GamerGate and the Aesthetic of the Hit
Video games and video games journalism, considered within the context of George Trow’s “Within the Context of No Context”
“The message of many things in America is, ‘Like this or die.’ It is a strain. Suddenly, the modes of death begin to be attractive.” — George W.S. Trow.
TWO MONTHS AGO, when I was looking for a fitting quotation with which to begin my article on “GamerGate’s threat to journalistic independence” (an introduction to the ‘consumer revolt’ purporting to be about ‘ethics in video games journalism’), I remembered the immensely quotable Within the Context of No Context, by George W.S. Trow, Jr. (1943–2006), which was first published in 1980. After toying with a few possibilities, I settled on: “No one, now, minds a con man. But no one likes a con man who doesn’t know what we think we want.”
Not too long after this, I came across an article by game designer Tadhg Kelly, “So Long #Gamergate. What Did You Teach Us?” , posted at TechCrunch in October of last year. It included this line: “The gaters seem willing to be sold snake oil as long as the seller speaks to their values, and that’s a toxic environment for them to be in.” Because of the perfect fit between this remark and Trow’s 34 years earlier, I decided to look through Within the Context of No Context for more excerpts that might apply to the current situation. It turned out to be an embarrassment of riches.
Trow’s style has been characterized as “a translation of Schopenhauer done by Gertrude Stein”, and people who knew him thought he “skated very close to the edge of sanity”. His ideas were “not so much intellectually groundbreaking, but stylistically and formally groundbreaking”; his essays, “experimental nonfiction, almost gnomic in expression and eccentric in arrangement of material, whose foci of argument never stop wandering”. Oftentimes, the impression he leaves on the reader is that he is undeniably right, but always with a doubt as to why he is; his pessimism, however, is unmistakable.
Within the Context of No Context dealt primarily with television, at a time when criticism of television was still in its infancy. When it first appeared in The New Yorker in November 1980, Magnum, P.I. was set to replace Hawaii Five-O, which had concluded the previous spring, as the on-screen representation of the Aloha State; the prestige television adaptation of James Clavell’s Shōgun was just two months old; and a former actor had just been elected to the White House. The film Network was barely four years old. Video games existed, but they had yet to reach the cultural prominence they now have. Still, to replace “television” with “video games” in no way alters the diagnosis; in some cases, it even reinforces it.
The Aesthetic of the Hit, or, why the two-front war on the gaming press makes impossible its ethical improvement.
“Art requires a context: the power of this moment, the moment of the events in the foreground, seen against the accumulation of other moments. The moment in the foreground adheres to the accumulation or rejects it briefly before joining it. How do the manipulators of television deal with this necessity?
1. By the use of false love. False love is the Aesthetic of the Hit. What is loved is a hit. What is a hit is loved. The back-and-forth of this establishes a context. It seems powerful. What could be more powerful? The love of tens of millions of people. It’s a Hit! Love it! It’s a Hit. It loves you because you love it because it’s a Hit! This is a powerful context, with a most powerful momentum. But what? It stops in a second. The way love can stop, but quicker. It’s not love. There is a distance so great between the lovers that no contact is ever made that is not an abstract contact.
2. By the use of abandoned shells. Pepper dresses up like a cop. Pepper dresses up like a hooker. Pepper has to dress up like a cop to dress up like a hooker. Now This. It’s about cowboys! It’s about doctors! It’s about cowboys who want to become doctors. Or lawyers! Or young lawyers. Or girls who want to dress up like lawyers or like a city lawyer coming to the frontier who finds that the law isn’t what it seems to be when he finds out Jenny’s blind.
3. By the use of ad-hoc contexts. Just for the moment. We’re here together, in a little house. It makes such good sense. But just for a moment. We’re playing “Password”! Do you remember when we played “Password”? Do you remember Johnny? Yes, you do. When he squirted whipped cream on Burt Reynolds, into his trousers? Remember that? Now This.” — Trow.
When the Florida and Region 3 chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists decided to host SPJ AirPlay (last August 15) to address ethics in gaming journalism — an event from which the SPJ distanced itself by refusing to let its logo appear near it — parts of GamerGate were skeptical about the value of the event and even threatened to boycott it. Then it transpired that not only AirPlay’s organizer, SPJ Region 3 president Michael Koretzky (who became interested in the issue on the grounds that it wasn’t ethical to refuse to talk about ethics), was prepared to let GamerGate select its own spokespersons, but that GamerGate critics — “Anti-GamerGate” in Koretzky’s words — were “boycotting” the event. With nobody in attendance prepared to address the mendacious and hypocritical stances of GamerGate, the movement was left free to spin its own narrative to people who, though they were professional journalists who specialized in ethics, appeared to have been selected precisely for their lack of knowledge of the controversy.
Koretzky should have realized that the claim that GamerGate was about ‘ethics in video games journalism’ was a transparent sham, from the movement’s appointment of representatives who were more interested in talking, to the extent that he had to interrupt them, about the nefarious influence of “social justice warriors” on video games than about ethics; from the affiliation of the spokespeople with right-wing outlets (the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington Examiner, Reason, and Breitbart); or just from the declaration by Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos, when Koretzky asked him “where does GamerGate end on ethics and get into what are called social justice warriors”, that “these things are not separable”. In a podcast held after the event, Koretzky said:
“The ethics discussion is totally independent of anything else. If you are a terrorist-pedophile and you want to talk to me about journalism ethics, I will talk to you about journalism ethics, and I will hope you will get arrested for the terrorism and pedophilia. But I’m not going to stop anyone from having a conversation about the ethics of journalism because they might have done some other stupid shit.”
If Koretzky’s fictional interlocutor had told him that journalism ethics could not be separated from terrorism and pedophilia, what would he have said? In the same podcast, Koretzky pointed out the reaction of the audience when he tried to get Yiannopoulos back on track: “Every GamerGater in that audience was pissed off at me for interrupting Milo, and every journalist in the audience — and on the stage — was confused as hell.” At what point does one finally realize that none of the Gaters were interested in a stand-alone discussion of ethics, in other words weren’t interested in an ethical discussion in the first place, no matter how much that ethical discussion was overdue?
Instead of realizing this, Koretzky decided to complain about the lack of coverage AirPlay had received — apart from the bomb threat which interrupted it, a dénouement he called a “mercy killing”— thereby giving credence to the GamerGate narrative that there was a conspiracy of silence in the gaming press about the brave little consumer movement. Koretzky didn’t get it. He didn’t get it that the obsession of the gaming press with the Aesthetic of the Hit would preclude any attempt to improve gaming journalism. He was asked, on the same podcast, what he thought of GamerGate’s attempts to convince advertisers to pull out of publications that had offended the movement. His response:
“The moment — this is what’s so funny about that question, and I’ve heard questions like this — if a publisher — the business side of a website, a gaming website or a media outlet — caves to an advertiser — just once — what do you think is gonna happen? That advertiser now knows you’re his bitch. And advertisers talk to other advertisers; they’re all rich people. And they’ll say: “Oh yeah, you can totally [roll that view?]. Just go there and complain that you don’t like the story and then say you want half off an ad.” So you just deal with it. It’s part of life. And if GamerGate or Anti-GamerGate want to do that, I have no problem but [what] I find really interesting is that’s just a tactic, and as I said both sides give me examples of the other side doing that and asking me to declare unethical.”
