So, as a games researcher person I’ve had a few people Tweet at me asking me where I stand on GamerGate. I’ve been thinking about it long and hard enough now that I feel a need to just throw some of it up on here. This isn’t going to be easy and I will probably revise it as I go along, trying to keep to one issue or theme per post for clarity; so don’t expect me to cover everything here.
Introductions first. I think it’s fair to say that most Gaters would classify me as an “anti” but one who’s fair in my dealings with them. I’m not the sort of anti whose entire view on GG revolves around claims about harassment etc. (and I’m totally open to the idea that those opposing GG might harbor their fair share of bullies, doxxers and careerists). As someone who has written about games journalism’s role in maintaining the “gamer” identity, I came into this with quite a few pre-formed ideas that I still haven’t been convinced to part with.
The first issue I want to talk about is this: even before GamerGate had a name, there was an underlying tension around how people evaluate games differently. Putting aside the initial catalyst of the “gamers are dead” articles and various claims about journalistic corruption, many of the Gaters I’ve spoken to in recent months have a long-standing grievance with sites like Kotaku bringing an “agenda” to games journalism (usually by prioritizing talking about gender or race or whatever over whether a game is actually fun to play). They are increasingly frustrated with accusations from the “other side” (of which I am a part, I guess) that they must be -ist or -phobic because they have different priorities for games writing. /KotakuInAction is a key example of this. GamerGate has given a name to a subset of hardcore gamers for whom the gender or skin colour of characters is dis-interesting. To them, an overbearing interest in a game’s representational content is seen as naive; an indicator that the critic is not a real gamer. This is because of fundamental differences between how different groups are perceiving, talking about, and evaluating games.
This polarization roughly mirrors a sort of non-debate that went on in academic games studies some time back. Pick up most games studies books and there will be a boring section on “the ludology/narratology debate”. “Narratologist” was a term given to researchers coming into games from disciplines like film and literature and looking at them primarily as types of story; analyzing the settings, characters, dialogue and so on. On the other hand, “Ludologists” tried to analyse games based on what they made them unique – their interactivity and rules. The “sides” have since reconciled. Really it was always down to a matter of the individual writer’s perspective and what seemed most important to them.
So, it could be said that a sizeable amount of GG are “accidental ludologists”. Their interest in the hobby – their desire to understand how games work – drives them to perceive games as designers must see them; as mechanical objects. More hardcore gamers tend to be less reluctant to play older games or newer indie games with outdated graphics. They’re in conflict with the console game market’s industrial logic which tells the majority of its consumers “buy this highly-polished bauble – the story is good – but mainly it’s another uninventive shooter”. So here’s my first real point: the type of hardcore gamers who just want to hear “objective reviews” about whether a game is “fun” (deeply subjective anyway but hey) are lay ludologists. They’ve spent enough time playing games in numerous genres to have at least some understanding of how these genres work. Mechanics are their main reference point; what they “see” when they evaluate a game.
Here’s where NotYourShield comes in. You can have games whose representational content is arguably racist toward black people, and you can have black fans of those games who don’t see that, and others who vehemently criticize it. Something like racism is to do with social meaning, so any claim about it is always going to be an interpretation at best. The degree to which those different individuals do or do not perceive that game as racist will depend on how they look at games, the lens that they’ve adopted over the years. They’re an entertainment product, to be consumed with your hands, eyes and ears and ultimately no-one has a monopoly on the “correct” way to evaluate, but that hasn’t stopped people staking their claims.
I DO think the sorts of games writers who have been decried as “SJWs” (a term which, in itself, implies that your caring about social issues is false posturing) need to tread lightly when making logical leaps from subjective readings to claims about the “harm” a game might cause. I already wrote about this in regards to the different types of research conducted around race in GTA: San Andreas. I DO think that those who are critical of games’ portrayals of gender, race, sexuality etc. should make efforts to adopt language which clearly indicates that they are working within an interpretivist framework, rather than making claims about a games objective meaning (no such thing can wholly exist). But with this comes the assumption that more clearly signalling a subjective approach will stop criticism of “SJW” reviews; something I doubt will happen as long as games journalism is narrowly viewed by GG solely as “buyers’ guides”. Take, as an example, Evan Narcisse’s piece on “black cool” which frames the portrayal of black videogame characters not as “harmful” or “problematic” but as something which makes the author personally cringe.
