Game ChangerWhy gaming culture allows abuse… and how we can stop it

Bitch Media is celebrating 20 years of award-winning, nonprofit, feminist response to pop culture. The original version of this article was printed in the Habitat issue of Bitch magazine, Winter 2013. It appears here with a new introduction from original author Katherine Cross as a part of the special 20th anniversary edition of Bitch magazine.

Looking back, this essay, the very first I wrote for Bitch, marks a milestone not only in my career as a writer but also as a sociologist. When I first wrote this article, I had no idea that it would give rise to a research agenda, nor how prescient the piece would be.

Over the last few years the topic of online harassment, particularly as a gendered problem that poses unique social challenges for women, has moved center stage—and not always for the right reasons. In late 2014, the abusive ex-boyfriend of independent game developer Zoe Quinn wrote an online screed accusing her of sleeping with gaming journalists in exchange for positive reviews, and a harassment campaign was born. The people involved quickly discovered that “journalistic ethics” was a fig leaf they could use to (poorly) mask their true intentions—persecuting feminists in gaming. Initially the group called themselves the “Quinnspiracy.” But after right-wing actor Adam Baldwin dubbed them “GamerGate,” what had begun as another instance of rote harassment turned into an inescapable vortex that touched nearly every person who put pen to paper in the gaming world.

A year and a half on, GamerGate has mostly fizzled, and the worst is over for many of us—even if the lives of initial GamerGate targets like Zoe Quinn will never be the same. But in addition to following the patterns and motivations I theorized about in “Game Changer,” GamerGate also demonstrated the fact that the 21st century will play host to organized, reactionary hate movements that operate almost entirely online. The age of, say, the John Birch Society may be over, but the spirit that animated such groups is alive, well, and generative. That is cause for concern. But there are also hopeful signs.

In GamerGate’s wake, Intel committed 300 million dollars to the cause of combatting online harassment and diversifying its own workforce. They’ve also supported pavilions at gaming conferences that sponsor and highlight independently designed games made by marginalized people. Most recently, Intel partnered with Vox Media on a campaign called Hack Harassment whose goal is to crowdsource design ideas for combating online harassment. Social media platforms like Reddit and Twitter, meanwhile, are finally admitting they have a problem, even if their halting steps toward change are woefully unequal to the problem.

Yet even among feminists, challenges remain. Chief among them is the perception, which we’ve done too little to combat, that online harassment is a white cis woman’s issue. Men certainly perpetrate bigoted harassment against women, including doxing, stalking, and swatting—but white women do it to women of color and cis women do it to trans women, to say nothing of toxic behavior that knows no boundaries of identity or target. We will never get on top of this problem if we tacitly deny this; we all share in the responsibility to cultivate a new sense of ethics for the 21st century.

“You’re a Bolshevik feminist jewess that hates white people... and you expect to be taken seriously when you’re ‘critique-ing’ video games? Fucking ovendodger.”
Like water through a bursting dam, the deluge came first in pinprick spouts and then rushed through in a pitiless torrent. E-mails, tweets, and YouTube comments attacked feminist videoblogger Anita Sarkeesian for proposing, this past May, to make a documentary about sexism in video games and crowdfund it through Kickstarter. In addition to comments like the misogynistic, anti-Semitic gem above, sexually violent images of her were mass-produced and circulated among male gamers and offensive, explicit edits were made to her Wikipedia page.

A similar attack was launched on Jennifer Hepler, a senior writer for the video game developer BioWare. Her crime was to suggest, in a 2006 interview with, that in story-based role playing games (or RPGs), “there is no reason on earth that you can’t have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.” But when Reddit users dug up her statement this past February, they aimed a remorseless stream of abuse at her like a fusillade of excrement.

Around the same time, at a Street Fighter X Tekken televised tournament, a team coach named Aris Bakhtanians began verbally abusing and sexually harassing Miranda “Super_Yan” Pakozdi, one of the women he was supposed to be coaching. Later, when Jared Rea, a community manager, asked if it was possible to “get my Street Fighter without sexual harassment,” Bakhtanians responded, “You can’t. You can’t because they’re one and the same thing. Sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting-game community, it’s not the fighting-game community.”

More quotidian examples of harassment in the gaming world can be found on sites like Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, a blog devoted to documenting and mocking the daily abuse women receive in the world of online gaming. Such sites only verify what any gamer can tell you about the prevalence of sexist behavior in video game culture, which also has plenty of racist, transphobic, homophobic, and ableist variants.

