When I wrote this post, I listened to Portishead’s Roads. “We’ve got a war to fight”. And it is a skirmish of ridiculous proportions, considering that we’re really fighting about something that isn’t finite. We’re fighting about something that humanity (and more than humanity, animals do it too) have been doing for as long as we have been human. Games and play will not run out. It isn’t a zero sum game. And yet…

Sometimes months pass where the thought of being different or not belonging in the games industry isn’t at the forefront of my mind. Sometimes, like these past weeks, I am reminded that I’m only here because someone, somewhere hasn’t tried to destroy my career yet. That the harassment that I have faced hasn’t ousted me yet.

So many people have written about #GamerGate and Zoe Quinn, the Quinnspiracy* and Sarkeesian’s supposed hatred for a medium that I know she really cares about**. When #GamerGate was starting up, I received tweets and facebook messages from people I didn’t know. These people somehow thought that I just HAD to know what a lying, manipulative bitch Quinn was. I wasn’t even engaged in any conversation about it, they just popped up. The underlying meaning being that Quinn was such a bad role model for women in games that I, by being a woman in games, just had to condemn her actions.

My response then, and my response now, is that I have no idea what happened between Quinn and her ex-boyfriend who decided to “out” her on a private blog. What I do know is that the transgressions she supposedly*** committed were nowhere close to the harassment she and her family and friends received. Just as I know that the harassment of Anita Sarkeesian is out of proportion, considering that what she does is criticize games from a gender perspective on YouTube.


So why? Why are we at war? Why is there a crusade going on right now over the right to “own” a resource that isn’t even finite, something that is inherent to human nature, something that belongs to all?

My guess is that it is about identity and about negative group think.

A Torn and Frayed History

Despite the fact that games have been with us for thousands of years****, video gaming and role-playing games still stirred a fair amount of controversy when they first popped up on the pop cultural map during the mid-70’s.

Ever since the start of video games, the supposed depravity spread by pixels on a screen has been a dear topic of conversation among politicians and scientists alike, all of them worried about the undue influences said pixels would have on an unsuspecting and uncritical youth. Ever since Death Race, released in 1976, violence in video games have been widely discussed. Slightly before that, the progenitor of video games aka table top role-playing games were scrutinized and declared both diabolical and corrupting. Considering the fact that these two interests – video games and role-playing games – often went hand in hand, the attack on a subculture by the established power bases of politics and science created a group identity among gamers as the underdogs. The often uninformed and somewhat moral panicky way that politicians went after their selected prey created the impression that anyone “attacking” games was uninformed. In many cases during the early days of video game controversy (and for that matter later on as well) this was true.

Consider the discussions surrounding Mass Effect and the very brief “nudity” shown at the end of the game, when Shepard and selected love interest get into bed with each other.

Back in January 2008, Fox ran a segment on sex in Mass Effect, which alleged there was “full digital nudity and sex” as a voiceover claimed that players could engage in “graphic sex”.
More unsettlingly for Bioware and EA, a reporter then went on to inaccurately suggest that the game was being marketed to kids and teenagers.


This is the scene discussed on Fox News. Personally I don’t think this will lead to widespread depravity.

This has also established a gut reaction rebuttal of “you don’t know what you’re talking about” among gamers and game developers. This is unfortunate, because it often precludes listening to the arguments made, or worse, hearing only what one expects to hear.

My point with this detour into video game controversy history is that gamers have been under siege by unreasonable forces. These forces have attacked the medium from a position of power, often ridiculing the games and gamers at the same time. This has given rise to the counter argument that whatever is being viewed on screen is “just a game”. Just a game is a useful defence when attacked by higher ups, because if the content is meaningless, well it means that the attacker has nothing to criticise°. It also creates a certain paradox when discussing games and the influence of games, but I’ll get back to that.

Take into account that gamers themselves have traditionally been geeks or nerds, an identity often connected to harassment and bullying in school. Being bullied (speaking from experience) takes your power away. It makes you feel hopeless in some cases. Helpless. How then can someone who has been bullied reconcile the idea of privilege and power with a personal outlook of very little of either?

The answer is of course that many can’t.

The Paradox of Power

Gender studies focus on power structures. The thing to understand about power is that it is contextual. In one context I as a woman may lack power for the only reason that I am a woman. In another context, my skin color may give me an advantage over someone else with a different skin color. My name may help me get to the next phase in a hiring procedure, while someone with a non-European name might get tossed aside, despite us having roughly the same experience and merits.

This is what is known as privilege. I can’t help having or not having it because usually the signifiers that denote the privilege is out of my hands, something I was born with. In some contexts it will be an advantage, no matter how unfair that might seem.

