Friday, November 14, 2014

GamerGate Thoughts #3: Picking Sides

As I wrote in my last post, the conventional narrative on GamerGate is that it is either a battle against reactionary online misogynists, or a consumer revolt against corrupt gaming journalists. Those are the two sides and you have to pick one, supposedly.

A handful of more thoughtful commenters have noted that GamerGate actually reflects a broader culture war. Consider the fact that for Time Magazine's annual poll about which word should be banned, this year readers selected 'feminist' by a wide margin. To be fair, it's likely 4chan / 9gag / Reddit had a lot to do with that result. However the fact that so many people organized so quickly is suggestive. GamerGate is not the first nor will it be the last time people push back against what they perceive as co-option of their communities by the activist left.

Progressive intrusion into predominantly white male nerdy subcultures such programming, video games, comics, etc. is a fairly new phenomena. It's only become prominent in the last decade or so. Before the turn of the millennium, the social justice culture warriors were content to ignore these communities. This was in part because they were perceived to be too small and inconsequential to try to reform, hence the activists focused more on workplace norms, schools and the media.

With the resurgence of tech as one of the few powerful and growing sectors in America combined with the growing economic power of 'nerdy' industries like gaming and comic book movies, the activists have started to take notice. This is in parallel with the nerd / gaming scene being adopted by mainstream society as I wrote in my post on the progression of subcultures.

One of the advantages the social justice crowd had going in was the fact that the tech / fantasy nerd scene was already a fairly progressive community. Whether leftist or libertarian, on social issues most gamers and geeky types are fairly liberal. As a result, it wasn't hard to get the Hacker News crowd to go along with things like outreach to get more girls into tech, or seeking our more ethnic diversity for speakers at tech conferences. The tech community is full of people that pride themselves on being open-minded, rational, and free of bias.

I think where the progressives crossed the line, particularly in gaming, is when they started to outright attack the demographic most closely tied to the nerd scene. I have to again be clear here and point out that it isn't all progressives. A number of left-leaning people are frustrated with the social justice crowd over this issue, as a similar problem happened with Occupy Wallstreet. The activists started demonizing whites and men, painting them as racists and misogynists in response to any disagreement with their agenda. This, among other problems, caused the movement to peter out.

As a longtime gamer and tech nerd, I have no grudge against whites or men. Much of the technology, games, and culture I enjoy today was created by white men. Most of my nerdy gamer friends and programming buddies are white men. But what is the activist left's take on a culture largely created by white men? Assassin's Creed: Unity doesn't have a female playable character? Misogyny! A game has a male protagonist rescuing a woman? Damsel in Distress trope! Minority characters aren't the center of attention? Racism! Female characters in a fantasy setting are wearing sexy armor? Objectification!

The problem is not that there are people who want more women or minority characters in gaming. The problem is the blanket assumption that people who don't share those priorities must be bigoted in some way. Most of my favorite games have involved white protagonists. Does that make me racist? Some people (including women!) like sexy female characters in chain mail bikinis. It doesn't make them misogynists. Gamers are not religious zealots. They're a pretty laid back and inclusive demographic more than willing to widen their tent. They will not, however, tolerate being attacked unfairly. They will not, and should not, tolerate blanket condemnations branding them as unjustly "privileged."

The unfairness of these attacks is one thing. What also frustrates some is the inconsistency. Stereotypical portrayals of whites are never criticized. No one cares about objectification of men. No one complains about Japanese people being privileged in Japan, or Jews having disproportionate representation in various professions. It's only a particular set of anointed groups in prosperous majority white countries that get the "disadvantaged" tag and are entitled to all manner of outreach, affirmative action, and consideration. And hey, that's a fine belief system to adopt, but lets be clear that it is political, and demanding that people adopt that frame or face being eternally labeled a bigot, is the worst sort of rhetorical chicanery.

By the same token I disagree with the anti-feminist campaigns from places like 4chan and Reddit that are trying to "take back" gaming and declare the progressives illegitimate. Not only are some of the tactics vile (rape threats, doxxing, etc.) but I think it is a fundamentally misguided effort. It isn't our politics that makes us gamers. It's our love of gaming. That's what they need to focus on.

Nothing is lost when companies like Bioware try to be more inclusive. At the end of the day, the argument for tolerating more gay characters is the same as the argument for tolerating 'boob plate'; if it offends you, don't play it. No group is entitled to have their particular preferences enshrined as 'right'. The more reasonable progressives understand this and just want more variety. They're entitled to their opinions and can be left alone.

I don't believe we need to try to kick progressives (or any group, really) out of the gaming industry. I don't begrudge feminists and multiculturialists who want videogames that celebrate fat acceptance and transgenderism. Let them agitate for the games they want. Even better, lets give them the tools to make their own games.

So if you ask me "Which side of GamerGate are you on?", my answer is 'both' and 'neither'. I think there are legitimate grievances against the industry and the journalists both on grounds of pushing politics and corruption. I also want the progressive left to have its place in the community and be able to get the games they want. Both sides need to make a concession: The progressives need to be tolerant of those who disagree with their agenda, and the old guard need to accept that the industry is big enough to cater to the social justice crowd among other communities.

We need not have this zero-sum attitude about the gaming industry where every progressive game is a defeat for older gaming fans. Instead we should all learn to be tolerant of each other's preferences, and work to build a pluralistic industry where all communities can be served. There need not be one right answer on the portrayal of women or heterosexual characters, etc. If one game wants to do strong independent female protagonists who defy conventional beauty norms, let 'em. If another game wants a sexy damsel in distress, let 'em. People can vote with their wallets and time.

I still think schism is the most likely outcome. The media is just too biased and the discourse is too toxic for there to be a return to tolerance as I would want. A split still isn't such a bad thing. It will entail a lot of name-calling and people claiming to be the 'true' representatives of the gaming subculture. I'm sure it will be a lot of fun for people who enjoy internet fights.