I even agree, to some extent, with the idea of separating out a “morality score” where necessary; although I personally fail to see how Metacritic scores lowered by such reviews matter in the grand scheme of this. This is probably because I’m not the sort of person who cares for quantitative evaluations of quality – “6/10″ means nothing to me as a consumer, tells me little about how the reviewer’s experience of the game may or may not mirror my own. The cynic in me says that there is a certain amount of false concern for the economic well-being of developers (“bad scores hurt devs!) being used to silence the type of reviews which might prompt a gamer to consider, for example, what is going on in Bayonetta 2 in terms of gender politics (and no, I’m not 100% sold on the “Bayonetta 2 is sexist!” thing either). It’s difficult to separate the genuine concerns from the silencing attempts. A wanker would be understandably perturbed to open up a buyers’ guide for pornography and find the text replaced with the writings of Laura Mulvey. But is it necessary for all games writing to serve the buyers’ guide function, especially now when Lets’ Plays provide a much clearer window onto how a game handles?
Overall, if you’re a Gater whose perspective is that writers shouldn’t make lofty claims about the societal “effects” of games’ representational content; then I have some sympathy. If your perspective is that social topics should not be broached at all – are inappropriate for games writing – then I am less inclined to agree. The social worlds which games construct are part of how they feel and are, therefore, a valid thing to critique and evaluate. They’re even a valid thing to include in a “buyers’ guide”; if your view of the purpose of games writing is really that narrow. Left4Dead would be a drastically different game if the zombies were replaced with immigrants, or babies (or immigrant babies) even if the game were otherwise mechanically identical. The end-feeling as a consumer/player would be different; some would cry, some would laugh. In addition, you can objectively describe the mechanics of a game (run around the maze and collect the pills while avoiding the enemies) but you can’t objectively evaluate whether these are “good” in the sense of enjoyable. Whether a consumer who has never played an RTS will enjoy Starcraft 2 is really not a case of “good” mechanics.
Here’s my main contention, though. I’ve saved it for last. Something I think people on the GG/KiA side of the the gaming community should really think about a little. You don’t stop being a “real” or “hardcore” gamer when the scope of your evaluation moves beyond “fun” or “mechanics”. Gamers who care about different things from you are not automatically naive noobs. To dismiss them as such because a game’s representative content gave them bad feels is horseshit.
Speaking of horses, I’ve seen “horseshoe theory” thrown around the internet a lot recently. This is the idea that those at the extreme ends of a political spectrum are often ideologically closer to each-other than to the center. There is a thing I think we all have in common, and which ties the current “culture war” (if you want to call it that) to the older ludology/narratology debate in games studies. The hardcore are on the tips of the horseshoe. You don’t get in a position where you’re having a prolonged argument with strangers about a medium without having a deep love and knowledge of that medium. There was a brief window when everyone – whether “cultural marxists” or those who went on to form GG, could agree that most AAA shooter games were repetitive, dumbed-down shite. Whether you’re a “hysterical SJW” or “wailing manbaby”, we are all adult hardcore gamers. By hardcore I simply mean that we talk and read about games a lot; we’re probably a minority compared to the amount of folks who own consoles, play the more famous games but aren’t that invested in the pastime.
A lot of people play as teens and their interest wanes as they get older. I have a three year old and I still consider myself a hardcore gamer even as he gnaws at my available time to play DOTA2 and FTL. The thing that unites us is that we want to have adult conversations about games. We’re unable to have these conversations outside of our cliques because, unlike adults, we’re unable to accept the validity of multiple ways of viewing the thing we love.
And that kinda blows goats IMO.