Friday, August 22, 2014

On Right-Wing Videogame Extremism

exhausted by hearing reports from people i'm acquaintances with of being harassed, their accounts hacked, personal info spread, phone numbers called, front doors showed up at (in one case) by random MRAs (Men's Rights Activists), 4channers, Redditors or whoever the fuck it is, i decided yesterday to finally look on 4chan for more insight what is actually going on. i share the fear with a lot of other women who work in the realm of games but have less exposure of what will inevitably happen from getting more exposure. a lot of us look to someone like Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian and the image of more cultural visibility is not exactly very appealing. living with no privacy is not appealing. living in fear for your personal safety all the time for doing what you want to do is not appealing. i have my whole life ahead of me. i'm still working through tons of issues with depression and anxiety. i don't want that to be ruined by a few people who can't get a fucking life and leave me alone. these couple tweets by game writers Lana Polansky and Patricia Hernandez pretty much sum it up:

just this evening, one or numerous people who presumably were going after Zoe have begun to target several indies who are her friends or acquaintances. and now several indies and anyone tangentially involved in the scene are are scrambling to two-factor authenticate their accounts, change passwords, and lock their twitters. there's a feeling that there's been a war declared on indies, especially social-justice focused ones, and a lot of people are afraid. at the time of writing, a twitter hashtag - #welovegamedevs, has recently just showed up in response to all of this. 

in a recent 4chan thread on /v/ (which was deleted), a picture of Phil Fish's homepage claiming to have been hacked by "a leader of Anonymous and head moderator of /v/" posted his bank account info and phone number and, among other things, said he was targeting other SJW (Social Justice Warrirors) and indie devs. the thread was filled with commenters proclaiming that Phil Fish must have been so desperate that he had faked it all himself, and that it could never be anyone from /v/ because there's no such thing as a head moderator there. i guess the possibility of someone intentionally writing inaccuracies as an inside joke and/or to convince more people on 4chan that it was faked didn't occur to them. the level of victim-blaming was pretty astounding to me to see - ESPECIALLY given that his personal bank account info was shared on the page. many posters seem desperate to take the blame away from 4chan and their complicity, all while still seeing no irony in their readily sharing of doxxed info. i guess even they didn't want to believe that people among their ranks were actually doing these things, because they knew it would only hurt what they see as their "cause".

so what exactly is their cause? from reading through several of the threads, it's not entirely easy to tell. 4chan is an intensely attention-deficit subworld that is known mostly for chaos with little accountability or sustained serious discussion. that's presumably its primary draw for a lot of people in the community. nonetheless, the best summary i got was from these two posts (click to enlarge):

the source of this latest, greatest internet shitstorm seems to all stem from a bitter, narcissistic, hyper-detailed tumblr post from an ex, Eron Gjoni, of Zoe's (search for "the Zoe post" if you really want to know, but you probably don't) which lays out in minute detail their relationship and posits that she slept with several different game journalists and game festival people for favorable coverage while in a relationship with him. regardless of what whether Zoe did was ethical or not, the post indifferently shares a frightening level of private details about their relationship and private IM and facebook conversations between him and Zoe, presenting it as "evidence". 

this post spawned several youtube videos invoking her sleeping around for favorable coverage as some kind of indie game/game journalism conspiracy, like this one (which to this date has 500,000+ views on youtube and a very good likes to dislikes ratio). John Brindle breaks down the twisted methodology of this video and others like it far better than i could in detail here (click to enlarge):

the full storify of his tweets is here. the most striking thing to me, beyond the bizarre level of arbitrary detail their relationship is documented in Gjoni's post (e.g. "I had my first panic attack Apr. 29th"), is that he uses the language of games and rules sets to intensely analyze the potential outcomes of situations he felt he was put in in their relationship. as John Brindle observed, the talk of puzzle pieces and investigation seem like some perverted version of the protagonist in the popular game Braid. they also recall the kind of universal strategies and "truths" about the opposite sex developed and disseminated by pick-up artists, but in a way they originate in game language - and game culture, in how games disembody and dehumanize subjects. 

unsurprising, then, that these gamers seem to have no problem taking the side of a bitter ex that seems, in no uncertain terms, set out to destroy her and bring as much harassment her way as possible (as it is now doing).


so i'll admit - when i first heard about Depression Quest, i had a pretty mixed reaction. i was glad to see a more visible game examining serious issues that come with a thing like depression, and i knew enough about Zoe to know that she'd been sincerely and openly struggling with it. she has, in fact, claimed that making the game saved her life. but i was also skeptical because i felt like it was taking some of the more abstract themes of lots of personal Twine games that were being made around the time and branding them in a more universal, surface, mainstream way. "depression" is such a broad cultural concept that originates from any number of sources - the idea that it remains this inherently abstract, alien idea that must be navigated through and corrected doesn't let us deeper into the very real sources it usually stems from. the fact is, depression is unfortunately a pretty normalized way of life. we live in a world that heavily encourages people towards developing intense anxiety and mental illness. and so i felt like other games had looked more into the source of these issues from more interesting angles, but weren't being recognized by the culture because they weren't so aggressively marketed.

