Complicity in Processes of Oppression — And Why Everyone is at Fault for the Status of Gaming

My little brother is 12 years old and, for years, has loved the online gaming world much to my parents’ dismay. My mother and father were never big fans of “distractions” like television, chat rooms, or unlimited texting but they were especially concerned about gaming. Their complaints were unlike most parents – it was not the gratuitous violence, disturbing or dystopian topics that irked them most, but rather the homogeneity and whiteness widely constructed and reinforced through games that heroified white men. They were also aware that many of these games included chat rooms and live action discussion, and so they worried that my brother would be exposed to mature language and bullying in a space that they could not knowledgably monitor or navigate. Their worst fears came true one afternoon when they received a phone call from my brother’s summer camp counselors. My brother, a black boy and only age 8 at the time, had been going around camp calling other (white) children “niggers.” That night he explained to my parents that he (clearly) had no idea what the word meant, but that “lots of people had been saying it online.”

My project will explore racism and sexism in the gaming world. I will ask who bears the brunt of responsibility for cyber-prejudice – the gamers who often engage in racist, exclusionary, and misogynistic discussion, or the developers and advertisers who first constructed fantasies that promoted the identities and preferences of white, straight men while making invisible the perspectives of alternative players? I will also look at how marginalized subgroups of gamers are coping with and reacting to hostility in gaming. By and large, the corporate gaming world resists responsibility for the behavior of its consumers and remains disinterested in promoting alternative gaming experiences. Responses from the marginalized span a wide range – in the wake of the recent #GamerGate controversy, many have begun publicly advocating for the corporate and structural dismantling of prejudice, while others have taken a vigilante approach, resisting or fighting back against individual experiences of intolerance. I examine the corporate side of the debate by looking in depth at the recent Intel scandal, and then I examine individual-level responses by looking at the activities of marginalized gaming communities. I find that what is missing from much of the mainstream debate about gaming is an understanding of how an industry and its participants cooperate in a feedback system. Although both sides acknowledge the existence of prejudice, they are hesitant to admit that the relationship between the developers, their products, and the consumers is, in fact, a core part of the process of status quo reinforcement.

racistgamer

Popular memes like this one are indicative of the pervasive presence of intolerance in gaming. They illustrate both how distinguishable and how limiting the mainstream gamer identity is perceived to be – in few words and images, this meme argues that “young, white, male, and aggressive” are the traits that resonate most with the gaming world. (Original Source/Creator Unknown)

There is relatively little academic research around racism and sexism in online gaming, but what is available tends to either explore the corporate and structural problems with gaming or the experiences of the marginalized. Peck, Ketchum, and Embrick in Racism and Sexism in the Gaming World analyze the product advertisements in two major gaming magazines, PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World and find that the quality of representation of women and minorities is far lower than that of white males. They “found minorities were generally limited to stereotypical roles or excluded,” “women were typically depicted in sexualized roles” and that “no significant gains have been made” in the past two decades of gaming advertising For example, they report finding only one black and female character represented in all of their advertisements from last 20 years.[1] The authors seem to suggest that the gaming industry and advertising, through careful selection of its characters and the roles and characteristics ascribed to them, is maintaining a culture of white male preference. In the dissertation Deviant Bodies Resisting Online: Examining the Intersecting Realities of Women of Color in Xbox Live Kishonna Gray discusses the experiences of women of color on Xbox Live and how their confrontations with racialized sexism lead to the creation of self-segregated communities of online gamers.[2] The communities she interviews either retreat into alternative gaming clans like the “Militant Misses,” “Puerto Reekan Killaz,” or “Conscious Daughters” for support, or actively protest prejudice by disrupting game flow with “player-killings” and other forms of resistance that mimic sit ins. For Gray’s interviewees, who remain fans of gaming despite experiences of discrimination, resisting bigotry in gaming involves day-to-day efforts to either protect themselves or take vigilante action against individual players. For Peck, Ketchum, and Embrick, intolerance is inherent to the game’s design and graphics and, therefore, resistance requires structural critique of the industry culture and its marketing tactics.

cityofheroes

The multiplayer game City of Heroes was well-known for being dominated by heroic white men and sexualized and accessorized women

