Every issue of Bitch magazine features intersectional feminist perspectives on a specific theme. For 21 years, we’ve taken deep dives into everything from Love and Lust to Maps & Legends to Family Values. But limiting ourselves to just four themes each year—which were themselves limited by the print format—felt like a disservice to our community, especially since many of our readers consume media solely in digital form (no shade…). Enter the Fragility series.
This feature, on the gaming culture, is the second of our monthly longreads on the topic of Fragility. In June, we’ll explore the illusion of Chicago’s urban fragility. In July? The fragility of the western traveler. Every month through December 2017, we’ll publish a new must-read perspective on the subject that we hope you’ll read, share, and make part of your routine.
For now, though, get comfortable and get ready for part two: It’s all fun and games until feminists join in.
Most gamers knew the truth: there was a cancer at the center of their culture, a malignant growth of bitterness without direction and pain without cause. Many tried to mask or downplay its presence, even deny it outright, but the truth remained. Since the advent of “gaming” as we know it today—console video games, tabletop board-and-role-playing games, virtual reality, and so on—the surrounding subculture had been dominated by men who became its jealous gatekeepers; first to guard against childhood tormentors, bullies, and the like and, over time, simply to keep out those who were different. Most threatening of all were women, whose presence grew over time into a monolith of judgment and derision; they had no place in “gamer culture.” Until they did.
Such was the scene in August 2014, when the cancer—eventually bearing the name Gamergate—finally metastasized. As the infamous movement’s three-year anniversary approaches, it’s time for gamers to ask: Is this still who we are?
And: Do we care?
The first online games were played and discussed in near synchronicity with the rise of Usenet in 1979, seven years after Pong, the first video game, was released on an unsuspecting world. Calling it “cyberspace’s Old West” in his book Generation Decks, Titus Chalk posits that Magic: The Gathering—the first collectible card game, which was valued at over USD$250 million in 2013—would not have existed without Usenet and the networking it enabled.
Magic isn’t the only game that’s taken on a financial and cultural life of its own. According to data collected by Newzoo, a gaming industry market intelligence agency, “2.2 billion gamers across the globe are expected to generate $108.9 billion in game revenues in 2017.” Even honoring the artificial distinction between “casual” mobile gamers and “real” console and computer fans, there are easily half a billion people in the world who fit under that broad umbrella of “gaming culture.”
That dissemination has not only been crucial to gaming’s economic expansion, but it has also exposed millions of people to nerdiness’ seedy underbelly. Gamers have been aware (albeit some only dimly) of the casual sexism in our hobby since at least the 1990s, when titles like Tomb Raider displayed cartoonish levels of objectification. (Though the series’ protagonist Lara Croft was one of gaming’s first true heroines, her creator Toby Gard “accidentally” increased her bust by 150%, an error that was applauded by the first game’s development team; later releases played up Lara’s sex appeal in marketing materials to increase sales.) In their paper “Sexy, Strong, and Secondary,” researchers Teresa Lynch, Jessica E. Tompkins, Irene I. van Driel, and Niki Fritz write that “[d]espite an increase in games featuring playable female characters [from 1983 to 2014], games still depict female characters more often in secondary roles and sexualized them more than primary characters.”
(At Left: Lara Croft returns fire in a promotional display for Tomb Raider 3. Photo by the author.)
With the aggressive expansion of online gaming, it became apparent that the games themselves weren’t the only problem. As the Internet began to grow and accelerate through the ’90s and early 2000s, gamers began congregating in online spaces and solidifying the rules of their subculture, both implicit and explicit. Many of those rules—fueled by any number of extant factors, such as sexual intimidation and social ostracization—could be synthesized into three words: “no girls allowed.” As The Guardian reported back in 2008, women faced an endless deluge of harassment and trolling (then known as “griefing”) just for daring to enjoy a multiplayer game like World of Warcraft. Rape jokes were plentiful in online chats, and the toxic behavior didn’t stop at words; one woman reportedly experienced simulated sexual assault in 2009 while trying to solve a casual puzzle game, and that’s far from an isolated incident.
Unfortunately, things only got worse.
