Why are political criticisms of video games so often treated as declarations of war?
Gamers may understandably find the question of politics to be rather tiring. To debate whether or not video games are political is, in itself, an exercise in politics, insofar as debate is the process by which the limits of acceptable speech and criticism are negotiated by the community of of discourse. But if the debate about video games is intrinsically political, what kind of politics are we talking about? And if war, as Clausewitz said, is politics by other means, then what is the connection between video games and war?
Some gamers not only object to considering video games political, they object to reading video games politically. They reject both feminist and queer readings of video games and the presence of explicitly feminist or queer things in them. One player got so upset by the inclusion of a transgender NPC (non player character) in the recent expansion of the game Baldur’s Gate that he uploaded a video of him killing the character. After conversing with the NPC, the player directs his party to attack her. Graphically, she is torn to pieces. The video is titled “Tranny Abuse” and has over 30,000 views. This gamer rejected politics by turning to war.
Those who question why women in video games are scantily clad in the heat of battle, or bent into literally back-breaking poses, are frequently dismissed as reading too closely. The anti-political appeal to what John Huizinga called “the separateness of play” (“why do you have to analyze it? It’s just a game”) not only becomes part of a struggle to negotiate the boundaries of acceptable speech about video games but it also frames the boundaries of acceptable experience of the game itself.
The most notable example of the gamer war against politics is the criticism and harassment critic Anita Sarkeesian faced when she began a web series on Youtube called Tropes Vs Women in Video Games. In these videos, Sarkeesian analyzes various tropes that designers of video games often appeal to in the creation of female characters. They present an analysis similar to what one might find in an undergraduate gender or media studies class. Despite this, she received such a flood of vitriol that she was forced to temporarily flee her home. War games shut down politics.
Critics of video games are not only deemed killjoys who are not only unable to enjoy games; they are viewed as existential threats to video games, justifying symbolic and actual violence. The act of criticism is treated as a declaration of war. And, this language of warfare is important. War talk legitimizes the mobilization of hordes of trolls in order to fight back in the war on video games and the enemy in this culture war are the Social Justice Warriors, a pejorative based on a caricature of socially progressive and feminist views. The warriors are organized into a feminist army, who collaborate to create false allegations of sexism or create a protectionist racket.
Harassers even speak of false flag operations, where victims of harassment are accused of faking the harassment for attention and money. When a group of people coordinate attacks on a particular person or forum, it’s called brigading.
The conflation between war and social justice allows gamers to perceive criticisms as clarion calls. Forums and subreddits become the battlegrounds where the culture war is waged while doxing (the publication of personal and identifying information) becomes espionage and military intelligence.
When your critics are warriors, violence becomes acceptable and normalized. Soldiers are expected to be casualties and character assassination borders on the real.
The pejorative use of SJW points to a rather disturbing characteristic of these purist gamers: creating a link between war and cultural critique, with a heavy dose of misogyny. Originally coined as a compliment, only in the past few years has the term Social Justice Warrior become an insult. It gained mainstream popularity during Gamergate. In short, the SJW is any individual or group (usually women) who holds, and is vocal about, socially progressive or liberal views. In practice, the insult is levied at any sort of feminist criticism of game design, development, gameplay, and/or the social practices of gamers and communities which someone disagrees with. These SJWs make up the feminist army, an army that takes only offense, not prisoners.
Conflicts like GamerGate were organized by relatively small groups of gamers who search for and manipulate information in order to attack perceived enemies. These enemies are almost always women and minorities and the attacks overwhelmingly feature gendered threats of violence and rape. While Gamergate as a named movement seems to have subsided, its supporters are still heavily invested in harassing women in the video game and tech industries and it seems to have morphed into a neo-reactionary movement poised to quickly jump on any new perceived threats.
What are the results of such movements? Death threats. Rape threats. One person threatened to massacre the attendees of a talk Sarkeesian gave (she canceled it). Doxing. Bomb threats. Others have lost their jobs. In a note explaining why she dropped a lawsuit against her harasser, game developer Zoe Quinn said that she received an “almost one foot stack of threats and photos of me that people had printed out, jizzed on, and sent to my family.”
Do these voices speak for all gamers? Ian Bogost writes that the proliferation of video games into the wider public sphere is leading to a breakdown of the gamer as an identity category. The boundaries of the identity change not only as more people begin to play games but we realize that people traditionally excluded from being gamers have been playing all along. As gamers seek to navigate their unraveling identity in the face of new players and critics, tension increases and violence ensues. And, as many have observed, the policing of group boundaries seems to be fiercest around the periphery.
But, I’m not sure if this policing of identity is enough to account for the level of vitriol and hate that is directed at critics. It’s one thing to let people know you are dissatisfied. It’s quite another to send mountains of death threats. China Miéville (s/o to Jennifer Doyle for this reference) might describe this as social sadism – the proliferation and excess of public cruelty.”Anyone who doubts that everyday surplus sadism is everyday need only read the comments below the articles, follow threads, brave twitterstorms.” What makes this form of sadism so pernicious is the speed at which it excuses itself: shifting the grounds (“its about ethics in gaming journalism), downplaying the abuse (“it’s only words on the Internet”). It’s not only the boundaries of the gamer identity that are shifting, but the “boundaries of permissible punitivity are constantly stretched.”
The excuses act as a veil of plausible deniability, which the gaming purists drape over their acts of violence. As Miéville notes, the veil is extremely thin and meant to be uncovered, which is what makes dog-whistle politics successful. Just a trace of deniability is enough for the tactic to work. The war against SJWs is waged not only through violence but through the manipulation of the language surrounding it. And it’s in these excuses, the shifting grounds, where we find Michel Foucault’s reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum: politics is war by other means.