Since January, journalist David Wolinsky has conducted more than 100 interviews worldwide about issues leading to disaffection in the video game industry, including the cultural phenomenon known as GamerGate. He’s assembling a kind of oral history that he hopes will provide clarity and a way forward, both for people inside and outside the video game industry. USA TODAY’s Greg Toppo spoke with him recently:
Q: For the uninitiated, tell us what GamerGate is and when it started.
A: GamerGate is to cultural conversation what Donald Trump is to electoral politics. Giving it top billing in a look at video games shifts the focus away from uglier and more basic unexamined truths, but in short: GamerGate is a group of individuals on the Internet who single out and threaten or harass people they feel are harming the medium. They consider “harm” to include writing about video games in a way they don’t agree with, creating new video games, or simply enjoying video games. Their retaliation includes doxing and making death, rape, or bomb threats to these individuals online.
But unchecked vitriol over video games is nothing new. Previous examples include the harassment of now-disbarred attorney/anti-games activist Jack Thompson who in the early 2000s campaigned for video games not to be considered protected speech, and as a result received death threats. So did filmmaker Uwe Boll, who made movie versions of video games. People who pose even a perceived threat to the medium, no matter who they are, must apparently be silenced by any means necessary.
Again, this is nothing new. In 2007, Kathy Sierra, a programmer and teacher, was met with harassment that very much prefigures GamerGate’s MO. Fans of Breaking Bad might remember Anna Gunn writing an op-ed for The New York Times in 2013, responding to viewers making Facebook groups to discuss wanting to murder her. And while this level of harassment is very much its own kind of thing, it is not at all unique to video games. People have gotten into fistfights over classical music, and even the book criticism world has bullies.
Some people might dismiss verbal threats and online harassment as not causing any real harm. Certainly if you don’t count psychic pain as real pain, then nobody has been hurt.
Q: Why is all of this happening now?
A: Everything — and everyone — has a breaking point, but this isn’t just happening now. And It isn’t just video games. This is the sort of thing that only the Internet could make possible. It affords anonymity, making it easier to say whatever you want to anyone with little to no accountability. Twitter accounts and e-mail addresses are like burner cell phones. It’s also much easier to find other people who think and feel like you and to build an echo chamber where your core beliefs and philosophies aren’t aired out.
Historically, video games have been incorrectly painted as a mere pastime for children. Children from that nascent era are now adults and would like to see the medium and its cultural understanding mature with them, however the industry hasn’t indicated that’s a priority. Some of that has to do with the economic downturn coupled with how high budgets for these games have climbed. If a company takes a big progressive risk that backfires, it could mean closing its doors forever. So very little changes.
Additionally, decades of the medium being siloed as “for kids” and an enthusiast press focused more on covering games as products rather than part of the greater culture have stunted any meaningful growth. This sort of tunnel vision has made it difficult for new perspectives to take root.
There’s a tunnel vision, too, among writers who cover games, who have largely acted as though video games exist in a vacuum simply as consumer products. Weighing in on sexual and racial politics was something they felt ill-equipped to do last year, signified by an apparent belief this will just go away if they ignore it. And so, you have an industry afraid of the audience it created.
And the reality — according to the people I’ve talked to who have worked on the infamous, oft-scapegoated shooters and violent video games — is that companies are just trying to grow their market by the margins rather than get 100% of everyone. They’ve also told me the workplace didn’t feel like an appropriate place to talk about responsibility for the overall audience they’re building. And so this stuff never gets discussed in a calm, rational manner. I’m hoping to change that.
Q: How did you get interested in documenting it?
A: Well, I don’t frame my project as documenting GamerGate, because it’s bigger than that. I started as an editor for The Onion and then NBC, and have been freelance writing about video games ever since layoffs hit both outlets.
But since all this stuff happened last year, no game company has acknowledged the reality that portions of its audience are threatening each other over the products they make — and I found that disturbing, to put it lightly. Responding by saying misogyny and racism are wrong is not a particularly revelatory position to take, and sanctimony doesn’t move the conversation along. My point here isn’t about which “side” is losing, but rather exploring how we are all losing. Only then can we figure out how to start moving forward.
I had conversations with editors of many mainstream media outlets pitching coverage like this before GamerGate, and most told me they or their publications or stations “don’t care about video games.” Frankly, it’s awkward for media outlets to start covering video games because they must acknowledge that they’ve ignored them, admitting they were actively ignoring a burgeoning part of the mainstream culture.
After GamerGate, there was radio silence on most game outlets about even acknowledging the widespread threats. So, I did what any other enterprising freelance journalist would and started my own thing with a Patreon. There’s literally no channel for anything like this on the Internet or in the industry, so I’m going to work as a chronicler of all this. I want to learn more about the people who make games, the people who play them, and people from other creative industries or other less easily categorizable people who have interesting parallels to provide more context for what’s going on here — because keeping people outside of video games and feeling unqualified to even talk about them is part of what got us here in the first place.
Q: What damage, if any, is it doing to the gaming world? Do most gamers even pay attention to it?
A: It’s hard to quantify something like “most gamers” because people who play video games are just people. I interviewed a very influential music critic for my project — he told me the game industry and its audience is “invisible” to him, since there are no “video game concerts” or any way to tell who plays games and who doesn’t.
I’ll say too, that the damage these nasty frictions are causing is demonstrated by events that ensued after I interviewed this critic — within 24 hours, and likely after doing some more Googling based on our conversation, he cc’ed me on an e-mail with his lawyer threatening to sue me if I ever published our conversation. He didn’t want to incur GamerGate’s wrath.
I also interviewed a film critic who abruptly ended our conversation early because she was sickened about the day-to-day working conditions for game-industry professionals and writers. Nobody will ever read these two conversations, and that says a lot about what the silence around video games is communicating. There are plenty of people in video games and at big video game companies who are just as upset, about this and the draconian working conditions now considered standard within the game industry. However, they are afraid to say much because it will paint them as unprofessional or easily replaced. They tolerate this culture and these conditions because they have “cool” jobs others are eager to have.
Q: What’s next? Do you get a sense that anything positive is going to come out of it?
A: I’m at the point with my project where I’m branching out and talking to people with experience beyond the game industry. It’s a perspective that’s always been missing in the conversations around video games and I’m super excited for the parallels we’ll draw together. I’ve had conversations with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, Dese’Rae L. Stage (of the suicide-survivor oral-history project Live Through This), and many others who are not typically asked to reflect on video games or their audience. In the coming weeks, I’ll be talking to someone who used to make war games for the Department of Defense, Internet cultural historians, and curators at the Museum of Modern Art about what video games have accomplished and how they can do more.
I’m also talking to kids and teenagers who are thankfully oblivious to some of this ugliness: stories such as a cosplayer’s (a fan dressing up as a fictional character) reflections on being treated like a “human promotional marketing tool” or the targeted activities of a man who buys but doesn’t play the titles he’d like to see more of are both examples of the effect unhealthy business attitudes can have. Another story, that of a Swedish soldier who reflected on how poorly men are portrayed in games turned the tables on an oft-discussed issue. I also talked to my mom, who was the hardest interview by far to get. A longtime self-employed developer’s evisceration of the games media was a popular read, and a Nintendo employee’s assertion that games “are no longer honest” still echo in my mind. Perhaps most haunting is an interview with a producer who worked on very popular horror games. This man told me that his work experience taught him simply: “the Internet is mean.”
As for whether anything positive will come of this? That’s not up to me, but I hope so.
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