November 29, 2014

On Gaming And Media Narratives

On December 13, 2013, I sent the following email to several of my friends who play videogames:

Hey, if you're receiving this it's because you're on my Steam friends list. I don't send spam out often but right now I am frustrated with the collective hatred of the internet and this is the only way I can think of fighting back.

Earlier this year, I played a web-based game called Depression Quest. It's not particularly "fun", because it's about depression, but it is very good at building awareness about, and empathy for, a serious mental condition.

The creator happens to be a woman and has been harassed by the internet. The game, while free, is trying to get on Steam and a bunch of internet assholes are down-voting the game because misogyny.

So, if you either like the premise of the game or despise misogyny (or both!), I encourage you to vote for the game on Steam Greenlight using the link below:

That is all. Thanks for reading this, and apologies if this is spam to you.

The above email was the only “mass email” I’ve sent in at least the past two years. I was pretty frustrated at the time.

What’s odd, though, is that I didn’t do a whole lot of research before writing that email: I followed Depression Quest’s author, Zoe Quinn, on Twitter, and saw her complaining about being harassed over the phone, and I saw a post or two from a few game journalism sites about it, which convinced me that a mob of angry misogynists were harassing her.

The truth, as far as I can tell, is extremely murky. There’s a YouTube video from Some Asian Guy (literally his username) who paints an unflattering picture of an extremely manipulative Zoe Quinn taking 2 angry posts from a website for depressed, suicidal male virgins, framing them as harassment, entirely fabricating claims of phone calls and “raids” on her, and then getting her game journalist friends to write about it as a mechanism to garner sympathy and publicity for herself and her game on Steam Greenlight. The whole story is also curiously documented in a series of very large images with colorful text on imgur.

What’s interesting, though, is that this isn’t an isolated incident. Others have taken place over the past year; many in the gaming community seem to constantly be accusing Quinn of using bullying tactics to sabotage competitors’ projects, claiming harassment when none has occurred, and taking advantage of the media’s sympathy towards women in gaming for personal gain.

Rhetorically, it’s difficult to question and investigate Quinn’s claims of harassment because doing so is often interpreted as victim blaming. But if this were mere sexist victim blaming, it would make sense for all women who claim harassment in the video game industry to be constantly doubted, not just Quinn. And yet this doesn’t appear to be the case: for example, 2012’s #1reasonwhy hashtag, which was used to document the rampant sexism women in the game industry face, didn’t receive significant push-back from the gaming community. Indeed, if what is said about Quinn is true, in some ways #1reasonwhy set the stage for Quinn to pull it off, since her claims of harassment fit perfectly with the media narrative the hashtag established.

And that’s what concerns me about all this: the dominant media narrative here is that when gamers meet women, misogyny happens, and that’s it. Every major gaming outlet refused to acknowledge claims against Quinn, and indeed always jumped to her defense, framing the story in the dominant narrative.

This narrative is so pervasive that even my favorite podcast that analyzes journalistic coverage, On The Media, is unable to see through it. Further evidence implicating Quinn in affairs with game journalists was released in August and ignited a movement called GamerGate, but coverage was yet again framed in the dominant narrative: righteous outrage shaming gamers for being misogynistic.

To be clear, GamerGate is about much more than Zoe Quinn; it’s about the gaping chasm that has grown between the gaming community and game journalism over the past few years, which Erik Kain at Forbes does an incredible job at covering. Sadly, though, he’s one of a small handful; On The Media only interviewed Chris Grant, the editor-in-chief of Polygon, who is not part of said handful. In fact, he is a member of an exclusive mailing list that many in GamerGate feel is partly responsible for the widening of the chasm.

Because the causes of the chasm are vast and varied, so too are the people and perspectives that comprise GamerGate. And yes, some of them are people who fit the media narrative perfectly: disgruntled men who dislike women in gaming, don’t like games like Depression Quest and will bully people about it.

However, GamerGate is also comprised of thoughtful, compassionate people. People who are alarmed by the one-sided, uncritical nature of the dominant media narrative and want to see it changed. Parents of autistic children who feel the gaming press unfairly vilifies social awkwardness. Individuals who don’t believe it’s ethical for game journalists to be wined-and-dined by the people who made the games they’re reviewing. People who have been harassed and doxxed by anti-GamerGaters without provocation. People who hate harassment and un-dox victims on both sides.

I have no idea what the truth is. But I’m certain it isn’t as simple as a giant mob of angry misogynists harassing women in gaming, and I wish a few more media outlets than Forbes would start acknowledging that.

© Atul Varma 2020