Tilt: Conversations with Randos

Trying to change someone’s mind is not the only purpose of engaging in argument. In fact, it’s often the least likely to be successful, especially if the argument in question takes place with a stranger on the Internet. I tend to get into back-and-forth with folks to attempt to grasp where their ideas come from, what basis they have–and if something I say brings about new understanding the other direction, that’s a bonus that gives me hope for the future.

The end point of these conversations, then, isn’t someone saying “you’re right.” Instead it’s a sort of impasse that I wish I had a specific word for (maybe academics among my readers know of a term?), where I discover a piece of thought so axiomatic and/or alien to my viewpoint that no further understanding is likely to occur.

I’ll call this moment a “tilt.” It’s a reference to pinball machines, which have mechanisms to detect when the player has rocked (tilted) the game beyond acceptable bounds, for which the penalty is usually being locked out of play for the rest of that ball. There’s also the expression “hit tilt,” which is to say, had enough or reached one’s breaking point, and “The Tilt” in the tabletop roleplaying game Fiasco, which is a randomized event injecting new chaos into the story so far. All of these things have the sort of connotation I’m after, of getting to a point where things come to a halt and/or get weird.

As an example, the last time I commented on Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik sticking his foot in his mouth, I talked with a friend who was frustrated that people were calling Krahulik out on it. The tilt occurred when I realized that said friend didn’t think Krahulik would ever change his ways: he felt that given the guy’s track record and personal history, criticism would never get through to him. My background in my own personal growth has me taking hope for betterment through hearing opposing views as given, so the fundamental difference in our opinions had been found. I could understand how the rest of his frustration followed from that different starting point, so we’d gotten as far as we could.

This week I posted a couple of Tweets under the #GamerGate hashtag. I’m not entirely sure of my own motives in doing so; they were criticisms of the movement that carries the tag as banner, but I didn’t necessarily intend to start a debate. I underestimated the tendency of folks to monitor a tag looking for fights to pick, though, so I did get some activity. What follows are the tilts that eventually occurred!

Gamer rage: One conversation didn’t last long because I blocked the other party. They were incensed that they’d been labelled misogynist, racist, etc. I’ve gotten past such defensive anger in my own life. If someone called me out as sexist, I’d be appalled, but my next reaction would be to figure out what I’d done wrong, apologize, and try to do better. I couldn’t possibly expect that of this stranger, so seeing that their attitude came from hurt and anger I didn’t share in was as much of a tilt as I could hope for.

Interaction is Corruption: A second brief conversation revolved around the concept of journalistic corruption. This person’s smoking gun was games writers who contributed to developer Patreon campaigns or had been roommates with developers. I wished I had a link to one of the several excellent “how journalism really works” articles opposing this extremely low bar for “corruption,” but hadn’t saved any off.

In any case, I figured out that our standards for games reporting were irreconcilably different. I don’t fetishize objectivity. I want the kinds of insights that come from people having connections, being close to the action, a personal stake. Game reviews where someone plays and shares their impressions in an otherwise featureless context are ubiquitous: I just need to pull up Steam recommendations, YouTube Let’s Play videos, or the like. Close relationships with creators, though, are less common and add value for me. To think that’s “corrupt”… tilt.

Censorship and the Use of Force: A third, more involved thread covered ground around the idea of censorship. I maintain it doesn’t make sense to cry censorship unless someone’s calling for a ban or other restrictive government action, or employing something like litigation, DMCA takedown, or physical aggression to suppress speech. This person, however, believed that “public shaming” constituted a use of force sufficient to qualify, and that changing “artistic vision” in response to criticism was capitulation to same.

Tilt! I don’t hold a creator’s ideas as sacrosanct: if they get critique, and choose to change course due to agreement with the basis for the critique, better business prospects for a tweaked work, etc., then that’s all part of the commerce of ideas, products, and art. Moreover, I don’t see shame as intrinsically problematic. It’s often a necessary emotion to go through in reaching a new, better outlook or habit. But to this gamer, anything causing shame is dirty pool. Therein lay the foundation of our differences!

Fictional Characters are Real. The last and most extensive conversation ranged over a number of topics, but the core of it discussed Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women” video series. This Twitterer professed to support feminism, but believed Sarkeesian’s work to be detrimental to the cause, driving young gamers into the welcoming arms of the radical right wing.

There was a bit of victim blaming (saying Sarkeesian was responsible for riling up 4chan and thus getting harassed), a lot of condescension (he seemed to think that being 37 years old made him an old sage, here to deliver wisdom to his youngers), and an assertion that Sarkeesian’s unwillingness to answer every possible question in real-time debate constituted a dodge of criticism. Delving into this last point hit the tilt. I held that Sarkeesian answers her critics in subsequent videos rather than in Twitter or YouTube exchanges, but this debater felt she’d never addressed her best counterpoints. I sought an example.