The three incidents above were so public and brutal that they raised the profile of harassment beyond the gaming community itself, where debate on the matter has raged for years. Suddenly it was on CBC Radio, in the New Statesman, in the Guardian, in the mainstream feminist press, as well as in other outlets. By August, an article (“In Virtual Play, Sexual Harassment Is All Too Real”) appeared on the New York Times’ front page.

* * *

More people are finally taking notice of the abuse. But there’s still a dearth of discussion on why it’s happening. The culprit isn’t anonymity, often the go-to answer for why the Internet can’t have nice things. Instead, it’s believing in the exceptionality of the Internet—and online gaming—that allows the abuses within, and it is enabled every time someone utters, “It’s just a game.”

That phrase is the machine to which oppressive power dynamics are the ghost. How many times have you heard someone say “It’s the Internet; you shouldn’t take that seriously”? This kind of thinking supports the idea you can do anything you want with no consequences, when in all actuality, virtual actions like sexual harassment, stalking, abuse, prejudice in all of its forms—racism, sexism, transphobia, or all of the above—do have consequences.

Let’s start with that distinction between “online” and “the real world.” In the virtual world, there is a clear, aggressively policed distinction dictating the boundaries of both cyberspace and its social practices. In online gaming spaces in particular, this distinction is similar to the difference between “play” and “nonplay.” As child psychologists have long recognized, the act of saying “this is play” makes the real seem unreal, and thus malleable and less threatening. It allows for experimentation and learning, as well as simply finding out who you are. But in online gaming spaces, when combined with a culture of zero accountability and prejudice, it becomes a way of denying the impact of one’s words and actions—putting no limit on how nasty they can be.

“It’s just a game” is another way of saying “this is play,” and is often the first line of defense against someone who calls out certain gaming culture behavior as disrespectful, offensive, or triggering. On the Shoryuken forum, one man defended Bakhtanians’s sexual harassment by saying, “I’m not saying go around in real life acting like an asshole, but on [gamer forums] and at tourneys it is perfectly acceptable to talk some shit and have some fun.” In other words, in the “real” world this wouldn’t be okay, but in the (unreal) gaming world, it’s just fun. As one YouTube commenter condescendingly told Sarkeesian: “It’s just a game, those girls [depicted in games] aren’t real now, are they?”

Another example can be found in Bonnie Nardi’s 2010 book My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An  Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. While playing World of Warcraft, a male member of her guild requested a naked picture of her—an action quickly glossed over as “just a joke!” and made light of. “Females were implicitly asked to agree to the condition that they were participating in an activity in which males were the dominant gender,” she reflected. “I was being tested and put on notice that the guys were in charge.”  

So why are the guys in charge here? Gaming cyberspace provides a virtual refuge for a certain kind of masculinity, one constructed in opposition to a rapidly changing world. In his book Guyland, sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that for today’s young, heterosexual men, “The fantasy world of media is both an escape from reality and an escape to reality,” capturing the dualism of real and unreal spaces. Kimmel’s interviews with young male gamers are illustrative. One avers immediately: “We all know the pc drill...but c’mon, man. It’s only a goddamned’s just entertainment.” Another young man says: “I don’t care that [video games are] not PC; I like that. It’s the one place I can go.”

These quotes are several years old, but when compared with a Shoryuken forum quote from February about the tournament incident—“For Aris and a lot of other people (mostly guys, but it can include women too), the fighting game scene is a chance for them to relax and be themselves, away from an insane, politically correct culture”—it’s clear not much has changed.

Kimmel points out that the “reality” of the virtual spaces male gamers create is one that “many of these guys secretly would like to inhabit” and that video games “provide a way for guys to feel empowered.” His analysis of men’s relationships to virtual space concludes that these men feel “it’s nice to turn back the clock and return to a time when men ruled—and no one questioned it.”

It is hardly surprising that some men perceive the gaming world as, in Kimmel’s words, a “virtual men’s locker room” threatened by the presence of women. When women inhabit this space, claim visibility, and attempt to shape it, their presence becomes an existential threat to that “not PC” safe space that some of these young men enjoy. When abuse occurs, the conceit is that it’s “just a game,” which enables people to—in the words of one of Kimmel’s interviewees—“offend everyone!” It’s not like real life, which is too, well, real to risk flagrantly violating norms of decorum. But, at the same time, these male gamers know that the space is a real, tangible thing, in need of protection. Their “offending” serves to police the boundaries of who can and cannot inhabit gaming culture, and to keep out people who threaten “their” space.