Feminists believe that the world is structured in a certain way. Men are more privileged in many areas than women are. This does not preclude women having privilege, because we do, in particular in areas regarding child care and other traditionally female areas of influence.

When it comes to gaming, however, it is a completely male dominated field when it comes to culture, when it comes to content and when it comes to who is making these games. This means that within gaming, men are privileged. In particular white, heterosexual men. I wrote a bit about this in my blog post “performing masculinity”.

In other words, the men who make these games (because it is still predominately men who make games, both digital and analogue) create worlds that are conducive to telling very specific stories, with a very specific purpose. It is the dream of negotiating masculinity, of being a “real man” without the complexity of reality where manliness is full of demands that are impossible to meet. Better then to be able to squeeze into a narrow but still very manageable version of masculinity that will satisfy the player’s need to fit in to the expectations of society. Just as being a woman is performing a part, so is being a “real man”. Games allow men to not have to think, just pick up the controller and be a man for a while. Unfortunately, the negotiation of masculinity found in both fantasy role-playing games and computer games is full of sexism and objectification of women or in some cases a complete lack of women.


In light of this, games are still made for men, by men, meaning that women who try to be a part of the gaming culture, has to be a part of the culture on the men’s terms or they risk harassment. In fact, just being a woman in a gaming context can be risky. Gaming in society at large is still treated as a geek or nerd pastime, which makes the reaction of gamers who identify strongly with “the typical gamer” understandable when someone comes along and says that they have power, they have privilege.

The Crusades

Add to that the fact that both role-playing games and video games have never reached the cultural status that they deserve, at least in some cases. Just like comic books (the scourge of young minds everywhere) critical acclaim has been slow in the coming for video games. This is a constant reminder of gamer culture as the perceived underdog in a society. In part, my belief is that this is a result of the vehement defenders of games. If games are in any way criticised, the onslaught of insults and attacks are often immediate. Online communication is admittedly different from face to face communication. John Suler coined the term “online disinhibition effect”. It is a “loosening or abandonment of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction. This effect is caused by many factors, including dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority.” (Source)°° This disinhibition has most likely aided the culture of trash talk among gamers along. One of the symptoms of disinhibition is after all to regard what is written as a game.

In gamer circles “trash talk” is a sort of rite of passage, an initiation into what it is to be a gamer. If you can handle it, you’re one of the team, just like initiation rites and hazing in the military. Everyone has gone through it, and it creates a sense of identity. “We’re all in it together”. This toxic environment is harsh on anyone, including the gamers who do “belong”, but it is hard to stomach in addition to being immersed in a very male culture where stories, depictions and ideals cater to someone who isn’t you, someone you can not identify with.

Based on the history of video games, I think that the culture, often under attack, has fallen victim to group think, polarisation and a need to keep the identity that has been so hard earned and fought for against politicians and psychologists. In light of the history of controversy surrounding games, it is easy to understand why “gamers” have become a group so closed in in it’s own little echo chamber°°°, and why the privilege evident for an outsider may not even be visible on the inside.

[..]social psychologists have demonstrated many times how effortlessly we construct a narrative of ’us’ and ’them’, and how quickly prejudice can follow. They have shown, for example, that people will instinctively divide themselves according to the colour of their eyes, the colour of their shirt, their preference for a particular artist, whether they over- or under-estimate the number of dots in a pattern, whether a coin lands heads up or tails.

Michael Bond – The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do

This tendency to become a close knit group is a risk and a trigger for the kind of witch hunts that Sarkeesian and Quinn have been the victims of. Feeding exclusively on information gained in the private circles, the conspiracies are free to grow, develop and feel true, because there is nothing to contradict them. The people leading these circles are also setting the tone for what information is to be regarded as true or false. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve been sent the same links, over and over by many different people, stating that this is the truth of the matter. This is what is going to open my eyes to the lies I believe and have me discard them as the vile untruths they are. The nature of the information given is often toxic, and the rhetoric hateful and the personal attacks many.

Farhad Manjoo, author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, says we’ve entered a dissonant reality on the Internet where so much undifferentiated information comes at us we find it difficult to sort it out. This ”has loosened our grip on what is or isn’t true,” he says. Because more authoritative mainstream media are in decline, Manjoo says we tend to gravitate to and trust online niches hat match our own beliefs, whether they are trustworthy sources or not, just because we agree with them. This ”facilitates a closeted view of the world.” ”Digital manipulation is so effortless, spin, conspiracy theories, myths, and outright lies may get the better of many of us,” a kind of ”biased stimulation that lets us ”select our reality according to our biases. In a culture of simulation, where ”strings of binary code that can be understood by machines … have deepened the disconnect between what we perceive through our senses—what we see and what we hear—and what’s actually going on in the world,” it’s no wonder that paranoia, polarisation, and propaganda have taken hold or that there is a growing mistrust of the media and established institutions.

