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The Gaming Industry Could Stop Gamergate -- But It Won't

Simply saying harassment is bad is not enough.

Shutterstock / D.J.McGee

A vocal sect of gaming enthusiasts who have harassed women critics of the gaming industry gained an even darker reputation this week. One such critic, Anita Sarkeesian, had to cancel a lecture at Utah State University following multiple threats against her life, as well as the lives of others at the school that would have hosted her.

Sarkeesian noted that one of the threats specifically mentioned Gamergate, the anti-woman online movement that purports to be about journalistic ethics. This, along with heightened press attention following recent threats against game developer Brianna Wu, gave rise to a trending Twitter topic, #StopGamerGate2014.

It also prompted the gaming industry’s lobbying arm, the Entertainment Software Association, to make this statement: “Threats of violence and harassment are wrong. They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community — or our society — for personal attacks and threats.”

The major gaming companies the group represents have been notably silent on the issue since it erupted two months ago, and the statement only came after four high-profile harassment incidents against women by a subset of Gamergaters came to light. It’s not enough.

Gaming companies represented by the ESA include Activision Blizzard, Disney, Electronic Arts, Epic Games, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Take-Two, Tencent, Ubisoft and Warner Bros.

As Sarkeesian noted following the latest threats, she’s been dealing with harassers for years now, ever since she Kickstarted her video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, where she deconstructs the derogatory portrayal of female characters in videogames.

The difference between two years ago and now is that those people have learned to deflect negative attention by way of a smart political playbook, as explained by Deadspin on Tuesday. Gamergaters will also publicly proclaim their opposition to harassment and claim that they’re the ones being harassed — by extreme feminists. This party line, even when used by the people who have only good intentions, provides cover for the campaigns being organized in chat rooms and on websites like Reddit and 8chan.

The ESA’s comment — which spokesperson Dan Hewitt declined to elaborate on when we asked — notably does not address the underlying causes of Gamergate, a consumer culture angered by changes in how people are making and talking about games. It stops shorter than the statement made more than a month ago by a group of game developers in an open letter posted online:

We believe that everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion or disability has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened. It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish.

If you see threats of violence or harm in comments on Steam, YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, Facebook or reddit, please take a minute to report them on the respective sites.

If you see hateful, harassing speech, take a public stand against it and make the gaming community a more enjoyable space to be in.

That open letter didn’t stop Gamergate then, and another political denouncement of harassment won’t now, either.

To really have an impact, the industry would need to look a lot deeper at how it quietly enables this culture. It won’t be easy.

It needs to put the following on the table: Why women account for only 14 percent of game designers and programmers; why that male majority of game designers so frequently falls back on sexist tropes and dodges frank discussion of those tropes; and why, thanks to those tropes, men are assumed to be the “default” gamer, even though the ESA’s own numbers show that nearly half of people who play games are women.

These are complicated questions with complicated answers, and can’t be fully addressed in a PR-ready statement. And there’s good reason to believe that game companies won’t want to try: The gamers who have railed against “social justice warriors” throughout Gamergate derive their anger from the same passion that gets them to line up for hours at conventions and preorder games by the millions.

Consumerism is deeply embedded in their belief that gaming culture is under attack from feminism, and the first company to make a move will only provoke more anger and, potentially, calls for boycotts or worse.

The silence of Gamergate’s enablers, then, is understandable. Just not defensible.

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