The following article is part of a series of daily year-end content on GamesIndustry.biz analyzing the most notable news and trends we've observed over the last 12 months
"Keep Politics Out Of My Games" was a snappy rallying cry, but it was never an option. The intertwining of our medium with politics far predates the gruesome hatred of Gamergate or weasel-worded hand-wringing over "identity politics". Since the very earliest years of its existence, the games industry, its creatives and its consumers have been impacted by and involved with the broader movements of political society. From the economic conditions and policies that drive broad consumer trends, to the opening up of new markets like China and Eastern Europe, through to the censorship debates which raged through the 1990s and 2000s, politics has always, always been closely connected to videogames.
What's been somewhat different in recent years is that the influence has started flowing both ways, at least to some degree. The massive growth of videogames' audience has turned them into a mainstream part of culture comparable with, if not yet equivalent to, film and television. Game consumers, especially core game consumers, are connected to communities of shared interest to a far greater degree than movie or TV consumers tend to be, which gives them the capacity to organise and to influence. While publishers and their representative bodies continue the ordinary political lobbying and media relations work that's common to any such industry, their consumers have been slowly feeling out the limits of their own collective power.
Sometimes, the outcomes have been wonderful; videogame consumers acting collectively have backed tremendously worthy charities, supported game creators and one another when hard times struck, and through crowdfunding, have taken the lead in establishing systems of patronage for the work of talented creators. These positive outcomes only make the negative outcomes feel all the more depressing; considering the harassment, the bigotry, the outright dishonesty and the malign stupidity of something like Gamergate, and how grossly large it and its progeny loom over the community landscape of videogames, the positive stories feel like dispatches from a brighter, better future that we might have had if we hadn't screwed it all up.
"Even as the scale of the harassment involved became apparent, and started to gain negative attention from outside the industry, few in positions of authority in the industry spoke out openly against what was happening; many of those who did speak only did so obliquely"
2016 has been a rough year in many ways, especially economically and politically, but what is most notable and most disquieting from our perspective is that it was the year in which tactics field-tested by videogame-related hate groups came to be writ large on the political stage. In a superb piece for The Guardian earlier this month, Matt Lees described Gamergate as "the canary in the coalmine" for the fascist, white supremacist movements that have wracked the United States this year and threaten to engulf several European states in 2017.
That the paths of fascist figureheads such as Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos ran through Gamergate is no coincidence. The strong online communities formed by videogame culture lacked immunity to their tactics. What began by stoking the flames of the "edgelord" trolling groups that have been the disaffected, grotesquely bigoted underbelly of the gaming world for years ballooned into something far more dangerous as the self-appointed leaders of the movement realised that the balkanisation of media consumption left many game consumers willing, even happy, to believe even the most facile and easily disproven lies, as long as they supported their personal biases and narratives.
Every time this year that you read about how political discourse has become "post-truth", about "fake news" flooding the Internet and the worrying degree to which people seem unable to judge the reliability of their sources, remember that it started in our communities, with game consumers. Gamergate didn't invent online mobs, and it certainly didn't invent the resurgence of fascism, but it was the proof of concept for turning those things into tools of a mainstream political campaign. Gamergate took disaffected, bored youths - primarily white, male, straight and harbouring discomfort with social progress and its impact on their personal social standing - and it radicalised them. It fed them a diet of dishonesty, reinforcing the importance and closeness of their community and then lying to them about malicious conspiracies designed to destroy that community.
This is how radicalisation works; it's how it works for Islamic jihadists, it's how it worked for the IRA, it's how it worked in Japan and Germany in the 1930s. Tell men, especially young men, who are so often isolated, that they're part of a big, important community; then tell them their community is under attack. Once it worked for Gamergate, it didn't take a genius to realise that it could work for a far broader group.
It's common to criticise the games industry for not doing more to combat Gamergate, and although there's some revisionism here - a lot of critical voices were raised, right from the outset - it's not entirely unfair. There was some degree of cowardice driving a spiral of silence during the whole sorry affair. Gamergate and its message had very, very few supporters among game creators - indeed, it was notable that the only "industry" supporters the movement could dig up were uniformly embittered and angry men with failed careers they desperately wanted to blame someone else for. Yet even as the scale of the harassment involved became apparent, and started to gain negative attention from outside the industry, few in positions of authority in the industry spoke out openly against what was happening; many of those who did speak only did so obliquely.
In retrospect, though, after all that's happened in 2016, it's harder to blame the industry for Gamergate. The entire American political and media establishment was left slack-jawed and helpless by the self-same tactics; nobody, anywhere, has yet figured out how you combat people who don't care if the things they believe are true, and who view calm, factual rebuttal as an aggressive attack on their identity. That's the outcome of radicalisation; it was never a fight that a stern put-down from a few videogame luminaries was going to win, though it would at least have provided some relief and cover to those most viciously targeted by the mob.