Though the structural and vigilante responses appear to be opposing tactics, Lisa Nakamura in Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital successfully combines industry and individual responsibilities.[3] Her article is a response to a white male journalist’s attempt at explaining white privilege with gaming and difficulty setting metaphors and argues that such metaphors are deceptive, as they hide the processes of oppression that are actively produced in games and contributed to by their players’ participation. Additionally, gaming metaphors seem to remove culpability from the white male – the game (and the real and fantasy worlds it represents) is seemingly fixed and the players nothing more than participants, and so while he can acknowledge the injustice, he is falsely assured that he is not responsible for its perpetuation. Nakamura reveals the compatibilities between the industry-level and vigilante or individual-style responses and how crucial it is to be aware of the ways intolerance is perpetuated at both levels. There is prejudice first inherent to the game design, but complicity and exacerbation by players is what allows it to thrive. These processes of oppression operate like feedback loops which cement prejudice at all stages of game design and play. It is the notion of shared culpability that drives my project.

The production of intolerance embedded in the relationship between the gaming industry and its consumers is exemplified by the case of Intel’s reaction to #GamerGate. In late August of 2014, the internet exploded with debate around the #GamerGate hashtag. GamerGate encompasses a range of discussions ranging from sexism and racism in game narratives and by individual gamers, ethics in gaming journalism, and the purpose of gaming as a form of entertainment. Central to the raging social media debate is whether or not the creators and developers of games are responsible for the culture and behaviors borne out of the fantasy entertainment form, and if alternative or indie gamers have a place in a conversation that is dominated by the white, straight males the industry has historically catered to.[4] Intel, a technology company which produces chips for the gaming industry, landed at the center of the debate when the gaming world asked them to pick a side. Intel’s resistance to acknowledging their relationship to their consumers’ behavior illustrated the industry’s ignorance (or complete indifference toward) to the varied processes Nakamura outlines.

GamerGate began with the breakup of indie game developer, Zoe Quinn, best known for her game Depression Quest, a non-traditional gameplay designed to simulate life with depression, and her boyfriend, programmer Eron Gjoni. The relationship ended dramatically and Gjoni took to the internet to publish a series of harsh posts about their relationship, including a post which accused Quinn of cheating on him with an influential writer for the Kotaku gaming publication. Gjoni suggested that Quinn had cheated on him to gain publicity and that other non-traditional game developers were similarly undermining gaming journalism. Although Kotaku investigated and found no wrongdoing, Twitter, 4chan, and Reddit users distributed Quinn’s personal information throughout the gaming community and issued threats of rape, attack, and stalking to ridicule her.[5]

A walkthrough of Zoe Quinn’s famous non-traditional game Depression Quest, which simulates the experience and understanding of depression

One 4chan user wrote of Quinn: “Next time she shows up at a [industry] conference we […] give her a crippling injury that’s never going to fully heal […] a good solid injury to the knees. I’d say a brain damage, but we don’t want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us.”[7]

Though GamerGaters maintain that their complaints are purely about ethics in gaming journalism, analyses have shown that most of the tweets carrying the hashtag are directed toward women. Zoe Quinn received 14 times the outraged tweets of the male journalist she had been accused of cheating with.[6] In addition, two feminist gaming critics who have not been accused of ethics violations, Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian, have been bombarded with more tweets erned about the journalists’ actions, and preoccupied instead by resisting alternative and female perspectives on gaming culture. The data suggests that gamers were less concerned about the journalists’ actions, and preoccupied instead by resisting alternative and female perspectives on gaming culture.

brandwatch

A Tweet comparison by Brandwatch that shows the disproportionate volume of #GamerGate related tweets directed at various female journalists and developers

Anita Sarkeesian, a popular feminist critic of all media forms and host of YouTube show and blog Feminist Frequency, released a video during Quinn’s controversy which resulted in her own intense targeting and harassment. Sarkeesian planned to speak at Utah State University in October of 2014 until she received notice that a man wrote to the school threatening to shoot her. He warned, “I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols… there are plenty of feminists on campus who won’t be able to defend themselves.”[8] The incoming threats were so specific that Sarkeesian feared for her life and went into hiding.

anita

Vox Media screenshot of Anita Sarkeesian’s YouTube show Feminist Frequency

Intel’s culpability was questioned after Gamastura, a popular gaming publication and an advertising partner of Intel, published a piece by freelance gaming writer and consultant Leigh Alexander entitled “’Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over.” Alexander criticized the gamers who had harassed Quinn and Sarkeesian, lamented the “high-octane masculinity” perpetuated in gaming, and asked the industry to assume responsibility and quit catering to mainstream perspectives. She argued, “when you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.”[9] In different words, Alexander touches on the notion of industry – individual feedback; she explains that not only did the gaming industry fail to create games that would promote a positive culture for their consumers, but that the industry was complicit in what “spawned” afterwards by continuing to cater to its problematic audience.

