This afternoon multiple bomb threats were called in to a Society of Professional Journalists debate about GamerGate. I’ve been passed the remarks my fellow panellist, AEI scholar and feminist academic Christina Hoff Sommers, was planning to make.
According to dozens of media stories, #Gamergate is a nightmarish cabal of right wing males who will stop at nothing to keep women out of gaming. Comparisons with hate groups, lynch mobs and terrorists are not uncommon. In reality Gamergate has support from hundreds of thousands of rank and file video game enthusiasts from all over the world and across the political spectrum. Gamers identify with GamerGate for different reasons. A recurrent theme is consumerist–gamer journals are toadies for the game companies and need to be replaced by authentic critics, they say. Another—and the one that drew me into the world of gamers—is impatience with cultural scolds who evaluate games through the lens of political correctness. Are there some bullies and lunatics on the fringes of GamerGate? Yes there are. It’s the internet.
Media stories have focused on the female critics who have received hateful messages and even death threats. Those messages and threats are deplorable, but what the journalists typically fail to mention is that no one knows who sent them. Furthermore, those who defend Gamergate (males and females) have received hate mail and death threats as well. Too many in the media are addicted to a simplistic damsel in distress storyline—but inconveniently there are distressed damsels on both sides of the GamerGate controversy. The best data we have on on-line threats, a 2012 Pew Study for example, suggest that men, not women, are the primary targets.
In the past, writers at popular gaming websites like Kotaku and Polygon did a good job defending games from the false charge that they foster violence and mayhem. But when gender activists came along accusing games of fostering misogyny, the sites jumped on the bandwagon. There is no evidence that gamers in general or GamerGate in particular are against gender equality. Every gamergater I am aware of, with only a few possible exceptions, seems to support a reasonable equal rights feminism. There are many schools of feminism. But the style of feminism touted in politically correct gaming sites is the grievance variety that has never had a large following outside certain liberal arts colleges. Many Gamers object to having it foisted upon them. Who wouldn’t?
To give a specific example: Consider the recently released video game Bayonetta 2. Bayonetta is a powerful, charismatic female protagonist created by a Japanese female game developer. She is a wildly popular video heroine—appreciated by vast numbers of male and female gamers. There is a large school of sex positive feminist scholars and writers—Camille Paglia, Laura Kipnis, Katie Roiphe, Daphne Patai—to name only a few, who would likely approve of her too. But what does she look like through the harsh lens of grievance feminism? Consider these remarks from Arthur Gies, editor of Polygon: “[T]he deliberate sexualization and objectification on display serves as a jarring distraction from the creativity and design smarts elsewhere.” According to Gies, “The camera frames Bayonetta as this thing to be stared at.” The feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian faults Bayonetta 2 for its “shameless sexism and use of the male gaze.” According to Sarkeesian “Everything about Bayonetta’s design… is created specifically for the sexual pleasure of straight male gamers.” Why is that such a bad thing?
Men are the primary market for competitive action games and they do evince a preference for sexy women. But these days, conventional male preferences are under a cloud. Traditionally women, gays and trans people were policed and shamed for their sexuality. Today, at least among certain feminist critics, it’s open season on the sexuality of heterosexual males.
Gies and Sarkeesian appear to be drawing on a 1975 psychoanalytic feminist theory of the male gaze developed by film scholar Laura Mulvey. Mulvey faulted conventional cinema for its “phallocentric” assumptions. But the world has changed since 1975 and so has gaze theory. Today, gaze theorists speak of “shifting spectatorial role”: Sometimes gazers objectify the people they see–-but other times they become those people and take on their perspective. And bear in mind that gaze theory has no standing as serious social science. It has no hypotheses that can be tested—and was always a bit exotic even among gender scholars. But my sense is that a lot of game journalists take it seriously because they think they are being respectful to women—or to feminism. No, it’s being solicitous to one controversial school.
For me, it has been a joy and an honor to become acquainted with the denizens of GamerGate. I have found them to be friendly, diverse, smart, creative, funny and welcoming—though occasionally edgy and even a bit triggering for a polite cis-gendered lady of a certain age like myself. Many Gamers call me based-Mom. The critics of GamerGate find this sinister—and bizarre. I think they are projecting their own troubled mindset onto a lot of wonderful people. Like other citizen uprisings—Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter—there are plenty of unstable people on the fringes—but, for the most part, journalists have tried to give voice to the authentic majority at the center. Maybe it’s time to do that for GamerGate.
Correction: At Christina Hoff Sommers’ request, we have removed the opening anecdote regarding a young lesbian woman and her appreciation for massively endowed female video game characters. The woman, it seems, is a guy.