It's Dangerous to Go Alone: Why Are Gamers So Angry?

The subset of entitled, belligerent gamers convinced that being ‘objectively’ right entitles them to defend their rightness by any means necessary is overwhelmingly male.

08.28.14 4:16 PM ET

Okay, gamers, let’s have a talk.

First of all, my cred—rest assured I am one of your tribe. I have saved the princess, I have united the Triforce, I have shot rockets into the giant goat skull to blow up John Romero’s head. There is documentary evidence that I proposed to my wife at a video game convention where she had to beat the final boss from Sonic 3 & Knuckles before I would marry her.

So no, I’m definitely not one of the fake gamer girls you fear and loathe so much, especially since I’m not a girl. So when I tell you you’re being misogynist losers who are making us all look bad, maybe you’ll listen.

Probably not, though.

The kerfuffle du jour isn’t worth going into in detail; that’s been done elsewhere.

The gist: A random dude posts a rambling screed, complete with screencaps as “proof,” talking about how horrible his ex is for cheating on him. Anyone else, anywhere else, this would just be another everyday day in the ongoing melodrama of millennial romance on the Internet.

But this guy’s ex, Zoe Quinn, is a female game developer. Quinn does indie games—experimental, weird indie games that cover heavy Social Issues—and she’s been an outspoken critic of the bullets, bombs and boobs that make up the “AAA” game market. And one of the guys she’s accused of sleeping with is a writer for one of the gaming sites that’s covered her work.

Boom. Instant horde of ravening orcs. People digging up nude photos of her to humiliate her, people constantly and relentlessly sending her crude, vile, harassing messages, people vowing with a straight face to make sure she never works again. He couldn’t have had a more effective tool to ruin her life if he’d been an organized crime boss.

The Zoe Quinn Hate Brigade party line is that this isn’t about shaming one particular game developer for her sex life, even though that is very obviously what it is about. (I predict the comments section of this very article will be 50/50 people sternly telling me it isn’t about her sex life and people gleefully tearing into her for her sex life.)

No, they say it’s about “corruption.” About “developers in bed with reviewers,” and the stain this leaves on the “integrity of games journalism.” At its most feverish, it becomes about the “conspiracy” of cliquish insiders that controls the industry, silences dissenting voices and ultimately harms all gamers by keeping their desires from being heard in favor of the “feminist agenda.”

To which I can only respond, “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!” followed by “FOR FUCK’S SAKE, GET A LIFE!”

But let me try to make the point more calmly and persuasively.

Look, let’s get one thing out of the way first. Games journalism isn’t journalism. Games journalism is a neglected johnny-come-lately subset of entertainment journalism, which is also—with a few honorable exceptions—not journalism.

Because entertainment journalism is a field where all of the money and all of the power lies in the hands of companies selling products, where the only thing to “cover” is the products being sold, where the target audience of the publication is defined by their pre-existing desire to purchase the product, and thus the border between advertising and “journalism” can’t help but be blurred.

I like entertainment journalism. A lot of cool think pieces, interesting stories and talented voices come out of it. But let’s not deny it: The lion’s share of what people in the “entertainment beat” do—and I include my own blogging in this—is reacting to things companies sell for our consumption.

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The world of “games journalism” is just a fancier version of us sitting around in third grade asking each other “Did you see the commercial for Star Fox?” and one kid going “I saw it, and this is what it looked like…”

So why is it surprising, or a big deal, that people who have strong enough feelings about those products to actually try to become a “games journalist” (not a particularly lucrative or prestigious field) will also have strong feelings about the people who make those products? Or, in a field as tiny as the “indie gaming” scene, end up in relationships with the people who make those products?

On the sleazier side of the actual world of entertainment journalism this kind of scurrilous rumor from angry exes about Hollywood insiders is a daily occurrence, and daily ignored. Why is this somehow “Watergate for the gaming world” (a comparison I’ve seen people unironically make multiple times)?

Well, because gamers are special.

You don’t have to look any further than the fact that there’s a website called “Objective Game Reviews,” which tries to fight the whole concept of “subjectivity” in games journalism by providing “reviews” that are nothing more than long descriptions of the game in question.

Imagine if anyone tried to review anything else this way. A review of a pop music album saying “Fifteen tracks, mostly up-tempo in four-four time, heavy use of guitars and synthesizers.” Or, hell, Something Awful already did the joke for movie reviews.

For far too long most game reviews have been, rather obnoxiously, attempts to rate games on a technical scorecard and come up with a numerical rating for them that looks scientific—as though every game critic in the world were the author of the part of the textbook Robin Williams makes everyone rip out in Dead Poets Society.

People try to argue that this is because games are still a young art form, that games are a more technical art form than film or music, that until recently hardware limitations have been a far greater consideration for gamers than people who watch movies. That’s all as may be.

But mainly it’s because gamers won’t let reviews be anything else.

