If GamerGate had happened around 2004 – 05, I would probably be more sympathetic towards the movement.¹ It didn’t. In the years between 2004 and 2015 I’ve learned quite a bit. One of the things that I’ve learned is that an environment with token individuals encourage those token individuals to assume specific and very limited roles. I’ve been the caretaker and the iron maiden among others.²
This limited my options, and it limited me as a human being. Instead I was expected to behave as a stereotype, and straying was punished in different ways.³
The game industry still suffer from severe under-representation of marginalized groups in gaming. As of 2014, in Sweden, women represented 16% of the workforce, which is a skewed group.⁴ It should also be noted that a high percentage of the women in the business are working at specific companies, such as King and Stardoll, most likely because those companies aren’t as steeped in tradition as the triple-A studios.
In skewed groups, such as for instance the ones I’ve spent a large part of my working life working in, being a token brings with it a certain set of issues.
Because tokens are by definition alone or virtually alone, they are in the position of representing their ascribed category to the group, whether they choose to do so or not. They can never be just another member while their category is so rare.
– Rosabeth Moss Kanter
As a token, you will have more eyes on you than if you are part of the dominant group. All actions are public, so to speak. Successes, mistakes – all of it is scrutinized, because you can never be just one of the team while simultaneously representing a group that is “apart”.
What you do will have consequences for more than yourself. You will always be measured by a different yardstick: how you perform your hobby (or work) as a woman⁵, and how you as a game developer live up to being a woman⁵. As a token you’ll never have a hard time being noticed for your (professional) achievements. Outer attributes such as “being a woman”⁵ will distort how people view you, and color their interpretation of your performance. It may even color the interpretation of the quality of your work.
I wanted to point this out before I talk about the seductive qualities of belonging.
I was also “one of the boys” at one time. It actually went as far as being called “one of the boys” on occasion. Being “one of the boys” is a lot less challenging for the group at large, because it minimizes you as a disturbing element in the group.
You’ve probably noticed how group dynamics tend to change when new elements are introduced. This is because the introduction of new ideas and/ or experiences in a group with an already established identity can be disruptive to that identity and the group as a whole. It becomes uncomfortable.
Introducing a woman⁵ in an all male group is of course a lot easier if she’s already in agreement with the values expressed in the group⁶. If those values are questionable from a social normative perspective, she’ll be even more valuable to the group, since she can act as an alibi⁷ for any questionable practices or ethics that the group performs.
It’s the same for all token individuals in a group, not just women in GamerGate.
Ironically, the use of #NotYourShield is a perfect example of how homogeneous groups use token individuals as proof that they are in fact not as homogeneous as they are made to be. How could they? Here’s one of the supposed token persons, and they agree it’s not a problem! I’m also pretty certain that the tokens letting themselves be used or stepping up as alibis are fairly happy in their roles. I’m sure that they are treated well and with respect. I’m also certain that they will continue to be treated with respect in the group until they change their minds or try to step out of the fairly narrow token roles assigned to them. Look at what happens to pro-GamerGaters when they change their minds. They get doxxed and harassed by their former pals.
The group will not tolerate deviation from the accepted norm in the group. Being part of a group is seductive. It’a ticket to belonging and being included. Sometimes a shortcut to an identity. As a token in a skewed group, however, that belonging comes with conditions, the most important being “don’t rock the boat”.
I hope you’ll forgive me for going off on a bit of a tangent. One of the issues with GamerGate ans with the demands made from the movement has been that politics should be kept out of gaming⁸. In some instances, this has been an outspoken requirement – to not change games at all. In other words, let’s keep characters, stories and content as is. For all intents and purposes, this requirement will keep games in a state that will keep excluding marginalized groups within gaming, thereby conserving the culture as is, insulated and homogenic.
With the influx of casual games and social games, the audience widened, and gaming started to change along with the identity of gamers. Unless of course, conservative forces makes an effort to keep games and the gaming culture just the way it is, which we’re seeing with GamerGate.