regardless of my misgivings, any situations that have since developed around this game have digressed so far beyond any of the game's original intentions and shortcomings and into a strange, terrifying sort of cultural battleground. something about Zoe in particular - maybe that her game was all of a sudden ubiquitous, maybe that she was a woman who openly and unapologetically shared her image online, maybe that she seemed to be everywhere, triggered the killswitch in the greater consciousness of this reactionary gamer contingent. and as such, Zoe has become the scapegoat for every bit of internalized misogyny and misdirected rage these people felt. she appears to them an amorphous assemblage of everything that is viewed as wrong with women - manipulativeness, sluttiness, being an 'attention-whore'. the idea of trusting the word of a frighteningly narcissistic ex who's out to ruin her reputation is fine with them, because it meshes with their worldview. suddenly they have a convenient situation that explains away all their disillusionment and misgivings with themselves and game culture. suddenly it's about all game culture at large and ethics in game journalism, as in this post:

that's not to say that there aren't some grains of truth in these criticisms. the indie scene is often cliquish and entitled. it does benefit you tremendously to know the right people, and there is a lot of incestuousness and possible conflicts of interest that come into play with game spaces, so it's not a huge stretch to make that criticism. but focusing on a boogeyman of this seemingly formless, evil master manipulator woman who uses any tools to her advantage to gain positive press and reviews (which, btw, never materialized in at least one case - Nathan Grayson, a Kotaku writer she allegedly slept with, never wrote a review of Depression Quest) says a whole lot more about fear of women than it does say anything about any of the (numerous) problems in game journalism and the indie scene. nevermind that so much industry coverage, even from their beloved youtubers, functions as glorified PR. the fact is, most game journalism is already tremendously confused and broken, and at a much bigger and more fundamental level that these people think this Zoe Quinn "scandal" is.

for one, my big criticism of this new indie culture - that it's an extension of tech culture and is ultimately product-driven despite it often grasping for another image, that it's not nearly as open to new people or new ideas as it wants to believe it is, that a lot of the interesting things that are going on in independent games (like a lot of free games by people like increpare and stuff on gamejolt or warpdoor or forest ambassador, for example) are not really recognized as part of the "scene" or given much of any coverage from mainstream outlets, that writers who do focus on devoting their time to looking at more interesting aspects are constantly marginalized and ignored inside and outside the scene, that a lot of what comes out of the visible indie scene just reflects the same triple-A, game industry values despite people purporting to be more progressive/feminist/whatever, is totally absent from these criticisms. these people don't really care about lack of recognition or coverage for interesting new games made by outsiders. they care about getting back this abstract, indefinable feeling of a shared culture created and fostered by corporate media that seems to have been lost to them. they are tremendously scared and frightened people. ironically given what they say about their targets as whiny and overemotional, they are far more irrational and overly emotional in their responses. they care only about acting out on their numerous emotional triggers in whatever way possible, and using whatever tools they can. they are tremendously paranoid.

one of the biggest sources of paranoia i took from reading through my first 4chan thread about this issue is that social justice activism will inevitably destroy communities like 4chan. these people feel so disempowered in their lives that they head to communities like 4chan or reddit to be able to feel some sort of empowerment, to act out on something, to feel part of something bigger. this is where the whole mythos of Anonymous comes from. that a lone person with a computer has a tremendous power to take down the shadowy elite. but in that act, there's no accountability, and no moral code. anyone with the resources can mobilize people to target anyone they see fit. sometimes it attacks against the interests of power, but just as often it's a conservative, reactionary anger that comes out of disillusionment and fear, and gets constantly externalized onto marginalized people, especially women and queer people. 

they struggle to understand and adjust to a rapidly shifting cultural landscape, in and out of games, that's moving away from traditionally catering to them and their empathy-deficient values into something more culturally sensitive and aware. and so they find simple explanations for these complex phenomena that fit within their bigoted worldviews - boogeymans of evil, manipulative and misleading women like Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarskeesian. they view themselves as anti-authority and anti-power, even as their actions are tremendously conservative and tremendously serving of the interests of power. they view social justice activism (and indie games) as a product of the rich, elitist, and entitled who is using their agenda to infiltrate into major media outlets and ignore the common gamer market as an audience. they look to "normal guy" personalities like JonTron or Totalbiscuit, or Penny Arcade - who don't serve any kind of larger journalistic ethics aside from "being funny" - to reflect their perceived values and lifestyles. they employ the same logic that you see applied against LGBT and marginalized people that leaders in power in places like Iran or Russia do - social justice is a realm of Western entitlement and indulgences that are actively destroying the ways of lives of average, common people. they continually assert that these social justice issues don't matter compared to large political or global conflicts, and use it to justify their behavior. because social justice is the not a "real" realm, but one of the entitled babies who don't care about global issues, their bullying is justified and will come to no real consequence in the end. the internet is, then, a playground for them to angrily act out their own paranoia and insecurities onto.


traditionally they've been right on that last point. i think what we are seeing now, though, is that the actions of this conservative extremist contingent finally is coming to a larger consequence. social justice issues certainly aren't going away in game or media spaces, and the amount of hateful material received by industry people all across the board are getting more and more attention in the larger media sphere. this event, in its extremity, might be crucial in bringing it into an even larger consciousness. 

this all seems, in a way, to be a last gasp of desperation from the weak and empathy-deficient against the inevitable turns towards progress. it's an intensely self destructive act - it's as if they know they've lost in the end, so they're trying to take down anyone they can with them. and all i can really do, in the end, is just feel sorry for them.

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