Crashing GamerGate

Curator's Note

This post is about a controversy in video games identified by the Twitter hashtag GamerGate that has been taking place online since August. To read background information, click here for articles chronicling GamerGate.

The controversies surrounding the ‘gamer’ identity undergirding GamerGate are reminiscent of the 1990s culture wars in the US, when the politicization of identity made social hierarchies domains of conflict. Now, like then, the politics of representation have been seized upon as the principal tool for policing acceptable social participation, are wielded to construct power blocs, and used to brand actors as either aggressors or victims. It is not surprising that American Enterprise Institute commentator Christina Hoff Sommers has reprised her role as the “factual feminist” darling of conservative voices by jumping into the GamerGate fray to denounce growing criticism of the image of women in games. Following the publication of her 1994 book, Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women, Sommers rose to fame for condemning “gender feminists” whom she claimed had abandoned the civil and legal equality rights goals of First Wave “equity feminists” in favor of a social and cultural agenda set to challenge gender roles and dismantle patriarchy at the expense of boys and men.

Just a few weeks into GamerGate, Sommers posted this video, which is, principally, a retort to feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series. Despite no previous affiliation with gamers, Sommers’ entry into the controversy was enthusiastically received and widely shared among GamerGate supporters. She was crowned the “Based Mom” of GamerGate, a title of affection and esteem.

Sommers does not care about video games; she admits having not played a game since the 1980s. Nevertheless, she crashed GamerGate in order to trumpet “equity feminism” by simplifying positions on both sides of the controversy, and simultaneously praising the diversity of gamers while also collapsing players into a stereotype-driven market segment. Her comments in this video are drawn from the same playbook she outlined 20 years ago: She reifies gender essentialism in order to argue for the protection of the status quo, and she reframes calls for inclusivity and diversity as the hysterics of “gender activists” hell bent on the destruction of heterosexual male culture. It’s a retro game she is playing that has found willing players in GamerGate.

Comments

Kishonna Gray's picture

What planet is she on?

Ok she looked at the literature but did she actually look at the games (i think this is gonna make me mad)

new army of critiques? is this what we are now?

this woman is crazy - dont nobody want male video game culture to die. we just want to be a part.

this is so dangerous for the work we do.

my thoughts watching the video - i have to remove my anger and will return with a more profound response.

nina - you are spot on with your analysis.

Matt Smith's picture

Wow

I’ve largely avoided the weird neoconservative responses to GamerGate, but I was aware of Sommers because it was widely shared among supporters of GamerGate. Frankly, I find the whole ordeal with her (and others, like Adam Baldwin) extremely bizarre. While Baldwin’s statements on the issue can be dismissed as just another male misogynist voice howling into the hashtag about…something…Sommers’s video seems to be the last refuge for many within GamerGate.

The thing I find the most odd about the appeal her video has had is that she is, down to the lack of interest in video games, exactly what the most vitriolic commentators and GamerGate activists hate about the feminist critique of their games. As if we needed something else about the “movement” that wasn’t founded in any logical or legitimate critique of, well, anything anyone has done or said.

Jessica Aldred's picture

Retrogaming feminism

She reifies gender essentialism in order to argue for the protection of the status quo, and she reframes calls for inclusivity and diversity as the hysterics of “gender activists” hell bent on the destruction of heterosexual male culture. It’s a retro game she is playing that has found willing players in GamerGate.”

Bravo, and exactly right. I must admit that I struggled, upon initial viewing, to pinpoint what infuriated me most about her “argument” - which, as you have all rightly pointed out, is not grounded in any substantive engagement - nay, any engagement at all - with games or game culture. No, what troubles me most is the smooth, reassuring condescension of her rhetoric - as a performance, it’s presumably meant to stand in contrast with the so-called hysterics of the “gender activists” she dismisses, to calm those who feel threatened by even the most innocuous attempts at inclusivity and diversity, and to wish it all away with the sweep of a well-manicured hand; “what *is* all the fuss about, anyway?” Perhaps, in addition to the retrograde content, it’s the tone of this performance that resonates most with certain GamerGaters?

Amanda Phillips's picture

Coopting the affects of social justice

Jessica, I think you’re exactly right here that so much of GG is actually about affective performance, and it is so frustrating to confront because of the way it coopts not only the logical structures of social justice activism, but its affects as well. Just switch out key terms and you have an instant argument that feels difficult to respond to because it has distilled the legitimate grievances of oppressed populations and applied them to other communities without the same histories of disenfranchisement. Certainly the experience feels the same to them, but the context is quite different. And yet, it is difficult to explain to someone that their pain and frustration is different from someone else’s.