“‘Game culture’ as we know it is kind of embarrassing—it’s not even culture.” – Leigh Alexander

meantweets

Screenshots of misogynistic Tweets sent to Anita Sarkeesian at the start of the #GamerGate controversy

GamerGaters, enraged by Alexander’s piece, called on Gamasutra’s advertisers to cancel their campaigns in solidarity with the core consumer base. Intel was bombarded with service support emails and calls from GamerGaters demanding they cease business with Gamasutra, and social media sites filled with lists of sites GamerGaters should ban in solidarity.[10]

Intel removed their advertising campaigns from Gamasutra. GamerGaters rejoiced and publicly released an email they received from Intel in response to their concerns. The email (read below) read, “our ads were not reflective of supporting certain article stances… we have since decided to pull our current ad campaign off Gamasutra.” Intel spokesman, Bill Calder, added in an interview that Intel “[takes] feedback from our customers very seriously, especially as it related to relevant content and ad placements.”[11] Gamasutra confirmed the canceled partnership via Twitter and acknowledged Alexander’s controversial Op-Ed.[12] Intel, in effect, had decided that “relevant content” (to use their own terms) did not include alternative, feminist perspectives. Their separation from Gamasutra very literally implied they did not “support [Alexander’s article] stance,” or the assertion that the industry should be mindful of and discourage the behavior of its fans. Paradoxically, the industry’s claim that it was not liable for gaming culture is at odds with their swift and resolute efforts to demonstrate to their consumers that they would uphold that very kind of content. And Intel’s case was hardly unique – In the same period, Mercedes-Benz and Adobe also dissociated from outlets that had published work by journalists concerned about the culture of gaming.

intelemail

Intel’s customer service email reply to #GamerGate complaints regarding Alexander’s Op-Ed was shared around the Web

 

Gawker editor Max Read stated that reactions like Intel’s “[demonstrate] not that those brands stand against something…but that they stand for nothing.”[13] To fail to so much as comment on or discourage the harassment in their corporate statements is not to remain neutral – at best, it shows a complete ignorance of the relationship between developers, products, and their consumers, and at worst, it is a sign of active disregard for the minority experience. Although Intel eventually released an apology promising that it did not support the harassment of women, it was too late. Intel, as a highly regarded chip manufacturer in the gaming community, serves as an authoritative voice for the corporate world’s perspective. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, their mishandling of GamerGate and dissociation from minority consumer perspectives reaffirmed the status quo.

While public debate has focused heavily on the actions of high profile developers, journalists, and industry players, marginalized gamers have often privately taken it upon themselves to combat individual incidents of bigotry in gaming. Although their efforts show an obvious acknowledgement of the prejudice inherent to the games, they, too, seem to ignore the way the industry and its consumers collude in processes of oppression. Many online communities and forums for marginalized gamers use militaristic or combative language in their discussion and opposition to individual gamers and gaming cohorts like GamerGate.

One of the self-segregating gaming communities Gray explores in her work is called the “Militant Misses” (MM), a group of black women who take “a militant approach in ensuring all of their members [are] are adequately trained” to fight in the games Gears of War and Modern Warfare.[14] The Militant Misses exemplify the combative attitude toward individual experiences of prejudice in gaming. Their space was explicitly “created as practice grounds to prepare fighting males” who teased them, and as an identity through which to separate themselves from women who “sucked.” Group conversations suggest the Militant Misses care more about proving their worth and novelty to males than about critiquing the industry’s culture. The following Xbox conversation illustrates their attitudes:

UReady4War2: Now mzmygrane, when you gon join our clan? I see you

getting better?

 

Mzmygrane: Nah I’m good. I remember playing wit yall one time and yall

got mad at me cuz I couldn’t get no kills.

