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


4 thoughts on “Overactive Imaginations: “Gamergate” as ARG

  1. Abram says:

    There’s so many actual apocalyptic scenarios to worry about if you wanna spend time foing that, but the solutions are harder/more nuanced than trashing a single person.

    That said? Setups where there’s the noble Us fighting against a well defined evil Them are super popular throughout history.

    I don’t think it’s a game humans are going to tire of soon.

  2. As an adult. I can understand the angst about everyone getting all upset etc. I would give you a chance to think like a parent watching two children fight. why must the one crying in the corner be the only victim? do we ever see someone crying about being bullied after causing the fuss in the first place?
    If you had researched HOW this lady had known FULL WELL that running into these places like 4chan and being a pain would cause animosity . this has then been exploited as a sob story, and “damsel in distress” trope. ironically, proving her first trope rather relevant today as it always was.
    her views are totally removed from balance and serve to enhance a pearl clutching knee jerk reaction. Most important of all, comment was closed from day one. before the kickstarter, way before. the main complaint against her channel from day one was the lack of commentary.

    the guise of perpetual victim is hard to swallow when a person tells you that a great pastime, because it caters to its main demographic, is inherently sexist. If you think she doesn’t say that, im sorry, she is explicit. Worse, it encouraged the hatred of women. There is no nuance to her perceptions of women in games and i would say the players care more for these characters than her. They are disposable women as they have no voice. These people are merely sticking up for their lady in games, be it zelda or lara croft.

    The danger for those that subscribe to this leave a verbal minefield you will have to traverse in order to backtrack, destroying progress earlier made.
    Having more women in games means the INDY scene. the new unproven ideas are there. also most of the women in games production are there too. THEY need the help there. attacking AAA games will do little. It may even harm feminism in the long run because as you can see, there has been huge protest about media simply buying the sob story and not investigating the facts. I would not have it from the right, I wont have it from the left.

    As a young man in the 80s i saw first hand what prejudice was and heard more of it more than most blacks as at the time, they thought as im white and a man and would probably agree, i would not accept this, they were wrong and i told them why. As that same boy of the 80s who helped push this away in the 90s. i am not really chuffed to see this pushing in a misandrist direction. and yes, this is misandry dressed as feminism.

    The left have the danger of pushing the gaming community into the grasp of the right wing. They will listen to those who listen them.

    Thank you for leaving your comments section open. Many are closed to “avoid harassment” which is an easy stretch from “avoid criticism”

    • SabreCat says:

      “this lady had known FULL WELL that running into these places like 4chan and being a pain would cause animosity” – This is an example of a derailing tactic known as victim blaming. It is bullshit. The responsibility for the hate campaigns rests entirely on the people perpetrating them. You might as well say “the lady had known FULL WELL that being a woman with opinions on the Internet would cause animosity.” It would be true; it would be honest; and it would be equally fruitless as a criticism of the work these women do.

      “perpetual victim” – You’re talking about Anita Sarkeesian, right? The one who raised over $150,000 to produce a video series, which she continues to produce to great acclaim (from the people who, y’know, paid to make it happen), and who continues to travel and speak at conferences despite an unending barrage of threats of violence? She is the victim of aforementioned harassment, but she’s hardly balling up and whimpering. She’s kicking her critics’ asses up and down the block!

      “If you think she doesn’t say that, im sorry, she is explicit.” – I’d appreciate a quotation/cite, if it’s so plainly spelled out. It sounds like a knee-jerk misinterpretation to me.

      “Thank you for leaving your comments section open. Many are closed to “avoid harassment” which is an easy stretch from “avoid criticism”” – My blog’s comments are moderated. I absolutely support people’s decisions to close comments sections, though: they are under no obligation to provide a dumping ground for whatever garbage the Internet at large decides to offload. There are innumerable open spaces for people to raise their criticisms; being unable to do so in one YouTube channel or other is hardly any great injustice. If my comments space becomes toxic, I will not hesitate to decline to approve comments, block posters, or close commentary entirely.

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