Seduction of the Stupid?: Some Thoughts on GamerGate

Seduction_of_the_InnocentBack in 1954, a psychiatric whistle blower named Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which made all sorts of alarmist claims about the comics book industry.  Unbeknownst to the general public, the supposedly kid-friendly world of comics was anything but, and were, in fact, dripping with filth and the vilest of themes, including excessively graphic violence and sexual obscenities.

While some of his claims seemed questionable then and now (Superman as a fascist? Batman and Robin as lovers?) Wertham did a marvelous job drawing the public’s attention to some of the worst excesses of the comics industry. The comics industry responded by adopting a “Comics Code” sanitizing regime that threw the baby out with the bathwater. These efforts stunted the American comics book industry, which soon lagged behind other countries in terms of art and themes. Serious comic book authors in this country either went underground, gave up, or produced childish, squeaky-clean stories purged of meaningful content.

My point is not that the comics industry needed no regulation–simply that the reaction went much too far, and ended up stifling creative freedom in the process. And, if we’re not careful, the same thing–if not worse–is about to happen to American video games.

Now, it seems, the games industry is getting a dose of the Wertham treatment. I got my first whiff of it when someone sent me a video from Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency site. I watched, as I was no doubt supposed to, with some confusing mix of indignation, disgust, and anger, as Ms. Sarkeesian offered up a foul-smelling smorgasbord of misogynistic episodes from a wide variety of bestselling video games. The implications were clear: video games, those who make them, and by extension those who play and love them, were all a pack of potentially dangerous woman-hating sociopaths. Clearly, something must be done.

But what? Isn’t there already a sort of Comics Code for games, namely, the ESRB ratings–which were themselves a response to an earlier Seduction of the Innocent movement back in the 90s? As you’ll recall, the furor whipped up by Mortal Kombat and Doom over violence were enough to send the industry scrambling to try to police itself before the government intervened. Unfortunately, as Sarkeesian’s videos make clear, these efforts weren’t enough. What we need is a sort of Feminist Code for Games, another kind of intervention.

I think Sarkeesian makes some good points. I don’t play most of the games she covers in her videos, such as her favorite target, the Grand Theft Auto series. That franchise (and the many others who mimic it) are, without question, in very poor taste. That, of course, hasn’t made it any less popular. And there goes the mantra: “We only make this awful shit because people buy it. If they didn’t buy it, we wouldn’t make it. Our hands our tied.” And they have to one up the last one, to make it even more shocking and degenerate, or they’ll look too tame compared to the competition, and so it goes, on and on.

It might actually be a relief to some publishers if there was a legal or self-imposed, industry-wide intervention that would rein in this crap. Maybe the only reason so many stoop so low is for the sake of competition. It’s hard, perhaps, to sell a feminist-friendly title when it must sit on the shelf alongside the latest GTA, which is free to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

However, I think the reason why this has all gotten so many people angry is that Ms. Sarkeesian’s videos and related diatribes have not been done in good faith or with good will toward the gamer community. The idea instead is more to air our dirty laundry before the public, embarrass us, parade the worst examples and excesses, insinuate (if not outright declare) that gamers are “dead” or some such invective, and then (gasp) act righteously indignant when there’s resistance to any of this.

How would any community react to someone (whether from the inside or outside) throwing the public spotlight on its worst attributes–coming into its neighborhood and club meetings–insinuating that those attributes are representative of the community at large, label them all as “virgins” or “degenerates,” and then become a famous celebrity for doing so? Am I saying that we should just tolerate the sexist and misogyny? No. Could this have been handled better? Most definitely.

To my mind, there’s always a principle of self-interest motivating folks like Wertham and Sarkeesian. They are good at whipping up the public furor and setting themselves up as brave cultural warriors (oh, and by the way, they’re available for speaking engagements). They are adept at setting up the old “with us or against us” scenario, in which to disagree with them is to side with evil goons or nut cases.

Oh, and of course, they want to constantly draw attention to the grave, mortal peril they’ve endured for airing all this dirty laundry. Indeed, to hear many tell it, gamers just can’t wait to “doxx” anyone who dares take a stand against misogyny. If these people are acting irrationally–nutty, I’d say–can we really claim to be surprised? How would you react if you felt violated, exposed, and vulnerable, and weren’t all that bright to begin with?

If no one was stupid or idiotic enough to make any threats, it’d all just blow over. The idiots who do these things have only “proven” their point…almost as if by design.

The first rule of rhetoric is to show good will toward your audience. Clearly, we have seen no hint of that. But, then again, gamers are not their audience–it’s the “concerned citizen” types who know next to nothing about games, but who will now assume they know all they need to. A little knowledge, as they say, is a dangerous thing.