The issue is not that both sides do it. Certainly one remembers the American liberal Left’s attempt to kick Rush Limbaugh off the air by targeting his advertisers. It reflects a recent article by Fredrick deBoer in which he stated that the Left is now “going straight to authority”, that it “embraced establishment power and asked it to be part of a liberatory struggle”. But my target here isn’t the counterproductive liberal Left, even though I’ll say what should be obvious: that encouraging advertisers to distance themselves from content they don’t like — by showing such a move as normal, indeed welcome, instead of an attempt at censorship — isn’t going to get more progressive voices on the air, or facilitate controversial reporting (like investigative journalism or the long-dead labor beat), or foster the emergence of a press that isn’t a parrot of corporate interests. My target here is the Right-aligned GamerGate, which is not just counterproductive but also hypocritical.
What was missing from the question that Koretzky was asked on the show was an essential reference to GamerGate’s constant mention of the Gerstmann incident from 2007 as evidence of the movement’s validity while the same movement espoused the very tactics which had led to Jeff Gerstmann’s firing from GameSpot. To acknowledge this would also mean acknowledging that these tactics existed — and were in fact used by gamers themselves — long before GamerGate began streamlining the tradition. Before the movement’s attempt to convince Nintendo to cut off Polygon because of the website’s low score to Bayonetta 2, before the gamer backlash against GameSpot’s Carolyn Petit over an otherwise positive review of Grand Theft Auto V in which misogyny was mentioned, there was this gem from 2006, written over a review that had given too low a score (8.8/10!) to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (the emphasis is the original writer’s):
“Jeff of gamespot needs fired. Let go. Or he owes the world an apology. [Dead link removed.] (apparently Tony Hawk 3 is a 10 worthy game.)
I really hate to make a short, kind of pointless blog. But I have to remember this. I have to have this review and some of my thoughts recorded. I have mentally snapped at not only the review, but that someone like this could ever be hired at a company to review games. To be paid for it….
I can’t even really get this blog well thought out, an 8.8 for this game has killed my brain through anger. Gamespot has now made my list. If a highly held Sony biased site like 1up rates Zelda a 10, this is just unexcusable.
WHEN THIS GAME GETS HELD AS THE GREATEST GAME OF ALL TIME, SURPASSING OCARINA OF TIME, I HOPE YOU GET FIRED JEFF!”
The offending reviewer was, of course, Jeff Gerstmann.
And that’s what Koretzky doesn’t understand. That his idealistic conception of journalism — of a brave press standing up to its advertisers to bring the truth to its grateful readers — is obsolete and, in the context of the gaming press, never existed. The reality of the gaming press is that its own readers will gladly sell it down the river by siding with advertisers, regardless of the long-term consequences of that unholy alliance of fortune.
Catering to an audience of gamers plays out like a protracted, indeed endless, game of Simon Says in which Simon is the ur-gamer. “Simon says to like Game A! Simon says to like Game B! Like Game C! Ha-ha, I didn’t say Simon says! I hated Game C! You’re corrupt, get out!” Gamers don’t want a gaming press that is independent of thought. They want a gaming press that reflects in every way, at every time, the arbitrary consensus of gamers, whose codes every gaming journalist must recognize at once or risk being ostracized as an outsider. In addition, as the consensus is not just arbitrary, but fickle, a gaming journalist must know exactly when the wind is shifting and must himself immediately shift accordingly, at the exact same time — never early, never late. The exact moment is left at the discretion of the gamer consensus.
As a good customer, of course, the gamer is always right. He was right yesterday when he said Game A was the best game in history, and he’s right today when he says Game A is on second thought quite average, and he will be right tomorrow should he be found pestering Valve for a refund. And the role of the gaming press, as gamers conceive of it, is to stand with him at every moment — as a games reviewer, don’t you dare say that you still like Game A when the gamer consensus no longer does, or suggest that the forthcoming Game B it’s now salivating over might turn out to not be quite worth it. Any deviation from the norm, from the consensus, any misreading of the barometer, let alone any declaration of independence from the dictates of one’s readers, will be swiftly punished.
That is the Aesthetic of the Hit.
When The Escapist calls itself “the mouthpiece of the gaming generation”, it’s not just a slogan: it lays out the obligations and limitations of the gaming press — that it must be boosterish and subservient to the Aesthetic of the Hit. I went over this before and have no intention of doing so again, but surely a discussion of ethics in journalism ought to point out how the same demographic which praised Gerstmann for his integrity after he was fired over one game would gladly have seen him fired over another — that the same people who claim to be for ethics in games journalism would launch something like Operation Disrespectful Nod, which listed all the publications whose advertisers had to be targeted.
This was complemented by the website DeepFreeze.it, a guide to allegedly “unethical” reporters and venues that has the unmistakable whiff of a blacklist, which it’s easy to end up on, for the flimsiest of reasons (e.g.: NPR said mean things about GamerGate), and impossible to get off of. Membership in GameJournoPros, the so-called “secret mailing list of the gaming journalism elite”, was enough to land on there, as though to just be associated with a bunch of other gaming reporters were evidence of collusion. I’ll go further and say that the existence of GameJournoPros was not only to be expected, but is also normal. Remove the word “gaming”, make it a little more openly structured, and see if this is any different from the Society of Professional Journalists.
GamerGate or no GamerGate, everything continues as usual in the gaming press. In the aforementioned podcast, Koretzky pointed out that the gaming press never seemed to communicate with journalists outside of it, and remained isolated, doing its own thing. Given the circumstances, I wonder if there is anything it could produce which would resemble real journalism as opposed to chronicling the New History, described by Trow as “the record of the expression of demographically significant preferences: the lunge of demography here as opposed to there”, in which “nothing was judged — only counted” and where “the ideal became agreement rather than well-judged action”.
It’s a Hit! Love it! Or else. Only 8.8 for the best game of all time? Fire the reviewer for not liking it enough! It’s the best game ever! Bah, it’s not good anymore. You haven’t fired that reviewer yet? Well, fire him for saying it was good! But this new game that’s just been announced sounds great!
It’s not just for video games. It’s for everything. Coverage of television shows is now carried out episode by episode. A site like Vox, as fine a collection of hacks as you’re likely to come across, even posted an article entitled: “The real reason people write so much about Mad Men: you keep clicking.” This is the era of the Aesthetic of the Page Hit. A vicious circle that is based on producing content that people will consume, thereby ensuring more of the same. And it is exploited by both people who are for GamerGate and against it.
How planned obsolescence and commercial pressure, including by gamers, perpetuate video games’ context of no context.
“THE CONTEXT OF NO CONTEXT
The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unravelling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.
THE CONTEXT OF NO CONTEXT
Soon it will be achieved. The lie of television has been that there are contexts to which television will grant an access. Since lies last, usually, no more than one generation, television will re-form around the idea that television itself is a context to which television will grant an access.” — Trow.
Until recently, which is long after Trow penned this, television was not really meant to last, and though it might have improved in quality, I am confident that his assessment is still relevant. Still, the mendacity has lost much of its lasting effect, and requires endless repetition at an increasing pace to retain its potency; rare now is the lie which, left alone, extends more than a decade, fifteen years at the most, what with the vagaries of fashion, prevailing tastes, and technology to further shorten its impact. This is especially true for video games.