 

UReady4War2: (Laughing) Well you got yo game up now, so you don’t

have to worry about that.

 

Mzmygrane: But that’s what I’ve been trying to ask you. Why is that so

important to yall?

 

UReady4War2: Because we won’t be taken seriously – duh.

 

Mzmygrane: Taken seriously by who?

 

UReady4War2: Dudes.

 

Mzmygrane: Why is that so important to you? Do you feel you need a man

to confirm who you are?

 

UReady4War2: Hell naw.

 

Mzmygrane: Then what is it. Explain it to me. Your entire thought

process. Why yall practice so much. Why you so mean to the girls? Why

yall won’t play other girl clans?

 

UReady4War2: Ok ok ok chill. Everytime I talk to you, you always

bringing up how women aint taken seriously. You always bring up all that

racist and sexist shit. But you know they only bring that up when they aint

got nothing else to talk about. Seriously, kiki, if you pay attention to when

men do all that shit talking to yall, its because yall pissed them off by

sucking (begins laughing). Nah I’m just joking, kinda. But we aint had no

dudes talk shit to us like that in a long time. They still talk shit, but they

be mad that we just whooped dey ass in the game. We make them mad.

They don’t make us mad anymore.

 

Mzmygrane: But why are you so hard on women who just want to play for

fun – like me?

 

UReady4War2: Because there is a solution. There’s a way to not

experience all that negative shit. Just get better at the game. Why

wouldn’t you do that?

 

Mzmygrane: Because I shouldn’t have to. Guys don’t have this burden.

We do. And you are putting it back on us to deal with the burden. We’re

not the problem. They are.

 

UReady4War2: Fair enough. Just be ready to still be called bitch

(laughing).

UReady4War2, a member of MM, tries to convince “Mzmygrane” that getting better at gaming is the best way to avoid the humiliation and “negative shit” they get from men. As a means of protecting themselves, MM even excludes other female gamers out of fear that they “won’t be taken seriously.” Despite having been hurt by harassment and marginalization from males, UReady4War2 seeks to replicate those exclusionary practices. Paradoxically, MM combats inequalities in gaming by actually reinforcing them – the onus is on unskilled women to prove themselves in order to escape harassment by men. Although the very existence of the group is proof of their acknowledgement of the prejudice inherent to gaming, they ignore the processes of industry – consumer oppression and remain strangely complicit in them.

Although the popular Tumblr “Fuck NO Video Games” (FNVG) is far less militaristic than MM, it, too, focuses more on self-protection strategies than industry and structural criticism. FNVG devotes a great deal of its posts to protecting its readers against mistreatment online and to refuting the arguments of GamerGaters and bigots. Though it self-describes as “an independent blog keeping you up-to-date on toxic behavior and offensive content (sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and more) in the games industry,” its postings focus not on combating corporate players like Intel, but individual consumers groups. A recent post reads:

“Posters from 4chan’s /pol/ board are planning to flood trans-specific Tumblr tags with transphobic abuse, slurs, and gore to trigger suicidal ideation. Everyone should exercise extreme caution when browsing these tags:

transgender

transphobia

transmisogyny

trans

gender non-conforming

It’s possible that this flooding will extend into other related tags, and that abusers will attempt to harass people more directly. You may want to consider disabling anonymous asks and submissions, shoring up your security, and taking steps to mitigate doxxing.

Take care of yourselves, everyone.”

This community warning is similar to the kind of self-segregated activities described in Krishonna Gray’s work. The readers of FNVG combat prejudice by creating a semi-private space where they can issue communal advisories and “exercise extreme caution.” Language like “exercise caution” and “take care of yourselves” implies that the marginalized readers of the Tumblr see themselves as participating in a gaming community that carries the ever-present threat of harm and harassment directed at their identities. But their responses do not include opting-out of the community or boycotting the industry, they are concentrated on efforts to protect themselves. This approach has obvious practical and cathartic benefits, but also fundamentally misses the big, two-sided picture: prejudice in gaming is produced and reproduced at the corporate and individual level.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 9.09.31 AM

This is a screenshot of FNVG’s peer Tumblr “Why I Need Diverse Games.” The Tumblr’s icon uses the symbol of black power to communicate its alternative, underground identity and symbolize its protestations

