Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Beyond Gamergate

note: you can also read this post over on my Patreon here:

Back in late 2014 when gamergate was in full force, there was a lot I or others couldn't predict about what would come out of it. It seemed curious that it had achieved national media attention at all, especially given that it was happening in tandem with the Ferguson Black Lives Matter protests that were rippling across the US. But the videogame world has been notoriously insular - the idea of any of it filtering into the public consciousness in a more sustained way seemed hard to fathom. That's probably why in some venues of popular media, the thing was almost treated like a joke, like a "can you believe this actually exists?" sort of gawking at the idea that it might be worth covering or recognizing.

A couple years later of course we saw it morph from the "lol, can you believe this?" incredulity to it being the prototype version of the young alt-right Trump voter, who now suddenly became a political force mainstream media had to acknowledge and pay attention to instead of roll their eyes at. But now we're a few years removed from that and the issues of conflicts in videogame spaces seem far from the biggest concern on a lot of people's minds, I think we have arrived at the lasting cultural image gamergate as a cultural phenomenon has provided to the mainstream media establishment: an easy scapegoat.

Something about the gamer as furiously unkempt, downwardly mobile, pathetic, entitled, basement-dwelling white man is deeply terrifying to the average blue checkmark twitter media pundit. These are the men who are at the center of trying to single-handedly prevent a more enlightened world from happening out of fear and pettiness from losing his own status in society, they claim. And there is, of course, some degree of reality to these claims. The image of this man is particularly invoked with even more ease now, when it's extremely easy (and lazy) to make the analogue between it to our current US president himself: a truly disgusting, unhinged human being who only inherited his fortune, fails to educate himself about basic concepts, and only seems to use his platform to engage in bullying when he's not just being totally incoherent, and angrily tweet from the White House instead of doing his real job (which somehow, to the people who make these sorts of statements, is better than the alternative?).

We could say why it's not the greatest idea to make the connection between angry disconnected basement-dwelling white men who may or may not share a lot of beliefs with Trump but are not in a particular position to do much of anything to act on it aside from harass people lower on the totem pole than them socially to Trump for many reasons as well; Trump has existed in our pop cultural consciousness for many years, he's been good friends and associated with famous people both liberal and conservative including the Clintons, he's a creature created out of the very same media ecosystem who wants to frame him as an anomaly. In spite of Trump's garishness and his perpetual frauds (which has never stopped other more supposedly legitimate rich people) he's managed to be quite successful too. He's not exactly an isolated, disconnected, downwardly-mobile basement dweller.

At the beginning of this era you could perhaps assume that these endless pontifications on the disgusting deviance of our Desiccated Despot or Mango Mussolini or whatever were done more out of a naive need to vent on a mainstream stage than provide any serious political or cultural analysis. Maybe we just all needed a collective moment to say "what the fuck, world??" and admit that we had no idea what was happening instead of putting our serious caps on and trying to find an explanation. Perhaps these were just the idle opinions of unenlightened pundits spouting off in much the same way Trump does, anyway, and should have been taken with a grain of salt.

But as time rolls on and those takes only persist with ever-increasing intensity, it's become so much more obvious now that they're less about catharsis and more a tactic purposefully employed to redirect all anger towards an easy target. And it shouldn't be underestimated how much those media pundits who serve to direct all anger to Trump and Trump-like figures have had a power to shape how everyone talks and thinks about these issues in the popular consciousness. Bad things are happening because of white male entitlement, and that's all that needs to be said, we say, as we wash our hands of the whole situation. And that seems to satisfy many people. But what does that even mean?

Language and terminology that might have served a much more complex purpose in the past become buzzwords, and buzzwords become a shortcut substitute for having to address larger problems. Once we have the right buzzword, we've found a magic key which we can now explain everything through and suggest a requisite fix to the program. Suddenly the curtains open up and the whole world makes sense. Except, invariably, it still doesn't. So all the cognitive dissonance we have about still not understanding why the world is exactly how it is via this magic key we've been provided just lingers around and fuels more anger and confusion. And that confusion is invariably just used to reinforce the belief that actually, it does explain everything even better than we'd ever thought before. The failure to fit the bad guys fully into this model actually means we're even more right than we ever thought before, because it shows they've become shockingly resilient and all-powerful.