As a token person and a former sexist⁹, I know what it’s like to feel special. One of the cool women. One of the boys. It was glorious, feeling like I was better than other women, who just couldn’t cut it in game development or for that matter in the culture surrounding games. It was fun. Until I ended up in a situation where no amount of skill in game design, Soul Calibur or Counter-Strike made any difference, because the men I was working with just didn’t want me there. For two years I lived in a kind of cognitive dissonance hell, with a publisher that loved my work, with doing work that I loved, and with a team that absolutely despised me. And yes, before you ask, it was made clear that my gender played a significant role in how I was treated. Plus I was the only woman in the team.
The scales fell from my eyes during that period of time. I was no longer one of the boys, and thanks to my wake up call, I never will be again. And I don’t want to.
It’s a painful realization, to only have been permitted to participate on someone else’s terms, and that it’s just as easy to fail those terms for something so irrelevant as being the wrong gender.
I do understand why people from marginalized groups join movements like GamerGate. It is wonderful to finally find somewhere to belong. Just remember that the sense of belonging often comes at a price.
Questioning gamer culture has led to a crisis never before seen on this scale or this openly. A culture of nerds that themselves have felt like a congregation of outcasts, priding themselves on welcoming the socially inept and clumsy, have now been pointed out as an, on occasion, bigoted and insular culture.¹⁰
I know what it feels like to be confronted with my own prejudices, to start understanding that maybe I’m not on the side of the angels all the time. It’s much easier to say “you’re wrong” than to actually accept that I’m the one who has misunderstood. This is what is happening in select parts of the gaming culture. The culture is being confronted with the fact that the contents of games is not always benevolent and people are reacting to that. This has happened before with the on and off again debate about violent video games. Back then (and now as well in some instances) the people who criticized games for the violent content were people who were not necessarily very well versed in games. They made outrageous statements and could and were easily dismissed.
The current critics are well versed in games. They are knowledgeable and careful. In fact, they are gamers themselves, and often fans of the franchises they criticize. They spend a lot of time playing. They are not as easily dismissed, although many attempts are made to discredit their knowledge. It is in fact one of the most common arguments used to dismiss the criticism. Lack of knowledge is also a common tactic used to keep marginalized groups out of gaming. The Fake Geek Girl meme is a perfect example of that. That, if anything, should make it clear that no matter how hard you try, as a token person you can easily be dismissed and excluded on uncertain grounds.
¹ Sympathetic as in “I can’t see what the problem is, you’re just whiny.” Hopefully not sympathetic towards doxxing, threats and SWATing.
² Moss Kanter, Rosabeth – Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life: Skewed Sex Ratios and Responses to Token Women The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 82, No. 5. (Mar., 1977)
³ No, it’s not just me.
⁴ Spelutvecklarindex 2014 – Dataspelsbranschen
⁵ Or man, or gay person, or *trans person or person of color or whatever tokenized group you belong to.
⁶ Such as gaming. Or GamerGate.
⁷ One of the most insidious ways our brain tricks us is by confirmation bias. We have a tendency to believe whatever supports our views, because doing anything else is kind of painful. Therefore, we would rather accept one person’s personal testimony than a survey or study made on the same subject, contradicting the personal testimony and our views.
⁸ I have on several occasions questioned the claim that GamerGate is inclusive. The replies that I’ve gotten from named accounts and random eggs alike is that GamerGate is inclusive – but conditionally inclusive. As long as you don’t want to change games, you’re fine. As soon as you bring a “social justice agenda” to the table, you’re out. In my case it was enough to suggest that games could contain more than they do today to be accused of limiting the developers’ creativity and wanting to censor games. Which is apparently the social justice agenda. Censorship and creative restrictions. Which it isn’t, but that’s a topic for another post.
⁹ As former as one can be. I still have things to learn.
¹⁰ A monoculture – white, cis-het dudes making games about white cis-het dudes for white cis-het dudes that themselves grow up to make the same games. In agriculture (and innovation) this is called “bad practice”. In game development it’s called “comfortable”.