When people talk about “corruption” in games journalism the main thing they’re referencing is Jeff Gerstmann leaving GameSpot in 2007 after giving a mediocre review to Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, amid accusations that Eidos Interactive had pressured GameSpot to change the review lest their ad dollars be pulled.

That sucked, I agree. But it didn’t suck nearly as much as when Gerstmann, a year earlier, was allowed without interference to publish a review of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess giving it an 8.8 out of 10, only to be bombarded with unending fury from fanboys demanding that it deserved a 10 out of 10.

The incident has passed into Internet legend. It seems almost beyond parody.

But it happened. It continues to happen. The degree of consensus largely forced on game reviewers by their audience is shocking.

Imagine if Roger Ebert had nearly been harassed off the Internet for giving a controversial review. Even the film critics bowed to as “canonical” have tons of reviews where they’ve defended films everyone hated, derided films everyone loved, and generally went against consensus. Roger Ebert gave a thumbs up to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and a thumbs down to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and yet film buffs, who generally disagree with both of these conclusions, still venerate his memory.

In fact the one time I can remember Ebert really did get a massive wave of backlash and abuse directed at him was…when he attacked a video game, Braid, as not being “art.” Interesting coincidence, that.

I had a ground-level view of the battles in the comments sections of The AV Club’s Games reviews—one of the only game review sites I ever found worth my time—before their reorganization into The Gameological Society and their abandonment of giving games “scores.” I saw people unblushingly come in swinging demanding that review scores be changed to the “correct” scores, and stating that “incorrect” scores, when counted on Metacritic, unfairly “harmed” games and gamers.

I’ve spent time in a lot of places that draw the opinionated and the zealous. I hang out with artsy theater people, with angry political activists, and with nerds of all stripes. And never have I met a group of people as doggedly convinced that their opinion is “objectively” correct as gamers.

Hence the incredible reservoirs of rage that Depression Quest may have gotten positive attention it didn’t deserve because the reviews of it were “biased” and not “objective,” as though any such thing were possible. Hence the seething fury that this developer may have gotten her position by “knowing the right people” and not through perfect “objective” meritocracy—you know, the way it works in every other creative field.

It isn’t just about reviews that gamers get like this. Games themselves get policed the same way. Compare the amount of hate there was for the Star Wars prequels with the jaw-dropping vitriol—complete with online petitions and sustained harassment campaigns—to change the Mass Effect ending to make it the “correct” ending.

A slow groundswell of momentum that built up over several years in response to three movies was basically matched by a few months’ worth of rabblerousing over the last ten minutes or so of a whole game franchise. And the biggest difference between Star Wars and Mass Effect? The developers actually caved. They rewrote the ending to try to fit popular demand. My favorite fellow culture blogger/large green monster, Film Crit Hulk, talked about why, whatever your thoughts on the ending, this sets a disturbing precedent that fans basically get direct artistic veto over creators’ decisions.

The idea that your beliefs are objectively correct and, more importantly, that being correct entitles you to use every dirty trick in your arsenal to attack people who are incorrect is hardly thin on the ground on the Internet. But nowhere does it seem to be as over-applied as among defensive gamers.

I mean, fundamentalist Christians called the Harry Potter series a lure for children into witchcraft and took an Onion article calling J. K. Rowling a Satanist at face value. But I don’t recall Potter fans stalking and harassing attackers of the series to try to force them to recant.

Meanwhile, when a random writer goes on Fox News to denounce Mass Effect as a “sex simulator,” fans mobilize to defend the series’ honor, flooding her book on Amazon with one-star reviews, successfully calling in to her radio show to bring it up, and finally getting her to publicly apologize.

Make no mistake: I’m not defending Cooper Lawrence. As a huge fan of Bioware and the Mass Effect series I, too, got mad when I saw that clip. (Although, to be fair, games like Lawrence describes do exist in the Japanese market and even here on these shores we get games where you collect sexual conquests as actual trading cards.)

But was it necessary to try to sabotage her career and her book and spend hours of our own lives trying to make her life hell? Over, what, an interview on Fox News, of all places, that would likely have been forgotten anyway in a week?

Where did we learn this habit? Everything from Diablo III’s art being too colorful to Mass Effect having the wrong ending to DRM on the XBox One seems to generate a massive Internet hate campaign, as though the fate of the universe were at stake. (Phil Fish, the indie creator of Fez, got harassed off the Internet just for not having any comment when asked to join the campaign against XBox One; now he’s had his company’s financial data hacked for not joining the campaign against Zoe Quinn.)

I sometimes say that if Jack Thompson had never existed we would’ve had to invent him. Maybe the fact that at one point in time the gaming community had a public enemy who pulled out all the stops—calling games “murder simulators,” demanding that game developers be imprisoned en masse—means that gamers have felt justified in employing total-war tactics in kind since then.

