November 13, 2014

IndieCade, Part 2: Anxieties About GamerGate

Category: Equity
2 Sony video game controllers

The so-called “GamerGate” controversy about the independent games movement, which has finally reached the pages of the New York Times, has become the big story this fall. I have provided a wrap-up of some of the issues in a blog posting for those who can use a #GamerGate 101. Every celebrity from Joss Whedon to Adam Savage seems to have weighed in with an opinion. There also have been more interesting responses from within the independent games movement, including from Polygon’s Christopher Grant and from Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center.   

Because hostilities to the independent games movement have been so central to GamerGate threats, the IndieCade festival chose to dedicate time to “Misogyny, Misinformation and Misunderstanding: An IndieCade Town Hall.” People were explicitly asked not to record or live tweet the session to protect participants from possible reprisals from the same kind of online harassers who have driven female game critics and developers out of their homes with graphic threats of violence. In keeping with instructions to journalists, I won’t identify any speakers by name either. Obviously the session was noteworthy. A reporter from The Los Angeles Times emphasized themes of resistance with coverage of a “bold new world” rising in games, but I was much more struck by the somber mood of participants at the Town Hall who registered the trauma that many present in the independent game development community had experienced. 

Organizers wanted to spur a “constructive, proactive” dialogue within the independent game community that was “meant to be for us” rather than outsiders who only consume rather than produce games. They emphasized “positive effects” and “ways to create change” as the goals for the session rather than “piecing together who said what and who’s to blame” and succumbing to the “toxicity of the conversation.” As one person asked, “as game designers and lovers of systems, how do we build better systems of engaging with each other?” Some bristled when some speakers seemed to blame the victims by emphasizing ways to protect online privacy, particularly in cloaking information in domain registries. Others expressed disagreement when someone asserted that “gamergate is not a hate group because it is not a group.” Nonetheless, the overall tone emphasized moving forward.

In her report from IndieCade, Mattie Brice noted that much of the meeting was characterized by “a lot of grand statements and aimless frustrations.” She also thought that the outpouring of verbiage indicated “how people really wanted to be heard, on an individual level, about their feelings and thoughts about what’s all going on in games.” Her own intervention in the discussion emphasized that participants needed “to actually listen to people who know what they are doing, like activists and other people who engage with social change more frequently.” Brice herself has been a GamerGate target, as well as an IndieCade awardee. In 2013, Brice was recognized by the festival for her intensely personal game Mainichi. As the website for Games for Change explains, “Mainichi (Japanese for “everyday”) conveys some of the social struggles the developer faces daily as a mixed transgender woman by recreating the simple act of going to meet a friend for coffee.” Later in the day at IndieCade, Brice gave a lightning talk about “Why Reality Matters,” where she challenged “the body-detached attitudes of games as a whole, both in craft and the treatment of artists and activists.”

Although much of the GamerGate controversy has focused upon bias against straight white women, many IndieCade panelists reminded audience members that there were other victims of harassment and exclusionary game politics who might be vulnerable as trans people — such as Brice and Jennelle Jaquays, who was featured in another IndieCade panel that I covered for DML central here

There also was a lively panel on race and games with Shawn Alexander Allen, Catt Small, Ashley Alicea, TJ Thomas, Fatima Zenine Villanuaeva, and Latoya Peterson. Although Peterson praised the research of Betsy DiSalvo (profiled by DML Central here) on the “computer science gap,” she cautioned blacks in tech might find themselves “suddenly becoming a unicorn” to well-meaning liberal whites who might benefit from more awareness of what Kimberly Crenshaw has called “interlocking oppressions.” Peterson noted that the preference for console gaming that DiSalvo had observed might actually have more to do with class rather than race, because consoles were less likely to be affected by consumer obsolescence and to incur costs to their owners for frequent upgrades.

DML Central has been a relatively safe space, but most feminists who publish work about new media online have experienced abuse, myself included. For five years, I posted to the Virtualpolitik blog on a daily basis, but it was often discouraging to see sexist and threatening comments in my to-be-moderated queue. Some of these online attacks are so personal and specific that it is easy to wonder if the writer might be a disgruntled former colleague or ex-boyfriend (as indeed some of the initial GamerGaters were) rather than a random stranger, but it is easy enough to glean key details about a person’s life from the Internet. For women, data transparency isn’t always a good thing.  

Banner image credit: Jason Devaun