Taste Privilege and GamerGate

Jason Mittell's picture

[I know this has been a dormant site for months, and I have a draft post called “Too Busy to Blog” explaining why & what I’ve been up to, but I’ve not had time to finish it! But I just had some thoughts that are TLFT (too long for Twitter) that I wanted to throw out there. So here you go…]

I have been following the so-called #GamerGate story fairly closely (for strong overviews/analyses of what this story is all about, read this or this or this). In large part, my interest stems from having taught my first videogames course last semester, where we watched the Feminist Frequency “Tropes vs. Women” videos and read about the first wave of backlash against creator/critic Anita Sarkeesian, as well as exploring games & writings by women critics & independent developers. In that class, the reluctant and defensive reactions from some of my male students, and the resulting frustrations of some of my female students, was a pedagogical minefield that I tried to navigate effectively, but never felt like I fully engaged the issues sufficiently. Although my students never ventured into hate speech and misogyny, some of the less hateful GamerGate discourse feels like it comes from a similar place, with a palpable anxiety and discomfort in reaction to a feminist critique of games and presence of women within game culture – that type of anxiety rarely gets expressed when I explore similar issues about television and film.

What I find inexplicable about such anxiety, which has triggered verbal violence, digital vandalism, and serious threats of physical harm, is why challenging gender representations and calling to broaden the types of games that get made & praised should matter so much to consumers of the current mainstream. Obviously, outright misogyny should be condemned rather than explained, but I do think there is something to be gained by trying to understand the more mild and less overtly hateful GamerGate expressions—not to justify the movement in any way, but to try to figure out how we might engage in conversation and education. Sarkeesian’s excellent videos are quite measured in their approach to games as a medium, and clearly aim to educate over censoring. And yet so many people react as if they are being personally attacked, or if somehow Sarkeesian or other feminist critics are legitimately threatening to take away their toys. While there’s nothing rational about misogyny, I don’t think the defensiveness I saw in my students came from that hateful place, nor do I think all people supporting the idea of GamerGate are motivated by misogyny (although those who are attacking Sarkeesian, Quinn, Wu and other women in gaming clearly are). Why would people get so worked up about such critiques to warrant such activism, spending a massive amount of time and energy to campaign for something as ultimately pointless as “improved ethics in game journalism” (especially since there are so many more pressing ethical issues in gaming)? Why does it matter to them so much?

Here’s my current working theory: these gamers are blinded by taste privilege.

What do I mean by “taste privilege,” a phrase I’ve not seen referenced elsewhere (but please let me know if you’ve seen similar usage, as this is a concept I’d like to explore more in my research)? There are many different ways to define and conceptualize privilege, but one that makes sense for me (as a person of privilege) is that privilege is the freedom to not notice difference. In most contexts, I’m perfectly able to imagine that my experiences are shared, commonplace norms, rather than defined by my identity in ways that other people would experience differently. There is rarely a consequence for me to assume that other people see the world as I do, sharing the same access, rights, and freedoms. Basically, privilege is the freedom to ignore your own privilege.

It seems pretty obvious how such privilege operates over axes of difference like gender, race, sexuality, and class – the U.S. works with an assumed norm of straight, white, men with economic means. As someone who fits that bill, it’s easy to ignore the way that other people are disenfranchised by our system, while those outside that norm notice those barriers and structural obstacles all the time. So if you have privilege, the default is to be simply unaware of it – that’s not an act of malice, but one of ignorance. It takes lots of ongoing work and education to recognize your own privilege, and even more work to see the world outside your own experience.

So what does this have to do with taste? If you’re part of the dominant norm and your cultural tastes are either mainstream or affirmed by a sizable & valued group, you have taste privilege – you are free to ignore that other people experience that culture differently. Popular culture is structured by taste privilege, where the privileged audience is targeted and others are taken for granted, or given marginalized options. For instance, children’s media has long been guided by the assumption that girls will watch boy-centered texts, but boys will not watch girl-centered ones; thus girl viewers must learn to find places for themselves in boy-centric media, while boys with taste privilege never need to learn that skill. Similarly, television has frequently offered highly successful programs or channels targeting African-American or Spanish-speaking viewers—taste privilege is the ability to claim to be well-versed in mainstream television without acknowledging or even being aware of the huge popularity of Tyler Perry’s programs or Univision. While writing this post, I found another great example of taste privilege in reactionary action: although he doesn’t use the phrase, this piece by Arthur Chu hits at similar concepts quite well, focused on the parallel between GamerGate and the anti-disco movement of the late-1970s.

Because both privilege and intense commitment to your taste breed righteousness, the commonplace reaction when people who disagree with your privileged taste is dismissal, writing them off with “they just don’t get it.” But what happens when that disagreement expands into outright critique, and other forms of culture feel like they are getting more attention and validation than your own? Dismissal can morph into defensiveness, communal reinforcement of your shared tastes, and lashing out in anger toward those who seem to be “threatening” your privilege to be unaware of difference. If such anger clusters into a community, it will attract the truly hateful violent voices like those who have committed acts of terrorism and abuse in the name of GamerGate.

There is no rational reason that gamers would see positive reviews of experimental games like Depression Quest or Sarkeesian’s critiques of gender representations in gaming as a legitimate threats to the dominance of mainstream male-centered games within the marketplace—any more than gay marriages “threaten” straight marriages or women getting equal pay to men “threatens” male employment. Certainly my first reaction to reading GamerGate griping was “why on earth does this matter to you so much?” But we need to remember that all of these cultural shifts or policies make privilege visible to the privileged: when your unspoken norm is spoken, it loses its assumed, invisible status, and this feels like a threat. That revelation of privilege can hurt, as people with such privilege have not had a lifetime of experience processing the role of difference and inequality, so it can feel like a sudden shock to the system and disruption of your assumptions. You put that sense of shock, threat and hurt into a community defined by a love for a medium foregrounding violent simulations, anonymous smack talk, and demeaning representations of people outside the dominant norm, you get GamerGate.

Here’s the good news: education and experience help. I’ve seen this with my students, my friends, myself. We should remember that acting on privilege is not an neither an act of malice, nor an excuse for acting with malice. Engaging the conversation with people who are willing and able to listen is the best hope we have for freezing out those who are not, as evidenced with some examples linked from this piece. That’s why I think Sarkeesian is a hero: in the face of hatred, violence, and threats of physical harm, she continues to educate and engage the conversation.

In that spirit, I welcome productive, civil conversation below.

Filed under: Representations, Taste, Videogames Tagged: gamergate, misogyny, privilege

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Fri, 17 Oct 2014 17:19:27 +0000