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One incendiary word seems to be at the center of this whole debate.
If you don’t understand Gamergate, the controversy that’s dominated the gaming industry for weeks now, you’re not alone. It’s been a confusing ordeal even for those who are ensconced in gaming culture.
It led to Anita Sarkeesian, who received the coveted Ambassador Award at the Game Developers Conference this year, receiving rape and death threats that forced her to flee her own home out of concern for her safety. It led to an independent game developer being hacked and doxed by 4chan for standing up against this sort of harassment.
The debacle began as an addendum to what’s been dubbed the “Quinnspiracy,” specifically following the disclosure that independent game developer Zoe Quinn had a relationship with Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson. While Grayson wrote only one story involving Quinn—a news story about a failed game jam, not a review of her game—prior to their involvement, some critics of video game journalism took this revelation as a demonstration of corruption.
Gamergate has since blown up into a conspiracy theory that posits video game journalists are in collusion with video game developers, and that video game critics are trying to create an environment of political correctness that squashes debate. And now some are claiming Gamergate may have been a manufactured controversy aimed at blowing up these long-standing divisions within video game culture.
But there’s a solution to this controversy: Make it clear that “gamers” were never behind any of this, by defining what “gamer” means, and encouraging people who play video games to stand up and repudiate the actions of a few virulent troublemakers.
Why is “gamer” a problem?
The word “gamer” currently means nothing more than hyper-consumer, someone who spends a boatload of time and money on video games. It is not, actually, an identity. Is has a vestige of identity from the time when video games were not mainstream, and when video game players were ostracized for being nerds. This has not been the case for at least a decade.
The video game industry uses the word “gamer” because it has marketing appeal. Video game journalists—myself included—use the word “gamer” because it’s easy shorthand. Some of us mean “gamer” in the broadest possible sense. Others refer to members of the traditional video game audience.
Disagreement on what the word means leads to haphazard usage. And it doesn’t seem like the video game press is uniformly aware of the way it shapes the language of video game culture in the process. When GameSpot makes a video with “hardcore gamer” in the title, and in the video itself uses the phrase “filthy casual [gamer]” even in jest, GameSpot reinforces the idea of division within the video game audience.
Kotaku, meanwhile, seems to use the word in its most liberal (i.e. inclusive) sense when it calls its outlet “the gamer’s guide,” but that’s not necessarily how its audience sees it. When Kotaku publishes progressive-minded content that clashes with the values of members of the traditional video game audience, those audience members feel justified to complain. After all, it’s “the gamer’s guide,” right? And gamers are mostly young, male, straight, and white, right?
I would like to think that we use the word “gamer” here at the Daily Dot to mean nothing more than “anyone who plays video games,” but how our audience perceives the word may depend on the article in question. When a word has debatable meaning, it’s up to the reader to decide what “gamer” may or may not mean.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the word gamer has a utility and is so deeply rooted in video game culture that it probably isn’t going anywhere. If we can’t kill the word, then, we need to shape it so the miscreants behind Gamergate no longer fall within its bounds.
The people who think it’s perfectly fine to dox Phil Fish and threaten violence against Anita Sarkeesian can no longer legitimize their actions as a defense of gamerdom if they’ve been deliberately ostracized by virtue of making it clear that they do not represent who gamers are.
How we can reclaim “gamer”
On June 19, 2013, the Daily Dot contributor Samantha Allen published an essay titled “An Open Letter To Games Media” on the independent outlet Re|Action. The letter was addressed to the editors-in-chief of IGN, Kotaku, Gamespot, Polygon, Destructoid, and Joystiq—all sites popular with the traditional video game audience.
“Your sites set trends for the way people talk about, think about, and relate to games. Your readers spend hours watching you play games, listening to you talk about games, and reading what you write about them. Like it or not, you’re tastemakers,” Allen wrote. “You have control of a podium from which you can send a clear message, the message that those who adopt flagrantly sexist, racist, classist, ableist, homophobic and/or transphobic viewpoints are not the audience you want to reach.”
