Gaming is a hobby I’ve had (on and off) for most of my life, but I’ve never called myself a gamer. One reason is that while playing video games is something I enjoy, it doesn’t define who I am; another is that I don’t identify with many people who do call themselves gamers.
Some fancy themselves “real gamers.” They like dictating what a “real game” is and they want every other kind of game (and gamer) to go away and leave them alone, forever. This elitist, gatekeeping culture is populated and enforced mostly by young men, and this group has been courted by game developers for decades.
But here’s the problem: Gaming is not solely the realm of teenaged boys. According to a new study by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), significantly more adult women (36 per cent) play games than adolescent boys (17 per cent). This was true as far back as in 2005, when another ESA report noted the same thing, only with a 7 per cent gap.
Men remain the overall majority of players in the U.S., but the number of women playing on mobile and console platforms is up to 48 per cent. Media reports on these surveys suggest women are a new demographic, but many of us have been gaming (or open to it) all along–we just haven’t been the primary target audience and the games women play in large numbers are rarely considered “real games.” In her Polygon feature on video game marketing, Tracey Lien discusses how companies started with gender-neutral marketing but switched to targeting boys during a recession when data showed that a slightly greater share of boys were playing games than girls; and how our understanding of who plays games has been skewed ever since.
The stereotype of the all-important adolescent boy gamer persists, partially because of the entitled us vs. them behaviour exhibited by gatekeeping gamers who continually say: “No outsiders allowed, especially women and people who disagree with us.” This is particularly evident in the latest troubling “controversy” that is plaguing gaming’s online communities.
It started when a young man named Eron Gjoni, wrote a blog post about his ex-girlfriend, independent game developer Zoe Quinn. In it, he wrote about her alleged infidelity, claiming its purpose is to “give you the information you need to make decisions that don’t harm your career, and don’t risk your physical or emotional wellbeing.” (Because posting extremely personal details in order to establish “character” is a totally objective move.)
Ms. Quinn is best known for creating Depression Quest, a text game about living with depression. Soon after she started promoting her game on Greenlight for the second time, Ms. Quinn says she became the target of online harassment, which was covered by multiple gaming websites.
Now, Ms. Quinn’s detractors have used Mr. Gjoni’s blog post to claim that she traded sex for publicity (because they don’t think the game deserves its success), has lied about a raid and other hacking attempts, and is “playing the victim” to get more press. Many are also upset by alleged censorship regarding the story on 4chan and reddit. Ms. Quinn refused to comment on the allegations, and rightfully so. Whatever happened in her personal life is none of our collective business. But her response only further incensed people, who now claim to be angry about the lack of integrity in games journalism.
That would be worthy cause, but not a new one. Games journalism has always been subject to criticism – remember the Doritos thing on Eurogamer? – and often with good reason. It’s true that PR often has far too much influence and a lot of writing reads like product cheerleading. In an industry that is projected to be worth over $100-billion by 2017, and in which press plays a huge role in which games succeed and fail, ethics are important.
We should also consider that nepotism isn’t unique to games journalism, and countless people date within their industries with nary a peep from consumers. And since these gaming “purists” have gone so far as to create cruel memes and don’t seem to care about other conflicts of interest, the integrity argument falls short.
Even if the allegations against Ms. Quinn were true, it is hard to justify the extreme levels of rage being spewed online, which apparently includes continuing harassment of her and her friends. It isn’t as if her life is all sunshine and rainbows because of this publicity. Depression Quest is a free-to-play or pay-what you can game. When a buyer chooses the latter, a portion of the funds go to a non-profit organization–so I doubt Ms. Quinn is rolling in dough.
As Ms. Quinn herself acknowledged, what this actually about is the entitlement and disdain shown to game creators, and some longtime gamers feeling threatened by more people moving into what they consider their space. Frustration that had been building amongst them–annoyed by the rise in discussions centered on gender, race and diversity in video games–has now burst forth. This group is so incensed that they’re using petty gossip about someone’s personal life to fuel a movement aimed at “taking back” video games from evil feminists who dare to make/support non-traditional games, or criticize AAA titles, under the guise of “integrity.”
Many of Ms. Quinn’s critics make note of her feminism and associations with Dina Abou Karam (who was also accused of “sleeping her way” into employment as a community manager with Mighty No 9) and Anita Sarkeesian (who dares examine the tropes about women in video games and has recently been chased from her own home by threats from online harassers) as if it is evidence of wrongdoing. This is not a coincidence. To these people, anyone who has opinions on how games could be more inclusive or go beyond men’s power fantasies is an enemy.
One user on The Escapist wrote: “There’s a fire in my chest, something that’s burned a huge grin onto my face…the current thread on the Zoe Quinn controversy…has exploded into a pool of anger. Anger at feminists and SJWs [social justice warriors] trying to dictate what’s in games and screeching when things don’t meet a ‘diversity’ quota.”
In this expose-style video, the creator attempts to rile an angry mob by comparing alleged unethical practices in games journalism to the corruption of “old media” and says that gamers are being treated like “peasants.” He asks viewers: “Have your games not been tampered with enough at this point?” I have seen this video linked in multiple places discussing the “Quinnspiracy” as if it’s gospel. It has over 600,000 views and over 30,000 upvotes.
To say that this was all so misguided would be the understatement of the year. Cultural criticism of games is simply a reflection and call for new kinds of games; we’re not talking about their eradication.
Gaming’s most pervasive issue isn’t corruption, but the people who’ve taken ownership of something that isn’t solely theirs to begin with. In trying their damnedest to limit the appeal of the medium and use online harassment to achieve their goals, this group of toxic trolls are proving themselves to be gaming’s biggest problem.