great extent. My career, many of my friends and even the country I live in and the language I speak have been determined in part by my identity as a gamer. I refuse to abandon that identity or to be ashamed of it; nobody should be asked to do that. I am angry, and sad, and horrified at the bullying, the abuse, the criminal invasions of privacy and utter indecency being directed at women and others by a handful of vile people who have stolen my identity, my subculture, and claim to act in its name. I sincerely hope everyone reading this feels the same. This vicious and subversive censorship of critics and creators through threats, intimidation and abuse is not "protecting" gamers; it is an attack on games, on gamers, and on all of the good, decent people who make up this industry and its fans. It cannot and must not be tolerated.