Or maybe it has something to do with gamers self-selecting for being people who care a lot about conflict and winning, who aren’t content to just disagree with other people but have to “beat” them somehow. Maybe the very nature of gaming appeals to people who like black-and-white moral situations and are made uncomfortable by nuance and ambiguity.

Or maybe it has to do with the historical accident of gaming being seen as the last refuge of the straight white male, a neglected medium that because it was neglected was able to lag behind movies, TV, and music in the push to be culturally inclusive.

I don’t know. What I do know is that the subset of entitled, belligerent gamers convinced that being “objectively” right entitles them to defend their rightness by any means necessary are overwhelmingly male. And that obnoxious guys convinced of their objective correctness find it way easier to dismiss your opinions as “subjective” if you’re female.

It was a male blogger, Kevin McCullough, after all, who started the “Mass Effect is a sex simulator” meme in 2008—but it’s Cooper Lawrence who got endlessly hounded for it.

There are feminist film critics, feminist TV critics, feminist music critics. They all come under attack at times from non-feminist fans. But I challenge you to find one who’s survived a tidal wave of bile as huge as what Anita Sarkeesian got just for announcing a Kickstarter for a series of videos critiquing portrayal of women in video games—before she’d even made any.

And the insults that don’t outright attack Sarkeesian for her gender or her genitalia bring up the same tropes again and again—”biased,” “emotional,” “subjective.” Every time one of her videos posts, there’s a barrage of comments demanding more detailed citations for every single point she makes, apparently unwilling to accept any criticism of a game they like without an argument the length of a graduate dissertation (or of this article).

And now we’ve reached the point where, endless YouTube videos and blog posts tearing apart Sarkeesian being insufficient, there’s a Patreon to make an actual feature-length documentary portraying her as the gaming Antichrist and centering her as the ringleader of a feminist anti-gamer conspiracy. Anita delenda est.

The treatment of gamer consensus as objective truth tends to be directed squarely against anyone who’s Other in the gaming realm. Sometimes it’s people blasting “artsy English majors” daring to give a low score to Borderlands for its lackluster story; sometimes it’s people going on full-on unhinged rants against “casual gamers,” as though open hatred toward casual members of a hobby doesn’t have troubling implications for a hobby’s long-term health.

But being Other tends to go with being female. The bestselling games that get slammed as being “not really games” are the ones “girls play,” all the way back from Myst in the 1990s to The Sims in the 2000s to Wii and mobile gaming today. Even someone who’s done as much for gaming culture as Felicia Day still gets pointed questions from random Destructoid writers about whether she’s a “real” gamer. The previous massive outrage inferno directed against a “fake” pro in the industry, before Zoe Quinn? The Kickstarter for Mighty No. 9, a Mega Man remake, hiring a female community manager with feminist views and who’d drawn the main character of Mighty No. 9 as a woman, proving she wasn’t really a member of their community. RPG writer Jennifer Hepler got blasted for being a “cancer” in Bioware, justifying death threats phoned in to her kids, because her gamer cred got called into question.

I don’t know how to fix this. Engaging with these waves of gamer rage only feeds the controversy; ignoring it only makes them angrier, leading to cries of “censorship” and “media blackout” regarding the Quinn fiasco, as though the media not milking a scandal about someone’s sex life were something to decry.

I just know that it’s scary and depressing. I love games. I love gaming culture, despite everything wrong with it. My wife and I wouldn’t be together without games. The best times of my life have been spent playing games.

I’d love to raise my kids to be gamers from childhood, and I’d love to have a daughter whom I could tell, with a clear conscience, that there’s nothing stopping her from becoming a kickass gamer and a kickass game developer if she really wants to.

I don’t know if I can. Whatever the reasons behind it, gaming culture is currently filled with hordes and hordes of regenerating monsters, each of whom has convinced himself that he is in fact the hero. I feel like the responsible thing to do is to save my daughter the grief and keep her out of gaming, or at least warn her that “It’s Dangerous to Go Alone.”

The best storytellers in gaming are the ones questioning the assumptions the typical game makes. The biggest such assumption is the one you’re automatically the hero and that anything you do to win is justified, and some of the most memorable moments in games have been the discovery that you’re wrong—Spec Ops: the Line, Braid, the Bioshock series. I wish it were a lesson more gamers would learn.


UPDATE: In the short time between when I originally wrote this article and when it posted, Kotaku announced a policy banning all Patreon contributions among its staff in order to ensure strict neutrality. Note this is a much stricter policy than many actual journalistic outlets have for giving to actual political campaigns.

Nor have I heard of there being any such policy at all against Kickstarters or Patreons for other entertainment journalists who cover TV, music and movies.

Did this mollify the gamer community? Well, Anita Sarkeesian was driven from her home by death threats, as was Zoe Quinn. The latest high-profile celebrity to join in the Hate Brigade is Firefly and Chuck’s own Adam Baldwin.

So yeah. Thanks, gamers. I’m going to spend Labor Day weekend in bed.