Critics are antagonized on websites, forums, and in games themselves by this claque of gamers for “taking games too seriously” or, as with my own past writing about transgender life in online gaming, “bringing politics into our game.” This, too, is an effort to say that such critiques don’t belong because games are a magic circle of unreal play, and neither critical thinking nor politics have any place there since they are real and serious.

But it’s a selective reasoning: gaming spaces are unreal enough to blunt criticism, yet real enough to defend against undesirables. Consider the bacchanal of hate that swirled around Jennifer Hepler about her combat-skipping idea. However benign Hepler’s intentions were, she was read by many male gamers as making RPGs unmanly. It did not help that she was also a strong proponent of writing gay and lesbian characters into games.

A sampling of how her ideas were greeted: “You are the worst piece of shit writer ever, stop ruining BioWare you dumb cunt;” “You [sic] games have a poor completion rate because they suck. Forced gay romance and half-assed gameplay”; “Why was there so much gay sex in my Dragon Age 2?” “Depends what kind of people play DA more, normal gamers vs. middle aged women who read yaoi fanfics.”

Some accused her of getting her job by “sucking dick,” others attacked her weight, and the words “cunt” and “bitch” appeared on the regular. But what was especially telling was the number of people who claimed Hepler and her defenders weren’t “real” gamers, and “proved” this by asserting that Hepler did unmasculine things like write gay romance novels or like fan fiction. It was a robust, collective effort to define the space: “Good” games were masculine ones, “bad” games had feminine elements, like queerness, romance, and less combat.

If it’s really all “just a game,” why would this matter so much? Because the unreality of online culture allows certain male gamers to morally justify defending what is real to them—it’s what Street Fighter coach Bakhtanians meant when he asserted that sexual harassment was intrinsic to fighting-game culture.

“Joking” and other ways of expressing prejudice under this rubric are how certain people—especially men, as demonstrated by the foregoing ethnographic work—can journey into the forbidden and be “un-PC.” It requires the moral sanction of “unreality” but uses language designed to police boundaries by having real impacts. The bullying directed at Hepler and Sarkeesian was meant to put each woman back in her place and away from the ramparts of male gamedom.

When the borders of these “unreal” spaces of play are breached, responses based on a very “real” social urgency surface. One man, in a particularly well-known BioWare forum post, spoke out against the impact of women’s and LGBTQ people’s presence in a long piece titled “BioWare Neglected Their Main Demographic: The Straight Male Gamer.” In it, the author, known only by the pseudonym Bastal, publicly denounces the gay and lesbian relationships portrayed in BioWare’s more recent games. He inveighs against “exotic” romance choices for heterosexual male players (an elf and a dark-skinned human woman), and expresses concern about BioWare “catering” to LGBTQ people for the sake of “political correctness.”

The post is an excellent cultural artifact illustrating the anxiety of white, heterosexual male gamers and the perception that their space is being violated. It begins, “I don’t think many would argue with the fact that the overwhelming majority of  gamers are indeed straight and male,” despite the fact that nearly half of RPG gamers are women. He attempts to frame the discussion in terms of a “straight male” space where the majority’s will is being ignored by large game developers. Most interesting is his observation that “It’s ridiculous that I even have to use a term like ‘Straight Male Gamer,’ when in the past I would only have to say ‘fans.’”

Despite his incorrect assumption about role playing gamers’ genders, he seems to recognize that the growing visibility of women and nonhetero people goes against traditional assumptions about who gamers are. He grasps that he no longer has the privilege of generalizing his interests onto those of all gamers; rather, he must name his subject position. Suddenly it seems as if it’s no longer all fun and games.

* * *

Making further progress requires knowing that this problem lies in this double-dutching between real and unreal, and breaking this dichotomy is one of the first steps we should take.

We have to give up the idea that certain behavior is innate to the Internet, or to gaming culture. How we interact in gaming spaces should not have to be defined by silence, extra precautions, fear, and deception. Those experiences are a real consequence of the “playing around” that occurs in these spaces. We should continue to frame them as such.

Further, we should pay the majestic compliment to games that they deserve by averring loudly, proudly, and in every way possible that games are more than “just” games. Shedding this illusion is essential if we’re to enforce standards of respectability in game culture and ensure we can all have fun equally, without fear of harassment, stalking, or threats.

But it’s worth repeating: Anonymity is not the problem. In 2011, Facebook’s marketing director, Randi Zuckerberg, piously observed: “I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away…I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.” This conventional wisdom, shared by countless people across the political spectrum, is a red herring.