It’s a blustery March afternoon in Massachusetts, the kind where snow turns to knives before it hits your cheeks. I’m sitting on the carpet under a flight of stairs in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, cramming my face full of chicken parmesan. It’s the first day of my first gaming convention, and I want to get back on the show floor. Suddenly, I catch a snippet of a conversation to my right: A young, apparently male, gamer bragging to his friends about how he managed to snap a picture of some girl’s ass on the escalator.
My first reaction is furious contempt; my second: I guess PAX isn’t so different after all.
PAX—shorthand for the Penny Arcade Expo—was supposed to challenge everyone’s preconceived notions of what the gaming community could be. Envisioned by webcomic creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (the latter of whom called the first PAX “a big ass, two day party for gamers”) in 2004, PAX now holds yearly gaming conventions in Seattle, Boston, San Antonio, and Melbourne, with plans for a new tabletop-gaming only event in Philadelphia this November. It’s on this central pillar that Holkins and Krahulik have built their once modest cartooning endeavor into a multimillion dollar corporation.
This year’s PAX East in Boston broke 80,000 attendees, cementing it as the largest gaming convention in the United States. Over the course of three days, PAX attendees—largely made up of frequent Penny Arcade readers, who are overwhelmingly male—have the chance to try out new and unreleased games in the Expo Hall; play a variety of classic and modern games in the Console and Tabletop Free Play rooms; attend an assortment of panels focusing on various aspects of the games industry, some featuring Holkins and Krahulik themselves; compete in tournaments; and more broadly, connect with their community outside of Internet chat rooms and hobby stores. It’s common for strangers to gather together and set up ad-hoc games of Dungeons and Dragons, play Rock Band in the corridors, and generally engage in the sort of camaraderie that would be unthinkable anywhere else. But while frequent PAX-goers often profess that the show feels like a tight-knit community despite its size, as of 3 in the afternoon that Friday, the illusion was dispelled for me; PAX no longer seemed like a My Little Pony episode where friendship was magic, but rather another reminder of gaming culture’s undercurrent of toxicity and harassment.
If you think about it in a certain way, GamerGate is really depression’s fault.
In February 2013, independent developer Zoe Quinn released her game Depression Quest online. A text-based interactive fiction game in which players guide the actions of a clinically depressed woman in the real world, Depression Quest garnered praise from games reviewers across the web. Players attempt to help their character navigate everyday tasks and interpersonal events, but listed options like “confide in her honestly” are regularly struck-through and unselectable, leaving only damaging options—a simulation of how insidious depression can be.
Quinn would later comment that she’s “,” and that certainly came across; while everyone agreed Depression Quest wasn’t exactly fun to play, it was unquestionably a valuable piece of art and mental health advocacy in one. “One of the most gripping and educational views on the subject,” enthused Kyle Orland in Ars Technica, and most other public opinions at the time tended to agree.
Just after Depression Quest was released on games distribution platform Steam in August 2014, however, the gaming community exploded. In a blog post clocking in at just under 10,000 words, Quinn’s ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni laid forth extraordinary allegations that Quinn was not only a bad girlfriend, but also an unethical businesswoman to boot. Gjoni claimed that Quinn had been dating games reviewer Nathan Grayson, who worked for the gaming news and culture site Kotaku—straw that misogynists and malcontents on infamous trolling factory 4chan were all too eager to spin into fool’s gold. After Gjoni shared his manifesto on the site, users lined up to legitimize it, quickly coming to the conclusion that Quinn had slept with Grayson for positive coverage of Depression Quest.
Of course, Grayson never covered Depression Quest, and he and Quinn had only gone on a handful of dates—but that wasn’t the point. Channers (a colloquial term for frequent 4chan posters) took as gospel even the barest shred of evidence, the better to justify their hate for “feminazis” and “social justice warriors” (“SJWs”) like Quinn. Within 24 hours, they had embarked on what would become a massive harassment campaign, sending abusive and threatening messages to Quinn every day for months. “We need to punish her for this shit,” an anonymous poster wrote on 4chan. “We don’t move to kill, but give her a crippling injury…I’d say brain damage but don’t want to make it so she ends up to [sic] retarded to fear and respect us.”