Mary Cross – Bloggerati, Twitterati: How Blogs and Twitter Are Transforming Popular Culture

I totally believe that the gamer culture feels that it is under attack. Probably unfairly so. But the response is disproportional to the perceived offences. To threaten someone with rape because she does not agree with you is not an answer to anything, it is an act of violence. But group think has another quirky result. It promotes the belief that regardless of action, the group is always in the right. An unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality, as Irving Janis would have put it. So the hunters in their opinion are on the side of angels (and to be honest, that’s something we all like to think about ourselves. That we are on the side of good.), no matter the method of silencing the dissent. Because it is a crusade caused by fear of change and othering those who do not agree.

A Dragon to Slay

The output of hatred towards that which is other within the gaming culture is on occasion breathtaking in its viciousness. It is another side effect of group think. The leaders of the offending parties, in this case Quinn and Sarkeesian, are stereotypified as evil. Too evil to even talk to, or negotiate with. When I was bombarded with links regarding Quinn (and for that matter Sarkeesian) the reasoning was always to disclose to me how evil and completely immoral this person was. How could I countenance a machiavellian person like Quinn being a representative of women in games? How could I sanction the misandry that emanates from every video Sarkeesian has ever made? Those were the questions put to me, the comments fed into the multitude of blog posts and facebook posts discussing the matter. How could I be so blind to pure evil? Did I not see that every word and every threat was justified, and that the dragons threatening our way of life deserved every bit of hatred they got?

[..] misogyny unfortunately is one of the things that have become (using the words of Hartas and Morris) frozen into the fossil DNA of computer role-playing games. Any changes to the contents of both role-playing games and computer games is preceded by violent protests, demands to know why the content has to change and a call to arms against the “rabid feminists” who want to take games away or to censor games. The reactions are always the same, no matter what was actually said.


In the End, We Are All the Same

We stand upon the precipice of change. The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that moment… and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap. It is only when you fall that you learn whether you can fly.

– Flemeth, Dragon Age II

My end note for this blog post has to be this.

The people harassing Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, and many others who want to change games and gaming culture for the better are not different from you (or me). They are you or me. They’re not 14 year old british boys (wherever that prejudice came from), they’re not kids, they’re not stupid or moronic.

By “othering” each other, we are only fortifying our dug in positions, the group think attitude. We make each other less human, less likeable, less likely to reach any kind of understanding, let alone get along. We build demons out of each other and then we try to kill the demons. We dehumanize each other and then we try to kill that which is less human.

This othering and making of monsters is only human. When we or what we perceive to be us, our identity, is under attack, we must believe that the forces attacking us are not like us.

But they are. They are just like us. “We” are just as susceptible to group think. “We” can also be the witch hunters that stalk the internet, unless we stop to think. Unless we question our assumptions and try to understand the motivations of others. Unless we ask ourselves “is this true?” “is this reasonable?” “is there another explanation for this?”. It’s easy to fall prey to group think. It’s comforting. Everyone agrees. I’m part of a group. I belong.

* The Quinnspiracy is basically the idea that an indie developer has several gaming sites in her pocket and that she accomplished this by using sex.
** We’ve met. I’ve talked to her about this.
*** The only ones that are possible to confirm (for me) are the “sex for reviews” claims, and those are according to the news outlets themselves false.
**** According to this article, the Royal Game of UR was played 2600 BC. One would assume that other games that have not survived the tests of time were also created, played, enjoyed and appreciated by humans long before that.
° I also have a feeling that this has influenced the reviews of games. It’s okay to talk about mechanics, physics and graphics engines, but moving into content critique is often a dilemma. I think in part because story is not very well developed in most games, but also because content is something that has been under attack.
°° Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pay the steep price of $51 for one day of access to the original paper. Online disinhibition effect is however cited in several other sources I’ve used.
°°° While we’re at it, yes I too run the risk of group think in certain areas, no, I am by no means immune to it and yes, I do have a research bias. What differentiates me from many others however is that I do not issue death threats, threats of rape, threats of violence to people whom I don’t agree with. I try not to resort to ad hominem attacks and I do read blogposts and other information sources that I don’t agree with. So there.

When Two Tribes Go to War
Know Your Memes – The Quinnspiracy
Mass Effect Sex Scandal Embarrased Fox News
Performing Masculinity
Online Disinhibition Effect, Wikipedia
Michael Bond – The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do
Mary Cross – Bloggerati, Twitterati: How Blogs and Twitter Are Transforming Popular Culture