In short, the failure of a model of thinking justifies why that model is actually even more good and better than you will ever know. We've descended very deep into the realm of cult groupthink and conspiracy theory than any attempt to provide a clear coherent picture of reality. This is deliberately the point. All of the people who have spent years of blood and sweat giving us a complex articulation of how to identify the nature and form of white supremacy, American capitalism, imperialism, neoliberalism, etc that could help us move outside of this reductive buzzwordy way of thinking and provide a more holistic model are done a tremendous injustice. Sadly, more holistic conversations don't track or spread the same way on social media and beyond; and besides, pundits intentionally butchering the concepts others fought tooth-and-nail to articulate while pretending they are educating the masses on these concepts is part of our great liberal cultural tradition of co-opting and defanging radical movements in order to strip them of their power and erase them of their radical origins.

In the case of the world of videogames, where the menace of gamergate made an actual impact, time showed the actions of alt right-adjacent figures, doxxers, serial harassers, sockpuppet accounts etc to be a extremely annoying and PTSD-inducing to those who have ever had to face the other end of them. Yet they clearly turned out to be a far less potent and crushing boogeyman than the game industry itself, which largely turned a blind eye to confronting the problems that led to a right-wing nationalist surge in its own space and continued to treat people who existed inside its landscape as an extremely disposable resource. Even now when there are more structures in place inside various vectors of the videogame world to deal with harassment and lack of access that didn't exist before: good luck being remembered or cared about long enough for anyone to stand up for you! Because someone new who complains less than you do is going to be there to replace you at any moment anyway. The truth is: this was always far more about nature of the status quo these self-elected right wing nationalistic enforcers of "videogame ethics" were trying to protect and maintain, than who any of them actually were or what they were doing as individual people.

I've said before that "the game industry created gamergate" and it's a topic a lot of people won't even bat an eye at at this point. Many media pundits who waded into the Gamergate Discourse framed the world of a gamergater as a pure fantasy fabrication somehow borne from thin air, something that was bound to disappear and become irrelevant in an increasingly more enlightened industry and world (except, oh wait, it never did). It's easy to see how ridiculous this idea became once 2016 rolled around, but let's take the argument on its own terms here. One could ask the question - if these white male basement dwellers were living in invented fantasies inside their head, then where did their fantasies come from?

No clear or coherent explanation ever is really ever provided from those sorts of media pundits who say things like that. They might admit that these problems came from somewhere, but that things are better now and we can't dwell too much on the past. But of course that's on purpose, because again the idea that it's all a fantasy reality of a pathetic entitled loser that is in no way connected to actual reality is a way to obscure deeper inquiry and pathologize bad behavior from an outsider who simply won't understand and accept the established way of doing things instead of something that existed inside the system from the beginning and still exists to this day.

Because really, for anyone actually paying attention, it doesn't take longer than two seconds to find out where those fantasies come from (both in the past and present). Many Western marketing departments in the game industry collectively realized that after a certain point of growth for the industry in the 1980's, reaching the kind of universal audience of Hollywood with their products were not going to be broadly possible because they just weren't selling in that sort of volume, especially after Atari overloaded the market and spurred on what is referred to as The Great Videogame Crash of 1983 (game critic LeeRoy Lewin has some great thoughts about why conventional thinking about this moment is probably bullshit by the way). So many forces in the industry doubled down on hyper-specialized marketing towards particular demographics (white, male, middle class) that reinforced existing hierarchies. This ensured that access to these spaces from people outside those groups would always be harder in multiple ways: materially (you can't access these spaces if you or your parents don't have the money to invest in them), and socially (i.e. finding support and solidarity and a way into game development in the West was way harder if you're a non white male). Not being able to access the fruits of an industry due to lack of material or social resources is not exactly a problem unique to the videogame industry, and it's not exactly something that has gone a way in a time of extreme economic precarity for many.

Our grand old USA has also pumped an insane amount of money and resources into feeding our bloated, world-destroying military-industrial complex, so it's not hard to see how arms manufacturers would come around towards working with a popular medium like videogames via Call of Duty-esque games as a recruitment and propaganda tool. The desire to use a popular medium to increase attitude of military jingoism in our culture that justifies aggressive interventionism as patriotism is shared in much Hollywood military propaganda as well, not just through your American Snipers or Blackhawk Downs but in recent superhero blockbusters like Captain America: Civil War or Wonder Woman. So, not exactly a problem unique to videogames.

