A Few Thoughts on GamerGate

It is with increasing disappointment and discouragement that I read about the phenomenon of #GamerGate. What its proponents had once described as a call for ‘journalistic integrity’ in the trade press that reviews games has been proven to be a calculated and organized campaign for misogyny, harassment, and worse. Women have been driven from their homes, cancelled professional appearances under threats of violence, and the issue has brought to the national spotlight the culture of games and gamers in a most horrific way, as documented in a series of pieces and op-eds at the New York Times, the Washington Post, Polygon, Time, Gamasutra, Vox, and others. There’s even a WikiPedia primer, and the amazing perspective of Chris Kluwe, attempting to reclaim and exonerate the larger gaming community in a powerful, forceful essay.

As someone that has devoted my professional life to this medium that I love, I am appalled. As a father, educator, and human being, I am disgusted. Perhaps what strikes me most in this entire thing is the basic and sustained lack of empathy by those engaged in such activity. There is a systematic inability to see something from another point of view, to consider viewpoints outside one’s comfort zone, to debate rationally, logically and without rancor. Instead, ‘doxxing’ (using technology to discover personal details of an ‘opponent’ and posting them publicly and distributing them online), ‘swatting’ (making false accusations to police in the hopes of getting them to ‘raid’ someone’s home), hate speech, gendered, racial and ethnic slurs have replaced any semblance of discussion. There are casual discussions among some of the posted logs about whether such activity could cause Zoe Quinn, one of the women in the heart of this storm, to commit suicide. Casual. Discussion.

It is this lack of empathy that is so devastating, because it means that we, the educational institutions of America, have failed our country and thus ourselves. As I write this, there is an advertisement on the local radio for a political race that espouses that we are ‘behind in math and science’ relative to the rest of the world. But focusing on technology without also exploring its history, use, psychology, capabilities, and ethics is precisely where we find ourselves today in GamerGate. A segment of our population, with little to no understanding of either the historical journalistic process and operations of a trade press, or the ways in which games are currently created and marketed, sees no issues with using technology to destroy the public and private lives of women and those close to them based on their misconceptions. It means that we have failed to instill the values we would hope for in future generations: compassion, generosity, trustworthiness. Instead the GamerGate phenomenon points to a group using modern technology and communications platforms through their ubiquity, anonymity, and techno-centrism for the purposes of furthering their own gendered and discriminatory agendas driven by hate, ignorance, and fear.

Games such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto will continue to be made as long as there is an audience who wants them that is large enough to justify the investment. As more and more people of varying backgrounds increasingly play games, they are drawn to narratives and experiences that fit with their interests – games will diversify as the audience diversifies. Similarly, as technology and distribution become less of a barrier a more diverse and ever-expanding number of people will make games. There will be more and better games of all varieties, those making them will be better informed and engaged, and games in the future will be played and enjoyed by wider and differing segments of our population. This is already happening, and it won’t stop.

Games like Depression Quest don’t threaten the existence of games such as CoD, but they do push the boundaries of what games are and help other designers think about games differently, as well as speaking to and engaging players that are outside the market demographic that GamerGate is so concerned with. If there is a call, or a need for a call, for increased ‘journalistic integrity’ (i.e. rules of disclosure, context and conflict-of-interest) in the review and critical analysis of games, then one might start by talking to critics and reviewers, publishers and industry organizations – but instead the internet singles out female developers of small independent games and female critics that push against the status quo. No one is fooled.

In examining the logs and leaked chats surrounding this issue, you can observe the GamerGate community seeking to divide along techno-centric lines of male privilege. While at RIT, I've had the pleasure to work with some of the brightest, most inquisitive, compassionate, and amazing students imaginable. Students who take and incorporate everything around them, everything as culture, and everything as inspiration, and who constantly challenge and amaze. But I've also observed students in STEM majors complaining of having to ‘waste’ half their credits studying humanities, or ‘sitting through’ history, communications and ethics instead of focusing on ‘stuff that matters’. And so while I am saddened by GamerGate, I am not surprised. It is part and parcel of a focus on technology without similar attention on the ethical frameworks and historical roots of that technology, without concern or consideration for its societal impacts, and without a sustained national focus on integrating technology, arts, sciences, and humanities.

The past fifteen years of games studies have been a long, slow climb to legitimacy, with efforts at numerous universities, foundations, civic agencies, government offices, and companies large and small exploring how games can be better understood not only as entertainment products but in other meaningful ways within our society: educational tools, training simulations, works of art and expression, communications media. We want to know more about games, about their cultural impact, about their ability to engage. In the wake of horrible tragedies such as Columbine and Sandy Hook, the general public wanted immediate accountability and looked to blame video games as fomenting violence and irrational behavior. Academics and researchers have been studying these connections both before and since, and found very little, if any, causal links, as one vector in the larger study of games and culture. Both our legitimacy and the research of what we've found has been washed away by threats made to Anita Sarkeesian: gamers, who once argued for their medium and not to be blamed out of hand for real-world gun violence, and clamored for broader public understanding of their engagement with games, threatened a school shooting rather than ‘allow’ the presentation of a different point of view. Game over.

Instead of members of Congress publicly questioning the need for humanities-centric and behavior-based research in today’s technological world, instead of state legislatures pulling resources from the study of civics, discourse, ethics and government to fund more time devoted solely to math and science, and instead of the Department of Justice focusing on stern statements and trying to better police cyberspace (which is important but deals primarily with enforcement and not prevention), let’s remember to focus some of our efforts on educating the next generation. Let us focus on instilling the values we find important regarding the use of technology and its place in our lives, and on the role of holistic, integrated education that can lead to the empathy that is so missing from the current situation. Let us remember to question everything, and everyone, around us, but to do so in ways that are productive and lead to real understanding and lasting change. Let us as academics, teachers, students, journalists, government leaders, designers, developers, parents and members of our communities set an example of what being a citizen in an American democracy should mean in this technological age. And to my education colleagues, let us remember that our classrooms are a critical component in the development of the next generation of designers, developers, and creators. I refuse to subscribe to a narrow, reductive vision of what games can be, and would not choose it for my students. In fact, my students already demand better, and it is they who will continue to push the boundaries and limits of what games are capable of.

There is much to learn from GamerGate, although none of it has to do with the ‘call for journalistic ethics’ espoused by its proponents. It has to do with empathy, and what it means to live in a world with other human beings. It has to do with understanding that just because the internet makes certain behaviors possible, it doesn't make them morally or ethically appropriate. It has to do with the responsibility each of us carries not only to act with civility and respect towards each other, but to speak out publicly in defense of one another when that doesn't happen.

-A Phelps, 2014

Andrew Phelps is the founder of the Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction & Creativity (MAGIC) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). He is also Professor and Founder of the School of Interactive Games & Media at RIT, and serves on the executive committee of the Higher Education Video Games Alliance. His students and alumni have had a profound impact on the games and media industry at studios large and small.

Edit: fixed a typo (added ‘s’ to ‘students’), 10/22.