Video game culture, it is not too controversial to point out, has a misogyny problem. Like background radiation, it’s there, it’s measurable and it’s slowly killing you, but you won’t notice the effects unless you’re actually looking for it.
It’s simple things, like female characters inevitably forced to wear uselessly skimpy armour, to weird ad campaigns featuring incongruously sexy nuns armed to the teeth, or rape used to give characters depth, but it’s always been part of the landscape.
Unless, that is, you are a women who makes a living in gaming. Then you too often find yourself at the front line of a war you hadn’t asked to fight, a war which has exploded in the last few weeks, forcing prominent industry figures out of their homes and their jobs.
The sexists, you see, are revolting. A few brave souls dared point out the structural issues with their beloved art form, and a spontaneous witch hunt has broken out. Most prominently Anita Sarkeesian, a theorist who has been making a measured, scholarly attempt to point out how harmful certain tropes can be, has been subjected to a year-long campaign of abuse, smears and outright harassment which had driven her into hiding. Determined cadres of internet antagonists have scoured the net for her contact details, and those of her friends and family, simply to menace them in a bid to enforce her silence, all because she’s trying to point out that women seem only to appear in games as damsels to be rescued or hypersexualised imps to be squired. So far she has not relented, but the same cannot be said for various other people hounded by the e-mob.
They claim her research is somehow – exactly how is never quite explained – ruining gaming. That she may be, if she ever actually does manage to eradicate the endless princesses in need of rescue or the boob armour.
But the man-baby jamboree wants more blood, and now they’ve somehow managed to make their orchestrated campaign of harassment about “ethics”. Dedicated Twitter watchers might have noticed the #GamerGate hashtag promulgated by a swarm of Twitter accounts with 9 followers and manga characters for profile pictures. These are the “gamers”, and they are cross.
They’re cross about women in general, but at the moment, this anger is dressed up as a disingenuous cry for journalistic ethics. It stems from an angry boyfriend’s revenge against a female game designer who wronged him, a blog post which stirred the gaming world into a collective fit of symbolic rage against the women who wronged THEM. This woman, Zoe Quinn, has done nothing worse than be unfaithful, but because she’s a games developer who slept with a games journalist, our vengeful cartoon-heads are able to pretend to the world and to themselves that their crusade is about professional standards they’d never cared about before it involved an uppity, scornful woman.
As with most of the worst things on the internet, this whole palaver can be traced back to the primordial soup-stains 4chan and Reddit, two digital plaguepits of particularly virulent woman-hatred, both of which are currently noteworthy as the twin grounds zero of stolen celebrity nude photos. This confluence is not an accidental; both affairs are testament to the hateful power sexual frustration can have on groupthink amongst mentally atrophied teenage boys.
In a nice moment of bitterly unintended irony, in an effort to demonstrate they’re not a pimply mob of basic sexists, they’ve invented a female character called Vivian James (kinda like ‘video games’) as an emblem for their campaign. She’s a sardonic dream woman who games in slouchy hoodies, has long, lascivious tresses of red hair and doesn’t ever want to hurt them – and who, tellingly, doesn’t actually exist. Yes, to demonstrate they’re not sexist, gamers have been forced to invent a woman to represent them.
Speaking as someone who loves games, but who has become increasingly depressed by the noxious culture that surrounds them, this whole issue makes me furious. The Twitter mob is continuing to assail women, and a few of the men who stand up to them. Famous figures have been berated; even nerd king Joss Whedon has taken a pasting. At least one female journalist has quit for good over the abuse she copped for a defiant article in the Guardian of all places, dogpiled by the shock troops of irate, scorned manhood.
Gamers’ latest wheeze is another hashtag, this time #notyourshield, in which a load of sockpuppet Twitter accounts pretending to be women and people of colour who claim that gamers can’t be sexist because a handful of women are on their side. Have a quick browse; yesterday I saw a handsome cartoon fox earnestly invoking Martin Luther King in an effort to express gamers’ struggle against oppression. To co-opt the language of real struggle for something as facile and, well, obviously bigoted as gamer culture clearly shows itself to be is breathtakingly offensive.
This whole battle is a tragedy. Gaming can be a pure and beautiful art form, still pushing the limits of what it can provide. Games can be welcome distractions or pillars of experimental narrative, but before anyone truly takes them seriously, “gamers” need to take a long, hard, harrowing look at themselves.