If you’re not a gamer, and you don’t spend any time paying attention to the internet controversy du jour, then you might not have heard of the GamerGate movement. Even for those who do know about it, it can be very difficult to keep track of. So, in the interests of not confusing too many people who read this post, here is a brief run-down:
If you ask GamerGate what they’re all about, they’ll tell you that the gaming community is annoyed about the state of video game journalism. Beyond this one point of relative consensus, however, the whole movement is a bit of a hodgepodge. It includes some criticism of gaming publications that at least looks like it could be legitimate, but the hashtag is also used in connection with some more frightening things, such as harassment campaigns directed against Zoe Quinn, who is erroneously accused of opportunistically sleeping with gaming journalists to promote her games, and Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of games whose largely positive media coverage has annoyed gamers who see her as a fraud.
Many GamerGaters will deny that these two cases are relevant to their cause, and I’m not going to insist that they’re wrong on that point. Nor am I going to take a position here on the state of ethics within video game journalism. But I am interested in one trope which seems to run fairly consistently throughout the entire GamerGate movement. Regardless of whether they condone Quinn and Sarkeesian bashing, people using the GamerGate hashtag routinely make use of terms like ‘white knight’, or ‘social justice warrior’, which are commonly used to demean people on the internet who take an interest in-you guessed it-social justice. Many of those involved with GamerGate complain that they do not want a feminist agenda pushed on them through people like Sarkeesian and other more culturally critical game journalists.
There’s an obvious fallacy here, of course. The notion that a feminist agenda is being somehow forced on the games industry and the gaming community presumes that the gaming community does not already have its share of women, and indeed of feminists. Journalists and cultural critics are questioning the portrayal of women and other marginalized groups in video games, because those groups are already playing the games. And it’s not particularly surprising that women might not want to play a game like Dragon’s Crown, which depicts women in such a ridiculously oversexualized manner. “Well then they don’t have to play that game!”, one can almost hear the gamers say. Yes, but that’s exactly the purpose of reviews pointing out sexism: To tell women that if they don’t like sexism in video games, then maybe they should give Dragon’s Crown a pass. And maybe also to put some pressure on the industry to consider whether their games alienate a big part of the gaming public. It was, in fact, a change to the art designed to make the game less sexist that ignited a furore around
Three characters from Dragon’s Crown. The art in this game has been accused of being sexist. I can’t imagine why!
So at its core, there appears to be a big part of GamerGate that is essentially a kind of anxiety about the expansion of the gaming community beyond its original demographic of hard-core gamers (who were mostly youg, middle-class, white, and male).
I wonder, however, what this means for technology more generally. Because when you look at other cases when a niche technology expands into a larger market, similar anxieties seem to crop up. And they often seem to manifest themselves as discrimination. Take my research in transportation as an example: Cars were originally an overwhelmingly upper-class technology. When motorcycles gave the working class access to the internal combustion engine, the original core of early drivers had to share the road with people of different social standing than themselves, and the anxiety this caused led to a lot of demonization of motorcycles as dangerous machines operated by reckless drivers. When women started driving, a mythology about how women are bad drivers quickly emerged, and has persisted to this day, despite the empirically proven fact that women are in fact far safer drivers than men.
This change to the cover art of Divinity: Original Sin was made after complaints that the female character was sexualized while the male character wasn’t. Her new, more practical armour is taken by some as evidence of too much influence by “Social Justice Warriors” in the video game industry.
The phrase “There are no girls on the internet” is another obvious manifestation of this phenomenon. It is well-documented that when women have the audacity to say something on the internet, they often get trolled, and sometimes get brutally harassed. That’s because cyberspace was originally dominated by white, male, geeks. Now that it’s being democratized, some of these geeks are becoming annoyed at losing their control over something had belonged to them, and so they are lashing out.
There is a certain logic to this. If you’re developing a new and as yet unperfected technology, such as the car circa 1900, or video games circa 2000, then you’re going to want a close-knit and devoted community of supporters. These people will comprise your early market. They will be forgiving as you work out the kinks, and they will take an active role in developing the technology as well-bootstrapping their own additions to it. They will also build up a culture and a set of social practices around the new technology, such as the system of etiquette which stood in for traffic law in the early days of the car. Crucially, because your innovation at this stage is likely both expensive and inefficient, these people are probably going to be those with a surplus both of money and of time: In other words, they’re fairly likely to be middle-class and white, and there’s a good chance that they will be men. Also crucially, this early community will probably begin to identify with the thing they are supporting, and begin to exert a sense of ownership over it.
The problem is that as your new technology gets more popular, it will become attractive to different social groups than even you might have intended it for. Women, for example. What this means is that the community of users will expand, and the social conventions around the new technology will have to expand with it. New users might demand modifications to the culture, or to the technology itself, so that they feel more comfortable with it. Your earliest users might interpret this as a loss of control over something that they built from the very beginning. That tends to make people angry. And so you will start to see stories emerging about who qualifies as a more authentic user, or become nasty towards those they perceive as outsiders, or, in the case of gaming, “filthy casuals”.
This post isn’t really about gamergate. Their complaints are very diverse, and I don’t have the time or energy to understand all of them. But at least one of their complaints is rooted in the fact that games are suddenly being evaluated from perspectives other than the ones they’re used to. This is, I think, an interesting intersection between transitions and social justice politics. It may partly explain why technology is overwhelmingly understood as a white male domain: Because white men are most able to shape new technologies from the beginning. It also explains why women often face hostility when entering pre-established technological communities, such as those built around gaming or driving. So if you yourself are involved as an early adopter of a new and radical technology, you should keep in mind that you and your friends might lose control of it one day. And that’s okay. It means that you have ultimately succeeded.