Hardware that's manufactured from minerals mined in countries mired in corruption and ravaged by civil war becomes a way for various industries to cheaply supply electronics to the world in the first place, and a testament to who is able to see the most benefit of these consumer goods (the richer countries) and who isn't able to (the places these minerals are mined). Like many other things, this doesn't really distinguish the videogame industry from the tech industry at large, or many other industries that depend on a surplus of cheap electronics.

If I'm being charitable, one thing could say that the world of videogames lacks that others have is access to videogame creation and distribution has yet to have broadly established political movements attached to it like there have been with film or music or the art world, though they've begun to at least pick up a little momentum in the past decade or so. This is merely because games as a medium have had less time to develop a serious, powerful alternative to their own status quo because games have been developed in a time where neoliberalism has been in full force, worker's movements have been substantially weakened, and any sort of ideological political alternative to the status quo has been quashed aggressively. Perhaps this might partially explain why the videogame industry has less of a baseline "enlightened liberal" surface image like Hollywood or the music industry does. The cycle of co-option is not nearly as far along.

But really, there is nothing surprising or unique in a space (i.e. "gamers") that was intentionally created to play off already existing hierarchies (i.e. misogyny and white supremacy) leading to the beliefs that lie at the core of those hierarchies to be fully articulated and acted upon in that space later down the road. The signs were always there, and they continue to be there. The idea of the gamer was invented to sell products in the first place, and it still serves that purpose. But something about the specter of this gamer as lone, depressed, downwardly mobile white male adult living in their parents basement is now the ultimate boogeyman. Maybe just because this represents a new cultural archetype that is far and away much bleaker than previous ones. American culture has produced many monsters, but somehow a white male who isn't working in a conventionally "productive" way and can't find a way to integrate himself into established institutions of power and dress himself in a more civilized outfit of liberal platitudes American Psycho-style is just a bridge too far.

These white male basement-dwellers become a really great scapegoat in other parts of culture as well. According to several blue checkmark pundits (who are definitely friends of the struggle for racial justice in America and not intentionally obscuring facts here or anything), the people who are supposedly destroying property and tarring the grassroots social movement of Black Lives Matter are really, in effect, the shadowy Antifa. No matter that Antifa, who are often considered a terrorist organization in the media, aren't even an organization at all. No matter that in spite of somehow being compared to white supremacists, their existence comes from resistance to white supremacists. Their unhinged menace for the established authority is now a sign of white entitlement and is singlehandedly what has prevented the struggle for racial justice from receiving a better outcome. Somehow as outsiders with little support they have the power and organization to destroy and undermine a movement that is not about them and make it about them. Therefore: sorry, but the protests are invalid now. No more rights for you.

That's not to say actual white supremacists haven't shown up to destroy shit and cause problems, as Charlottesville or many chaotic Berkeley protests showed a few years ago. But many who have attended protests where both the shadowy Antifa (which, by the way, wearing a mask is just a good idea for protests in general) and actual white supremacists have attended before can tell you that the first thing everyone suspects when property gets damaged or a situation escalates suddenly is that it came from undercover cops. The phenomenon of undercover cops coming in to destroy property or otherwise instigate things and create a more dangerous situation for protesters and make them look bad is provably a real thing that happens across the board. Many have recognized and recorded undercover cops doing this. Even when white supremacists show up to protests on their own accord to create problems, they invariably have some police support and backing. And that's because they're almost always in a big minority and could not function at all without police protection.

These undercover cops or white supremacists who have full support from cops give blue checkmark  media the perfect feed to work with to try and invalidate a protest movement. Because, really, imagine some media blue checkmark who makes a career off of spouting condescending platitudes to black people like "I hear your pain" or "I will grant space to you" ever admitting to this being a thing. Imagine them acknowledging that police intentionally and purposefully (not accidentally) protect white supremacists, or that undercover police instigate situations in order to make protesters look bad in the media and potentially turn protesters on each other. That would be a bridge too far. That would also make them look terribly bad and like they're in on the racket (which, you know, maybe they are!) The blame invariably has to fall on some outsider with their own agenda instead of the police themselves, who somehow are also treated as victims here in spite of their existence and their continued antagonism of black people being the thing that is being protested in the first place. It's always the shadowy boogeyman on the outside, not our precious cops.