Gamers and video games journalists always talk of a Citizen Kane of video games. Spotting the advent of the Citizen Kane of video games has become a sport. Spotting spottings of the advent of the Citizen Kane of video games has become a sport. Why are gamers so obsessed over the Citizen Kane of video games? Because it is the best film of all time? If the reference for that is the traditional Sight & Sound list, Citizen Kane was surpassed by Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 2012. Nothing disreputable in looking for the video game equivalent of the second-best film of all time. But what is it with Welles and Citizen Kane that continue to attract video gamers’ attention in a way that Hitchcock and Vertigo do not?
The obsession with Citizen Kane points to something that’s unattainable by video games. Citizen Kane is the diametrical opposite of everything in video games. Welles famously prevented, even from the beyond, any attempt to modify Citizen Kane, including by colorization. And Welles was the suffering artist who — unlike, say, Hitchcock — paid the price for his art. Not that any game designer would want to finish his life recording commercials for frozen peas or Californian plonk to pay the bills, of course. But it’s a fine ideal, especially if everyone more or less realizes (but will never admit) that it will never be approached by anyone in the video games industry.
Who then is the film director who most closely resembles the state of video games? Only one name comes naturally to mind: George Lucas, especially the George Lucas who said in 1997:
“There will only be one [version of the Star Wars films]. And it won’t be what I would call the “rough cut”, it’ll be the “final cut”. The other one will be some sort of interesting artifact that people will look at and say, “There was an earlier draft of this.” The same thing happens with plays and earlier drafts of books. In essence, films never get finished, they get abandoned. At some point, you’re dragged off the picture kicking and screaming while somebody says, “Okay, it’s done.” That isn’t really the way it should work…. So what ends up being important in my mind is what the DVD version is going to look like, because that’s what everybody is going to remember. The other versions will disappear. Even the 35 million tapes of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years. A hundred years from now, the only version of the movie that anyone will remember will be the DVD version [of the Special Edition], and you’ll be able to project it on a 20-foot-by-40-foot screen with perfect quality. I think it’s the director’s prerogative, not the studio’s, to go back and reinvent a movie.”
What’s important here is that the new version is meant to obliterate every trace of the old, regardless of the initial impact Star Wars had when it premiered in 1977. Even television now does not go that far. Also, while the new version draws on the old film and pretends to be the continuation of it, the new version is not the same film. Finally, we can see who wields the real power over these decisions — it’s not even, contra Lucas, the director, as Lucas did not direct Star Wars episodes V and VI; it was in his capacity as the CEO of Lucasfilm — i.e. the copyright holder — that the changes to these films were made. (The director of Episode VI, Richard Marquand, was already dead by the time of Lucas’ remarks, and the film was “reinvented” nonetheless.) But also see how only the successes are affected by the desire to constantly revisit, even though film has one advantage on video games in that it’s possible to enjoy a bad film, whereas a good game is almost by definition one that is already enjoyed. It was Lucas who understood the concept of planned obsolescence that keeps video game production running, and not Welles, who chose artistic integrity over keeping up with the times.
It is telling that Kanespotting always treats the Citizen Kane of video games as something either (1) yet to materialize; or (2) just released. Kanespotting is always looking forward. Nobody looks back. I do not mean “back” as in: “Didn’t Michael Thomsen declare that Metroid Prime was our Citizen Kane back in 2009?” Nobody does that anyway, because it’s embarrassing: the passage of time turns most if not all such exalted claims to dust. No, I mean “back” as in: looking for the Citizen Kane of video games as having occurred in an era when nobody was looking for one, or at least when looking for one wasn’t a sport — in the eighties, early nineties. Pac-Man, Tetris, Pong, whatever. Take your pick.
That nobody has time for Kanespotting backward speaks volumes about the state of the history of video games, about its being treated as something yet in the making, whose perfection has not yet been attained. Not in decline, not stagnant, not decadent, but something in which there is still something to look forward to. But that idea of progress requires the replacement of the past, except for the parts to be held up as an embarrassment. Yes, nostalgia exists, and sometimes it does like to bring up the embarrassing past (see the Angry Video Game Nerd). But the idea of an idealized past requires an even more extensive destruction of the parts of the real past that remain to belie it, or its reinvention to make it palatable to the present.
Preservation of the past of video games is already difficult enough. With commercial imperatives almost compelling publishers to improve on what few games from the past are still viable, the result is that few old games still exist, and very few of those exist as they initially existed. Planned obsolescence makes the others unplayable and confines them to the graveyard, no longer tended, forgotten by all. The reason why the Citizen Kane of video games does not currently exist is that if it ever existed, it is in that graveyard, where nobody remembers it existed; and if it exists and is remembered, it no longer exists as it once existed. The plight of the classic video game is that of the ship of Theseus: the conditions which made possible its continued existence no longer exist, but its continued existence negates the possibility of a previous existence that differs from its present existence. It is, but cannot be said to be what it was; and our memory of the was has been obliterated by the is.
This is the world of video games, the context of no context of video games.
Citizen Kane exists as it always existed, something which is impossible for a video game; ergo, the frantic search for the Citizen Kane of video games in the only era in which a video game can exist as it was created: the present. By “the present”, I mean: as long as people want to play it and can play it as it was created, whichever ends first. After that, should the game have turned out not to be a work of lasting importance, the graveyard awaits; and if it indeed proved to be a work of lasting importance, it is resurrected as something else. Canonization of video games is made difficult, if not impossible, because canonization usually means continued influence, thus availability, i.e. the existence of a new, resurrected version. (It’s not canonical if nobody can play it anymore, and if the original is still playable, it’s not really old enough to be canonized, I think, unless clear artistic influence can be demonstrated.) And the new version isn’t the same as the original. The differences might be slight at first, but will become more apparent with the passage of time. The history of mass-market video games only goes back forty years at the most, and already the urge to reinvent video games is all over the place; what will it be in 100 or 150 years?
Because of this, if canonization is pressed forward, it is based on a lie: that the game whose pedigree is being invoked (i.e. the original version) to point to its importance to the history in video games is the same as the version currently offered. Canonization destroys the basis for canonization by legitimizing improvement of video games, which — the key phrase in Lucas’ remark — never get finished but abandoned. The only variant here is that they are either never finished (i.e. constant improvement and resurrection) or abandoned (i.e. the graveyard). Needless to say, for the same commercial considerations set out in the previous paragraph, this is the current state of affairs. The danger is that at one point the resurrection will not be carried out, leading to its confinement to the graveyard. And the graveyard means it ceases to exist, not only in the minds of the game-playing public but also, in the long term, physically.
I do not want to dwell on games with extrinsic reasons for importance that cannot be replicated after they have run their course, though they are the perfect example of the pitfalls of canonization. The major genre here is the MMORPG. If a video games museum of the future installed twelve terminals at which to play on a private server of World of Warcraft after Activision discontinued the game, will playing there say much about the importance, in its day, of World of Warcraft? Perhaps it is impossible for MMORPGs to avoid the graveyard, but what is being offered here is something else, something worse: it is taxidermy. A fate worse than death, for it robs death of its dignity, while offering nothing of the living individual under the pretense of one: an empty shell, for public display. I have played enough online games to fully measure the melancholy and futility of an empty server; that is all such a museum exhibit will be able to replicate. Or perhaps therein lies the only true art of which video games are capable.
If the new destroying the old until it destroys itself — the Lucasification of video games (by which I mean intentional modification, not minimally coping with the planned obsolescence of the technology that supports video games, which nonetheless alters them) — became the norm, can one picture a history of video games that would make any sense? And ask yourself this: Which game would gamers rather play? One by the Orson Welles of game designers as it was originally intended, or one by the George Lucas of video games that was remade three or four times?