For every example of “blatant misogyny” in Ms. Sarkeesian’s videos, I could show you three that advocate strong female characters, male characters who respect women, and themes that push our respect for diversity and toleration forward rather than backward. If you’d like to do the same, just go to the local game shop and pick a few titles at random.

I have long advocated (much longer than Ms. Sarkeesian, I might add) that gamers need to grow up, clean up, be more inclusive, and set some sensible limits on what kind of content is allowed and what is taboo. Appealing to the lowest common denominator, while it may result in better sales, will not result in a better product, and will, in time, reach a point where the public indignation quite rightfully rises to a point where something must be done. The difference is that I, and the many others like me, have always had the best interests of gamers, game developers, and, hell, even game publishers at heart.

But guys like me don’t get on the Colbert Report.
















10 thoughts on “Seduction of the Stupid?: Some Thoughts on GamerGate

  1. R Smith

    Fantastic analysis.

    The problem that I, as a long time fan of video-games, have is that the radical feminists are painting a narrative of them being the victims and implying that somehow the Gamergate side is unable to, or is unwilling to have a proper discussion and that’s just outright and verifiably false.

    When you have one side that is completely unwilling to concede that they could possibly be wrong and somehow wanting the other side to wrongly admit that they are all misogynist, sexist, racist bigots it’s obviously going to go nowhere, they can’t admit that they are generalising a very vast and inclusive movement for the actions of a few self-admitted trolls.

    Nobody denies that some games can perhaps handle things a little distastefully but they can’t seem to comprehend why people are getting annoyed that they are outright attacking a very inclusive subculture like gaming.

    It seems to me that they don’t want equality like they constantly espouse, equality is female gamers putting up with the same shit that male gamers do, people rip on each other, people make fun of each other and people threaten each other and mess around – it’s all part of what happens when you are thrown in a situation with a bunch of strangers.

    What they really seem to want is a podium above that of male gamers where they can dictate what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and that to me is the great crime, it’s institutionalised misandry under the flag of ‘feminism’ and because of that nobody dare argue back (because who could be against equality, right?).

    When people like Sarkeesian are going out of their way to manufacture things to be outraged about rather than handling actual issues then there is a serious problem and cowering away and letting it happen because you are scared to be labelled a misogynist is part of the issue, a lot of people within the industry are scared to speak out if they aren’t towing the ‘social justice’ line.

    I hope you don’t catch any flak for this article, the proponents of social justice are only proponents when it suits them and you agree with them, I’ve seen neutral parties get incredibly disgusting levels of abuse so I can’t imagine how they will act with someone actually disagreeing with them in a public manner.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Sacred_Path

    I agree on all points. These issues need discussion in a very different – serious and respectful – way. Not “Hi gize give me money so I can tell you things about video games you already know, but with more vitriol.”

  3. Trevel

    “For every example of “blatant misogyny” in Ms. Sarkeesian’s videos, I could show you three that advocate strong female characters, male characters who respect women, and themes that push our respect for diversity and toleration forward rather than backward.”

    Do it.

  4. Rin

    samus from metroid, sarah kerrigan from starcraft. skyrim has to count off the top of my head, the dark brotherhood’s leader, the dragon expert you meet early in the game, posing as a barmaid. aela, lydia, maven, hell, i can go on for hours with skyrim, oblivion, and probably morrowind/daggerfall as well. then you have dragon age with morrigan, wynne, leliana, to name a few (plus if your main is a female city elf, you kinda get to kill a rapist whose a privileged corrupt noble. just sayin….) and mass effect with tali, and the entire female race of asari’s. and of course, capt ashley williams.
    do you really want me to compile a list trevel or do you kinda get the point? sup com, fable trilogy, dead space 2/3, and that dlc add-on for the first or second that features the main as a female soldier i think. civ, if you wish to just have powerful females, features historically powerful females right along their male counterparts. boudica, catherine, theodora, elizabeth, ET AL. i actually prefer catherine in civ 4: BTS due to her bonuses, but i digress.
    league of legends, DOTA, sacred. hell, diablo 2, POE total annihilation kingdoms. do you wish for me to continue? because those are all i can list off the top of my head, without consulting the internet of games.

    i don’t think you meant it to be an actual challenge, but i’m a gamer. if i had it still, i’d attempt to play dark souls without dying.

  5. Visitor

    “…set some sensible limits on what kind of content is allowed and what is taboo.”
    “…public indignation quite rightfully rises to a point where something must be done.”

