SINCE late August, a group of gamers has been waging an online war against women.
In those few months, developers, journalists and critics in the gaming industry have been driven out — of the industry, offline and even literally out of their homes. In October, Feminist Frequency critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speaking engagement at Utah State University following a threat of mass violence.
For years, women in technology and gaming have been subject to rude or sexual remarks during gameplay, harassing comments on blogs and news sites and insults on social media. Until recently, this kind of treatment has been dismissed as part of the culture.
A movement called GamerGate has changed that.
GamerGate — named on Twitter by Adam Baldwin — began in shadowy parts of the Internet known as 4chan with the exposure of some nude photographs of a female developer by an ex-boyfriend seeking retribution for infidelity. Along with the photographs came accusations of sexual favors exchanged for favorable reviews on a popular gaming news site. Although the affair appears to have been very real, the site in question (and the journalist with whom the affair was conducted) never ran a review of the game, which is available online for free.
The accusations, however, spawned an outcry among a vocal subset of gamers about “ethics in games journalism” that led to several official statements by gaming news outlets Kotaku and Gamasutra, as well as a targeted harassment campaign conducted against the female developer and other (primarily female) developers, games journalists and critics. Comments on posts and forums have escalated from insults to threats of death and other bodily harm, the practice of “doxxing” (making one’s private documents public) and publishing nude photos in public forums.
And now those outside the industry are taking notice.
In 2005, Kathy Sierra postulated that one reason for the ubiquity of misogyny in gaming and tech is something called the “Kool-Aid Point”: “The most vocal trolling and ‘hate’ for a brand kicks in HARD once a critical mass of brand fans/users are thought to have ‘drunk the Kool-Aid.’ ” In short, the problem of women in tech is not that women are in tech, but that people think their ideas are actually important.
In other words, women are welcome to speak up, to publish, to make games, so long as no one notices. As long as they do so from a quiet little corner of the Internet in which only other women (who also don’t try to talk too loudly) hear or read or play them. A voice is only dangerous if it is loud enough for people to hear — a sentiment that applies as equally to a woman in a boardroom (where she is often talked over) as it does to the Internet (where her words go unread or unlinked-to).
But if a woman — or anyone seeking to challenge the status quo — begins to speak up, to become active and visible, then her words are no longer dropping into the abyss. The person is no longer invisible, no longer silent, and that very real, very visible presence becomes a reminder for others that there are more voices and opinions than those held by the supposed majority.
And that means that the hard-core — those whose word has thus far shaped the nature of the industry — are no longer the only voices in the mix. Instead of a collective seeking the same kinds of games, telling the same story of heroism and power, there are other voices, other stories, other kinds of narratives, surfacing which challenge not simply what is being told, but the right of those who have thus far been telling it.
And that, I think, is the key to all this. It isn’t simply that women and minorities are starting to speak up, it’s that they’re specifically and explicitly telling the dominant paradigm that it doesn’t have the right to be dominant. Since power is a zero-sum game, in order to grant equality to those who have been oppressed, they have to take power from those who have done the oppressing — there is no way for the dominant to remain as they are if the oppressed are to escape their oppression.
That is not a narrative that the dominant want to hear.
But what, really, does that mean in the context of the tech industry? It means that there will be more games (some that reflect the “old” way of doing things, some that will be “new”). There will be more articles and blogs and think pieces with a variety of viewpoints. There will be a lot of noise. And any one person will not agree with all of it. Gain, not loss.
But it will also mean that some things will disappear. Some jobs will go to women or to minorities or to transpersons rather than to white men (in a case where all applicants are qualified). Some “old” games will not be made. Some “new” will not be made, too. Some blogs will no longer draw as much traffic, and will die out. Some will never gain traction, no matter how worthy their cause. Not everyone will play all the games.
And you know what? That’s OK. Not everyone reads Shakespeare. Not everyone watches romantic comedies. Not everyone watches “Scandal.” And that’s OK. That’s the sign of a healthy industry, of advancing culture.
Kristin Bezio is an assistant professor at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies. She is a columnist for The Learned Fangirl: A Critical Look at Pop Culture and Technology.