History speaks for itself. I remember that the re-releases of the first three Super Mario Bros. games for the then-new 16-bit Super Nintendo (in addition to the real Super Mario Bros. 2, repackaged as “The Lost Levels”, that had hitherto been left unreleased in North America) added background details, and perhaps more “improvements” that I don’t remember, that were not in the 8-bit versions. Now see how there is a Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, made just fifteen years after the original, which, among other things, replaced some of the original cinematics, retroactively added improvements introduced in the original game’s sequel, and inserted new characters and even a new subplot. Sprawling franchises like Tomb Raider and SimCity have dropped numerals and are now pretending to start over. The Paradox studio releases expansions that modify large parts of its games, whether you buy the new content or not. We expanded the map to India. Now This.
And then there are the gamers, who openly advocate for this to be done. They pestered Square Enix to remake Final Fantasy VII, and now that they’re getting it, they have started asking for changes in addition to those that were already planned. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what gamers can do when they don’t get what they want, like that time they decided to put pressure on BioWare, the developer of Mass Effect 3, with complaints to the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau about the ending; the BBB delivered a hilariously surreal response:
“The issue at stake here is, did Bio Ware falsely advertise? Technically, yes, they did. In the first bullet point, where it states “the decisions you make completely shape your experience”, there is no indecision in that statement. It is an absolute. The next statement is not so absolute. It states “your choices drive powerful outcomes”. A consumer would have to very carefully analyze this statement to come to a conclusion that the game’s outcome is not “wholly” determined by one’s choices. This statement, really though, is very subject to interpretation. Also this is just a small example of their advertising and does not take into account anything that might have been said, as far as their public relations and other advertising campaigns.”
Consumers in revolt. Were there an Orson Welles of video games delivering a Citizen Kane of video games to which gamers detested the ending, they’d be whining to be given what they want, artistic integrity be damned. Or else.
GamerGate was a movement just waiting to happen, yes, but see over what it was declared: not over the ending of a large-budget game made by a major studio, but over Zoe Quinn, an independent designer who was (falsely) alleged to have slept with a Kotaku journalist to promote her free-to-play game. And on top of that, a series of articles proclaiming “gamers” were dead, over, a thing of the past. I can understand gamers being incensed at receiving the news of their demise; and I am skeptical of people presumptuous enough to make pronouncements that carry the certainty of cemeteries. But as if GamerGate being repulsive weren’t enough because of its association with (and, once exposed, repudiation of) Hitler glorifiers, rape apologists, Holocaust deniers, white nationalists, and motley lovable eccentrics who defy description, it also had to be dishonest and stupid.
Where does GamerGate end on dishonesty and get into stupidity? Maybe these things are not separable. Surely it must have dawned on the movement that by calling itself a “consumer revolt”, it had embraced a position requiring the support of people who were bent on betraying it from the beginning if they ever saw a reason to, for reasons the anti-GamerGate game designer Damion Schubert made explicit when he brought up the subject of designers who strangely resisted making their games more inclusive:
“Meanwhile, from my point of view, I wonder why these people don’t like money. Because at the end of the day, that’s what the push for greater diversity is all about CAPITALISM for those of us MAKING games. Getting more people to get their hands on our games — more non-gamers to play, more gamers from other demographics to play, or more gamers from new, emerging markets to play the game.”
And that’s what GamerGate is, really: a “consumer revolt” telling the Market to renounce making more money. Oh, right, I forgot: or else. Boycott. Legions of gamers with hands locked under their yellowing underpants. A resolve that everyone knows will endure, at most, all of five minutes. Nobody is fooled, except perhaps gamers, and I’m not even sure about them. But above all, the gaming industry isn’t fooled. It knows how self-indulgent gamers are. It knows that gamers must keep consuming to remain bona fide members of the Gamers’ Club. And it knows that they have nowhere else to go, except towards independent games they make a point of despising. Sure, GamerGate is a year old now; but it’s all noise, and besides, it comes with a silver lining: Not only will gamers continue to buy games as they always have done, but they might also keep their own press shackled to corporate interests. Who could ask for anything more?
It’s also worth asking what more inclusive games will look like. Probably just as artistically stale and bankrupt as the previous generation. Too much money at stake for risk-taking — that won’t change. For all the talk of the Bechdel test, for instance, is it possible to conceive of its implementation as anything else than just another tick-box on a Hollywood executive’s to-do list, bringing about Samuel Goldwyn’s old adage: “Let’s have some new clichés”?
But the situation proper to video games is that the new clichés will not only supplant the old in new games, but that they will also supplant them in old games. The old clichés will become the purview of graveyards. And no medium has become as eager to neglect its graveyard as the video game — and this while most of the people who produced the content of the graveyard and played it are still alive. Perhaps it’s out of embarrassment. Or perhaps it’s because a video game is only good for the money it can still continue to make in a format built around ephemerality.
How the treatment of the gaming press as disposable plays into the hands of GamerGate’s attempt to shape gaming discourse.
“There are very few simple magazines now; that is, very few magazines that seek to establish a simple, honorable agreement with the reader. It has been some time since there has been a simple fashion magazine, for instance — one in which the wearing of certain clothes by certain people has been of any importance. Instead, what has been going on for some time is that what there is in a fashion magazine is something to do with the idea of the possible existence of approval and disapproval adhering to clothes, in an abstract way that shifts and runs before the reader with a completely confusing result. What has been going on for some time is that what a fashion magazine advances is not the idea that there is one interesting thing to do or wear but the idea that there are a hundred and one possibilities existing together in a context that is never described, so that what shifts is not the clothes in the foreground (which was what shifted before) but the background itself, which is never shown, because it is shifting in a way that the editors cannot possibly describe but that they pretend to know, because that is what their effort has been founded on — that they do know it. This has been going on for some time, and yet fashion magazines have been more successful than ever, until they have approached the context of a Hit, in which they are advertised in because they are advertised in.” — Trow.
Video games are dangerous because most of the people who are involved with them cannot be bothered to play more than the short game. Most video game “journalists” (not to mention too many regular journalists) as well as their readers play the short game. The best evidence for that is the fate of the Penny Arcade Report. In December 2013, the Penny Arcade duo of Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik announced they were shuttering the Report after two years of operation. Holkins (a.k.a. Tycho) wrote:
“Child’s Play and PAX have lives of their own, now. They’re vital, and they need an obsessive level of care. We will do everything in our power to ensure that these things outlast us by a wide margin.
But I don’t think I want to “grow my business” anymore; I sort of want to do the opposite. And I’m tired, sick to death, of saying “Maybe Someday” when it comes to the things we really want to make. So, we’re not going to do that anymore. The next year is going to be a pretty big one, one of the biggest yet; it’s the year the previous fifteen have been leading up to in the literal sense but also in other ways. I think they’re going to be “big years” from now on, frankly. And it hurts pretty bad, but I don’t know where PATV as a “channel” for third party shows and The Penny Arcade Report fit into that. We’ll be shutting those things down at the end of this year.
I think they’re beautiful and useful and important; I use them every day. It’s possible that you do, too. I hired people to run them, or paid them, and I am making their lives worse by doing this. Losing Ben [Kuchera, the writer most associated with the site, who had been recruited from Ars Technica in 2012] is especially painful — he did everything we asked of him, and more. The only comfort is knowing that everyone affected by this is excellent, as is attested continually by their excellent work, and will certainly land on their feet.”