"Game development is risky enough as it is, publishers and creators reasoned, without taking stances on social issues that might be controversial... for years, the industry's mainstream titles have not just avoided social stances, but have entirely failed to keep up with the reality of the world"
What game creators do need to think about is the context they created around those communities, communities which turned out to be so susceptible to fascist radicalisation. It's not very original to poke fun at the people who shouted "get politics out of my games!" before going back to don the virtual boots of a heavily armoured white US soldier shooting wave after wave of nondescript brown people in a dusty, bombed-out Middle Eastern village - but the failure to recognise that a blind acceptance of the status quo is every bit as political as a challenge to the same status quo isn't the only problem here. As games became a bigger, more important and more influential medium year on year, it continued to pump out games like that; games that powerfully reinforced negative stereotypes of non-whites, especially Arabic peoples, that reduced the majority of their female characters to male fantasy objects, and that erased the existence of other minorities almost entirely, or introduced them merely to be the butt of outdated punchlines.
I know why that happened. We all know. Games didn't keep up with the progress of modern America (or Europe, or even Japan). Doing so would be a risk; it might cause a backlash. It might hurt profits. Game development is risky enough as it is, publishers and creators reasoned, without taking stances on social issues that might be controversial. In so thinking, they ended up actually being regressive; for years, the industry's mainstream titles have not just avoided social stances, but have entirely failed to keep up with the reality of the world. Even Hollywood, even comic books, for god's sake, have managed to make incremental, if imperfect, improvements in reflecting the world in its diversity instead of constantly lionising the straight white American male and treating everyone else on the planet as something for him to shoot, screw or laugh at. Meanwhile games continued to turn out experiences that pretended the world hadn't progressed since the 1980s.
Not All Games, of course, but plenty, representing a majority of the industry's sales. Is it any surprise that people uncomfortable with that progress found themselves coalescing around games - around a medium that quietly, by omission rather than commission, told them that their discomfort was okay? Is it any surprise that they were easy to coax to fury, to harassment and to aggression directed at people trying to make that medium more open, more representative?
Nobody, least of all me, is saying that Call of Duty should have replaced its burly marines with a gay choir who sang Sondheim numbers to bring about world peace and that all the Spartans in Halo games should have addressed each other with gender-neutral pronouns (though, you know, why not have one who was addressed that way? Wouldn't that have been interesting?). But the endless waves of games which painted the world in black and white and aimed to accomplish nothing more meaningful than fulfilling the power fantasies of a very specific demographic group did help to normalise regressive views and create a climate that was ripe for abuse. This is not the same as the insistence of censorious types years ago that games like GTA and Manhunt would directly inspire young men to kill; that was never credible or supported, and the industry and the specialist media was right to oppose it whole-heartedly.
The normalisation of people's views through the media environment, on the other hand, is well-documented and understood, and while no game has ever made someone kill (unless we're counting occasional bizarre murders over in-game item thefts, I guess), a steady, relentless diet of games over the past decade has not been the healthiest of media environments for a young mind to mature surrounded by. That's a concern that goes well beyond Gamergate; games reach tens if not hundreds of millions of consumers, after all.
"The games industry needs to take positive steps to make sure that it's never again used as an incubator for hate and fascism; it could start by properly managing its communities, effectively protecting its female and minority employees, and engaging positively with minority groups over issues of representation"
In thinking about how we got here and where we go next, there are two histories which, while extreme by comparison, are thought-provoking. Say the name DW Griffith and most people's instant association is with racism and the Ku Klux Klan; Leni Riefenstahl, similarly, is most easily associated with Nazi propaganda. Yet both were supremely talented and visionary early pioneers of film, considered among the greats of the time - but utterly tarnished, forever, by their involvements with Birth of a Nation (Griffith's white supremacist blockbuster) and Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl's propaganda film about Adolf Hitler). At crucial, early points in the history of film as a mainstream medium, these prominent and brilliant artists turned the power of film to the service of bigotry, racism and fascism, with which they will forever be associated, their technical and creative accomplishments largely forgotten.
The sin of mainstream videogames, thus far, has been to be overly cautious to the point of being utterly regressive; to stick to what they knew, ignoring the changing world around them, forgetting that their audience, too, had always been a diverse one. None have gone to the kind of extreme that Riefenstahl or Griffith did, by making overt propaganda; most of these games are of the kind that we'll look back on and think "oh god, did we really not know any better", rather than seeing them as tools for the promotion of fascism. Yet; sometimes, they come close. Games like Homefront and Call of Duty have skirted the margins, even by accident - as have several others. It's far from being beyond imagining that some game, some talented creator, even by omission and gutlessness rather than by chest-thumping fascism, is on the way to being our medium's Griffith or Riefenstahl - both of whom, after all, were very commercially successful, and won many awards, even as they supported and promoted a political status quo that we now recognise as utterly horrifying.
Games can do better. They must do better. Games have a power no other medium can match; they can connect us, transport us together to new worlds, let us experience different ways of living and take part in grand events from many perspectives. They can teach us about subjectivity and diversity and perspectives beyond our own. Yet this possibility, when it is fulfilled at all, is almost always left to indie titles that struggle for attention in the shade of blockbusters that rumble along, lobotomised, their defaults set to white male and their voices saying nothing other than "might is right, and different is wrong". The games industry needs to take positive steps to make sure that it's never again used as an incubator for hate and fascism; it could start by properly managing its communities, effectively protecting its female and minority employees, and engaging positively with minority groups over issues of representation. We can't fix the world with videogames; but for a 2017 new year's resolution, I'd settle for trying to make sure we aren't helping to break it.