I am not a gamer. I don’t own a Playstation 4 or an Xbox One, and I’ve never logged into Twitch. I haven’t seen the alternate Bio-Shock endings or learned how to manipulate space in Portal. The sum total of my knowledge of Grand Theft Auto is that its protagonist steals cars.
I am, however, a geek. Technology is a passion more than it is a job, and much of my free time is spent learning about things that I’ll probably never have the occasion to write about. I have a voracious appetite for the latest trends in computers and electronics, so whether I play them or not, I read a lot about games.
When I first saw the hashtag #gamergate, I thought it was part of an ad campaign. It wasn’t until days later when I learned it was a grassroots movement that had risen out of message boards and comment boxes and into the national discourse; it’s gotten so big and rancorous that its supporters have driven journalists from their homes and successfully petitioned Intel to pull its ads from a major gaming site. And it isn’t showing any signs of softening.
When you think of a gamer, you probably picture a bespectacled, tousle-haired adolescent with a Green Hornet tee and a few crushed cans of Red Bull at his feet. It’s a stereotype, and like most of the sweeping generalizations we use to characterize people, it’s wholly inaccurate. Sure, some of them may fit all or part of that description, but the vast majority do not. The gaming industry is one of the biggest in the world, and you’ll find just as many Fortune 500 CEOs playing Destiny in their luxury condos as you will maladjusted thirtysomethings in their parents’ basements.
A pro-feminist critique of the portrayal of women in video games was met with ire. Both women received mounds of hate tweets and threats.
And, really, that’s what’s at the heart of this issue. Gamers, like geeks or Trekkies, deeply identified with the label they had been given, and its mainstream proliferation was not taken lightly. As the gaming culture began to grow, the gaming culture came under increased scrutiny, with some journalists seeking to expose some of the unflattering mores prevalent within it. And as you might expect, gamers got defensive.
It all came to a head when it was alleged that indie developer Zoe Quinn’s relationship with a Kotaku.com journalist had resulted in favorable coverage of her game, Depression Quest. The accusation was quickly proved false, but it hardly mattered; gamers had long suspected that developers were offering favors to members of the press in return for positive coverage of their games, and the rumor only fanned the flames.
Gamers who had felt threatened by the shift in dialogue saw the dust-up as a chance to defend their honor, lashing out at, among others, Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, whose pro-feminist critique of the portrayal of women in video games had already been met with ire. Both women received mounds of hate tweets and threats as lines were drawn in the digital sand, with those defending Quinn and Sarkeesian ironically derided as “social justice warriors.”
The argument took a somewhat more mainstream tone last week, when Intel pulled its ads from a major gaming website after receiving a mountain of complaints from Gamergate supporters. The latest subject of their wrath was a Gamasutra.com column by Leigh Alexander, who bluntly stated that gamers, as a cultural group, were a dying breed. “’Gamer’ isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use,” she wrote. “Gamers are over. That’s why they’re so mad.”
It isn’t about cutting down Gods of War or The Legend of Zelda with a feminist sword as it is about creativity.
Identity is an important thing. Some people find it in their jobs, others in family or religion, but for many of us, it doesn’t come so easily. Back when I was struggling to figure out where I fit in the world, Apple computers gave me a sense of purpose; I could get lost for hours swapping out a hard drive in a Power Macintosh 6100 or performing a clean install of iOS 9. I was a fanboy before it was a word, and it made me feel like I belonged to something. I would constantly proselytize the Mac’s superiority to my PC-using friends, and if I saw someone else using a PowerBook I felt an immediate bond, as if we had known each other for years.
These days, things are different. I can’t go more than a few minutes without bumping into someone using an iPhone, but there’s very little connection any more. Apple is a different company than it was in my youth; now I’m just one of 10 million people who bought an iPhone 6 the weekend it came out.
It’s the same for gamers. Where their group used to be a relatively small band that shared walkthroughs for The Shadow of Yserbius and swapped cheat codes for Arc the Lad, the proliferation of the iPhone has greatly expanded the fraternity. Games are accessible to anyone with a buck and a smartphone, and the gamer identity is gradually being diluted by the likes of Candy Crush and Angry Birds.
And I get it. Had Apple blown up like this 20 years ago, I would have almost certainly resisted. Back then I needed to belong to something unique, and Apple gave that to me. It sounds ridiculous, but I was proud to be a fanboy, and there’s a part of me that still feels a sense of camaraderie when I step foot in an Apple Store. There’s no excusing the personal threats and childish name-calling, but if what Alexander writes is true and gamers are clinging to the last shreds of their identity, I can understand why they’d be so desperate and angry.
Ultimately, however, the very expansion and criticisms that Gamergaters are fighting will be good for the industry. Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” isn’t so much about cutting down Gods of War or The Legend of Zelda with a feminist sword as it is about creativity; as she points out, games have certainly matured since the days of Super Mario Bros., but many of their characters seem as though they’re still stuck in the 8-bit era. If her critical analysis results in richer storylines and deeper character development in games, how is that a bad thing?
Games and the people who play them aren’t going anywhere. The gaming industry is far too powerful to be taken down, and no matter how many articles are written about the sensationalism of woman or violence, those types of games are still going to be made. It’s the same with the movie industry; in Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino made a revenge movie about a female assassin that didn’t feature a single exposed midriff or thigh shot, and no one saw it as a threat to testosterone-fueled action flicks. It flipped the discourse without undermining the genre, and games could do it too; when Beatrix Kiddo was slicing through the Crazy 88, I barely noticed she was a hot chick, much like when Lara Croft put on pants for the Tomb Raider reboot. It’s not about clothes or sex, it’s about attitude.
Regardless of what comes of Gamergate, sequels to Hitman and Grand Theft Auto will still be made, and people on both sides of the argument will rush out to get it, much like I’ll be on line to buy an Apple Watch next year with scores of people who don’t known anything about the chip inside their iPhones. And that’s just fine.
I might not call myself a fanboy anymore, but I’m still a geek. And that’s a label no one can take away.