Gamergate has not been a happy episode for anyone. The controversy encapsulated in the #Gamergate hashtag, which some of its proponents are claiming is about corruption in gaming journalism but that is really primarily about misogyny and harassment (Gawker’s rundown helps explain, as does Jennifer Vineyard’s piece in Vulture), has featured vile rhetoric, frequent doxxing of women involved in the gaming world, and death threats that have led to some of those same women being driven from their home and canceling speaking engagements.
But hiding somewhere under this seething pile of awfulness and misrepresentation, there really is a silver lining. And to see it, it’s necessary to understand a little — just a little, I promise! — about some recent developments and debates in the gaming world.
A lot of this comes back to the question over what constitutes a game, or what “deserves” that designation. Recent years have seen the rise of a type of game called “notgames” by some people. These are video games that omit or significantly modify certain important aspects of “traditional” gameplay. Oftentimes, you can’t really win or lose in a notgame. In Proteus, for example (which I wrote about as part of a broader discussion of notgames here), you simply wander around a gorgeous, randomly generated island. In other notgames, whatever choices are offered to you as a player are in fact an illusion, and the game is really leading you by the hand exactly where it wants you to go.
A fascinating notgame specimen is dys4ia, by a developer named Anna Anthropy. You should play it here — it only takes five or ten minutes to get through the whole thing. It’s a game in the sense that it abides by certain classic game mechanics, but it’s really a story about dealing with gender dysphoria and hormone replacement therapy. Another wonderful example that’s a bit more “traditional,” but still arguably a notgame, is Gone Home. In that one, you play a young woman who has just returned from Europe to your parents’ new home in the Pacific Northwest. No one’s around, and as you explore the house while a thunderstorm rages outside, you uncover, through letters and mixtapes and other items scattered everywhere, all sorts of salacious, unexpected, and poignant things about your parents and younger sister. Gone Home ends up being about adolescence, homosexuality, marriage, and a bunch of other stuff most people would tend to associate more with Serious Literature than with a video game.
It’s not an accident that these sorts of games — games that deal with complicated, nuanced, or difficult themes — tend to stray from the orthodox game structures that have been in place ever since gaming started to go mainstream in the 1980s. If you’re a developer trying to encourage players to empathize or reflect or ponder, asking them to chase high scores and dodge the constant threat of “losing” while doing so might not be your best bet. (If either Gone Home or dys4i had what developers call “lose states,” it would seriously sap their considerable narrative and emotional punch.) There are thoughtful games that stick mostly to traditional game mechanics, of course, but it’s not a coincidence that the most interesting “games-as-art” releases tend not to.
This world of nontraditional games has flourished in recent years, partly because it’s easier than ever before to make a game, and partly because the fact that a greater proportion of kids plays games every generation means that a greater proportion of young adults makes games every generation. Plus, there’s been real progress on the gender front: More and more women are playing and making games, and, terrible instances of harassment notwithstanding, female interest in games and game-making is no longer considered “weird” by most people.
Not everyone is happy with all these changes, though. Somewhat lost in the recent chaos has been the fact that gamers who prefer a certain, classic style of video games — namely, ones which don’t get “bogged down” in “issues” — had already been complaining about the growing prevalence of the dys4ias and Gone Homes of the world. More than a year before the hashtag, Anita Sarkeesian had already dealt with death threats and false accusations of Kickstarter fraud for the crime of producing a well-done web series highlighting misogyny in traditional games (these threats have, of course, only escalated in recent months).
And long before a subset of the internet developed a seriously creepy interest in her sex life, Zoe Quinn, the central figure in Gamergate, was harassed for releasing her best-known title, Depression Quest, because it wasn’t gamey enough and dealt with a serious, adult theme. As Simon Parkin explained in The New Yorker:
The hate mail began to arrive on “pretty much the same day” as the game’s release, Quinn told me. The harassment increased when, earlier this summer, the game launched on Steam, a global digital store for PC games. Many Steam users argued that a game with such a gloomy subject had no place being distributed on the marketplace. Incredulous and angry user reviews filled up Depression Quest’s listing page. “I can’t really call it a game since I don’t think the point is to entertain you,” says one. “I’m not even sure what to say about this thing. It’s just boring and is entirely all reading,” says another.
In other words, a lot of the kindling of gamerbro ire had been laid down long before Quinn’s ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni set everything ablaze with a long, unhinged blog post.
If you check the comments on any online discussion about dys4ia or Gone Home, you’ll find complaints similar to the ones mentioned by Parkin. Some of them are expressly misogynistic, but some of them aren’t. Misogyny is a constant, pulsing undertone to so many of the Gamergate complaints — it’s not an accident hardcore Gamergaters are obsessed with Quinn and Sarkeesian, two figures extremely far removed from the multi-million-dollar titles and studios you’d think would be the subject of any activism on the corruption-in-game-journalism-front — but it’s part of an even broader cultural panic. It’s clear, in short, that some gamers are simply upset that there are now many games that deal with themes that aren’t entirely escapist, that in certain senses the worlds of literature and art and activism are colliding with gaming — gaming being their world, one they’ve seen as belonging to them and only them for a long time.
This is a strange reaction, to be sure. In just the same way the production of Donnie Darko didn’t preclude Hollywood from producing approximately 6,000 X-Men movies in the years that followed, neither dys4ia, Gone Home, nor the countless other interesting indie games produced in the last few years is likely to reduce by one penny the budget of the next Medal of Honor game. That’s the beauty of a big, thriving, creative market that ranges from the Neanderthal lowbrow to the truly abstract and artistic highbrow: Everyone gets what they want.
But while the complainers are wrong in thinking they’re somehow under attack, that their beloved hack ‘n slash and shoot-’em-up games are going anywhere (I use these terms with love, since there are nights — particularly, say, in mid-February — when all you want to do is blow up hordes of zombies), they have correctly identified an inflection point: 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.
In the long run, dys4ia will help those who play it to understand and empathize with folks grappling with gender dysphoria. Gone Home will help sexually confused teens feel like they’re not alone. The Stanley Parable, a brilliantly unhinged exercise in postmodern narrative tomfoolery, may just spark the next great gonzo novel. If, as many people think, encountering the right book or film at the right time can save — or at least greatly improve — a life, then certainly the same is true of games that poke and prod at the question of what it means to be human. In short, these titles really are going to make the world a better, more tolerant, interesting place. We just need to get past the terrible adolescent tantrum some gamers are currently throwing.