I love video games. I think video games are the pinnacle of entertainment, maybe even culture. Video games could change the world, make it a better and more inclusive place. We haven’t even scratched the surface of the medium’s potential and I think the coming years are going to be very exciting.
One more time; I love video games, and yet, increasingly, they don’t always make it easy for me to do so.
It’s been a wretched week in online gaming discourse, the lowest point being the reports of the dozens of videos containing photosensitivity triggers, masquerading as support, sent to Game Informer associate editor Liana Ruppert, for the crime of writing a piece warning players of the risk of epileptic seizures in the forthcoming and hugely anticipated Cyberpunk 2077.
This sort of toxicity stopped shocking me years ago. It’s now been six-years since Gamergate, the online harassment campaign – which predominantly targetted female and non-binary developers and games journalists – that centred on issues of sexism and anti-progressivism in video game culture. Perhaps one day, we will see threads running from Gamergate right through the four years of cruelty and misery that have characterised the Trump/Pence administration, but today is not that day.
Let’s wade through the swamp of the last few years. There was the sad incident of Ooblets in mid-2019, where developers of the cutesy farm-sim, Rebecca Cordingley and Ben Wasser, were bombarded with online harassment after announcing their title would be an Epic Games Store exclusive at launch. “We’ve been getting thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hateful, threatening messages across every possible platform nonstop,” said Cordingley’s Patreon. One of these messages was a photoshopped tweet, said to be from Wasser, that declared “gamers would be better off in gas chambers”.
Much of this problem stems from entitlement, predominantly from white men, enraged that a medium which for years was marketed exclusively at them is now welcoming in other genders, other voices and other cultures. Think of the fury that accompanied The Last Of Us Part II earlier this year; so many within the white male subset were furious at Naughty Dog for including who they assumed to be a trans character (Abby) – and that’s before the inclusion of a lesbian Jew (Dina).
The video games industry itself needs to accept some responsibility for the state of play today. The feminist commentator Anita Sarkeesian, a targeted voice during the aforementioned Gamergate and creator of the fantastic ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’ series on YouTube, explains: “The games industry has catered to men and boys for so long. But it wasn’t always that way. In the early days of arcades, whole families would go together. Women were involved in the development of early games. But that shifted in the ’90s with the super-sexist advertising that took place both in print and commercials.”
“I remember a commercial for PlayStation 1,” she continues. “There’s a man playing and he locks his girlfriend in the closet. He’s sitting on the couch with Lara Croft. I mean, what? So there was a massive shift in the marketing, targeting boys and men, and a shift in the games targeting boys and men, very specifically. This massive industry was targeting one demographic with hardly any pushback or resistance.”
That dream I had of video games bringing us closer together? It’s possible, but we’re miles away from that happening. Recently, Respawn Entertainment’s senior game designer Daniel Klein wrote of his experiences in interacting with players of his company’s title Apex Legends, on the subreddit devoted to their free-to-play FPS.
“My spouse has had nearly daily emails sent to their entirely non-gaming employer, yelling that they should be fired, they’re a paedophile or whatever,” he said. “My spouse’s parents were doxed and a swatting was attempted, I’ve had people send me photoshopped images of execution victims with my face swapped in… it’s rough.” He goes on to say that it’s wrong, in this climate, for video game companies to ask employees to engage with their games’ communities. Hard to argue, really.
When I hear about these incidents, of which I’ve outlined just a handful, I wonder how we lost sight of what video games were always supposed to be – which is fun. I wonder about these incidents and I despair. And I wonder how we can ever get back to respect and to tolerance, let alone, fun.