The Object of the Game: Authority, Art, and Video Games

“TL;DR: I dated Zoe Quinn,” begins the last section of Eron Gjoni’s blog post about breaking up with his game developer girlfriend. “I thought she was the most amazing, kind hearted person in the world.” And then: “Turns out she was bullshitting pretty much everything I fell in love with her for.”

It’s difficult to reconcile the sincerely sad breakup heard ‘round the web—that reads at times like a bad fan-fiction, at times like an ill-conceived Fall Out Boy song—with the aggressive, virulent hashtag war now known as “Gamergate” that’s resulted in doxing (malicious release of personal information online) on both sides and death threats, mainly against female game critics and developers. Although Gjoni soon distanced himself from the main fray of the conflict, accusations flew that Quinn had obtained media attention via sex. Tech news outlets like Kotaku and Polygon came under scrutiny for their journalists’ relationships with developers. Chuck actor Adam Baldwin’s choice to name the controversy Gamergate was no accident, then, in efforts to reframe the harmful debate as one centered on the ethics of video game journalism. On the opposite side, news outlets including Jezebel and The Daily Beast condemned the movement as an excuse to harass and intimidate the female gaming community. Mainstream media also churned out multiple think-pieces on the “death of the gamer” identity and the democratization of video games.

Many of the current Gamergate critiques are not new. Sarkeesian has previously been the subject of online harassment for her Feminist Frequency videos that pointed out degrading representations of gender in video games. Earlier this year, gamemaking company Ubisoft was roundly criticized after Alex Amancio, a creative director for Assassin’s Creed Unity, was quoted claiming that playable female avatars were cut from the production because of the “extra production work” that it would require to render them. Allegations that game publisher Eidos Interactive had pressured gaming website GameSpot into firing editor Jeff Gerstmann due to a negative review of Eidos’s Kane & Lynch: Dead Men had long ago weakened the trust in the relationship between game publishers and review publishers, and yet incited none of the violence that Gamergate has.

Because the industry’s sexism and journalistic integrity has historically been a point of contention, the explosion of Gamergate today is all the more interesting because it focuses not on the mainstream, but rather on indie game developers, as well as certain “games” that receive allegedly undeserved attention. Indie game developers are a new demographic enabled by a technological revolution. The plummeting prices and increased capabilities of smartphones facilitated the popularity of free games like Angry Birds, Candy Crush and Temple Run whose players are not overwhelmingly male. Games like Farmville and Words With Friends have changed the social networks that participate in “gaming.” The ESA documented an increase in digital sales of games from 29 percent of all games purchased in 2010 to 53 percent in 2013, suggesting that gaming is no longer a pastime defined by the ownership of a console but by use of the internet, lowering barriers to enter the community.

But gamers are, unfortunately, not always the most welcoming group. Just as newcomers to games were once popularly labeled “n00bs,” these new indie games are often met with derision. The “most helpful” review of Depression Quest on game distribution site Steam comments that Depression Quest “shouldn’t be on steam to begin with” while a review by “Necromancer” calls it “barely interactive” fiction, more of a webpage than a game. On the other hand, a common thread through most of the positive testimonials is the moral value of the game: Matthew Jones of Gameranx claims it will “make you a better person” and Ian Mahar of Kotaku praises the game for its “stigma reduction” for those with mental illness. I try Depression Quest in my room on a windy, gray Wednesday morning. It’s reminiscent of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s books with linked pages instead of page numbers. Written in the second person, the prose is simple, and every few pages I—the player? reader?—am asked to choose the next action in the life of a depressed person. The stated goals of the game—to “illustrate as clearly as possible what depression is like” and to help other sufferers “know that they aren’t alone”—are admittedly somewhat vague and almost didactic. Compare this to the objective of League of Legends, the most popular online game of 2014, which is to “destroy the enemy’s nexus while defending your own.”

Clearly, definitions of gaming diverge: games might have a predefined objective, or games might simply be an array of choices the player can take. MIT associate professor of digital media Nick Montfort suggested that games cannot be conceived of simply as “cinema plus interactivity” lest this definition obscure how “player input and agency are essential qualities of videogames.” On the other hand, he emphasized that games are not necessarily about “intentional communication”—neither a specific goal nor a meaningful message is necessary for the game to be a game, or art. Developer Anna Anthropy, who also had to field accusations that she had exchanged sex for publicity told HPR that she tries to develop games that allow “players to engage with a work playfully” as opposed to designing ones with intimidating controls and comp, Anthropy tries to develop games that allow “players to engage with a work playfully.” This means, though, that the more traditional gamer base is not the intended audience. Indeed, she has felt the hostility of being an outsider: Anthropy explains support for her community of “women who are pushing games forward as an art form…has come from outside of the video game industry.”

At the same time, society has not been a particularly welcoming home for gamers. The public has blamed video games for everything from school shootings to antisocial disorders. The families of Columbine victims sued Sony America, Atari, Nintendo, and SEGA (among others) following the discovery that the school shooters had played Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Mike Ferreira, curator of the a pro-Gamergate timeline recalls accusations that Mass Effect was a porn simulator, following mainstream media attention to a scene in which the protagonist has sex with an in-game character. “It wasn’t anything more than what you’d see in a James Bond movie,” said Ferreira, and indeed, it seems unfair to condemn this particular piece of reality when Quinn’s veritable depression simulator is lauded. The double standard that the mainstream media tends to hold video games to—combined with the fear of losing the only internal media allies that once stood with them—only serves to sour the tensions between the traditional gamers and the outsider indie developers.

All the abuse that has resulted from #gamergate, then, while indeed misogynistic, is a symptom of a larger problem: it’s a medium whose main consumers and artists have been denied respect for their craft because of moral quibbles, a medium which is now attaining “art” status only through what feels to gamers an outsider appropriation of a medium they have mastered with for decades. Harassment along gender lines is a product of feeling backed into a corner, of feeling as if the veterans of the industry will be condemned regardless of what moves they take. This is certainly not justification for the harassment and criminal activity that has resulted. But these added dimensions of history, authority, and morality should be an added dimension of consideration for the supporters, opponents, and observers of Gamergate as much as it is for the gamers and developers themselves.

Image credit: Forbes Magazine

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