His best shot? Damsel in distress tropes aren’t disempowering, because when the hero rescues the damsel, he improves her situation, thus empowering her. Criticizing e.g. the sexualized attire used for many female game character designs amounted to slut shaming of women who have no voice.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Yes, sometimes a tilt is characterized by the “there’s so much wrong with that I don’t even know where to begin” feeling.

Interestingly, this bizarre tactic of acting like fictional characters are real people, and thus one should treat critique of their portrayals as if it were a condemnation levied against a flesh-and-blood woman, came up in the “Censorship and the Use of Force” discussion as well. It’s moon logic I can’t possibly adopt, therefore I hit tilt there, but the rest of it all does come together if you take it as given. Of course, if fictional characters are real people, then critics are being sexist to say they should wear different clothing. Of course if fictional characters are real people, then it makes sense to cry foul when those people’s situations and behaviors are lumped together in a trope analysis. It’s just that outside of Rando Land, people are criticizing choices made by game developers, character designers, marketers, etc., not choices made by the characters. Characters can’t make choices, because they’re fictional inventions, their actions and circumstances dictated by their creators!

Anyway, that’s a lot of gabble about what I was up to at midnight last night. I feel like I’ve learned a few things about the worldviews of folks who take the #GamerGate tag seriously. I still don’t agree with the arguments, because of these premises I can’t possibly grant… but I can at least grok how people arrive at some of the downstream hue and cry, given those starting points.

How #Gamergate Could Be Taken Seriously

EDIT: For context, check out this enormously helpful post from Gamasutra.

When I wrote my prior entry, I bemusedly wondered if I’d get dogpiled by the “hate mobs” I mentioned there. (That I could so idly wonder with nothing but an inward smile is a mark of my privilege as a little-known male gamer.) I didn’t, but somehow I did get a comment from one rando: James Desborough. I followed the guy briefly, early in my usage of Google+, as someone involved in the tabletop RPG scene–until I discovered he’s a raging sexism apologist, of the misogyny-doesn’t-exist variety*. However it was he stumbled across my post, he had this to say:

Wow, that’s a total and utter misrepresentation of what’s going on, buying into a false and deflection-oriented ‘misogyny’ trope that got us here in the first place.

It’s kind of a weird response, given that misogyny qua misogyny wasn’t the focus of the post, but it did get me thinking. I like to think of myself as open-minded; I signal-boost these conversations because I used to hold some ugly regressive views, but from exposure learned better. I’d rejected Desborough’s comment out of hand based on my past experience with the guy, but what would it take for me to listen, to think that he or other #Gamergate proponents had something worthwhile to say?

I don’t speak for other social-justice folks (surprise surprise, we’re not a monolithic conspiracy), but here’s what it’d take for me to hear someone out who professed to the anti-“SJW” side of things.

Unequivocal denunciation of doxxing, “leaking” private photos, and threats of violence. I realize that might sound unfair, like demanding of religious folks that they constantly profess their non-allegiance to terrorist groups. So yeah, it’s not fair, but I’d need to hear it. No exceptions, hedges, or dodges. If you believe that anybody deserves that kind of treatment, you’re part of the problem, and I’m not going to engage with you. If that’s a no-brainer, good; take it as a freebie.

Articulation of the “nightmare scenario.” As posed here by Scott Madin. So you’re up in arms; something is rotten in the state of Denmark; something must be done. How so? Why? If whatever it is you think Zoe Quinn did wrong went unnoticed, if Anita Sarkeesian got to make her video series without getting attacked for it, what’s the terrible thing that would have happened? If the people you’re crying “corruption” against got to keep doing their thing unhindered, what would go wrong? The answer would need to A. actually be bad, and B. be plausible, to fit the bill. So for instance “forced diversity in games” doesn’t work, because wider positive representation of gaming’s actual demographics would be awesome, and the idea that some government censor is going to mandate specific representations is laughable and not something anyone is calling for anyway.

Demonstrated understanding of how games journalism actually works. One of the major disconnects between the #Gamergate hue and cry and its targets is the nature of the games industry. There seems to be some belief that there’s an objective reality to game quality, misrepresented when someone reviews a game they have a personal connection to. But there is no such objective measure; different people like different things. Some people find Depression Quest a powerful work of interactive fiction; others find it boring and a poor representation of its titular illness; neither of these things is demonstrably true or false. The games press is by and large a marketing machine, with review sites in the unenviable position of reporting on games sold by the same companies that pay to keep the review sites up and running. If your best argument hinges on the idea that some games “deserve” good reviews and some don’t, or that the “bias” introduced by developers and games reporters being personally acquainted is aberrant, you won’t get far with me.