Such vitriol might be surprising to anyone who never claimed to be a feminist in gaming spaces online. Gamers had always reacted badly to outside attempts at “cleaning up” games; when feminist activists had critiqued Tomb Raider and its contemporaries (while noting Lara Croft’s potential as a role model and queer icon, feminist theorist Anne-Marie Schleiner described her as “a malleable, well-trained techno-puppet created by and for the male gaze”), gamers denounced them as puritanical censors. When cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian launched her YouTube series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games in 2011—a project on which she collaborated with Bitch Media—her Kickstarter was met with even louder and more indignant denunciation from the gaming community. One developer, Ben Spurr, took things to a terrifying new level by releasing a “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” game the following year.
Women’s attempts to gain access to male-only spaces have historically been met with violence, and this time was no different. Between Sarkeesian and Quinn (not to mention other targets such as Felicia Day and Brianna Wu), gamers knew who their primary enemies were: feminists. And over the next year, that animosity turned into all-out war. “#GamerGate,” as Adam Baldwin christened their fury, and online harassment turned to real-life stalking, doxxing, and death threats.
GamerGate didn’t invent harassment in gaming; it merely brought it out of the shadows, and inadvertently forced the industry to acknowledge its existence. But in the years since, it’s hard to say if anything has changed. Last August, two years after GamerGate, popular gaming personality Narcissa Wright deleted her account on Twitch, a widely used site for livestreaming games. Wright had built a successful revenue stream on the site by “speedrunning” (using exploits and skill to complete a game in as little time as possible), but her fans revolted after she began medically transitioning and changed her focus due to a hand injury. Whether it came because of her transition or her change in genre, the abuse Wright received on Twitch, Twitter, and YouTube was staggering, as former fans lined up to spout transphobic slurs, threats, and other vitriol that left her considering suicide.
Wright has since returned to streaming, but the question remains: will the gaming community ever remedy its toxicity? Or is it simply baked in?
If PAX East is any indication, the mind is willing but the flesh is so very, very weak. Mike Krahulik once told Wired that “[w]hen you’re here, you just have that feeling that you’re just among friends.” Maybe Krahulik does, and I have no doubt that most PAX attendees do, too. Thanks to a comprehensive code of conduct, a unique ban on “booth babes,” and legions of staff “Enforcers,” the environment at PAX is generally friendly. But as I set out to explore PAX, taking the culture’s pulse and identifying any progress that had been made, I slowly become more and more discouraged.
Most of the show’s panels that touched on harassment and abuse did so in a way that was only marginally helpful, if at all. The Diverse Gaming Coalition held a panel on stopping online bullying, and concluded that “fixing” people who want to cause harm “is our goal” but is “not realistic,” ending 20 minutes early after focusing primarily on hawking T-shirts and signing up new partners.
The It Gets Better Project’s panel immediately followed and was even more frustrating. The general sentiment was that gamers were basically good, if weird, people; a pre-recorded video enthused that “nerds are always willing to add someone new to their community,” all evidence to the contrary. Perhaps most interesting, panelist Anthony Huertas (a Twitch partner) claimed at one point that “nobody [in the gaming community] gives a shit what you do.” He was asserting that gamers don’t care about their friend’s sexual orientations and gender identities, but that’s patently false, as anyone who’s ever been called a faggot or dyke while playing Call of Duty can attest. Ironically, though, that statement was accurate, but only when applied to the abusers in the community, none of whom have faced any legal or social consequences for their actions.
When asked what should be done to fight this abuse, panelist Leslie Pirritano recommended that victims reach out to the Online SOS Network—but when it came to reducing instances of harassment, the It Gets Better panel could only spout platitudes; Huertas referenced Game of Thrones’ Tyrian Lannister, saying victims should “wear [their abuse] like armor.”
Most disappointingly, it doesn’t seem like community managers, people who moderate and administrate online interactions on sites like Twitch, seem that concerned with ending the problem. At a panel entitled “Community Management 101” (the panelists for which were four-fifths white and completely male), harassment only came up as something CMs need to deal with when it directly impacts themselves or their brands. When one audience member asked about how to deal with toxic community members with large followings, who are harmful but valuable from a branding standpoint, Devin Connors of game studio Psyonix said CMs can try to “remold their behavior” but should try not to engage.
