Why #Gamergate Matters to More Than Just Gamers… And Why There’s Hope

TRIGGER WARNING:

The following includes discussions that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence and harassment.
Please be advised. 

I’ve largely stood back and listened as the Gamergate controversy has unfolded. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy gaming, but I wouldn’t call myself a “gamer.” It’s not that I wasn’t sympathetic to the work being done by advocates, but not being fully immersed gamer culture, I’m very aware that my opinion is probably not productive in circles where “outsider perspectives” have already become a rallying point against the advocates. So I’ve stayed quiet… until now.

For those unfamiliar, the Gamergate controversy erupted over persistent efforts to combat sexism in the gaming industry, from representation of females in games to the way female gamers were frequently treated by their male counterparts. One needn’t be a 24/7 gamer to recognize the validity of their arguments; indeed, they became hard to deny post-2014.  Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, most notably, garnered significant attention as their efforts were met with misogyny and, ultimately, threats of violence. What started as a hashtag on Twitter from gamers angry about the advocacy moved to spaces like 4chan and Reddit, where threats of rape and assault rose to terrifying levels. At one point, one of Sarkeesian’s speaking events was cancelled due to threats of a mass shooting in retaliation.

In much the same way that rape culture is dismissed as nothing more than anecdotes, critics have argued that the claims being made are unfounded. In reality, the arguments being made do have standing, going beyond personal laments and backed by lengthy, pain-staking research. Even if that weren’t the case, the vile reactions and behavior of those gamers who have attacked women speaking out is evidence of a problem in and of itself. Nonetheless, the call for better representation and treatment of women in the gaming space was transformed into an ugly monster of a thing, with GamerGate proponents calling foul on what they deemed to be “angry feminists” and “unethical journalists” trying to “ruin video games.”

Nevermind the fact that I still can’t understand why treating women like people with agency on and off the screen is going to ruin video games (seriously, when has that ever been the case with any other medium that appeals to this demographic – Joss WhIf you’ve played an Multiplayer Online game like LoL, you know you end up having to get an ELO boosting service, or game money – it turns into a pain in the butt. edon, anyone?), there may be significant consequences for far more than today’s gaming enthusiast without some realignment on issues of gender.  Why? Oh, you mean aside from the fact that this treatment of women is utterly reprehensible? Ok, let’s go.

For starters, gaming is the likely future of education. This is not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination. The military uses it to train their service men and women. Political science courses use State Craft to help students understand real world applications of the theories they study in a controlled setting. Teach with Portals is one of the many groups looking to develop more educational gaming tools for future use, but textbook heavyweights like Pearson are also (yes, terrible pun intended) getting in on the game. Some primary and secondary schools are embracing the trend. My daughter and her classmates play educational games to improve their math and reading skills. Other schools have gone whole hog with it; Quest to Learn is just one example.

Why bring gaming into schools? Well, really, why not? In an era where we’re striving to keep students engaged and hungry about learning, packaging information in format with which they’re already familiar and already like is a great way to meet them on their level. But perhaps the most poignant observation comes from Henk Rogers, founder of Tetris Online:

The time for computer games to be a waste of time or pastime is passed. One hundred years ago, people played sports to prepare for a life of physical activity. When we play games, what are we preparing for? Most of what we do will happen in virtual worlds. We are preparing our children for a lifetime of virtual labor.

And why does any of this matter in the context of Gamergate? Let us count the ways.

Rampant discrimination against and harassment of female programmers leads to less female influence in a space that has long been dominated by the straight, cis male demo – the same folks who don’t think it’s important for women to be represented as, ya know, PEOPLE in their worlds. If this demo is going to be taking the reigns in developing games my daughter is going to play, I’m a little nervous here. It’s not that I think we’ll see GTA level violence against women in a first grade classroom, but there are valid reasons to be concerned about the potential for artificial gender binary construction. I don’t want my daughter taught any of that nonsense, and I have to battle those tropes enough without gaming in the mix.

Even in a world where the educational games get it right, they have the potential to fuel a big surge in broad interest in gaming. Generally speaking, I think that’s awesome, but if the gaming options available degrade women and the culture of players is as misogynist and vile as what we’ve seen through Gamergate, we’re thrusting an entire generation of young women into the proverbial Lion’s Den. One need only listen to some of the exchanges found on Xbox Live while playing games like Call of Duty to understand what I mean when I say the climate is openly hostile towards women.

And let’s take a minute to realize that the gamers leveraging this violent rhetoric towards advocates do not exist in a bubble. It may be easy to shrug off the horrific threats being made as jerks on social media, but those same jerks have jobs and coworkers, hire people, teach our kids, police our streets, run for office, and so on. If they think it’s cool to threaten a woman asking to be treated as a person with rape, what do they find acceptable in their day-to-day interactions with the world? That’s not to say all misogynist gamers are out there acting on their threats, but in a post-Elliot Rodger era, virtual misogyny translating to real-life violence a legitimate concern. Even without physical violence, the mindset manifests in behavior and decision making. Even if it’s “just words,” harassment is a terrifying reality for so many women.