Acknowledgment of the ironies. Okay, this one isn’t a requirement, but it’d impress me! #Gamergate to date has been rife with irony. People harassing and attacking women (and people who speak up in defense of women) to demonstrate that gaming doesn’t have a sexism problem. People engaging in coordinated silencing campaigns because they think there’s a conspiracy to quash free speech. People campaigning for advertisers to exert control over content, because the content isn’t unbiased. Gamers, once adamant against the Jack Thompsons of the world in holding that they could distinguish fantasy from reality, buying into gonzo conspiracy theories. Gamers finding allies in the same neocon right wing that birthed Jack Thompson. And so on! If somebody from the #Gamergate crowd can grok how bizarre all that is, and try to address it, I’d listen.

*I was willing to excuse some old sexist publications of his (passed off as satire, a prime example of Sarkeesian’s recent point that mere reproduction is not satire) as the mistakes of someone who now knew better. But then he decided that the conversation about problematic depictions of rape in games needed an article “In Defense of Rape,” and went on about how the fighting game circuit isn’t sexist because it heaps abuse on dudes too. Uh huh.

Overactive Imaginations: “Gamergate” as ARG

I remember my let’s-pretend games more fondly and vividly than almost anything else in my childhood. When a game began, the world took on a new layer of meaning: a swing set became a fighter jet cockpit, a concrete slab a temple in the clouds, a tennis ball a blast of magic fire. You could say my current interests in role-playing and collaborative storytelling games attempt to recapture those freewheeling imaginative jaunts in a form palatable to adulthood.

One aspect I find remarkable, looking back, is how readily I was able to recruit others into these imagined worlds. My younger brother and my best neighborhood friend participated most frequently, but I also remember some occasions when playground acquaintances, nowhere near as close of friends as that core trio, joined in the fun. At one point, I declared that a schoolmate named Billy was the sage Amos, who had revealed to me that the basement of my house was a monster-infested dungeon.

I don’t remember how I convinced Billy to play along–did I pitch the idea, or simply walk up and address him as Amos, expecting him to figure it out as we went?–but as you might expect, my interest lasted longer than his. Eventually, I greeted him in character and he rejected the scene, exasperated that I was still on about that Amos thing. I remember, too, the very last such let’s-pretend game I ever played. High school was not far off, and the scenario was a science-fiction adventure with Super Soakers representing our blasters; I played an anthro-cat named Tai. Those of us playing pew-pewed from positions of cover on my parents’ front porch when a group of kids passed by on the sidewalk. They reacted with scorn to our immature play, sending some mockery our way as they went. My playmates shrugged it off, but for me that was the end. Their jeers punctured the dreamspace, and I could no longer repair or sustain it.

The past couple of weeks witnessed a series of ugly events oddly dubbed “Gamergate.” Gamers organizing on 4chan and Reddit took up an ex-boyfriend’s angry rants as ammunition to attack indie game developer Zoe Quinn. They harassed her, published personal details about her, and circulated discrediting rumors (mostly false and at best misguided), painting her as an example of “corruption” and missing “journalistic integrity” in the games industry. As the hate fed upon itself, the accusations got more and more bizarre; Quinn was not just one dev who’d supposedly done something sketchy to get ahead, but a conspiratorial mastermind manipulating the whole of the Internet to promote her preferences in games and crush dissent.

I can’t help but see this twisted vision of the world as analogous to those old games of let’s-pretend. Ordinary things gain superordinate meaning assigned by the reality being imagined. Videos like Anita Sarkeesian’s spectacular “Tropes vs. Women” aren’t just literary criticism of art; they’re attacks meant to censor and destroy the video gaming hobby. Games journalists aren’t just folks with diverse opinions scraping by in an unforgiving industry; they’re a global conspiracy out to promulgate an artificial social justice agenda. Instead of the muddy and nuanced world we live in, with real people’s lives and emotions in ordinary crises, it’s a game, with bad guys that must be destroyed to prevent an apocalyptic end to the world. And why not? The perpetrators of these hate campaigns identify as “gamers” first and foremost: it’s no surprise that when they feel uncomfortable or threatened, they turn things into a game to cope and respond.

So I wonder: what will be gamers’ Amos or Tai moment? At what point will the imagined world deflate? I have to hope that at last, someone (or many someones) in those mobs will wake up and say, “You know, this isn’t fun anymore. We’re hurting real people for no reason. There is no conspiracy. It felt good to think so and get angry about it, but it was just a game. It’s time to grow up.”

That sort of epiphany is the only way out of this shared hallucination. And unlike my growing out of Super Soakers and swing sets, I hope those who awaken from the Gamergate dream will look back not with nostalgia, but with horror and remorse.

Useful links:
Depression Quest, Zoe Quinn’s interactive fiction about life with mental illness
Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian’s games critique platform
Ars Technica chronicle of the Gamergate fiasco
Devin Faraci’s incisive from-within look at the gamer mindset