That sort of corporate non-answer, which prioritizes companies over lives, is especially distressing when you consider that Connors is in charge of maintaining the Rocket League community as Corsair Media’s Global Social Media and Community Manager. Rocket League, a hit sports game where you play soccer with cars, has been successfully marketed to children and even incorporated into summer education programs for kids as young as 6. The consequences for dropping impressionable youngsters into potentially toxic communities are dire. Toxicity in Minecraft (the creator of which, Markus Persson, has said “both [Gamergate] and SJWs are raving lunatics” during a conversation with Milo Yiannopolous) has already taught children to make casually anti-Semitic jokes. What traits will pubescent Rocket Leaguers pick up—and who will suffer—if Connors decides someone like Jon Jafari or Felix Kjellberg is too great an influencer to ban?
The message is clear: “We are not here to keep you safe, and we will not protect you.” CMs for major gaming communities are uninterested in confronting toxicity in their spaces, until such time as that toxicity threatens their brand (or the CMs themselves). And even when that day comes, those who have already been victimized are still on their own.
Take a look at the numbers: Even though Pew Research Center finds that women play games just as much as men, and “there are no differences by race or ethnicity in who plays video games,” the International Game Developers Association reports that over 75% of those working in the games industry are straight, white cisgender men. Humans have a well-known tendency to ignore problems unless they’re personally affected by them (global warming, anyone?); it’s no surprise that the vast majority of professionals in gaming—who don’t experience cultural power and social oppression in the same way as those victimized by it—remain oblivious, both to the problem and how to fix it. Once again, it has become the responsibility of women, racial minorities, and the LGBTQIA community to take point on combating their abusers.
Just past noon on Sunday, I sat in on a panel conversation regarding how to stay safe while broadcasting games online. Unlike the other panels I’d attended, this one was led by and prioritized the voices of people of color and queer people—and they had some real advice to share. Twitch streamer and XSplit Community Manager Brandon Stennis recommended finding human moderators who streamers know personally and file preemptive police reports in case of swatting; panel moderator and director of I Need Diverse Games Tanya DePass warned streamers to lock down their private message channels and ensure that their personal information isn’t available on sites like Family Tree Now, a favorite resource of doxxers.
Adam Koebel of Roll20.net was also on the panel, and commented that hate communities like GamerGate provide support networks for all kinds of abusers and harassers; when one troll encounters resistance from progressive “social justice warriors,” they can easily retreat to a space like r/KotakuInAction or 4chan’s /v/ board, tagging in other abusers while recharging their batteries for another tweetstorm. Luckily, PAX does have something of a response to that—the Diversity Lounge, now in its fourth year at PAX East. The Lounge houses tables for people like Toni Rocca, founder of the LGBTQIA-focused games convention GaymerX, who stresses that “having each other’s backs is fundamental.” Dr. Catherine Flick, who has tabled in the Lounge since its inception, says things used to be much worse: When they were placed near the convention center’s bar, drunken straight men would wander in and yell at people. Since then, placement and attendance has improved.
But it’s hard to ascribe that marginal improvement to Holkins and Krahulik. Until 2016, PAX was largely organized by former Penny Arcade business manager Robert Khoo, whose unofficial job seemed to be wrangling Holkins and Krahulik when they did something toxic themselves (like tripling-down on rape jokes and ignorantly spewing transphobia). Now that Khoo is gone and the founding duo has jointly taken over his role, it’s unclear if PAX will stagnate like the rest of its industry or progress further.
So what’s changed since GamerGate? On the surface, not much. PAX has made headway in improving conditions for marginalized gamers, and it’s worth noting that nobody misgendered me all weekend, but there’s definitely still a reason I never had to wait in line for the bathroom: gaming culture as a whole is still nightmarishly toxic for people who aren’t cisgender men, and even for some who are.
But although industry insiders aren’t terribly invested in real change, the resilience I saw in the Diversity Lounge and at DePass’s panel gave me some hope that enough gamers are. As Koebel passionately put it: “It’s not about what you need. It’s about what you fucking deserve.” What we deserve is to pursue our gaming passions without fear of abuse—verbal or otherwise. If today’s industry gatekeepers aren’t willing to ensure that, they’d better get ready to be replaced by people who will.
*At the requst of the author, a change has been made to use a more accurate quote from Markus Persson.
Check in next month for the next piece in our fragility series.