This seems to be a hazard of relying so heavily on emotional rhetoric and personal experiences to ground justice. The personal is a crucial component of the political, of course, but personal experience is the easiest part for exploitative groups like GG to rip off.

I was at ASA this weekend, and one question that really stuck with me occurred during a great roundtable about Tumblr and the academy - one of the speakers asked whether Tumblr is the new MOOC. I don’t go to bat for institutions all that often, but one thing that the structure of the institutional classroom offers us is the chance to ensure that students understand the breadth and history of the concepts that we’re teaching them. The wide circulation of social justice concepts and language online is, I think, beneficial on the whole, but it also seems to separate discourse from the deep historical and cultural contexts from which it emerges, making it more vulnerable to cooptation.

#gamergate, moms, and intergenerational conflict

Thank you so much Nina, for kicking off this week with a complex entry to the #gamergate controversy that highlights the presence of self-identified feminists on both sides. The malleability of “feminism” as a signifier has long allowed anti-feminists like Sommers to market themselves through a feminist brand while denouncing other self-identified feminists as “counterproductive.”

Your post comparing this video’s set of concerns to the “culture wars” that have defined American news broadcasting since the 1990s got me thinking about the binary of gamers vs. women in this video, a structure that recalls Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women.” While Sarkeesian contrasts representations of women across media with the experiences of women outside representational media, Sommers’ video sets masculine gamers in opposition to a variety of hysterical feminized critics, including “teachers,” “concernocrats,” and “moms.”

This construction reminds me of Lisa Nakamura’s recent talk at the Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon) on the online discourse of the Social Justice Warrior (SJW). The SJW as Other is a casual or unskilled gamer, who is imagined as inappropriately feminine either through excessive emotion, excessive education, or excessive sexual display. The appropriate “very cool” female gamer, as also discussed by Nakamura, must continuously prove her coolness through virtuosic displays of hard-core gaming and passing within Western masculine norms of logic and common sense. Nakamura discusses the SJW as a queer woman of color, though of course queerness, race, and racism are left off the table when “feminist” debates are structured according to the colorblind gender binary operating in Sommers’ video.

By framing Sarkeesian as a SJW, Sommers implies that she is a “non-gamer” by virtue of being a woman. However, Sarkeesian is a self-identified gamer, who has evidently spent hours playing out even the most violent optional game content in the most popular game titles, in order to remix this content into a stream of violent and sexualized images for her series. If it were not for her criticism of games and game culture, Sarkeesian might be one of those “cool women” Sommers refers to as the female minority of gaming culture.

Sommers’ appeal lies in the fact that she is NOT a “cool woman” or a gamer, however. As you discuss above, she is a “mom,” and her status as “based mom,” or sometimes “senpai” (“I hope senpai notices me”), frames Sommers as a mentor or caretaker for #gamergate, as opposed to a member of the movement.

Sommers’ claim to have not played a video game since the 1980s frames her as a more genuine “woman” in a binary where women/femininity and gamers are in opposition. In the “retro game” of #gamergate (thanks for this apt comparison!) Sommers plays the character of a permissive mom who would let her son play any games he wants, for however long he pleases. Of course the Other to the permissive gaming-friendly mom is the critical girlfriend, whose claims to gaming authenticity are belied by her offense at games’ sexist content (Anita Sarkeesian), and/or her desire to play or make non-AAA games (Zoe Quinn).

This seeming virgin/whore dichotomy is made more complex by its generational politics, within which enlightened boomer moms relate to enlightened/”sensitive” millennial men (“friendzoned” MRAs?), while the feminized millennials of anxieties about selfies and self-absorption are imagined as behind the times, critiquing the boomer-influenced computer culture of their fathers.

This discourse, laced with the affect of adolescent intergenerational conflict, continues to portray gaming as an infantilized medium by and for adolescents (either physically or emotionally), not a sophisticated art medium.

Some game designers have disidentified with the label “video games,” just as graphic novelists distance themselves from “comic books,” for this very reason. However, distinctions like these are highly classed, and, like the pornography/erotica split, imply that the only realm artists and intellectuals should care about is that of minority high culture, while mass culture is unredeemable and therefore beyond consideration.

Thanks again for this thought-provoking video and comment. I look forward to discussing all these issues in more detail throughout the week!

Nina Huntemann's picture

Thank you all for jumping in

Thank you all for jumping in with comments this first post in our theme week! Each of your comments resonates with why I was unable to easily dismiss her video (and the second one on Gamergate and ethics -ugh- that she since posted). She deftly crafts herself an outsider-inside position, and has leveraged that well.

