It’s difficult to talk about the evolution of bullying without the word “technology” falling from your lips. These days, they go hand in hand. Cyberbullying and trolling, two terms that garnered increased public awareness in the 2010s, come to mind.
As technology advances so too does cyber-bullying, which is arguably the most treacherous appendage of the bullying beast, as it is often performed anonymously. The victim’s ability to “escape” the claws of the troll(s) requires more than walking off the playground, so to speak, or removing oneself from a social media platform or website. Technology has enabled trolls to anonymously target victims and ultimately render a victim’s voice into silence, or worse, cause victims to flee their homes and jobs for fear of being physically attacked, raped, killed or, more recently, being “swatted”—having a SWAT team sent to your house, called in by trolls reporting a fake crime. Reminders of these internet atrocities can be found in many technology sectors, including the video game industry. GamerGate is perhaps the most recent (and appalling) example.
Chris Suellentrop has written about video games and penned reviews for numerous outlets including the New York Times, NPR, Rolling Stone and Kotaku. He has likened video games to the most promising form of entertainment since the arrival of the interactive age. In 2014, in a piece he wrote for the New York Times entitled “Can Video Games Survive?”, Suellentrop questions the role that GamerGate and similar movements will play in the future of gaming. GamerGate, an online movement, targeted those who, according to Suellentrop, were trying to “cram liberal politics into video games” and crescendoed into a loud cacophony of violent threats, online shaming, hate campaigns and harassment against women and people of color in the field. Men were targeted as well, but women and people of color have undeniably taken the majority of the blows from trolls.
In response to GamerGate, Leigh Alexander wrote a piece for Gamasutra wherein she iterates that “video games themselves were discovered by strange, bright outcast pioneers…” So what happened to these pioneers? Alexander posits that there was a consumerism-derived turning point where these so-called pioneers got swept into an undercurrent of believing they were in fact “the world’s most special-est consumer demographic.” And on the surface, invisible to the “chosen ones,” games and their creators were changing, broadening the scope of what the industry and outsiders alike considered good games. The industry was becoming more inclusive, resulting in unrest from those who felt that the industry was theirs to create, own and ultimately decide who was welcome.
Those responsible for the GamerGate movement desire the removal of intellectual criticism from games altogether. As Suellentrop notes, these “anti-intellectual players” are up in arms about political and social criticism. They have even gone so far as to request the termination of those who openly critique games which portray women in an unsatisfactory or stereotypical light. Carolyn Petit, a GameSpot critic, complained—rightfully so—about the portrayal of female characters in Grand Theft Auto V. Soon after, GamerGate began a petition to have Petit fired. Unsurprisingly, male critics with similar views to Petit weren’t put on the chopping block.
The three names most often dropped in connection with GamerGate harassment are Zoë Quinn, Leigh Alexander and Anita Sarkeesian. Quinn, a game designer, was targeted for her design of Depression Quest—a game that made mental illness the focus of the story and was generally well-received. Posited as a “social justice warrior,” Quinn and others like her were targeted for what bullies in the gaming world saw as a threat. Heaven forbid non-traditional gamers desire a more inclusive industry that plugs realistic character portrayals of women and minorities into games.
Sarkeesian, interested in exploring tropes in video games throughout history, launched a Kickstarter campaign entitled “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” with the goal of exploring “five common and recurring stereotypes of female characters in video games” in a video series dubbed Feminist Frequency. Sarkeesian’s initial goal of six thousand dollars was exceeded by roughly 153 thousand bucks. The series saw an outpouring of supporters matched by an equal number of haters. No surprise there. The initial series included five videos which explore the Damsel in Distress trope, among others. What ensued was an onslaught of “digital stoning,” a term penned by Cliff Bleszinski in his article, “If Video Games Are Going to Grow Up, Then the Bullying Needs to Stop.” Post-release of her series, a flash game was created by an internet bully in which you can digitally beat Sarkeesian’s face into a bruised and bloody pulp. While there are numerous “Punch (famous person’s name) in The Face” creations, these flash games are a testament to the bullying atmosphere that has permeated gaming culture.
We all have a responsibility when it comes to online abuse. What we do—or rather, what we don’t do—billows the flames of hate in cyberspace. It’s easy to spew hostility behind a screen of anonymity, easy to remain faceless while typing words of detest behind the barrier of your keyboard. The phrase, “Ay, there’s the rub,” made famous by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is appropriate here. This bullying behavior undoubtedly impedes the forward, inclusive momentum of the gaming industry, an industry with the ability to enhance creative expression. Gaming, in some ways, remains captive in the hands of a group determined to bully diversity, cross-culturalism and inclusiveness out of the gaming industry—at any cost.