The real issue is a lack of accountability, fostered by the idea that what happens online does not have “real- world” consequences. Whether people write their hate using a pseudonym or with a real name and picture attached, they’re culturally supported because “it’s just a game.” But one’s avatar or screen name can be a vehicle of accountability as surely as any other. When you level in an online game and garland yourself with the rewards of dungeon-delving, raiding, or player-vs.-player combat, you develop a personality and reputation that you cannot easily shed. Even if no one ever knows your legal name or face, accountability and responsibility can still accrue to that avatar. Such a person becomes unaccountable not because of anonymity, but because too many gamers throw their hands up and say “This is the Internet, what can you do?” It’s similar to “boys will be boys” in its handwashing of responsibility.

The popular phrase “don’t feed the trolls,” however well intentioned, is in some ways also a product of the same kind of thinking. This malignancy is always going to be there, so why waste energy fighting or confronting it? In response to this kind of thinking, s.e. smith at the blog Tiger Beatdown may have put it best: “[Threats and harassment are] grinding and relentless and we’re told collectively, as a community, to stay silent about it. But I’m not sure that’s the right answer, to remain silent in the face of silencing campaigns designed and calculated to drive us from not just the Internet, but public spaces in general.... This is a reality, and it doesn’t go away if we don’t talk about it.”

And we have to keep talking about it because we are at a turning point—one where developers and writers are beginning to take responsibility for their creations, and where gaming companies are seeing themselves increasingly responsible for dealing with troublemakers who play their games. We have witnessed multiple traumas of late, but unlike in the past, the maelstroms seem to be yielding to rainbows rather than whirlpools.
Sarkeesian’s project, modestly budgeted at $6,000, ended up netting over $150,000 when all was said and done.

The hatefest surrounding Hepler ended up with a huge community outcry against bullying, a $1,000 donation to an antibullying charity by BioWare, and ever-stronger statements from the company about protecting its employees from bigoted abuse. Aris Bakhtanians, meanwhile, was met with a groundswell of criticism from across geek culture and ultimately apologized.

The critical study of gaming is gaining momentum, LGBQ characters are here to stay (and hopefully some properly written “T” characters won’t be far behind), and more and more commentators within the gaming community are attacking the culture of prejudice festering in its ranks. For instance, writers from websites like the Escapist; Eurogamer; and Rock, Paper, Shotgun have become ever more forthright in attacking the smoldering remnants of prejudicial culture in gaming. Progressive and feminist geek websites, like the Mary Sue and the Border House (where I am an editor), are also gaining prominence. It is no longer uncommon to see men speaking out against sexism in gaming culture. We as women (and LGBTQ and people of color) geeks are making ourselves more visible than ever. GeekGirlCon is in its second year, and panels addressing gender and sexuality politics are increasingly a fixture at other events—PAX East notably played host to a panel on transgender issues in gaming. The historical invincibility of this little sociopsychological trick—“real” when it’s convenient, “just a game” when it’s not—is over.

It’s still only just a beginning, with a lot more work to be done and a lot more hell to be endured, I fear, but we are reaching a point where the classic model of unaccountability that the real/unreal dyad has produced in cyberspace is at last being robustly challenged on all fronts, in increasingly high-profile and public ways. As gaming becomes a significant part of public and artistic life, feminists, antiracists, disability advocates, and LGBTQ activists have all been able to effect major changes.

If I had to make a prediction, I would say that in several years we will consider hiding behind the “unreality” of the Internet immature and socially unacceptable. As more and more social life migrates to the web, it’s becoming increasingly backward to believe that what happens online is somehow independent or less real than the “real world.” More of us are making our reality manifest through the virtual world—whether it’s finding a job, finding love, or finding community—and it’s becoming increasingly senseless to say that what happens there is somehow illusory.

It’s more than just a game, and for that we should all be thankful.

Original illustration by Jasmine Silver was created for the Habit{at} issue: "Between drawings of cob houses, companion planting flow charts, random diary entries, and obsessive lists, I recently found the concept sketches for the Game Changer illustrations. It brought me back to why I love working with Bitch. Design, illustration, and typography are all about communication—and Bitch has been a strong voice in feminist discourse for 20 years. I started at Bitch as an intern when I was fresh out of school five years ago. They gave me the kickstart I needed to be the confident, content hungry designer I am today."

by Katherine Cross
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Katherine Cross is a PhD student and sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center and a games critic.

This article was published in 20th Anniversary Issue #70 | Spring 2016

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