Of all the strands of geek culture, gamers have always seemed to be the group most likely to explode in anger at challenges to their subculture. Like all geek culture, that culture is little more than the consumption of media as a means of identity formation.
Gaming media, of course, can be particularly noxious, flirting with overt misogyny and largely created by a corporate culture resistant to any change that could jeopardize profit.
The gamer kettle has finally boiled over. Over the past two weeks, the immediacy and tangibility of the danger of geek culture’s toxic identity politics have crossed from potential to real, with threats of violence toward women and elaborate conspiracy theories being concocted to explain the small shifts toward inclusiveness in the gamer clubhouse.
A truncated version of the controversy: First, an independent game developer named Zoe Quinn had salacious details of her personal life posted online by a jilted ex-boyfriend. As it turns out, some of her relationships were with industry journalists, including one at a major outlet. After the news broke, the gamer community took a sudden interest in journalistic ethics, demanding people be fired and harassing Quinn with an unrelenting viciousness.
Second, Anita Sarkeesian, a creator of videos offering feminist critiques of common video game tropes, was harassed out of her home after her latest offering, a thirty-minute video in which she gives examples of violence against women serving as a backdrop in video game plotlines, regardless of genre. Sarkeesian has been dealing with this sort of harassment from gamers ever since she started a Kickstarter to fund her video series.
The backlash in the wake of this has been swift and loud, with some very good writing declaring the death of gamers as an identity. The idea is that gamers, as a slice of geek culture, are reacting so harshly because they think they’re dying. This, in turn, allows for a new definition of gamer to emerge, one that is more inclusive and shorn of it odious elements.
There are a few small issues with this analysis. One is the notion that the slights imagined by gamers are just that: imaginary. But they aren’t, and gamers must be taken at face value when they claim to feel threatened. Gamer culture is under threat, though the notion that it’s dead or dying is both overstated and premature.
When your identity has been manufactured by corporations urging you to consume certain things in prescribed ways, then any change, no matter how small, is an existential threat. When women challenge decades of almost exclusively male fantasies of sex and power, this alters the content the gamer consumes. And when that content is altered, gamer identity itself under threat. The vitriol isn’t contrived or artificially manufactured. It has a source.
Which brings me to the second problem. There are cries from some quarters that this is not representative of gamer culture, that the word “gamer” should be reclaimed as something good. But it was never good. It was never worth saving.
Gamer identity is tainted, root and branch, by its embrace of consumption as a way of life. If gamers suddenly became completely inclusive, if all of the threats and stamping of feet went away and the doors were flung open, conspicuous consumption would still be the essential core of their identity. The mythical gamer who does not exist to consume is not a gamer. A raisin is not a grape, and no amount of rehydration will turn it into one.
One of the tells is the aforementioned silence in the face of decades of questionable coziness between games journalism and corporations. Up until recently, there was no independent games press. The entire apparatus was quite openly an arm of the industry’s PR machine, focused exclusively on reviews. Until the past few years, there was no labor reporting of note. Industry conventions, with their unveiling of new products, are meant to impress and dazzle more than inform, and most of the press is still only too happy to regurgitate press releases.
With games journalism of the recent past displaying the crassest corporate obeisance imaginable, it’s no accident that the present controversy was kicked off by a small press developer and foreshadowed by a woman deigning to give the most recent Grand Theft Auto a positive review, while also questioning its treatment of women. It’s not just the challenge to rote misogyny that has gamers up in arms, but even the smallest challenges to the assembly line spoon-feeding of retrograde culture to the consumer.
The corporations who make games are quite willing to make their content more inclusive (indeed, that they’ve begun to do so is the impetus for the current fury) without altering the basic DNA of a gamer.
The obvious reason is sales. Games make enormous amounts of money through their primary consumers, who each buy dozens of games a year. The gamer and his mass purchases are necessary to keep games with obscenely bloated budgets profitable.
But the industry also has a deeply exploitative relationship with labor.
Gaming companies are a place where the constant, deafening appeals to love and passion are predicated on its consumers being its employees. Fans make good workers because they’re living the dream. The abuses in the industry rely on this blurring between dedicated consumer and overworked employee. In fact, it’s the only way for the industry to survive in its current form. Gamers will never truly die; the industry will have no workers willing to put up with the deplorable conditions if they do.
As traditional industries begin to run out of stuff to sell, you can watch them try to tap into this deep vein of manufactured identity in real time. It’s present in snacks marketed as “Gamer Grub” and in car ads featuring the two actors who have portrayed Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.
These are crude and hamfisted, but make no mistake: the depth of misplaced passion on display in these two recent, awful examples of geek culture at its worst is something that every corporation wants in on. It may be ugly, but it also makes big money.
All of this comes with the usual caveats. It’s all right to enjoy video games. I love a lot of video games. I suspect that I’ll love new ones in the years to come. But to define oneself by media consumption is not just unhealthy, it’s vacuous. To do so is to go beyond the necessary distractions from the real world’s tedium and travails. It’s a demand for a Huxley-esque perpetual childhood.
Gamers won’t die because there will always be, in capitalism, people who define themselves by what they buy. When their imaginary identity politics are challenged, they’ll lash out, angrily, with as much vitriol as they can muster.
Their opprobrium points to the silver lining in all of this, small as it is. The open savagery of the gamers’ revolt, coupled with their manifest hypocrisy — embodied by their collective ease with the web of games press, advertising, and corporate access — has laid bare the inherent problems with this mode of identification.
The ties between consumption and identity are being examined in more and more mainstream outlets. Questioning leads to answers, answers can lead to rejection of a rotten status quo. With any hope, the burgeoning business of corporate identity creation, in the gaming industry and elsewhere, can be replaced by real bonds of solidarity and empowerment.