Tuesday, November 11, 2014

GamerGate Thoughts #2: The Schism

(If you prefer watching videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92NEoczfD7c)

#GamerGate is one of those big messy stories that people can easily use to push an agenda. In most cases, the pieces I have read on the story tend to reveal more about the author than the story itself. It is actually difficult to find an even-handed, dispassionate rundown of the facts. Instead you will find a number of articles about victims of Twitter harassment, doxxing of personalities on both sides, and the sordid details of Zoe Quinn's love life. To me these are all uninteresting tangential issues. People being mean online and girls cheating on their boyfriends are not new things. The more interesting issue is what GamerGate says about the state of gaming media.

I was a gaming journalist for two years while living abroad in Tokyo. I wrote reviews and editorials for a print magazine as well as one fairly big website. I can say firsthand that it isn't a very glamorous field. The pay is pretty crappy, for one. There are legitimate problems that GamerGate could focus on, such as game companies directly or indirectly buying reviews, websites pushing political agendas, and consumers being flat out lied to by both the industry and its supposed watchdogs.

The root problem with game journalism is the lack of agreed upon standards known to both the public and writers. Much of the problem comes simply from the fact that it is such a new field. Escapist as a pithy comic addressing this. Unlike traditional journalism, which sets objectivity as the standard for all coverage, video game journalists are still figuring out if they are writing about toys, consumer software, or works of art.

Game journalists today tend to think of themselves as part book critic, part editorial writer for the New York Times. Some are very good writers and reviewers. Some are extraordinarily pretentious and clearly only interested in pushing their agenda. Either way, what consumers and the public want is some consistency - a set of shared principles so that they can at least know where these writers stand. Without that, all you have is a disingenuous effort on the part of game journalists to portray themselves as unbiased agents able to speak on behalf of the gaming community.

No one can truly speak for the gaming community on any social, cultural, or political issue. The only thing a writer can say that legitimately speaks for all gamers is "I love playing games." That was sort of the point of my first piece on GamerGate. Whatever your politics, the thing that makes you a gamer as opposed to someone who likes games, is that your love of the medium unites you with others. For political partisans, the ultra-religious, and more casual gamers, fidelity to other values comes first; they won't play a game that violates their ideals, nor do they want to play with people who don't think like them. This is no different for the progressives who see GamerGate as an opportunity to push their agenda.

To be fair we should remember that there are actually two camps here. Gamers who happen to be progressive, and progressives with an interest in gaming. The former group may agree with the SJW crowd - they may want to see more feminist deconstruction of the industry and may want more multiculturalism in their games. They are not, however, reflexively offended by games and gamers that disagree with them. They don't freak out when someone uses a mean word over XBox Live, or a game has a white male protagonist. This is generally because they have been a part of the gaming subculture longer when it was even less diverse. Their love of gaming predates their love of left-wing politics.

The latter group, by contrast, are activists who feel that the gaming subculture is a useful target. Their priority is spreading the gospel of progressive ideals to communities that reject them. They feel they have an 'in' with the gaming subculture by arguing for diversity and painting their critics as misogynist racist homophobes. What's more, they have the tide of mainstream culture on their side, and feel they can redefine gaming culture by branding their ideological opponents as illegitimate. You see a good bit of this tactic with GamerGate now, where a number of sites are not only declaring the gamer identity to be dead, but are already declaring victory and proclaiming GamerGate to be over.

Declaring victory prematurely is a very old and cheap rhetorical tactic. You hear it from talking heads on cable news programs all the time. The way to identify that this is rhetoric and not an honest assessment is to examine the evidence offered. When the evidence is something like "See, all these people who already agree with my views are on my side and say we already won!!!1" then you know it is just rhetoric.

But whether or not the hashtag 'GamerGate' fizzles out, the fact remains that we are in the midst of a schism. As I laid out in my piece on subcultures, this divide is the last stage for subcultures that thrive and grow to be adopted by the mainstream society. The gaming subculture is in the midst of a painful, public split, which will end with the sanitized, mainstream version of gaming culture on one side, and the authentic culture on the other. People will pick their online and IRL communities accordingly.

I make no moral judgment of either of these sides; they simply are what they are. The mainstream side will likely be larger in terms of number of people and revenue. This isn't really a surprise. The same is true of authentic country music vs. pop country. The commercialized, mainstream co-opted version of a subculture is where the marketers and big corporations focus their efforts, whatever the medium.

This will mean that game companies will invest more money in appeasing the mainstream audience, which may depress some people. As a game developer, I simply see it as an opportunity for the market to democratize itself and become less dependent on the big incumbents. There is more authentic country and folk music today than ever before if you know where to look for it. Let the Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood fans have their fun.

Sometimes segregation is a good thing, which may sound odd coming from a black guy...