Where are those “beautiful and useful and important things” now? Gone. Not just no longer updated, but removed from the Penny Arcade website not even a year after this was posted. If someone linked to a Report page, it now leads to a 404: not found that reads: “I only read web pages that don’t exist yet. You’ve probably never heard of them…” Those pages did exist, and no longer do, but Penny Arcade insists that they don’t exist yet — implying that they will exist. Taken literally, this is ephemerality constantly reinventing itself in the construction of its own history by destroying its former self; like video games, like video games reporting. Except that here I have no doubt that the reinvention will never happen. Instead, these two people play the Orwellian hipster, and fail to realize how sinister it sounds. (Given the dickwolves debacle, I attribute this to chronic tone-deafness.)
At any rate, the Report no longer exists to chronicle how something which still exists used to exist before its present state of existence. And there is no place more complicit in conflating the Aesthetic of the Hit with Orwellianism than Wikipedia, according to which, if it is to be believed (which is: no), the Penny Arcade Report never existed, not even (as the edit history of the Penny Arcade page reveals) when it actually did. Instead, the page still cites a 2011 Paramount announcement for a film adaptation of a PA strip — a film which has yet to materialize, which means, in the absence of any new update four years later, that it probably never will.
With their discontinuing, then their destruction, of the Penny Arcade Report, Holkins and Krahulik confirmed that they would never leave the comforting confines of Neverland. That much was to be expected just by looking at the longevity of their comic strip and consequently remembering how old they are. Perhaps they’ll reach an age where they realize that what they do is pathetic — and if not they, at least their readers. (That’s the point Adam Sandler has reached; he will turn 50 next year, but he is still playing a 30-year-old acting like a teenager. He’s not cute anymore; now he is just projecting an uncomfortable image back at his audience, and I think that pointing at changing attitudes towards the sexism of his films is just a red herring.) But here again Trow comes to mind:
“THE DECLINE OF ADULTHOOD
Adulthood” in the last generation has had very little to do with “adulthood” as that word would have been understood by adults in any previous generation. Rather, “adulthood” has been defined as “a position of control in the world of childhood.”
THE ADOLESCENT ORTHODOXY
Ambitious Americans, sensing this, have preferred to remain adolescents, year after year.”
Nevertheless, the most disturbing aspect of the disappearance of the Penny Arcade Report wasn’t that Holkins and Krahulik made decisions apparently only out of what they thought fun, even if it involved something with a higher purpose like journalism (“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper”, goes a film that probably no gamer ever saw), and undid these decisions once the fun exhausted. No, the most disturbing aspect of the disappearance of the Penny Arcade Report is that nobody else appeared to have noticed it, let alone complained about it. Games journalism is disposable. Out of sight, out of mind. This is the short game. It’s all over the place.
GamerGate’s success (that is, in its own mind) is derived from its exploitation of the shortcomings of the short game while playing the long game, aided in this by regular cultural warriors who know how it is played, this even without knowing (or even liking) video games. This is why the AirPlay roster was necessary; without Yiannopoulos and company, GamerGate might have collapsed long ago. But the genius of GamerGate has always been to appear to play the short game, in full knowledge that the public it tried to reach knew only those rules. Jeff Gerstmann recognized the pattern: GamerGate talked “in circles that feel like they’re designed to waste as much time as possible, exhausting their target in the process”. Electronic Fabianism was the natural strategy to follow, and there was one platform that proved ideal for its use: Twitter.
When I wrote my first posts on GamerGate last year, I lacked any first-hand experience of Twitter. I finally opened an account there in December. Before I started using it, I found the concept behind it both ridiculous and restrictive; I still do, but now I see how it became GamerGate’s medium of predilection:
1) The 140-character limit is practically an invitation — nay, a summons — for the dishonest and mendacious to misquote, spin things out of context, or otherwise discourage fact-checking. At the very least, it reduces everything to superficial sound bites. It took brevity to be the soul of wit, but by making it obligatory rendered it soulless and witless. The structure of Twitter itself hampers followups and later referencing, by allowing members to swamp discussions or branching away especially nettlesome queries (not to mention the outright deletion of posts later deemed embarrassing — and who’d believe a screenshot?), with the new always burying the old.
2) GamerGate is playing the long game using a format where a short attention span, and consequently the short game, is the norm. What GamerGate lacks in new arguments, it more than makes up for in endless repetition, as evidenced by many articles linked to under the #GamerGate hashtag being several months old. True to #1, GamerGate itself rarely expounded at length on its views in written form, where what it says about itself cannot withstand scrutiny; meanwhile, it relishes video commentaries, for they make citation by its opponents difficult and time-consuming. All GamerGate then needs to do is frantically reassert what it is opposed to; everyone knows by heart the articles GamerGate finds offensive, whose status by now borders on the canonical within the movement. Let the other side waste its time writing these mean words about us; we’ll choose what serves us and nobody will bother to double-check, and if someone actually does, we’ll bury him with endless repetition. This strengthens the core group in the process.
3) Because of the pervasive follow-to-be-followed rule (from which only the legitimately famous — i.e. for reasons extrinsic to Twitter — are truly exempt), it enables the creation of cliques, and from cliques, movements, from which follower counts are then used in the construction of an ad hoc hierarchy. GamerGate may claim to have no leaders, but clearly not all members are of similar clout. Such is the topsy-turvy nature of Twitter that anyone failing to adhere to the follow-to-be-followed rule is immediately assumed to be not a person of integrity, but a troll, while the sycophants are rewarded for their efforts. Hashtags foster a herd mentality where someone influential declaring someone else a troll immediately sets off a chain of blockings of the offending user. From there, it was only a matter of time before the deplorable development of blockbots made users renounce to someone else their own ability to decide whom they should block — in effect, an Index Twittorum Prohibitorum for lazy people to make sure that only voices from their own side could be heard. Twitter, before long, becomes an echo chamber for the short of breath.
4) Other Twitter features include a blocking function that blocks you from reading whoever blocked you while you’re logged into the service, enabling the possible scenario where you could be libeled behind a door closed only to you. As Twitter is a medium built around empty fame and dishonesty, it was almost begging for a GamerGate to happen. Twitter can’t be fixed. The problem with Twitter is what makes it Twitter.
Because of these reasons, it is impossible to win by fighting the battle on Twitter, GamerGate’s home turf. The rule also applies to YouTube, the new talk radio. GamerGate, however, is allergic to long-form print, to formats with controlled conditions for debate. For that reason, I thought AirPlay would have helped dispel the façade of “ethics in video games journalism”, but that was putting too much faith in those who should have set the record straight, including Koretzky.
Besides, with people playing the long game while pretending to play the short game, it doesn’t matter. My guess is that one-half of the core of the movement knows it’s not about ethics, and that the other half knows it’s not even about gaming anymore. But to point at the sloppy gaming press, then at the lack of coverage of an event detailing how sloppy it is as evidence of a conspiracy, is a good recruitment tactic.
Whatever was actually said at SPJ AirPlay in Miami is irrelevant; it was made so by GamerGate itself, except for the convenient parts. As the three-quarters-empty auditorium demonstrated, nobody outside of the organizers cared about it — nobody except GamerGate. A few of its opponents did, originally, but they’ve moved on. And now few people inside GamerGate, and no people outside of it, are going to watch the nearly four-hour integral recordings of SPJ AirPlay, leaving the main narrative open to massaging by the first person who can deliver an entertaining edit of it. It turned out to be LeoPirate, “a highly visible GG person” according to a poster at the pro-GG KotakuInAction Reddit, who cobbled together a 17-minute edit of AirPlay.
