Gamergate: new wrinkle in video game world's ugly spat over sexism

The famous South by Southwest festival canceled a panel discussion about harassment of women in the video game world. The decision has caused an uproar. 

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A volunteer helps SXSW Interactive attendees navigate through the Austin Convention Center at the festival in Austin, Texas, this spring.

Questions of sexism and video game culture once again spilled off the screen this week.

The popular South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, abruptly canceled two panels that focused on online harassment in video games. The reason for the cancellations: The festival started getting harassed, too. According to officials, the festival had received unspecified threats of violence if the panels went forward.

Since then, SXSW has been in damage control mode, as major sponsors Buzzfeed and Vox Media threatened to withdraw if the panels were not reinstated. 

The particulars are specific to the video game industry – a backlash to female game designers and players critiquing what they consider negative depictions of women and minorities in games. But the broader issues raised by the controversy are at the heart of today’s popular culture, some experts say.

Not only are festival organizers missing an opportunity to discuss the roles and perceptions of women, they add, but also the increasing use of violent media and real-life threats to express violent desires – whether or not they are ever acted upon.

“The root problem here is not gaming, or even guns. The root problem is a rigid, simplistic response to difference that too easily resorts to violent conflict as a means of expressing frustration,” says Rachel Wagner, a researcher at Ithaca College and author of the upcoming book, “God, Games, Guns.”

As in the case of SXSW, she says, one person can shut down important dialogue about very real misogynistic aspects of gaming simply by threatening violence, “using the same symbolic language that so often populates the games they play.”

The relationship between video game violence and real-life shootings is too complex to be simply causative, Professor Wagner says in an e-mail. But there is a relationship between an industry that so often depicts shooting violence as a means of resolving conflict and some of its most ardent fans, “who object to critiques or opinions they don’t like with similar threats of violence.”

No more chain-mail bikinis?

Action movies and science fiction novels, also traditional cultural redoubts for young men, have seen their own version of controversy this year. The Hugo Awards refused to issue awards in several categories this year after a campaign by a group calling itself Sad Puppies used the nominating ballots to push white male candidates. And the new “Star Wars” and “Mad Max” movies both saw a backlash from groups of online male critics for what they saw as an emphasis on female and minority characters over a white male hero.

This level of pushback is predictable, says Stetson University’s Chris Ferguson, co-chair of the psychology department, who has studied video game culture. 

Women now make up nearly half the game-playing population, expanding their interests into the realms traditionally inhabited by men, such as first-person shooter and war games. As this has happened, women have found that their criticisms – that there are few female protagonists and highly sexualized female characters are often victims – have met with resistance. Many men are accustomed to playing with other men, points out Professor Ferguson.

“This is where hostility and sexism are rearing their heads,” he says, adding that some people don’t want to hear that they can’t have their girls in chain-mail bikinis any more.

Beyond that, says Ferguson, there is a split over what video games are – action-packed toys or sophisticated storytelling mediums that have an obligation to treat women and minority characters properly.

This week’s revelations of threats against the popular festival are only the latest in what some have dubbed Gamergate – a loosely formed affiliation of online voices, many anonymous, who call the women’s critiques political correctness run amok. 

Some mainstream figures have spoken up in support of some of the issues raised by Gamergate. The next president of the Society of Professional Journalists, NBC producer Lynn Walsh, was scheduled to appear on the panel positioned in opposition to the women critics. But the movement has also generated death and rape threats against some of the most visible female critics of the industry.

After receiving death threats and online threats of a school shooting in 2014, feminist Anita Sarkissian withdrew from a conference at Utah University and had to go into hiding. The mother of Caroline Sinders, one of the SXSW panel organizers, was targeted when a SWAT team was sent to her home. Others have had their personal information exposed online and been subjected to ongoing digital abuse.

“Gaming is a microcosm of the larger culture,” says social anthropologist Joseph Anthony, who heads HERO Group, a marketing agency targeting Millennials. “Race and gender issues are very relevant topics right now.”

Back to the future

Mr. Anthony suggests that the reaction from those resisting change echoes past eras. 

“We are almost taking quantum leaps back to the civil rights era of 50 years ago,” he adds.

Those pushing for social progress have always faced threats of violence, says psychologist Bernard Luskin, past president of the media division of the American Psychological Association.

“Go back to the early days of demands for suffrage,” he says, noting that women were threatened, bullied, and sometimes beaten.

“Every time an industry has faced these demands, it has fought back,” he says. Eventually, it moves on to dialogue and change.

Rep. Katherine Clark (D) of Massachusetts wrote an open letter urging SXSW to reconsider the cancellation of the panel. 

“The brave women who were part of this panel are ready to speak out about the importance of combating online threats despite being targets themselves,” she wrote.

SXSW did not respond to a request for comment, but has continued to update its online blog, noting that it is working with local law enforcement. Re-code, an online media site owned by Vox, reports that the festival is considering an entire day devoted to the issues.

Bringing the topic out into the open is perhaps what is most needed, says Ferguson. The relative anonymity of the Internet allows some unfortunate few to respond with the kind of posturing and revenge they are used to adopting in their game worlds, he adds.

The best approach is to find ways to bring people together in an open dialogue.

“Some are just trolls who want to make trouble,” he says, but the process can still be constructive. “You may not change minds, but you can begin to develop civilized discourse instead of violence.”

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