GamerGate and the Myth of the Social Justice Warrior

You could make a case for Pope Francis as a social justice warrior. Gandhi. Martin Luther King. But a journalist who talks about video games? No way.

What am I talking about? Some proponents of the GamerGate movement have been prone to label specific lefty-leaning journalists and critics “social justice warriors.” But I’d describe them as “Fair Representation in Media as Defined by Identity Politics Warriors,” a not-quite-as-catchy, but ultimately more accurate description.

A WEAK BRAND OF SOCIAL JUSTICE

First a little background: Historically, social justice has been defined by fairness, opportunity and equality — ideas that manifested itself in very concrete ways. Progressives once fought the existing economic and social order tooth and nail and won on issues ranging from child labor laws, minimum wage, pay equity between sexes, and racial segregation laws.

But over the past couple of decades, the popular left has mostly shrugged its shoulders and accepted the neoliberal consensus as embodied by the policies of Clinton and Obama. Organized labor has withered and nearly died, the security state keep encroaching on privacy, gun laws are incredibly lax, Guantanamo Bay remains open, American keeps fighting strategic wars by sending out flying killer robots, minimum wage remains ridiculously low, the prison system is corrupt, the police continue to militarize and overreach, and drug laws remain draconian and yet the left shrugs its collective shoulders and pats itself on the back for legalizing gay marriage, electing a black president and not shopping at Wal-Mart.

One of the many reasons that Occupy Wall Street was so easily dismissed is that real social justice has eroded and been replaced in significance by theories of representation in media.

Here’s an overview of the transformation from Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo”:

“It was accepted from the start that part of what held back women and ethnic minorities was the absence of visible role models occupying powerful social positions, and that media-perpetuated stereotypes — embedded in the very fabric of the language — served to not so subtly reinforce the supremacy of white men. For real progress to take place, imaginations on both sides had to be decolonized. But by the time my generation inherited these ideas, often two or three times removed, representation was no longer one tool among many, it was the key. In the absence of a clear legal or political strategy, we traced back almost all of society’s problems to the media and the curriculum, either through their perpetuation of negative stereotypes or simply by omission. Asians and lesbians were made to feel “invisible,” gays were stereotyped as deviants, blacks as criminals and women as weak and inferior: a self-fulfilling prophecy responsible for almost all real-world inequalities.
And so our battlefields were sitcoms with gay neighbors who never got laid, newspapers filled with pictures of old white men, magazines that advanced what author Naomi Wolf termed “the beauty myth,” reading lists that we expected to look like Benetton ads, Benetton ads that trivialized our reading-list demands. So outraged were we media children by the narrow and oppressive portrayals in magazines, in books and on television that we convinced ourselves that if, the typecast images and loaded language changed, so too would the reality. We thought we would find salvation in the reformation of MTV, CNN and Calvin Klein. And why not? Since media seemed to be the source of so many of our problems, surely if we could only subvert” them to better represent us, they could save us instead. With better collective mirrors, self-esteem would rise and prejudices would magically fall away, as society became suddenly inspired to live up to the beautiful and Worthy reflection we had retouched in its image. For a generation that grew up mediated, transforming the world through pop culture was second nature. The problem was that these fixations began to transform us in the process. Over time, campus identity politics became so consumed by personal politics that they all but eclipsed the rest of the world. The slogan “the personal is political” came to replace the economic as political and, in the end, the political as political as well. The more importance we placed on representation issues, the more central a role they seemed to elbow for themselves in our lives — perhaps because, in the absence of more tangible political goals, any movement that is about fighting for better social mirrors is going to eventually fall victim to its own narcissism.”

The above explanation defines the kind of politics of the mainstream media in 2014. No one even bothers debating the merits of representation in terms of identity politics any more. It’s all but orthodoxy now. Those that do try questioning this philosophy are shouted down or deemed “toxic.”

There’s an entire cottage industry of news stories and thinkpieces devoted to the reductive practice of counting the number of races/sexes/sexual orientations represented in a movie/TV show/video game, then making a calculation about the morality or correctness of that media product based on the proportionality. It’s social justice by simplistic math equation.