Like you Matt, my reaction when I first saw this video was surprise at the swift adoration she received from GG supporters. A female critic who admits little to no experience with games would otherwise be harassed out of the room. And to Jessica’s point, Sommers’ performance it central to understanding how she is positioning herself, especially at the moment when she acknowledges critics have made “some good points” (3:40). That tone is so dismissive.

Thank you Diana for bringing into the discussion Lisa Nakamura’s recent talk. I hadn’t heard her take on SJWs as other, but is seems very helpful toward theorizing how Anita as gamer is unacceptable and Sommers’ as non-gamer is embraced. She may not be the girl friend gamer you always dreamed of, but she definitely is the cool mom.

Looking forward to the rest of the week!

Amanda Phillips's picture

GG & Race

I also appreciated that Diana brought in Nakamura’s talk from GQCon, and I’d like to push it further to clarify that Nakamura was specifically referring to the language of foreignness and immigration when discussing how GGers other their critics. “They’re not from around here.” She made an analogy between the behavior of “good” and “bad” gamers and movements of assimilation, like the Talented Tenth, in civil rights movements. This didn’t sit entirely well with some of the audience, but I really enjoyed her point that we seem to be reaching a place in gamer culture where playing by the rules/assimilating is finally recognized on a broader scale as ineffectual, even while many gamers are still adhering to those strategies. It’s a really seductive fantasy.

Diana’s observation that Sommers deploys specifically nonracial (used here in favor of “colorblind”) rhetorics of feminism is really important when you consider the ways that race circulates, mostly unremarked upon (except to call GGers white boys), in GG discourse. Amongst the other terrible things leveraged against critics like Sarkeesian in particular, there were racist caricatures created and circulated which I won’t link to here. #notyourshield was a farce to preempt critiques about the lack of diversity in the GG movement. It’s no coincidence that based mom is a white woman spouting nonracial feminism: the archetype that she evokes, even the virgin/whore dichotomy that Diana recognizes at work here, is predicated upon white femininity. So is the protective orientation that the community takes toward her.

I’m also aware of another dynamic of these conversations, which Nakamura pointed out to vigorous crowd snapping: there’s a way in which GG forces us to recenter our attention on the “pathologies of particular straight white males” (quoted from a live tweet). I wonder if we could have a conversation about this, as well.

Diana Pozo's picture

"pathologies of particular SWM"

Thank you so much for taking up and clarifying Nakamura’s points on race, civil rights history, and the construction of the SJW.

I’m also aware of another dynamic of these conversations, which Nakamura pointed out to vigorous crowd snapping: there’s a way in which GG forces us to recenter our attention on the “pathologies of particular straight white males” (quoted from a live tweet). I wonder if we could have a conversation about this, as well.”

This point is so crucial to thinking about the structure of online debate in spaces like Tumblr and Twitter, not just around GG. By breaking down the Oedipal drama videos like this invoke, I in no way intended to recenter our conversation about GG, SJW, respectability politics and race on white gamergaters’ individual pathology.

It may be useful to think about Nakamura’s points (especially this last one) through the concept of affective labor. As the self-identified “troll” tumblr “ANTI-RACISM DOG” argues (http://anti-racism-dog.tumblr.com/about), trolling works through labor, where the person being trolled expends more physical, intellectual, and affective labor than the person doing the trolling. Respectability politics also asks its subjects to expend extra labor in passing, doing the often affective labor of managing others’ reactions to the subject as a marked outsider.

Amanda Phillips's picture

Sorry - just to clarify, my

Sorry - just to clarify, my point about recentering the conversation was less an accusation than expression of anxieties I have about balancing the need to discuss this openly vs. the way it really does hijack conversations about justice in somewhat unproductive ways. :)

Amanda Phillips's picture

affective labor

I think that’s a really useful lens here. It’s no coincidence that communities prioritizing justice, online or off, have to continuously emphasize the importance of self-care to social justice work. It’s so, so draining.

Kishonna Gray's picture

my students watched

I showed this video to my students (Gender & Gaming Class). They are upper level students from two distinct field: Gender Studies and Criminal Justice. They are usually very polarized (my gender students are mostly female and my CJ students are male and they view gaming from two separate lenses). So I thought the CJ students would side with this woman but they all emphatically agreed that this woman had no idea what she was talking about.

Made me feel good to know that maybe they are in fact learning something! lol. This was such a great tool to get discussion in class. I had to pause it several times because they were ready to lash out! lol.

Amanda Phillips's picture

\o/

This makes me really happy.

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