    As you mentioned earlier, something already has been done: the ESRB. It’s already making sure that games have age restrictions and content descriptors, which is actually more than what the MPAA does. But why should games require any more regulation than what the ESRB provides? Movies have already reached Peak Depravity and there are no calls to regulate them any further. On television, graphically violent and sexual shows like Game of Thrones are highly popular mass entertainment, and there are no calls to regulate them (indeed, most of the people complaining about violence or misogyny or whatever in video games probably watch GoT every week). I think the worst the “infamous” GTA series has given us so far is that one torture scene in GTA5, which is not only tame compared to what you see in movies and TV, but also very obviously intended to satirize and condemn the use of torture (we can’t say the same about 24).

    There actually are other mechanisms for regulation too. One of them is the stores. They can choose not to carry a game, and there’s almost no chance they’ll carry a game rated AO. Any such game is going to become marginalized simply because it can’t be sold through the usual channels (and unlike, say, Minecraft, it won’t have the mass appeal to become popular on its own). The other mechanism is console manufacturers, who decide what goes and what doesn’t on their systems.

    I also think that there has been a correlation between the popularization of video games and their increased violent and sexual content, so if “concerned citizens” want to point fingers they might want to start by searching for the nearest mirror. And then we should ask them why Game of Thrones is OK but GTA5 is not. We could also ask feminists why something like 50 Shades is perfectly fine but Mario is indefensible because you need to rescue a princess (protip: the response will be something about “male power fantasies”).

  6. CM30

    Interesting analysis. But I’d like to ask; why should anything be taboo in games, when it clearly isn’t in other forms of media?

    Why should games be treated more restrictively than say, TV shows or films or literature? TV has stuff like those recent adult cartoons, with more dark/vulgar humour than just about anything else in the history of media. If these social justice types hate how games portray various characters and concepts… well, I can only imagine their reaction to an episode of Mr Pickles, Brickleberry, or Allan Gregory. Or heck, given their easily offended nature, even South Park, Family Guy or The Simpsons.

    Or how about literature, where actual supremists tend to publish books for niche audiences? Or that book (can’t remember the name) where Jesus was allied with Hitler and helped the Nazis in World War 2?

    Games are probably one of the least ‘dark’ art forms out there at the moment. And they’re only getting a bit more over the top because hey, everything else is. I suspect they’re being specifically targeted for other reasons. Maybe it’s because the audience are seen as easy or acceptable targets (gamers already have a bad reputation, so you can count on the sympathies of the mainstream media), maybe for other reasons.

    And limits are a worrying example of a trend towards authoritarianism by certain groups and individuals.

    On another note, I’d say there are a few things a lot of articles about GamerGate are missing here, that should be taken into account:

    1. The way gaming media was willing to turn on its customers was deeply disturbing. There’s a definite sort of elitism among those in the gaming press, and this crisis brought that to the surface.

    2. The extremely disturbing bigotry shown by many of those on the anti gamergate ‘side’. The way they’ll happily go on about ‘equality’ then be involved in casual racism, or shown nothing but hatred for those with conditions like autism.

    3. The talks of blacklisting and the press/industry working together to force their agenda. In any other industry, this would be rightly seen as illegal. Or at least unethical, like when a bunch of tech companies like Google and Facebook worked together to prevent ‘poaching’ and keep worker wages supressed.

    But it’s an interesting take on the issue, and it’s nice to read something that doesn’t seem to be an attack piece.

  7. Apostol Muzac

    > [GTA] (and the many others who mimic it) are, without question, in very poor taste.

    I think you, without question, have very poor taste. That’s why I don’t want you or anyone else deciding what kind of books I can read, movies I can watch, or video games I can play.

    It’s why the likes of Sarkeesian receive so much backlash. “Don’t Like It? Don’t Play It.” isn’t good enough for those people. Thank Cthulu that Sarkeesian isn’t married to a Senator or Cabinet member.

  8. Rob McMillin

    I have long advocated (much longer than Ms. Sarkeesian, I might add) that gamers need to grow up, clean up, be more inclusive, and set some sensible limits on what kind of content is allowed and what is taboo.

    Why is your Hays Code (or Comics Code, etc.) — essentially a private censorship regime — any better than the past ones?

    It is possible to deplore the depravity of a Grand Theft Auto without demanding its vitiation into, say, Grand Theft Mario Cart. Sarkeesian does not issue — yet — calls for such a censorship regime, but I do not trust that either she or her fellow gender feminists — who have never made a commercially successful game — would stay their hands if they thought they could get away with it.


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