The problem with this is that kind of journalism is that it deflects discussion away from the underlying structural problems that puts anyone in exploited or oppressed positions. It also doesn’t ask if improved representation for one group inadvertently introduces other distortions or serve to further marginalize others. And let’s face it: real social justice tends to be complicated and nuanced and asks lots of people to make sacrifices. It’s way easier to drum up outrage about the whiteness of cast of “Girls” or “Star Wars” – get angry at creators and producers and call it a day.

Representation Theory In Game Journalism

Games journalism used to stand apart from the identity politics of representation. The mainstream media treated games like a ghetto of toys meant for children and male teens, while the enthusiast press – for better or worse — acted apolitical, if not a bit libertarian, especially if you consider how hard it fought Jack Thompson’s crusade to blame video games for school shootings and violence.

As the video game industry itself has expanded and matured, the press has followed suit. In recent years, we’ve seen segments of the games press grow up and take on more traits of the mainstream media. This professionalization – by and large – has been a good thing. The quality of the work is higher and there are more diverse voices in games writing than ever before. But some of today’s writers who cover gaming have also adopted the mainstream media’s obsession with the politics of representation and elevated it as an unequivocal, righteous good – often at the expense of coherence and logic.

This summer we saw a whole host of stories lambasted Ubisoft for not adding female assassins to an upcoming Assassins Creed game. Yet, no one dug deeper and asked if it’s really should be considered a social good to put a female character in a video game where you can realistically stab, shoot, slice, disembowel virtual people, including innocent bystanders, in the 18th century. If we’re vesting this power in video games to influence society through representation – what does that say about the violence? Is it okay to play characters that are violent, callous, power-hungry amoral killers as long as they are appropriately diverse in terms of gender and race (although probably not class, age, or religious backgrounds)? What does scientific research about this matter say? The stories I read all boiled down to: Females in Assassins Creed = good. No females in Assassins Creed = bad.

Sure, debate about diversity in games should exist, but it needs to be reasoned and would be better served with empirical research into the effects (or lack thereof) of representation on social outcomes.

Here’s the truth: the biggest attack on social justice in a video game over the past couple of years was “Bioshock: Infinite,” a game almost universally praised by critics. Some so-called social justice warriors in the press expressed their discomfort of the game’s violence (or passive aggressively so) but very few pointed out that “Infinite” equated the Vox Populi and the Founders in a moral sense. Midway through the game, the marginalized poor residents of this city in the sky – many of them racial minorities – win a violent revolution against their white oppressors and become just as evil. Once you give power to the oppressed and those who suffer from white privilege, the game argued, they become just as corrupt and heavy-handed.

The press overlooks this, just as they refuse work as a watchdog on other important issues in the video game world. Leigh Alexander made a good point when she made a list of ethical concerns in the industry. But she accidentally makes a strong case against the games media because, by and large, they are not the ones investigating the exploitation of labor or other weighty issues. When I wrote this piece for the A.V. Club about EA cross-marketing “Medal of Honor: Warfighter” with real guns, the website had been up for six weeks and no one else from the games press had made a peep about it.

In the GamerGate Trenches

There’s a new battlefield for “social justice warriors” and it’s GamerGate. Journalists and critics are not willing to debate the merits of representation in games – one of the many complaints of GamerGate. They instead opted to draw lines in the sand, practically tripping over themselves to write new features everyday that attack GamerGate – which is a big, confusing, sometimes contradictory consumer movement – as a rabid bunch of white misogynists who refuse to let women into their playground and harass those who try.

To be sure, there have been reports of harassment and misguided sentiments from some GamerGaters, but by conflating this movement with the worst of its trolls, these lefty media types ironically sound like the conservative press that dismissed the similarly headless and confusing Occupy movement (and the recent Ferguson protests to a lesser degree) with overgeneralizations that equated the entire movement with their worst members. Looters! Anarchists! Unamerican!

Instead of having honest conversations with readers or GamerGate members, many journalists are still content lobbing rhetorical Molotov’s. In fighting fire with more fire, it’s helped turned GamerGate into a pitched political battle where these journalists can frame themselves as the Noble Left battling it out with Backwards Conservatives on behalf of women.

They are warriors all right, but a kind that has little to do with true social justice.