Notably absent from the LeoPirate cut of the AirPlay debates is the “not separable” exchange between Koretzky and Yiannopoulos. The exchange that summarized the movement even more clearly than its participants ever did — perhaps too clearly. Just as Yiannopoulos’ remark is absent from the LeoPirate cut, so is Koretzky’s palpably growing exasperation with the slick Breitbarter’s tangent. Instead, we get short, playful edits, including that all-important segment where Christina Hoff Sommers discovers what “furries” are, with visuals and a musical beat to enliven it. Under the video, he writes:
“** ALL EDITING WAS FORWARD CUT **
This means I did not rearrange the clips to say things they didn’t actually say. I only cut out pauses and highlighted certain points. Please watch the full versions of SPJ Airplay panels linked below.”
Which to me sounds like those people who upload entire films and have the gall to cite the Copyright Act provisions for fair use. Sure, they don’t “say things they didn’t actually say”; but can it be said he has only “cut out pauses” when the resulting edit is not even ten percent of the length of both panels? Of course, “please watch the full versions”; but if you’re a Gater, or just someone mildly curious about SPJ AirPlay, which version would you rather watch? A patchwork of short sound bites with a backbeat, or a cumulative 200 minutes of talking heads? Yeah, I thought so. Now guess which version gets endlessly retweeted.
So, Yiannopoulos’ “not separable” remark, though essential to a real understanding of GamerGate, is ignored. Expunged from the record. Nowhere to be found in GamerGate’s Official Version. On all of the Internet, there are, as far as I can find, only four mentions of Yiannopoulos’ remark. One is in a complete transcript of the afternoon panel. Two are from me. The last is at an anti-GamerGate Reddit page where a comment adds: “Thank goodness these elected GG representatives could summarize the movement’s true motives so succinctly.”
So succinctly that GamerGate, even if it privately agreed with every word, would never point to it — for that would mean Game Over. GamerGate can only survive through obfuscation and reinvention, and as such will spurn any attempt to pin it down, even by its own side. The beauty of GamerGate is that once the movement will have run its course, it will have left no cogent traces of its actions behind it, and those that remain will be impossible to put back together. Just as video games and as video games journalism, it will have consumed its own past to reinvent it. Then who will reinvent its past? Those who see what Trow saw. The shifting background.
Who then sees the shifting background? People who play the very long game. People who have noticed the importance of the New History without being fooled by it, but who will try to spin out of this New History something to include in the traditional History, “the record of growth, conflict, and destruction” in Trow’s words. People who are aware of History and can measure its importance, especially the destruction. People who play the very long game, though they might have a large pool of readers, are really writing for the two categories of people who cannot read them: those who are not yet born, and those who are already dead. They understand the passage of time. Nobody quite as succinctly and as famously summed up their way of thinking as Orwell: “He who controls the past, controls the future; he who controls the future, controls the present.” There is always the danger that they will not be taken seriously, until nobody is left to contradict them. It is then, and only then, that they will find their true audience.
Take the case of Alexander Macris, the co-founder of The Escapist who is also a vice-president at Defy Media, its controlling company. Everything points to his playing the very long game. Very few people who are into video games play the very long game. But he does play it. He knows how to play it. More importantly, he knows why to play it, which makes him all the more redoubtable. Above all, he is in a good position to play it well. He knows it. And his eye is on the background.
First, there was his conversation with an ex-Gater by the name of “pixelgoth”: “I’ve literally been studying philosophy, postmodernism, public relations, for years, and predicting a culture war / and as it happens I have a dozen sites reaching 50M people…”. One whiff at the rest of the Defy Media properties (EveryJoe, MadeMan, etc.) is enough to get the idea. “Pixelgoth” commented that “people need to understand just how fucked up and insidious his involvement in GG is”. And I agree.
There are abundant clues that his game is a very long one indeed. There is the content of his Twitter feed, where references to gaming are interspersed with an interest in warfare, cultural or otherwise, and a few other things besides, leaving an indelible impression of never being as serious as when he appears to be trolling. I also found out he was a member of the advisory group of an organization called the Entertainment Media Council, the “first and only professional association for business leaders in the video game industry” (in other words, it’s a business lobby represented by people from gaming companies). Last January, the EMC announced a project to create a video games journalism database “available to corporate and academic researchers by subscription only”. According to EMC president and chief executive officer Morgan Ramsay:
“We are losing our history. Although the video game industry has become an essential feature of popular culture, until now there has been no compelling effort to preserve the journalistic lens through which we have watched this industry evolve. Our initiative, in cooperation with every media company that has played a role in the conversation about video games, will ensure there is a singular resource for serious research, for those who would remember our past to shape our future.”
The first publication to sign up for this? The Escapist. A vice-president at Defy Media (not Macris) commented in the announcement:
“The video game industry has produced some of the most trailblazing editorial and journalistic content in entertainment, and we’re proud that The Escapist editorial team, who stand among the most respected and followed game-focused journalists in the world, are part of this legacy. The introduction of the EMC database provides a fantastic opportunity to centralize the history of the video game industry in a manner that will provide accessible information to journalists, audiences craving more content, and gaming enthusiasts for generations to come.”
A VentureBeat article welcomed the idea as “an indictment of the growth of the game industry to its current state”. I agree, but that’s because I know what the word “indictment” means. For my part, I am suspicious of this venture, precisely because I understand how the very long game is played, and I know the stakes.
For instance, the expression “video game industry” seems to be applied indiscriminately to both the production of video games (“the journalistic lens through which we have watched this industry evolve”) and the reporting on them (“the video games industry has produced some of the most trailblazing editorial and journalistic content in entertainment”). If we carry this to its natural conclusion, the ambiguity exists because there is no difference between the production of video games and the reporting on them. The EMC conception of the gaming press is one that, based on this, is for all intents and purposes, exists only as an appendage to the games industry. A GamerGate version of the gaming press. Centralized, under the auspices of the people it covers. Out of fear of losing “our history” — a remark at which someone aware of the very long game would inquire: “whose history exactly?”
The answer writes itself. The video game industry’s. The commissioned history. The New History. “The record of the expression of demographically significant preferences.” Nothing judged, only counted. Would you trust it? Why wouldn’t you trust it, if it’s all that remains?
Because the video games that we know now are not be the same video games that will be known then, we should treat every review of a current video game as that of a lost film. As something irretrievable. Or as a review that covers something which, at the very least, is not what it once was in spite of the continuity that may appear to exist — like a live Caruso recital compared to the aura of Caruso as it endures on an acoustic recording, where the former can only be guessed at from the press of the era. Like a review of the original Crusader Kings II before Paradox released, as of writing, ten expansions and some other downloadable content besides. But as the Penny Arcade Report demonstrates, most gaming journalism is conceived to be disposed of after use, with none of the lasting importance that led to the archival of newspapers. Therein lies the peril: That the more intelligent people in GamerGate — and they’re people with an eye on posterity and usually with something to gain — might snatch a victory for their movement in the very long game because they operate in a field where everyone else plays, and enjoys playing, and gets bored playing anything longer than, the short game.
