Recently, Twitter and the gaming press are awash with anger and contempt. Faced with a torrent of trolling, threats and abuse amidst a witch-hunt in the name of ‘journalistic integrity’, angry or exasperated commentators have responded to the sundry misogynists, trolls, and bright-eyed far-rightists responsible for ‘gamergate’ and similar assaults on humanity in general and women in games in particular with a familiar set of labels. I’m thinking here of the ‘nerds’, ‘neckbeards’, ‘basement dwellers’, ‘dudebros’, ‘fedoras’, ‘degenerates’, ‘clueless teenagers’, ‘insane’ and ‘extremists’. (I have decided not to provide links, partly because these terms are diffuse and pervasive and it would be unfair to call people out, and partly in order to spare those involved further unwanted attention)
Reaching for these terms is an old and common habit — I’m certainly not innocent — but it is a mistake, or at least a problem. The prevalence of these easy, mutually exclusive labels reveals a lack of analysis and a lack of agreement on what the problem actually is.
It is by definition impossible, unfortunately, to know anything about the demographic situation of anonymous internet trolls. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that the stereotypes of an angry teenager or basement-dwelling comic-book-guy are not sufficiently encompassing. The trolls may (or may not) wear fedoras and neckbeards, but there is plenty of reason to think that some of the most vocal critics of ‘political correctness’ in the games media are perfectly respectable middle class people. Not only do many of the anonymous abusers and bemoaners of ‘corruption’ claim to occupy important positions in AAA development studios, but evidence of sexism and sexual harassment within the industry has been piling up for years. There is no excuse at this point for blaming it all on a mythical race of basement dwellers.
Nor are the people responsible for ‘gamergate’ operating in a vacuum. When you have an influential person like Richard Dawkins repeatedly spouting sexist nonsense (among other things), it should come as no surprise when some cretinous ‘sceptics’ are drawn to attack women in games.
Put simply: we do not really know how marginal the trolls are, but it is clear that they draw on deeper social and ideological currents than a group of isolated and incompetent nerds.
Then there is the term ‘extremist’. This is a dangerous and misleading word and I will never use it in earnest. Here is one illustration of why: when Anders Breivik massacred a group of children in an explicitly politically motivated crime which he justified by drawing on the islamophobic and anti-multiculturalist ideologies of mainstream right-wing press, here is how Human Rights Watch responded:
The failure of leadership and negative rhetoric by European governments is connected to a third worrying trend: the rise of populist extremist parties.
The terrorist act in July 2011 by Anders Breivik that left 77 Norwegians dead was a stark reminder that extremism and political violence are not confined to those acting in the name of Islam. Breivik’s twisted manifesto cited with approval populist extremist parties across Europe, though the decision to engage in terrorism was his alone.
[…] There is always a risk in a democracy that without responsible leadership the majority will support measures that harm the interests of the minority. This dilemma helps explain why human rights protections, which are designed in part to protect against “tyranny of the majority,” are more essential than ever. It is particularly alarming then that Europe’s human rights tools and institutions are proving ineffective in tackling these negative trends.
How is it possible to be both populist and extremist? How, by definition, can ‘democracy’ lead to ‘extremism’? What was needed here was a theory of populism and a willingness to confront the ceaseless discharge of respectable centre-right intellectuals. Instead, HRW obfuscated the issue by replacing politics with technocratic ‘neutrality’, letting the establishment ideologues who inspired Breivik off the hook, and the term that performed the heavy lifting here was – extremism.
It is interesting to note that Breivik’s ideological commitments were intermeshed with a fantasy world centred around World of Warcraft and comics. In fact, his plan originally involved the physical manifestation of his fantasy persona, the ‘Justiciar Knight’, complete with a custom suit of kevlar armour and attached gadget weapons, the better to battle the forces of evil. In the event, Breivik’s ‘uniform’ included Black & Decker countersink bits attached to his boots as ‘combat spurs’. Games and everything else are shot through with one another.
[Aarge Borchgrevink, A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya (Polity/Malden, 2013), pp. 168-70. Borchgrevink, by the way, performs the same stunt as HRW, invoking Buruma and Margalit’s execrable Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by way of associating all politics outside of the Western mainstream – left, right, or other – with ‘extremism’. B & M actually go further, treating all opposition of US imperialism as a dangerous irrational pathology.]
I hope this little excursus has made it clear that the word ‘extremism’ is a double-edged sword. People who think of themselves as ‘progressives’, of whatever stripe, might be well-advised to avoid complicity in any process of policing the boundaries of what includes ‘normal’ political discourse. This does not mean tolerating trolls and bigots – it does mean acknowledging they exist and are part of larger, productive social processes which, if they have been consigned to the dustbin of history, refuse to go down quietly – this is part of what I was trying to get at with my previous post on this topic.
There is also a sense in which the welter of contrasting epithets, ‘extremism’ most especially, reveals conflicts within feminism. What, ultimately, it the cause of women’s oppression – populist irrationality, or structural conditions? Is the goal of attacking (with justice) the rampant sexism and misogyny of the games industry and ‘geek culture’ a technocratic attempt to expunge the trade of embarrassing impurities, or is the ultimate goal to change the system itself? Is feminism even compatible with capitalism? To what extend can equality be achieved without rocking the boat in ways that incite exclusion and backlash? The various positions implied by these rhetorical questions are not (always) contradictory, but the potential for conflict is real.
This leads to broader issues. Is the problem only that gamers are defective, in the way that Torontonians (in, suitably, unforgivably parochial terms of reference) are defective for having elected the slovenly right-wing populist Rob Ford when they should have elected the quartz-eyed right-wing technocrat Smitherman? When we say ‘diversity’, do we mean inclusion, or merely the inhuman, sanitised glasscapes of gentrified urban districts? To the extent that enlightened writers and designers in the games industry can describe those who attack them as degenerate social inferiors, the industry’s feminism remains comfortably bourgeois.
Forgive the excessive rhetorical interrogation and allow me to illustrate my point with a hypothetical example. Let’s imagine a player of games. She plays them, thinks about them, talks about them, reads about them. Also, she has a mental illness. She is eccentric. She finds it difficult to get or hold down a job. To hide her illness poses problems, and to admit it poses more: for personal relationships; for prospective employers; for dealings with unaccountable disciplinary authorities like police, doctors and bureaucrats. Her existence is hemmed by constraints that the aseptic term ‘stigma’ doesn’t begin to encompass, except to the extent that her class can insulate her. To paraphrase Foucault: she is excluded not because of what she has done, but because of who she is. Her inability to conform is an inescapable liability that follows her everywhere, including the games industry. I am not this person; but if I were this person, I could not be her.
I’m aware that attempting to ‘trump’ one kind of oppression with another is a common way of derailing or dismissing important discussions. I hope the reader will accept my good faith — nothing could be further from my mind than a desire to dismiss the efforts of those who seek to make the games industry a safe place for women. Nonetheless. How (and this time the question is not purely rhetorical) does the game industry include or exclude our hypothetical mentally ill person? What (and here I shed all innocence) does it mean that the immediate response of so many developers and journalists to this situation has been to lade their attackers with the attributes of the poor, the insane, the silent and the inadequate — that is, to speak the language of class and conformism? Whom, in the final instance, do we wish to protect and include?