I could go on. The lit base here is fascinating, and I’m privileged enough to know some pretty amazing academics doing research in this space. One thing is for sure: gaming is making its way into our schools, which makes Gamergate more than a feminist movement with which I can sympathize. Between my daughter’s love of her Wii games and the likelihood of future immersion into the gaming community, this is personal.

All this said, there are lessons to be learned and hope to be embraced in the fight for gender parity in the gaming space. Progress is slow (and the harassment still unrelenting), but it’s coming. In a nod to the argument that it’s not all gamers participating in such culture, more and more, the gaming community has grown uncomfortable with the level of sick that Gamergate proponents have used in their attacks against women. Advocates have rallied around some of the more diverse representations in games, pointing out the fact that said diversity certainly did not “ruin” them. Some developers have even begun to move towards creating more progressive story lines in their games. There’s a long way to go, but things are moving. Nobody – but nobody – wants their name associated with the filth that the Gamergate saber rattlers have come to be.

And this, ladies and gents, is where we find a lesson in optics that everyone can learn from. Time for a story.

DC Comics recently ran headfirst into the Gamergate controversy with a variant cover of Batgirl #41. The story in the issue focuses on the sexual assault of Batgirl, and the proposed artwork looked like this:

Batgirl #41 joker variant DC Comics withdrawn, art by Rafael Albuquerque

The gory, helpless depiction of a female hero who has since been transformed into a symbol of strength didn’t sit well with some fans who had gravitated toward the story because of said transformation. As the site Bleeding Cool explained:

The concern is that a book that has become totemic for a certain fresh approach to superhero comic books was getting a cover diametrically opposed to that approach. While some may have still had problems with the cover, it might not have been as concerning to some if it had been published a year ago. While variant covers often bear no relation to the comic they are attached to, this seemed opposed to what the comic has been trying to accomplish. And there was an understandable emotional reaction for those close to the new path the comic has taken.

At the time of the article, the “nays” had the numbers. Why? Because Gamergate proponents had jumped on the bandwagon. Ignoring the fact that no one was asking for the story line to be altered retrospectively (though the backstory on how that story came about is chilling) – just for a more appropriate depiction in light of the example the story had come to set – they started ranting and raving about how “villains are villains” and lamenting the purported desired erasure of an arguably powerful story. Ill-informed complaints from Gamergate proponents aside, women expressing frustration over the big step backward in what had become a more progressive representation of Batgirl were hit with an onslaught of threats of violence over their statements. In some ways, that’s not surprising; gaming and comics often share very similar demographics, so Gamergate folks piling on might be expected. But what came next was pretty awesome.

The artist responsible for the cover, Rafael Albuquerque, issued this statement:

My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. ‘The Killing Joke’ is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn’t avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker.

For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character’s past that I was able to interpret artistically. But it has become clear, that for others, it touched a very important nerve. I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited.

My intention was never to hurt or upset anyone through my art. For that reason, I have recommended to DC that the variant cover be pulled. I’m incredibly pleased that DC Comics is listening to my concerns and will not be publishing the cover art in June as previously announced.

With all due respect,

Rafa

DC Comics had this to say:

We publish comic books about the greatest heroes in the world, and the most evil villains imaginable. The Joker variant covers for June are in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the Joker.

Regardless if fans like Rafael Albuquerque’s homage to Alan Moore’s THE KILLING JOKE graphic novel from 25 years ago, or find it inconsistent with the current tonality of the Batgirl books – threats of violence and harassment are wrong and have no place in comics or society.

We stand by our creative talent, and per Rafael’s request, DC Comics will not publish the Batgirl variant.

What can we learn from this tale? First, Rafael Albuquerque has gained at least one fan in me, and I’ll be seeking out his work, because taking a stand like that is pretty bad ass. Second,  whether you agree or disagree with the cover itself, DC Comics, by refusing to tolerate the rhetoric it spurred, made a strong statement about the state of affairs here: the current Gamergate tactics are gonna backfire. Arthur Chu was on point with his take:

ACCURATE. And if there’s any justice in this world, it’s a trend that emerges in other realms, too (seriously – when are people going to start being scared of the GOP brand of crazy?), because the third takeaway is that this sort of advocacy is working. And with more notable figures like Ashley Judd pressing charges against those who have made explicit threats of sexual violence against her on Twitter, maybe – just maybe – we’ll finally start seeing some real consequences for assholes who think that shit is cool.

Ultimately, the moral of the story is this: Gamergate is disgusting, and its implications matter in ways we can’t yet fully tabulate. But the Gamergate misogynist troglodytes are also on the losing side of this, and the voices raised against them matter deeply.

To all the courageous women out there stomaching the fallout, this Mama Bear offers her gratitude and support. We need you.

Fair Warning: The comment section on this post is not going to become a platform for Gamergate defenders. The devil has enough advocates; I won’t be joining their ranks. You’re welcome to try, but such comments won’t be seeing the light of day. 

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