While I admit to have very little knowledge of fashion magazines, let alone of those from the seventies, Trow provided us with strong clues as to foreground and background. Trow’s fashion magazine foreground — the clothes. Trow’s background — the approval and disapproval adhering to clothes. Here, the foreground is the games and the various individual products. The background is the gamer lifestyle. The entirety of the specialized gaming press embraces the pattern, with only slight differences as to what is the lifestyle. “Not everyone who plays games is a gamer”, Macris wrote in September 2014. A clear indication that what is being sold by The Escapist is not the individual products, but the lifestyle. Something that The Escapist will attempt to sell, up to the point where it becomes an arbiter of the lifestyle itself — a Hit that is advertised in because it is advertised in.
The cold child as a video gamer, the totalitarian potential of video games, and GamerGate as a new form of banality of evil
“Television is dangerous because it operates according to an attention span that is childish but is cold. It simulates the warmth of a childish response but is cold. If it were completely successful in simulating the warmth of childish enthusiasm — that is, if it were warm — would that be better? It would be better only in a society that had agreed that childish warmth and spontaneity were equivalent to public virtue; that is, in a society of children.
What is a cold child? A sadist. What is childish behavior that is cold? It is sadism. After generations of cold childhood, cold childhood upon cold childhood, one piling on the other, moving, at their best, into frenzied adolescence, certain ugly blemishes have surfaced.” — Trow.
And what would the personification of the cold child look like? GamerGate came up with the perfect example: Vivian James. I have in mind Katherine Cross’s article at Jacobin: Her point is that “Vivian James is what certain male gamers have in mind when they say women are welcome in the hobby”, in that “she is apolitical, sexually available, speaks only to agree with or echo a male gamer’s sentiments, and does not question the consumerist principles of fan culture”.
On all of these points I agree, except for “sexually available”. That Vivian “was also featured in more than a few works of titillating art or outright pornography” strikes me as neither here nor there. The original — never mind the inevitable fantasies that followed — is remarkable for how asexual she is. Filiform, or at best hip-heavy, and wearing jeans and a hoodie, a far cry from the Victoria’s Secret models to whom Cross compares her. Were I to push the point, I would argue that she is for the most part devoid of any trace of femininity. She’s a tomboy, and as such exactly the kind of woman welcome into the GamerGate treehouse, according to the movement’s official narrative.
Turn the male gaze on Vivian James, and what do you get? The void gazing back. Her more arresting feature is her eyes. The eyes of a psychopath.
Vivian James is GamerGate’s own representation of itself. She has everything of the cold child. A sadist. “Serious-faced” is Katherine Cross’s description. Serious, about video games? I think it recoups Trow’s own “the trivial is raised up to power”. At any rate, there is something so inherently repulsive about Vivian James that I wonder if someone at The Fine Young Capitalists, who helped design her, didn’t in fact pull a supreme act of subversion, perhaps to top the one allegedly involving her colour scheme: “The purple and green alludes to an animated GIF called “Piccolo Dick” which shows the Dragon Ball anime character Piccolo sodomizing Vegeta, another character from the series.”
I have yet to consider the connection between anime and GamerGate. I have noticed it on Twitter. I think it is not by accident that anime screenshots were perched on top of Koretzky’s posts on the AirPlay website. And then there was that time someone dropped a gratuitous reference to GamerGate in the dubbing of a “trashy sexploitation” anime series, with Gaters taking to the American publisher, Funimation, to remind it of “where their bread was buttered”. Evidently, according to the consumer revolt, with those who like their male teenage power fantasies, as so many of these anime series are.
I’ve seen a few anime series, not that many compared to other people, but enough to know what they involve. Only one anime series approached what I could consider art: Welcome to the N.H.K., about a hikikomori who blames the Japanese broadcaster for being so entertaining that it keeps him in a state of perpetual childhood. (How fitting.) The series practically exists to puncture any dream that comes within its vicinity, culminating in one sequence where the protagonist is confronted with a picture of himself at fifty, having wasted his life playing online games, but proudly level 13,000 and the hero of a bunch of pixels. Everything else that I have seen was tantamount to superhero stuff, with the exotic allure of Japanese culture on top.
There is something frightening in the ruthless pursuit of power as is the norm in video games, which may herald the return to the mainstream of ideologies hitherto considered safely buried in the past. Just as the cinema (and its heir, television) was the totalitarian medium par excellence of the twentieth century, the video game will be that of the twenty-first. But nobody will recognize video games for what they are, because of the feeling of empowerment and illusion of choice that come with them. Video games are no different from what Trow was writing of television in 1980: “The permission given by television is permission to make tiny choices, within the context of total permission infected with a sense of no permission at all.”
Whatever choices you are provided with, someone already decided what they would be. Is it an exaggeration? Video games are producing a generation of perpetual adolescents, yes, but perpetual adolescents encouraged to pursue naked self-interest through pleasurable yet arbitrary rules. This article from The Week on the friends of the alleged mass murderer Dylann Roof talked about the situation without quite measuring its implications:
“It turns out that rural white poverty is not so different from any other kind. It tends to narrow social horizons to immediate friends and family, if not further. With few other sources of emotional support, self-medication via cigarettes, alcohol, or more is common. The escapism of video games is enormously attractive, and why not? Where else can one get an appealing, cheap simulacrum of an exciting lifestyle where success is obtained by following easily understood rules?”
People with a better understanding of the situation have called video games “sumptuous regular holidays from morality, homeopathic plunges into narcissistic devastation”, and mentioned how “it’s often proposed that the dignity of games therefore lies in their future utility: play Doom now so you can pilot a Predator drone later, or learn to reduce your workforce with a click of a mouse”. Ludicrous, perhaps; but then why does America’s Army exist? Why would the Pentagon blow $33 million dollars on making a free-to-play shooter game if it expected nothing from it in return?
Designers don’t even hide that “shaping our players’ behavior is a critical part of designing videogames”. A recent article at The Atlantic was asking: “What insight can the new video game Prison Architect offer into the structures and complexities of incarceration in America?” But why should we be turning to a video game for insights on prison design? That the design abstractions of a video game might not entirely replicate the complexity of a real-life situation should go without saying, but even that article — which, given its source, is intended as more than just a review of Prison Architect — felt compelled to point it out:
“Every simulation, of course, is a simplification of the real-world system it models. The issue with Prison Architect is not that it fails to represent every aspect of prisons’ complexity, but that the aspects it omits are among the most important for understanding why and how mass incarceration is the way it is. Perhaps this makes for a better game, but it’s ludicrous to pretend that it makes for a worthwhile study of the 21st-century American prison, which has much more to do with decades of punishing state and federal policies on incarceration than the variety of meals inmates are offered. At their worst, Prison Architect’s simplifications exclude the identities and histories that have been swallowed up by the grey, carceral wastes of America.”
After listing the myriad ways in which Prison Architect falls short of addressing the nuances of the American carceral system, the author points out that “what is selected and left out of simulation betrays the intentions, motivations, and biases, conscious and not-so-conscious, of those who designed the simulation”. This is true for every game, but with more worrying implications in some than in others; and as I recently discovered to my amazement, even GamerGate realizes it, as this prominent Gater’s tweet demonstrated:
“If a movie contains political brainwashment (sic), the viewer can just fast-forward.
If a book does, the reader can just skip pages until it’s over.
If a video game does, the viewer will have to watch it, hear it, and every (sic) partecipate (sic) in it if he wants to continue the game. That’s why interactive propaganda is more effective.
