What do you think of when you hear the word “nerd”? What was once an insult has become almost affectionate. With their extreme intelligence and social awkwardness, nerds are usually seen as endearing and harmless. This makes what is happening in the gaming industry all the more shocking.
For the last four months, a war of words has been raging between fans of videogames (gamers), the gaming press and feminist critics. What started as a blog post by a jilted boyfriend soon morphed into an ugly melee, sprawling across Web and social media.
On one side of the conflict are millions of fanatical gamers, outraged by what they see as an unjustified attack on a treasured pastime. On the other are gaming journalists and feminists who are horrified by what they believe is an entire industry built around deep-seated misogyny.
The conflict, named #GamerGate after the Twitter hashtag it spawned, has sullied participants on both sides. Gaming journalists have lost credibility by attacking the very people they are supposed to serve. Feminists have come across as shrill and militantly self-righteous.
But it’s the gaming community that has really disgraced itself. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist and prominent critic of mainstream gaming, has been deluged with threats of rape and violence. And she is only one of many women connected to the gaming industry who have been targeted in the same way.
Sarkeesian has been exploring female roles in games for the last two years through a series of video critiques. After the release of her most recent video, someone sent her a message on Twitter: “I’m sitting outside your apartment … with a loaded gun.” Geolocation data confirmed that the tweet was posted nearby her home.
In October, Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak at Utah State University’s Center for Women and Gender. A few hours before the event, the university received an anonymous e-mail if Sarkesian was allowed to speak. The e-mail continued: “I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood, and you will all bear witness to what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America.”
What’s puzzling is that Sarkesian isn’t saying anything particularly new. Her video critiques are provocative but largely accurate. Women are routinely portrayed as either sex objects or punching bags in many games (often both at the same time). Few games have female characters of any substance — most are treated as either adornment or chattel. So where does all this disproportionate rage come from?
Part of it stems from the psychology of gamers. For many painfully awkward teenagers, the digital world of gaming offers the kind of escape that sport or dating might offer to their more socially adept peers. I was one such teenager, and I remember the solace this private world gave me. In that world, you can wield the kind of power that is routinely denied to you in your daily life.
From that perspective, a threat to gaming — whether real or perceived — is taken personally. You’re not just talking about “videogames” — you’re talking about a way of coping with life. Sarkesian is poking her finger deftly into the subculture’s most sensitive nerve.
But however strident Sarkeesian and her peers may be, nothing justifies the kind of reaction they have received. Gamers have unleashed a torrent of threats so vile that many cannot be repeated without nauseating both writer and reader. Nothing can ever justify a threat of gang rape or mutilation.
The majority of #GamerGate supporters are not misogynists. Only a small minority have threatened women online. Moderate supporters have a genuine concern that gaming journalists have been partial and unethical in their coverage of the industry. But that justified cause has long since mutated into what amounts to an online hate group.
Thirty years ago, Revenge of the Nerds debuted in cinemas. A classic tale of nice guys with thick glasses and goofy laughs beating the jocks at their own game. These are the breed of nerdy men and women that founded the gaming industry and made Silicon Valley what it is today. For 30 years, nerds have been a force for progress and good — from Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak to Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg.
But not all nerds become billionaire playboys. Many remain painfully awkward and socially isolated. Their sensitivity can be endearing, but it can also be dangerous. However unfair they may feel feminists are being, they cannot be allowed to react like overgrown toddlers. It’s time for gamers to grow up and join the 21st century.
- Alistair Fairweather is chief technology officer for integrated advertising agency Machine
- This column was first published in the Mail & Guardian Online, the smart news source