Allen pointed at an official statement on these issues published by Rock, Paper, Shotgun, a game journalism outlet that is square in the sights of Gamergate proponents when they talk about “social justice warriors,” a pejorative for anyone in the games press who seeks to draw a line in the sand when it comes to the abuse being suffered by Sarkeesian at this very moment. By making this stance known, Rock, Paper, Shotgun is doing it right.
Leigh Alexander’s essay about websites not having to pander to gamers anymore is well-intentioned, but Alexander uses the word “gamers” to single out the close-minded, the bigoted, and the hateful—the people who refuse to acknowledge that harassment against women in video game culture exists and is indefensible. Alexander doesn’t actually mean “people who play video games,” which is all the word “gamers” ever ought to mean.
Video game players, journalists, critics, and developers just didn’t know any better, and let the word become what it means today. Now we do know better, and we need to do something so critics don’t end up tarring innocents—those who are just there for the games—in the process of denouncing the negative behavior of a few.
Allen was writing, in part, in response to the Dickwolves controversy, another time women in gaming culture were harassed, psychologically tormented, and threatened with rape and death by people who ought to have no place in gaming culture, because they do not represent those of us who love video games.
The video game journalism industry published op-eds condemning the actions of these few, but there was no solidarity of response and repudiation of the sick ideology on display via the issuance of official statements. We decided to let the whole “Dickwolves thing” blow over.
Dickwolves was terrible. Gamergate has been much worse. I’ve never had so many conversations with colleagues who were anguished and sick at seeing people hijack our culture, and yet outlets still decided to not engage, as outlets, for fear of giving the debacle legitimacy. Or because it wasn’t worth their time. Or because they didn’t think their readers actually cared.
That is an easy choice to make when the vast majority of us in the video game journalism industry do not stand in the firing line, with people threatening to rape and kill us, or doxing us, or showing up on our doorsteps.
How will speaking up solve the issue?
I’m not suggesting the video game press is solely responsible for dismantling the culture that allows Gamergate to breed, and that allows perpetrators to stand for what gaming culture is, and who gamers are.
But this is no longer inside baseball. Not when Al Jazeera is covering the story. It’s long past time for the trendsetters and kingmakers to speak out loudly and clearly. We need to dismantle the idea that our positions as journalists mean that we cannot or should not wade into these cultural debates.
Our voices as outlets carry weight, and while the idea of bias neutrality is to recognize both sides of the issue, there is no “other side of the issue” when it comes to hate and ignorance.
We need to say that the person who posts that game developers need to just shut up and make games for men is not welcome in our communities. Likewise to the commenter who says that purusing equality is equal to silencing debate. If we take anything away from Gamergate, let’s take away what we ought to have taken away from the Dickwolves controversy, that these comments are not harmless.
Making these official statements, and devoting more resources to comment moderation, and shutting down comment threads more quickly when they begin to spiral out of control opens the door to what will, in the end, actually solve this problem.
When we create environments that champion the good, we inspire the people who represent the good to speak up. The gamer community needs to police its own. We need to inspire them to shout down the voices trying to poison the community and the conversation. We need gamers—people who just love video games—to feel like the games press and game developers have their back, if and when they decide enough is enough.
Earlier this year, I wrote on Salon that I was giving up calling myself a gamer, because I didn’t want to be associated with the sort of bullshit Gamergate represents. I talked about having found an identity, feeling welcome, and then having to reject that identity because of the venom it spewed all around me.
Maybe Keith Stuart is right, and I am wrong, and it’s OK to just accept that “gamer” means something akin to “film buff” or “bookworm.” That’s what gamer ought to mean, but right now it doesn’t, so the choice I made was to reject the word for myself.
But I miss being a gamer, and I think the day is coming where we can reclaim the word. The question is whether we guide that evolution, or just allow it to take its course.
Photo via Radly J Phoenix (CC BY-SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed
Dennis Scimeca was the Daily Dot's gaming reporter until 2016. He loves first-person shooters, role-playing games, and massively multiplayer online games. His work has appeared in Salon, NPR, Ars Technica, Kotaku, Polygon, Gamasutra, GamesBeat, Paste, and Mic.