You can’t tell a film or book fan “you must comply with this ideology to continue”, but you can tell a gamer to.
A study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2008 showed America’s Army had more impact on people than all other forms of Army advertising COMBINED.
Some games go as far as having you make political “choices”, where the game leads you on into making a specific choice; if you select the other option the game will chastise you, make you feel guilty for it, and even suggest that such choice makes you a bad person.
Most gamers can name at least one game that made them do this.
That’s why political propagandists are battling for control on the medium.”
Already we can see how much respect the Gaters have for artistic integrity in bona fide art forms like film or literature: if you don’t like it, just skip — and probably more accurately, boycott, because everything is reduced to the whim of the consumer. Gaters readily admit the premise of the effectiveness of “interactive propaganda”, but the assumption here is that political propaganda in video games is fine if it’s people on GamerGate’s ideological side who are doing it, but that never enough will be done to expose the nefarious influence of the “social justice warriors” doing the same even though their own impact on political affairs is anemic at best.
Ironically, if there is a group of thinkers who have dedicated their careers to pointing this out, it’s the Frankfurt School, exactly the kind of intellectuals GamerGate has in mind when it talks of “cultural Marxism”, though the term, according to this assessment at The Escapist’s sister site and comrade-in-arms in the culture wars, EveryJoe, is synonymous with all of Continental philosophy of the second half of the 20th century, as interpreted by someone who can’t be bothered to make differences between various currents within it — Frankfurt School, Postmodernists, even a reactionary like Heidegger, same thing. The EveryJoe article, for example, writes:
“To figure out how to practically tolerate everything, except intolerance is the great challenge of these Postmodernist philosophies. Critical Theorist Herbert Marcuse wrote in Repressive Tolerance that society was wrong to tolerate many things:
“[T]he systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence [..]The authorities in education, morals, and psychology are vociferous against the increase in juvenile delinquency; they are less vociferous against the proud presentation, in word and deed and pictures, of ever more powerful missiles, rockets, bombs — the mature delinquency of a whole civilization.”
He held that a truly tolerant society must cease to tolerate these elements because they support “repression”, and as such even economically liberal democracies are “totalitarian” in a way.
The adherents to these ways of thinking are often not aware that it is an ideological position at all; the basis of this worldview falls in to place quite logically. But it precludes other philosophies without people realizing it: realism, objectivism, positivism and large parts of mathematics and science stand in direct opposition to postmodern thinking.”
But didn’t Trow complain of the same “moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda”? And nobody would have mistaken him for anything other than he was — an upper-middle-class conservative pining for a society that valued patrician virtues, and accordingly dominated by Ivy League-educated white men with whom he identified even though he came from an obscure family. He wore a fedora long after it had ceased to be fashionable, and even had a lesson or two to give to those who now use it as a symbol of a bygone masculinity: “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned — not out of any wish of mine but out of necessity. A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me”. And he was mostly famous for writing for that mainstay of upper-middlebrow thought, The New Yorker. In other words, Guy Debord he wasn’t.
But even that kind of criticism from the moderate Right is too much for GamerGate. As was made explicit by its opposition to both moral conservatives à la Jack Thompson (who was embarrassingly resurrected by the people behind the “documentary” on feminist academic Anita Sarkeesian to make their point) and ‘social justice warriors’, GamerGaters fancy themselves “cultural libertarians”, as skeptical of liberalism and leftism as of traditional forms of conservatism and neoconservatism. Politically, this is going nowhere pleasant. GamerGate’s vindictive attitude to games journalism content whose politics it despises (and attacks under the guise of ‘ethics’), to say nothing of the abuse it heaps on its opponents, puts the lie to its free-speech ethos, no matter how quickly it co-opts anyone who faces the censorious ire of the American liberal left. The movement may end up graduating to Trumpism in its worst traits; more worryingly, the smarter people within the movement might attempt to steer it towards an endorsement of neoreactionary thought. The similarities are there: the exacerbated libertarianism, obsession with amoral quantification (like video gamers favor min-maxing at the expense of everything else), paranoia over the “Cathedral” dominating public discourse, plus an interest in technological transcendentalism. Or, as I like to call it, Marinetti with a computer instead of an automobile.
The real danger that video games pose is that they make such a course of action appear fun. Remember when Michael Thomsen wrote a notorious little article in which he called cheating in video games a “moral imperative”? In a way, he has rightly identified arbitrary rules as an avenue of exploitation, which should be read in the same was as his “in a way, Gamergate adherents have rightly identified videogames, and the media that supports them, as an avenue of exploitation in their lives”, and with the same coda: it all falls apart after that.
Thomsen forgot that when players cheat, it’s not to fight the system — it’s to win. But he doesn’t care, even when it involves, worryingly, multiplayer games: “Here the impulse to rebel against the impositions of the developer require harassment of other people, something that is crucially disruptive to the entire concept of making and selling games and so cheating becomes criminalized within the game world.” And because they want to win, cheaters do not rebel against the system; the same people who make the rules Thomsen wants gamers to break are the same people who set the goals. Presumably because then the victims would stop buying video games.
What a strange way to reach the Hollywood maxim, a surprisingly wise one for a change, that the only winning move is not to play — something that Thomsen appears to have realized since then.
Meanwhile, the psychopaths keep on enjoying themselves. If only GamerGate’s enemies weren’t so busy mistaking the forest for the trees, trying to make the movement admit things it would be insane to admit, instead of attacking it on what it openly claims to do, and more importantly, asking whether video games themselves might have something to do with this state of affairs, and the implications that this carries in a world where “gamification” is the norm and fun is hailed as the highest of qualities.
Watching Jane McGonigal argue for gamification in a TED Talk is a harrowing experience, because of how she is beaming as she unveils a nightmarish vision of the future. “Look to the girl”, Trow wrote in No Context. “The more she smiles, the more certain it is that she represents something trivial, something shocking, or something failed.” Welcome to the dystopia with a happy face, for people who realize the irony of Colonel Saito’s line in The Bridge on the River Kwai: “Be happy in your work.” In that smile lies the horror of the world ahead of us. Trow knew:
“What is so defeating is this ever-lasting good-spiritedness, the application of enthusiasm against loneliness. The expression of the force that seeks to go with the grain — actually to become the grain — is, everlastingly, a smile. But the smile is a lie, and it makes people glum. And the glumness then flows against the grain, being confident of its bit of truth: that there is a lie in the smile. In our time, nearly all art has been made from glumness and has had very little power, because it feeds on this tiny bit of truth: that there is a lie in the smile.
It’s so little to feed on. That little bit of truth. Feed on it only and you go mad. Nourished by just that little truth, how can you have strength enough to resist your enemies? The smile, for instance?”
I fear we might be witnessing the emergence of a new iteration of the banality of evil. Only, this time, it will come with a smile. And a hashtag.
Note: This is a reworked and condensed — yes, condensed — version of a text I posted on my blog under the same title. As GamerGate’s stringent position on ‘ethics in video games journalism’ makes clear, to have ever talked with anyone else involved in the video games industry or video games journalism is enough to be declared a “friend” of such a person, ergo a major conflict of interest as far as GamerGate is concerned. So let me state for the record: Vetty has no friends in the video games industry or in video games journalism; Vetty has been banned, blocked or otherwise derided by anyone he met (always online, never in person) who was involved in those fields.