The controversy over violent, misogynistic trolling in the gamer community returned to the spotlight this week when death threats compelled feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian – no stranger to such threats – to cancel a public appearance:
Sarkeesian, who is currently in the middle of a lengthy project dissecting sexist tropes in video games, was forced to cancel an upcoming speech at Utah State University, after an anonymous letter threatened a mass shooting should her speech proceed. Sarkeesian canceled after officials were unable to make sure there would be no concealed weapons at her speech. Utah law allows for concealed carry with a permit. Though the threat on Sarkeesian’s speech was almost certainly the work of a disaffected, unaffiliated troll, it plays into a larger trend involving the critic — she does pretty much anything, and angry threats, often from self-described “gamers,” follow.
But there is always the risk that drawing too much attention to these anonymous misogynists and their distant violent threats could actually empower them, when otherwise they might simply molder in their basements. And changing one’s behavior in the face of such terrorism is giving the troll a win of sorts, in the same way we saw with the Mohammed cartoons and ISIS beheading tapes on a much grander scale. But ignoring such threats is never an easy call of course, and Sarkeesian deserves the utmost sympathy. Alyssa Rosenberg insists that such threats be taken seriously:
To some observers, threats made online are ephemeral, abstract even in their fantastical, violent detail. And yet, a threat to carry out a school shooting does not actually have to result in an auditorium full of bodies to achieve what the letter-writer intended, to make it impossible for Sarkeesian to move forward with her talk. And a threat does not have to meet the legal threshold of a crime — in some states, evidence that the person issuing the threat has an actual intent and clear plans to carry it out – to levy extremely high social costs.
Sarkeesian has had to leave her home because someone who threatened her claimed to have her address and that of her parents. Brianna Wu, who co-founded the video gaming company Giant Spacekat, also moved to avoid threats made in response not even to sustained criticism of video games, but to jokes she made about the Gamergate campaign. “Depression Quest” developer Zoe Quinn went into hiding after a vengeful ex-boyfriend published a long account of her alleged infidelities that seemed to imply she chose her partners for professional advancement.
Take the case of Gamasutra blogger Leigh Alexander, who was targeted after she questioned the changing nature of “gamer identity” and claimed that “gamers are over.” In apparent response to her piece, a subreddit arose imploring gamers to flood the Intel Corporation with complaints about her, resulting in Intel ads being pulled from Gamasutra’s site. And while Intel issued a boilerplate statement against gender discrimination, the ads remained down and #Gamergate claimed victory. “They targeted me specifically,” Alexander told Vulture. “They were offended by the assertions in my article and by my progressive/feminist work in general. And they continue to harass me and others on a regular basis.”
More broadly, Sarkeesian’s critics – including those who don’t threaten her with rape or murder on a regular basis – accuse her of being part of a culture of corruption in videogame journalism. Yet, as we’ve seen, these critics’ targets are primarily women, and the “criticism” too frequently crosses a line into trolling or outright threats, so it’s often difficult to separate the good critics from the bad. Jim Edwards is amazed that there is any controversy here in the first place:
Gamers who have rallied around the hashtag #GamerGate insist that the death threats are trivial. It’s only Twitter, they say. Grow up and ignore it the way the rest of us do. More importantly, they add, the death threats are not the TRUE issue at the heart of GamerGate. Rather, it’s the video game industry’s cozy relationship with video game journalists and the conflict of interests they indulge in. Sometimes, the writers sleep with the game coders, apparently. “Video game journalism [is] in need of urgent reform,” writer Milo Yiannopoulos insists. …
But look at the priorities here. On the one hand, a handful of women have said, “Some of these games are frankly not great, guys!” and been threatened with death for having that opinion. And on the other hand, a huge chunk of the gaming community is now fiercely arguing that the death threats aren’t important. Rather, the technicalities of video game reviewing are the priority. It’s completely insane. It’s insane that you even have to say out loud that sending death threats to people who disagree with your opinion of video games is wrong. Yet here we are: Apparently, it needs to be said.
Jesse Singal views Gamergate as a form of backlash against the maturing of videogames as a creative industry:
We are never going back to a time when there aren’t developers making games about nuanced, mature themes, some of which may be of little interest to some stereotypical “traditional” white male gamers. That’s why Kyle Wagner’s comparison of hardcore Gamergaters to tea partiers is so accurate: Like members of the tea party, some Gamergaters are seeing big, real changes and wrongly predicting that said changes will bring them personal hardship or persecution. Hence the outrage, and hence the “deep sense of entitlement coming out of a section of the male gaming community,” as Sarkeesian described it to me.
It’s easy for a male observer of all this to wax hopeful about the “silver lining” of the vibrant, endlessly fascinating indie game scene, of course — I’m not the one who has been driven from my home because of harassment, and I’ve never known the feeling of having to cancel an event because of the threat of a mass shooting. But at some point this paroxysm of misogynistic, revanchist rage will die down. When it does, fascinating, quirky indie games will still be there, and the creative forces behind them will only be growing in power and visibility.