In recent months, an online war has erupted. Its name? Gamergate.
The trouble started back in 2013, when a video game designer named Zoe Quinn released a text adventure game, Depression Quest. While the game was well received by several critics, many players questioned whether, with minimal graphics and multiple-choice questions, it was truly a game at all.
Then in mid-August, Quinn’s bitter ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, claimed in a series of rambling blog posts that she had cheated on him with a writer for popular games site, Kotaku. Both Quinn and the journalist (Nathan Grayson) denied the allegations, but tens of thousands of outraged gamers posted angry messages on Twitter, Reddit and other social media sites. Quinn was sent rape and death threats and fled her house in terror. Interestingly, Grayson, the allegedly unethical journalist, seems to have received little attention over these allegations.
Within days, Gamergaters found another target – Anita Sarkeesian, a popular cultural writer who hosts a YouTube show, Feminist Frequency. Her work critiques the portrayal of female characters in video games. While she has experienced a backlash because of this in the past, when one of her videos was released just as the furore over Zoe Quinn reached a crescendo, Sarkeesian too received threats of violence and went into hiding.
Several other female developers and games journalists have met a similar fate. Brianna Wu, a Boston game developer, was driven from her home in early October, while journalist Jenn Frank and game designer Mattie Brice have quit the industry over harassment they’ve received.
The argument at the heart of it all? Gamergaters claim their cause is merely to promote ethics in games journalism – that Zoe Quinn’s alleged actions were demonstrative of an endemic collusion between indie game-makers and critics, meaning reviews are biased and unreliable. They say supposedly unworthy games pushing the boundaries of the industry beyond the traditional games made for nerdy white males are receiving unfairly positive press.
On the other side, those on the receiving end of this criticism argue that games should be striving for a more diverse, inclusive range of stories featuring more women, minorities, and sexualities. They have been lauded by the likes of nerd icons Joss Whedon and Wil Wheaton and derided as “social justice warriors” by conservative actor Adam Baldwin and others.
It might be easy to dismiss this kerfuffle as an overblown bunfight between warring nerd factions in America, especially if you don’t work in the tech industry. However, the fight is reflective of wider issues affecting women everywhere, chiefly the harassment women can receive if they try to push their industry to be more welcoming towards and supportive of women.
For those in male-dominated fields, this is a very real concern. The women targeted in Gamergate were attacked both personally and professionally. The danger was considered so serious that some quit their jobs or went into hiding, and the FBI is looking into the matter. Hackers and trolls combed the web for details of their personal lives to discredit them professionally and their contact details were made public, turning the war of words on social media into a real-world threat of physical violence.
Here in Australia, we are by no means immune to this type of sexism and harassment in the technology sector and games in particular. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only 8.7% of the 581 people working in the games industry are women.
Debi Taylor of the University of Technology, Sydney, decided to look into why this number is so low for her honours thesis. She found that women who had studied game design and programming at university had the support of few female peers and encountered a condescending attitude towards them. In their first year, they felt far greater pressure to prove themselves worthy to others in the group. Even once women find employment in the industry, the conditions are not conducive to keeping them, with long, anti-social hours and the importance of networking in the male-dominated culture.
Added to this is a strong disincentive to speak out about inequalities in the industry, both in recruitment and the content of games themselves, if Gamergate is anything to go by. However, an award-winning Australian game designer Women’s Agenda spoke with argues that there have been positives to come out of Gamergate, “It has been beneficial in some ways because more people (males and females) have suddenly seen what is going on for the first time. It is now undeniable.” Not only has it highlighted the issues, it’s also made views in various corners of the games industry clear.
She advocates forging your own career without waiting for those in positions of power to reform the industry as a whole, “You can work around them. It is important that things change, but you don’t need to wait until they’re all on board. Indeed, some won’t ever change, and living a good life now is more important. So work around them, make them irrelevant.”