Another blog example is The Bigot Gamer, a site devoted to outing gaming bigots by asking followers to record their experiences and send them to the site. Videos of racist, sexist, and homophobic interactions are categorized and shared and the player names of the perpetrators exposed. The Bigot Gamer calls itself “a social experiment” to prove “bigotry is alive and thriving… when people think they are anonymous.” On the surface, the Bigot Gamer, like MM, seems to engage in self-affirming action to resist intolerance. However, the strategy of the public expose appears to replicate the exact kind of aggressive, degrading behavior of The Bigot Gamer’s own adversaries. “Embarrassed? Personally, we hope so” the site says in its About Me section. In addition, The Bigot Gamer overtly asserts its disinterest in a thorough examination of the gaming culture: “we are not trying to stop discrimination in the gaming world. We’re just trying to expose it in easy, click-able links.” Though, again, forums like this one likely provide their followers and fans with a safe and therapeutic space, they ultimately do little to dismantle the processes of oppression endemic to gaming.

The Bigot Gamer’s blog and YouTube channel use short clips and recordings of gaming experiences to out intolerant gamers. Though many of its followers find solidarity and support in the exposes, the tactic ultimately resembles the kinds of humiliating behaviors that stereotypically problematic gamers engage in. 

My examination of industry and individual-level understandings of prejudice in gaming shows that an inability to recognize the various colluding and complicit forces in the community is what defers earnest action by companies like Intel and prevents gamers from comprehensively resisting their circumstances. Recognition of the active and self-perpetuating processes of oppression outlined by Nakamura is missing from much of the typical discussion about gaming, and even the most militantly opposed to the inequalities have failed to protest it effectively. The companies and developers as well as their consumers lack an understanding of how an industry and its participants cooperate in a feedback system. Although both sides acknowledge the existence of prejudice, they are hesitant to admit to or to challenge the fact that the relationship between the developers, their products, and the consumers forms a system of status quo reinforcement. Perhaps the gaming debate should graduate from he-said-she-said, good versus evil, and condemnatory discourse and examine critically the culpability of all of its community members.

[1] “Racism and Sexism in the Gaming World: Reinforcing or Changing Stereotypes in Computer Games?” Journal of Media and Communication Studies 3 (2011): 212-20.Academic Journals. Web.

[2] Gray, Kishonna. “Deviant Bodies Resisting Online: Examining the Intersecting Realities of Women of Color in Xbox Live.” Diss. ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, 2011. Print.

[3] Nakamura, Lisa. (2012) Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital. Ada: a Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No. 1.

[4] Van DerWerff, Todd. “#GamerGate: Here’s Why Everybody in the Video Game World Is Fighting.” Vox. Vox Media, 13 Oct. 2014. Web.

[5] Van DerWerff, Todd. “#GamerGate: Here’s Why Everybody in the Video Game World Is Fighting.” Vox. Vox Media, 13 Oct. 2014. Web.

[6] Wofford, Taylor. “Is GamerGate About Media Ethics or Harassing Women? Harassment, the Data Shows.” Newsweek. Newsweek LLC, 25 Oct. 2014. Web.

[7] Pearl, Mike. “Zoe Quinn Told Us What Being Targeted by Every Troll in the World Feels Like.” VICE. Vice Media Inc, 12 Sept. 2014. Web.

[8] Dahl, Julia. “”Gamergate,” Guns and Threats against Women Collide in Utah.”CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 17 Oct. 2014. Web.

[9] Alexander, Leigh. “‘Gamers’ Don’t Have to Be Your Audience. ‘Gamers’ Are Over.” Gamasutra. UBM TECH, 28 Aug. 2014. Web.

[10] Van DerWerff, Todd. “#GamerGate: Here’s Why Everybody in the Video Game World Is Fighting.” Vox. Vox Media, 13 Oct. 2014. Web.

[11] Wingfield, Nick. “Intel Pulls Ads From Site After ‘Gamergate’ Boycott.” New York Times Bits Blog. The New York Times Company, 2 Oct. 2014. Web.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kantrowitz, Alex. “How Brands Should React to Gamergate: Don’t.” Advertising Age Digital RSS. Advertising Age, 24 Oct. 2014. Web.

[14] Gray, Kishonna. “Deviant Bodies Resisting Online: Examining the Intersecting Realities of Women of Color in Xbox Live.” Diss. ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, 2011. Print.

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