That's because these pundits aren't concerned. They are intentionally obscuring facts for a purpose. And they are, whether they know it or not (I think most of them do) trying to create infighting within protest movements and shift the public sentiment away from protesters. They are trying to make them look like whiny kids who don't want to get a real job out of one side of their mouth while still doing all the condescending liberal platitudes about how they're on the side of struggle on the other.


To go back to videogames for a second: perhaps another way to look at gamergate is it was pushback against games going from a large but still somewhat controlled, tightly-knit space that echoed the industry's tactics of heavily marketing towards middle class white men in the West... to a more mainstream part of culture, like film or music. This was bound to happen from the getgo, as consumer habits are always changing over time as culture and technology changes, and much of regular life now is all digital anyway. Videogames are now irrefutably mainstream in spite of what some older voices might still say or believe. The battle against that becoming a reality was always a losing one, because the people who made up gamergate had no control over that to begin with. The spaces that stoked and coddled them still exist anyway, and still define a lot about videogames - they're just not the only dominant mainstream voice anymore.

But this is the problem. Games becoming a mainstream industry is not a good thing in itself because the status quo of all of these industries is bad for a vast majority of people. And that's obviously not because it means marketing to broader demographics or making more diverse hires or whatever, but because it just opens up more vectors of exploitation and inequality. While the game industry is going to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic better than ever thanks to quarantine leading to a huge surge in people who wouldn't normally have the time to do so obsessively playing videogames like the new Animal Crossing, creative industries like music or theater that are the lifeblood of cities like NYC (where I live now) are in an extremely precarious, very dire place. And now they're being forced to clumsily adapt to platforms built primarily for videogames, like Twitch, or like broadcasting a concert from within the ingame worlds of major games like Minecraft or Fortnite. The tables, seemingly, have turned.

Except they really haven't. Videogames are headed in the same direction all of these older creative industries have ended up in now - where working in the space at all is considered a privilege, where you're extremely lucky to have any visibility or interest behind your work, where all the money and hyper-visibility that exists in the industry filters up to a small number of people who get massively rich while the vast majority of people who work within it can't even sustain a living doing it and have to get other jobs, where you have no right to complain about your lack of success because the space is a meritocracy and you must have just not worked hard enough, where there are very little protections or rights offered to you and employment is always precarious even in the best of times. There was no chance for most people working in the music industry or theater to get more stability or support before the pandemic, so there's certainly no chance now.

I'm circling around this point, but: what years of watching as the collective memory of what gamergate was and wasn't seemingly morph in various confusing and troubling ways has solidified to me is really dire need to move beyond invoking the boogeyman of the scary white male loner in the parents' basement. The only purpose that serves is for people with power and platforms who clearly don't have an interest in actually empowering you as a marginalized person to force your eye to continually focus on that as a sole target of ire. Whether or not that type of person really deserves that much of your empathy, depending on who you are and what you've dealt with, is really irrelevant. Because it's enough of a deftly employed distraction to absorb all your fears and force you to search for comfort in the arms of a lot of people who are carrying a knife behind their back.

Over the years I've become disillusioned with how social media reinforces this need to monitor your friends. All I've ever seen it do break a sense of solidarity that might exist before in a space where people communicate more easily and equally, and foster burnout among people who are struggling for something better but feel the mountain is just too high to climb without paying a massive price for their mental health. I've lost friendships and support due to stuff like this. We're all on edge having nightmares about the demons that might be unleashed out of the mouths of friends or acquaintances at any moment that might prove they were toxic and using us all along than find a way to get on the same page, even when we are all clearly at different levels of need and desire.

The mechanisms of social media make us feel like a newer, bigger monster is always around the corner that we have to stay vigilant against. This feeling is exhilarating, and that's why it sticks around so insidiously, like a parasite. It's also extremely paralyzing and debilitating, like a parasite. This outcome of this isn't a mistake: it's very intentional. And I'm tired of playing into it, and I'm exhausted from trying to justify to myself that anything good is coming out of it.